California is lucky enough to have its own “Twin Cities”. My recent visit to both Venice Beach and Santa Monica left me with many happy memories. The beauty of the Pacific, walking to the beach in less than 5 minutes, eclectic people, and tons of fun activities. However, first time visitors to the area may be confused about which “city” is right for them. To help you make the right choice and get the most for your money, I’ve compiled a short list of the pros and cons of these two incredible beach towns. The good news is that it’s like choosing between a hot dog with the works or a frankfurter with the works – you really can’t choose wrong.
Venice -vs- Santa Monica
Venice Beach is the quintessential mix of historic, hip, circus, and sophistication where performers, vendors, tourists, surfers, and hardscrabble locals who border (and sometimes cross) scary, converge in one of America’s most famous beach towns. This can be overwhelming for even the most crowd savvy tourist. Unlike a big city like New York, this beach town has no anonymity. Vendors can spot tourists a mile away. While mostly mild-mannered, some are very aggressive. Wear reflective sunglasses to avoid making eye contact or appear that you are going to buy something that you aren’t. The Boardwalk is very busy and crowded with skateboarders (they have the right to be there), people walking dogs, and large groups of curious crowds, so be alert, friendly, and casual (no fancy jewels and watches).
Santa Monica is the upper-crust, first cousin of Venice. It caters to the upscale tourist, but is still welcoming to the budget sort. There is plenty to do and see for free, but eating and shopping will cost you. It’s within walking/biking distance to Venice Beach so you can easily drift between them. There is a lot of foot and car traffic, but it’s manageable so you won’t feel jostled, hurried, or stressed. Looking upscale will put you on par with the locals, but upscale casual is the basic look and feel, so no pinky rings, diamond tiaras, or grungy clothes.
Download the App
Before you do anything else, download the “Venice Boardwalk” app (available in App Store). This will save you a lot of time and help you easily plan an itinerary while giving you the option to wander safely. This interactive app maps out where everything is and even shows you a photo of your destination and how far you are from it. You get to drop electronic push pins on the locations you want to visit. You can also “save” the locations you want to visit or have visited for future reference. It’s a super easy way to get to know the area without wandering aimlessly.
Where To Stay
Venice has a variety of accommodations, from low and mid-range hostels to more expensive boutique hotels. You can definitely stay here on the cheap, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Beach life can be very exhausting (all that sun) and make you very hungry so it might be worth it to stay at a place that offers or includes meals and other comforts. Also carefully consider your idea of good accommodations. Do you need your sheets changed daily? Do you like to pick up the phone and call the concierge? Do you prefer eating where you stay (i.e. hotel restaurants)? Do you need complete privacy or are you willing to share a space and save money? If money is a big issue, you’ll have to stay in a Venice hostel.
Nearby Santa Monica offers more hotel options – for more money. There is at least one hostel, to my knowledge. Santa Monica is very clean and orderly with no vagrants to speak of and a complete mall with a Bloomingdales! You will not see many people with tattoos, piercings, etc. Staying in Santa Monica is more expensive, but for shoppers and people who want to “try” Venice it will likely make a great choice. P.S. There’s no Starbucks along Venice Beach. If that bothers you, then you should stay in Santa Monica.
Pick your hotel or hostel based on consumer ratings (see TripAdvisor.com), not on what the hotel or hostel has to say about itself. Read hostel reviews carefully. Be aware that a lot of Europeans stay in hostels so their idea of a great hostel is based on European standards, which I discovered are quite different (arguably superior) to American hostels.
There is a thriving night life in Venice, but at night the Boardwalk is not that great of an area. Downtown Venice is not far away, but you’ll probably need a car. Unlike Santa Monica’s planned and polished well lit streetscapes, Venice is a bit more urban so there are dark patches. Also at night, those without homes begin camping out on the streets, so you may feel uncomfortable. It’s a judgment call in this case. Travel with others that you know, be aware – not paranoid, and don’t try to be a hero by stumbling around town drunk at 2 am.
Santa Monica nightlife is a tourist’s dream nightlife. The 3rd Street Promenade features all kinds of familiar chain stores, lots of eateries, and is pedestrian friendly and very walkable. It’s designed for tourists to amble casually from shops to semi-pricey restaurants and feel totally protected. The sterile, suburban design will not appeal to anti-establishment folks or those on a tight budget, but it’s great for a splurge or a date. You will need to dress appropriately in this area.
