First published on July 31, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.
You could spend a solid year sniffing out cool spots for travelers in Venice, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Malibu -- scores of hotels, hundreds of restaurants and bars, more than 30 miles of coastline. But you're new to the scene, or you haven't visited in a while, and who has a year anyway?
These 11 micro-itineraries will lead you to fresh fruit, ancient art, pub darts, magic, gymnastics, Venus on roller skates and J. Paul Getty on how to be rich.
1. Veni, vidi, Venice
That's a loose Latin paraphrase for: "I came, I saw and, boy, are we a long way from Burbank." Venice lies just south of Santa Monica and left of the American mainstream -- artsy, edgy, defiant and occasionally downright dissolute. Check out Ocean Front Walk on a weekend morning, and bring a fistful of dollar bills to tip the street musicians, magicians and all-around characters. Don't miss the mural of Venus on roller skates, near Speedway and Windward Avenue. (Maybe you've already seen it, in the Steve Martin movie "L.A. Story.") See too the careening teens at the Venice Skate Park, the cyclists on the meandering beach bike path, and the serious pickup games on the basketball courts. There will be something to amuse you and something to offend you. (Perhaps the cheeky young man seeking contributions for penis-reduction surgery?) Venice lovers embrace it as the weirdness capital of Southern California, if not North America. Others take one look at the grit and graffiti and ask: What's so special about beachfront urban blight and cheap sunglasses? Before you pass judgment, inspect the canals just south of South Venice Boulevard and survey the ambitious restaurants, galleries and shops along Abbot Kinney Boulevard. After you check into the playful but grown-up-oriented Hotel Erwin (1697 Pacific Ave., Venice; www.hotelerwin.com), have a drink at the rooftop bar. It doesn't have a pool, but if you step across Pacific Avenue to Mao's Kitchen (1512 Pacific Ave., Venice; www.maoskitchen.com), you’ll find a bowl of noodle soup almost large enough to swim in.
2. Sweet swimming on a tight budget
For a memorable pool or a base camp for a beach day with the kids, head to 415 Pacific Coast Highway. There, by wide, sandy Santa Monica beach, William Randolph Hearst in the late 1920s built a vast mansion for his mistress, actress Marion Davies. These days, only the big marble-edged pool and guesthouse remain, joined by a sleek complex of changing rooms and special-event spaces that was completed in 2009. It's known as the Annenberg Community Beach House (415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica; www.annenbergbeachhouse.com). It's run by the city of Santa Monica, and it's probably the best-looking municipal pool you've ever seen. Though much of the 5-acre facility operates year round, the pool opens only in summer, accepting walk-up guests and reservations (up to three days in advance), its water (4 to 8 feet deep) heated to 80-85 degrees. Lots of moms and tots. There's a cafe, a cool little playground, beach volleyball, beach tennis, a pair of beach soccer fields and rentable space for parties (only in the evening during the summer; all-day rental available in the off season). A day of pool access (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) costs less than a movie at most theaters ($10 for adults, $5 for seniors (60 and older) and $4 for minors (ages 1-17) as of March 2012). On most Mondays, that price drops to $1 for adults and kids, and the pool stays open until 8 p.m. Because demand can be high, you should show up around 8:30 a.m. with a towel and swimsuit. Pay to park your car all day, or park your bike free at one of the racks. Then head for breakfast at the neighboring Back on the Beach Cafe (which opens at 8 a.m.). When the pool admission window opens at 9:30, you buy your passes (everyone must be present to receive a wristband), and when the pool opens at 10, you're ready.
3. Pier people, parallel bars and prawns
You can't overlook the Santa Monica Pier (200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica; www.santamonicapier.org). It starts where Colorado Avenue stops, it dates to 1909, and its Pacific Park amusement zone includes a solar-powered Ferris wheel. You'll find plenty of junk food, several restaurants, free live music on Thursday nights in summer and abundant people-watching at all hours. This is Southern California's Coney Island. You'll also notice the bike path that runs near the pier -- it goes north to Temescal Canyon, south to Washington Boulevard in Venice -- 8 1/2 miles in all. If you don't mind navigating around Marina del Rey, you can rejoin the beach and pedal to Torrance, about 18 miles south of the Santa Monica Pier. The Spokes 'n Stuff Bicycle Shop (1715 Ocean Front Walk [behind Loews Hotel], Santa Monica; www.spokes-n-stuff.com) is ready with rentals for about $22 a day for a grown-up's bike. But before you roll anywhere, stroll over to Muscle Beach, just south of the pier, where dozens of regulars perform gymnastic feats of strength, grace and daring on rings, ropes and parallel bars. Once upon a time, Jack LaLanne hung out here. Ask nicely, and they'll literally show you the ropes. Then head a few blocks for seafood at BP Oysterette. (1355 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; www.blueplatesantamonica.com/bpo/home). (The initials stand for Blue Plate, not British Petroleum.) Bed down for the night just a block away, behind the blue Art Deco facade of the historic but relatively affordable Georgian Hotel (1415 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; www.georgianhotel.com).
