A Tour of California's Architectural Landmarks

San Franciscos Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge | © Choltie239 / Flickr
Gwen Purdom

There aren’t many states that can deliver both legendary feats of industrial engineering and fairytale castles, but California offers a little bit of everything, architecturally.

With some of the tallest trees on earth rooted in California’s soil, its natural architecture is nothing to scoff at, either. The Golden State is home to the funky mid-century houses of Palm Springs, the dignified Neoclassical capital building in Sacramento, and the towering letters of the Hollywood sign, among other built treasures. But those who want to take in a tour sampling just a few of the state’s thoughtfully-designed landmarks might want to start with this list.

1. Hotel del Coronado


Hotel Del Coronado
© Stacy Spensley / Flickr

Part wedding cake, part grand ship cruising out to sea, the sprawling Hotel del Coronado gives off a distinguished vibe. The founders of the beachfront resort envisioned a place that would be “the talk of the Western World” when they first established the famed San Diego resort in 1880, and history buffs and visitors are still talking to this day, as the place still operates as a working hotel and getaway. “The Del” was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1977, but at other points in its storied history, the distinctive design has drawn presidential visits and moviemakers. (Some Like It Hot was filmed there in 1958.)

2. Winchester Mystery House

Building, Museum

Winchester Mystery House © Mike Shelby/Flickr
Mike Shelby / Flickr
Sandwiched between a shopping center parking lot and an expressway, the massive Winchester Mystery House is unexpected. It was perhaps even more of a surprise when grieving widow Sarah Winchester broke ground on the property in what was then rural San Jose back in 1886. Sarah Winchester’s husband came from the family behind the popular Winchester Repeating Rifle. But their fame and fortune didn’t save Sarah from heartache. Legend has it that in her grief following the death of her only child, and later, her husband, Mrs. Winchester met with a medium who told her that her spate of bad luck was because of her family’s deadly gun business. The only way to scare off spirits of the people killed by Winchester rifles, the medium said, was to move west and start building. The construction would keep the ghosts away so long as it never stopped. So Sarah followed her advice. Today, the bizarre house has 160 rooms, a space for nightly séances, staircases to nowhere, and many more unexplained details. It remains a stunning example of Victorian architecture dotted with stunning Tiffany stained glass.

3. Watts Towers


Watts Towers
© Yevgenia Watts / Flickr
Watts Towers, artist Simon Rodia’s jaw-dropping South Central Los Angeles installation, is made up of 17 structural steel spires coated in mortar. The towers, officially titled “Nuestro Pueblo,” rose over 33 years and were completed in 1954. Pieces of glass, mosaic tiles, shells, clay, and rock are embedded in the rising coils and at their base, the Watts Towers Arts Center has operated since 1961. The pieces and their grounds have been designated on the National Register of Historic Places, are a National Historic Landmark, a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument, a State of California Historic Monument, and a State of California Historic Park.

4. The Walt Disney Concert Hall

Concert Hall

Walt Disney Concert Hall
© Fablo Achilli / Flickr
It doesn’t have mouse ears, but the Los Angeles Phil orchestra’s funky concert hall homebase is named for Walt Disney. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is made up of 3.6 acres of curving stainless steel exterior and interior wood paneling, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. The orchestra splits its time between Disney Hall and the similarly storied Hollywood Bowl venue, but Gehry’s creation is worth a visit whether the musicians are performing or not. Aside from its striking profile, the hall features state-of-the-art acoustics and Douglas fir columns.

5. Golden Gate Bridge


Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.
© Andriy Bezuglov / Alamy Stock Photo
When thousands flooded into the San Francisco area during the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, the city needed to accommodate more people and traffic. Work on the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t kick off until 1933 and by 1937, the architectural wonder was open to the public. Rising 746-feet, the iconic bridge includes two main towers that support two main cables. Its rusty color, which pops against the blue of the Bay and the city’s famous fog, is officially known as International Orange.

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