Most travelers think only of Los Angeles (or maybe San Diego or Santa Barbara) when Southern California comes to mind, but you get a different view of Southern California if you spend some time 70 miles north of Los Angeles in Ventura. Downtown Ventura is two blocks from the beach. It provides a peaceful, relaxing weekend for those who live in the metropolis to the south and a different view for tourists who see Southern California as Los Angeles. I recommend staying two nights. If you're coming from the Los Angeles area, leave late the first morning and have lunch in Malibu, unless you live in L.A. and have seen enough of Malibu.
Getting There--Lunch on the Way If You Drive.
There are two ways to get to Ventura from Los Angeles that offer different pleasures--train (believe it or not) and car. I recommend car, but the train is a viable alternative and cheaper than renting a car. You won't need a car to do what I'm recommending in Ventura,with one exception, for which you can take a short taxi ride. It's all downtown.
The main reason I recommend a car is that you can drive up Pacific Coast Highway (the famed California State Highway 1) and enjoy the ocean views through Santa Monica, Malibu, Zuma Beach and points north. You can get there faster (sometimes) on the 101 Freeway, but you miss the lovely views.
I suggest you leave close to lunch time and stop for lunch in Malibu at a Malibu institution that has been on the far north end forever, called Neptune's Net. It's inexpensive. The inside has no ambiance at all, just excellent fish and seafood. Outdoors, you are treated to an ocean view. Address: 42505 Pacific Coast Highway (on the land side).
If you want to splurge and dine in an elegant restaurant with an ocean view and pay $20 plus per person, I recommend Geoffrey's also on the north end of Malibu, ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway at 27400. Somebody has to be looking for it; it is difficult to see from the Highway, and driving north you have to make a u-turn after you've passed it. Or consider Geoffrey's on the way back to Los Angeles. The drive to Ventura, excluding lunch, if you leave during late morning, takes about an hour and a half or so, depending on where in L.A. you leave from.
If you live in Southern California and have enjoyed that ocean scenery many times, you should consider the train for a pleasant change. You get a different view from the train, and you can relax, instead of driving.
Go online, www.AMTRAK.com, or call 1-800-AMTRAK and find out where the nearest station is and the schedule. It will take an hour and a half to two hours on the train, depending on where you get on. The cost is 30 to 50 dollars round trip per person (depending on season, time of day and where you get on). The Ventura station is about 6 blocks from downtown and the hotel I recommend.
Driving to Pacific Coast Highway is one of the easier trips in the Los Angeles area. Wherever you are, get to Interstate 10 West toward Santa Monica (locals call it the Santa Monica Freeway), and the freeway dumps you off on Pacific Coast highway through the McClure Tunnel. You don't have to do anything but follow the road. You may need a map to get you to Interstate 10, and you will need a map to get you to Ventura when you exit Highway 1. You will end up on another freeway, U.S. Highway 101, sometimes called the Ventura Freeway. Get off at California Street, and turn right. You're in the center of downtown Ventura, and if you stay at the Bella Maggiore (as I suggest below), it is a block and a half on your left, 67 So. California Street.
If Malibu represents the Southern California glitz, Ventura represents small town Southern California, but still with most of the good things that people enjoy in Southern California, like the beach and good restaurants and wine tasting. It is one of southern California's least glitzy beach towns, even though it is only 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles and half that from the San Fernando Valley, and it isn't nearly as crowded as other beach towns. It isn't set off from the urban sprawl, but it feels like it is.
Where To Stay
I recommend the Bella Maggiore Inn, a funky, good value bed and breakfast with a lovely restaurant downstairs that serves fabulous breakfasts, included in the rates. The rates vary from $75 to $150 per night depending on the room, the season and days of the week. If it turns out too pricey for you, it is difficult to find an alternative in or near the downtown area. The only other possibility is the Vagabond (756 East Thompson Street), a low end chain, and you get what you pay for--about $70 a night, not that much less than the Bella Maggiori on week days, off season. I would avoid the Crown Plaza. It has gorgeous ocean views, but nothing else can be recommended, including the rates.
