Whenever I visit Central California, there is one coastal city at the top of my “Must-Visit’’ list: Ventura. Think small-town beach vibes where artists-in-residence, professional thrifters and leisurely surfers coexist within their own unhurried circadian rhythms. In a way, our own Small Lake City has a kinship with Ventura. Everyone knows everyone, and it’s nearly impossible to pass a stranger without offering a quick head nod or polite, “Hi there!” But you can’t deny that some things—amusement parks, farmer’s markets and women’s rights, to name a few—are just better in California. I know we love to hate on California but it’s time to explore another city, one that makes the case for the Golden State.
A CITY OF GOOD FORTUNE
Scenic coastline views, endless outdoor adventures and Main Street hotspots have made Ventura a cultural hive—one that was named the most desirable place to live in America in 2015 based on the USDA’s index ranking the “natural aspects of attractiveness.”
The intrinsic appeal of the city has drawn individuals for hundreds of years, including Saint Junipero Serra who established California’s ninth mission San Buenaventura in 1782. The Mission is named after the Italian Saint Bonaventure, who is known for both the exclamation of “O Good Fortune!” that gave the mission its Spanish name and also, cringingly, as the Patron Saint of bowel disorders. (How’s that for a Biblical contradiction?) The area became a thriving agricultural hub and was officially incorporated into California in 1873. Today, the Mission remains a defining feature of Ventura’s downtown district and offers tours daily. Stop in between sunrise and sunset to tour the lush gardens and restored artifact collection.
STEP BACK IN TIME
Long before Ventura’s official induction into the California cool kids club, it was home to the indigenous Chumash tribe, whose thriving territory spanned the coastline from Malibu to Paso Robles. For 10,000 years their maritime lifestyle manifested advanced building techniques, transportation methods and knowledge of astronomy. Often regarded as the most unique on the continent, many Chumash traditions have been preserved and re-created at Wishtoyo’s Chumash Village in neighboring Malibu. The living museum offers a glimpse of authentic Chumash life with traditional storytelling, hands-on activities, ‘Ap dwellings, and Tomol canoes.
Considering its deep historical roots, it’s only natural that Ventura nurtures a connection to the past. Furthering a sense of nostalgia, several thrift and consignment shops line downtown’s Main Street. While unassuming on the outside, Coalition Thrift Store and SPARC Second Chance Store house an impressive collection of clothes and furniture. Plus, each donates a portion of proceeds to victims of domestic violence and no-kill animal shelters respectively. One short block away, Goodwill is an obligatory pitstop for any credible thrifter. If on-trend and vintage fashion is what you’re after, Throwback Junction and Buffalo Exchange promise a brand name bargain or a too-good-to-pass-up novelty find (read: neon light-up daisy backpack).
Trading the chaos of Los Angeles for Ventura’s soothing scenery, many creatives call the coastal town home. The influx of artistic flair is embodied in countless galleries and artist’s spaces, like the Bell Arts Factory—a grassroots community housing ceramicists, painters and writers that invites the public to experience artists at work. Other creative sanctuaries include Art City Studios, Working Artists of Ventura and Vita Art Center. Peruse Main Street for a mix of fine art and photographic galleries like Latitudes Gallery and H Gallery + Studios.
And if you really want to blend in with the locals, visit the city during their ArtWalk event in October. Now in its 27th year, ArtWalk is a free self-guided tour of pop-up venues and galleries, studios and more. To find more information on this year’s participating artists and experiences, visit ArtWalk’s website.
THE GALAPAGOS OF NORTH AMERICA
The Channel Islands are home to 150 endemic species of seabirds, mammals and predators, earning them the nickname the “Galapagos of North America.” Seeds carried by birds, island foxes carried over by Chumash canoes and wild game planted by well-heeled sportsmen have culminated in biodiversity found little elsewhere on earth. Having recovered from the brink of extinction only a few years ago, the Dwarf Santa Rosa Island fox is a personal favorite. (House-cat sized AND easily tamed? I need to speak with my landlord.)
WHERE TO SIP AND SNACK
Experiencing Ventura wouldn’t be complete without strolling down Main Street and pursuing whatever sight, smell or sound calls to you. Now extending in 2024, the city has closed off five blocks (from the mission to Fir Street) to accommodate a pedestrian-only promenade. Think Salt Lake’s Open Streets but with less inebriated Greek lifers and more sandy-toed and slightly-stoned surfers. (I’ll take that trade!)
It’s practically law to start with brunch—this is SoCal after all. Grab a bacon flight at Immigrant Son Caffe and don’t shy from the breakfast lasagna. Also, sangria and lots of it. Fuel up with an ancho chili mocha at Palermo and grab a gluten-free donut while you’re at it.
For midday sunbathing, hit the patio at Paradise Pantry. Choose from five artisan cheese boards paired with certified California vino. They also offer regional wine and cheese tours so you can sip your way through Greece, Spain and Italy. If your vibe is less caviar-meets-cabernet and more I-need-a-beer-right-now, head up to Fluid State Beer Garden for sourdough pizza and rotation beer selection. Other brew hubs include Poseidon Brewery Company, Madewest Brewing Company and Barrelhouse 101.
When it’s officially cocktail hour, visit The Saloon, a western-style bar, for a seasonal libation and an all-vegan menu. (I did say “western-style.”) Inside a historic building, Bank of Italy Cocktail Trust serves Italian-inspired drinks named to match the many wizard motifs found inside. (Gandalf the Grey-Hound was my personal fave). Go full beach-mode at Ventiki Tiki Lounge and Lanai where authentic Mai Tais are paired with spam musubi and surfer tunes.
For dinner, take advantage of fresh coastal seafood at Lure Fish House or Rumfish Y Vino. Spencer Makenzie’s has the best fish tacos in Ventura and homemade chowder to boot. For a romantic Italian dinner, visit Barrel 33 or grab a casual bite at Thai/Korean fusion restaurant Asiatique Eatery.
WHERE TO ADVENTURE
Considering their nearly 273 sunny days per year, Ventura is a town quite literally made of the outdoors. Sweeping beaches and a wealth of surf breaks offer a haven to surfers, who can find beginner to advanced waves at Mondo’s, Ventura Point and South Jetty. Ventura is also a great launch point for whale watching during their migration period, and the folks at Island Packer’s offer whole and half-day trips.
If you feel a true call to the wild, the nearby Channel Islands promise untamed adventure and sweet solitude. One of America’s least visited National Parks, the string of five islands can be explored via kayak or on foot. Paddle into sea caves, snorkel around the coast or embark on a remote camping excursion. Roam the sandy beaches and craggy cliffs of San Miguel island, once the home of pygmy mammoths and the Arlington Springs Man—the oldest human remains discovered in North America. Or, take in the vast ocean views from Anacapa island, where Seussical wildflowers paint the hills in splendor. At the end of your adventure, don’t forget to stop and enjoy the sunset. Are you in the golden state of mind yet?