Usually when I tell people my favourite thing about the trip I took to California last summer was the amount and the diversity of the art, the looks I get in return are ones of disbelief. Indeed, ‘culture’ is not the first word that comes to mind when considering the West Coast of the United States. It is for that reason that I would like to present a selection of the things I was able to experience during the two weeks I spent there, a far cry from the Santa Monica beaches and Hollywood glam.
When I first landed in Los Angeles, I was very eager to discover the cultural side of the city, and elected to spend my first day roaming around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
“The views were majestic, going from endless turquoise ocean colliding with the impressive cliffs, to dense forests and national parks.”
The first impression I got of the museum was Chris Burden’s Urban Light, a piece made up of 202 cast-iron street lamps gathered from around L.A. Impressive by day or night, they set the tone of the city: captivating and unexpected. The museum and its numerous buildings are home to a dazzling selection of modern work, by the likes of Picasso, Mondrian, Klee and Kandinsky, as well as Greek and Roman art collections. Also featured is a world-renowned collection of Islamic art, plenty of pieces from Africa and, in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, pieces from the Far East.
After LACMA, I took a completely different approach and decided to pay a visit to the ‘skull-ptures’ of the Natural History Museum. Its massive collection spans more than 35 million objects and specimens! The first thing you notice when entering the main building is this giant 63-foot-long fin whale skeleton, which sets the tone for the rest of the visit which features thousands of bones, from Native Americans to the Catholic missions, the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars, to the present day. It’s a fascinating experience; however trying to see it all in just one visit is a mammoth undertaking.
The next day I headed to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. Back in 1875, a group of palaeontologists discovered animal remains in the pits at Rancho La Brea. Some 130 years later, palaeontologists are still at work, having recovered more than 3.5 million fossils from the mire. Many of these specimens are now on display in this very old-fashioned museum, a nice addition to the Natural History Museum.
“These murals, fantastic works of art and activism, are everywhere and their bright colours give the neighbourhood a unique identity.”
The Griffith Observatory, my last stop before leaving LA, is also well worth a visit for its exhibition, which centres around humans’ relationship with the sky. Situated on top of a hill, the view from its dome is also fantastic, especially at sunset, when you can see the sun disappear behind the Hollywood sign – very La La Land-esque!
The road between Los Angeles and San Francisco was another highlight of the trip. Instead of taking the shorter way inland, I decided on the scenic route: Route 101, which follows the Atlantic Ocean between the two cities. The views were majestic, going from endless turquoise ocean colliding with the impressive cliffs to dense forests and national parks. I even found a beach with hundreds of seals sunbathing!
Where LA is loud, shiny, and busy, San Francisco is a lot more relaxed and casual. It is still a bustling city, full of different people and cultures, but in a less ostentatious way than Los Angeles. My time in San Francisco involved fewer museums and more walking around the city, taking in its unique architecture and history. The only museum I visited there was the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Unmissable.
After that, I decided to spend a couple days just roaming the city. I started by visiting Mission and its murals that were initiated by the Chicano Art Mural Movement of the 1970s as a symbol of empowerment and struggle by the Mexican Community. These murals, fantastic works of art and activism, are everywhere and their bright colours give the neighbourhood a unique identity.
“Countless pride flags float around the streets, and you can very easily spot Harvey Milk’s house as well as several other landmarks of the gay and lesbian rights movement.”
I then went on to visit Castro, the distinctly LGBT+ neighbourhood of the city. San Francisco has always been at the epicentre of the gay rights movement, but Castro is the heart of the community in the country. Countless pride flags float around the streets, and you can very easily spot Harvey Milk’s house as well as several other landmarks of the gay and lesbian rights movement. The atmosphere is always festive, especially at this time of year, with Pride just around the corner.
The next day, I visited more of the city and its classic landmarks: Lombard Street, the Pier which is bustling with life and joggers at all times, and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, after 2 weeks in the country, I flew out of San Francisco to Paris.
While I loved both cities and the West Coast in general, San Francisco now holds a special place in my heart, and I am eager to go back this summer. It is a city I would urge people to visit, taking at least a week to explore and to let it show you all of its secrets and the things that make it so great.