A low-key starting point is Venice, a neighborhood that feels indie to the core. Originally planned to reflect its Italian namesake, the area was developed at the turn of the 20th century, complete with canals. Abbot Kinney, the businessman who dreamed this up, is now the name of a boulevard with a fantastic, walkable string of shops and cafes. It’s the kind of place where you might spot a cool bicycle parked next to a Rolls Royce.
You won’t find any chain stores here (knock on wood) but instead, everything from vintage surfboards to extravagant perfumes. At Tortoise (1208 Abbot Kinney Blvd., 310-314-8448), you can browse Japanese crafts, while A+R (1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd., 310-392-9128) buzzes with all sorts of cool modern housewares. Hit Surfing Cowboys (1624 Abbot Kinney Blvd., 310-450-4891) for vintage surf gear, posters and hula girls.
To refine the fine art of hanging out, nab a table at 3 Square (1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd., 310-399-6504) and order up a pillowy apple pancake or pulled-pork hash. Or step into the quiet garden of Jin Patisserie (1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd., 310-399-8801) and indulge in a chocolate-ginger custard.
If this all seems too mellow, head west to Muscle Beach along the Venice Boardwalk (1800 Ocean Front Walk), where the bodybuilders, skaters and sun-dried eccentrics always draw a crowd.
Just north of Venice, you’ll cross the border into the city (or People’s Republic) of Santa Monica. Just as the PCH starts to skirt the ocean, you’ll see the century-old Santa Monica Pier arrowing out into the Pacific. It’s hard not to feel a surge of Beach Boys-esque affection for this old-fashioned attraction.
The first wave of high-pitched squeals and giggles comes from the 1922 Looff Carousel (310-458-8900, $1), spinning by the pier’s entrance. It’s a favorite among parents and their five-and-under chaperones. A louder roar builds as you walk out towards Pacific Park (310-260-8744, $21.95 for a day pass) at the end of the pier. This small amusement park gives you great ocean views at two speeds: from the swooping roller coaster or the solar-powered Ferris wheel. There are plenty of games, rides, and bumper cars underfoot, but keep in mind that this is not a squeaky-clean theme park.
If this is too tame for you, take a flying leap - with a trapeze at Trapeze School New York (310-394-5800, classes start at $47 plus a $22 registration fee). The outdoor rig stands next to Pacific Park and hosts classes when weather allows, which is most of the time.
A few minutes’ drive further up the coast brings you to the fabulous, Gidget-bright Annenberg Community Beach House (415 Pacific Coast Hwy., 310-458-4904). Opened in 2009, this public beach club rose on what had been the estate of notorious power couple Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s.
A few Golden Age elements remain: the ornately tiled swimming pool and the columned Guest House, which now displays exhibits on Davies and Hearst. Wrapped around these is a modern setting, including a café, a play area, and an expansive pool house with changing rooms and cabana areas. Bike rentals, yoga classes, and beach volleyball keep things humming beyond the pool. While the architecture is sleekly minimalist, its sunny shades of yellow, blue, lime green and sunburn red make the complex feel playful. And you can tell your friends you swam where Charlie Chaplin once splashed around.
When you’re ready to get a big-picture view on things, peel off the PCH at Sunset Boulevard and make your way up to Will Rogers State Historic Park (1501 Will Rogers State Park Rd., 310-454-8212, $12 parking). The namesake actor, cowboy, and radio star built his dream house on these acres, ranching and playing polo with Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and other silver-screen friends. Now the hilltop park is a local favorite for hiking, cycling, picnicking, and playing soccer - and you’ll be able to ditch the hordes of beachfront tourists.
You can tour the 1920s ranch house but the real draw is the chance to hike into the hills on the easy three-mile loop trail to Inspiration Point. At the point, you can gaze out at the Pacific, the curve of the beaches along the bay, and over to the spiky skyscrapers of downtown L.A. From here, it’s easy to contradict Rogers’s quip, “it’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit there.”
Up in the Malibu hills sits a dream house of a different kind. The Getty Villa Malibu (17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., 310-440-7300, $15 for parking) was originally a Roman fantasy come to life, the work of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. In the 1970s, Getty recreated a Herculaneum villa on these oceanfront slopes and opened a museum for his impressive collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. In 2006, after nearly a decade of renovations, the villa reopened and has been dazzling visitors ever since.
The building echoes the Villa dei Papiri, a first-century Roman country house, complete with fountains, mosaics, peristyle gardens, and a Temple of Herakles. Wandering through the rooms, you’ll see graceful marble and bronze statues of gods and athletes, gleaming vases and urns, and delicate jewelry and glass. A new addition, an open-air amphitheater, yawns beside the villa, ready for summertime theater performances or simply sunbathing when the weather’s nice.
To get your Greek on, however, you will have to plan ahead. Admission is on a timed-entry system and parking is limited, so tickets can sell out several days in advance. It’ll be worth it, though, when you’re strolling beneath the olive trees, glimpsing the ocean and pretending it’s the Mediterranean.
Have you looked at the map of Los Angeles and felt overwhelmed? Is the ganglion web of freeways swimming before your eyes? The 405 freeway, the 110, the 101 - that nest of intersections around downtown can give you vertigo. Before you panic and cancel your rental car, look to the western edge of the map and focus on the essential number: Highway 1. This Pacific Coast Highway threads through several of L.A.’s coastal communities, linking such disparate areas as scruffy-chic Venice and Hollywood-blueblood Malibu. If you use this route as your conduit, your explorations will fall happily into place.