The 3 Best Historical-Based Vacations In California

Let me guess, you’ve done Disneyland, SeaWorld and all the other California vacations and you want this year’s vacation to be something special. You want your kids to actually learn something during their time off from school, but not be bored to tears.

Well, I have good news. California is a great destination for vacations that are actually fun while still teaching you something.

While I won’t claim to enjoy every historical location or museum, here are a few options that my family and I enjoyed enough to recommend to others!

Angel Island

Angel Island is a prominent part of the San Francisco Bay panorama and has been a popular destination for hiking, biking and exploration for the decades since it became a state park in the 1950’s.

Only accessible by boat, the island is a quick ferry ride from Fisherman’s Wharf and an especially good day trip for San Francisco visitors. When you arrive on the island, you’ll find a quiet, peaceful, almost idyllic landscape with pretty coves, modest hills and picture-postcard vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County.

While on the island, visitors are able to enjoy all of the historic buildings that are normally open to the public, including the Immigration Station, which played a big role in California history.

Visitors arrive at Ayala Cove where most summer days and off-season weekends there are services such as a cafe and small store, and places where visitors can rent bikes or Segways for touring the island.

There’s also a one-hour tram tour around the island.

If you’re on foot, be prepared for some exercise – it’s about 30 to 60 minutes of walking to any one attraction, although there are plenty of stopping points and great Bay views all along the way.

Angel Island Immigration Detention Center

One short trip from the landing is to the Immigration Station Barracks and grounds, just a 30-minute walk to the northeast. Most people have heard of Ellis Island and the immigrants who came to New York by way of that immigration station, but many don’t realize that San Francisco had this very similar station on Angel Island.

When you visit the Barracks, you’ll see the dramatic wall carvings left by Asian immigrants who were detained here an average of two to three weeks while entering the country. Most immigrants affected where Chinese, who were the objects of legislation to limit their immigration to the U.S.

The poems on the walls are written in Chinese and span the years from 1910 up until 1940 when the Immigration Service left the island.

Immigration officials examining Japanese passengers aboard the ship Shimyo Maru, at Angel Island (1931)

But the Immigration Station is just part of the story of Angel Island, which offers a rich tapestry of military history that had soldiers based here for 99 years from 1863 to 1962.

A good way to see the island is to take the Perimeter Road to the southwest from Ayala Cove. In about a mile, you come to Camp Reynolds, where the officers’ quarters are still intact and available for tour. Some of buildings are authentic from 1863, while others were constructed in the 1870s and 1880s and are positioned around a unique parade ground – odd because it’s not flat.

Further along Perimeter Road you pass the trails to Mt. Livermore, the highest point on the island and destination for many hikers who visit the island. With an elevation gain of 788 feet, the hike is fairly hearty, but not difficult.

Keep going on Perimeter road and you come to another part of the island’s military history: the remnants of the Nike Ajax missile site. These were cold war era non-nuclear missiles that were stored in magazines here on the island where they could be brought out and launched in time of hostilities. And futher along is Fort McDowell, a beehive of activity during World War II, but operating on the island for all the years from 1900 to 1946.

All in all, Angel Island is a great day-stop on your California vacation, especially if you want an alternative to visiting Alcatraz.

Columbia State Historic Park

History buffs could hardly do better than a visit to California’s Gold Country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where gold was discovered in the mid-19th Century, setting off a population explosion that helped shape what California is today. And maybe the best place to get a sense of what it all was like back then is Columbia State Historic Park, hailed as the state’s best preserved ghost town.

Actually, Columbia is far from a ghost town. Several local business owners are alive and well, thank you, operating park concessions that help re-create the feeling of a town in the Gold Rush era. On any given day you’ll find people all over town dressed like it was still the 1800’s and doing all they can to create the illusion that you are traveling back in time.

Columbia’s Main Street does look like a movie set except that the downtown stores are not just storefronts but actual historical buildings.

There are about 40 brick buildings and 10 wooden structures all built back in the day when thousands of miners would come into town to get their supplies before returning to gold claims that ultimately produced $67 million worth of gold between 1850 and 1870.

That may not be impressive using today’s price of gold, but when you consider that gold sold back then for just $20 an ounce, you start to realize that this area’s gold production was massive.

The town of Columbia got its start when a group of prospectors was simply passing through the area and got caught in a rainstorm. While they were drying out their packs one of their number, John Walker, decided to see if he could pan up any gold.

Long story short, he did. In fact, he found so much that hordes of people descended upon the area within a month or two. I guess it’s hard to keep a find like that to yourself.

By 1852, more than 150 stores, shops, saloons and other businesses were operating in Columbia. By 1853, as many as 30,000 people lived there. Once mining had run its course, the town’s buildings deteriorated to the point that, in 1945, the state stepped in and began restoration efforts. Columbia became a state historic park and now includes the largest single collection of California gold rush-era structures.

This town is particularly enjoyable for kids who are old enough to enjoy the walking tour and understand the demonstrations and what they would mean for people living back then.

Sacramento Museums

If you thought Sacramento was just any old state capital, be sure to plan an extra couple of days next time you’re driving through the area. The city is like a theme park for historians, art lovers and just about anyone who wants to know more about the Golden State.

It’s tempting to say it’s a theme park for adults but it’s really not just for adults. In fact, a visit to Sacramento probably will be one of the most beneficial field trips your youngsters will ever take. They’ll learn about government, the Old West, railroads, Native Americans, the Gold Rush and several other subjects featured in dozens of Sacramento exhibits and museums.

We stopped by the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, where we obtained maps and a long list of attractions in the city. The CVB is just around the corner from highlights like the Governor’s Mansion and the many beautifully maintained Victorian homes and architecture found throughout the downtown area.

Check out the State Capitol Museum with its exhibits and artifacts from the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and a newly unveiled 3-D movie on the disaster.

Crocker Art Museum

The Crocker Art Museum is located in one of the city’s most beautiful Victorian homes and is, in fact, the oldest art museum in the West. Founded in 1873, the museum today displays original European and master drawings as well as 19th-Century California paintings, sculptures and Asian art.

For history buffs, maybe the best place in town to go is Old Sacramento, which has a number of museums including the California Military Museum, Discovery Museum History Center, the Old Sacramento Interpretive Center, the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum and the Wells Fargo History Museum.

Topping the historical list is the California State Railroad Museum which is said to be one of the country’s best railroad museums. The 100,000-square-foot museum features many actual railcars as well as various real locomotives. A train station replica allows you to see what a 19th Century station was like and, in spring and summer months, the museum offers steam train rides.

Be sure and visit Old Sacramento, which attempts to re-create much of the city’s early atmosphere and it seems to be working — it now attracts more than 5 million visitors each year. The area has been restored with cobblestone streets, gaslamps and wooden sidewalks, and you do get the feeling of walking through a town from the Old West.


Any of the above is a great option for a historical vacation in California but if I had to pick just one it would probably be to visit Sacramento.

Not only can you experience the old town and learn from the museums, but you can also still get a burger for lunch when the kids start spending too much time on their phones and need a reset.

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