Long Beach offers relaxing urban beach town getaway
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The streets were smoking the weekend my girlfriend and I visited Long Beach but it wasn't because Long Beach was hot. It was due to the Formula Drift, a car event that allows competitors to legally spin out in designated areas on the city's streets for a weekend.
That was in advance of the recent Toyota Grand Prix, where cars raced through downtown Long Beach streets.
While racecar lovers were burning rubber in Long Beach, my girlfriend and I were burning rubber on the soles of our shoes and with bikes from Long Beach Bike Share to explore the city during our 36-hour jaunt.
We flew into Long Beach Airport Friday night and settled into the Hilton Long Beach to rest up for our weekend adventure.
Our hotel was located downtown, which allowed us to easily hit all the happening neighborhoods and sites Long Beach has to offer.
We walked everywhere from the Aquarium of the Pacific to Rainbow Harbor to Fourth Street and Pine Avenue the first day. We found that Long Beach was very walkable, at least in the downtown and within specific neighborhoods. The following day we rolled through the city's bike boulevards and bike lanes all the way up to Belmont Heights and back before brunch.
Long Beach, with a population of about 510,000, is the seventh largest city in California and the 36th largest in the U.S., according to our host, Bob Maguglin, from the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. A native, he has a deep passion for the city.
Pick your flavor
Long Beach boasts 112 neighborhoods. Restaurateurs have been spicing up the city's culinary scene and its diversity is how it got its new nickname, the International City.
Possibly the best way to get a sample of what Long Beach has to offer is to check out Taste of Downtown and Stroll and Savor. Foodies delight as they stroll along Pine Avenue and Waterfront downtown and along Second Street in the Belmont Shore neighborhood, tasting the best of what the city's restaurants have to serve up. Taste of Downtown takes place in May and August. Stroll and Savor takes place monthly May through August.
We still can't get the flavors of Lola's Mexican Cuisine, a popular funky restaurant, out of our minds. The menu features recipes from Guadalajara, Mexico handed down to the restaurant's namesake from her grandmother, as well as modern Mexican fare. There's indoor and outdoor seating; the back patio has a cute, colorful atmosphere featuring Mexican artwork. The restaurant has a second location in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood along Atlantic Avenue.
The Queen Mary Champagne Sunday Brunch offered a buffet ranging from standard American breakfast to Chinese, Italian, Mexican, seafood, and, of course, dessert, all washed down with champagne that magically continues to appear in your glass. We also enjoyed breakfast at local favorite, the Breakfast Bar, which serves up a variety of favorites, including American, Southern, and Mexican-American.
Reviewing our list of restaurants, we wished we had gone to Cafe Sevilla for Spanish tapas, but we wouldn't have explored bustling Second Street and the Belmont Shores neighborhood if we had. However, we are quite sure that there will be more than a handful of new restaurants to add to the list we created that will beckon our taste buds to return to Long Beach soon.
One of the major reasons is that for the past decade Long Beach, which had a reputation for being rough around the edges, has been working on cleaning itself up.
The city is alive with creative innovation. Everywhere you go new restaurants and shops are opening. Many of the new boutiques and eateries in downtown Long Beach along Pine Avenue and Broadway sprouted at Made by Millworks, a gift and art gallery that features more than 150 local brands, and was founded in 2014.
Some of the businesses â€" such as the Crepe Crafters, Pie Bar, Romeo Chocolates, Saints and Sinners Bake Shop, and lesbian-owned Wide Eyes Open Palms â€" started at Made by Millworks and have opened nearby.
Along Ocean Boulevard, the historic Club Ripples that has been a bastion in the Belmont Shore neighborhood since 1972, is one of the city's 13 gay bars and nightclubs. The nightclub also hosts one of the city's only lesbian nights, Syren's Ladies Night.
We were surprised that Long Beach, which has a reputation for having a large lesbian community, doesn't offer much for lesbian nightlife. It's something that hasn't gone unnoticed by local queer women who spoke with the Bay Area Reporter.
Lesbian scene or not, the city is clearly dusting itself off under the direction of its first young gay Latino mayor, Robert Garcia. The founder and publisher of Long Beach Post and an immigrant from Peru, Garcia was elected in 2014.
The changes that started in 2007 appear to have been kicked into high gear within the past couple of years since Garcia stepped into the mayor's office. He's on a mission to raise Long Beach's profile, attracting several industries â€" such as high-tech and brand name stores â€" to revitalize the beach town.
