Brandon and I were both born and raised in Ventura, California – a surf town just North of Los Angeles. Despite its oceanside location, wedged between Santa Barbara and Malibu, Ventura has always been a lot sleepier, a lot less fancy, and lot more affordable than the rest of Coastal California – and even though I haven’t lived here since I was 17, it is home.
While for so long we’ve been known for the Ventura County Fair, a couple of mentions in Beach Boys songs and that one level in Tony Hawk 2, non-locals coming up to Ventura for a less-expensive beach weekend, or actually moving into town has grown so much in the last few years. If you’re driving up or down the California coast, take a day to stop here instead of just driving on through to Malibu – you won’t regret it!
Scroll down for our real local’s guide to this underrated gem of a city.
In my years living in New York, the one thing I would always be most excited to come home to was our amazing Mexican food. There is nothing that says California more to me than eating authentic tacos or burritos on the beach, and Ventura has some of the best of the best. There’s no better place to start this guide than with one of the very best aspects of Ventura – the Mexican food.
- Corrales – Corrales is more than a restaurant here, it’s a way of life. There are two locations within a half-mile of each other, and it is a constant argument among locals which one is the best one. (For the records, the Corrales closer to Seaward is the good one!) I would actually suggest not getting tacos here – the burritos are what this spot is really known for. Go for the chicken chile Verde 4-way (meat, beans, cheese, and rice) and add jalapeños for one of my absolute favorite meals on the planet. In the mornings, they have amazing breakfast burritos as well – but note that they are closed on Sundays.
- Lalo’s – Located along the Ventura Avenue, an area non-locals usually don’t go, Lalo’s is one of the best and most authentic Mexican restaurants in town. There’s no indoor seating, and a hole-in-the-wall feels. The burritos here are huge and amazing. I usually go for the chile relleno!
- Taqueria Cuernavaca – This little mom and pop shop along Ventura Avenue is as authentic as it gets, and serves everything from sopes to gorditas, and of course tacos. Not to mention, they have one of the best salsa bars in town.
- Johnny’s Mexican – Jonny’s has stood in this spot for more than 50 years – and has been my dad’s favorite for almost 40! The flour tortilla chips here are incredible, and so is their chimichanga.
- Beach House Tacos – Less authentic taco truck and a little more Upscale California, this taco restaurant located on Ventura Pier is a newer favorite, with lots of delicious combos. On weekends they have Mimosa specials!
- Spencer Mackenzie’s Fish – Spencer’s opened up in town only about 10 years ago, but very quickly became a Ventura icon – and their Giant Fish Tacos have consistently been voted some of the best in the country. Come Monday – Thursday afternoons for their 2 for 1 taco happy hour.
A few of our favorite non-taco related places for brunch, lunch, and dinner – all independently operated and locals approved!
- Nature’s Grill – This popular Main Street spot has been a local staple for 20 years and never disappoints. The simple cafe has great salads, sandwiches, smoothies, and a ton of vegetarian and vegan options. I have been getting the Chicken Caeser Salad here since High School, and Brandon loves their Turkey Burger!
- Busy Bee Cafe – Just a couple of blocks down Main St, Busy Bee was my favorite restaurant to come to as a kid and is just a good today. This 1950’s Americana Diner is known for their burgers and milkshakes, as well as their iconic red vinyl booths – that each come with an individual jukebox. 25 cents gets you two plays from their oldies selection. (I would always pick Rockin Robin!)
- Tony’s Pizza – It’s not all tacos and Mexican food in Ventura – Tony’s Pizza has been in town forever and is perfectly located just a couple blocks from downtown and a couple of blocks from the beach. They are a family-owned restaurant famous for their delicious pizza, where they make their dough and sauce from scratch daily. The outdoor space has lawn games, picnic tables, and a huge fire pit.
- Urbane Cafe – This popular lunch spot has some of the best sandwiches and salads in town.
- Cafe Nouveau – One of Ventura’s most popular weekend brunch spots, this charming restaurant located in a Spanish bungalow in a cute residential neighborhood never disappoints.
- Ventiki Tiki Bar – Ventura’s first and only Tiki Bar, Ventiki is always a good time. In addition to dangerously strong tiki drinks, their Polynesian appetizer menu is original and delicious.
- The Jolly Oyster – Open Fridays-Sundays in Ventura State Park, this food truck has some of the best oysters (raw and cooked) and muscles I have had anywhere, and makes for a great, fresh, beach-side lunch.
