There’s something alluring about the undiscovered. Exploring a place without preconceived notions and, in your discoveries, making it your own.
Tucked between trademark Los Angeles (Universal Studios! Hollywood! Angelina Jolie!) to the south and toney Santa Barbara just up the road, Ventura remains under its own magic spell. It’s relaxed, unpretentious and under the radar. Locals, and savvy vacationers, like it that way.
You can make Ventura a day trip, but I would advise against it. Good things take time, and time spent on good things is, well, a good time. Here’s enough to entice you, and enough to leave the allure of discovery to you.
It’s a personal quirk, but I believe one’s vacation experience is made far richer if you begin with a sense of the history beneath your feet. As such, I recommend beginning your Ventura visit by popping into the stately, pine-shadowed San Buenaventura Mission on Main Street—just blocks from the beach. Here you’ll learn, among other things, that the town was once threatened by pirate attack. Almost across the street (happy placement), you’ll find the Museum of Ventura County, which has its own galleries of local history and art. Once endowed with a sense of the past, it’s time to indulge in Ventura’s signature specialty—the down-home, sun-splashed present.
Keeping with the convenient theme, start by walking up Main Street. I find that the best travel is about meandering, so take your time to explore up and down Main’s arteries and alleyways. You’ll pass a happy din of restaurants of every kind (Italian, Thai, Indian, Peruvian, Mexican, Japanese), art galleries, boutiques, wineries, antique shops and, yes, tattoo parlors. Ventura is fiercely loyal to things simple, authentic and true. A “what you see is what you get” charm that’s worth embracing.
Ventura is also, plain and simple, an outdoor town. Pointing out its sun-splashed days and bright, starry nights is a bit like pointing out a retiree in Florida. So, let’s go a little deeper. The town has deep surf roots. California’s first professional surf contest was held here, and some of the world’s best surfers call Ventura home. When there is a swell running, the jewelry store clerk, the bank president, the art gallery owner…everyone’s hair is damp, their smile loopy. Truth is, surfer or not, I feel like this giddy happiness pervades the town like the salt that hangs in the air. It’s contagious, like being on a preschool playground.
Since Ventura is rooted in the sea, I recommend plunging in yourself after your history tour (the Pacific’s just over a mile away from Main Street). Plenty of local surf schools offer lessons and, trust me, there’s no giddier a time than your tottering first ride. It’s perfectly fine to just watch the surfers, too. One of the best vantage points is the historic Ventura Pier (one of Southern California’s last wooden piers). Time your pier stroll so you also watch the sun set behind the Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands.
Sticking with the watery outdoor theme, and tossing in a little shopping too, set aside an hour or two to stroll through Ventura Harbor and its village of shops (a great place for signature local gifts, from paintings and pottery to clothing). At the harbor, you’ll also find the Channel Islands National Park headquarters, home to films and kid-friendly exhibits that highlight the islands known as “the Galapagos of North America.” Be sure to head into the headquarters’ tower for another panoramic ocean view.
You don’t have to be on the water to feel this playground joy. Slip on a pair of hiking boots and head up into the hills behind Ventura’s City Hall, just a little farther inland, where a hike through the Ventura Botanical Gardens rewards you with local flora, but also provides a breathtaking hawk’s eye sweep of ocean, farmland and toy towns running to the Santa Monica Mountains. If bike riding is your thing, don’t miss the new Rincon Bike Trail. It runs right beside the sparkling Pacific: plenty of local outfitters provide bikes and ride advice. Mine would be to stop and enjoy the beach, two steps away.
All of this meandering is thirsty work. Ventura has plenty of first-rate wineries and wine bars, but the town’s newest signature is beer.
Like the town they call home, Ventura’s craft breweries are short on pretension (picnic tables, surf videos, damp-haired locals) and long on talent. You would be well advised to raise a glass of Pierpont Pale Ale at Anacapa Brewery, an Oil Piers Porter (named after a now-extinct surf spot) at Surf Brewery and, well, pretty much anything from the 16 rotating taps at the Topa Topa Brewery. Some breweries also serve food, while others offer something even more fun: a revolving selection of gourmet food trucks that park outside.
Perfect alchemy happens when you sit at a picnic table on a starry and salt-washed Ventura night with a frosty beverage and a smoked pork PB&J from Scratch Food Truck (smoked pork, chipotle peanut butter, strawberry jam and white cheddar).
Nothing fancy. Just simple and true.But these are just words, until you discover Ventura for yourself.