There aren't many resources for gay travelers focused specifically on Santa Monica, Venice, and coast; however, this is part of metro Los Angeles, which has is one of the world's centers of GLBT culture. There are numerous gay newspapers and publications serving the general area, and West Hollywood is the hub of the region's gay scene. Long Beach Gay also has a gay culture on that part of the coast.
Other gay L.A. resources that are useful even to the coast include the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and the popular gay newspapers Frontiers and Lesbian News. The Los Angeles Times is the city's best mainstream news source, and L.A. Weekly is a terrific alternative newsweekly.
For tourism info, check out the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau visitor site, an incredibly useful guide to the area. Venice is part of the city of Los Angeles, and you can find out more at the Los Angeles CVB visitor site which has a guide specifically on the L.A. Beach cities.
Getting to Know Santa Monica
From the '30s until the '50s, the section of Santa Monica just south of where Wilshire Boulevard hits Pacific Coast Highway was known as Queer Alley. Today, you'd never know that this primarily straight, white, and professional area was an early bastion of gay society, a land of bathhouses, cruising, and nude sunbathing. Just off the beach a huge gay bar, the Tropical Village, drew everybody from navy men to closeted celebrities to resident authors Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender. With encroaching gentrification and police crackdowns, the area lost much of its vogue among queers by the '60s.
Gay residents are still most definitely a presence in Santa Monica, but with nowhere near the presence they have in West Hollywood, Silver Lake, and some other parts of Los Angeles. This is still a quite welcoming, liberal community, though, and with a longstanding feminist scene, too. And with the influx in recent years of stellar restaurants and design-driven hotels, Santa Monica has steadily become a favorite gay getaway for couples, beachgoers, and those wanting a more relaxed Los Angeles vacation.
The Santa Monica Pier and the small stretch of Broadway a few blocks east are lined with arcades, gift shops, and colorful—if touristy—diversions. Despite the crowds and occasionally schlocky amusements, Santa Monica's pier and oceanfront make for a good stroll. There's an aquarium, carousel, arcade, and the Pacific Park Amusement Park, too. A fun bit of trivia: Historic Route 66 officially ends its 2,450-mile meander from Chicago right by the pier, at Lincoln and Olympic boulevards.
Near the beach, downtown Santa Monica abounds with lively dining and retail. The 3rd Street Promenade, a busy pedestrian mall south of Wilshire Boulevard, is worth checking out. It's home to the wonderful Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, as well as the swanky new Santa Monica Place shopping and retail center (anchored by Nordstrom and Bloomingdales). And along Montana Avenue, from about 7th to 20th streets, you'll find great, mostly reasonably priced boutiques, cafes, and coffeehouses.
Head south to near the Venice border, and you'll reach one of L.A's best neighborhoods for walking, Ocean Park. Along Main Street, from about Pico Boulevard south to Marine Street (at the Venice border), you'll find a quirky and inviting assortment of galleries, shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses. One highlight is architect Frank Gehry's Edgemar Center for the Arts, a stark geometric complex of cafes, shops, galleries, and courtyards.
Interior Santa Monica is mostly a bedroom suburb, worth investigating if only to visit the excellent Santa Monica Museum of Art, which presents rotating contemporary exhibits; and to check out Highways Performance Space, long associated with the outrageous Tim Miller, is one of the country's top venues for against-the-grain dance, theater, performance art, and comedy, much of it queer-produced.
Getting to Know Venice Beach
Hipsters, in-line skaters, surfers, artists, performers, and slackers mill about the boardwalk and intermittently gentrified and patchy streets of Venice Beach. This what many consider to be L.A.'s East Village or Haight-Ashbury by the sea—indeed, it was a haven of counter-culture and members of the Beat Generation during the '50s and '60s, as well as avant-garde artists and graffiti experts, like the late gay artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, in the '80s. Secondhand clothing and music stores, piercing and tattoo parlors, health-food stores, and outdoor markets still line some of the streets near the beach, as do a few art galleries and theaters. The famed 1.5-mile Venice Boardwalk, which curves along the stunning beachfront, still offers some of the most colorful people-watching in California, from street performers to ripped gym bunnies to fortunetellers. At the Washington Boulevard end of the beach, a 1,300-foot fishing pier juts into the sea. The structure was nearly razed after falling into disrepair in the '80s, but it was fully restored and reopened in 1997.
