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Towers of power: The Mission Inn is the gem of downtown Riverside
Photo courtesy of Mission Inn

Mission accomplished

Desert Companion

Often-overlooked Riverside makes for a getaway full of culture, set amid Mission-style pleasures 

Talk about an unexpected find just down the road. Along verdant Main Street in Riverside, California, flying buttresses, Mediterranean-style domes, and colonnaded arcades rise high above fruit-laden orange trees. Seeing such an architectural extravaganza for the first time, it’s easy to imagine that the scenery is a slice of Old Mexico or even medieval Andalusia transported to our modern era. Chalk up that mental mirage to the sprawling yet magnificent Mission Inn Hotel & Spa (missioninn.com), the dramatic centerpiece of this medium-sized city’s downtown district. While Southern California is famous for monumental fantasies made real, à la Hearst Castle and Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, this Gothic-Baroque, 115-year-old, AAA Four Diamond Award-winning destination is a lesser-known but nevertheless fascinating treasure trove.

The city of Riverside, and even the surrounding Inland Empire, is an area that many Southern Nevada vacationers zip past on I-15 on their way to Santa Monica, Costa Mesa, and La Jolla. Riverside definitely wasn’t a top-of-mind destination for me until I visited this spring to attend a conference. I knew nothing about the home of some 300,000 inhabitants a scant four-hour jaunt from Las Vegas. It’s not an overstatement to say that I was completely but pleasantly surprised as I pulled into the Mission Inn’s leafy front entrance, with its dramatic backdrop of a five-story bell tower and ornately tiled eaves framed by stately palms. Walking into the grand lobby to register, I was swept up into a sumptuous time warp filled with Asian antiquities, crystal chandeliers, and oil-painted portraits of U.S. presidents such as Taft, Kennedy, and Reagan. There’s no sleek, Scandinavian décor to be found in these lodgings. It’s all about the patina in this National Historic Landmark.

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After settling into my nicely appointed room, I ventured out to explore the many hallways, staircases, and nooks that fill the largest Mission Style Revival building in the country. My wendings took me past art-filled event spaces like the Chinoiserie-rich Ho-O-Kan Room and the St. Francis Chapel, with its 18th-century altar imported from Guanajuato, Mexico, and original stained glass and murals by Louis Comfort Tiffany — the hotel is a popular setting for weddings. Next was a quick tour of the informative Mission Inn Museum (missioninnmuseum.org), followed by a tasting at the attached Irvine & Roberts Family Vineyards, which features vintages from Oregon. Then, before evening arrived, the palm-ringed pool beckoned, a quintessential SoCal vision from a “Wish You Were Here” postcard.

After sunset, I snacked around in a few of the hotel’s eateries. Most formal is Duane’s Prime Steaks and Seafood and the adjacent 54° at Duane’s winebar, a perfect spot for tapas and a glass of Pinot Noir. For al fresco eating, Las Campanas features margaritas and tableside guacamole, served alongside glowing fire pits. The hotel also offers an Italian eatery, a beer-and-cocktail lounge, and the namesake Mission Inn Restaurant, a casual spot where I enjoyed brunch the next morning, with gurgling, patio-level fountains and three tiers of arched passageways above making for a lovely tableau. And though I didn’t stop in, I did spy numerous folks taking their sweet teeth into the brightly colored Casey’s Cupcake’s, an attached bakery.

While the Mission Inn is certainly the centerpiece of downtown Riverside, it’s not the only attraction around. I also stayed at the nearby Marriott Riverside at the Convention Center (marriott.com). It features contemporary, business-class accommodations, and is probably a better choice for families travelling with young kids.

Commorative Chinese pavillion

Commemorative Chinese pavillion. Photography by Greg Thilmont

I was also impressed by Riverside’s cultural life. There’s the up-and-coming Riverside Art Museum (riversideartmuseum.org), which recently featured an exhibit of Latino art from actor Cheech Marin’s extensive and lauded collection. (Marin and Riverside are working together on a permanent Chicano cultural center to house the collection.) The Riverside Metropolitan Museum (riversideca.gov/museum) is geared toward science and regional history. My personal favorite artistic stroll was through the UCR/Riverside’s California Museum of Photography (artsblock.ucr.edu). Not only does it display contemporary works, it also has a permanent collection of images by such masters as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Andy Warhol. Merely ambling about Riverside’s central grid serves as a fun, ad hoc architectural tour that includes a gleaming, statuary-filled Beaux Arts county courthouse, a commemorative Chinese pavilion, and a gracefully arched sidewalk portico along Orange Street. A handful of churches echo the Mission Inn’s aesthetic, as well. And if you’re a fan of startling architectural contrast, there are also some notably outdated structures from the bad old ’60s-’80s brutalism-meets-postmodernism period in the city core. 

the UCR/California Museum of Photography

The UCR/California Museum of Photography. Photography by Greg Thilmont

After all this walking, it’s time for more food and drink. Fitting for a city that was once citrus central, agriculture and foodways shine in numerous downtown establishments. For a cappuccino and breakfast bagel with a view onto the Mission Inn, Molinos Coffee (molinoscoffee.com) is the perfect spot. In the eclectic category, stuffed tortillas and fresh fruit juices with a gargantuan side of outsider art is on tap at funky Tio’s Tacos (951-788-0230). The Salted Pig (thesaltedpig.com) is the go-to place for beer-centric gastropub dining, including a weekend late-night ramen menu. And for experimental mixology in a cool mid-century modern space, sociable drinks at W. Wolfskill (wwolfskillbar.com) are in order.

Outside artA bit of driving can expand the scope of your Riverside getaway. For a bit of the bucolic with a refined twist, the Temecula AVA (temeculawines.org) is just 50 miles south. This area of rolling hills and vineyards is about as close as Las Vegas gets to a backyard Napa Valley. Tour the curving Rancho California Road and stop by South Coast Winery Resort & Spa (southcoastwinery.com) and adjacent Ponte Winery (pontewinery.com) to sample local vino. Hot air rides at Sunrise Balloons (sunriseballoons.com) and a walk along Old Town’s Wild West-style sidewalks are big draws, too. If you have time to spare, drive back the long way through iconic Palm Springs. The added miles open a whole new vista of architecture, art, and epicureanism, for a locally epic road trip.

We’re heading into the prime time to visit Riverside. While the daytime highs are not much cooler than in Las Vegas, lengthening evenings become increasingly temperate as Labor Day passes. Even better, grape harvest season in Temecula is just around the corner, making for an even more picturesque and delicious voyage. I’m already planning a bike tour — and another stay at the Mission Inn. 

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