Venice Beach, CA: A Sandy Seaside Circus

Jennifer Stern November 30, 2010 No Comments

Over the summer, our good friends and former next-door neighbors from New Jersey made the trip west to visit us in Burbank. They had less than a week to see and do a myriad of things here in Southern Califonia. However, their wish list of places to visit (besides our house, that is) was quite simple: Disneyland, and Venice Beach.
Venice Beach California

Sunny Venice Beach California


Venice Beach CA Sand

At Venice Beach with our best friends from New Jersey


Needless to say, Disneyland is a no-brainer for a family with two young boys–but what about Venice Beach as a kids’ destination? The land of hippies, freaks, skaters, muscleheads, and assorted other fruits and nuts? The town that gave birth to The Doors, and was a hub for the Beat generation in the ’50s and ’60s? My answer is ABSOLUTELY YES! 

Liz and Alex and their two young boys (ages 12 and 8) piled into the car with us and we headed down to the coast on one typically perfect Southern California day–85 and sunny, hard to beat. Surprisingly enough, the traffic wasn’t bad at all on either the 5 or the 405 freeways, and it only took us about 45 minutes to make it there from Burbank. Quite an auspicious start, I thought. 

When we arrived we took a cruise down Abbot Kinney Boulevard, named for the developer who founded “Venice-of-America” in 1905. Undoubtedly one of the best-known streets in Venice, it is a collection of hip boutiques, funky bookstores, and New Age shops and restaurants. We didn’t park and wander around, but I felt it set the tone for the bohemian, free-spirited nature of the town and what we were about to experience. 

Things became a bit more stressful when we tried to find parking on Venice’s infamously narrow streets. Parking is problematic–there’s no sugar-coating it. We ended up on the very top level of a parking structure on Washington Street and maneuvered into an extremely tight spot. Luke, our friends’ youngest son, has a serious fear of heights and had a mini-panic attack when we attempted to get him out of the car–it was a hairy situation for a while but we finally coaxed him out and down the stairs. 

Ocean Front Walk Spiderman Shades

Will models the Spiderman shades he got on Ocean Front Walk


Ocean Front Walk, more commonly known as the Boardwalk (a misnomer, really, since it is made of paved asphalt) is a veritable sensory overload of people, sight and sound. It’s this circus-like atmosphere that draws millions of people over the summer and on weekends especially. Street performers of every imaginable type are entertaining the crowds and getting them to shell out for it–dancers, acrobats, hip-hop dance troupes, mimes, musicians, jugglers, guitar-playing Rastafarians wearing inline skates–you name it, you will find it on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. The boys’ heads were swiveling so fast I feared they might snap off their necks–they literally did not know where to look first. 

Of course, there is a beach at Venice Beach; a rather lovely three-mile strip of sandy white, to be precise. But everyone knows you don’t go to Venice to go to the beach–or rather, not specifically to go to the beach. You go to people-watch, gawk, and shop. 

We walked slowly, taking in the show unfolding in front of our eyes. A jewelry-encrusted fortune teller here, a tattooed lady in a bikini walking her parrot there…and then Alex asked where Muscle Beach was, as he’d always wanted to see it. I grinned, remembering my first time seeing Muscle Beach, and knew it wouldn’t be quite what he had expected. I told him we would be approaching it shortly. And soon enough, “Muscle Beach” appeared on our left–not a beach, per se, but a rather small outdoor area containing a collection of free weights, barbells, benches and a chin-up bar, enclosed by a chain-link fence. A handful of hulking shirtless men were there, grunting and groaning as they showed off their muscle-bound prowess to the passers-by. I waited for Alex’s reaction. 

“That’s it? That’s Muscle Beach?” he exclaimed in astonishment, clearly disappointed. That’s what I knew he’d say, since that had been my own reaction when I first laid eyes on the world-famous place 20 years ago. “I know, you thought it was an actual beach, didn’t you?” I responded. “I did too!” We watched the brawny dudes perform their bench-presses and bicep curls for a few more minutes before moving on. 

Venice Beach Rollerblades and Skates

Rollerbladers and skaters dancing on the beach


I don’t think we had been on the Boardwalk for more than ten minutes before we were already spending money. It was such a brilliantly sunny day that we hit the first shop we saw and spent a good twenty minutes or more trying cool and crazy sunglasses on the kids. Will, my youngest, was torn between the Spongebob and Spiderman sunglasses but ultimately opted to go with Spidey. I was tempted to buy some as well, but since I already had two pairs of rather expensive shades I resisted the temptation. 

We moved on, passing shops selling everything from typical beach gear like swimwear and sunblock to jewelry stores and art galleries. I couldn’t resist the deals on handmade jewelry and ended up dropping five bucks on a multicolored beaded handmade bracelet that just happened to match my outfit! 

