The charming town of Ventura is unlike any other destination on the Central Coast of California. The classic beach town strikes a perfect balance between urban convenience, laid-back surf vibes and natural beauty and boasts one of the most unique National Parks right on its doorstep.
Located just an hour north of Los Angeles in Southern California, Ventura is the perfect destination for a weekend of sun, surf and sand. However, there’s much more to discover in Ventura than just the beaches and waves. The town has an interesting history and a vibrant downtown district.
Formerly known as the site of the San Buenaventura Mission, built in 1782, the town has been abbreviated to Ventura in the 1800s. The mission has since been restored and is opened for visitation.
We visited Ventura on our California Road Trip and after driving down Highway 1, we found Ventura to be the perfect town to end our trip. We loved Ventura’s funky downtown with its thrift shops, cafes and restaurants and had the most amazing visit to the nearby Channel Islands National Park. But more on all of that further down this post.
The bottom line is, whether you are looking for a relaxing holiday by the sea or an opportunity to try some outdoor activities under the sun, Ventura is one of the best places to visit on the California coast.
Best Things to Do in Ventura
While this is not the most comprehensive list of the best things to do in Ventura County, it covers our favourite and most recommended things to do in the region.
Visit Ventura Pier and Promenade
Stretching out from the oceanfront promenade, this old wooden pier has stood off the coast since 1872. It’s an iconic spot in town that offers a unique perspective on Ventura Beach and the harbourfront.
Along the harbourfront, the Ventura promenade is also a popular place for a sunset walk or cycle. The bike trail connects the San Buenaventura State Beach and Ojai paved bike path that stretches for miles all the way to the town of Ojai. Biking on Ventura Pier is a great way to take in the beaches and views of the sea.
We spent every evening strolling along the pier and the promenade, enjoying the salty air and a misty haze that blanketed the harbourfront.
Stroll along Main Street
In our opinion, Ventura Main Street is the heart and soul of this vibrant town and no visit to Ventura is complete without spending some time exploring the Main Street.
In 2020, as a response to the emerging pandemic, Ventura City Council approved the conversion of 5 blocks of Main Street and 1 block of California Street into a pedestrian-only area. What used to be a quieter part of town became a hub of outdoor activity, dining, coffee shops, and shopping – a true Ventura vibe that remains today and hopefully for years to come.
Stroll along the street to admire the architecture, enjoy the restaurants, pop into shops and chat up friendly locals. Don’t miss:
- Vintage, thrift and antique shops, like Buffalo Exchange, Little Bird, and Treasures N’ Things. Be prepared to spend way too much on stylish finds. We certainly did!
- Downtown Movie Theater – catch a flick or just stop to admire the colourful decor. It’s an Insta-worthy stop oozing nostalgia.
- The Refill Shoppe – a sustainable shop that defines everything that we love about eco-friendly products. You’ll find lots of goodies here from beauty products to local gifts and handicrafts.
Walk up to the Ventura Botanical Gardens
Located a short walk from Main Street, the Ventura Botanical Gardens is a must-do in Ventura for nature lovers. The Ventura Botanical Gardens are slightly elevated offering great views of the town and the Pacific Ocean. General admission is just $7 per person, which makes it an affordable way to take in some of the incredible natural beauty of the area.
Just behind the Ventura Botanical Gardens, you’ll find Grant Park, another beautiful park area with walking trails and sweeping views of the coastline and surrounding mountains. It’s also home to the iconic Serra Cross Park, an important monument in the city.
Visit Mission Park
Mission Park in downtown Ventura is a great spot to learn more about the history of the city. You can visit Mission San Buenaventura Basilica, a 1700s Spanish mission church and a California Historical Landmark, from which the town gets its name. You’ll also find a gift shop next door.
Another spot worth visiting in the park area is the Museum of Ventura County, which celebrates and showcases the culture and history of the region. The historical artifacts collection is a must-see for any history lover!
Check out Ventura Harbor Village
Located on the side of the bay, Ventura Harbor Village is another destination that tops every list of best things to do in Ventura. The retail and dining complex at Ventura Harbor Village is a lively spot with interesting boutiques, ocean view restaurants and some of the best sunset views in the city.
It’s a really popular place for both locals and visitors alike. It’s worth a visit to check out the marina, browse the shops or enjoy some great dining. This part of town is also home to the Harbor Cove Beach, Marina Park and Surfers Knoll. Ventura Harbor is also where you’ll need to go to catch the Island Packers ferry to Channel Islands National Park.
