Venice, California, U.S.A.
Venice Beach is only 25 minutes drive from LAX and is walking distance from Santa Monica. It has always been famous for its boardwalk, canals and beautiful beach and now also offers a shopper’s paradise on Abbot Kinney Blvd.
The beachside community was founded in 1905 and developed by an eccentric millionaire named Abbot Kinney. He modelled the town after his favourite Italian city of the same name, complete with canals and plenty of pizza stands.
It has had it share of rough times with gangs in the past and has a massive homeless problem (like many places in the USA) however we love Venice for its character and down to earth vibe. We have visited eight times over the past 25 years and each time it feels like not a lot has changed since our first visit in 1993.
Where to stay
We like to stay at the Cadillac Hotel, an art deco hotel, right on the ocean front boardwalk. Many decades ago Charlie Chaplin and other famous stars used to stay here. It’s not very fancy now by today’s standards, although it would have been when first built in 1914. Now it’s quite basic in comparison to modern hotels, but it’s comfortable and its location and price are unbeatable.
At around A$200-$250 a night depending on the room you choose and the season, it’s one of the cheapest on/near the Venice boardwalk. You get a private bathroom, it’s clean and there are things to do and places to eat nearby. There are mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, some quite negative, but I always read reviews with an open mind. It doesn’t claim to be 5 star and if you set your expectations low and take this place for what and where it is, you won’t be disappointed. Yes, it might be a little ‘tired’, there are a few homeless people hanging around the area outside at night and admittedly there was a crack pipe on the ledge outside our window on one stay. However, it’s priced accordingly and in my opinion, its location on the Venice Beach boardwalk, the general atmosphere and friendly desk staff, allow me to overlook these negatives. It’s great to be able to open up the windows on a sunny Saturday afternoon, to enjoy the ocean breeze and views, along with the hustle & bustle and live music coming from outside, while having a rest in your room, after walking up & down the boardwalk.
Also, worth noting, the Cadillac Hotel has a family room (which is rare), with a separate sleeping space with bunk beds as well as a kitchenette – very handy when staying with children.
Another bonus is their rooftop. Don’t expect a nice lounge area, but it does offer great views up and down the coastline.
My tips – stay over a weekend when Venice is most vibrant; pay a bit more for an ocean front room; be prepared for it being ‘dead’ at night (probably because there used to be a problem with gangs in the area); and don’t mind the local homeless – they are fairly harmless & generally keep to themselves.
Things to do
Venice is quirky, sometimes a little seedy late at night, but full of raw charm and culture. The Boardwalk is the main attraction and great for people watching. It’s ‘artsy’, with buskers performing music and comedy acts and there is also the odd mystic to be found. There are various stallholders selling arts and crafts, many clothing stores, a few tattoo parlours and colourful street art & murals all along the boardwalk. Sadly, we have heard there are signs this may be about to change. We were told lots of ‘techs’ have moved into the area, resulting in wealthy landlords like Snapchat putting up rents, forcing out some of the original folk. Last time we were there, we watched the Venice Freak Show closing and pulling its sign down.
The Beach itself is part of the attraction. Oddly, despite having stayed here so many times we have never actually swam in the Pacific Ocean! It’s quite a wide beach with nice, clean sand and even if you don’t want to swim it’s at least worth the long walk down to the water to dip your toe or get some sunset photographs – both of which I have done!
Venice Recreation Park is a great place to get some exercise. In addition to the basketball, tennis and volleyball courts, there are always bike riders, joggers and roller skaters exercising along the winding pathway designated for them which stretches alongside the full length of the boardwalk next to the beach, all the way from the Venice Pier to Santa Monica.
There’s a great skatepark which, even if you don’t partake yourself, is worth stopping by to watch the impressive tricks and height the skateboarders get riding up & down the sides of those bowls. View video here
Not far from the skatepark is Muscle Beach, where you can watch people working out with weights in the open air. All the times we have been there, we’ve never been tempted to try it out – with all the people passing by I think I’d feel like an animal on display at the zoo!
The Muscle Beach gym should not be confused with the Original Muscle Beach at the other northern end of the boardwalk near Santa Monica Pier (about 30-40 minutes walk). There you will see a more traditional gym area on the sand, often with people practicing acrobatic and gymnastics skills like tightrope walking, climbing and swinging on rings.
If you are a gym junkie and Arnie fan, you must visit Gold’s Gym where he, along with many other legendary bodybuilders, have trained. It’s a few blocks back from the boardwalk, on Hampton Drive and Sunset Ave. The original Gold’s Gym moved a few years ago to this location although its days may be numbered too, thanks to new landlords, who apparently keep extending the lease by only 6 months – there’s a lot of uncertainty around its future. You can still find the original site of Gold’s Gym further down the road on Pacific Ave, a few blocks down from the binocular building. The ‘Gold’s Gym’ logo is still visible on the outside of the original building. I heard the original sign has been heritage listed due to its significance in the area.
