Chances are, if you find yourself in Venice Beach, you were likely lured there by the promise of first-rate people watching along the boardwalk, cheap sunglasses, a sunny day on the sand, or a good meal at any number of its trendy restaurants. All worthy adventures, but there’s also an off-the-beaten path attraction worth a detour between slurping gourmet ice cream and marveling at the sculpted bodybuilders at the open-air gym. The Venice Canals are one of the city’s quirkiest neighborhoods as well as a picturesque reminder of the grandiose beginnings of Southern California as a tourist destination.
History of The Neighborhood
More than 100 years ago, Venice of America was the brainchild of Abbot Kinney, a New Jersey transplant who came to California with big dreams and deep pockets lined with tobacco money.
According to legend and a KCET documentary, Kinney wound up in Los Angeles on his way back from a business trip to Asia and had the best sleep of his life in a local hotel. This convinced him to move west. He purchased a large plot of saltwater marshlands, and in 1904, began excavating and dredging what was to become his pedestrian-friendly, Italy-inspired coastal playground, complete with seven canals, four islands, a large saltwater lagoon, miniature railroad, Italianate buildings with colonnades and a roller coaster.
The development opened to much fanfare on July 4, 1905. Red Cars (trolleys) transported people from downtown to the beach. (The concrete bridge they crossed over still stands on present-day Venice Boulevard and the old station was converted into the Windward Hotel.) Gondolas with imported gondoliers ferried folks around the canals and to vacation cabins.
Connected to the Grand Canal, a second set of canals appeared south of the originals, apparently built to capitalize on the Kinney’s success. By 1910, realtors Strong & Dickinson and Robert Marsh & Co were selling lots in the new watery Short Line subdivision. These channels are the only ones that remain liquid today.
By 1920, more visitors were arriving by car, parking was scarce, and the area had been constructed for walkers not wheels. Business owners and the city teamed up and proposed filling in the canals, which also suffered from poor circulation and ensuing pollution, converting them to streets and paying for it by levying a special assessment on residential holdings. Homeowners fought back and litigation lasted for four years. In the end, the California Supreme Court sided with Venice, which had by then consolidated with the city of LA.
LA went ahead with the plan and the canals became paved roads (now known as Market, Main, San Juan, Grand and Windward) and the lagoon became a traffic circle by the end of 1929. The under-populated Short Line was spared only because they couldn’t raise enough funds via property assessments.
Now the canals are comprised of six waterways: Carroll, Linnie, Howland, Sherman, Eastern, and Grand. Approximately one and a half miles in length and 50 feet in width, they form a grid and three residential islands now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cars can access homes via Dell Avenue’s four bridges, and pedestrians can use nine footbridges.
By 1940, the deteriorated sidewalks were closed to the public. Thankfully a major ‘90s restoration project replaced them, deepened the canals, added a saltbush barrier and rebuilt the sides of the channels. Today, it’s a perfect place to amble as pathways meander over quaint bridges and past a duck pond, a children’s play area, landscaped yards, a monarch butterfly garden, and an extremely wide variety of architecture from multi-story concrete boxes, and vintage bungalows to castles with turrets.
Its designation as a wildlife preserve has once again made it popular with herons, egrets, coots, pelicans, and subsequently, birders. The water quality is now maintained through twice-weekly natural tidal flushing cycles. Occasionally, seals and leopard sharks venture in through open tidal gates.
Venice Beach Walking Tours offers organized strolls, but the area is easily self-guided. A good starting point is at the corner of Washington and Strongs Drive, where a sign marks the enclave’s entrance. There are no official boat rentals, but there is a public boat launch open from 9 am to 6 pm for non-motorized watercraft.
When to Go
It can be visited year-round thanks to LA’s mostly mild weather. Even in the dead of summer, the proximity to the ocean and the marine layer overhead help keep the beach community several degrees cooler than its inland neighbors. Spring is the optimal time to visit as plants are in full bloom and baby ducks are plentiful. The July 4thweekend is often celebrated with a rubber duck race and wind-powered “boat” regatta.
Residents, many of which are creatives and artists, go all out in December, with house and bridge-decorating contests and an almost 40-year-old annual holiday boat parade where costumed captains navigate the waterways in tricked-out canoes, paddleboards, rafts, kayaks, and dinghies, and bands perform from floating decks.
Tourists can see what remains of Kinney’s Italianate facades and arcades near Pacific and Windward avenues as well as the replica of the hanging letters that spell out Venice as they did back in the day. Most are now bars, cafes, juice joints, tattoo parlors, eateries, and markets.
Skate or bike the boardwalk. Watch iron pumping at Muscle Beach. Take a Hornblower cruise in the bay. Do serious damage at the indie stores that line Abbot Kinney Boulevard, including Burro, Gorjana or Heist before getting a foodie fix at Gjelina, Blue Star Donuts, Felix, Humphrey Slocombe Ice Cream or The Tasting Kitchen.
Where to Stay
Hotel Erwin, with its funky décor, rooftop lounge and ocean views, puts you right in the thick of it all and is within walking distance of the canals. You can also score a package with surf lessons.