California

8 Unique Places in California That You Need to Visit

From wine tasting in Temecula Valley to staying on an Old Western movie set, here are some of the most unique places to visit in California

The rhythmic sound of birds chirping forms a soothing melody as the faint outline of tufa towers along Mono Lake’s shallow lakefront slowly comes into focus in the distance. Making my way up the Eastern Sierra, a remote California region east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, my weekend getaways through the state are spent hiking through ancient waterfalls and rejuvenating in roadside natural hot springs. And, that’s just the start—the treasures of both Northern and Southern California still await.

From the epic Pacific Ocean swells along NorCal’s rugged coast to Temecula Valley’s underrated wine region in SoCal, you don’t have to leave the state of California to experience something memorable. Here are eight of the best unique places to visit in California. Have you already been to all of them?

1. Eureka: California's Oyster Capital With 19th-Century Architecture

Conveniently situated mid-point between Portland and San Francisco, the charming city of Eureka offers much more than its prime location to Redwood National Park. In addition to its official designation as a state historic landmark, the coastal city is also considered to be part of California’s oyster capital. T

he fresh waters of Humboldt Bay producing approximately 10 million oysters annually and more than half of the state’s shellfish.

For a taste of the bay’s best bivalves, head to Cafe Waterfront, one of the city’s most iconic oyster bars where Kumamotos and Bucksports, two local favorites, are served in shooters, on the half shell, grilled, or in a stew. A casual stroll through Eureka’s historic Old Town neighborhood takes you past rows of neatly restored Victorian-era homes like the Carson Mansion—considered one of the country’s most masterly pieces of Queen Anne architecture—offering visitors a glimpse of the city’s prosperous bygone era.

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2. Mono Lake: A Million-Year-Old-Lake Pit Stop Along California's Highway 395

Despite being less than 15 miles away from one of California’s most popular outdoor sites, Yosemite National ParkMono Lake remains surprisingly undiscovered to nature revelers. Formed from the remains of a prehistoric sea that once flowed inland, this million-year-old saline lake—it’s almost three times as salty as the ocean—is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts looking to head off-the-beaten-path for a truly unique part of California’s diverse landscape.

Other-worldly Instagram shots await as you make your way toward the lake’s uncharacteristically low shoreline where hundreds of species of birds congregate atop atypical limestone spires known as tufa towers. Formed as a result of freshwater springs mixing with the lake’s alkaline waters, these rugged calcium-carbonate formations could only be seen above the surface after 1941, when most of its water was diverted to Los Angeles to meet the metropolis’ growing water needs.

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3. Fossil Falls and Death Valley: California's Geological Extremes

California’s geographical heterogeneity knows no bounds, and the many wonders that arise from the state’s arid eastern deserts are proof of that. Sitting in the middle of the Coso Range of Eastern California is Fossil Falls, a striking collection of basalt rocks dating back over 20,000 years. Formed by the interaction of lava from pre-historic volcanoes—the area is also home to Red Hill, a prominent cinder cone volcano that is now commercially mined for its porous lava rock—and the gushing waters of the once-powerful Owens River, the falls are a preserved slice of history waiting to be explored.

A short hike takes you down steep cliffs of sculpted black lava rock that were once an impressive collection of waterfalls. Fossil Falls is an ideal and quick stopover before heading into Death Valley National Park. As the driest location in North America, this desert valley is known for its extreme climates that include record-breaking summers, wildflower super blooms in the spring, and snow-capped mountains in the frosty winter months. While hiking trails abound, nature’s real delight is best experienced by stargazing at night—the park received the highest rating of darkness by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2008.

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4. Solvang: Practice the Danish concept of Hygge in California's Santa Ynez Valley

Founded in 1911 by Danish Americans who moved from the Midwest, the quaint little Danish village of Solvang cozily sits in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. From traditional windmills and thatched roofs to old-world Northern European architecture and scintillating aromas wafting from tempting Danish bakeries, expect to completely immerse yourself in the famous hygge—the warm and cozy Danish lifestyle.

Feast on plates of caramelized Brussels sprouts and pan-roasted fish at Mad&Vin, a modern restaurant serving coastal California fare with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce from surrounding farms. When you’re planning a trip to Solvang, aka one of the most unique and fun places to visit in California, remember to chalk in some time wine tasting at either Lucky Dogg Winery or Carivintas Winery—after all, the area is home to over 120 wineries and vineyards.

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5. San Luis Obispo: A Laid-Back Seafood Paradise in Californian Central Coast

From the white-sand shores and warm waters of Avila Beach along San Luis Obispo Bay to the numerous hiking and cycling trails like Bishop Peak, the town’s highest point, the laid-back Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo truly has something to offer everyone. Especially seafood lovers.

Colloquially referred to as SLO by locals, this chill, coastal town is a haven for seafood, with restaurants like Ciopinot and Ox and Anchor serving up some of the best and freshest seafood specials. You can’t go wrong with an order of crab cakes, grilled lobster tails, oysters on the half shell, or hearty bowls of clam chowder.

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6. Temecula: A Weekend Getaway to Southern California's Burgeoning Wine Valley

Though most people immediately associate California wine country with Napa Valley, there are other wine regions worthy of a visit, namely Temecula Valley. This Southern California town, thanks to its unique microclimate and granite-rich soil, is teeming with vineyards that grow everything from Syrah and Viognier to Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc grape varietals.

Spend the day exploring the vineyards of Bella Vista Cilurzo Winery, one of the first three wineries to be established—Petite Sirah and Chenin Blanc were the very first vines planted in 1968 by then-owners Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo—and set the stage for viticulture in Temecula. Be sure to also take in a piece of history while strolling through Old Town Temecula, the town’s historic district that’s filled with antique stores and rustic storefronts, taking visitors back to its heyday during California’s Gold Rush.

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7. Santa Catalina Island: California's Remote Channel Islands

One of several islands that make up the state’s Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island or Catalina as it’s commonly called by locals, is one of the easiest to access. A weekend visit is just the right amount of time to get acquainted with all that the island offers, which surprisingly includes Rusack Vineyards, the island’s very own wine estate.

Whether you arrive by private boat, passenger ferry, or helicopter, visitors to the island can choose to stay in one of two locales: the lively waterfront city of Avalon on the east end of the island or the quieter town of Two Harbors in the west. The rest of the island is a preserve managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy, which offers guided summer hikes and eco-tours by jeep. Expect to see endemic plant and animal life like the Catalina cherry and mariposa lily, as well as the Santa Catalina island fox and a herd of American bison, whose ancestors were first brought over in the 1920s as movie extras.

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8. Pioneertown Motel: Stay on a Former old Western Movie Set

Built in 1946 by actor Roy Rogers and several of his Hollywood friends, Pioneertown served as a former movie set for old Western films. Today, the property is incredibly hip and draws an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs and artists from near and wide, who mainly come to visit the magical landscape that exists at Joshua Tree National Park.

The original motel, which used to function as accommodations for actors on set, now offers 20 warmly decorated TV-free rooms. You can also access the fully restored 19th-century western town replica with an old-fashioned saloon, post office, bowling alley, and trading post. It`s definitely a place in California that is so unique that it’s worth a visit!

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Hero Image: Courtesy of Visit California