Twenty-five miles south of Los Angeles, the Pacific coastal community of Long Beach feels like it occupies a different, more relaxed atmosphere than its busy neighbor. It makes a great spot for a beach-y, affordable long weekend infused with the occasional jolt of culture. Cruise passengers, too, coming or going from Long Beach’s cruise port — currently utilized by Carnival — will find Long Beach to be an easy and interesting place to explore, either before embarkation or after disembarkation. You can also use it as a less-hectic base for exploring the Southern California coast. Here’s how to have a memorable visit.
Things to Do in Long Beach, California
With nearly half-a-million residents and a spiky downtown skyline, Long Beach truly feels — and operates — like a bustling urban community. Of course, with its miles of beaches, easygoing brunch spots, and an average of 287 sunny days per year, its laidback take on city life is uniquely Californian.
Start exploring at one of the city’s more prominent landmarks, the permanently docked RMS Queen Mary. This circa-1930s Cunard ocean liner retired from service in 1967, but not before it hosted stars like Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, and Clark Gable; carried Allied troops in World War II; and held the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing. Much of the ship has been altered since its sailing days, and part of it operates as a hotel, but enough remains to give you an interesting glimpse at what passenger cruise ships used to feel like. (The contrast will feel especially real to you if you’re visiting from one of the Carnival ships that come into port just a few hundred feet from the Queen Mary.) Our favorite part of the exhibit is a room of scale ship models — including models of the Titanic and Lusitania — that help paint a more complete picture of the golden age of ocean liner travel.
Stop by the Museum of Latin American Art, the only museum of its kind in the United States, to view parts of its 1,600-piece collection, catch one of the special exhibitions on view, and visit its beautiful sculpture garden. Contemporary and modern art by Latin American and Latino artists is the focus here, and the museum hosts special events throughout the year, including for Dia de Los Muertos. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $7 for kids. Located on the edge of the East Village Arts District, a walk through the neighborhood before or after your visit will reveal creative shops and boutiques, street murals, and art galleries. On the second Saturday of each month, join the neighborhood Art Walk that includes live performances, gallery tours, and more.
For a unique way to get out on the water in Long Beach, hop on a gondola — a real Venetian one. Gondola Getaway lets you ride in a gondola for one hour with an authentically clad gondolier — he may even serenade you — but the real joy of this trip is where it takes you. Your gondola will wind through the natural waterways and manmade canals of the Naples neighborhood, an island community that developed in the 1920s. You’ll gaze upon beautiful homes that span a century of California waterfront styles, and get a sense of what it might feel like to live on your own canal. Gondola rides are a steal — and cheaper than in Italy — at $100 for the first two passengers. You can bring your own bottle of wine (free corkage), and Gondola Getaway will provide cups, buckets, and ice, and you can add a romantic extra like a bouquet of roses ($60).
No visit to Long Beach is complete without a trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific, even if you’re traveling kid-free. A survey of Pacific Ocean sea life, the aquarium’s jellyfish, sea anemone, shark, and penguin exhibits delight, and that’s before you even get to the famous sea otters. General admission tickets cost $35 for adults and $25 for kids; check the web site for occasional specials.
What to Eat in Long Beach, California
The Long Beach dining scene is notable for its straightforwardness, affordability, and commitment to flavor. You’ll seldom wait hours for a table or blow an entire paycheck on a meal, and every California-style specialty — tacos, face-sized salads, seafood, shakes and pressed juice — can be found here in abundance.
Among the offerings in the East Village Arts District, we like The Breakfast Bar. Start your day at this genial cafe, which routinely makes local and even national “best brunch” lists. Shrimp and grits, thick-cut French toast, meatloaf, and breakfast burritos typify the comfort-food-style menu, which is prepared with fresh ingredients. Grab a seat on the umbrella-shaded front patio for maximum beach-town vibes.
For excellent coffee and healthy bites in a sleekly designed setting, head to Berlin Bistro. Also located in the East Village Arts District, the cool-kid crowd spends the day here drinking lattes, working on laptops at the communal table, and scarfing avocado toast, flatbreads, and a wealth of vegetarian options.
If you’re craving Italian, head to a Long Beach classic. L’Opera has been serving sizable portions of Italian favorites for thirty years in its stately, right-in-the-middle-of-things downtown location that was once the First National Bank. Choose a tried-and-true favorite like spaghetti ai fruiti di mare or penne al’arrabiata or one of the restaurant’s specialties. We loved the cappelli lombardi, a short rib-stuffed ravioli in a gorgonzola cream sauce. Look for the house-made pastas on the menu and bring your healthiest appetite.
Another Long Beach culinary icon, Sweet Jill’s, is a must-visit while you’re in town. Known for its over-the-top tray bakes and muffins, don’t leave without sampling the sticky (and enormous) cinnamon rolls, one of a half-dozen kinds of coffee cake, a piece of red velvet or coconut cake, or a slice of the Oreo cheesecake bar. You’ll want — and maybe need — to bring home extras for friends.
Where to Stay in Long Beach
For a unique waterside resort experience, check out our review of the Hotel Maya. This boutique-style property, located right near where the Queen Mary is docked, brims with cheekily modern style — and it’s actually part of Doubletree. Use its free shuttle to reach much of downtown Long Beach, including the East Village Arts District.
How to Get to Long Beach
Thanks to its ultra-convenient airport, Long Beach is a fuss-free place to reach. Compared with the traffic snarl that seems to endlessly surround LAX Airport, getting from Long Beach Airport into town is a relative breeze. It’s a 20-minute drive, even in traffic, and you should expect to pay about $20 for a ride share. JetBlue, American, Delta, and Southwest all fly to Long Beach daily.
If you’re sailing into or out of town on a Carnival cruise ship — the new Carnival Panorama, which debuts in late 2019, will homeport in Long Beach — your ship will leave you very close to the action. Grab a ride share and you’ll be downtown, near the East Village Arts District, in about 11 minutes. Your ride should cost $8 to $10. Norwegian Cruise Line’s port, next door in the neighboring town of San Pedro, can also be reached quickly from Long Beach. The trip takes about 18 minutes by car and you’ll pay $15 to $20 in a ride share. To learn more about spending time in San Pedro, read our guide.