I have lived in Los Angeles since 1998. I’ve learned three things: 1) I’ll never be an expert on all parts of this massive city, 2) The city is always changing, and 3) there is always a chance I’ll still get lost. So, when faced with the challenge of giving “touring Los Angeles tips” to friends and family coming in for our wedding, I fell into a bit of a panic. How would I explain how to get around and offer up suggestions that covered everything this terrifically diverse city has to offer?
The answer? I didn’t. Writing an “Ultimate Guide to LA” would invariably leave out huge portions of the city, and probably not be helpful to our guests. Instead, I broke it down into neighborhoods of Los Angeles that were most likely to be on their radar given where most of them were staying (the Marina).
But the exercise did start me thinking about providing more comprehensive information here on the blog. Los Angeles is one of the most visited cities in the world. And if you are one of those people who is visiting for the very first time (or someone who hasn’t been here in a while), these recommendations might help you plan your itinerary.
I’ll start with a pro-tip: Los Angeles is spread out over a very large area. You can drive for an hour and still be in the city limits (even without hideous traffic). When planning your itinerary, try not to plan to visit a Hollywood attraction, then a beach attraction and then something downtown in the same afternoon. Why? You will spend most of your day in the car, you won’t have much time in any one attraction, and you will probably toss aside your plans out of frustration. Trust me – that’s the mistake I made my first time out here.
Los Angeles is beautiful, strange, exciting, frustrating, and confounding. I’m here to try to make your trip swing more towards the fun and less towards the maddening.
And now for our suggestions!
Neighborhood Highlights: Marina del Rey and Venice
Marina del Rey is known for having the “largest man-made small craft harbor in North America” (at one point, the world), and Venice has always drawn the artsy, the bohemian and the quirky (and sometimes the muscle-bound) to its sand. People gravitate here to try the food, walk the beach and wave to the sailboats as they leave the channel. And while the tech companies and celebrities may have made those Venice canal homes into million dollar options, you can still find a hint of the old Bohemia if you know where to look.
Food and Drinks
There are so many great restaurants that it would be impossible to name them all, but here are a few of our favorites:
- Gjelina (1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice): Rustic chic with a patio and wide range of “New American” food (many vegetarian options). It’s not cheap, but it’s great for a night/day out. It’s very popular, so be sure to make a reservation. And, yes, this is the restaurant you keep seeing in movies and TV shows that take place in Venice. Parking can be found at the street meters (or behind the restaurants at meters), but it will take some patience.
- Hinano (15 W Washington Blvd., Venice): It’s a budget-friendly dive bar with great burgers and a fun vibe. It’s also only a block from the beach and had the claim of being Jim Morrison’s favorite Venice bar. Parking is challenging. Note: Cash only.
- Cafe Gratitude Venice (512 Rose Ave, Venice): It’s a vegan place that even non-vegans rave about. Be prepared to ponder the question of the day and to order food through affirmation (just go with it). I’m not a vegan, and even I love the food here. The vibe is casual. There is also a second location on Larchmont Boulevard.
- Barrique Venice (796 Main Street, Venice): This is a beautiful Italian restaurant with a fantastic wine selection, a Michelin-awarded chef and a charming location inside of a little yellow house. It’s expensive, but so worth it for a special night out. Street parking only.
- Jamaica Bay Inn’s Beachside Restaurant (Mother’s Beach): The main restaurant is undergoing renovations right now, but the outside patio is still swinging. They have a fantastic happy hour (basically 2 drinks for the price of 1 plus $1) and the views of the marina are terrific. This place is generally more budget-friendly than the other hotel restaurants. They also have their own parking (free with validation for two hours), which is nothing short of a miracle in LA.
- SALT (Inside the Marina del Rey Hotel): The Marina del Rey Hotel has undergone massive renovations, and part of the upgrades have definitely hit their new restaurant. The outside seating looks at both sides of the Marina, and there are some great views by the fire pits at sunset. You can also dine by the pool on the other side, or inside the restaurant. My favorite dish so far is the avocado hummus, but everything we have tried has been great. They do have happy hour menus which helps with the cost. Don’t forget to get your valet parking ticket validated — it will save you $6!
