For some entrenched Angelenos, the Inland Empire is a place to travel through, not to, on the way to mountain resorts, Las Vegas or Palm Springs. The I.E.'s own charms may not be evident while peering out the car window on your way to the Coachella music fest. But for locals and those who make time for Riverside, the Empire's unofficial capital is an unexpected charmer.

Riverside's historic downtown has recently risen like a phoenix from the particulate ashes. In one square mile, urban adventurers can amuse themselves in multiple pursuits, mostly on foot. The best starting point is downtown's undisputed centerpiece: the much-venerated Mission Inn, a century-old hotel dating back to the county seat's salad days as a citrus hub in the early 1900s.

First established in 1876, the once-humble adobe boardinghouse blossomed into an homage to the young state's Spanish, Mexican and distinct Californio heritage. The hotel's construction was begun in the early 1900s by city father Frank Miller. Gradually this outsized, ornate if ersatz architectural ode to Renaissance and Mission architecture grew in segments, a poured-concrete fever dream of cupolas, catacombs, altars, belfries, turrets, nooks and niches. It's like a cross between Xanadu from Citizen Kane and San Luis Obispo's castle of kitsch, the Madonna Inn.

The Mission Inn, Riverside; Credit: Star Foreman

The Mission Inn, Riverside; Credit: Star Foreman

Once the Southern California hotel for presidents (Richard Nixon got married here, and fellow California prez Ronald Reagan honeymooned here), the portraits in the Inn's Presidential Lounge reflect the other chief execs who have stayed there, including presidents Taft, Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt and George W. Bush. Celebs and starlets including Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Bette Davis and Judy Garland have laid low under the hotels' clay-tile roof.

But this Inn was almost the target of a wrecking ball until a volunteer organization rescued it and a succession of owners restored it. The current proprietors, Duane and Kelly Roberts, reopened it in the early 1990s. Today it houses one of Southern California's most lavish spas, and during the Christmas season, the Inn becomes a holiday wonderland, decked out in a galaxy of twinkling lights. Whether you stay here or not, the Inn is a must for a tour, a generous Sunday brunch or a cocktail in the Presidential Lounge.

The Inn also offers a downtown walking guide that leads you from a Beaux Arts–style building (now the great Riverside Art Museum) — designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan — to the Fox Riverside Theatre, a Spanish Colonial gem that hosted the first sneak preview of Gone With the Wind in 1939. Nearby the lovely Renaissance/Mission Revival former post office now houses the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, a worthwhile stop for absorbing the city's rich history.

The Mission Inn Presidential Lounge; Credit: Courtesy Mission Inn

The Mission Inn Presidential Lounge; Credit: Courtesy Mission Inn

As you're likely on foot, stay shaded and hydrated, since summer temperatures in Riverside can easily break 100 degrees. That's why another stroll might best be taken in the early morning, down Mission Inn Avenue westward, past quaint, historic bungalows to the base of Mount Rubidoux, where a brisk hike takes you up to a commanding promontory overlooking everything. It's Riverside's 170-acre answer to L.A.'s Griffith Park. Mount Rubidoux is also home to the mother of all Easter sunrise services (the very concept originated here in 1909, and nondenominational services have taken place ever since). Pilgrims to Mount Rubidoux have included Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir, and the mountain's flanks harbor several historic structures and monuments, capped off by the 35-foot-tall Serra Cross on the summit.

Whether or not you partake of a sermon on this mount, Riverside and its downtown's square mile of surprises should convince you that this particular drive is a pilgrimage worth making.

Richard and Patricia Nixon at the Mission Inn; Credit: Courtesy Mission Inn

Richard and Patricia Nixon at the Mission Inn; Credit: Courtesy Mission Inn


Getting there: Take I-10 east to I-60, then exit in Riverside on Main Street and proceed south to Mission Inn Avenue.

What to do: The Mission Inn is ground zero for many activities and a jumping-off point for even more. 3649 Mission Inn Ave.

Where to eat: Mario's Place, across from the Inn, is a contemporary, romantic bistro. 3646 Mission Inn Ave.; (951) 684-7755. A few blocks away is Tio's Taco's, as famous for its outdoor folk-art sculptures as for its reasonable if just-OK Mexican fare. 3948 Mission Inn Ave.; (951) 788-0230.

Wild card: The Parent Navel Orange Tree, one of two brought from Brazil in 1873, is our Ur-citrus, progenitor of every California navel orange, and it survives in a tiny grove, hidden in plain sight at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia avenues.

Where to stay: Check Expedia for special Mission Inn offers; the nearby Hyatt Place Riverside Downtown is a reasonably priced alternative. 3500 Market St.; (951) 321-3500.

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