California: 7 Can’t-Miss Museums and Historic Sites
Take time between exploring California’s exciting downtowns and beautiful Pacific Ocean shoreline to discover the state’s rich cultural assets.
Throughout California, find world-class art and history museums that give visitors immersive experiences and entertaining ways to learn about the state. Walk through a fragrant rose garden, climb aboard an aircraft carrier and see masterpieces hanging on gallery walls. Visit a historic district or a railroad museum to learn about pioneers of progress.
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
As one of the largest museums in the Western world dedicated to Asian culture and art, this is a must-see landmark with 18,000 objects covering more than 6,000 years of history. Some of the Chinese treasures include the Han dynasty cash cow, a bronze rhinoceros ritual vessel and brilliant jade jewelry. Browse on your own, or download multimedia guides, available in Mandarin and Cantonese, for free at iTunes or Google Play. Free Wi-Fi is available in the museum. Go to Cafe Asia to taste Chinese and Asian food and visit the gift shop to purchase souvenirs.
The Asian Art Museum, a must-see landmark in San Francisco
Empire Mine State Historic Park, Grass Valley
Discover a Gold Rush mining experience in this park 92 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Sacramento. At the Visitor Center, learn about one of the most abundant gold deposits in California. Over a century, 159 million grams (5.6 million ounces) of gold were mined until the facility closed in 1956. The maze-like mine covers 13 square kilometers (five square miles). Outside the gold mine, stroll the grounds of the Bourn Cottage, the former owner’s home. The two-story stone castle with mahogany trim and lead glass windows was modeled after a 19th-century English noble manor.
California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento
Within Old Sacramento State Historic Park, visit this immense museum – so big that it contains several engines and train cars – and see interactive exhibits, simulators and restored trains that tell the history of the railroad beginning in the 1860s. Museum programs include guided tours, story times for children and educational experiences to learn about railroad equipment and restoration. Don’t leave without joining one of the Sacramento Southern Railroad excursions aboard trains pulled by vintage steam and diesel locomotives.
California State Capitol Museum, Sacramento
With its magnificent columns and stylish domes, the 1869 state capitol looks like a scaled-down version of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Get a free tour and admire the restoration of the secretary of state, treasurer and governor's office. Outside, stroll around the neighboring 16-hectare state park, where plants from around the world can be admired. Don’t miss the fragrant International World Peace Rose Garden. In the Civil War Memorial Grove, seedlings from Civil War battlefields were replanted here in 1897.
The California State Capitol, built in 1869, in Sacramento
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
See over 135,000 objects in the largest art museum in the western USA. Highlights at the museum (abbreviated as “LACMA”) on Wilshire Boulevard, halfway between downtown L.A. and the Pacific Ocean, include the Art of the Americas building, which features modern art; Chris Burden's outdoor work, “Urban Light,” which is made up of 202 Los Angeles streetlamps; and Michael Helzer's “Levitated Mass,” a 340-tonne granite block hanging in an open-air walkway. On the same campus, see the collection of masterpieces at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum and major exhibits in the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion.
The stunning Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard
Olvera Street, Los Angeles
Olvera Street is the birthplace of Los Angeles, but it was not until 1930 that it became a tribute to the city’s Mexican tradition. In the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument district, hear mariachi music as you smell the aromas of freshly made tortillas and churros wafting from 19th-century buildings housing restaurants and folk art shops. The marketplace is especially festive during events like Dia de los Muertos (meaning “Day of the Dead” in Spanish – but it’s a happy atmosphere) in the fall and during Las Posadas and its nine-night candlelight parade before and after Christmas.
Strolling through the historic Olvera Street district in Los Angeles
USS Midway Museum, San Diego
The decommissioned aircraft carrier, which served 47 years in the U.S. Navy fleet, is now a museum permanently docked at San Diego’s waterfront business district. The deck of the giant ship features several aircraft used from World War II to Desert Storm operations; visitors can board planes to see the interior of the fuselage. Other interactive exhibits include flight simulators and listening to conversations between military pilots. Midway was the longest-serving naval carrier in the 20th century.