, 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.
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 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.
Start the day back in north Venice with breakfast at Dudley Market, a block from the beach on Dudley Avenue. The menu changes regularly, so do not trust the online options, but do not miss the French omelette & fried soft shell crab if available. If not, keep Dudley’s farm-fresh ethos in mind when picking dishes, which include exceptional vegetarian options. After breakfast, it is time for the craziness that is the Venice boardwalk. Start to walk south, and prepare to see famous sites from movies and television shows. For example, you might see Berry “The Lion” Gordon playing a large piano on the boardwalk, or the turban-wearing Harry Perry riding around on skates playing guitar. You will also see many famous landmarks and murals. For example, at Windward Avenue, head a few blocks inland for close-up looks at the iconic VENICE sign and the colonnaded structures designed by Italian artist Felix Peano. Several buildings also host decades-old murals, many created by 1980s Venice resident Rip Cronk. Examples include the Jim Morrison mural at 18th Avenue and Speedway (one block east of the boardwalk) and the Botticelli parody Venice Reconstituted at Windward Avenue and Speedway. On the boardwalk, the Beach House building at Wave Crest Avenue features two Cronk works: a 1990 tribute to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night on the north side and a trompe l’oeil-style mural that depicts a graffiti artist painting VENICE on the south side.
From Windward Avenue, a skate park sits between the boardwalk and the ocean. Venice was once a premiere destination for roller skating—e.g., the 1979 film Roller Boogie was shot here—but the Z-Boys turned this into a skater town decades ago. Open and free to the public, the 16,000-square-foot park includes a sunken pool for vertical rides, and watching the diehard skaters can be entertaining. After checking out the action, pick from two lunch options. Locals fave Mao’s Kitchen on Pacific Avenue (near Windward Avenue) is a country-style Chinese restaurant that could make New Yorkers jealous. Mao’s is BYOB for beer and wine. For a real boardwalk experience, however, hold off for Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom at 20th Place. Opened in 1979, Jody Maroni’s is the west coast equivalent of Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island. Continuing south, the boardwalk features various athletic courts for paddle tennis, handball, volleyball and basketball. The 1992 film White Men Can’t Jump was filmed in Venice, but production set up temporary courts near Rose Avenue meant to emulate the courts here. Several stores rent equipment, including bikes for the boardwalk-adjacent bike path and paddleboards for the nearby Venice Canals. To explore the canals, head inland on South Venice Boulevard to Dell Avenue and turn right. Like a rectangular grid, four canals stretch west-to-east about a quarter mile, while the Grand Canal extends south to where the Venice peninsula meets the mouth of the marina. The primary boardwalk ends at Washington Boulevard.
Near the boardwalk and Washington Boulevard intersection, the Venice Fishing Pier extends 1,300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. Fishermen do not need permits to cast their lines into the sea, but the real highlight is catching another stellar sunset from the far end of the pier. As the orange-lit sky starts to dim, head up Washington Boulevard to the wildly popular C&O Trattoria. There might be a wait, but insist on sitting in the outdoor courtyard as opposed to the indoor dining room. The always-packed Italian restaurant is reasonably priced with mammoth servings and addictive garlic bread knots passed around throughout the night. Trompe l’oeil-style wall murals give the impression of being in a real Italian village, and a little after 8 p.m., the waiters pass out lyric sheets and lead the restaurant in singing “That’s Amore.” After dinner, make your way to the Townhouse on Windward Avenue. Opened in 1915 by an Italian immigrant, Townhouse is the neighborhood’s oldest bar and a former speakeasy during Prohibition. The venue regularly hosts live entertainment (comedy, burlesque, music) and serves classic drinks from the golden age of cocktails. This is the perfect place to wrap a two-day stay in Venice Beach.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) serves most major cities, and it is relatively close to Venice. With the standard markups, an airport taxi will cost about $35 with tip. You can take UberX to LAX for about $13 from Venice, but as of January 2015, Lyft is the only ride-share company allowed to do airport pickups. Uber, which is working out the details for authorized pickups, currently has its car-request signal blocked on airport property. As with taxis, the airport-imposed $4 fee is added to rides that originate at the airport. Alternatively, travelers hoping to save a few bucks can take a hotel, rental car or parking lot shuttle offsite and then request a car.
Many travelers turn to airbnb for local accommodations, but for more stylish digs, consider the aforementioned Hotel Erwin with 119 luxury rooms, a party-centric rooftop lounge and a colorful lobby with surfboard designs. The Erwin restaurant Barlo also hosts a daily happy hour (5pm to 7pm) with local Dogtown IPA beer and dishes like crispy pig ears, lamb sliders and short rib- and wine gravy-topped poutine.
For a more notorious choice, the Abbot Kinney-designed Rose Hotel has a debaucherous past that dates back to 1908 when it reportedly doubled as Kinney’s private brothel. Triplets named Tom, Dick and Harry (some parents are so cruel) eventually bought the building, but as Venice declined in the 1920s, so did the Rose. The space became a free-love flophouse by the 1960s where locals like Dennis Hopper and Jim Morrison supposedly came to score drugs. A few years back, photographers Glen Luchford and Doug Bruce converted the space—a surf hostel at the time—into the trendy new Rose Hotel. Rates start at $157 (with shared bathroom) and $250 (with private bathroom).
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.