Crazy people, right out there in public, or better put, making up the “public”—that is what the Venice Beach Boardwalk is famous for. My first memory of Venice Beach is Val Kilmer embodying Jim Morrison as he sings “Moonlight Drive” in the opening scenes of Oliver Stones’s The Doors. As a young and vibrant poet, I concluded that if Jim used hang there, it would suit me just fine. I first visited it as an instantly infatuated sixteen-year-old.
Of course, the Venice Beach of the 1960s (or even the 90s) is a far cry from the one today, or is it? The oceanfront is still congested with vendors, dramatists, jugglers, dancers, and jokesters. The intoxicated thinkers of a sort still stumble through crowds, releasing occasional morsels of booze-laden wisdom. Musicians line the sidewalks beckoning for loose change. The sun shines daily. And, I still think it’ll suit me just fine.
In Your Bucket Because…
- “California Girls”, “California Dreamin”, “Hotel California”—all those surf-y, b(l)each blond versions of the West Coast diverge here. Venice Beach is what I always pictured.
- There is a sweet ocean breeze fighting off the sun’s persistence, skimpily-dressed people rolling along next to you, and some new form of entertainment beyond each palm tree.
- Good for: Sport enthusiasts, sun worshippers, the slightly off-kilter and/or curious, artists, flower children of old and new, people with glaucoma, and free-thinking families.
The Old and the New
“Venice of America”, the beach borough’s original name, started off as a resort spot in 1905. For marketing reasons, the town was built with canals, which also served to drain the marshes that were there. There were attractions like a carnival pier, gondolas, and a heated salt water plunge. By 1925, however, the town had suffered greatly from prohibition and mismanagement, so Los Angeles absorbed it. Most of the canals were paved over to make it more accessible. Then, oil was discovered and things gave way to 450 oil wells. Left in disrepair for decades, Venice became a settling spot for European immigrants, then poets and artists of the Beat generation.
Undoubtedly, the Venice Beach of today has undergone a lot of plastic surgery. Souvenir shops abound, offering an arsenal of offensive t-shirts, sunglasses, and personalized grains of rice. Skateboarders, joggers, and rollerbladers whiz through the window-shoppers, and performers court you from all directions. The legalization of medical marijuana inspired a new onslaught of prescription givers and fillers to line the boardwalk, the lot willing to bend the rules to sort you out. Restaurants have gotten trendier with juice bars and veggie burgers, and stores hawk tattoos, the latest skate and surf gear, and assorted bongs to go with your recently acquired medical needs. These days the place is funky and hip and a trip to hang out in.
The Don’t Miss List
Like anywhere you visit semi-regularly, I have things that are just a must once I’ve braved the commute into LA proper for a stroll on the boardwalk. On my most recent trip, I discovered the Amtrak train running from near my mom’s place in Orange Country (and near Disneyland for those on that vacation). It takes you into downtown LA, where it’s easy enough to catch a bus to Venice Beach or get a taxi. I love the train because you avoid the traffic, as well as get to enjoy being on a train. It’ll be a regular feature in my LA visits from now on.
At the beach itself, there are several cool things to see. On my first trip, as a young and able-bodied weightlifter, the highlight was Muscle Beach, an outdoor workout area sponsored by Gold’s Gym and once frequent by Schwarzenegger. On the last visit, I ended up sitting by the Venice Skate Park and watching some serious talented dudes jump, twist, and grind around the specially designed terrain. And, there is always the beach itself. But, my number one favorite thing to do is walk from Venice to the Santa Monica pier, where Route 66 ends.
Star Sighting near Venice Beach
My wife Emma and I had spent the day at Venice Beach, enjoyed a nice lunch with some microbrews, and gone over to Santa Monica. I always walked to the far end of the pier to check out the folks fishing. On the way back to Venice, we passed a couple, a tall guy in a rumpled linen suit with a matching hat and a hot bird on his arm. We paid little attention until we heard the familiar voice. Then, I whispered to Emma from the corner of my mouth: “Do you know who that is?” We’d just power-strutted by John C. Reilly, one of my favorites.
We sat coolly on a nearby wall cordoning and watched John C. ease towards the coastline, shoes still on. It’s nice to be in good company (not that my wife wasn’t), and Venice offers a variety to choose from. Always exciting to see a star while you’re in LA.
- Train tickets seem a little costly compared to driving, but by the time you pay for gas, shell out for parking, and sit for hours on the LA freeways…it’s worth it. The bus from Union Station took longer than I expected, a bit over an hour, but it adds to the adventure.
- Bring some dollar bills for the stroll down Venice. It’s bad form to watch a performer and not leave a little something in return. The street shows keep the vibe cool.
- Do not forget sunscreen and beach-like precautions. The breeze coming of the ocean will lull you into some severely scorched skin if you’re not careful.