The community (actually a neighborhood within the city of Los Angeles) is less polished than its northern neighbor, the incorporated city of Santa Monica, but life here is fairly stress-free, and the trend factor—especially along the inland commercial thoroughfare of Abbot Kinney Boulevard—has increased markedly over the past decade. Venice also has a handful of noteworthy restaurants and hotels.
Be aware that Venice is less conducive to car traffic than most communities in metro Los Angeles. The streets are narrow and the traffic is heavy on weekends and even sunny weekdays; it's best to park by the beach and see the community on foot. Venice had an unfortunate reputation for crime and transients right through the mid-nineties, but it has cleaned up considerably in recent years, especially the neighborhoods near the beach. That being said, don't leave valuables in your car, and stick to well-lit thoroughfares.
For a vague sense of Venice circa 1905, when the eccentric cigarette magnate Abbot Kinney developed the city as a California version of Italy's Venice—complete with a 16-mile-long canal system—walk along Dell Avenue from Washington Street to Venice Boulevard. You'll cross over four of the canals the Kinney had constructed, each of them crossed by gently arching bridges. Many of the homes here have little boats along the canals, which were restored about 20 years ago. The neighborhood now comprises the Venice Canal Historic District.
The north end of Venice, around Rose Avenue and Main Street, leads into the hip Santa Monica shopping and dining district of Ocean Park.
Overview of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, Including Will Rogers Beach
Miles of beautiful and relatively undeveloped beaches lie north of Santa Monica, mostly fringing the exclusive communities of Pacific Palisades and Malibu.
Along the coast near the Santa Monica–Pacific Palisades town line, you'll find the most famous gay beach in greater Los Angeles, located at the nearly 2-mile-long Will Rogers State Beach (15900 Pacific Coast Hwy., at Temescal Canyon Road). A festive atmosphere prevails on most sunny days, especially around the gay section, known affectionately as "Ginger Rogers Beach." To find this area, head toward the southern part of the beach (closer to Santa Monica, and roughly across from Patrick's Roadhouse restaurant, which has a bit of a GLBT following. It's a zoo on weekends when the volleyball courts are packed with gorgeous creatures. Passing through this stretch is a 20-mile biking, jogging, and inline skating path. You can rent bikes at the Santa Monica Pier. One happy perk about Will Rogers State Beach: you can usually find free parking along Pacific Coast Highway.
The rugged coastline now occupied by Malibu wasn't developed until the late '20s. It remained a bit of a backwater until moneyed movie-industry types began trading their inland estates for seaside palaces, constructing some of the most expansive and expensive homes on the West Coast. The area, which is occasionally plagued by floods, wildlife fires, and mudslides, is home to the Getty Villa section of the Getty Center art museum, a re-creation of the 1st-century Roman Villa of the Papyri, which had been preserved for 1,700 years under the lava crust of Mount Vesuvius. Appropriately, the museum contains one of the nation's foremost collections of Roman, Greek, and Etruscan antiquities. The gardens surrounding the museum are also laid out to resemble those of Ancient Rome. Admission to the Getty Villa is free (parking is $7), but by reservation only, and it's advisable that you book well advance (at least one month). Note that the museum's post-classical collection is housed in the dramatic, Richard Meier-designed Getty Center in nearby Brentwood.
Pacific Palisades developed into something of a European think tank during the 1920s through the 1940s, when artists, architects, and intellectuals settled in the area, many of them having fled the terrors of Nazi Germany. Stunning homes built during this period still dot the rocky hills and sharp canyons above Pacific Coast Highway. The winding lanes off Chautaugua and Sunset boulevards are ideal for checking out the scenery.
Note that you can continue all the way up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu and Oxnard until you hit the U.S. 101, which leads up to beautiful Santa Barbara.
Exploring Coastal L.A., south of Venice Beach to Long Beach
South of Venice, the city of Marina del Rey—with its endless supply of beach bars, houseboats, and breezy restaurants—is a popular coastal residential area, albeit without much of the artsy vibe or color of its neighbors to the north. Continuing south, residential El Segundo is largely overlooked except by passengers traveling to and from the airport, LAX. Below here, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach are three middle-class suburbs—there is one gay bar in the area, the Dolphin, in Redondo Beach.
The final communities you reach before hitting the seaport city of Long Beach are the posh and stunningly situated clifftop residential compounds of Palos Verde Estates, a planned community laid out in the '30s with the guidance of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and similarly beautiful Rancho Palos Verdes. Near the coast in Rancho Palos Verdes, amid lush ferns and azaleas, is the glass Wayfarers Chapel, designed by architect Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. The community is also home to one of the swankiest resorts in Southern California, the posh Terranea.
