Tucked between the southern edge of Los Angeles and the coastal communities of Orange County, Long Beach was once mainly known for its commercial seaport—one of the busiest in the country. But major revitalization efforts have turned the formerly workaday city into a modern urban center on par with its more glamorous neighbors.
Today, Long Beach has all the hallmarks of a Southern California escape, making it a wonderful choice for a weekend by the water. You’ll find everything from idyllic year-round weather and island-hopping excursions to chic retail outposts and restaurants that put a creative spin on classic California flavors.
The downtown area overlooks the Port of Long Beach, and you can find many of the city’s most popular attractions within a few minutes of the waterfront. September is an ideal time for boating and other water sports, and a direct flight from Oakland International to Long Beach Airport can get you there in just over an hour. visitlongbeach.com.
Cruise down Shoreline Drive to explore noteworthy sights such as the ocean liner The Queen Mary, which has been permanently docked in Long Beach Harbor since 1967. The historic ship was the most luxurious in the world when it first set sail in 1936; it also did double duty as a troop-transport vessel during World War II. Visitors can take tours of the superliner, have a meal at the onboard restaurants, or even spend the night in one of its cabins.
Just across the water from The Queen Mary, the Aquarium of the Pacific is easily recognizable for its newly completed Pacific Visions wing—a glittering blue biomorphic structure that instantly became an architectural landmark. Inside the aquarium, you’ll find enthralling examples of Pacific Ocean environments, from tropical reefs to California kelp forests, along with interactive exhibits on ocean conservation.
After viewing the sea creatures, continue your adventure by joining a local boat tour. Harbor Breeze Cruises operates from the dock right outside the aquarium and offers a variety of charters. The 45-minute harbor tours are great for a quick jaunt on the water to see Long Beach from a different perspective. A whale-watching tour, meanwhile, will take you farther out on the ocean, where you’ll have the chance to spot gray and blue whales, dolphins, and many other marine animals. queenmary.com, aquariumofpacific.org, 2seewhales.com.
Cruise to Catalina
Long Beach is also the ideal jumping-off point for a day trip to nearby Catalina Island. The Catalina Express ferry runs between Long Beach Harbor and the Mediterranean-vibe town of Avalon throughout the day. The crossing takes about an hour, and once there, it’s easy to get around by foot, bicycle, or golf cart.
One look at the calm, clear waters of Avalon Harbor, and you may decide that swimming and sunbathing are the perfect ways to spend the day. If the mood strikes, Descanso Beach Club, on the north side of Casino Point, boasts a scenic stretch of sand with a bar and restaurant that take orders towel-side.
Thick kelp forests provide a stunning backdrop for scuba divers and snorkelers around Catalina Island. A dive tour with Catalina Divers Supply lets you come face-to-face with aquatic life such as sea lions, leopard sharks, and bright orange garibaldi (California’s state marine fish). For those who prefer to explore the ocean without getting wet, kayak rentals from Descanso Beach Ocean Sports deliver an easy coastline paddling experience, and Catalina Tours’s glass-bottom boats offer a panoramic window onto the seafloor.
Visitors can also dive into Catalina’s rich history with a visit to the Catalina Island Museum. Exhibits include photos of the island when it was the private retreat of chewing-gum mogul William Wrigley Jr. And you’ll learn how Catalina’s status as a frequent location for early Hollywood films led to the introduction of the bison herd that still roams the island today.
For a casual lunch overlooking the water, grab a patio table at Maggie’s Blue Rose, a Mexican spot serving tasty tacos and masterful margaritas. catalinaexpress.com, catalinadiverssupply.com, kayakcatalinaisland.com, catalinatours.com, catalinamuseum.org, maggiesbluerose.com.
Stay and Play
Back in Long Beach, stay in the heart of the action at the Hyatt Centric The Pike Long Beach. Located near the aquarium, the ferry dock, and downtown, amid the shops and restaurants of the Pike Outlets entertainment district, the hotel has tastefully appointed rooms and a heated rooftop pool.
From the hotel, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to popular bars and restaurants like The Federal—a gastropub built into a historic bank building that serves over-the-top comfort foods like upscale burgers and red-velvet chicken and waffles. Make a night of it and book tickets for a live show at The Federal Underground, a speakeasy-themed bar situated inside the original bank vault downstairs.
A little-known secret about Long Beach: The public transit system includes boats. For $5 per person, you can catch a boat ride between the aquarium, The Queen Mary, and Alamitos Bay Landing, where you’ll find Naples, a picturesque Italian-style neighborhood with Venice-like canals. After a gondola ride around the community, stop by Ocean Market Grill for some of the best seafood in town, including fresh ceviche, poke tacos, and the signature lobster grilled cheese. hyatt.com, thefederallb.com, oceanmarketgrill.com.