4. Retail, produce, magic, beer and darts
You know that Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade (3rd Street, between Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica; (310) 393-8355, www.downtownsm.com) isn't as trendy as it was 20 years ago. You understand that Santa Monica Place (395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica; www.santamonicaplace.com), a mall that reopened at the south end of the promenade after a major rehab in 2010, generates more retail heat these days. So you do both, because pedestrianism is next to godliness, because the promenade's street performers are good and plentiful, because a serious farmers market sets up at Arizona and 3rd on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and because there are plenty of distinctive nonnational enterprises nearby. Hennessey + Ingalls Art & Architecture Bookstore (214 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; www.hennesseyingalls.com), for instance. Or Magicopolis (1418 4th St., Santa Monica; www.magicopolis.com) with its weekend magic shows. And don't forget Ye Olde King's Head (116 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; www.yeoldekingshead.com) with its British beers, twin dartboards and devoted expats.
5. Let's face it, you're cheap
Just a block off the Third Street Promenade is Hostelling International Santa Monica (1436 2nd St., Santa Monica; www.hiusa.org/santamonica), a 260-bed haven built in 1990 for frugal, youngish travelers and later upgraded. Don't expect a pool or much privacy; all hostel options involve shared bathrooms, from the dorm beds to the private rooms. Especially for younger travelers without children, the place has an agreeable global collegiate buzz.
6. Then again, you may be rich
If so, Santa Monica hoteliers are ready for you. Prove your cool by choosing the historic grandeur of the beachfront Casa del Mar (1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica; www.hotelcasadelmar.com), a redone '20s building with cool tile, big views from its upstairs bar and brochure rates that begin north of $495 a night. Or, for a comparable price, hop across Pico Boulevard to Shutters on the Beach (1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; www.shuttersonthebeach.com), which looks like a New England beach house that just kept growing. It seems to draw more celebrities (even though the same owners control both hotels). Another option, of course, is saving a few hundred dollars and staying at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; www.santamonicaloewshotel.com) or using Marriott Rewards points at nearby JW Marriott Santa Monica Le Merigot (1740 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; www.marriott.com/laxlm). With the money you save, you can buy one round of drinks at Casa del Mar, another at Shutters and round out the night with cotton candy on the pier.
7. Sweat, then shop
Check in at Santa Monica's venerable Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows (101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; www.fairmont.com/santamonica), grab a table overlooking the pool and dig into an early dinner at FIG (www.figsantamonica.com), an in-house bistro that focuses on seasonal dishes. Splurge on the carbohydrates, because you'll be up and out early the next morning in your workout wear, walking, jogging or pedaling 1.3 miles along Palisades Park to the public stairways on Adelaide Drive near 4th Street, a.k.a. the Santa Monica Stairs. You'll find the stairs easily enough -- one set is concrete, one is wood, and they'll be populated by fitness fiends panting, stretching, kvetching and primping, which occasionally annoys the well-heeled neighbors. You'll see the young and beautiful, the old and resolute, maybe a guy or two with boxing gloves. Once you've retired to the hotel and freshened up, head for nearby Montana Avenue, where dozens of high-end boutiques, service businesses and restaurants are arrayed from 7th to 17th streets. Get breakfast or lunch at Cafe Montana (1534 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; www.cafemontana.net) or Babalu Bakery & Restaurant (1002 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; www.babalu.info).
