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Things to Do in California - page 3

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Old Town San Diego
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30 Tours and Activities

San Diego Old Town is a pleasant place to soak up some history, browse for souvenirs, and perhaps enjoy a Mexican meal. Old Town is the site of the original pueblo (village) that sprang up in San Diego below the mission and fortress back in the 18th century. It preserves five of the original adobe (mud brick) buildings alongside scores of recreated structures, including a schoolhouse and a newspaper office.

Your first stop should be the Old Town State Historic Park Visitors Center, which has memorabilia and a video of local history. The center is located in the main plaza. Across from the visitor center is Casa de Estudillo, a restored adobe home filled with authentic period furniture, which is worth a look. Just off the plaza's northwestern corner is the Plaza del Pasado, which has a colorful collection of import shops and restaurants. The area is also home to the Old Town Trading Company, a charming gift shop selling various trinkets.

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California Academy of Sciences
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The California Academy of Sciences holds a fascinating collection of 38,000 natural wonders and the occasional freak of nature. Under the wildflower-covered “living roof,” butterflies flutter through a four-story glass rainforest dome, a rare white alligator stalks a swamp, and Pierre the Penguin paddles his massive new tank in the African Hall.

Downstairs, kids are sure to enjoy the basement aquarium, where they can duck inside a glass bubble to enter an eel forest, find Nemos in tropical fish tanks, or pet starfish. Head upward in the elevator to the roof for panoramic views of Golden Gate Park, or glimpse skyward into infinity in the Planetarium. For the ecology-minded, check out the displays throughout the main floor, which show how conservation issues affect California’s ecosystem.

If you stay for lunch, the dining options at the Academy are first-rate, as both the Academy Café and Moss Room restaurant are run by two of the city's top chefs.

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Madonna Estate Winery
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Located in the world-renowned Carneros region, Madonna Estates is a unique winemaker utilizing dry-farming production and organic grapes. The vineyard is family owned and operated using a combination of traditional and modern winemaking techniques. As one of the oldest vineyards in Napa Valley, Madonna Estates is working to ensure the historic winemaking traditions of the past live on. It was one of the few original vineyards that survived the Prohibition era.

The idea behind their wines is minimal intervention and as much natural growth as possible. Mild fog, wild, and cool temperatures create a unique microclimate in this area, fed with coastal air. Madonna Estates produces ten varietals including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Grigio. The tasting room is decorated in Italian Pompeii style to reflect the family’s heritage, and the reserve room serves their highest quality vintages.

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Pacific Beach
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Long a mainstay for the college crowd and those looking to get out and have a little bit of fun in the sun, the little neighborhood of Pacific Beach is a California-lover’s dream. Bikinis and board shorts, bike paths and boardwalks, and of course miles of pristine beach, Pacific Beach is what many picture as idealized southern California living. From tasty beer taverns to sunny California shacks serving fish tacos, Pacific Beach is an ideal choice for getting out and seeing the young and fit crowd do its thing. North Pacific Beach tends to be quieter and cater to more of a family ambiance, while Tourmaline Beach is a surfing-only beach great for long low waves that are perfect for beginners.

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Yosemite Falls
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The highest measured waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls is the superstar attraction in the park, especially in late spring when the snow melts and water flow is at its peak. With a cumulative drop of 2,425 feet (739 meters), Yosemite Falls actually consists of three falls and is also the sixth highest waterfall in the world (seventh according to some sources). Though there is some discussion about its place in the world's highest list, it's an incontrovertible fact that Yellowstone Falls is the centerpiece of the valley and the park.

The best views of the cascading torrent can be seen from various vantage points, including Yosemite Village and Yosemite Lodge. For active viewers, a one-mile loop trail leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall and also possible to hike to the top of Yosemite Falls as a strenuous, all-day hike. For a unique experience, on a clear night with plenty of moonlight and enough water to create mist.

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Lombard Street
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This leisurely winding block of Lombard Street is called the "crookedest street in the world.” Truthfully, though, Vermont Street in Potrero Hill deserves this accolade, but Lombard is much more scenic, with its red-brick pavement and lovingly tended flowerbeds, which bloom in full color during the warmer months. The angle is steep, for sure, so much so that the road has to zig-zag back and forth to make descending it possible.

