Venice, California, has a new nickname: Silicon Beach. East Coast haters stereotyped the beach town as phony and superficial long before Baywatch filmed swimsuit scenes here, but the seemingly apropos nickname actually has nothing to do with fake boobs. In recent years, companies like Google, Snapchat and BuzzFeed made Venice its new 127.0.0.1 (i.e., home), and silicon-implant references soon shifted from beach babes to motherboards. In other words, you can be certain that laptop-armed dude at Intelligentsia Coffee won’t give up his seat anytime soon, but like a Revenge of the Nerds sequel, the former jocks he hired as security guards helped make Venice safer than it’s been in years.
Venice originally extended north to Ocean Park in Santa Monica, but it currently stretches south along the coast from Marine Court to the marina-hugging Venice peninsula, and it extends inland about two miles. The neighborhood is best known for its Venetian canals, surf culture, oversized art murals, trendy culinary scene and the circus-like Ocean Front Walk lined with cannabis shops, athletic courts and the comical Muscle Beach Gym. The promenade even includes the Venice Art Walls where artists with prearranged permits can legally tag and create. How did this Euro-Point Break set run by skaters, stoners and coders come to be? Understanding its history empowers travelers to enjoy Venice to the fullest.
The History of Venice Beach
Tobacco mogul Abbot Kinney founded the “Venice of America” on July 4, 1905. Seeking to model the town after the famed Italian city, the founder drained the marshes on the southside and created several miles of Venetian-style canals complete with gondolas. Piers, carnival rides, roller coasters and even a hot salt-water plunge dotted the coastline making Venice the west coast rival of Coney Island in New York. After Kinney passed away in 1920, Prohibition and the Great Depression wreaked havoc on Venice, and Los Angeles annexed the neighborhood in 1926 turning many of the canals into roads. The beach town then took another dark turn with the discovery of oil, and the city transformed Venice into a giant oilfield that defined its landscape for decades. Venice became the Slum by the Sea, but the horrible conditions meant low rents, which attracted post-World War II European immigrants and edgy counterculture artists.
Venice Beach in Pop Culture
Venice already had the circus act down when the artist influx look it in wild new directions. The Beat Generation, or Beatniks, made Venice a hub in the 1950s and 1960s with places like Eric “Big Daddy” Nord’s the Gas House. Poets and artists who took part in the scene included X singer Exene Cervenka, actor Viggo Mortensen and author Charles Bukowski, the latter of which wrote the short story “The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, Calif.” Notable artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Charles Arnoldi and actor Dennis Hopper maintained studios in the area, and in April 1974, Chris Burden was famously crucified on a Volkswagen for a performance-art piece called Trans-Fixed. Around the same time, the Zephyr Competition Team (or Z-Boys) emerged in Venice and south Santa Monica (a.k.a. Dogtown) emulating surf moves on skateboards that inspired today’s aerial style. On the music side, The Doors emerged from the Venice scene, followed by Jane’s Addiction and punk rock bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Beowülf.
Over the decades, countless television series and movies filmed in Venice. Charlie Chaplin debuted the “Little Tramp” character in the 1914 film Kid Auto Races at Venice, while Orson Welles turned Venice into a lowly Mexican border town for 1958’s Touch of Evil. Other films featuring Venice locations include several Keystone Comedies (1912 to 1916), Sugar Daddies with Laurel & Hardy (1927), Night Tide with Dennis Hopper (1961), The Jazz Singer (1980) with Neil Diamond and American History X with Edward Norton (1998). The neighborhood was also the setting for the Showtime series Californication, which featured David Duchovny as a modern day Bukowski, and Venice High School doubled as Rydell High for Grease and the set for Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” video. With this cultural history mind, here is an ideal two-day itinerary that most travelers can complete on foot.
Start the day at the corner of Rose Avenue and Main Street in north Venice. Above the CVS on the northwest corner, the Ballerina Clown is an iconic Venice sculpture designed by Jonathan Borofsky in 1989. On the northeast corner is the Venice Firehouse restaurant, which was the area’s original fire company dating back to 1909. If the line isn’t bonkers, grab breakfast at the Rose Cafe on the southeast corner. Now start walking south on Main Street to the Google office (340 Main Street). Designed by Venice-based architect Frank Gehry, the former Chiat/Day building notably features the three-story Binoculars structure by artist Claes Oldenburg. After a few blocks, turn left on Sunset Avenue and walk another block up. On the northeast corner, the original Gold’s Gym (opened in 1965 and featured in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron) is where celebrities Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme famously trained (and sometimes still do). For those still needing breakfast, Gjusta across the street is an ideal place for pastries, coffee and sandwiches.
Walk back to Main Street, and continue south several minutes to the first four-way intersection and turn left. Dubbed the coolest street in America by GQ, Abbot Kinney Boulevard is the neighborhood hot spot with art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, coffee bars, food trucks, gourmet donut and ice cream shops and even a store called VNYL that exclusively sells records. Walk this southwesterly stretch three-quarters of a mile to Venice Boulevard visiting whatever retail outlets catch your eye. Many of the shops are pricey, but bargain hunters can find affordable threads at Heavenly Couture near California Avenue. Lemonade, a buffet-style restaurant at the end of the stretch, is the former location of Beyond Baroque, the Beatnik-fave bookstore where Exene first met John Doe and eventually formed the punk band X. For lunch, double back to the poorly marked Gjelina at Milwood Avenue. This restaurant, associated with the aforementioned Gjusta, is the culinary star on Abbot Kinney. The farm-to-fork restaurant does not take reservations for lunch, but it is generally easy to find a seat on weekdays. On weekends, the trendy brunch crowd packs the place, in which case the wait can take up to an hour. Definitely order the fresh ginger-infused beer, and while the pizzas are popular, consider something more exotic from the regularly changing menu.
Head back to the hotel and get cleaned up for the night action. When dusk is near, head to the rooftop lounge High at Hotel Erwin. Near the boardwalk just south of Windward Avenue, High is the top spot to soak in an iconic west coast sunset over Venice Beach. Once the sun sinks into the Pacific, continue south to Washington Boulevard and turn left. Both require advanced reservations, but the hottest new restaurants—Leona and Charcoal Venice—sit minutes from each other a few blocks up from the beach. Taking its name from Washington’s original street name, Leona is the debut venture by Top Chef competitor and Knife Fight winner Nyesha Arrington. The former Mélisse chef opened Leona in August 2015, and Eater LA already named her Chef of the Year 2015. And speaking of Mélisse, neighboring restaurant Charcoal Venice is the long-awaited new venture by its founder Josiah Citrin. The restaurant pushes a carnivore agenda with aged lamb leg, grilled lobster and oysters baked in a Josper Oven, and more adventurous diners can try the charcoal-infused Midnight Margarita. After dinner, several rowdy bars line the streets between the restaurants and the beach for anyone seeking a nightcap.