A breezy, bohemian respite from the more urban, landlocked neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Venice, California beckons to locals and tourists alike with its laid-back, endless summer vibe.
Serving as the city’s edge both literally and figuratively, Venice is home to notable explosions of American culture — the bodybuilding craze of the 50s, the beatnik poets and artists of the 60s, the punk rock movement of the 70s, and the ubiquitous skate and surf culture that endures to this day.
From its sprawling sandy beach, eccentric art scene, to some can’t-miss culinary spots, here’s a guide to experiencing the best of Venice.
Begin your morning with a quiet stroll through the Venice Canals. A vast departure from the rest of Los Angeles, the canal-lined blocks feature picturesque footbridges, narrow walkways, and miniature docks. These are remnants of a grander past, a larger and more complex system of canals —envisioned by Abbott Kinney as “Venice of America” in the 1900s. Elaborate waterways were once populated by gondolas and half-submerged buildings, evoking the old-world charm of Venice, Italy. Though most of the original canals were paved over by 1930, the name remains till this day.
Make your way towards the beach and fuel up at Menotti’s, a renowned neighborhood coffee joint on Windward Avenue just steps away from the legendary Venice sign. The café pays tribute to the infamous Cesar Menotti, who ran a grocery store-fronted speakeasy in the building’s basement during the Prohibition Era. A bit of the historic place is kept alive with restored honeycomb tiled floors and old bourbon barrels that double as tables.
Look for the secret menu lurking behind a framed photo of a mysterious-looking mustached man, Menotti himself. Flip the frame over to see off-menu signature drinks like a cayenne-infused honey latte, aptly named the bee sting and an iced blah blah blah which features a quadruple shot of espresso blended with condensed milk and cinnamon.
Join the dark side and ask for the Darth mocha, a rich, frothy concoction of hemp milk, activated charcoal and Valrhona chocolate topped with a dash of Maldon salt. Aside from its various health benefits, activated charcoal gives the drink a distinctly bold and grainy texture.
A trip to Venice would be made in vain without visiting the world-famous Ocean Front Walk, also known simply as “the boardwalk.” Aside from providing some excellent people-watching opportunities, the Venice Boardwalk is the only place in LA where you can get your name written on a grain of rice, have your fortune read, and pay $1 to listen to some bad advice, all within a few feet of each other. When you begin to tire of the carnival-like attractions and cheeky souvenir shops, just take a few steps towards the sand.
Cross over the winding bike path and marvel at the colorful Art walls, the beach’s equivalent of a virtual art gallery where street artists from all over the city showcase their spray-painting skills on massive concrete canvases. Watch a few bold tricks at the iconic skate park, one of the few in the world to be located on a beach. Fun fact: Venice is largely credited to be the birthplace of modern skateboarding.
When hunger calls, there are several places to grab a quick snack, but the food strip near the corner of Speedway and Westminster is a local favorite. First stop: the Wee Chippy — unofficial French fry mecca of Venice Beach.
The potato is undoubtedly king at this charming hole-in-the-wall, but Wee Chippy’s secret to success is the salt. Pacific Ocean kosher salt is the base for all of their 11 signature salt blends, which evenly coat the steamy, hot fries in a subtle and robust flavor.
Dabble in some salt alchemy as you mix and match between flavors like jalapeno lime, Bangkok ginger, California rosemary and applewood smoked. Or go classic gourmet and treat your taste buds to their legendary black truffle fries. Ask for freshly shaved parmesan and chopped garlic for pure, fried potato indulgence. For even more layers of flavor, there are dipping sauces aplenty, from chipotle ketchup to malt vinegar.
Every batch of fries at the Wee Chippy is hand-cut, made-to-order and served in portable cardboard boxes perfect for a stroll on the beach. Sizes range from small to loch ness monster because good things are meant to be shared.
The next stop on this snack adventure lies across the street at Zelda’s Corner, a local gem that has been catering to sandwich enthusiasts since 1999. They are known to make some impressive breakfast paninis, but their scrumptious, fried-to-order mini donuts are the main attraction.
Order the maple bacon mini donuts, and watch as small blobs of dough get deep fried and make their way down an old-fashioned conveyor belt. The little bites of perfection are hand-drizzled with a maple syrup glaze and topped with crispy bacon bits — pure, delectable donut magic.
Meander your way to where Brooks Avenue meets the sand and find the Rainbow Lifeguard Tower, known officially as the Venice Pride Flag Lifeguard Tower. With its bright, rainbow-hued stripes, the tower stands as a symbol for inclusion, diversity, and individuality, and is also the city’s first official landmark celebrating LGBT equality.
Follow the rhythmic sounds towards the Venice Drum Circle, which meets on the sand from 12 pm till sundown on weekends. Join the impromptu jam session or simply bask in the beat of the drums, shakers and communal chant. This one-of-a-kind experience truly captures the carefree and expressive spirit that’s unique to Venice.
After perusing the eclectic shops and vibrant murals along Abbott Kinney Boulevard a few blocks from the beach, head to Felix Trattoria for an authentic taste of Italy. Though reservations fill up a month in advance, walk-ins are still taken.
Order a negroni bianco from the bar for a citrusy aperitivo of gin and vermouth while waiting for a table. Or take a peek into the central “pasta lab” and witness chefs expertly kneading dough into delicate pasta shapes.
A definite must-try is the sfincione, a light, pillowy focaccia bread seemingly straight from heaven. Finished in a wood-burning oven, the crispy exterior is dotted with fragrant rosemary, coarse sea salt and glorious puddles of extra virgin olive oil. The focaccia, like many of the dishes at Felix, represents the simple beauty inherent in Italian cooking, a partnership of good ingredients and right timing. It’s also quite possibly the best loaf of bread you can get your hands on.
Some pasta favorites include the pappardelle bolognese and the cacio e pepe. For something hearty with bits of freshness, try the orecchiette from southern Italy. Al dente “little ear” noodles hold up remarkably well to the meaty richness of the sausage ragu. Charred broccolini create a fresh, bittersweet balance while the pepperoncini creates a distinct heat that underlines throughout. The dish is a spot-on marriage between texture and flavor, topped with shavings of mild Pecorino cheese. If there’s room, conclude your vicarious trip to Italy with a bowl of espresso-drenched tiramisu.
A perfect ending to your night in Venice awaits at El Primo Tacos on Lincoln Blvd. Known to locals as the “bootleg taco stand,” this streetside establishment grills up generous, mouthwatering portions of meat on freshly toasted tortillas — for a mere $1 a pop.
Cheap and delicious, tacos are quintessential LA comfort food. But the folks behind Bootleg Tacos have it down to a science. The smell of grilled meat wafts over from blocks away — a large, bubbling cauldron of marinating carnitas and an illuminated spit of juicy, dripping pork attract taco-hungry locals like moths to a flame.
Choose from traditional carnes like al pastor, asada and pollo. Or try the chorizo, suadero and carnitas for more complex flavors. Buche, lengua and cabeza are also on hand for real taco aficionados.
Then head to the topping table and pile on the goodies: limes, radishes, cilantro, chopped habanero and pickled red onions. For salsas, the triple threat of essentials is there: a smoky red, a sweet green, and a creamy avocado.
You can even ask for a quesadilla tostada, your choice of meat and a handful of cheese, grilled between two tortillas. And make sure to wash all that grub down with their sweet and creamy horchata, also priced at $1 each.
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