Located a little over 20 miles to the south of Los Angeles, the city of Long Beach is often overlooked as a travel destination. Contributing writer and Long Beach native Stephanie Ervin explains why this city of more than 460,000 people is worth a visit—and shares her tips for travelers.
In Defense of Long Beach
Whenever I tell someone who lives in Los Angeles that I live in Long Beach, their reaction is typically “You live all the way down there?” First of all, all the way down there is still in LA county. So, just on technical grounds, Long Beach is covered under the Los Angeles umbrella. But most important, the city is one of the best kept secrets of Los Angeles county, and for a growing number of people (both residents and visitors), Long Beach is becoming a destination of choice.
It’s Near Everything
While Long Beach has enough things to do to keep you busy for an entire trip, the city’s location on the Southern Californian coast also makes it a prime spot for people who want to hit the three major tour attractions in the area: Hollywood, Catalina Island, and Disneyland—you’re only about 40 minutes from anywhere you’d want or need to go.
For Catalina Island, a popular spot for locals and visitors alike, you can get there easily—and quickly if you need to—from Long Beach, either by boat or helicopter. Likewise, Disneyland is roughly a 30-minute drive from Long Beach. If you choose to buy a multi-day pass, there are hotels close to the park where you can break up your stay.
But Long Beach is no longer a place which you simply use as a home base—it is very much a desirable destination in and of itself.
Cultural Sites Worth Visiting
The Aquarium of the Pacific covers five acres and is one of the biggest draws in Long Beach—about 1.5 million people visit each year. The Aquarium houses marine life from various areas of the Pacific, and is also home to sharks, sea otters, stingrays, and birds. You may not identify the Aquarium of the Pacific from the outside—it was designed to look like crashing waves, and is located in Rainbow Harbor.
Located nearby is the Long Beach Convention Center, where you can find a building that was painted in 1992 by renowned marine life artist Wyland. The large murals of whales and sea life often confuse visitors, who upon first glance, believe it is the aquarium.
The Museum of Latin American Art (also known as MOLAA) features contemporary pieces from Latin American artists. You’ll find both sculptures and paintings, but this venue also hosts a variety of events, including informational lectures under the stars during the summer. If you’re looking for a unique keepsake, check out the Museum Store, where you’ll find jewelry, crafts, and children’s toys made by Latin American artisans and craftsmen.
Located just around the corner from MOLAA is the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, which is also known as PIEAM. This museum pays tribute to one group in particular in Long Beach’s diverse community—the Pacific Islanders. The artwork mainly focuses on Micronesia, but the permanent collection also includes pieces from the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, to name a few.
Located in a craftsman-style house on a bluff, the Long Beach Museum of Art has a permanent collection and rotating exhibits. One of the best parts of this museum is the view—it’s situated on the edge of a bluff and overlooks the ocean. After walking through the exhibits, you can grab brunch at Claire’s, which is a great spot to sip mimosas and take in the ocean views. Afterward, head to the Museum Store to check out items made by local vendors.
Where to Stay
There are several neighborhoods within Long Beach worth visiting, and it helps to find out where you want to stay ahead of time. If you’re visiting friends, see if there are any smaller hotels, B&Bs, or even Airbnb locations nearby. If you want to stay in Downtown Long Beach, you have a few hotel options.
My recommendation is to look for a hotel near Pine Avenue, a street full of great restaurants, like King’s Fish House and Alegria Cocina Latina, and bars, such as The Federal Bar and BO-Beau kitchen + roof tap. Located a block away on the Promenade, you’ll find whiskey bar The Stave, Congregation Ale House, and Beachwood BBQ.
The Renaissance Hotel is located on a prime corner of Pine Avenue, and has several stories of rooms with views of the ocean. The hotel recently went through a remodel, and the modern lobby also houses SIP, a lounge featuring garden-to-glass cocktails and thoughtfully crafted small bites. A Westin, Hyatt Regency, and Courtyard Marriott are also a couple blocks away.
You’ll also find some shops downtown, including the recently opened MADE in Long Beach. The space was purchased by local businessman DW Farrell, and acts as a space for several pop-up shops. This means you can pick up books by local writers from Gatsby Books, handmade soaps from The People’s Soap Company, beef jerky from Long Beach Jerky Co., and visit a variety of other local cottage businesses.