A deep-water port was created in Long Beach in 1925, and quickly one of the major shipping centers on the West Coast was born. The city has one of the largest gay communities in California, something that probably has a great deal to do with the town's strong navy history during World War II. Owing largely to its scenic shoreline, Long Beach has one of the West's most popular Pride events—Long Beach Gay Pride is held in late May.
If you ever watched TV's corny '80s dating game show Love Connection, you've probably heard these words: "...and then, Chuck, we took the ferry to Catalina Island." This diminutive resort island about 20 miles off the shores of Long Beach has long been a getaway for hapless straight people on blind dates!
That aside, a day trip or even overnight to Catalina Island is good fun. Festivities center around the village of Avalon, which was first championed by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. The Wrigley family developed Catalina into a gaming resort. Wrigley moved his Chicago Cubs here each March for spring training. This introduced a young sports reporter from the Midwest named Ronald Reagan to the joys of California. This isn't a real hotbed of gay culture, but plenty of GLBT visitors come over to explore this beautiful little island. Catalina Express runs about 30 ferries daily from Long Beach (the trip takes an hour each way). There's a visitor info kiosk at Pleasure Pier, in Avalon, and Catalina does have a number of overnight accommodations, including the very gay-friendly Avalon Hotel.
Santa Monica and Venice Restaurant Guide
Operated by one of the most renowned and popular lesbian chefs in the country, Susan Feniger, along with her similarly talented culinary partner, Mary Sue Milliken, Border Grill is a must for creatively prepared contemporary Mexican fare, including adobo-roasted lamb tacos with manchego and chorizo-crusted mahimahi with white bean and roasted jalapeno puree.
Among the many other culinary notables in downtown Santa Monica, consider sleek BOA for decadently prepared chops and steaks; and casual but chic Blue Plate Oysterette for superb raw-bar fare, including ceviche, crudo, and ahi sandwiches. On a quiet downtown side street, Bar Pintxo has earned deserved acclaim for authentic Spanish tapas and wines, and Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen delights fans of well-chosen vino and farm-to-table cuisine.
You'll find several more casual dining spots along the 3rd Street Promenade pedestrian area, and on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, you can snack on the fresh baked goods, cheese, and produce of the legendary Santa Monica Farmers Market. Over on Montana Avenue, retro-cool Father's Office is de rigueur among fans of burgers and well-crafted gastro-pub fare.
Santa Monica has several much-lauded French restaurants, including the Michelin two-star Melisse, acclaimed for its 10-course tasting menu, and bilevel Jiraffe. Keep your eyes open for celebrating celebs at either of these. The old-school Warszawa is a favorite destination for hearty, classically prepared Polish cuisine, like braised-beef pierogis and bigos, the stick-to-your-ribs hunter's stew. It's worth the trip a few miles inland to the small Santa Monica Airport to feast on stellar Pan-Asian cuisine at Typhoon. Come for lunch, when you can watch small planes landing and taking off (the dining room overlooks the runway). Note such Fear Factor-inspired oddities as Singapore-style scorpions and Thai silk-worm pupae on the menu.
In Ocean Park, you'll find numerous cafes and restaurants along Main Street. The funky World Cafe, with its lush enclosed patio, is a favorite for brunch and lunch. The bright-yellow-colored facade of Wildflour is easy to spot; inside, you can sample outstanding pizzas by the pie or slice. Cross the border into Venice a few blocks and you'll come to the superb Rose Cafe & Market, where there's seating on a patio as well as at tall tables in inside, where plenty of patrons while away the afternoon on their laptops sipping latte and feasting on delicious sandwiches, salads, and fresh baked goods.
In the trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard section, 3 Square Cafe occupies a mod condo. It's the sister to downtown Santa Monica's famed Rockenwagner Bakery and Cafe. Lilly's, for nicely prepared French cuisine, is another favorite along increasingly renowned restaurant row. Near Venice boardwalk, 26 Beach Restaurant is an excellent dining option.
Santa Monica and Venice Hotel Guide
Among Santa Monica's great advantages as a vacation spot, it's home to some of the cushiest, hippest hotels in greater Los Angeles. Even if you're planning to spend a good bit of your time in other parts of the region, this is a great base, especially if you're fond of the ocean and seek a respite from the smog and traffic that characterizes many inland neighborhoods and communities.
