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Not to Miss Design in California

Unique architectural buildings, monuments and statues often become the most recognizable symbol of a location. Picture Paris, and you think of the Eiffel Tower; imagine California, and it’s the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hollywood Sign that comes to mind. Throughout California, there are iconic landmarks and quirky buildings that come to define a town. On your next trip to the Golden State, check out these interesting architectural gems along the way.

Iconic Landmarks

Sundial Bridge

Designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava, Redding’s Sundial Bridge is a feat of both design and engineering. The cantilever spar cable-stayed bridge was constructed using 580 tons of steel with a deck crafted from 200 tons of glass and granite. It is one of the world’s largest and most functional public art installations that features a working sundial. Don’t miss the bridge at night when it is illuminated with a rainbow of colorful lights.

Point Arena Lighthouse

For over 150 years, the Point Arena Lighthouse has been lighting the way on the Pacific Coast in Mendocino County. It was rebuilt after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and is the first lighthouse that features steel reinforcement rods encased in concrete. The lighthouse affords visitors an interactive experience that weaves together history, science and sheer natural beauty. From late November to May, it’s also one of the best whale-watching spots on the North Coast. 

The Aquarium of the Pacific

In 2019, the Aquarium of the Pacific debuted its Pacific Visions wing designed by San Francisco firm EHDD. With its distinctive form, color and visual impact, the aquarium has become the architectural statement for Long Beach. Its glass-paneled façade features ever-changing hues of blue designed to mimic the luminosity and variability of the ocean. 

Giant Dipper

Since it debuted in 1925, the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster at San Diego’s Belmont Park has been a landmark soaring 75 feet in the air. The wooden roller coaster is one of only two wooden coasters left on the West Coast, along with the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The coaster is on the National Register of Historical Places and became a designated National Historic Landmark in the late 1980s.

Local Quirks

Gold Rush

Thanks to the Gold Rush, El Dorado County became home to numerous examples of 19th-century architecture. Highlights include The Bell Tower in Placerville, the statue of James Marshall, who was the first to discover gold in the area, and two stone buildings in Coloma which served as stores in the 1850s.

Floating Homes

One of the most unique sights in the Bay Area are the 400 colorfully eclectic floating homes of Sausalito. The community dates to the 1800s and through the years has been home to artists, beatniks and other free spirits. The houses are designed to float on the bay at high tide and sit on the mud flats during low tide. Soul singer Otis Redding wrote the lyrics to “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”during his stay on a houseboat, and author Shel Silverstein lived in the community. Today visitors can take a guided tour or simply wander along the pier.

Street Art

In the same way that people once panned for gold during the Gold Rush, today’s visitors to Tuolumne County can go on the hunt for the county’s many murals. Some not-to-be-missed highlights include the Farmer’s Market mural on Theall Street, the vintage 1950s ice cream advert mural in downtown Jamestown, and Sonora Brewing Company’s mural in downtown Sonora

Historic Buena Park

Buena Park in Orange County sits on land that was once under Spanish authority and Mexican rule before becoming part of California. The town’s historic district, with its original architecture, gives visitors a chance to see the area like settlers in the late 1800s did. Important sites include the Whitaker Jaynes House Museum, the Bacon House Museum, the First Congregational Church and the Stage Stop Hotel. 

Historical Venues

The Sanchez Adobe House

Located in Pacifica, The Sanchez Adobe House allows visitors a chance to learn about the Ohlone, Spanish and Mexican periods of California’s history. The living history site was a village, a mission farm, a cattle ranch, the home of Francisco Sanchez (Mayor of San Francisco), a residence of General Kirkpatrick, the Hotel San Pedro, a speakeasy known as Adobe House and an artichoke storage facility. For many years it was the only provider of food for Mission Dolores in San Francisco. The old adobe home on the site, a fine example of authentic Monterey architecture, was originally built in the 1840s and is the oldest building in San Mateo County. 

Bidwell Mansion 

Visitors will think they’ve traveled to Italy when they tour the 26-room Bidwell Mansion in Chico. The exterior mimics an Italian villa with its pink-tinted plaster façade. When Chico’s founders, John and Annie Bidwell, built the mansion in the 1860s, it was considered an engineering marvel with modern plumbing, gas lighting and water systems. The mansion is on the National Register of Historic Places, and tours are available. 

Camarillo Ranch House

In the 1850s the Camarillo family became the fourth European family in Ventura, commissioning the 14-room, 6,000-square-foot. Queen Anne Mansion that became the focal point of their working ranch. The house has two turrets, a large veranda and sprawling lawns. Today the Camarillo Ranch House is a museum that offers tours to visitors.


Nestled in Rancho Mirage in Greater Palm Springs, the Sunnylands estate is an unassuming location where world leaders and diplomats come to meet on neutral ground. The 29,000-square-foot property was built in the 1960s by U.S. Ambassador Walter Annenberg. In addition to hosting high-stakes political meetings, past party guests have included Frank Sinatra and Queen Elizabeth II. Today visitors can tour the house and learn about its fascinating history. 

Historic Hotels

Madonna Inn

A true California institution, The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is a lavish, surreal hotel that is a feast for the eyes at every turn. The Swiss-Alps-themed destination features bright colors, stained glass, stone walls, cherubs and hand-carved adornments. Inside, each of the 110 rooms has a different theme. Make sure to have a slice of their infamous pink champagne cake in the dining room, decorated entirely in various shades of pink.

Mission Inn

Occupying more than an entire block in downtown Riverside, the Mission Inn brings a fairy-tale European castle ambiance to California. Originally opened in 1876, the four-star property was designed by some of the state’s top architects of the day. The façade features flying buttresses, turrets, towers and domes in Mission-Revival style. It even houses the oldest bell in Christendom, dating back to 1247. The hotel has hosted many U.S. presidents along with iconic celebrities like Amelia Earhart, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Albert Einstein and more.

The Guild Hotel

Originally built in 1924 as a Navy and Army YMCA, the boutique Guild Hotel in downtown San Diego has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The hotel’s meeting and event spaces retain the building’s architectural gems, from the former basketball court still intact with its original running track turned into what is now the Grace Ballroom or the former YMCA pool transformed into the Society Ballroom. Today, the historical charm blends seamlessly with modern amenities and design.