It's working. Garcia has attracted young people, who are bringing a new vibrant energy to the city, while retaining its laidback beach vibe, diversity, and family-friendly atmosphere. It's the perfect concoction for a hip city.
Something for everyone
Long Beach offers something for everyone. It's a very queer city with gay-owned businesses new and old residing in many neighborhoods, from Pine Avenue downtown to Fourth Street and Broadway to Retro Row where The Center Long Beach, the LGBT community center, is located. There is more than one gay neighborhood too; Alamitos Beach and Signal Hill and Eastside are generally considered the gayborhoods and lesbihood, respectively.
Our new friends, Tara Frazier and Marisol Pathaco, a 30-something lesbian couple we met during brunch at the Queen Mary, told my girlfriend and I that there is "never a dull moment" in Long Beach because "There is always something to do."
Frazier added that Long Beach is a romantic city too, as we continued hanging out on the ship's deck sipping champagne.
Located on the Pacific Ocean with 11 and a half miles of sandy beaches and 345 days of sunshine â€" that is when the fog isn't around â€" Long Beach has plenty of things to do. Couples and families enjoy outdoor activities, such as beach volleyball, biking, boating, golf, tennis, and walking along the beach or Rainbow Harbor Esplanade or even a ride aboard Gondola Getaway through the canals of Naples Island. It also has a robust arts and culinary scene.
My girlfriend and I enjoyed gliding through the canals of Naples Island at sunset aboard one of the gondolas. As we admired the unique array of architecture and learned about the history behind the buildings by our gondolier, a former teacher, we also saw friends enjoying a dinner set up on the boat, couples getting engaged, and party boats celebrating birthdays float past us.
Shoppers will enjoy Second Street in Belmont Shores, Pine Avenue, the Pike Outlets, and Retro Row, with antiques and second-hand shops. Another great shopping destination is Fourth Fridays at the Pike. The event showcases more than 80 vendors, food trucks, and local artists and is open to the public every fourth Friday of the month from 5 to 10 p.m.
Families will enjoy the aquarium, especially the behind-the-scenes tour we went on. They will also enjoy the " Diana: Legacy of a Princess" exhibit, haunted and historic tours, and other events aboard the Queen Mary, a luxury passenger ship built in 1936 with a glamorous past.
The Diana exhibit is educational and, at moments, sad and uplifting, and includes the achievements of Princes Harry and William of England.
The Queen Mary has called Long Beach home since 1967 when it ended its final voyage at the popular cruise ship port, where it is now a floating hotel and popular event and wedding venue. Today, the port is also home to Carnival Cruises, which is expanding its cruises to Hawaii and Mexico.
There are many reasons to go to Long Beach, but festivals, especially now that spring will soon give way to summer, also transform this city into a destination worth visiting.
Throughout the summer, Long Beach celebrates the beach and sea with a variety of events by the Long Beach Sea Festival, including the Original Lobster Festival, the largest lobster festival outside of Maine, which wraps up the season in September.
Golfers will enjoy the annual Long Beach Golf Festival that features a women's and men's city championship among nine tournaments that attracts more than 1,500 golfers from around the United States and the world May 17-19.
Craft brew lovers can explore Beer Camp on Tour, America's largest craft beer festival, which will be in Long Beach at the Queen Mary Events Park June 24.
In July, Long Beach will celebrate artists at the annual Pow! Wow! Long Beach. The weeklong festival, July 11-17, celebrates art, culture, and music with daily events and a competition with internationally known artists creating large-scale mural installations throughout the city.
Music lovers can enjoy the Long Beach Jazz Festival, August 11-13.
Where to sleep
We stayed at the Hilton Long Beach, however, there are plenty of lodging options, such as the Queen Mary. The ship is not only a place to dine, drink, and have a good time at any one of its many events, it also has 320 hotel rooms.
Another luxury boat lodging option is the Dockside Boat and Bed, where guests sleep in yacht accommodations in Rainbow Harbor.
Getting there and around
We flew in on JetBlue, for which Long Beach is one of its hubs. The Long Beach Airport is about a 20-minute drive from the city.
The downtown is very walkable, as we discovered, but there are shuttles available: the Passport buses, Aquabus, and the Aqualink. Passport buses are free downtown and affordable for longer distances. Fare-based Aquabus will take you to the aquarium, and the Aqualink will take you to Alamitos Bay and Naples Island.