First published on July 31, 2011. Revised and expanded in early 2012.
You could spend a solid year sniffing out cool spots for travelers in Venice, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Malibu -- scores of hotels, hundreds of restaurants and bars, more than 30 miles of coastline. But you're new to the scene, or you haven't visited in a while, and who has a year anyway?
These 11 micro-itineraries will lead you to fresh fruit, ancient art, pub darts, magic, gymnastics, Venus on roller skates and J. Paul Getty on how to be rich.
1. Veni, vidi, Venice
Venice Beach Boardwalk (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times )
That's a loose Latin paraphrase for: "I came, I saw and, boy, are we a long way from Burbank." Venice lies just south of Santa Monica and left of the American mainstream -- artsy, edgy, defiant and occasionally downright dissolute. Check out Ocean Front Walk on a weekend morning, and bring a fistful of dollar bills to tip the street musicians, magicians and all-around characters. Don't miss the mural of Venus on roller skates, near Speedway and Windward Avenue. (Maybe you've already seen it, in the Steve Martin movie "L.A. Story.") See too the careening teens at the Venice Skate Park, the cyclists on the meandering beach bike path, and the serious pickup games on the basketball courts. There will be something to amuse you and something to offend you. (Perhaps the cheeky young man seeking contributions for penis-reduction surgery?) Venice lovers embrace it as the weirdness capital of Southern California, if not North America. Others take one look at the grit and graffiti and ask: What's so special about beachfront urban blight and cheap sunglasses? Before you pass judgment, inspect the canals just south of South Venice Boulevard and survey the ambitious restaurants, galleries and shops along Abbot Kinney Boulevard. After you check into the playful but grown-up-oriented Hotel Erwin (1697 Pacific Ave., Venice; www.hotelerwin.com), have a drink at the rooftop bar. It doesn't have a pool, but if you step across Pacific Avenue to Mao's Kitchen (1512 Pacific Ave., Venice; www.maoskitchen.com), you’ll find a bowl of noodle soup almost large enough to swim in.
2. Sweet swimming on a tight budget
Annenberg Community Beach House (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times )
For a memorable pool or a base camp for a beach day with the kids, head to 415 Pacific Coast Highway. There, by wide, sandy Santa Monica beach, William Randolph Hearst in the late 1920s built a vast mansion for his mistress, actress Marion Davies. These days, only the big marble-edged pool and guesthouse remain, joined by a sleek complex of changing rooms and special-event spaces that was completed in 2009. It's known as the Annenberg Community Beach House (415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica; www.annenbergbeachhouse.com ). It's run by the city of Santa Monica, and it's probably the best-looking municipal pool you've ever seen. Though much of the 5-acre facility operates year round, the pool opens only in summer, accepting walk-up guests and reservations (up to three days in advance), its water (4 to 8 feet deep) heated to 80-85 degrees. Lots of moms and tots. There's a cafe, a cool little playground, beach volleyball, beach tennis, a pair of beach soccer fields and rentable space for parties (only in the evening during the summer; all-day rental available in the off season). A day of pool access (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) costs less than a movie at most theaters ($10 for adults, $5 for seniors (60 and older) and $4 for minors (ages 1-17) as of March 2012). On most Mondays, that price drops to $1 for adults and kids, and the pool stays open until 8 p.m. Because demand can be high, you should show up around 8:30 a.m. with a towel and swimsuit. Pay to park your car all day, or park your bike free at one of the racks. Then head for breakfast at the neighboring Back on the Beach Cafe (which opens at 8 a.m.). When the pool admission window opens at 9:30, you buy your passes (everyone must be present to receive a wristband), and when the pool opens at 10, you're ready.
3. Pier people, parallel bars and prawns