Bike, Don’t Walk
I strongly suggest renting a bicycle and riding the very well laid out bike path from Venice to Santa Monica (or from Santa Monica to Venice) so you can check out everything without being tempted to buy everything. All the bicycles come with baskets or you can request an appropriate one to store your backpack or purse. There are plenty of bike rental facilities in both Venice Beach and Santa Monica.
Riding prevents vendors from approaching you while giving you an ideal self-directed tour of the entire Venice Beach area. You’ll ride past famous Muscle Beach, right along the sand and Pacific Ocean, past the general chaos, crowds, and excitement of the Boardwalk area and to the skateboard park. You can also ride out to the famous Venice Canals, which are only a short distance away.
It’s easier to pick and choose which “must see” destinations you prefer by riding by and then coming back later. Walking is possible, but it took me about 30-40 minutes to walk from Venice to Santa Monica and I am in excellent health. It’s an easy jog or walk since the path is nicely marked and paved, but I think you’ll prefer the feel of the sea breeze on your face as you speed by the pedestrians on your rented beach cruiser!
Watch a Free Street Show, But…
Leave before the money appeal! There are quite a few talented performers in Venice Beach, particularly in the area of famous Windward Avenue. They take great pains to put on very elaborate and entertaining shows. However, life in Venice is expensive (as they will tell you). Enjoy the show and slip away just as it’s near the end. If you’re feeling charitable, carry several $5’s so you look like a huge donor, then slip away. DO NOT USE THE ATM’S located in the vending area. They are unmarked and not associated with any bank, plus you will be charged huge fees for using them.
“Free” means something different in Santa Monica. If you’re on foot, you won’t find as many free things as if you go by car or the famous “Big Blue Bus.” There are free musical performances in the Promenade area and plenty of places to sit down. Bring a professional camera for the many photo ops. Many vendors in Venice Beach have posted signs discouraging photo taking, but you can take photos in Santa Monica. Stop by the library to get bus schedules or advice on what other free things may be nearby.
What To Wear
Along the Venice boardwalk, beachwear with cover ups and comfortable shoes or sandals will do. When it gets hot, it feels oppressive away from the water, so dress cool. I don’t suggest strolling down the Boardwalk in a bikini or other half-naked state, especially if you are a woman traveling alone. You CAN, but I don’t think it’s wise. You’re there to see stuff, not be seen (or followed).
If you go to into downtown Venice or Santa Monica, it’s best to be dressed. You can still be very casual, but you’ll look out of place if you are too sloppy or too flashy. Santa Monica is a bit more reserved so shirts and shoes are required.
About the Beaches
The beaches are basically one long magnificent beach all the way from Venice Beach to Santa Monica Pier and beyond. Frankly, the beaches are fantastic. The Pacific is always a bit bad-tempered and chilly, but the warm sand more than makes up for it. It’s easy to walk up the beach or bike to Santa Monica Pier and turn your beach day into a carnival day.
More Free Stuff
Echoing the romantic canals of Venice, Italy, the famous Venice Beach canals are beautiful, complete with lovely arched bridges that connect to pricey residential homes. It’s off the main Venice Boardwalk area (you will have to cross a fairly busy street) but very peaceful. It’s a wonderful calm contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Boardwalk. Plenty of photo ops in this area and its well-patrolled so you will be very safe.
Santa Monica has lovely parks that you can duck into and eat lunch and just people watch. Santa Monica Place (the Mall located near the Promenade) has several open areas where you can rest and take in an incredible view from the highest level (take the elevator).
Although I feel I got the best of both worlds, I do lean towards the suburban tourist enclave of Santa Monica. However, the gritty beach realism of Venice can’t be missed. Many “native” Angelenos shun Venice, but I think it’s a great day trip away from the city. For tourists from abroad, Venice Beach is quintessential California. It’s super casual, budget conscious, and has something for everyone. Santa Monica is definitely for tourists with nice sized credit limits and spare cash, but feels welcoming as long as you dress well and don’t make a scene. These twin cities may have different personalities but are so close that when you get tired of one, you can go visit the other one.
Where to start?
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