Ventura, California, is a medley of old and new, where historical landmarks, biologically diverse natural wonders and contemporary bars and restaurants coexist.
When someone mentions Southern California coastal cities, spots like San Diego or Venice Beach might spring to mind. After all, these are iconic beach towns that evoke sun-soaked reveries like surfing and swimming, authentic seafood and Mexican cuisine and watching the sunset from a wooden pier. While Los Angeles and San Diego are often in the spotlight, Ventura is their quaint cousin, happily flying under the radar but offering all of that sunny SoCal appeal – with less crowds.
Ken McAlpine, the communications coordinator at the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau, has been a Ventura resident for nearly four decades. “I’ve been to some of the nicest places on the globe and I couldn’t wait to come home, so that tells you something about how special this place is,” he says.
Though it lies between Santa Barbara to the north and L.A. to the south, Ventura can’t be compared to its neighbors – it has its very own reasons to visit. “We don’t pretend to be what we’re not,” McAlpine says. Its signature attraction is Channel Islands National Park, which is comprised of five ecologically rich islands that each have their own claim to fame. The closest one is Anacapa Island, which boasts a circa-1930s lighthouse and is just an hour-long boat ride from Ventura. Visitors to Santa Cruz Island can explore a slew of sea caves, while rare Torrey pines populate Santa Rosa Island. San Miguel Island and southernmost Santa Barbara Island are both home to SoCal sea life – thousands of seals congregate at San Miguel’s Point Bennett, while Santa Barbara plays hosts to nesting seabirds. McAlpine says the islands “offer the kind of wild silence you’d expect from one of America’s least-visited national parks.” They’ve also been called the Galápagos of North America. “Frankly, I think that’s short-selling them,” McAlpine says.
Ventura is also renowned for having some of the best surf in the world. Professional surfers flock to Ventura year-round for the consistency of the waves. You paddle out in Ventura, and it could be Kelly Slater waiting for a wave next to you,” McAlpine says. “What’s really appealing is that we have waves for everybody. There’s a place called Mondo’s, which is sort of a beginner’s spot because the waves are generally kind of soft and easy. Then you move up from there to intermediate breaks and pretty advanced breaks that rival some of the best places in the world.”
It’s also a kitesurfing epicenter, McAlpine says. “The ocean is our playground,” he adds. “People do everything there.” Sailing, standup paddleboarding, kayaking and scuba diving adventures are also available to visitors and locals alike.
Ventura is a town of innovators, from the people in the sand and sea to those in restaurant kitchens and craft breweries. The majority of businesses in Ventura are also locally owned and operated. “There’s a good chance it’s the owner behind the counter,” McAlpine says. Creativity abounds in this “growing but not overgrown town.” A decade ago, Ventura was a one-brewery town. Now, there are nearly a dozen run by “really young people doing insanely great things.” Ventura Coast Brewing Company, MadeWest Brewing Company, Seaward Brewing and Topa Topa Brewing Company are all headquartered here.
With an unpretentious vibe, walkable downtown, abundance of free parking and uncrowded beaches, Ventura is in a league of its own as far as coastal towns go. McAlpine says the town’s residents are all friendly and approachable, but it’s also a great place to go if you’re seeking solitude. “Our beaches are pretty empty,” he says. “In the summertime, it can get a little crowded, but for the most part, it’s not hard to find a beach where you can just walk with your own thoughts.”
Last June, Ventura welcomed Harmon Canyon to its lofty lineup of outdoor activities. The 2,000-acre nature preserve was developed by the Ventura Land Trust and offers hiking and mountain biking trails for outdoor enthusiasts.
For foodies, there’s the Taco Trail, a loop of a little more than a dozen mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants lining Ventura Avenue, including Taqueria Tepatitlan, El Asadero and Taqueria Ventura Doña Raquel. “If you like Mexican food and great prices, it’s a great place to nosh your way along,” McAlpine says.
After you’ve filled up on fish tacos, pay a visit to Ventura’s professional playhouse, Rubicon Theatre. It’s an intimate theater where no seat is very far from the stage. “We have a lot of little gems like that,” McAlpine says.
He calls the Channel Islands Ventura’s “showcase gem,” but the downtown area is worth a visit and is only two blocks from the beach. Another must-do: spend some time at one of the oldest wooden piers in Southern California, which was built in 1872 and restored in the early ’90s.
Actor Kevin Costner went to high school in Ventura and still lives nearby, according to McAlpine. “He’s sort of a hometown boy made good, and he hasn’t forgotten his roots,” he says. Another spot for star sightings is the historical Ventura Theatre, which was built in the 1920s and has hosted big-name acts like Jimi Hendrix. Old photographs depict Michael Jackson and Prince conversing in its back corridors. It still has an active calendar of shows and events.
McAlpine points out that Ventura offers a wide range of hotel offerings, plenty of them within walking distance of all of Ventura’s main attractions.
Ventura is a lovely medley of old and new, where historical landmarks, biologically diverse nature spots and new bars and restaurants can coexist. McAlpine says Ventura’s nightlife has really ramped up in the past several years. It was sort of a sleepy town 20 years ago, but places like Cocktail Trust – which opened in an old Bank of Italy building – have come in and diversified the downtown scene without sacrificing Ventura’s integrity and authenticity. “It still retains what makes the town special,” McAlpine says.