7 local experiences to have across the USA’s West Coast

The American west coast harbours a rich mosaic of local culture, from Indigenous Alaska to Portland’s counter culture. Here’s how to live like a local along the West Coast…

Team Wanderlust
16 January 2024
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All images: Shutterstock

The USA’s sunny West Coast is a very different prospect from its east coast, or Midwest; a blend of big skies, beaches, and desert. The locals you meet along the way will truly shape your adventure, so the best way to understand the country’s western fringes is to immerse yourself in their environment; here are seven ways how…

1. Learn Indigenous crafts in Alaska

America’s vast, sparsely-populated state is home to striking glaciers, volcanoes, and forest. Get to understand its history and culture by meeting some of Alaska’s indigenous people, who have lived in this part of the world for thousands of years. Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center, in its mountain gateway city, Anchorage, to explore their traditional crafts. You’ll encounter examples of basket-weaving, doll-making, bead-work, screen-printing, and more. Look out for Alaska Native carvings and sculptures, too, usually made from materials such as marine mammal bones or soapstone. Why not try a popular game called the Scissor Broad Jump? The aim is to jump, or hop, the farthest, and it stems from the moves hunters used when jumping to and from pieces of ice on the ocean or across rivers.

2. Spy Seattle’s street art

Known for great coffee and tech start-ups, as well as – perhaps unfairly – high rainfall, brighten up a trip to this intriguing West Coast city by spotting its many colourful murals. Seattle boasts a vibrant culture of street art, from the powerful pieces done in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, to the world’s longest mural display along the light rail corridor in SODO – part of the city’s Industrial District – to ever-changing artworks on buildings and in alleys brimming with the brilliant work of local artists. Some of the best areas to check out include the famous Pike Place Market (where you’ll also find Seattle’s notorious “gum wall”). The area around Capitol Hill also provides a rich trove of work, showcasing vivid hues, cool characters, and timely political messages.

3. Spy the mid-century architecture of Greater Palm Springs

No California city is as closely identified with mid-century modern architecture as Palm Springs. Visionaries like Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and Donald Wexler designed and constructed hundreds of futuristic buildings here between 1945 and 1975, using distinctive geometric lines and sleek façades to reflect the optimism of the Atomic Age and accent the desert’s brilliant skies and looming hills. You don’t have to go too far to encounter some striking examples; within a 20-minute drive you’ll see Twin Palms, Frank Sinatra’s old home; the House of Tomorrow, where Elvis spent his honeymoon; and the quirky, triangular, blue-and-white branch of the Bank of America. Head a little further out of the centre to marvel at City Hall, which has three jaunty palm trees poking through its roof.

4. Enjoy a guided walking tour of San Francisco

A city of steamy fog and steep hills, with a hippy past and a digital future (it’s home to Silicon Valley), San Francisco constantly beguiles. Tie on your most comfortable walking shoes for a tour around its most fascinating areas, and start at the Embarcadero. This elegant waterfront area is home to attractions such as Pier 39 – a retail and dining area with added sea lions – and Fisherman’s Wharf, stuffed with clam chowder stalls offering views out to the Golden Gate and Alcatraz. Head on to Chinatown, home to one of the largest Chinese populations outside Asia, for dim sum joints, dragon sculptures, and dimly-lit teahouses. Finally, make for Lombard Street, in Russian Hill; it’s one of the windiest streets in the world, boasting eight sharp hairpin bends.

5. Experience hidden Hollywood

Think Hollywood, and you probably picture Hollywood Boulevard, with its Walk of Fame, and that sign, which looms over northern Los Angeles. Beyond the obvious, however, are plenty of lesser-known local gems. Check out the Egyptian Theatre, a historic cinema dating from 1922 which looks as it if belongs to the age of the pharaohs, or Hollywood Forever, a sprawling cemetery known as the final resting place for generations of celebrities, from Judy Garland to Burt Reynolds. Don’t miss the Hollywood Museum, which sits in a snazzy Art Deco building, formerly the headquarters for famed makeup artist, Max Factor, and houses the most extensive collection of movie and showbiz memorabilia in the world. And take a break at the Franklin-Ivar Park, a small, charming green space offering respite from the urban sprawl.

6. Wander Portland’s farmers’ markets

Portland has a sterling dining scene, with hip and high-end restaurants galore, as well as fabulous food trucks. However, you mustn’t miss its many farmers markets, which brim with seasonal produce and small-batch, locally-crafted eats; each of the city’s six quadrants, or districts, hosts its own. At the year-round, uber-popular Portland State University market, you’ll find around 140 farmer and vendor stands, selling everything from heirloom tomatoes to vegan tamales and spicy salsa. It’s been known to host 12,000 visitors and shoppers in a single day, ranging from locals to chefs and tourists. Or head to buzzy lunch spot, Shemanksi Park market in downtown, for organic fruit and vegetables, plus tasty snacks from kimchi dogs to grilled duck sandwiches. It’s practically impossible to go hungry here.

7. Explore Balboa Park in San Diego

San Diego’s Balboa Park crams in a lot throughout its 1,200 acres, without ever feeling crowded. It’s home to 18 museums, several theatres, as well as gardens, open spaces, and walking trails. Culture vultures will love places like the Comic-Con museum, which hosts exhibitions and events around comics and popular art, and the San Diego Air and Space museum, home to everything from rockets to jetliners and astronauts’ helmets. At the Natural History museum, look out for family-friendly attractions such as the fossil collection and dinosaur skeletons, while at the zoo, you’ll encounter everything from cute koalas to massive anacondas. And enjoy a breathtaking view of the whole place from almost 200 feet up, at the top of the California Tower at the Museum of Us.

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American Holidays is a USA travel specialist, with more than 35 years’ experience in creating tailor-made itineraries, from exciting city breaks to dreamy beach escapes and thrilling active adventures. Visit the west coast’s national parks on a breathtaking road trip by car or camper van (RV), or join an escorted tour with one of our expert USA travel guides.

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