What To Do.
After you check in, walk up California Street, away from the beach and take a look at the old courthouse at the top of California. It's now the City Hall and is a beautiful, old California building. Then just walk through the downtown area and look around. The corner of California and Main Streets is the center of downtown, and it extends about a half mile on either side of California and just a block or two on either side of Main. As you will find out, Ventura is a very old town by California standards, having been settled by the Spanish in the late 1700's. The Chumash Native Americans lived there for thousands of years before that.
If you feel like walking some more, turn right at the city hall, walk down Poli Street for a few blocks and ascend into the hills as far as you want to go. You'll get some panoramic views of the Pacific up there.
There are often art and music events in town. Ask at your hotel, or probably you'll see posters around town.
Among the most pleasurable activities in downtown Ventura are eating and drinking wine. There are three nice venues for wine tasting. My favorite is The Wine Rack on California a few doors toward the ocean from Main Street (14 So. California). West Side Cellars is at 222 East Main Street (turn left from California when coming from Bella Maggiore). Walking there you pass a number of interesting shops. West Side Cellars also has excellent food. The third wine tasting venue, less fancy, but still nice and with some excellent cheeses to sample is Paradise Wine Pantry (677 East Main, about six blocks down). You'll pass The Truffle Hound, if you can, a superb purveyor of homemade chocolate truffles.
Near West Side Cellars is Jonathan's (204 East Main), a Mediterranean restaurant in a 150 year-old building that housed the town grocery store. It's adjacent to a fountain and patio, where they offer outdoor dinning in the summer. I would recommend Jonathan's for dinner or lunch. The bar (called J's) is next door, offers tasty specialty drinks and good wines and hosts live music some nights.
Another restaurant I wouldn't miss is the Watermark, 598 West Main, a block east of California. But be forewarned: it is on the pricey side, and I know you can't go to all the restaurants I'm suggesting.
But, just in case, Tuttties, 35 No. Palm, around the corner from Main, a sister restaurant to a Santa Barbara institution, is another excellent restaurant. I recommend their outdoor patio.
The best restaurant in Ventura, in my opinion, The Side Car, requires a ten minute drive. It's too far to walk from your hotel (25 blocks), unless you're an ambitious walker. If you arrived on the train, taxis are available. The ambiance at The Side Car is unique. It is at 3029 East Main Street. Chef Tim, who cooks primarily using the best local ingredients, will take good care of you. And they have live music some nights.
Visit the San Buena Ventura Mission, and its gardens a few blocks down Main from California (211 East Main), but you may want to save that for the second day.
On your second day, after visiting the Mission, I suggest you walk back to California Street, turn right and head for the beach. There is a long, paved walkway along the beach, if you don't want to walk on the sand. I recommend that you walk south, more scenic than the walk north. Just hang out, and enjoy the sea and fresh air.
A walk to the end of the pier is worthwhile, as is a drink, but not the food, at Eric Erikssons, the restaurant you'll see at the end of the pier. There are benches on the pier and on the walk to sit and relax. Sometimes people watching is excellent on the benches in the square in front of the Crown Plaza Hotel, especially if the weather is warm.
Either before or upon your return from the beach walk, a visit to the Ventura Museum, 100 East Main Street, is worthwhile for a look at some California history.
I usually don't recommend places to shop, because I am not a shopper, but for nice gifts, check out Palermo and The Wine Rack. Many of the shops along Main Street are worth a look.
If that isn't enough to do, and you have a car, for more beautiful ocean views drive up the coast on Highway 101 to or toward Santa Barbara. But go in the middle of the day--traffic any other time may ruin the ambiance. If you came on the train, the train schedule will limit your time.
Or if landscapes beckon while you're in Ventura, and you have a car, check out Highway 33 on your map, drive up to Ojai, 20 minutes away, and you'll think you're in the mountains.
Enjoy San Buena Ventura!