Your Guide to Pier 39 in San Francisco
Check out everything you need to know about Pier 39 in San Francisco, from sea lions to great food.
From hidden castles to haunted canyons, these are the unique places to visit in California that most people don't know about.
8 min read
February 05, 2021
If you’ve visited Disneyland, Alcatraz Island, the Hollywood Sign, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it may seem like you’ve seen the best of California—not. The Golden State is more than just its popular tourist attractions. Every day, there are unusual places and hidden gems to discover that offer new adventures and unparalleled experiences. With plenty of cool places to visit in California, your ever-growing bucket list expands with more must-see attractions.
Indeed, the Golden State’s charm lies within its diversity. Ask city dwellers and nature lovers, and they’ll both tell you how California has it all. (You can ride the waves and go skiing on the same day, after all.) Have fun exploring these underrated destinations and unique places in California—you’ll never run out of new spots to visit.
Location: 15701 Pioneer Volcano Road, Volcano
The most spectacular rock formations are found in Black Chasm Cavern, one of the coolest caverns in the Golden State. Innumerable sparking crystals curl from the cavern wall in every direction—this geological phenomenon is known as a helictite.
While helictites are the most prominent features here, the cavern’s lakes are home to many other natural wonders. You’ll find visionless amphipods and the rare Banksula grubbsi, too. Visit this cool place in California and feast your eyes on the eternal beauty of this underground treasure.
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Location: 58977 Old Donner Summit Road, Truckee
Completed in August of 1867, the Donner Pass Summit Tunnels were constructed for the transcontinental railroad on the route where the first wagon train entered the Golden State. Chinese laborers built the tunnels over 15 months by hand drilling—they used black powder and nitroglycerin, both of which were the cause of death for many workers.
Now, the tunnels lay abandoned up in the mountains, attracting thousands of hikers and snowshoers. The tunnels at Donner Pass are undeniably one of the most unique places to visit in Northern California, so add it to your list of Lake Tahoe hikes.
Location: 3732 Carpenter Road, Stockton
Buddhist temples aren’t exactly what come to mind when talking about the Golden State, but the fact that they usually go unnoticed is why they’re among the coolest places to go in California. Wat Dhammararam is a spectacular place of wonder and spirituality filled with nearly 100 giant, jewel-studded statues.
The Cambodian temple houses an impressive sculpture of a 50-foot-long reclining Buddha, representing the end of Buddha’s time in the world. If you’re looking for places to visit in California during COVID-19, Wat Dhammararam is open to the public year-round for free.
Location: 1185 Santa Rosa Avenue, Santa Rosa
Cyclisk isn’t your average monument—it’s a 65-foot-tall structure built from 340 bicycles. The eye-catching public art display was designed by Mark Grieve and Ilana Spector. Bicycles from Trips for Kids in San Rafael, Bici Centro in Santa Barbara, and Community Bikes in Santa Rosa were collected, cleaned, and welded into a steel structure to form the Egyptian-style obelisk. The unique Santa Rosa attraction is a dynamic artwork that shapes a landfill-bound material into a polished structure.
Location: 1 Shields Avenue, Davis
Whenever you find yourself walking around the University of California, Davis, you’re bound to be struck by the seven ceramic Egghead sculptures scattered around the campus. Created by artist and UC Davis professor Robert Arneson, each piece weighs a few hundred pounds. These whimsical shapes were first installed in 1994—they were meant to reflect life at the university and the specific location on campus where they were originally placed (a couple of them have since been moved to different spots on the campus).
Location: 901–999 Second Street, Sacramento
Once upon a time, Sacramento’s street level was at least 10 feet lower than it is now, making it very prone to flooding. But mid-19th-century residents took a stand and demanded the city raise the street level to higher grounds. While they got what they wanted, a small section of Sacramento held out at the original elevation.
As you pass through Old Sacramento, you’ll come across a sunken courtyard that shows the city’s original street level—it’s amazing how a space so small can hold so much history. Brush up your knowledge of the city’s past and explore this cool spot the next time you’re looking for fun and free things to do in Sacramento.
Location: 3909 Bradshaw Road, Sacramento
Ever wondered what it’s like being a giant? Now, you can. Safetyville, USA is a working miniature city built to teach kids about safety and city planning—it’s one of the coolest places to visit in Sacramento. Encompassing almost three acres, Safetyville, USA has small versions of everything from McDonald’s and Taco Bell to the State Capitol Building and the local police and fire departments.