- Pete’s Breakfast House – A classic all-American breakfast spot that locals just love. It gets super busy on weekends, but is great every day!
- Marshall’s Bodacious BBQ – This unassuming stand has some of the best BBQ chicken or pork sandwiches you can find anywhere.
- McConnell’s Ice Cream – Originally founded in nearby Santa Barbara, McConnell’s opened a Ventura location a few years ago and has a great mix of heavenly ice cream flavors and low-calorie frozen yogurts.
Fancy is a relative term in our little beach town, but for a nicer meal, these are our absolute favorites and are all places we return to over and over again.
- Rumfish y Vino – A new, upscale place in town with gorgeous decor, a large outdoor patio with heaters, and amazing food and cocktails. We had our engagement party here! Don’t miss the happy hour deals and fresh ceviches!
- Lure Fish House – The first real date Brandon and I ever went on was here, and we have been back many times since. Lure has a great happy house and so many tasty seafood-focused dishes. We love their black cod, charbroiled oysters, and fresh ceviche. Everything served here is fresh and comes from sustainable sources.
- Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill – The best BBQ in town, Brandon spent a few years waiting tables and bartending here during college, and we still go back every year on his birthday. Definitely try the Tri-Tip, a local favorite! We always get the marinated tri-tip salad and a rack of the baby back ribs. The garlic rolls here are both heavenly and dangerous – dip them in the BBQ sauce!
The best coffee
In a smaller town, skip the Starbucks and start your day at one of these instead.
- Palm and Boy – Formally known as ‘Stoked”, Palm and Boy is a great place to start the day off if you’re headed to the beach. This ultra-cute spot on Main Street has delicious coffee, avocado toasts, and acai bowls, and are located a short walk away from the beach.
- Kay’s Coffee – It’s a coffee and tea lover’s paradise at Kay’s Coffee. All their baked goods and pastries taste fresh and homemade as they’ve just been pulled out of the oven using natural ingredients. Grab a seat on the patio outside and soak in some sun while you enjoy your coffee.
- Prospect Coffee Roasters – Another local cafe who knows their coffee. From delicious matcha lattes to creamy cappuccino, everything is prepared to perfection – and the shop here is cozy enough to spend a few hours on a laptop if needed.
In the past few years, Ventura has opened a ton of local breweries and taphouses, something that has quickly fit right into the Ventura Surf, Yoga & Beer culture.
- Topa Topa – is one of our favorite places to go when we’re looking for great beer and a great atmosphere. They have 16 rotating hand-crafted beers on tap. It’s a great place to bring a group of friends and hang out – this is also the best place to bring a non-drinking friend, as they have craft sodas and cold brew coffee in addition to beer.
- MadeWest – is another must-stop on your trip to Ventura, MadeWest is the original Ventura brewery. In the industrial side of town, they have a huge open space, outdoor patio, and variety of games – and usually at least one food truck in the parking lot.
- Leashless Brewing – If you’re environmentally conscious or gluten-free look no further than this local brewery. They are a certified organic brewery mindful of sustainability issues. All the ingredients come from organic farmers, and their specialty is crafting gluten and gluten-reduced Belgian styles and IPAs.
- Fluid State – Round out your beer tour on Fluid State’s outdoor patio with tacos or a slice of pizza.
Things to do
Way more to do than just downtown shopping and the beach.
- Go Ice Blocking – Ice Blocking is one of those things that was very normal to us growing up, and it wasn’t until after we became adults and moved elsewhere that we realized it is an activity very local to Ventura – and not something that everyone does in the summer as we had assumed. Ice Blocking is our simple, California version of sledding: you need to get a 12″ block of ice from Conway Ice, and then you push it up the hills at Arroyo Verde Park, then jump on and ride it down! There is no way to really enjoy Ventura like a local than an afternoon of ice blocking.
- Catch a Wave – More than anything else, Ventura is a surf town. Head down to the local beaches for our famous breaks – or if you’re not experienced, sign up for a class from Ventura Surf Lessons or Ventura Makos Surf School.
- Golf N’ Stuff – A Ventura Icon, this Mini Golf, and more destination has been in town for decades. The mini-golf course has been well maintained but is full of kitschy charm, and beyond that, the park has go-karts, bumper boats, bumper cars, laser tag, and a full arcade!
- Rent a boat at the harbor – Ventura boat rentals have everything from kayaking to pedal boats and electric boats. They also offer private cocktail cruises in the evening for a romantic date night out.
