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So You Think You Know Long Beach?

Vintage vibes, speakeasies, and fresh bread—this dynamic city’s personality extends well beyond the harbor

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The whole city of Long Beach is a bit of a hidden gem. Anchored by a scenic waterfront and popular attractions such as the Aquarium of the Pacific and Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), the Los Angeles County port town also has a vibrant personality built on its fascinating and sometimes quirky history. After all, the city has seen its own oil boom, held a Grand Prix auto race on city streets, and in 1947 hosted the only flight by Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. Taste and browse your way through this town that prides itself on its own local flavor.

Note: Some of the attractions listed here are closed or operating at reduced capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Click on the provided links for the latest information.

Berlin Bistro

You could spend a half day exploring the Retro Row block of 4th Street—located between Cherry and Junipero in the East Village Arts District. Start with a good meal: Berlin Bistro serves up creative, healthy takes on brunch, lunch, and dinner—think chocolate buckwheat waffles or duck-egg toast (served on bread from neighbor Gusto), as well as burgers and salads.

Fingerprints Music 

Another highlight of Retro Row is attached to Berlin Bistro: Record store Fingerprints Music. While thumbing through new and vintage albums, keep an eye out for anyone doing a sound check, since the store is known for its secret concerts. The Foo Fighters, Jack Johnson, Chrissy Hynde, and Lou Reed have all performed there. This little block has other good diversions, too, such as bookstore Page Against the Machine and the vegan ice cream parlor Hug Life.

The Varden Hotel 

The 35-room Varden Hotel has been a vital part of Long Beach since it first opened as the Dolly Varden Hotel in 1929. (It’s named after a jewel-loving circus performer that the hotelier was wooing.) The landmark neon sign promising a “bath in every room” still stands outside, but the hotel’s interior combines that old-school vibe with contemporary aesthetics. The original airshafts now let in lots of natural light, while that all-important bathroom is adorned with mosaics and cultured marble subway tiles. Downstairs, there’s a nightly wine reception, plus complimentary breakfast in the morning.

The 4th Horseman

Pizza and beer take on a darkly comic character at The 4th Horseman, a pizzeria that describes itself as “apocalyptic”—in part because of pies such as the Angel of Death, topped with blue cheese crumbles, and Rosemary’s Baby, with Italian sausage and balsamic mushrooms. The really creepy stuff is actually at the pizzeria’s onsite The Dark Art Emporium, with its gallery of skulls, taxidermy, and other oddities. Happily, there’s no need to be creeped out by the excellent selection of rotating beers on tap, which often includes pours from Long Beach’s buzzing brewery scene, such as the Monte Weissbier from Ten Mile Brewing in Signal Hill.

Urban Americana 

If you love vintage decor, you could spend hours browsing Urban Americana, a 16,000-square-foot treasure trove located in Long Beach’s historic Zaferia district. Explore the huge inventory of fabulous pieces from more than 40 dealers, including shops that specialize in mid-century modern, farmhouse, and vintage industrial. Even if you’re not in the market for a sleek couch, you’ll be tempted to pick up charming housewares, rugs, vintage signs, and even skateboards.

Ficklewood Ciderworks, Long Beach

Ficklewood Ciderworks 

If you love any excuse to linger over your drink, Ficklewood Ciderworks has your number. This East Village cider maker (located on the site of a former DMV) was launched right before the pandemic, offering a living room–style tasting room stocked with board games—a strong hint that it’s just fine to stay awhile. Start with the Ficklewood Original, made with three different apple ciders, and then sample options such as the Bramblebark (with blackberries and a touch of vanilla), the wine lovers’ WiseVine, or Harbor Buzz, a cider steeped in coffee beans from nearby Rose Park Roasters.

The Exhibition Room 

Long Beach is home to a few speakeasies, including The Exhibition Room, which you enter by way of a false wall in a telephone booth inside a Central American restaurant called Roxanne’s. While the Exhibition Room’s history may not stretch back to Prohibition, its decor recalls the olden days of the port town, and the curated cocktails have a throwback vibe, like the Penicillin (Sheep Dip scotch, fresh ginger, lemon, and honey) and the Old Cuban (rum, Champagne, bitters, lime, and mint). Make a reservation, and you’ll get the password when you text the bar upon arrival. To extend your tour, go to Whatever Lola Wants, a speakeasy inside a bar (Mezcalero) which is itself inside a restaurant (Padre). Try the Grandma Thunder, a blend of rums with allspice, tamarind, and lime.

Gusto Bread

Whether you define “gusto” as taste (Spanish) or zeal (English), this panadería on 4th Street’s Retro Row lives up to its name. Gusto Bread’s self-taught head baker has developed a cult following in Long Beach—you might find a line out front to pick up any of the loaves, biscuits, and long breads, or goodies such as conchas (a sweet bread with sugar-cookie frosting) or crumbly walnut-cookie polvorones.

Rancho Los Alamitos 

Explore the gardens and historic buildings of this preserved rancho located near the campus of California State University, Long Beach. Over the course of 1,500 years, Rancho Los Alamitos had been occupied by the Tongva people, Spanish and Mexican colonists, and American farmers. Its name means “Ranch of the Cottonwoods,” a tribute to the value of the real estate (cottonwoods only thrive where there’s plenty of water). Everyone loves the restored barnyard here—home to horses, goats, chickens, and rabbits.

Gondola Getaway 

Just as the Los Angeles community of Venice Beach was modeled after the Italian city, Long Beach’s island community of Naples has its own Italian ambience, including a canal system that can be explored by gondola. Take a one-hour ride with Gondola Getaway, and see the island’s five bridges and gorgeous waterfront homes. BYOB and get free corkage for your tour, as well as cozy blanket for the ride.

Lord Windsor Coffee 

Tucked on a corner in the Alamitos Beach neighborhood, Lord Windsor Coffee offers award-winning roasted beans along with coffee drinks and canned cold brews to go. On weekends, you can often grab a breakfast sandwich or burrito from pop-ups by local eateries such as Breakfast Dreams and cult favorite Lowkey Burritos.

Pigeon’s Rollerskate Shop 

Walk Long Beach’s four-mile Shoreline Pedestrian Bike path and you might see people gliding by on groovy-looking skates—colorful, glittery, and maybe even mounted on a pair of Vans. There’s a good chance they came from Pigeon’s Rollerskate Shop on Retro Row. Pick up some in-stock skates—test them out on the store’s ramp—or order a custom pair to be delivered.

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