This post is installment one in what we can call “the home tour,” because it just so happens that Southern California is my home sweet home.
Long Beach is an interesting city to live in, and it can be an intriguing place to visit as well. The city has somewhat of a double personality—though it sits just north of the Orange County border, affectionately known as the “Orange Curtain,” some parts of Long Beach imbibe the casual elegance of Orange County’s affluence. On the other side of Redondo, however, the city quickly transitions into the eclectic style of Los Angeles County.
I’ve lived in Long Beach off and on for most of my life, and I’m still discovering new sides of the city. Below is a list of my ten favorite places to explore in the city, adjusted to the budget of nearly broke.
1. Visit History at the Rancho Los Alamitos
I found it somewhat disarming the first time I drove between Cal State Long Beach and the 405 freeway and up into the gated community of Bixby Hills, only to find myself standing on an 1800s cattle ranch that once covered all those city streets. This recently refurbished rancho house embodies the history of Long Beach—originally an adobe shelter for ranchers, the house transitioned into a lavish estate in the 1920s once oil was discovered along the coast. Today, the rancho hosts a variety of historical and cultural events.
The best reason to visit the Rancho, though, is the grounds. The ranch house sits on four acres of lush landscaping modeled after the 1920s and 30s ranch house style. There are long brick walkways, cool patios, a cactus garden, and even an old tennis court pillowed by grape vines. I’m especially partial to the large magnolia trees on the front lawn. A barn in back houses a beautiful white draft horse as well as other barnyard animals and some old carriages.
The Rancho is a great place to spend an hour or two, and provides a great backdrop for pictures—my sister, a wedding photographer for Ambrosia Event Services, sometimes brings couples here for engagement shoots. Admission is free, although donations are encouraged.
2. Stroll and Savor Belmont Shore
Belmont Shore, like the nearby Seal Beach, exists as a synthesis between the smooth affluence of Orange County and the eclecticism of LA beaches. Belmont Shore is an old beach community without the beach—though the breakwater of the Long Beach port keeps waves to a few inches, the nearby Alamitos Bay provides a good excuse for bathing suits and bare feet. The area centers around 2nd Street, a half-mile stretch of shops with everything from clothing stores to gift shops. Unlike many of the touristy areas of the coast, though, this street is used by locals and visitors alike.
The best time to visit Belmont Shore is during Stroll and Savor, a monthly summer event in which the dozens of restaurants on 2nd street offer sidewalk specials. You pay with coupons—one coupon book is $10 for 12 coupons, and if you’re careful it’s possible to split a coupon book between two people. The best deal is George’s Greek Café, which offers a plate of delicious Greek food for 4 coupons. Nicks has also started offering an innovative waffle/chicken/bacon sandwich that is as sinfully delicious as it sounds. And, of course, you can’t leave Stroll and Savor without getting a cinnamon roll from Sweet Jill’s.
3. Kayak in Alamitos Bay
Alamitos Bay, the main highlight of Belmont Shore, forms a harbor that wraps around the manmade island of Naples. In summer it transforms into quite the hotspot, attracting boaters, stand-up paddleboarders, intertubers, swimmers and kayakers. You might recognize parts of the bay from various shows and movies—Dexter loves to film here, as does CSI Miami and the makers of such classics as Killer Piranha and Megashark vs. Giant Octopus. If you look closely, you might even recognize the scene of Gilligan’s infamous three-hour tour.
My favorite way to explore the bay is from the top of a kayak. Kayak rentals are available at “horny corners,” a bend of beach along Bayshore named for the college students that congregate here on holiday weekends. Kayak rentals usually cost about $7 an hour per person. Just across the bay from horny corners is Naples, a large manmade island with a short loop of canals. I love to take people through the canals to look at the houses, and if the tide is high enough you can even try to jump off one of the bridges (only jump if the water is high enough to cover all the mussels—and bridge jumping is not exactly legal, so you didn’t hear it from me).
If you’re willing to take the kayaks out for more than an hour, head north under the 2nd Street bridge and continue across the next open area of the bay. From here you’ll be able to turn right into Marina Pacifica, a shopping center with docks behind the stores. Pull your kayak up onto the farthest public dock, and you can walk to Chipotle or Starbucks for a quick lunch. Or, head left to Spinnaker Bay, and you might be lucky enough to see some of the moon jellies that live at the end of the canal. They don’t really sting, so you can even touch them or swim with them so long as you are gentle.
A word to the wise: if you decide to kayak, start early. The wind typically picks up around noon and builds steadily until the late afternoon, and it can be frustrating trying to move a kayak against the wind.