Still, Lombard Street is fun to go down. If you drive, take the curves slowly and in low gear. If you’re walking, take staircases (without curves) up or down on either side of the street. Bring a camera, not only for picturesque view from the top, but also view looking up from the bottom.

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Union Square
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The newly paved grounds of Union Square, bordered by brightly lit department stores and hotels, may not at first seem like an inviting place to hang out. But perch awhile on a skinny bench or grab a coveted seat at the café in the square, and you’ll discover some of the best people-watching in the city.

For in one day, you’ll see theater-goers debate the merits of the latest David Mamet productions, Nob Hill society dames in dark glasses duck into Maiden Lane spas for facials, and giddy teens wear out their parents while shopping for prom dresses.

But the real reason to come to Union Square is to shop. The square is home to six major department stores: Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Barney’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. Boutique shoppers will find plenty of spots to browse the latest designer fashion. High-end emporiums surround the square, including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Prada, and Giorgio Armani.

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San Diego Harbor
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Maritime enthusiasts should spend some time visiting San Diego Harbor. The many attractions here include the Maritime Museum, U.S.S. Midway Museum, the Seaport Village, and Embarcadero Marina Park. The well-manicured waterfront promenades stretch along Harbor Drive and are perfect for strolling or jogging.

On the north end of San Diego Harbor is the Maritime Museum, where a number of antique trading and passenger vessels are moored in the water. South of the museum, The U.S.S. Midway Museum, a museum housed in a Navy battleship, has loads of exhibits and a stellar collection of fighter planes. South of the U.S.S. Midway Museum is Seaport Village, which has a collection of novelty shops and restaurants. Embarcadero Marina Park, with its public fishing pier and open-air amphitheater, lies south.

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Pacific Heights
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Perched up on a hill looking over the San Francisco Bay, Pacific Heights is a historic neighborhood considered by many to be one of the city’s most beautiful. Aside from its location and views, the many Victorian homes of Pacific Heights are some of the most elegant and historic in San Francisco. One particularly notable home is that of author Danielle Steel, who lives in Speckles Mansion, an estate that once belonged to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s also the Haas-­Lilienthal House, a 19th­-century Queen Anne­-style Victorian home that is open to visitors and admired by passersby. The historic house has been preserved to represent the era in which it was built. High­-end boutique shops and restaurants line Fillmore Street, the main pedestrian street in the mostly quiet, residential area. The neighborhood is also home to Lafayette Park and Alta Plaza Park, with its rolling grassy hills, dog walkers, playground, tennis courts and stellar city views.

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More Things to Do in California

El Prado

El Prado

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San Diego’s El Prado is located in the center of Balboa Park and is considered by many to be the heart of this most beloved San Diego park. The beautiful Spanish Colonial House of Hospitality is located here, and fully restored to its 1915 splendor. Inside you’ll find visitor information and historical highlights of the park. The El Prado courtyard holds The Prado restaurant, famous for its cuisine and outdoor seating. Just steps away you’ll find the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – an open space containing the world’s largest pipe organ and home to free concerts during summer Sundays. This is the best of Balboa Park, and it would be a shame to miss it.

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San Diego Air & Space Museum

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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The year of 1911 was historic for the field of aviation. In an even that would shape the aviation as we know it, the Vin Fiz Flyer—piloted by Calbraith Perry Rodger—completed the first transcontinental crossing of the United States in an airplane. The flight required 82 hours of total time in the air—although the entire trip, including ground time, was a remarkable 84 days. Today, commercial jetliners make the trip in a little over five hours, and with the ease of transport that aviation has provided, it’s almost too easy to forget the steps that brought us up to this point. At the San Diego Air & Space Museum, however, every visitor, both young and old, can see how the craft of aviation has changed since its early years. Gaze on an intricate reproduction of the original Vin Fiz Flyer, or examine a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis. Military enthusiasts will love the collection of Hellcats and early fighter planes.