Don’t miss a chance to dine at Water’s Edge Restaurant, a beautiful restaurant with a lovely sunset and harbor mouth view. Unfortunately, they were closed for a private event when we visited the town, but their mouthwatering menu makes it worthy of a stop.
Go Surfing at Surfers Point Beach
Surfers Point Beach is the best beach in Ventura for surfing and windsurfing. If you’re into any water sports, then this beach must be on your list of things to do in Ventura. It’s an iconic spot where you’ll undoubtedly spot local surfers and surfer wannabes.
There are picnic tables, showers and restrooms at Surfers Point Beach, so even if you’re not a surfer, you can still enjoy the beautiful beach. We were able to see Surfers Point Beach from the balcony of our hotel room and enjoyed watching the surfers show off their surf skills almost any time of the day.
Ventura bike path passes by the beach, so you can follow the path past the Seaside Park all the way to Ventura River Estuary.
Go Hiking in Harmon Canyon
When it comes to hiking spots in Ventura, the Harmon Canyon Preserve is a real local gem. This 2,100-acre park area is a fairly recent addition to the long list of activities in Ventura County. Established in 2020, Harmon Canyon is Ventura’s first large-scale nature preserve, home to plenty of hiking and biking trails, through hills and canyons filled with oak groves.
It’s one of the best things to do in Ventura to escape the hustle and bustle and spend some time admiring nature. The Canyon offers nice views of Ventura town and the Ventura River.
Explore Ventura Avenue
If you are looking for fun things to do in Ventura County, head for Ventura Avenue. It’s a long street that runs parallel to the Ojai Freeway, but the center of activity here is the stretch between Main Street and W Stanley Ave. It’s definitely one of the best neighbourhoods in Ventura County to explore if you are searching for culture-seeped adventure.
The street is dotted with street art and murals painted by local artists, tattoo parlours and taco shops. Yes, the avenue has been dubbed the “Taco District” thanks to a number of authentic Mexican food joints that run the length of Ventura Avenue. Some favourites are Taqueria Ventura Doña Raquel’s or Taqueria Cuernavaca. Their fish tacos are the best!
Visit Emma Wood State Beach
Located just outside Ventura town along the Pacific Coast Highway, Emma Wood State Beach is a popular spot for locals and visitors alike. Emma Wood State Beach is often considered to be not only one of the best beaches in Ventura but in all of California. It’s a popular spot for fishing, surfing, camping, beach volleyball and relaxing in the sun.
It’s an incredible place to hang out on a hot day and is even better if you have an RV to park up for the night. If you are lucky, you might spot dolphins swimming offshore and some huge waves if the right swell comes in.
Head out to Lake Casitas Recreation Area
If you have extra time in the Ventura area, then one of the most fun places to go in Ventura County is the Lake Casitas Recreation Area. Nestled in the Los Padres National Forest just 20 minutes north of downtown Ventura, it’s a great family-friendly place to spend a day.
The recreation area has a snack bar, boat rentals, bike rentals and a huge campground. There are plenty of things to do at Lake Casitas, including walking, cycling, kayaking, fishing, and bird watching. If you are traveling with kids the Casitas Water Adventure Park is the spot to be on a hot day.
Visit Channel Islands National Park
A day trip to the Channel Islands National Park is a highlight of any stay in Ventura. The Island Archipelago is an ecologically rich region off the coast of Ventura that is often referred to as North America’s Galapagos Islands.
Five islands comprise the Channel Islands National Park: Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa Island, Santa Rosa Island, San Miguel Island, and Santa Barbara Island. Each island is accessible on a day trip via Island Packers ferry running from Ventura Harbor and all of the islands also allow overnight camping.
- Anacapa Island is a cliff island, so unlike the other islands in the park, it offers no beach access. Access to this island is currently closed to allow improvements to be made to the landing area (closures anticipated until August 2022).
- San Miguel Island is the most northern island in the Channel Islands National Park. Due to its remote location, day trips to this island are offered only a few days a year, typically in October, the ocean conditions are the best for the skiff landing on the beach. Guided hikes are offered on the island but are considered to be more strenuous and thus fitting for those with good fitness.
- Santa Rosa Island is the second-largest of the Channel Islands. Due to its northern location, the island is subject to high winds year-round, so getting to the island can be challenging if sea conditions are less than perfect. It’s a 3.5-hour one-way trip to get to Santa Rosa, with Spring and Summer offering great wildlife watching opportunities en route.
- Santa Barbara Island is the most southern Channel Island in the park. It is the smallest of the Channel Islands, but thanks to its remote location, offers a lot in terms of wildlife viewing opportunities and adventure. Travel time to Santa Baraba is 2.5 to 3 hours depending on harbor of departure.