4. See the Water from the AquaLink
I love the water, but there’s only so much of it that you can see from shore and boats cost a fortune. That’s why I was glad to discover the AquaLink a few years back—it’s the perfect way to get out on the water for just a few dollars. Fare is only $5 a person and timetables can be found on the Long Beach Transit webpage. To get the longest ride, catch the AquaLink from Alamitos Bay Landing and ride to the Aquarium of the Pacific. From there, you can walk around the shops of Shoreline Village or stroll around the lighthouse park. Depending on your budget, you could also see a movie at the Pike or visit the Aquarium of the Pacific. Afterwards, take a bus back to Alamitos Landing, or bring a bike over on the boat and ride back along the bike path and side streets.
5. Sip a Rosewater Mocha at the Greenhouse
When I go to a coffee shop, I don’t buy coffee—I pay rent. I’m always on the lookout for fun new coffee shops with the ambience to last through a long writing session, but that search ended the moment I found the Greenhouse. As far as hipster coffee shops go, this one is the best. Located in a historic stone building, it has beautiful arched windows and an upstairs portion entwined with potted ivy. The ambience is artistic but comfortable, and the people-watching is prime. If that wasn’t enough, the coffee is great as well—I’m a special fan of the rosewater mocha.
6. Discover your Artsiness through Creative Reuse
Just a short walk from the Greenhouse you’ll find the Long Beach Depot for Creative Reuse. This place serves as the back cupboard that all artsy people keep hidden away—the place where you stick everything that you “might” use in a crafty project some day. With this store, you don’t need that cupboard. The Depot operates as a non-profit designed to help people recycle unwanted goods in creative ways. They have all the little things that you just might need—wine bottle corks, holiday stamps, shards of plastic, old books, playing cards, etc. I’ve spent hours piecing together new projects amid old records and seashells. The prices are so low they’re hardly worth mentioning, and the possibilities are truly endless. Just be sure to come in with an idea of what you might want to make—a picture frame, or a cupholder, or a flower pot, for instance—or you might find the options overwhelming.
7. Slide Down Vintage Clothes at La Bomba
Picture this: an assortment of vintage clothes ranging from the interesting to the completely absurd. Jumpsuits, letter jackets, plaid pants. Mumus and jumpers. Fur trenchcoats. A kilt.
Now, put all those clothes in a pile fifteen feet long, six feet tall, and eight feet wide. Then price everything from two to five dollars.
Ready, set, go.
You’ve just imagined the monthly pile sale at La Bomba, a vintage clothing store on 4th Street. Throughout the month, employees will toss back anything with a minor tear or stain or a too-weird-to-sell look. Then, once a month, they open the doors and let anyone interested rifle through the spoils.
The pile is hilarious, overwhelming, and kind of gross. It’s entirely responsible for my awkward high school stage. But, the grossness is all worth it when you summersault off of an 80s prom dress to snag your very own motorcycle jacket.
8. Peruse the Produce at the Farmers’ Market
I am forever a fan of Farmers’ Markets, and this point will probably make it on to every one of these lists I write, anywhere. Although there are a number of Farmers’ Markets in Long Beach, my favorite is the one on Sunday mornings along the Alamitos Bay Marina. The highlight of the Long Beach farmers’ market is the flowers—one stand offers some small bouquets for only $2. The attached Arts and Crafts Fair also has some great ideas for future crafts. This is one of my favorite ways to spend a morning, and the location is superb.
9. Remember Nature at the El Dorado Nature Center
Long Beach is many things, but it not a place known for natural beauty. Except, that is, within the two miles of trails at the El Dorado Nature Center. In a city where the only wildness comes from the sea, the El Dorado Nature Center gives a taste of what the land might look like without Southern California’s urban sprawl. As a kid, I was awed by this place, and even wrote my first poem here at the age of eight (“A walk in the wild / is what I like best / a fish in the stream, / a bird in the nest,” and such other originalities). You can almost pretend you’re out of reach of the city beyond. It’s a helpful place to re-define what is natural, and “normal”—I love the displacement that occurs when the distant roar of the 605 freeway becomes something foreign. I highly recommend this park for anyone wanting to remember what the real Southern California looks like. Parking is $7.
10. Walk up a River to find—a Sea Turtle?
Last but not least, we come to one of the weirdest places in the Long Beach area hosting one of the most unlikely of residents—sea turtles. A population of green sea turtles, the same species that resides in Hawaii, has lived for several years in the waters of Long Beach.
Only, they live a mile into the city.
Up an urban river.
In the outflow of a power plant.
It can be shocking to see such an exotic animal surfacing at the edge of industrial discharge amid brown-flecked foam. Yet the ocean water that the power plant uses to cool its machinery is released into the river to create an elevated water temperature that, it seems, is just what the sea turtles want.
Seeing the turtles requires patience, as they only surface briefly ever few minutes. To reach the sea turtles, park on PCH next to the San Gabriel River and walk along the bike path to the base of the power plant. Look for the turtles amid the white columns of warm water.
Do you have any memories from Long Beach? What are your favorite places to visit?