8. Art and music, all day and into the night
Once upon a time, in the 19th century, Santa Monica's Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica; www.bergamotstation.com) was a rail yard. But ever since its revival as a cluster of galleries in 1994, it has been a treasured spot for one-stop art browsing. Along with contemporary painting and sculpture, you'll find a lot of photography, a few artsy shops, a well-shaded patio cafe for lunch or a snack, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art (www.smmoa.org). There's your afternoon. Then head to McCabe's Guitar Shop (3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; www.mccabes.com), a beloved retailer and concert venue at 3101 Pico Blvd. The shop is more than 50 years old and has served as a clubhouse of sorts for Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder and many other Los Angeles musicians. Live shows, often acoustic and often Americana, happen on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the guitar showroom, which holds 150 fold-up chairs and some of the city's most discriminating (yet enthusiastic) audiences. For food, it's a two-block walk to the trendy Upper West restaurant and bar (3321 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; www.theupperwest.com). Or go three blocks west and try the throwback Googie diner Rae's (2901 Pico Blvd.; open until 9 p.m.), which is as old and weathered as Upper West is shiny and new. If the evening gets late, the Travelodge Santa Monica (3102 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; www.travelodgesantamonica.com) awaits across the street from McCabe's. It's not fancy, but rates start well under $150 (as of March 2012), and parking is free.
9. The Getty Villa
The Romans, the Greeks, the Etruscans -- they're all here in Pacific Palisades, surrounded by gardens that have matured nicely since the villa's grand reopening in 2006 after a massive redo. The Getty Villa (17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades; www.getty.edu) is as intimate as the Getty Center in Brentwood is epic -- the gardens, galleries and open-air theater crowded together in a canyon near the sea just south of Malibu. Do lunch in the cafe (open Thursdays-Mondays). There’s a cool gift shop too, with art books and prints, jewelry, pinhole cameras, mood pencils, "The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English" and, admit it, your secret favorite item, a paperback edition of J. Paul Getty's 1965 not-quite-classic "How to Be Rich."
10. The Malibu quartet
First, acknowledge that you underestimated the size of Malibu: 27 miles of coastline. But about 12 miles up the coast highway from the Santa Monica Pier, you will find a handy foursome. First, the Malibu Pier (23000 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=24409), where you might buy bait (really, you could) or have a bite at the Beachcomber Cafe. Next, a few hundred yards farther up the beach, have a look at the Malibu Lagoon and imagine living in the Adamson House (23200 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; www.adamsonhouse.org), a classic Spanish-style beach home that's now part of the state park system. (There are tours of the interior too, offered 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; guided tours of the house were $7 per adult and $2 for those 6-16 as of March 2012, and it’s cash only.) Jump in the ocean if you like. Then head back to the pier and beyond to the Malibu Beach Inn (22878 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; www.malibubeachinn.com). If you can afford the splurge, every one of its 46 rooms has a wide ocean view. If you can't spend $325 or more, you can still eye the view over a meal in the hotel's Carbon Beach Club restaurant. (Just remember, nonhotel guests must reserve in advance.)
11. Cove, sand, cafe. Simple. Right?
Out-of-towners, beware. If you ask a local for tips on the best beaches in Malibu, you risk drowning in a sea of beach-bum bombast and legal disputes over what's public and what isn't, where to park, the shape of the waves, the clarity of the water, the rights of wealthy beach-dwellers and who lives in that big, ugly house over there, anyway? Zuma Beach County Park (near 30000 Pacific Coast Highway; lat.ms/zHO1eP) is big and sandy. El Matador State Beach (32215 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; www.lamountains.com/parks.asp?parkid=145) is smaller, harder to reach, edged by cliffs and caves -- and gorgeous. The state Coastal Commission and Los Angeles Urban Rangers will tell you much more about dozens of others at www.coastal.ca.gov/access/MalibuGuide2010.pdf. Or you could do the shallow thing and head for the trailer park from "The Rockford Files" and "Baywatch." Paradise Cove (28128 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; www.paradisecovemalibu.com), a hefty 18 miles up the coast from the Santa Monica Pier, is home to a busy cafe, tiny pier and one of the state's ritziest mobile-home parks.
The place is a star on big and little screens ("Gidget" and"The O.C."are also among its credits), so if you have come to California with tourist fantasies about the perfect little beach, this could fill the bill. It features gentle waves, handsome bluffs, fine sand, beach toys aplenty, lifeguard at the ready, legions of armchairs lined up beneath an array of palapas. Many locals scoff, because it can get crowded, and because dogs, surfboards and barbecues are banned. Additionally, the cost of parking in the private lot jumps from $3 (for four hours) to $25 if you don't spend at least $20 at the cafe. (That’s as of March 2012.) But if you reserve your lunch well ahead and show up early, and it isn't 100 degrees in the San Fernando Valley that day, you just might have paradise your way.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times