Spread along almost 50kms of coastline, the beaches in Los Angeles are famous for their movie star good looks and enviable lifestyle and offer visitors a laid-back introduction to the City of Angles. People come here to escape the frenetic pace of downtown and indulge in life’s pleasures: good food, good fun and some serious shopping.
Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica makes a great first stop for weary long-haul travellers as it’s less than 20 minutes drive from LAX. This popular beach is a family favourite with an impossibly wide stretch of sand, gentle waves and safe swimming conditions. Nearby, excited shrieks and the smell of freshly buttered popcorn fill the air at the famous historic pier which is home to the multi-coloured whirl of an amusement park.
Aside from being a great spot for people watching, visitors can ride one of the world’s only solar powered ferris wheels or saddle-up on the charming merry-go-round which dates back to the 1920s. Chic, new accommodation options blend seamlessly with historic hotels like the gorgeous art-deco inspired Shangri-La, highlighting Santa Monica’s uncanny ability to combine old-school Hollywood glamour with hip LA style.
Santa Monica has been named ‘the best neighbourhood for dining’ in the Zagat guide for the past two years and it’s not unusual to find iconic restaurants like Border Grill mixing it up with quirky low-key cafes and lively bars. Whether you’re after somewhere to eat or a little retail therapy, follow the crowds and you can’t go wrong. Third Street Promenade is a pedestrian-only mall where popular US stores such as Anthropologie and Gap reign supreme.
It’s a must visit on weekends when air-kissing locals and talented buskers provide plenty of free entertainment. Santa Monica was home to the original Muscle Beach but most of the outdoor bodybuilding action has since moved 2kms south to Venice. Built by tobacco mogul Abbot Kinney in 1905, Venice Beach was once a gaudy pastiche of canals and colonnaded buildings known as the ‘Venice of America’. While the Venetian architecture and most of the canals are long gone, the vibrancy and visionary creative spirit of this slightly weird yet wonderful area remains.
The charm of Venice Beach reveals itself slowly in the cheeky tricks of a passing skateboarder, the rainbow colours of its street art and the crazy buzz of its famous beachside boardwalk. There may be no ‘big attractions’ here but there’s plenty to keep you entertained. Check out the quirky shops on Abbot Kinney Boulevard or zip along the boardwalk on a Segway tour, or join the locals for a First Friday Art Walk when all the shops stay open late. Venice Beach is so hippy you can almost smell the ganja and there’s always something exciting going on.
If you prefer a beach experience that’s a little more genteel, head to the ritzy beachside suburb of Malibu which is home to a blockbuster number of Hollywood A-listers. For some rather unusual yet authentic LA entertainment, you can hang out with the paparazzi on the beach in front of the fancy mansions and indulge in some celebrity spotting.
Don’t be intimidated by the burly security guards – provided you stay below the high-tide line you’re free to be there. Experienced surfers can rent a board at the Malibu Surf Shack and strut their stuff at the iconic Surfrider Beach. Serious waves like these are strictly for those who call themselves surfers and want to prove it.
Hermosa Beach is another popular hangout for surfers and better suited to beginners. Hermosa means ‘beautiful’ in Spanish and the laid-back, casual vibe makes it a favourite with locals who insist it’s one of the best beaches in California. Whether or not you agree, it’s definitely worth checking out, particularly if you enjoy surfing.
Hermosa boasts some of LA’s best waves, especially during the winter months and is famous for beach volleyball. Even the so-called ‘social matches’ are exciting to watch. If you’re after some nightlife, head to one of the lively bars on Pier Avenue or the Comedy and Magic Club where Jay Leno performs every Sunday night.
It’s a quick walk to from here to Manhattan Beach which is one of the easiest spots to get to. In fact, you can even hit the beach during a layover at LAX. Catch the $5 return Ocean Express trolley bus from nearby Century Boulevard and you can be strolling along the sand in 20 minutes. Allow a couple of hours to watch the surfers performing aerials from the pier, wander along Manhattan Beach Boulevard and have a meal with the locals at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House which has been here since the 60s.
If time is short or you can’t decide which of these fabulous beaches to visit it’s no problem. Simply hire a bike and cycle from one glorious stretch of sand to the next along the picturesque 35km South Bay Bicycle Trail, the longest beach path of its type in the world.