Upon planning a visit to California, you might think of popular attractions like Disneyland in Orange County or Universal Studios or perhaps one of the nine national parks in the state. While these hotspots are certainly worth checking out, there are also a lot of amazing hidden gems in California that are also worth visiting. From riding a vintage steam train to digging for actual gemstones, California holds a wealth of interesting, but lesser-known attractions amid the popular standbys.
If you don’t like joining a group tour while you travel and want to do some exploring on your own, there are a lot of hidden gems in California off the beaten track for people that want to get away from the tourist crowds. In this article, we’ll share the best of them!
The House of Pacific Relations, Balboa Park — San Diego
Housed inside Balboa Park in San Diego the House of Pacific Relations; a grouping of 32 cottages that each represents a different culture. Created to encourage understanding between the diverse populations present in the area, the cottages are a fun way to feel like you’re traveling around the world in a single afternoon and one of the most interesting things to do in San Diego.
The cottages are open for visits on Saturdays and Sundays at which time you may encounter food and drink tastings. You will also get the opportunity to look at items and documents unique to that culture. Lawn programs are also held on Sundays, where a different culture every week puts together a presentation of music, dance, arts and crafts, or traditional ceremonies for the public.
Good Times at Davey Waynes — Los Angeles
If you’re looking for some old-school hidden gems in California and your idea of nightlife is attending a 1970s-era house party, you’ll feel right at home at Good Times at Davey Waynes in Los Angeles. This unique party spot near Hollywood Blvd. transports you back to the simpler times of bellbottoms and backyard barbecues. Davey Waynes’ is not just a bar, but an experience. Housed inside a converted house, you enter through the garage, a ‘70s time capsule of old clothes, records, and knick-knacks. Have a drink in the living room next to the fireplace, or head to the backyard patio where a vintage airstream trailer serves up food and drinks. Open day and night, the bar also hosts local bands and DJs who play era-appropriate music you can dance to.
Calico Ghost Town — Calico
A former silver mining hot spot, Calico Ghost Town was abandoned by its residents in the 1880s, making it a perfect fit for this list of hidden gems in California. Now a historical landmark that’s part of the San Bernardino County regional park system, Calico has a number of shops, restaurants, and attractions for visitors to enjoy. Tour an old silver mine, visit the historical museum or take a ride on the heritage railroad. There are also cabins, bunkhouses and camping sites if you want to stay overnight in the town. Special events occur throughout the year including an annual town celebration and spooky Halloween festivities.
Kern River Tubing — Kernville
If you’re planning a California road trip and like getting off the beaten track, you just have to stop by the Kern River. The surrounding nature is stunning and there are a lot of great photo spots and from August to October, you can also tube down the river. Rental companies offer inner tube rentals along with a life jacket, optional helmet, and a one-way shuttle ride.
Most self-guided rides take about two to two-and-a-half hours depending on the water levels and strength of the current. You can also camp right along the river and jump straight in the water if you have your own inner-tubes. After all, tubing down the Kern River is the perfect way to cool off on a hot California summer day.
Also check out: my list of our ultimate guide to visiting Boise, Idaho.
Bearded Lady’s Mystic Museum — Burbank
Speaking of hidden gems in California, we just have to mention the Bearded Lady’s Mystic Museum in Burbank. If you find yourself in Burbank, California’s quirky Magnolia Park neighborhood, be sure to also pay a visit to the Bearded Lady’s Mystic Museum. Part gothic boutique, part antique oddities store, and part occult museum, you’ll find everything from coffin-shaped-backpacks to real-bat-taxidermy for sale. In the back of the store is the museum itself with rotating/permanent exhibits to visitors for a small fee.
Along with items on display like antique ouija boards, ghost hunting kits, and Egyptian antiquities, the museum has also had Instagram-friendly photo-ops from spooky TV shows and movies like “The Chilling, Adventures of Sabrina” and “The Shining.”
OceanView Mine — Pala
In Pala, CA you can visit an active gemstone mine that’s open to the public. While visits into the mine itself are hard to come by, you can tour the area in a jeep. The real incentive to visit OceanView Mine in California, however, is to dig for actual “hidden gems,” such as tourmaline, kunzites, morganites, and quartz. For around $75, you get access to a huge pile of material straight from the mine, which you can sift through with provided screens, buckets and water. After that short briefing, with instructions on how to properly sort through the material, you get four hours to dig for treasure; all of which you get to take home.
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Southern California Railway Museum — Perris
Situated halfway between Anaheim and Palm Springs, Perris is home to the Southern California Railway Museum. The outdoor museum complex consists of dozens of vintage railcars and trolleys. Many of them are fully operational, including a restored steam train. Furthermore, rides are available on the weekends, holidays and special events throughout the year, giving you the chance to glimpse luxury train travel in the U.S. Particularly noteworthy are their kid-centric themed events such as their Day Out with Thomas the Tank Engine and their seasonal rides like the Pumpkin Patch Express in October.
Musee Mecanique — San Francisco
Finally, we round up this list of hidden gems in California with Musee Mecanique. Nestled in the back of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, one hour away from Sacramento, Musee Mecanique, one of the largest privately-owned collections of antique coin-operated game machines in the world. Aside from walking among the machines and taking a trip down memory lane, or simply gawking at what used to constitute entertainment, all the machines are in working condition. Most games cost between 25-50 cents each and include things like pinball, peep shows, and also animated displays. Best of all, admission is free!
If this sounds interesting, you should also check out these unique things to do in San Francisco and our list of cool things to do in Sacramento.
Helpful resources for visiting California
Flying to California? Don’t forget to use Qatar Airways’s Discover the World at a low price program to save as much as 20% on your flight.
Do you want to cover some of the biggest attractions in cities like L.A. or San Francisco but your time is limited? Join a Big Bus tour and get a 15% discount.
Looking for airport parking at LAX, SFO, or SAN? Use this coupon and save up to 15%.
For cheap accommodation deals, use my Booking code or Motel6 for the cheapest motel deals. For a more luxurious alternative, use this link to get one night free of charge (if you book at least three nights) in all Radisson Hotels in California.
Are you planning to visit a lot of museums and tourist sights in L.A. or San Francisco? Get a City Pass and save up to 44%.
Finally, don’t forget to use points.com to get more rewards with fewer points and miles.
Finally, it’s your turn- what do you think of these hidden gems in California? Will you be adding any to your bucket list? Which one was your favorite? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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