Prepare for a sensory overload on Venice's Boardwalk, a one-of-a-kind experience. Buff bodybuilders brush elbows with street performers and sellers of sunglasses, string bikinis, Mexican ponchos and cannabis, while cyclists and in-line skaters whiz by on the bike path and skateboarders and graffiti artists get their own domains.
Venice, SoCal’s quintessential bohemian playground, is the legacy of Abbot Kinney (1850–1920). A tobacco mogul by trade and a dreamer at heart, Kinney in 1905 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.
Venice was incorporated into the city of LA in 1926, most of the canals were filled and paved over in 1929 and Venice plunged into a steep decline until its cheap rents and mellow vibe drew first the beatniks then hippies in the '50s and '60s. A decade later Venice and Santa Monica's Ocean Park neighborhood along Main St turned into ‘Dogtown’ as modern skateboarding hit the big time.
These days, tech and entertainment dollars have fueled a hard-charging gentrification that is changing this once-low-key enclave with a strong sense of community. As rents have risen, many long-term businesses have been forced out and locals speak of an 'old Venice/new Venice' divide. The year 2017 saw a further influx of cash as locally headquartered Snap Inc (parent company of Snapchat) went public, creating multiple millionaires. Paradoxically, along with these new millionaires and long-time-resident surf rats, skate punks, string bikinis, yogis, psychics and street performers, you'll also find a prodigious and entrenched houseless population. Venice Beach's houseless community has long been part of the fabric of the neighborhood, despite routine attempts by the city to uproot them.
Things to do on Venice Boardwalk
Venice Beach has long been associated with street art and for decades there was a struggle between outlaw artists and law enforcement. Art won out and the tagged-up towers and the free-standing concrete wall of the Venice Beach Art Walls, right on the beach, have been covered by graffiti artists from 1961 to the present. To really get into the art around Venice stroll past murals by famous Rip Cronk, including Venice Reconstituted, Jim Morrison and the Homage to Starry Night. Abbot Kinney Blvd, not far from the boardwalk, has wonderful art galleries. Probably the best art gallery in the area, and maybe the city is the LA Louvre. It's housed in a landmark building designed by Frederick Fisher. It's a modern and contemporary art gallery featuring rotating, museum-quality exhibitions that show for five to six weeks.
Gym rats with an exhibitionist streak can get a tan and a workout at this famous outdoor gym right on the Venice Boardwalk, where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu once bulked up. Its fun to meander past and gawk, because the body builders totally want you to gawk.
When Angelenos drained their swimming pools during a 1970s drought, board-toting teens from Venice and neighboring Santa Monica made their not-quite-welcome invasion and modern skateboarding culture was born. Well, as the bumper sticker says, 'skateboarding is not a crime,' at least not anymore, and if you needed further proof, this public, 17,000-sq-ft, ocean-view skate park is now a destination for both high flyers and gawking spectators. Look for great photo ops, especially as the sun sets. Brave the bowls if you dare.
Saturday & Sunday drum circle
On weekend evenings at the end of Brooks Ave. on the beach, hundreds of people gather with drums, shakers, congas – anything that keeps a beat and fills the air with rhythms. Dancers come in hoards to feed off the energy and move their bodies to the impromptu music. Its high vibe fun, completely unofficial and totally amazing. It usually starts around noon and lasts well past dark.
When to go to the Venice Boardwalk
Late nights and early mornings are the quietest times on the boardwalk, but quiet is not really why people come to Venice Beach. Busiest times are summer weekend afternoons, especially when the drum circle is beating its resounding beats. During the off season, local crowds tend to gather at the cafes around sunset.
Where to eat and drink
No place melds Old Venice and New Venice like the Rose. This airy institution dates from 1979 yet remains current, serving a diverse, all-day menu (sophisticated pastries to gourmet feasts) to laptop-toting writers, tech geeks and Venice locals.
Where to stay
Hotel Erwin near the canals and the boardwalk, this one-time motor inn has been dressed up, colored and otherwise funkified in retro style. Think eye-popping oranges, yellows and greens, framed photos of graffiti art and ergo sofas in the spacious rooms. Book online for the best deals. Whether or not you stay here, the High rooftop lounge is wonderful for a sundowner. Valet parking is $42.
Getting to the Venice Boardwalk, parking and other practicalities
Traffic is bumper to bumper in Venice on busy weekends, especially in summer near the beach. Instead, try parking inland, ride-sharing or do as the locals do and get around by bike. Rentals are available in Venice at Venice Boardwalk Bike Rental or in neighboring Santa Monica. The Expo Line train opened in 2016 in Santa Monica; the station is about 1.5 miles from the Venice border.