If you’d rather have a view of the city (which has some incredible classic 1920s and 30s high rises like the Villa Rivera, Cooper Arms Apartments, Dr. Rowan Building, and the Breakers hotel), check out the Hotel Maya on the other side of the Long Beach Harbor. It’s over a bridge (albeit not a large one), and it’s a short walk from the Queen Mary, a Cunard oceanliner built in the 1930s that acts as a reminder of bygone luxury, but also houses its own mysteries and possible ghost hauntings. The Mexican restaurant Fuego is located inside the hotel, and all of the hotel rooms face the ocean, which means every room literally has a view. One of the best views of the city is from the side of the harbor facing the city, especially around sunset.
Where to Eat
Gladstone’s, Hooters, P.F. Chang’s, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.—they are all in Long Beach, but you can eat at those everywhere else on the planet. If you’re inclined to eat fish, there are plenty of other options out there.
Where You Can Find Fish
Head for Parkers’ Lighthouse, which is located in Shoreline Village—a short walking distance from Pine Avenue. This is where all your fish dreams can come true: there’s sushi, a variety of Mesquite-grilled fish, Lobster Tail, scallops, Cedar Plank Smoked Salmon, and Macadamia Nut Crusted Mahi Mahi. The restaurant has large open windows and sits on the water, so it effectively combines seafood with a great view.
Another spot right on Pine Avenue is Pier 76 Fish Grill, which is known for its ceviche, poke, and smoked fish tacos. You can find fish tacos virtually anywhere in Southern California, and the fish is typically either grilled or battered and fried. Since Pier 76 uses smoked fish, it elevates and changes the entire flavor of the tacos, making them arguably the most memorable fish tacos you’ll ever try.
If you want some history with your seafood, there’s Pike Restaurant & Bar, whose decor acts as a nod to Long Beach’s nautical history. At night, it’s a popular bar stop and it serves dishes such as Lobster Tacos and Grilled Sea Bass until midnight. Other fish restaurants you can find around Long Beach include Ocean Market Grill, The Big Catch Seafood, and The Boathouse on the Bay.
Where You Can Find Steak
Many of the restaurants mentioned above also serve steak, but if you’re looking for a steakhouse experience, check out Chianina Steakhouse. It’s been rated as one of the best steakhouses in the area, and the meat comes straight from Piedmont, Italy. It is steroid, hormone, and antibiotic-free. While the cuts and prices depend on market availability, you should be able to find New York steaks, Bone-In Ribeye, Porterhouse steaks, and Petite Filets. But you may want to call ahead about prices—steaks like this can cost a pretty penny.
If you want the quality without the cost, check out Working Class Kitchen, which is a combined butcher, deli, and sandwich shop. The menu also changes on a daily basis, but you may be able to find dishes such as burgers, meatball subs, Kielbasa corn dogs, house-made beef jerky, and beer and wine.
For a steak and a view, Queensview Steakhouse is part of Parkers’ Lighthouse, and has a variety of steak options, including surf n’ turf. 555 East American Steakhouse is another staple among the locals, and serves USDA certified Prime Steaks.
Where You Can Eat Brunch
We take brunch seriously in Long Beach, so the good news is that the brunch is memorable, but the bad news is the line. We’ll wait two hours if we must on the weekends. I’m not kidding.
Because of its location on the water and large outdoor patio, Schooner or Later is wildly popular, and features dishes such as Eggs Benedict. But be bold and order the Crab & Cheddar Omelettes.
The Attic on Broadway is located in a renovated craftsman-style house, and has a Southern menu that extends to the cocktail list. Some breakfast dishes might include alligator andouille sausage, but you can also order Short Rib Poutine and Cinnamon French Toast with berries, Nutella, and chantilly cream (pictured).
The Breakfast Bar has gluten-free options, but also serves a lemon pancake that’s basically a thin version of a lemon cake drizzled with frosting.
If you’re looking for a brunch splurge, the Queen Mary has an epic Champagne Sunday Brunch buffet that includes bottomless champagne and more than 50 dishes.
It’s All About Diversity
But the food scene in Long Beach is all about diversity, so push the envelope. Sophy’s Thai & Cambodian Cuisine has Thai dishes such as Spring Rolls and Pad Thai, but also serves up Panang Salmon, Deep Fried Squid, and various curry dishes.
Green Field Churrascaria has all-you-can-eat Brazilian meat and side dishes, and occupies a large space, which makes it great for big parties.
Located right on the water, Tantalum serves Asian fusion, which often includes Chicken Lollipops and tasty sliders. Since meals can get pricey, try to visit during Happy Hour. If you’re visiting someone with a boat, keep in mind that Tantalum has a private dock you can moor at for free.
