Where to find European castles, villas and gardens in Southern California

I often wax poetic about art and architecture. I can talk for hours about Italy, looking up at old, frescoed ceilings and paintings by the masters. That’s because, thanks to my artist mom, I grew up around books on Michaelangelo and El Greco, heard her give lessons on Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro, and watched her explain every controlled fold and twist of Bernini’s masterpieces. Much of my upbringing dictates what I gravitate toward now. Not to mention, where I was born — smack-dab in the middle of where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia — also has a lot to do with my Europhile ways. 

Why, then, people often ask me, did I settle down in California? The state is so young, after all. “Why don’t you live in New York?” I’ve heard that question before, and I almost always respond with rubbing my hands together and faking a shiver. Brrr. As much as I love New York City, I don’t think I’m built for that kind of weather. (But who knows what life will throw my way?) To be honest, I’ve lived in a handful of states in the country — from Arkansas to Ohio — and have found plenty of beauty and culture to go around. The same is true for California.

I would argue that folks don’t give this state enough credit. Sure, it is just an infant, compared to say, New York City and Boston, but it is wise beyond its years. A couple of years ago, at a lecture at the Huntington Library and Gardens, Edward Goldman, art critic and host of KCRW’s Art Talk on NPR said: “Los Angeles to New York today is what New York was to Paris after World War II.” In short, Los Angeles has a coveted place in the world of contemporary and classical art, and that role is ever-growing. 

Now, I realize the stereotypes running laps at a crushing speed around your mind’s track, and chances are some of those cliches are true. Los Angeles is also a land of film and television, of stunning natural wonders and of culinary adventures (which in itself is a jumping off point to talking about the incredible cultures that make up this place). It’s the land of many things, and that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. 

And while all of those factors are worthy of exploration, today, I wanted to reach out to my fellow Europhiles who are also blessed to live in this state. After traipsing around so many European-inspired villas and gardens, a close friend of mine suggested that I put them all together in one place — a master list of all of my favorite properties that remind me of home. So, for those of you who are looking for a doorway to this beautiful continent, here are my top suggestions for places to visit. 

1. Huntington Library and Gardens

“The sheer size and grandeur of the place overwhelms me. Stretching over 207 acres, a whopping 120 acres of which are maintained as botanical gardens, the grounds are divided into a library, research and educational centers and a slew of galleries housing European and American art. In other words, there’s a lot to see.” Read more from my blog post.

2. Hearst Castle

“Hearst Castle is a magical place—like Disneyland, like Hogwarts, like Narnia. Maybe even the Gatsby Mansion. It’s an ambitious property, unapologetically grand and opulent to the point of unnecessity. (Think about this for a second: the indoor Roman Pool, one of the two swimming pools on the property, is accented with 22-carat gold leaf.)” Read more from my blog post.

3. Kimberly Crest

“I look up at the turreted, French-style building, often referred to as “le petit château” but more commonly as the Kimberly Crest House, narrowing my eyes against the sun. It does stop you in your tracks. Large, storybook-like, with steeply pitched hipped roof, ornamented balconies, spires and crosses.” Read more from my blog post.

4. Peace Awareness Labyrinth

“But it’s not just the labyrinth here that’s designed for self-reflection. Everything here — from the ornate villa to the Asian-style gardens — serves as a sanctuary for contemplation. As we exit the labyrinth, Kim and I meander slowly toward the Italian Renaissance mansion, also known as the Guasti Villa.” Read more from my blog post.

5. The Getty Villa

J. Paul Getty, famous oil tycoon and avid art collector, built the Getty Villa to house his extensive Greek and Roman antiquities collection (when he ran out of room at the Getty Museum). His inspiration? The Villa of the Papyri in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, most of which is underground, buried under volcanic material. The 64-acre site in Malibu, however, keeps its spirit alive, boasting incredible architecture and some of the finest art around. Blog post coming soon.

6. Lavender Marketplace and Villa del Sol

My eyes keep darting toward it. Lush green foliage cradles the ornate glass-and-iron structure that feels like something out of a storybook. Inside, bucketfuls of filtered light pours in. Shelves display an idiosyncratic mix of objects: rolls of twine, cans of painting brushes, ceramics and even a glass case showcasing Kim’s own jewelry work.” Read more from my blog post.

Also make sure to check out:

  • Virginia Robinson Gardens in Beverly Hills
  • Greystone Mansion & Gardens in Beverly Hills
  • Gardens of The World in Thousand Oaks
  • Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno (Read my blog post here!)
  • Balboa Park in San Diego