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13 Hidden Gems in California That Are out Of This World
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13 Hidden Gems in California That Are out Of This World

From Oakland to Santa Barbara, California’s hidden gems add a touch of eccentricity to the state that feels both authentic and outlandish.

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6 min read

July 23, 2021

The Golden State is home to the most iconic and obscure attractions in the world. We can’t tell which outweighs the other, but one thing we know for sure is that we love discovering hidden gems in California and knowing that there’s something new to see no matter how long you’ve been here. From Oakland to Santa Barbara, California’s hidden gems add a touch of eccentricity to the state that feels both authentic and outlandish—and if that’s not very California-esque, we don’t know what is. 

Hidden Gems in Southern California

Inside the infamous Cave Store is a century-old tunnel that leads through the sandstone cliffs of La Jolla Cove and into Sunny Jim's sea cave.

1. Sunny Jim Cave Store 

Location: San Diego

Add this hidden San Diego gem to your itinerary and prepare for a truly unexpected sight. The Sunny Jim Cave Store has the only land-accessed entrance to any sea cave in California—it opens up to a world of enchanting views you won’t see coming. The tunnel was the vision of Gustauf Schultz, a German painter and mining engineer who wanted to retire by a rare view of the ocean; and boy what a view he found.

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2. Disneyland’s Club 33

Location: Anaheim

The most exclusive place in the Happiest Place on Earth, Club 33 is a hidden gem in Orange County not many people know about. Deep in adventureland and tucked behind a pale green door is Club 33, which only opens for about 450-or-so members—it has enough mystery surrounding it to pique anyone’s interest. Built in 1967 as an exclusive treat for investors, this hidden gem in Orange County holds one-of-a-kind conceptual art photography and boasts a unique menu of delicious food and drinks for those lucky enough to get in and enjoy.

Perhaps the most stunning treasure in the Sky Village Swap Meet is Bob's Crystal Cave. Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

3. Bob’s Crystal Cave

Location: Yucca Valley

Does a magical oasis of love and meditation interest you in any way? Head over to Yucca Valley to check out Bob’s Crystal Cave. This hidden gem in California was created by Bob Carr, who transformed the space into a sanctum of bliss using foam and gemstones. The rainbow-hued cave sparkles with crystals and even features a small waterfall that adds to the transcendental experience and feel of the unique site.

4. Echo Park Time Travel Mart

Location: Los Angeles

Need to pick up a few snacks for your trip to the fourth dimension? The Echo Park Time Travel Mart has you covered. Brought to you by 826—the same non-profit responsible for the Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco—the market sells quirky relics from the past, present, and future. Stop by this hidden gem in Los Angeles to shop for wacky items like Mammoth Chuks and Robot Milk, as well as help the non-profit continue its mission of teaching literacy to kids with every purchase.

5. Underground Tunnels of Los Angeles

Location: Los Angeles

When the nation decided to prohibit alcohol in the early 20th century, Angelenos moved their parties underground. Below Downtown Los Angeles, you’ll find 11 miles of service tunnels that became passageways to basement speakeasies while the rest of the U.S. was sobering up. To see this hidden gem in Los Angeles, slip behind the Hall of Records on Temple Street and you’ll find the elevator leading you down to the passages.

Hidden in the hills of Hollywood, this secluded Oz-themed garden is dotted with dozens of thrones. Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

6. Garden of Oz

Location: Los Angeles

Back in the ‘90s, Gail Cottman built her own fairytale escape on a small piece of land in the hidden hills of Hollywood. Soon enough, the garden decorated with bright tiles and beads was transformed into a beautiful oasis that reminded Cottman of one of her favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz. Following that theme, she took the garden to the next level and built a Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy Throne, Wall of Toys, and shrines of noteworthy figures such as Rosa Parks. While anyone wishing to see this hidden gem in SoCal can easily swing by, Cottman has allegedly given the keys to the neighborhood’s children.

7. Cal Poly Architecture Graveyard

Location: San Luis Obsipo

Whether you want to take cool pictures, admire abandoned projects, or get inspired by unconventional artwork, the nine-acre collection of eclectic, experimental structures in SLO is an awesome hidden gem to see. The deserted hodgepodge of structures designed by students of the nearby Polytechnic University range from semi-houses to sculptures and are a cool California hidden gem to see if you’re even the slightest bit interested in architecture.

Hidden Gems in Northern California

The Internet Archive provides free public access to collections of digitized materials. Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

8. Internet Archive Headquarters

Location: San Francisco

With the mission of providing universal access to all knowledge, the Internet Archive is an ambitious cataloging project helping researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public. Headquartered in a column-fronted and sculpture-adorned eye-catching building that used to be an Old Christian Scientist Church, the IA is a hidden gem in San Francisco that’s definitely worth a visit. The building houses millions of books, movies, television, music, software, and video games that were collected and digitized by the project—visiting this place is definitely an eye-opening experience.

9. Peephole Cinema

Location: San Francisco

In an alley hidden in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, a tiny theater plays a constant stream of short silent films. The literal hole-in-the-wall cinema is marked by a small sign with an eye on it—it’s very easy to miss. Next time you’re in the area, don’t forget about this hidden gem in San Francisco. Crouch down and peep through the hole for a tiny movie break before you go about your day.

The Allegory of California is a small mural with a huge female figure representing the state of California. Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

10. The Allegory of California

Location: San Francisco

Located in the former San Francisco Stock Exchange building, this hidden gem is bound to excite art lovers in the state. Why is that, you ask? This is the location of the first-ever fresco the legendary Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted in the United States. Aptly titled “The Allegory of California,” the mural is filled with representations of California culture and history. Have a good look at this hidden gem in California and try to find as many references as you can.

The Marin County Civic Center has distinct pink stucco walls, blue roof, and scalloped balconies. Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

11. Marin County Civic Center

Location: San Rafael

This California hidden gem is not so much a must-see sight for what it represents, but more so for its architectural history. Being Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest public project, this ambitious complex—which includes an 11-acre lagoon and 20-acre park—is pretty cool to explore. Not only was the building’s plan designed by the legendary architect, but so were the doors, signs, and furniture in the center. Think the colorful building looks familiar? You might have noticed it in the ‘97 film Gattaca or in Dr. Dre’s 2011 music video for I Need a Doctor.

Preston Castle is the most significant example of Romanesque Revival architecture in the Mother Lode.

12. Preston Castle

Location: Ione

Although it’s abandoned today, this Romanesque red-brick building used to be the location for one of the first reform schools in the U.S. The Preston Castle Foundation has been working on preserving and restoring the decaying castle since 2001, but an eerie feel still lingers in the building. In fact, this hidden gem in California has quite the paranormal reputation, with many people staying overnight hoping for ghost encounters.

13. The Cayetano Juárez Adobe

Location: Napa

Just off a busy intersection in Napa is a buzzing Mexican eatery surrounded by cacti and agave plants. What many of you may not know is that this tasty restaurant is housed inside Napa’s oldest building. Named after Cayetano Juárez, who built the structure as his home, this hidden gem in Northern California is a cool little sight to see. Plus, you get to feast on delicious Mexican food when you visit, so it really can’t get any better.

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