- Santa Cruz Island is the most popular island to visit on a day trip from Ventura. It’s easily accessible via Island Packer ferry with a crossing taking only 1.5-2 hours.
There are plenty of things to do on Santa Cruz island to keep you busy for a day, including wildlife spotting and hiking trails either on a guided or self-guided tour. We only had 1 day on Santa Cruz island but managed to squeeze a lot into our short visit. Here are our favourite things to do in the Channel Islands and in particular on Santa Cruz Island.
Kayaking tours: Our favourite activity on Santa Cruz Island was the sea cave kayak tour with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. We joined their morning kayaking tour that took us around the Santa Cruz pier, through a number of natural sea caves and a kelp forest. Plus we got a chance to get the incredible views of the Santa Cruz island coastline from the water!
Hike Cavern Point Loop: This was a beautiful scenic walk on Santa Cruz Island. The 1.5-mile loop is relatively easy and takes you to Cavern Point offering sweeping panoramic views across the sea. It was a windy day when we visited in May, but the views of the rocky coastline were absolutely incredible and unlike anything we have seen in Ventura!
Whale watching: Whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions can be seen all year round in the Channel Islands National Park. You can take a dedicated whale watching tour with Island Packers, or if you are lucky like we were, you might spot some marine life en route to the islands. We had an incredible sighting of a pod of 100+ dolphins, humpback whales and even a pod of elusive Orcas!
Camping: We didn’t get a chance to stay at the campground on Santa Cruz Island, but stopped there during our day visit for a little lunch break. Arguably the main attractions of the campground are the resident island foxes. We spotted a couple and were absolutely smitten by their tiny size and cute behaviour.
Camping on the islands, including on Santa Cruz is available year-round on the five islands, with reservations required through the NPS website. Camping fees start from $15 per night.
Best Restaurants in Ventura
One of the best things to do in Ventura, CA is to plan your days around the many delicious restaurants found in and around the seaside city. There are lots of restaurants to choose from, but here are our favourite picks.
Water’s Edge Restaurant
Located right on the Ventura Harbor, Water’s Edge Restaurant sits right on the waterfront so you can enjoy a romantic dinner at sunset with sea views. This bar and grill restaurant specializes in steak and seafood.
Located on Main Street, Paradise Pantry café is a must-visit for foodies. Paradise Pantry is a local institution serving delicious brunches and early evening meals. Their menu is simple and focuses on fresh and local ingredients. They also have an artisan cheese and wine shop on-site, so you’ll likely leave with a few goodies too.
Rocks and Drams
Located on the buzzing California Street, Rocks & Drams is an innovative cocktail bar is where you’ll find some of the best drinks in the city. Runner up for the Best Cocktail Bar in the country at the Bar Expo, it’s the perfect place to be at happy hour.
Lure Fish House
Another famous restaurant in town, Lure Fish located on California Street is a nautical-themed oyster bar. You can find incredibly fresh seafood as well as a popular happy hour with an extensive beer and wine list. Our visit to Lure Fish House was arguably the best meal we’ve had in all of California. We had delicious oysters, a yummy grilled artichoke and a serving of perfectly cooked tuna streak.
MadeWest Brewing Company
Located on Ventura Pier, MadeWest Brewing Company is part of Ventura’s booming craft beer scene. They’ve won global awards for their beer and their taproom on the Ventura Pier offers one of the best spots for sunset in town.
The Cajun Kitchen Cafe
The Cajun Kitchen Cafe in downtown Ventura serves up a range of comfort food for breakfast and lunch. It’s a long-standing local favourite with a popular menu featuring New Orleans-inspired dishes.
Where to Stay in Ventura
While there’s plenty of accommodation to choose from, if you want to be close to the action and all the best things to do in Ventura, consider staying at Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach.
Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach
Located next to Ventura Pier and overlooking the sandy beach, the Crowne Plaza is a well-regarded hotel and a great place to base yourself on a trip to Venture. They offer a wide range of comfortable rooms to suit any kind of traveler. Ours had a balcony overlooking Ventura Pier.
The hotel features an outdoor pool, fitness center, beach access, restaurant on-site and pet-friendly rooms. Within minutes you can walk to many of the local attractions and some of the best restaurants and bars.
We love that Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach is part of the IGH Green Engage System, which measures and tracks its environmental impact as a hotel. This helps the hotel measure and assess its environmental initiatives and helps us feel confident in our choice of sustainable hotel in Ventura.
Disclaimer: Big thanks to Visit Ventura and Visit California for hosting us during our time in Ventura. As always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own.
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