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San Diego Automotive Museum

San Diego Automotive Museum

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From the collection of Harley Davidson motorcycles and exhibit on Steve McQueen, to the famous, 1947 Louis Mattar Cadillac that drove 6,300 miles without stopping, the San Diego Automotive Museum is a cache of classic cars. Here you’ll find a permanent collection of classic American cars, as well as a rotating display of historic cars that define automotive nostalgia. In addition to the collection of nearly 80 cars, there’s a section on general automotive history, a look at the historic “Plank Road” that led to San Diego’s growth, and a scavenger hunt for kids to find the facts about different cars. Visiting the museum takes approximately an hour—unless of course you’re a mechanic or racer—in which case you could spend the better part of the day in this sanctuary of horsepower and design.

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San Diego Model Railroad Museum (SDMRM)

San Diego Model Railroad Museum (SDMRM)

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There was once a time when traveling by train was the image of American romance— galloping across the open plains on the back of a steaming steel horse. With the advent of planes and automobiles, however, the era of train travel in the United States has long since passed its twilight. Unless, of course, you’re at the Model Railroad Museum, where the power of locomotives is as clear as the trains are timeless. Here at this 27,000 square foot enclosure inside of Balboa Park, railroad clubs have created artistic scale models of classic American trains. Follow a train as it plies the rails of the historic Tehachapi Pass, and look at models for the Pacific Desert Line—a track that was planned from San Diego to the east but never came to fruition. The meticulous craftsmanship that’s gone into the models is nothing short of astounding, and in addition to the models and trains themselves, visitors can learn about the legendary history of traveling the U.S. by train.

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Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center

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It’s been said that hands-on, experiential learning enhances education, and if that’s the case, then the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is helping to educate every person who walks in the building’s door. Especially enjoyable for families with children, this interactive science center has permanent exhibits on everything from energy to California’s water to the journey of cells in our body. Work with your hands at the “Tinkering Studio” inspired by famous inventors, or watch one of the live experiments conducted by the center’s staff. Learn about genetics and DNA and what’s inside of an atom, or channel your inner architect with the collection of 15,000 building blocks. The biggest treat, however, is the enormous IMAX domed theater with movies on everything from Humpback whales to the most mysterious corners of our Universe. This is the only domed IMAX theater in Southern California, and the movies displayed provide visitors of all ages with an enthralling visual feast.

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Museum of Photographic Arts

Museum of Photographic Arts

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There are two things on display at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts: A collection of over 7,000 images from 850 artists, and the actual art of photography itself in all of its many forms. The pieces inside this small museum run the gamut of photography’s history, from early daguerreotypes dating back as far as the 1840s, to images of Russia in the mid-20th century and award-winning photojournalism. There’s a modern movie studio inside of the museum that highlights the evolution of film, and displays on photography’s technological advancements show how far the art form has come. More than just the photos themselves, however, it’s the different story that each photo tells that makes this a memorable stop. Considering that many of the photos on display are historical and social documentaries, the museum offers a lens into photographer’s roles in capturing societal change.

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Mingei International Museum

Mingei International Museum

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Humans, in a word, are utterly and truly fascinating. Creating art is a human tendency as old as humans themselves, and here at the Mingei International Museum, folk art from over 140 countries is on intriguing and captivating display. Though exhibits here are constantly changing, examples of work include handmade dolls that date to the 19th century, to exquisite, hand turned, wooden bowls and weavings from grass and leaves. There have sections devoted to global headdresses and an extensive collection of tequila bottles, and—in true San Diego fashion—a large exhibit made entirely from surfboards that explores the art of surfing. Above all, it’s human creativity itself on display that’s manifested in thousands of forms, and there’s an uplifting, unifying, and inspiring spirit that accompanies a day spent browsing the genius of our planet’s myriad cultures.

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San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA)

San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA)

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Before you even walk in the door of the San Diego Museum of Art, you’re already looking at the piece of art that’s the building’s soaring façade. With heavy influence from the cathedrals and universities of cities in central Spain, the ornamented building is like a slice of Europe in the middle of Balboa Park. On the museum’s interior, the artwork continues with an extensive collection that spans over 7,000 years, from classic paintings by European masters to an array of South Asian art. Compare the style of Francisco de Goya with El Greco or Henri Matisse, or peruse the fascinating global collections from Quebec, Mexico, or China. There’s an entire section of native artwork from the Americas and across the Pacific, as well as gripping photography from some of the world’s original photojournalists. It’s the oldest and largest museum of its kind in the entire surrounding region, and since the temporary exhibits are always changing.

