No Visit to a California destination would be complete without visiting one of the many museums. California has a reputation as a haven for people with creative minds, and you can see this in its multifaceted cultural offerings. Arts abound here in four main formats: large-scale, world-class organizations; smaller, quirkier museums, often showcasing the Golden State’s history and its abundant idiosyncratic subcultures (think surfers, Silicon Valley techno-wizards, and Peanuts aficionados).
When the weather hinders traditional camping activities (or not) stretch your mind with a visit to one of California’s museums. Need more encouragement? Check out The top 10 reasons to visit a museum!
From surfing to tanning, from literary giants to maritime history and from trains and planes to motorcycles, there is a museum for everyone along California’s Central Coast.
Santa Cruz Surfing Museum – Santa Cruz is located off Highway 1 from either Swift or Bay Streets. Situated on a peninsula above the world-renowned ‘Steamer Lane’ surf break and next to the Mark Abbott Lighthouse, the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum was the first surfing museum in the world. The museum exhibits focus on surfing history from its origins in Hawaii and the logging of local forests for early redwood surfboards to neon fiberglass shortboards of the 80s and longboard rebirth of the 90s. Santa Cruz surfing locals are on hand to answer questions and provide further details about the exhibits. Santa Cruz is regarded as the real ‘Surf City, USA’ although a Southern California city was first to trademark the term.
Tannery Arts Center – Home to the longest-operating leather tannery west of the Mississippi River until it closed in 2001, the eight-acre grounds of the AK Salz Tannery have been completely renovated and reboard as Santa Cruz’s Tannery Art Center. In addition to performance and exhibition spaces, the center features historical photos and wall displays illustrating the story of the 145-year-old tannery. A cultural messa for the Santa Cruz area, the site is alos home to retail shops, a small courtyard cafe and live-work spaces for local artists.
Visit Tannery Arts Center for more information.
National Steinbeck Center – Salinas is located off Highway 101 off Market Street. Situated in the heart of Steinbeck country, the National Steinbeck Center is a cultural museum that promotes art and literature. In addition to the permanent Steinbeck exhibit that focuses on works like The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, other exhibits at the museum include Japanese History, Mission Photography, Dia de Los Muertos and more.
Monterey History & Maritime Museum – Monterey is located off Highway 1 in the Custom House Plaza complex at the base of Old Fisherman’s Wharf. The history museum holds almost 6000 artifacts, over 50,000 photographs and historical documents. The 580 glass prisms of the historic Fresnel lens from the Point Sur Lightstation illuminate the Maritime Museum and its seven exhibit areas from the Rumsien/Ohlone Indians and Spanish explorers, to the USS Macon and war in the Pacific, to Monterey’s era as the sardine capital of the world. Admission is free.
Estrella Warbird Museum – Paso Robles is located east of Paso Robles off Highway 46 (Windy Way). The museum features over two dozen military aircraft from a Sikorsky helicopter to an F-14 fighter jet. The museum also features cold war-era missiles, military vehicles, tanks, cannons and museum displays of military artifacts. The museum’s flight simulator can simulate flight in over a dozen military aircraft including Russian MIGs, A-10 tank busters, the NASA Space Shuttle and more.
Paso Robles Children’s Museum – Paso Robles is located off Highway 101 in the heart of Paso Robles. Situated at the Volunteer Firehouse, the children’s museum features learning exhibits for young children. The museum exhibits include an oak tree with a crawl-through root tunnel, a vintage fire truck, physical science center, Newton’s playhouse, grape stomp ball pit and many more.
Central Coast Veterans Museum – San Luis Obispo is located off Highway 101 from Grand Avenue. Military artifacts from World War I to the Iraq War are on display at the museum including weaponry, uniforms, medals, maps, documents and more.
Museum of Natural History – Morro Bay State Park is located off Highway 101 from S. Bay Boulevard. The natural history museum exhibits focus on local science & biology including wildlife, estuary, tidal forces and human impact. Museum events include nature walks, lectures, puppet shows, videos, docent led tours and more. In addition to Morro Bay itself, other outdoor attractions include the Chumash garden, heron rookery, El Morro Elfin Forest and Sweet Springs Nature Preserve.
Santa Maria Museum of Flight – Santa Maria is located off Highway 101 from Santa Maria Way. Situated at the Santa Maria Airport, the Museum of Flight features historic planes, scaled-down models, aviation artifacts, a cafe and gift shop.
Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum – Solvang is located off Highway 101 from the Mission Drive exit to Solvang. The museum features a collection of vintage and rare motorcycles both foreign and domestic. Brands include AJS, Matchless, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Vincent and more.
South Coast Railroad Museum – Goleta is located off Highway 1 from Los Carneros Road. Situated at Lake Los Carneros Park, the South Coast Railroad Museum focuses on the history, technology, and adventure of railroading with emphasis on the railroad’s contributions to local history and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Unique features at the museum include the historic Goleta Depot, a Southern Pacific caboose, an HO-scale model train set, handcar rides and miniature train rides. The ‘Central Coast Flyer’ offers one-day roundtrip excursions along California’s Central Coast aboard a vintage train car.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art is located off Highway 1 from Carrillo Street. Situated in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, the art museum features exhibits of paintings, drawings, prints, mixed media, ceramics, sculpture and woodworking from as far back as the 4th-century B.C. to present.
Editorial information provided in part by CaliforniaRevealed.com, a collection of native Californians and travelers who spend their time exploring California and sharing their discoveries.
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