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Introducing Venice

If you were born too late, and have always been a little jealous of the hippie heyday, come down to the Boardwalk and inhale an incense-scented whiff of Venice, a boho beach town and longtime haven for artists, New Agers, road-weary tramps, freaks and free spirits. This is where Jim Morrison and the Doors lit their fire, where Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped himself to stardom and the place the late Dennis Hopper once called home.

SoCal’s quintessential bohemian playground is the legacy of Abbot Kinney (1850–1920). A tobacco mogul by trade and a dreamer at heart, Kinney dug canals and turned fetid swampland into a cultural and recreational resort he dubbed the ‘Venice of America’. For nearly two decades, crowds thronged to this ‘Coney Island on the Pacific’ to be poled around by imported gondoliers, walk among Renaissance-style arcaded buildings and listen to Benny Goodman tooting his horn in clubs. But time was not kind to Kinney’s vision.

Most of the canals were filled and paved over in 1929 and Venice soon plunged into a steep decline until its cheap rents and mellow vibe drew first the beatniks, then hippies in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A few years later Venice turned ‘Dogtown’ as modern skateboarding hit the big time. These days, there are expanding pockets of gentrification, but overall it’s still a low-key enclave with a strong sense of community. Think indie boutiques instead of cookie-cutter malls and local coffeehouses instead of Starbucks. There’s plenty of innovative architecture and public art but, besides the Boardwalk, no traditional attractions, making the area great for independent exploring. Abbot Kinney Blvd has street parking, while parking lots on and near the beach charge between $6 and $12.

Follow the coast south of Venice and you’ll come to Marina del Rey, which has nearly as many boats as residents. Some 5300 vessels bob in what is one of the largest artificial small-craft harbors in the country. Wrested from coastal wetlands in the ‘60s, the surrounding neighborhood consists mostly of generic concrete towers and has that disjointed, sterile feel typical of urban planning during the Modernist era. As an architectural case study, the Marina has its appeal, but the rest of us are really here to get active in what is truly an aquatic playground.

South of the Marina is the laid-back beach enclave of Playa Del Rey, where beachside fire pits are legal and the last swath of the Ballona wetlands still blooms.