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San Diego History Center

San Diego History Center

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From the original Native American settlers who called this desert home, to the Spanish explorers who constructed missions through the San Diego region, this city has one of California’s lengthiest and richest histories. Here in the San Diego History Center, the series of events that created the city are on intricately detailed display—where over 2.5 million historical photographs help weave the city’s tale. On a visit to the famous Balboa Park museum, examine postcards of how San Diego looked while it was still in its original infancy, and learn the lengthy military history of the nearby bases and ships. Explore a collection of pottery and textiles from early San Diego residents, as well as an extensive collection of fine art relating to San Diego. This is one of America’s only museums that tells the history of a town, and after an hour spent reading the city’s history and walking the photo lined halls, visitors will have an entire new perspective.

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San Diego Sports Association

San Diego Sports Association

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There’s more to sports in San Diego than the Padres, Aztecs, and Chargers. Sport has played an enormous role in this California city’s history, and here at the San Diego Hall of Champions, exhibits display how sailing and surfing have also shaped the town’s heritage. Inside the halls of what’s officially the nation’s largest multi-sport museum, visitors will find everything from the history of the America’s Cup to a collection of the 100 different San Diego athletes who have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. This is also the site of the Breitbard Hall of Fame—a display that recognizes native San Diegans who have excelled in professional sport. Currently, the hall of fame recognizes 135 athletes from 20 different sports, and over 42 sports in total are represented in this soaring, three-story museum.

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Half Dome

Half Dome

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Perhaps one of the most famous hikes in Yosemite National Park, Half Dome was, like El Capitan, once considered impossible to climb. Now, thousands of park visitors reach the summit, but it still remains a challenge that requires knowledge and preparation. Half Dome rises 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above the valley floor and 8,800 feet (2,682 meters) above sea level.

The hike, which takes between 10 and 12 hours round-trip, is strenuous, but the vistas are more than worth it. Hikers are treated to views of Vernal and Nevada Falls, Liberty Cap and panoramic expanses of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra. In order to get those views, though, you’ll have to ascend the cables. These two metal cables will allow you to climb the last 400 feet to the summit without rock climbing equipment; if the views don’t take your breath away, the cable ascent just might.

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El Capitan

El Capitan

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Yes, it's a big rock, but what makes El Capitan a must-witness sight in Yosemite is the fact that it's the largest exposed-granite monolith in the world. Oh, and people climb it. Rising 3,593 feet (1095 meters)—more than 350 stories—above the Valley, El Capitan was once considered impossible to climb. However, since Warren Harding first conquered the "nose" in 1958, El Capitan has become the standard for big-wall climbing.

Take binoculars to spot the little bits of color that pinpoint adventurous climbers tackling the smooth and nearly vertical cliff.

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Andretti Winery

Andretti Winery

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Owned by former champion race car driver Mario Andretti, Andretti Winery is a showcase for the owner's love and appreciation for fine, food-friendly wines. Together with winemaker Bob Pepi, Andretti has produced outstanding wines, with a focus on wines that pair well with food.

The winery itself resembles a Tuscan-style villa, with bright yellowish orange structures, fountains, and beautiful gardens surrounding the primary tasting area. The relaxed tasting room is shrine to Andretti, with racing photos and assorted memorabilia. Pull a seat up at the L-shaped bar and taste the latest vintages. Andretti Winery produces wines from some of the best vineyards in California, including such flavorful reds as Cabernet Savignon, Syrah, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Pinot Noir. White vintages include Savignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Chardonnay. The winery also produces a variety of special wines, as well.

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The Castro

The Castro

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The Castro District, known otherwise as simply, "the Castro," is widely considered the United States' gay capital. Not only is it the largest, but also the country's first.

Regardless of a visitor's sexual orientation, the Castro is full of wonderful attractions, including the Castro Theatre, one of San Francisco's more popular movie palaces, complete with a world-class interior chandelier and designed with a colonial Spanish Baroque facade.

Perhaps the area's most culturally significant landmark, the GLBT Historical Society includes a museum and archives documenting the history of the gay and lesbian communities in the U.S. Aside from its core purpose, the building also houses other interesting institutions including the Cartoon Art Museum, which features well over 6,000 different cartoons and comics, and the Catharine Clark Gallery, an exhibition including different forms of media for contemporary, living artists.

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