- Scopa Italian Roots (2905 W Washington Blvd, Venice): This place is considered a gastropub with some creative Italian dishes. You can happily enjoy scrumptious appetizers, or you can dig in with full meals. We were impressed with the wine list, and it’s a very lively atmosphere. It will cost you quite a bit if you buy a bottle of wine and have complete meals, but if you are looking for something fun for a special meal, it’s worth it. There is a paid valet lot, but there are also street parking options.
There are also numerous upscale and budget-friendly options along Washington Blvd. You can just walk the blocks by the beach and select your favorites from the menus posted outside.
Things To Do
- Stroll Venice Beach Boardwalk (aka Ocean Front Walk)
The odds are good that if you have seen Venice Beach (or Los Angeles) in a movie, you have also seen the Boardwalk. On any given day, you’ll experience the buskers, drum circles, and vendors that have made the area famous. It is generally safe, even if you are a woman traveling solo, although it is always a good idea to keep an eye out. Bicycles do get stolen down here with frustrating regularity, so keep that in mind if you rent one for your travels (there are places right off the beach that rent bicycles, surfboards, etc.). Taking a stroll along the Boardwalk is worth it for the people watching alone, but you may find yourself drawn to the shops, as well. Plus, you can’t beat the view of the ocean.
- Walk Venice Beach
Speaking of the ocean, a walk along Venice Beach is a “must.” You can start from the Pier and go down toward the channel (the closer you get to the channel, the fewer the services and people on the sand), or start from the channel and walk toward the slightly controlled chaos of Venice Pier. We’ve done this a number of times from Andy’s boat on the way to Hinano. It is great exercise with fantastic views. Personally, I prefer doing it early in the morning, or later in the afternoon, because it can get very hot during the summer months and mid-day is super crowded.
- Take the Venice Canal Walk
Do you love hiking or taking extended city walks when visiting a new place? The Venice Canal hike is a favorite. Not only will you see sights you recognize from film and television, but the homes are gorgeous, and you might just fool yourself into thinking that you’ve stepped into an entirely different world. This area is so different from the rest of the city that I find myself admiring it even after all of these years. You can drive over many of the bridges, but the walk allows you to see much more of the architecture. The LA Times has a great article that gives you step-by-step instructions on the best route.
- Paddle Boarding in the Marina
Are you super athletic or looking for a little adventure? Paddle Boarding in the Marina may be your answer. You can rent equipment in Basin D by Mother’s Beach. They will provide you with some instruction, but I highly suggest practicing before you head out too far into the boat lanes. It can be a bit tricky when the sailboats are leaving the docks and heading into the channel, so always stay alert when you hear the warning horns.
- Watch the Boats Leave the Channel
You can drive down (or walk) to North Jetty for fantastic views of the sailboats gliding out of the Main Channel to the Pacific Ocean. There are always crowds along the walkways and the pier at sunset. It’s a very mellow activity that makes for a relaxing diversion before dinner. I’ve even seen people bring picnics down there!
- Concerts in Burton Chace Park (13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey)
In July and August, on alternating Thursdays and Saturdays, there are free concerts in Burton Chace Park. People come by water taxi, private boat, car, and on foot to enjoy a summer night on the water with great music. You can get this year’s line-up here.
- Shopping on Abbot Kinney Blvd.
My love of Abbot Kinney changes on any given day and is directly related to how quickly I find parking. It’s Venice. Parking can be a deeply painful in this part of Los Angeles. But if you nab a spot, you will have easy walking access to unique boutiques, galleries, wine bars, restaurants (see Gjelina above) and more.
- See a Play at Pacific Resident Theatre.
They have main stage productions and smaller, experimental ones. We have been enthralled by every production we have seen there. Seriously, they are doing terrific work, always cast exceptional actors, and if you have the time on your visit, you should grab a ticket.
What are your favorite things to do in Marina del Rey or Venice? What would you recommend for first time visitors to Los Angeles who want to spend time by the water?