7 Out-of-the-Ordinary Places to Visit in California

California is more than just sun, sand and celebrities. This state has a long list of off-the-beaten-path nooks and crannies, best-kept secrets, novelties and juicy scandals. It’s the weird and wonderful places like these that can spark great conversations and fun stories to tell back home for years to come. Here are some of the top quirky places in California to add to your adventure in the Golden State:

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Old LA Zoo in Griffith Park

Haunted ruins in the middle of Los Angeles! The old LA zoo is an eerie remnant of how animals used to live here a century ago. This place used to house only 15 species of animals. Opened in 1912 and officially closed in 1966, the zoo lacked proper funding while the animals faced cramped living conditions, starvation and death. Hence, the new LA Zoo was moved 2 miles down the road with bigger and better infrastructure, along with improved and humane living space. The most photographed area is the chimpanzee pit with manmade cave structures and small, abandoned, graffiti-lined cages. Overall, this area still has abundant park space and trees for leisurely hiking and picnics, but it’s recommended that visitors go during the daytime for safety reasons. Curious visitors come here to debunk the story of the haunted zoo. Some may have unmasked the mysterious figure to be a vagabond wandering around the park along with occasional pranks pulled by locals. 

Underground tunnels of LA

A zeitgeist walk through the not-so-roaring twenties! This 11-mile long, 40 feet underground tunnel was once the clandestine drinking spot for Los Angeles. There is a public debate about whether it’s open to the public or not. The answer is yes, during daytime business hours and with very tight security. The best starting point is at Temple and Hill St. entrance, near the Los Angeles County Hall of Records. 

The 1920’s ban on alcohol was a time of religious movement and the “dry crusade.” Because of this campaign, the resistance created an underground demand for alcohol to rise, and supplying drinks outside the law became profitable, including hidden local speakeasies. Underneath the King Eddy Saloon, literally, is a former underground speakeasy with tunnel access to the City Hall where politicians and statesmen used to sneak down to for a few drinks. Today, the tunnel is part of the municipal buildings and its utilities. Visitors can walk through the corridors accompanied by the hissing sounds of engines and pipes.

Glass Beach in Fort Bragg

From coastal trash to treasure hunting. The Glass Beach is about 6 hours’ drive, north of San Francisco.  From 1943–1949, this place was a dumping ground of bottles, furniture, appliances, and entire cars (not just car parts). The unsalvageable junk was the result of the damage caused by a major earthquake in Fort Bragg that created massive piles of landfill. But before it became the smooth pebbles, the trash had to be burned to reduce the size of the garbage. Luckily, nature eventually found its way to restore balance into this former junk yard. 

Over a few decades, this beach has been through the process of mineralization, where the saltwater dissolves the glass and releases minerals that restored the local marine life.  Surprisingly, the ocean is now a great site for snorkelling and diving. People come here to hunt for unique glass pieces, and so far, there are no signs prohibiting visitors from picking and taking the pebbles. However, there’s been some depletion of the sea glass reported by the parks and recreation staff. 

Bubble Gum Alley

A funky wall of gum graffiti, this colourful alley is a mix of yuck factor and fascinating graffiti art. It all started from college students and local rival high school students trying to prove who can make a bigger, taller gum wall. Despite having the surface cleaned every few years by locals, the gum wall rose back to the challenge and kept expanding to this day. 

Conveniently, this bubble gum graffiti art can be found in the middle of San Luis Obispo downtown with shops, parks and restaurants all around. There’s also a candy store in this square, SLO Sweets, with all the candies and gum that you need.  Visitors are encouraged to chew some gum, make a wish and stick it to the wall. Also, try to walk in the centre of the alley while minding your hair, scarves and belongings.

Solvang Village

Experience Old Europe on the Californian Coast! Unlike the well-known destinations in the Golden State, Solvang is a small town that many tourists delightfully stumble across as it’s on the main road that connects north and south interstate highways. 

Solvang was established in 1910 by a group of Danish-American scholars, where their earlier generation migrated to the Midwest states since the 1850s, straight from Denmark. Minus the snow and the cold, this town feels like Santa’s village in the middle of California. The new locals have rebuilt the old-world “Danish Village” architecture with replicas of windmills, the Hans Christian Andersen statue and Denmark’s Round Tower. Expect to see horse carriages passing through. While here, pick up some baked goods such as the Kringle, a traditional pastry baked with custard and raisin, or the Æbleskiver, a Danish pancake ball served with raspberry jelly and butter pecan ice cream.

Hotel California

Hotel California in Todos Santos on Baja California Sur has been around since 1947, about 1,000 miles south of San Diego. Okay, so it’s not actually in the state of California, but it’s certainly quirky. The interior is saturated with rich palettes of colours resembling the paintings of Frida Kahlo. Originally, the 16-room hotel was founded by a Chinese immigrant who became a celebrated local entrepreneur, and was dubbed as “El Chino,” or the Chinese man. However, the long-rumoured story that the famous song was based here, is an ongoing debate. Despite unconfirmed stories, this hotel attracted many 70s rock stars that come to stay, such as Keith Richards and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

The song, however, was written as a metaphor and that the hotel itself does not exist, so Hotel California had to put up a written disclaimer regarding this incident. Nonetheless, this hotel may have benefited from the myths surrounding the music, with many visitors who come to visit just to see with their own eyes the “mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice.” Be reminded that citizens of other countries need their passport to enter Mexico, while certain nationalities also need a visa.

Opaque — Dining in the Dark

Appreciate food, people, and conversations through heightened senses. This might not be for everyone, as it may trigger some claustrophobia. Visitors will have to weigh options, as the price tag of this experience is about $100, before gratuity and taxes. 

The restaurant serves food in a completely pitch-dark dining space. Customers are briefed in advance and make selections from the menu, and then ushered into the dining room with other patrons. Eating here requires a keen practice of being in the moment, whether it’s holding hands with your fellow diner, or recognising the server’s voice, or if the steak is medium-rare as ordered. Some interesting post-dining observations can be a humbling and eye-opening recount with descriptions of fear, excitement, heightened sense of taste, smell and hearing, while managing expectations when the lights are turned on. 

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