Santa Monica & Venice - California

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The side-by side beach towns of Santa Monica and Venice, are similar only in their west L.A. location. Otherwise, they're completely different. Santa Monica is sophisticated, with fabulous restaurants and cafes, fine hotels (including the newest beach-side hotels in the region) and an atmosphere captured by Raymond Chandler in his mystery novels, with his home town Santa Monica the model for the fictional Bay City.

Venice is funky: a hippie-esque reminder of the 1960s, informal to the point of rudeness and the liveliest beach in greater L.A. -- the famous Muscle Beach.

The two communities lie to the northern edge of the L.A. basin, sandwiched between the Malibu seashore and L.A. International Airport. Both towns are easy to get to -- by the freeway system -- and are conveniently located for travel on Pacific Coast Highway. Highway 1 runs immediately beside the Santa Monica Pier.

What to See & Do

Santa Monica (not Venice) offers diversified shopping in serious antique stores, fashion boutiques and some of the best bookstores in the area. Star Wares on Main sells celebrity clothing, television and film costumes and Hollywood kitsch. The Santa Monica Trading Company deals in recycled goods -- books, magazines, old travel guides and much more. Next door, at 2703 Main St., is Paris 1900, a turn-of-the-century lingerie shop with antique and newly-made lace underwear.

If you get tired of shopping, the modest Santa Monica Museum of Art offers imported exhibitions, many of them based on socially relevant themes. The building was reconstructed by architect Frank Gehry from the old Edgemar Dairy. The two towns are launching pads for visits to the nearby J. Paul Getty Museum and the rarified attractions of nearby Beverly Hills and Hollywood.

The Third Street Promenade is a formerly run-down street turned into an exciting pedestrian mall, filled with informal restaurants, boutiques and other places to shop. It's a place to stroll, sample the nightlife, and people-watch.

Where to Eat

Many people think that L.A.'s best restaurant is Chinois On Main (2709 Main St., Santa Monica). This is one of Wolfgang Puck's creations, with an eclectic decor, including exposed brick, art deco creations, ceramic artwork and lots of people who fill the place every day. Puck has two other restaurants in the L.A. area: Eureka and Spago. From catfish with ginger and panzu sauce to contemporary pasta dishes, the menu is a culinary wonder.

Ocean Avenue Seafood (1401 Ocean Ave.) has dark wooden paneling, just the right touch for a sophisticated seafood grill. There's an indoor-outdoor bar and an extensive fresh seafood menu. On the Third Street Promenade, Broadway Deli (1457 Third St.) offers a modern deli atmosphere and a menu that ranges far beyond the New York style delis. This is a place for relaxed but serious dining -- contemporary salad entrees, hot meat dishes, desserts -- with one of the best wine lists in the area.

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