California is the country’s third-largest state, with a history that goes back to before the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in the 17th century. The Golden State takes its nickname from the gold rush of the 1880s, which brought the state the largest migration of people in history and laid a foundation for California to become what it is today.
Its prosperity at the beginning of the 20th century established places like Balboa Park and Gardens in San Diego, where groups can tour any of the many museums on the property. Around the same time, the prison at Alcatraz housed the famous gangster Al Capone. In Simi Valley, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library houses not only an Air Force One plane but also several permanent exhibitions that chronicle U.S. history.
Next time your group goes to California, plan a visit to some of the state’s historic attractions, places that bring the state’s past to life.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
Ronald Reagan was the 40th president of the United States, but his legacy is dedicated to a much broader story of the country and beyond. Groups can connect with that legacy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.
“We have self-guided, audio and docent-led tours, but docents are stationed in every room throughout the museum to give visitors insights about what’s exciting about each space and collection,” said Melissa Giller, the museum’s chief marketing officer. “The Reagan library isn’t just about the history of his presidency, it’s about the history of the United States and the world, and visitors get a chance to interact with it.”
Groups won’t want to miss the Tea and Tour, a themed lunch with a menu from the White House followed by a guided tour. On the tour, groups can board the former Air Force One, touch a fragment of the Berlin Wall and part of one of the Twin Towers destroyed on 9/11, and visit an exact replica of the Oval Office. The grounds feature the graves of the former president and first lady Nancy Reagan.
Huntington Library and Gardens
As its name suggests, San Marino’s Huntington Library and Gardens has a prominent library, but it’s so much more than that: 16 themed gardens, millions of manuscripts and an extensive art collection.
“One of the things that’s great for visitors, whether groups or individuals, is taking a guided tour,” said Lisa Blackburn, spokesperson for the Huntington. “We have more than 120 acres of botanic gardens, paintings by the British masters and rare books. A guide helps visitors explore the range of things that make our collections so exciting.”
Blackburn encourages groups not to miss the new Chinese garden with its reflective ponds and handcrafted pavilions, and the desert garden, which houses the world’s oldest and largest collection of cacti. The library has notable rare works, like the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of only 11 vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible and a first folio of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623. Their art collection ranges from Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” to Warhol’s “Small Crushed Campbell’s Soup Can.”
In San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island is probably best known as the place where the notorious Al Capone served time. The island was used as a penitentiary for 29 years, and though many tried, no prisoner ever escaped. Alcatraz was occupied by Native Americans in the 1960s and is used today for ceremonial purposes.
Groups can choose from a wide variety of tours, among them day and night tours and behind-the-scenes-style tours. One option that focuses less on the punishment role of “The Rock” is a tour of its gardens. Planted by prison guards’ families and used to hold social events, the gardens have been restored after decades of neglect.
Alcatraz also hosts visiting authors and artists and has a series of annual events. The island also features a museum dedicated to the prison’s history, with historic photographs and artifacts used daily in the prison.
With more than 1,200 acres, 17 museums, several theaters, the San Diego Zoo and open spaces and gardens, Balboa Park is perhaps San Diego’s most significant attraction. Created in 1868, it’s one of the country’s oldest dedicated public parks.
“Each institution in the park is a separate nonprofit, but the Balboa Park Explorer Pass gets visitors access to all the different museums in the park,” said Michael Warburton, director of parkwide communications. “There is always something new, and there are always ongoing changes made to the park, so seeing different exhibitions or events is easy.”
Groups can explore the park’s unique architecture from the expositions it hosted, see a production at the Old Globe Theater and visit an art museum, a railroad museum and an auto museum, among other options. The park is home to several restaurants and cafes, which range from casual to upscale. At open-air Panama 66, local beers pair well with live jazz on Wednesdays, and on Fridays during summer, food trucks line the main walkway and the park’s museums stay open late.
Columbia State Historic Park
Near Sacramento, the Columbia State Historic Park is a perfectly preserved town from the gold rush era that gives groups the opportunity to step back in time. The town is full of privately owned businesses that bring the old days back to life.
“We have the largest collection of gold-rush-era brick buildings anywhere, containing more than 150 years of history,” said Rebecca Andrade, events coordinator at the park. “The town itself is a living museum full of historically significant and accurate exhibits with real artifacts.”
Monthly events offer groups access to special exhibits and hands-on activities. Groups can stay in historic hotels, sip sarsaparilla in an Old West saloon, take a tour with a costumed docent and visit a Chinese apothecary and a general store. Visitors can watch a working blacksmith, listen to street musicians, pan for gold and ride in a stagecoach. At Nelson’s Candy, traditional sweets have been made by the same family since 1923, and the Fallon Theater puts on performances almost nightly.