Many people heading to Riverside make a beeline for the Mission Inn and spend the weekend at its spa, restaurants and pool. They barely venture outside, and that's a shame because, as my husband and I discovered, downtown Riverside has blossomed into a fine arts and culture district. There are many examples of classic California architecture and more than a dozen sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The tab: We spent about $200, including $105 for one night at the Hyatt Place and $95 on food and museum admissions.
Just off the Main Street pedestrian mall and its shops, restaurants and museums, the new Hyatt Place (3500 Market St.;  321-3500) is easier on the wallet than the nearby Mission Inn. There's a small lobby and the "Guest Kitchen," where you can grab a snack 24/7. If you don't like crowds, bring your shin guards: On Saturday night, the public area was jammed with young soccer players eating pizza. The guest rooms are bright and functional; our room had a partition separating the sleeping area, a sectional sofa-sleeper and work space. Breakfast is included.
The best place for lunch on an art-filled weekend is Tio's Tacos (3948 Mission Inn Ave.;  788-0230), a treasure-trove of found and recycled objects that is a feast for the eyes: Think Watts Towers meet Antoni Gaudí in a fantastical sculpture garden. Sip aguas frescas on the patio while eating traditional Mexican fare. The Salted Pig (3700 12th St.;  848-4020), a new gastro pub, was jammed on Saturday night. We had brews and bacon fat popcorn to start. Our pig-out meal, a pork belly sandwich and a juicy burger on a house-made brioche bun with jalapeño cream cheese, was great; dessert was a Pig Sammy, candied bacon ice cream between maple cookies.
The bustling downtown arts scene. Small galleries have popped up alongside such established venues as the Riverside Art Museum, housed in a former YWCA designed by Julia Morgan. The UC Riverside ARTSblock was a standout with three dynamic spaces for the UCR/California Museum of Photography, the Sweeney Art Gallery and the Culver Center of the Arts. A pair of exhibits (now closed), "Free Enterprise" and "Astronauts, Rockets & Robots," with an outer space theme, were a delight. Among the small galleries, we liked Christian Tedeschi's "Throwing a Blanket Over the Invisible Man" exhibit at the tiny Californa Baptist University's College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design space. (Museum/galleries details)
The lesson learned
Time your trip to coincide with a performance at downtown's Fox Performing Arts Center (3801 Mission Inn Ave.;  779-9800), a recently renovated 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival gem. Take your pick: There are rock stars, classical musicians, dance troupes, Broadway shows.