It would be tempting to assume you know everything about California. Large California cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the top destinations for tourism and business in the U.S., while the state's beautiful scenery has been in the living rooms of the world since the dawn of the film age. Even secondary California tourist spots like San Diego and Big Sur have become household names, to say nothing of how much Death Valley's visibility spiked thanks to the recent super bloom.
And yet, for all its ubiquity among travelers, American ones and otherwise, California is chock full of destinations you probably never knew existed, of both the natural and manmade sorts.
Although you don't have to see these weird California attractions on a road trip, it's preferable—the only thing more bizarre than some of these places is the Golden State's lack of public transport outside major cities! Make sure you've got a fully charged smartphone or GPS device, up-to-date car insurance, and patience. California is huge!
The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obipso
The bad news? Madonna Inn, located near the city of San Luis Obispo, has nothing to do with the singer of the same name. Actually, that could be good news depending on your opinion of her, a variable that might also influence how you feel about the Inn itself.
Madonna Inn, to be sure, manages to be as quirky as Madonna herself, but in a way that's wholesome to the point of being bizarre, from the uniforms the staff wear, to the penchant of waitresses for recommending teas and cakes at all hours of the day, to the extremely pastel interior decoration. A more apt name for this place might be the "Alice in Wonderland Inn."
One fact that makes the Madonna Inn seem all the more bizarre is that its nearest city, San Luis Obispo, is decidedly ordinary, with all due respect to it.
Peggy Sue's Diner-saur Park
Speaking of unconventional places to eat, if you like dinosaurs as much as you like greasy diner food, and you happen to be driving I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, make a stop at Peggy Sue's Diner-saur Park near the town of Yermo. While the dinos on offer here are (obviously) not real, they add a touch of California quirkiness you might not expect to find so far outside of, say, the Haight District in San Francisco or Venice Beach in Los Angeles.
TIP: Want to see metal dinosaurs, but don't plan to be on this particular stretch of California interstate during your trip? You can also find metal dinosaurs at Spanish Town in Half Moon Bay near Santa Cruz, in Pismo Beach at T-Rex Eats Tourists and at Vail Lake Resort in Temecula, to name just a few places.
The Canals of Venice
The existence of a place called Venice Beach in California isn't a shock to most people, particularly since the Venice Beach Boardwalk is easily among the top five or 10 tourist attractions in California. What can be a bit more of a surprise, however, is the canals that exist just back from the boardwalk and the beach, which are actually the reason the city bears the same name as the Venice in Italy.
The best news of all? You can enjoy gondola rides here, and you don't have to speak Italian to negotiate the best rate. Of course, while the houses built along the canals in California's Venice are nice, they pale in comparison to the UNESCO World Heritage that rises around the ones on the other side of the planet.
(Then again, California's Venice will remain above the surface of the sea for far longer than the one in Italy, so perhaps one day these McMansions will be considered world heritage in their own right!)
Morro Rock: America's Answer to Gibraltar
When it comes to the central California Coast, most people's knowledge begins and ends at the aforementioned Big Sur. While Big Sur is incredible and totally worthy of the hype built up around it, it's not actually the most impressive place in this part of California.
No, that honor belongs to Morro Rock, a gigantic "volcanic plug" that serves as America's answer to the Rock of Gibraltar. Adding to Morro Rock's cool factor are the nearby towns of Morro Bay and Cayucos, its convenience to big cities like Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, and the existence of an incredible oyster farm only a short (and beautiful!) boat ride away from the rock.
International Banana Museum
Although the world's biggest banana is across the Pacific Ocean from California in Coffs Harbour, Australia, the Golden State still maintains street cred RE: everyone's favorite yellow fruit. Enter the International Banana Museum, located on the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea.
There are a lot of weird things about the International Banana Museum. First of all, it's located in a town called Mecca that's not in Saudi Arabia. Secondly, it sits on the "shore" of a "Sea" that's been dry for decades. Finally, well, it's a museum dedicated to bananas.