Written by Brad Lane
Jun 18, 2019
Sandwiched between the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean, Ventura is a Southern California city filled with outdoor appeal and plenty of things to do. Surfing, hiking, and enjoying a delicious meal at a local restaurant can all be done in a day, as well as shopping, sailing, and watching the sunset on the beach. Hosting millions of visitors every year, Ventura is unique among major Southern California coastal cities thanks to a small-town vibe represented by the friendly faces you’ll meet on the street.
The Ventura Pier and San Buenaventura State Beach are postcard destinations tourists tend to flock to, much in thanks to the two-mile stretch of shoreline accompanied by stellar ocean views. Channel Islands National Park can be seen from this coastline, and Ventura is a great place to embark on a day trip to this top-rated national park in California. For even more family-friendly seaside things to do, Ventura Harbor Village provides plenty of avenues to enjoy the ocean with dining, rentals, and commercial trips available.
Officially the city of Buenaventura, Ventura is also home to the Mission San Buenaventura, dating back to 1782, which still stands prominently in the downtown district surrounded by other attractions like the Ventura County Museum. For a great view of this bustling area of historic buildings and unique storefronts, head up through the Ventura Botanical Gardensand towards the Serra Cross.
Plan your visit to this laid-back coastal town with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Ventura.
1. San Buenaventura State Beach
Stretching for two miles along the Ventura city coastline, spanning the distance between Marina Park and the Ventura Pier, San Buenaventura delivers on the quintessential beach experience. Swimming, surfing, and exploring the sand dunes are just a few of the things to do at this state beach, as well as simply laying a towel down and enjoying the afternoon sun. Certified lifeguards patrol the sand and surf, and near the park entrance gate, a grassy picnic area is filled with picnic tables and shade.
A hiking and biking trail spans the entirety of San Buenaventura State Beach and extends to connect with other oceanside attractions of Ventura. Beyond the Ventura Pier, the bike trail intersects with the scenic Surfers Point at Seaside Park, where you’ll likely see someone catching some waves. Extending farther north, the Coastal Trail takes cyclists as far as Rincon State Beach. Heading inland, the Ojai Valley Bike Trail takes cyclists to the charming town of Ojai.
Address: 901 San Pedro Street, Ventura, California
Official site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=600
2. Ventura Harbor Village
Offering seaside attraction south of downtown, Ventura Harbor Village provides many avenues to enjoy the ocean. With fresh seafood, ocean-inspired retail shops, and plenty of things to do including carousel rides, boat rentals, and beach volleyball courts, Harbor Village is also the departure point for exploring the nearby Channel Islands National Park. Passengers can hop aboard a ferry from Island Packers to access the Channel Islands, and the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center is at the north end of the village.
Part of the experience of Harbor Village is simply walking around and enjoying the coastal atmosphere, including the array of boats parked in the harbor. Family-friendly, with activities for children, Ventura Harbor Village is also pet-friendly, which is best exemplified every October during the annual pet costume contest. Harbor Village is also the place to go for fresh seafood, ranging from fried lunch baskets to upscale dinner entrees.
Address: 1583 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, California
Official site: https://www.venturaharborvillage.com/
3. Channels Islands National Park Editor’s Pick
Comprised of five wild islands off the coast of Southern California, as well as the mile of ocean that surrounds them, Channel Islands National Park offers visitors a true escape from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Accessing the Channel Islands involves different logistics than other top-rated national parks of California. From Ventura, a scenic approach includes hopping aboard an Island Packers ferry, which departs from Ventura Harbor Village.
The most frequent ferry rides visit Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island, where popular activities include hiking, camping, and photography. Inspiration Point on Anacapa Island is well regarded as one of the best views in the park. Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands, on the other hand, receive fewer ferry riders and provide an even wilder experience. No services exist on any of the five islands, meaning visitors need to be self-reliant and pack in drinking water and pack out trash.
More information about the Channel Islands can be discovered at the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center at the north end of Ventura Harbor Village. Other ways to enjoy the Channel Islands include sea kayaking through sea caves, snorkeling and diving within offshore kelp forests, and spotting common wildlife, including dolphins, whales, and sea lions.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm
4. Ventura Pier
Originally constructed in 1872 and restored in 1993, the Ventura Pier is a landmark symbol of the city. A favorite place to visit for anglers, photographers, and sunset strollers, the Ventura Pier features restrooms, water fountains, and food concessionaires. Extending from the Ventura Pier, the Ventura Promenade is a popular pedestrian route along the ocean. South of the Ventura Pier, the wide shoreline of San Buenaventura State Beach invites afternoons spent playing in the sand.
5. Mission San Buenaventura
Dating back to 1782, the Mission San Buenaventura is the centerpiece attraction of Ventura’s downtown historical park. The lengthy history of this Mission Church is on full display during self-guided tours of the mission, which include access to other architectural relics that remain in the area. Prominent stops on the self-guided tour include the Garden and Grotto, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the Padre’s Burial. With an aesthetic exterior, the plaza outside the Mission San Buenaventura is adorned with fountains and running water.
A symbol of the region’s long history, the Mission San Buenaventura also lends access to the charming and historic Downtown District of the city, lined with local shops and restaurants. Navigating throughout downtown Ventura is easy thanks to a free trolley system and free public parking lots. Downtown restaurants range from casual bites to romantic fine-dining establishments, and local retail windows feature everything from locally made homewares to the latest in fashion and design.
