Venice Beach is back and worth the trip
Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote, “Tip the world over on its side, and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
I would add: Tip Los Angeles on its side, and everything loose will land in Venice Beach.
I’ve lived in Venice Beach for almost 40 years (most recently in a house just two blocks from the ocean and boardwalk), and have witnessed many changes over the years — from funky and rough to hip and pricey.
But this past year has been like none other. Because of the pandemic and economic downturn, homeless people took over Venice Beach’s world-famous boardwalk — also known as Ocean Front Walk, the second most popular tourist destination in Southern California — and turned it into a mile-long encampment.
Many businesses were closed, and foot traffic dropped off precipitously. What remained felt dark and sinister. Trash was strewn everywhere, there were constant street fights, and crime rates soared. The charred remains of at least one building burned down by an out-of-control fire from a nearby tent loomed over the once bustling, boisterous boardwalk.
Numerous articles appeared in the national and international press, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Guardian, and Globe and Mail, lamenting the demise of the iconic Venice Beach scene.
For months I stayed off the boardwalk, giving up one of my favorite leisure (un)activities of sitting on a bench where I would munch on a sausage sandwich and watch the colorful parade of tourists and locals walk by, all dressed (or barely dressed) to the nines in their versions of funky, hip and casual.
This past June, though, the city finally started to pay attention to the complaints from residents and cleared up the encampments one by one in a somewhat humane fashion. All campers were offered temporary housing and storage for their tents, bikes and shopping carts.
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I decided to take a walk along the boardwalk to check on the progress of the cleanup. We were pleasantly surprised. As usual, the sun was shining, the breeze was light and balmy, and the temperature was a beach-perfect 75.
Most of the boardwalk had been cleaned up, many stores were open for business, and the boardwalk was packed with tourists. The bars and restaurants were jammed. Street musicians and tarot card readers were back, taking over spots recently occupied by tents and clapboard shacks.
So, come back for a visit. No need to wait until next summer: The Los Angeles summer extends into mid-October, and even in the depths of winter it’s more likely to be sunny, warm and dry than cold, wet and dreary.
While you’re here, check out some of the many other attractions in Venice Beach.
Sea and sand
The beach itself begins just a few yards west of the boardwalk and extends for more than 100 yards to the water’s edge.
Stop for a few minutes at the Venice Beach Skatepark to gawk at the skateboarders “catching air” as they propel themselves off Dali-esque concrete curves and soar into the air, framed by beach, ocean and the distant Santa Monica Mountains.
On most days, the beach is empty except for a few sunbathers, surfers or meditators gazing at the sailboats gliding offshore or, at the right time of year, dolphins playing in the breaking waves.
Look south and you can often see Santa Catalina Island in the distance; look north and you can get a better view of the backdrop for the soaring skateboarders — a beach curving around a vast bay all the way to Malibu and beyond.
When visitors tell me they think Los Angeles is ugly, this is where I bring them to change their minds.
Venetian (Beach) Canals
Venice’s six canals, built by developers at the turn of the 20th Century, now comprise one of the ritziest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Once home to motorcycle gangs and drug dealers, the Venice Canals are now an architectural showcase of some of the most expensive homes in Los Angeles.
Because Venice Beach has no design constraints (other than height limits, setbacks and engineering requirements), you’ll find a mosaic of architectural styles.
This, coupled with the money, ego, hubris and imagination of the creative community that lives here — successful screenwriters, directors, producers, musicians, artists and high-end professionals — produces colorful, eclectic structures.
The houses, canals and bridges, along with the flocks of ducks and geese that make the canals their home, provide a picturesque and serene contrast to the crowds of vendors, entertainers and tourists on the boardwalk.
Wander along the canals and bridges at your leisure. Although they are just one block from the boardwalk, the canals aren’t easy to find on your own, so consult a map or your smartphone for directions.
Abbott Kinney Boulevard
After you have had enough quirky, cutting-edge architecture, head to Abbott Kinney Blvd., or AKB, which is, according to GQ magazine, “the Coolest Block in America” (the cool part is actually closer to a mile from end to end).
AKB is home to the hippest galleries, restaurants, bars, cafes and stores in Los Angeles. A constant stream of attractive young men and women tweet on their smartphones as they stroll on the sidewalk, so be prepared to dodge one slender, well-coiffed body after another as you make your way from store to store.
Also be prepared to spend a lot of money. You can easily spend most of the day on AKB, especially if you like to shop.
Inland walk streets
Try to spend an hour strolling up and down the “walk streets,” marveling at the architecture and looking for celebrities. The walk streets are essentially sidewalks lined on both sides by tall trees, bamboo, overgrown ivy and bushes, whimsical gardens and lawns, and houses as architecturally diverse as those on the canals.
Entering the walk streets is like passing through a wormhole into another universe: magical, quiet and soothing, especially compared to the boardwalk and AKB.
The inland walk streets are even more hidden than the Venice canals. To find them, consult a map or your smart phone for directions, looking up “Crescent,” “Nowita,” “Marco” or “Amoroso Place.”
If you have time and haven’t spent all of your money on AKB, go to the rooftop lounge of the Hotel Erwin in the heart of Venice, appropriately named “High.”
Here, you can have a pricey cocktail and observe the mating rituals of 20- and 30-somethings. In the ultimate triumph of hormones over aesthetic appreciation, they seem more interested in each other than the view.
I have been all over the world, but this is still one of my favorite views, 80 feet above the Bohemian bustle of the Venice Boardwalk at the height of its insanity in the late afternoon on a clear, warm day.
There may be better views in more exotic locales. But I doubt there is one with as rich a stew of people, architecture, scenery and opportunities for spending money as the one in Venice Beach.
If you go
It’s best to fly into LAX, which is about 20 minutes south of Venice Beach. Round-trip, nonstop flights from the D.C. area on American Airlines or Southwest start at around $250.
The small but charming Hotel Erwin is a four-star hotel and bar in the heart of Venice Beach; its rooms start at $240.
Rates are comparable at the brand-new waterfront Venice V Hotel, a restored 1915 building where every room has an ocean view. Or choose a chain hotel from the Courtyard Marriott to the Ritz-Carlton, in nearby Marina Del Rey or Santa Monica.
Venice is chock full of great restaurants, ranging from top-of-the-line, Michelin-star-worthy trattorias to inexpensive window counter takeaways.
Among my favorites are: Felix Trattoria on AKB for handmade pasta made on site (good luck getting a reservation though); Hama Sushi, one of the oldest sushi restaurants in Los Angeles outside of Little Tokyo; Great White, an Aussie-style café specializing in inexpensive California cuisine; and The Win-Dow, on the boardwalk, featuring a double patty smash-cheeseburger for less than $7.
For more information, visit venicechamber.net/visitors/guide.