I recommend a walk around the Venice Canals in the Venice Canal Historic District. For many years they were derelict and closed due to lack of funding, until they were drained, restored and finally re-opened in 1993. They are not quite like the canals with their gondolas in Italy however are worth a stroll to admire the mix of lovely cottages and large modern houses nearby and along their banks.
The Venice Pier at the south end of Venice past the tennis courts is a great spot for views up and down the coast. You can watch the local surfers and you will usually also see people fishing.
Abbot Kinney Boulevard has recently become very popular with its restaurants, cafes, art galleries and boutique shops attracting visitors from all over L.A.
If you like shopping there are several options around Venice. In addition to Abbot Kinney Blvd, there is Main Street heading up towards Santa Monica, which offers modern clothing boutiques to thrift stores. There’s also a collection of eclectic shops at the south end of Venice, on Windward Avenue, not far from the boardwalk. While you are there look for the famous ‘Venice’ sign hanging over the street.
If you like Farmers Markets, there’s one in Venice on Friday mornings. It’s located on Venice Boulevard at Venice Way, selling seasonal fresh produce, flowers and other items. They close at 11:00am sharp!
On Saturdays and Sundays, where Brooks Avenue meets Ocean Front Walk, the Venice Beach Drum Circle, an improvisational jam session, takes place on the sand. Hundreds of people from around the world gather to play their drums, shakers, congas and more, while others dance and chant. The drum circle begins around midday and lasts until sunset, it’s free and open to all ages.
Special mention must be made about the turban wearing dude who has been roller skating up and down the boardwalk playing his guitar with a smile on his face for the last 25 years. Each time we visit we look out for him and feel a sense of relief when we find him still going.
Also, if you are up for something different, keep an eye out for the man with the pythons. It’s only $5 for a photo and the snake is very friendly – honestly!
To complete your weekend, on Sunday night keep watch at dusk for the electric light parade along the boardwalk. They are a group of bicycle fanatics riding at sunset to promote bicycle safety, starting at Windward Ave under the famous Venice sign. I was gutted I thought I had taken a video as the bikes went past in their long, colourful, lit up procession only to find out afterwards I hadn’t pressed the record button properly!
If you intend to stay in Venice, you don’t need a car. Even if you have to walk a few blocks it’s not far. Your best bet is to travel by foot, rent a bike or you could even try roller blading or skateboarding!
If you do have a car, expect parking to be difficult, especially in summer or on weekends. Also be prepared, even if your hotel offers parking, it usually costs extra, from US$20-$40 per night.
Food (& drinking) options
The Firehouse on Main Street (across the road from the giant dancing clown) is great for breakfast or lunch. The menu includes healthy options like egg whites, buffalo steaks and a bodybuilders menu, due to its close proximity to Golds Gym;
The Sidewalk Cafe on Venice Beach boardwalk has great burgers and Mexican food and is an excellent place to sit in the afternoon / evening to watch the local buskers, the people walking by and of course a famous Venice sunset;
Candle Cafe next door to the Cadillac Hotel is a good option for breakfast, lunch or dinner (they have a great caesar salad!). Another good location to catch a sunset and live music from local buskers on the boardwalk;
Venice Ale House on the boardwalk next door to the Candle Cafe usually has live music on weekends in the afternoon / evening for you to enjoy over a drink or a meal.
Hotel Erwin’s rooftop High Lounge is a popular spot for drinks and light snacks because of its views, but expect a wait to get in on weekends (we went without the children so not sure if it’s family friendly). It’s worth a visit once and I’m glad we went but in my opinion it’s over-priced & over-rated so we probably wouldn’t bother going back again.
If you are looking for somewhere to eat late at night, on the corner of Rose Ave and Lincoln Boulevard there is a great Mexican cantina open until 3am daily called La Cabana. We arrived past 11pm one night and had a great meal and noticed other people came in even later than us.
There are plenty of other cafes, bars and restaurants along the Oceanfront boardwalk, Main Street, Windward Ave and Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Some cafes on Abbot Kinney Blvd and Venice Boardwalk get very popular on weekends and it’s not unusual to see long lines of people waiting for a table.
The homeless. Everywhere. Let’s face it, this climate is kind to the homeless so it’s an obvious place to be. Admittedly there are some around Venice who choose that lifestyle – they like the fact they have their freedom and no responsibility. We noticed this problem though has gotten really bad the last few visits. It used to be confined to the beach but now you can find tents down side streets a few blocks in… all types of homeless people: ex-servicemen, people with obvious mental health issues, even families living out of their car. What’s really sad is some of them are working but having lost everything in the GFC they still can’t afford accommodation. I hope one day the government can improve this problem.
Every time we go we say we are going to rent a bike but never have…
Also, not walking around with my eyes open! Several times Steve has nudged me saying “did you see him/her” and I discovered I just walked past a famous movie or TV star sitting in a cafe or walking along.