While it may just look like a simple walk-up window, Seoulmate offers a combination of Korean and Mexican food. You’ll find dishes such as Mom’s Kimchi Pork Stew alongside The Old Boy, a burrito stuffed with Bulgogi, kimchi, cilantro, onions, lettuce, and cilantro & lime-infused rice. Looking for a unique condiment? They make their very own Smokey Kimchi Salsa.
Kamal Palace is my favorite place for Indian food, and I’ve visited the country a number of times. At lunchtime, there’s an all-you-can-eat menu with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, and you can have both carrot pudding and gulab jamun for dessert. If you go for dinner, try the Tandoori Chicken, Murgh Makhni (Butter Chicken), or Lamb Chops. If you visit this spot more than once, the staff will likely remember you.
If you’re looking for classic Mexican food, head over to Enrique’s Mexican Restaurant. But make a reservation in advance—the locals keep this place packed during dinner time. Enrique’s goes beyond tacos and enchiladas (which they serve) and serves Carne Asada, Pechuga de Pollo a la Diabla, and a fresh fish of the day. But be sure to ask about their specials—often these can include Pork Shank with a Tomatillo Salsa, or a flavorful roasted chicken. If rice and beans is too heavy for you, they’ll happily replace your sides with sauteed vegetables.
The R.M.S. Queen Mary
R.M.S. Queen Mary was built in the 1930s as part of the Cunard Line. It was named after Mary of Teck, the mother of King George VI, who you may know from The King’s Speech. The ship originally sailed between London and New York, often carrying royalty, British officials, and actors such as Bob Hope.
During World War II, the ship was painted gray, converted for use as a battleship, and was given the nickname “The Grey Ghost.” The ship also transported war brides from Europe to North America for a period of time, and once the war was over, the ship was revamped and used for cruising once again.
In 1967, the Queen Mary anchored permanently in Long Beach, and has since been turned into a hotel. There are several rumors and stories about people who died on the ship, and so you may have heard that the Queen Mary is haunted. Every Halloween, there’s an event called Dark Harbor that plays on these stories, but year round you can pay to go on your own ghost adventure.
Horror stories aside, if you’re into Art Deco or history, this vessel should not be overlooked. There are several tours available, and I suggest seeing if you can snag one with Commodore Everett Hoard—his love for the ship is contagious.
There’s a lot of interesting Art Deco artwork all over the boat, and one such mural is on display in the Observation Bar. While on board, there are a few places where you can get a meal with a view, but if you want a splurge beyond Sunday Brunch, visit Sir Winston’s Restaurant & Lounge. It’s named after Sir Winston Churchill, who traveled on the ship three times and considered it to be his headquarters on the sea. The restaurant is similar to a high-end steakhouse, and you’ll find dishes such as Beef Wellington, Rack of Lamb, Dover Sole Meuniere, and chocolate souffle.
Exploring the Neighborhoods
If you want to explore beyond Downtown—and believe me, you should—there are a few neighborhoods worth a visit. Here are two of my personal favorites.
If you drive down the coast from the Downtown area, you’ll find yourself in Belmont Shore. It’s mainly residential and backs up to the beach, but the main draw is Second Street, which consists of several blocks lined with shops, restaurants, bars, cupcakeries—you name it. This is where families come for meals, where people go shopping, where friends watch sports or take a meal, and where teenagers can safely hang out solo.
There are plenty of restaurants here, including those that serve seafood, burgers, Mexican food, Phở, Greek food, and Lebanese dishes. After, you can take a walk and check out the different shops, or grab dessert.
Paradis is a relative newcomer to the area, but its frozen treats are pretty tough to beat. You’ll find Hazelnut gelato that tastes like roasted hazelnuts, as well as flavors such as chocolate and salted caramel, but my favorite combination is lemon sorbet with vanilla.
But the biggest Long Beach staple is Sweet Jill’s Bakery, which serves up legendary cinnamon rolls. There’s also a variety of cookies and cakes. Just remember to split anything you get—the portions are quite large.
If you’d rather grab some non-Starbucks coffee, stop by Aroma di Roma. The wall art looks like graffiti from the Roman Empire, and in addition to coffee, you can get beer, gelato, paninis, and other treats.
Located on Fourth Street, Retro Row got its name from the retro-themed second-hand shops that are clustered near one another. This is an area where you’ll find more hipsters than parking spots, but you’ll also find one-of-a-kind keepsakes and restaurants.
The restored Art Theatre sits at one end of Retro Row and typically shows independent movies and has select midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Flanking its right side is Art du Vin, a small wine bar with a heated patio. Here you can order wines either by the glass or bottle and snack on charcuterie, artisanal cheeses, and homemade breads. Many people who live within a few blocks typically visit this spot, making it a good opportunity to get to know the locals.