A few blocks later, we saw a large crowd gathered around on the Boardwalk and had to go find out what all the fuss was about. Pushing our way through, we found a hip-hop dance and acrobatics group of young men that was breakdancing, tumbling, telling jokes and gathering tips from the crowd. They were working so hard and were so obviously talented that we had the boys tuck a ten-dollar tip into one of their cups. 

All this people-watching and shopping had us working up a pretty good appetite, and we soon had to decide where to stop for lunch. Once again, the seemingly infinite variety of restaurants made it hard to choose. Pizza, Thai, Mexican, sushi, vegetarian, even vegan restaurants are available to satisfy all tastes. Jody Maroni’s (2011 Ocean Front Walk) is a very famous spot for sausages and hot dogs since opening in 1972. However, since we wanted more of a “sit-down” experience, we were steered towards Hal’s Bar and Grill (1349 Abbott Kinney Blvd.), a neighborhood restaurant/bar that is extremely popular with the locals. It was quite crowded inside, so we opted for an outdoor table for our party of nine. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of foot traffic as people were using the sidewalk (which is, to be fair, a public thoroughfare) as a cut-through. So it wasn’t exactly relaxing–but hey, that’s Venice for ya. 

Venice Beach Boardwalk

Ben and Luke on the Boardwalk


Fortunately, the food more than made up for this minor inconvenience, and we adults enjoyed very good Mexican and seafood dishes while the kids noshed on burgers, chicken nuggets and fries–standard kid fare with which they all seemed to be happy. 

We did make one serious mistake on this trip. My two older boys had begged me to be allowed to bring their skateboards on this trip. I said no, that there would be too many people on the boardwalk and that skating would be dangerous and just a bad idea. What I didn’t realize is the existence of the Venice Beach Skatepark, a 16,000 square-foot skatepark that happens to be one of the only such parks located on a beach. What had I been thinking? Venice Beach is the town that actually gave birth to modern skateboarding! I thought the boys would never let me live it down. After they had gotten over their initial upset, we sat and watched for quite a long time as dozens of skaters of all ages showed off their “ollies,” “pop shuvits,” “grinds,” “heel flips” and dozens of other skills in this nicely-kept venue, which features two bowls, a snake run, and a street section with stairs, rails and platforms. Let’s just say we will definitely be bringing the skateboards with us next time. 

Will, my 8-year-old and never the biggest sports fan to begin with, tired of watching the skaters after a time and wanted to walk back a couple of blocks to the playground, which also is conveniently located right on the beach. He spent a happy half-hour or more climbing, sliding, crawling through tunnels and making friends with other kids. 

Venice Beach Graffiti Walls

On top of the graffiti walls at the beach


While making our way up the beach, Will and I couldn’t help but stop and admire the walls painted by the Venice Beach graffiti artists, and I just had to take some pictures of them, since the prevailing theme that week just happened to be Will’s favorite superhero of all time, “the Hulk.” On any given day you can see the artists at work on the walls–they actually have licenses to paint the walls, and their work is quite a spectacular, ever-changing sight. 

Of course, no trip to Venice would be complete without actually getting some sand in between one’s toes, and then dipping them into the Pacific Ocean. We did have to dodge the many bikers, skaters, and joggers while crossing the bike path which winds its way down the beach–use extreme caution here! As usual it was all I could do to convince the kids not to wade completely into the ocean, as they didn’t have their swim trunks or a change of clothes–and I certainly didn’t want five soaking wet kids in the back of my car! (Second mental note: bring swimwear next time.) 

Venice Beach Artist Graffiti Walls

Local artists are licensed to paint the graffiti walls


By late afternoon we were about ready to wrap it up and head home. First, though, we enjoyed some ice cream at Venice Beach Ice Cream (517 Ocean Front Walk). On the leisurely stroll back to the car we caught a few minutes of a mime’s act, listened to a little jazz guitar, and saw some pretty intense one-on-one basketball (handball and paddleball courts are also available on the beach). 

I don’t think there’s any other place on earth that combines sun, sand, surf, shopping, dining, culture, and most of all–entertainment, quite like Venice Beach does. Our New Jersey friends left thoroughly satisfied that they’d had an experience unlike any other. So yes, definitely, bring the kids to Venice! (But don’t forget the skateboards. Or the swimsuits!)

avatarAbout the Author:

Jennifer Stern is a mom of three teen boys, who provide her with constant inspiration to write. She is also a fitness professional/junkie who teaches everything from Spinning to Zumba. A New Jersey native, this is her second time living in Southern California. She loves the L.A. lifestyle, but does miss eating decent pizza and bagels--so she consoles herself with excellent Mexican food. She and her family live in Burbank.

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