For luxury, proximity to the beach and pier, and outstanding service, it's hard to beat the Loews Santa Monica Beach, with its large and sunny rooms, many with water views and even balconies and patios. All units have swanky bathrooms with separate glass showers and deep soaking tubs. You can also admire the beach from the soaring windows of the hotel's atrium lobby, take a dip in the large ocean-view pool, or dine at one of three excellent restaurants. There's also a first-rate, full-service spa.
Just a few blocks from both the beach and downtown, the stylish Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica (part of the hip Starwood brand) rises nine stories above a relatively peaceful, mostly residential neighborhood that's centrally located and handy to many attractions. This former Sheraton received a snazzy makeover to become Le Meridien; rooms have chic white headboards, aqua-hued chairs and curtains, and retro-cool lamps. Opt for one of the rooms with a spacious balcony looking toward the ocean. Amenities include two very good restaurants, a fitness center, and a beautiful outdoor pool with cabana rentals
Other upscale properties of note include the discreetly upscale Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, where it's hard to choose between an ocean view from the 10-story tower or one of the serene and romantic garden bungalows; the boldly decorate Viceroy Santa Monica (sister to the hip and similarly gay-popular Viceroy Palm Springs); and the dramatic blue tower, the intimate (84 rooms) Georgian Hotel, one Santa Monica's alluring deco beauties, dating to 1933.
A quirky, moderately priced, and very interesting historic hotel that has something of a gay following, the Palihouse Santa Monica Hotel (formerly known as the Embassy Hotel Apartments)—carved out of a 1920s Moorish Revival apartment building—has enormous rooms with full kitchens and distinctive furnishings. The three-story building also opens around a lushly landscaped courtyard. It's in a residential neighborhood where it's fairly easy to find street parking, yet you're still within a pleasant stroll of downtown, Palisades Park, and the Santa Monica Pier.
Other gay-welcoming, less-expensive options include the beautifully renovated Wyndham Santa Monica at the Pier, steps from the pier, and the economical but well-maintained Travelodge Santa Monica Pico Boulevard.
You won't find too many accommodations in Venice, but one excellent option is the Hotel Erwin, a natty beachfront boutique hotel. Amenities include the romantic High Rooftop Lounge. Another good bet is the attractively priced Inn at Venice Beach, an olive- and slate-hued stucco building with comfortable rooms a short walk from the Boardwalk.
A sophisticated and rather underrated gem just south of Venice (within walking distance, in fact) in Marina del Rey, the Jamaica Bay Inn, deserves kudos for its charming bay-front setting and smartly decorated, contemporary, Caribbean-inspired rooms.
Finally, if you're seeking a posh accommodation to the south with easy access to Long Beach and relative proximity to Venice and Santa Monica, the stunning Terranea Resort, in the tony community of Rancho Palos Verdes, is terrific all-around. Set on a secluded 102-acre bluff with panoramic ocean views, the resort contains a mix of over-the-top luxurious villas, casitas, and bungalows, plus an exceptional spa, several restaurants, and extensive recreational facilities. It feels miles away from urbanity.
Santa Monica and Venice Gay Nightlife Guide
Most of the gay bars in greater L.A. are clustered in a few areas, all of them a good 20 to 40 minutes away from Santa Monica and Venice by car: West Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Los Feliz, the San Fernando Valley, and the city of Long Beach.
Don't let this news leave you thinking you won't see gay people partying around Santa Monica and Venice—it's just that most of them are hanging out at the bars in some of the hipper restaurants and hotels around the area (see above), as well as mostly straight but gay-friendly hangouts like the festive and quite trendy Otheroom, in Venice—you may know the Otheroom from one of its four other locales in Miami Beach and NYC's West Village, TriBeCa, and SoHo neighborhoods. Another hot spot is the sexy High Rooftop Lounge at the gay-popular Hotel Erwin, one of the most enjoyable spots in California to watch the sunset.
As arts and cultural venues go, Santa Monica's famous Highways Performance Space and Gallery regularly presents queer-themed material among its edgy, provocative works.
If you're in the southern reaches of L.A.'s coastal region, you might also consider dropping by Artesia Bar, an easygoing neighborhood hangout (formerly known as the Dolphin) that's the only real GLBT option around Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Torrance, and Hermosa Beach. For a lot of folks, once they're this far down the coast, they just keep venturing south to Long Beach, which is home to several very fun gay nightspots, including Club Ripples, Silver Fox, and Hamburger Mary's.