Arguably the most famous secondhand shop in the area is Meow, which has clothes from pretty much every decade of the 20th century. The changing rooms doors are actually 1950s refrigerator doors, and are the color of Easter Eggs. Another great shop is inretrospect, which has everything from antique drink sets to vinyls to retro furniture and clothes. At Christmastime, there’s even an Elvis Santa you can take photos with.
But if you’re looking for small gifts, check out Songbird Boutique. It has everything from zombie board games to Bigfoot luggage tags to nautical-themed flasks to robot-shaped ice cube trays. You can also find Queen Mary T-shirts, octopus jewelry made from silverware, and retro-inspired purses.
Of course, there are plenty of options for a meal. Lola’s Mexican Cuisine serves dishes such as Mole Poblano, Tijuana Style Tacos, and Birria Guadalajara.
The Social List, which prides itself on “food for the people,” serves dishes such as pork belly with Brussels sprouts, sausage on a brioche bun, and spiced Kennebec potatoes. There’s a good selection of microbrews, and the restaurant is cleverly decorated with Communist propaganda artwork.
Across the street, number nine is a narrow Vietnamese restaurant featuring dishes like spring rolls, fried calamari, phở, and Bánh mì. Similar to Lola’s, number nine took over the parking spot in front of the restaurant and created a patio, complete with heat lamps and potted plants.
Going to the Beach
Long Beach’s name may make you think of places where people actually swim in the ocean. However, The Port of Long Beach makes that a bit difficult—there’s a large breakwater that blocks the waves. The breakwater itself has been controversial for some time; reportedly the beach’s natural waves were very rough.
But there is an actual beach. It’s in the Belmont Shore area, and there are both parking lots and street parking for your convenience. It’s a popular destination for sunbathers, kitesurfers, and dogs. Rosie’s Dog Beach is one of the few pet-friendly beaches you’ll find in Southern California, and is designated by markers. Dogs can swim, play, chase each other through the sand—all without a leash.
Along the beach there’s a sidewalk path that’s designed for bicyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers. It leads from the edge of the beach and continues into Downtown Long Beach, eventually taking you to the Aquarium of the Pacific.
If you actually want to swim in waves and a section of the ocean that doesn’t have a breakwater, you’ll have to go one town over to Seal Beach. Or, you can drive further south down the Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH as we call it) and stop at Bolsa Chica State Beach, Huntington Beach, or even Newport Beach.
Renting a car might be the best way to get the most of your stay (as with almost anywhere you could visit in Southern California), but public transportation is surprisingly accessible—unlike some other parts of the Los Angeles area. The Blue Line runs from Downtown Long Beach through Downtown LA and into Hollywood, but it also connects to other train lines as well, such as those that travel to Pasadena, North Hollywood, and Culver City. A One Day pass at regular fare is $7, and it’s $2.50 for seniors 62 and over.
While having a car is important, you’ll also see a fair amount of people walking around. Bikes have become a popular mode of transportation, and most major streets have designated bike lanes.
Public transportation around Downtown Long Beach is free—meaning you can hop on The Passport buses and travel a few blocks without paying anything at all. If you take The Passport past Downtown, the fare is only $1.25 per person each way. These buses will also take you from Downtown Long Beach to both the Hotel Maya and the Queen Mary.
One of the cooler things about Long Beach is that you can travel by boat, so check out the AquaBus and AquaLink. The AquaBus costs $1, and travels round trip between the Queen Mary, Hotel Maya, the Aquarium of the Pacific, Rainbow Harbor, and Shoreline Village. The AquaLink is a brightly colored catamaran, costs $5, and travels round trip between the Queen Mary, Belmont Pier, Alamitos Landing, and the Aquarium of the Pacific. Keep in mind that times and frequency vary depending on the season.
If you’re driving, some neighborhoods have metered parking on major streets. The side streets often have free parking, but the trick is finding a spot. You’ll also find paid lots on Retro Row, in Belmont Shore, and Downtown. If you park in a metered spot, double check the timing—those spots are often free after 6 p.m. and on Sundays and holidays.
Yes, we even have Lyft and Uber.
Looking for more offbeat destinations? Check out:
- Catalina Island: Southern California’s Ecotourism Playground
- Peter Greenberg’s Hot Destinations for 2015
- The Insider’s Travel Guide to Malta
- 6 Offbeat Destinations to Visit This Summer
Text and Photos by Stephanie Ervin for PeterGreenberg.com