Address: 211 E Main Street, Ventura, California
Official site: https://www.sanbuenaventuramission.org/
6. Ventura Botanical Gardens
Behind the tourist-friendly and architecturally pleasing Ventura City Hall, the Ventura Botanical Gardens encompass an entire canyon of natural beauty. In 2017, the devastating Thomas Fire wreaked havoc on this community space, which spanned over 105 acres. Much like many of the native plant species found at the botanical gardens, this city-owned institution is bouncing back from the fire and growing once again into its former beauty.
There is a lot to see and explore at the botanical gardens today, including a beautiful hiking trail that leads to a landscaped summit overlooking the ocean. Great for a leisurely stroll or afternoons spent photographing the flora, the botanical gardens cross into Grant Park, where the historic Serra Cross also overlooks the ocean. Originally erected in 1782 on the mountainside above the Mission San Buenaventura, the Serra Cross still provides one of the best views of the city.
Address: 567 South Poli Street, Ventura, California
Official site: http://www.venturabotanicalgardens.com/https://8fd4c9ec009b171b49c715cd84bc28fd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
7. Surfers Point at Seaside Park
With two large parking areas accessed from Figueroa Street, this hot spot of surfing is a south-facing point, allowing for long right-handed waves to carry surfers towards the Ventura Pier. Birding is also popular at Seaside Park thanks to the lagoon formed by the nearby Ventura River terminating into the ocean. On the opposite riverbanks of Surfers Point, Seaside Wilderness Park offers less developed coastal bluffs and hiking trails to explore.
Address: Shoreline Drive, Ventura, California
8. Emma Wood State Beach
The long stretch of beach extending north from the mouth of the Ventura River, Emma Wood State Beach is a popular destination for ocean activity. Surfing, swimming, and fishing can all be done from the shore, and bike rides, beachcombing, and catching a tan are popular above the surf. Camping is available throughout the summer at Emma Wood, though it is exclusively reserved for self-contained camping vehicles (no tent camping allowed).
Address: Pacific Coast Highway, Ventura, California
Official site: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=604https://8fd4c9ec009b171b49c715cd84bc28fd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
9. Marina Park
A sprawling oceanfront park opposite Ventura Harbor Village, this family-friendly spot is a great place to let the kids run free. The rock barrier protecting Ventura Harbor doesn’t allow for water access at the park, but the bountiful green space with harbor views, fishing docks, and playgrounds fill the afternoon with fun things to do. Sotter’s Point within the park is accessed via a trail that leads out onto the jetty and is a great place to watch boats head out of Ventura Harbor and into the ocean.
Address: Pierpont Boulevard, Ventura, California
10. Lake Casitas Recreation Area
A twenty-minute drive from downtown Ventura, Lake Casitas Recreation Area is nestled in the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest. Operated by the Casitas Municipal Water District, Lake Casitas is a vital drinking water supply, so no swimming or body contact is allowed with the water. The vast acreage of the recreation area is dotted with different campgrounds, with over 400 campsites in total ranging from primitive tent spots to full hookup RV spaces.
An entire weekend is easily spent at Lake Casitas without leaving the recreation area. A challenging disc golf course navigates through the elevated scenery of Lake Casitas, and numerous picnic areas invite a fun meal outside. A network of bike trails also extends throughout the recreation area, and the main camp road is a safe cyclist path. Very popular on summer weekends, Casitas Water Adventure within the recreation area features a lazy river, a multi-level water playground, and a dedicate water aerobic class time.
Address: 11311 Santa Ana Road, Ventura, Californiahttps://8fd4c9ec009b171b49c715cd84bc28fd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
11. Rubicon Theatre Company
Within Ventura’s cultural district east of downtown, Rubicon Theatre Company has produced thought-provoking performances and events for over 20 years. A recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, this professional theater company attracts thousands of theatergoers every year. While plays and theater performances are most prevalent on the Rubicon Theatre Company stage, this renowned venue also hosts special events, including live music performances and panel-led discussions.
Address: 1006 E Main Street, Ventura, California
Official site: https://www.rubicontheatre.org/https://8fd4c9ec009b171b49c715cd84bc28fd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
12. Museum of Ventura County
Near the Mission San Buenaventura, this non-profit museum details the people and events that shaped Ventura County into what it is today. Featuring rotating exhibits, the Museum of Ventura County has over 30,000 pieces of artwork and artifacts routinely on display. The permanent Chumash Gallery at the museum is dedicated to the original inhabitants of the region, and the Music of the Masters collection celebrates the rich heritage behind the Ojai and Ventura Music Festivals. Across the street from the Museum of Ventura County, the Albinger Archaeological Museum uncovers other cultural artifacts.
Address: 100 E Main Street, Ventura, California
Official site: https://venturamuseum.org/https://8fd4c9ec009b171b49c715cd84bc28fd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
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Other Southern California Coastal Cities: The sunny beaches and scenic landscapes of Santa Barbara are only a 30-minute drive from Ventura up the coast. Towards Los Angeles to the south, Santa Monica offers another iconic Southern California beach and pier, with an entertaining downtown district that stays up late into the night. Farther south on the Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach, also known as Surf City U.S.A, is worth an extended visit or permanent relocation.
More to Explore in California: California is a rich and diverse state when it comes to attraction and appeal, with redwood forests, snow-capped mountains, biodiverse deserts, and a rugged coast. A good way to see it all is by embarking on a West Coast road tripthroughout the state, connecting many of the best places to visit in California. Other scenic spots along these California road trips include many of the best beaches in California.