- Ventura County Fair – This fair has been taking place every summer since 1875 and comes every year for the first two weeks of August. From the standard carnival rides and games, there are also nightly concerts, exhibits, and classic pieces of Americana – pie baking competitions, cattle auctions, miniature pig racing, and weekend fireworks.
- Ride a bike along the Boardwalk – The Boardwalk and bike path near The Ventura Pier runs for miles and is a great place to run, bike, or just take a walk – and has unobstructed views of the sun setting over the water. Check out Wheel Fun Rentals for bike rentals!
- Wine Tasting – Not far from Central California’s wine country, Ventura offers many options for wine-tasting. Check out Plan B Cellars, Old Creek Ranch Winery, Four Brix Winery, or Labyrinth Winery to get started!
- Discovery Ventura – This hasn’t officially been confirmed, but I am sure that Discover Ventura was inspired by Brooklyn Bowl. This site used to be the run-down bowling alley in town, and a few years ago Discovery took over and created a full destination experience. More than just a bowling alley, Discover is now also a cocktail bar, show space, and dinner and brunch restaurant, and a great addition to midtown Ventura.
Most underrated beach: Harbor Beach – located at the far end of Ventura, across from Ventura Harbor, this is the largest and sandiest beach in the city. On weekend days it is much less populated than the downtown beaches.
- Best Surfing Beach: Surfer’s Point – one of California’s top surfing spots, surfer’s point is legendary.
- Best Destination Beach: Bates Beach/Rincon – just a 15-minute drive North from Ventura, Bates Beach has always been my favorite. Great for a full beach day of sun and enjoying the surf.
- Ventura Pier & Boardwalk – The sandy beach at the pier is one of Ventura’s biggest attractions, and one of the icons of the town. On a clear day, the view from the beach and the pier looks out towards the Channel Islands.
- Marina Park – This is a great spot to watch boats cruise out of the harbor or sunbathe in the green area. Make it a day trip by packing a picnic – you’ll find picnic tables and barbecue areas as well as a volleyball court.
Where to shop
The best in new and established boutiques and independent shop.
- Tiki Girl – My favorite local boutique! Tiki Girl has been a Ventura staple for years and is a great one stop shop for swimwear, boho-chic outfits, and home goods, located right on the Main St Downtown strip. Independently owned and operated by a Ventura Local, this is my favorite place to stop when I’m in town.
- Passport Habit – Global home decor with a local touch, this is the place to go for all your home design needs. The local owners are world travelers that choose all of their products directly from the source – everything from vintage Moroccan rugs to hand-tooled leather travel accessories to vintage maps.
- Iron and Resin – This motorcycle and surf focused boutique sells the best gear, clothing, and accessories for both men and women.
- Findings Market – Findings market is a pop-up experience that supports and features local creatives. The market highlights a carefully curated collection of emerging artisans and inspiring brands from Ventura County and the surrounding areas.
- Copperfields Ventura – Copperfields Gifts & Rarities is a long-established shop with a collection of oddities, vintage finds, and unique gifts.
- Folke Home – independent furniture and home boutique focusing on mid-century modern and Scandinavian pieces with a California twist.
- The Refill Shoppe – An environmentally-conscious downtown shop where you can purchase and refill reusable bottles of bath, body, home, and cleaning products.
- Shop Kariella – a downtown boutique located in the cutest little alley (see photo below) focusing on boho a beachy women’s wear.
- The Thrift Store Circuit – Growing up, Ventura was mostly known for its collection of large thrift stores downtown. While the downtown streets are also filled with boutiques now, almost all of the thrift stores still remain in their original spots and are still just as fun to dig through while treasure hunting.
Where to stay
Ventura’s hotel options are still somewhat limited, but I’m sure will not be for long! Here are some of our best options.
- Waypoint Ventura – Just opened last summer and by far Ventura’s cutest accommodation. If you’re looking for a truly unique experience, check out Waypoint. All the rooms at this joint are restored vintage travel trailers or Airstreams filled with linens, bath amenities, air conditioning, TV, and everything else you would find in a hotel. The best part, guests have access to a communal fire pit where there are nightly s’ mores.
- Bella Maggiore Inn – This inn is a B&B with a thrilling history – It is rumored to be haunted by a ghost named Sylvia. But don’t worry the old inn has now been restored to a quaint bed and breakfast. They’re located just a half-block to downtown Ventura and 3 blocks to the beach.
To read more and for more pictures check out their article here!