Location: 29200 Thousand Palms Canyon Road, Thousand Palms
A palm-filled oasis with miles of hiking trails in a desert wilderness setting—sounds like the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve is one of the most romantic places to visit in California. Spanning 880 acres, the preserve is home to the only variety of palm tree native to the state: the California fan palm. Hike by the dunes and canyons, and take in the panoramic views of the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the southern edge of Joshua Tree National Park.
Location: 844 North Live Oak Avenue, Glendora
Have you ever thought about what the San Gabriel Valley’s version of Watts Towers looks like? Rubel Castle is the answer to your question. Created entirely from repurposed materials, the castle was built by Michael Rubel and took over 26 years and thousands of volunteers to complete. Bedsprings, motorcycle parts, and even bicycles were used during the construction. Rubel Castle has a courtyard, drawbridge, clock tower, retired citrus-packing house, faux graveyard, a letterpress print shop, and even dungeons—it’s one of the most fascinating places to visit in Southern California.
Location: Landers Lane, Landers
What’s so interesting about a giant rock in an unincorporated community in SoCal? An enormous, seven-story boulder located in the High Desert region of the Mojave Desert has attracted UFO enthusiasts and served as a Native American spiritual site for a very long time. Covering around 6,000 square feet, the geological feature is considered the largest freestanding boulder in the world. The next time you’re looking for things to do in California, check out the colossal domed structure and learn more about its unbelievable history.
Location: Fort Irwin Road, Barstow
You wouldn’t necessarily think of Barstow as a cool place to visit in Southern California, but the city is home to a one-of-a-kind attraction you won’t find anywhere else. Situated by the main gate of the Fort Irwin National Training Center, the pile of painted boulders represents United States Army units from different locations. Many of the decorated rocks feature the insignia of the units that trained at the center.
Over time, the painted rocks have become a symbol of pride and allegiance. Painting on them has become a tradition, too—at the end of a unit’s tenure, a new rock is painted to signify the completion.
Location: Griffith Park Drive, Los Angeles
Griffith Park was once home to the first Los Angeles Zoo. After the current zoo opened in the 1960s, the original location was abandoned. As one of the most interesting places to visit in Los Angeles, the Old Zoo Picnic Area houses the remnants of cages and animal enclosures, making it a popular spot for picnicking in a bear grotto and climbing inside abandoned monkey cages. This weird tourist attraction in SoCal answers something we’ve all thought of at some point—how does it feel to be on the other side of a zoo?
Location: 5121 Franklin Avenue, Los Angeles
Also known as the “Jaws House” and the “Franklin House,” the John Sowden House was built in 1926 by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, Lloyd Wright. The Mayan-inspired home is best known for its distinguished façade, which resembles the mouth of a great white shark. Not only was the John Sowden House featured in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, but it also was the residence of Black Dahlia murder suspect Dr. George Hodel. Whether you think it’s a weird Golden State destination or a cool place to go in Southern California, the John Sowden House is undeniably a unique and memorable architectural landmark.
Location: Black Star Canyon Road, Silverado
Situated in the Santa Ana Mountains, Black Star Canyon is a common hiking spot with a dark history. Historians recognize this Orange County spot as a significant archeological site regarding the Tongva-Gabrieliño people, who would come to the canyon to escape the heat and gather crops. Unfortunately, due to conflicts with Spanish conquistadors, many of them were brutally slaughtered.
People started telling ghost stories of the canyon, the oldest being the story of “La Llorona”— legend has it that she was a woman who murdered her own kids and committed suicide. Black Star Canyon was also the meeting place for a satanic cult in the 1980s, leading to more lore. Could this place be any creepier? It’s certainly a haunted place in California you have to see to believe.
Location: 1201 West Malvern Avenue, Fullerton
If you’re looking for cool places to visit in Orange County, this is it. Celebrating the human spirit through art, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center specializes in experiences that stimulate creativity and imagination. Also known as “The Muck,” the center frequently hosts art exhibitions, performances, film events, festivals, and engaging educational programs. The enchanting, Spanish-style mansion was built in 1924 and now serves the public.
The highlight of this top Golden State attraction is the sculpture garden, which showcases the work of talented artists and attracts locals and tourists alike. Here, you’ll find contemporary and abstract pieces, simplified portraiture, and story poles representing Papua New Guinea. The eye-catching garden is a welcome escape from everyday life, so add it to your SoCal itinerary.
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