Regardless of whether you place it technically in southern California or along the Central Coast (and we do love to argue over such boundaries), the City of Ventura holds the distinction of being just one of three gateways to the Channel Islands – along with Oxnard and Santa Barbara.
But Ventura isn’t merely a means to an end, a stopover point on your way to a pelagic destination. Incorporated in 1866, this 152-year-old coastal city along California’s Mission Trail holds the key to unlocking secrets of the natural world as well as a variety of amusements, attractions and distractions.
During your visit, yes you should take a whale-watching cruise and sure, walk along the wooden pier that has jutted out into the Pacific Ocean at the Ventura Wharf since 1872.
But if your fortune is good, you’ll explore many other delights of the Ventura Harbor area (and beyond). And you might even spot a monarch butterfly or two.
Fortunately, Ventura makes it easy to discover its riches: You can leave your car in one of the city’s all-day free lots and take a free ride on the Downtown Harbor Trolley, which runs on weekends. Or, you can two-wheel it along bike-friendly streets and the California Coastal Trail (which includes the Omer Rains Oceanfront Bikeway), and then you can take bike-friendly transit to close the gaps in between.
Here are five of the best places in and around the Ventura Harbor to get started.
1. The Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center at Channel Islands National Park
Technically, you’d have to get on the water to reach one of the actual Channel Islands. But technically, the national park experience extends to the mainland – starting at the visitor center at Ventura Harbor. But this isn’t just any ol’ ranger station or NPS visitor center – because this one actually recreates the plant biodiversity and multiple habitats of the various islands in a garden out front. From coastal bluff scrub to maritime cactus scrub and every riparian, chaparral, and forested plant community in between, you can get up close and personal with coreopsis, toyon, buckwheat, and oak specimens. All the while, you’ll be surrounded by the whimsical creations of sculptor BiJian Fan, which evoke the wildlife found on the islands. Inside the center, you’ll find some educational displays (including several “touch” stations that kids just love), an educational film and a very good gift shop.
2. Ventura Village Carousel
When you think of the vintage carousels that you can ride throughout southern California, a 1972 kiddie ride might not be top of mind – but the carousel attraction at Ventura Harbor Village is nearly a half-century old and the only carousel to be found in all of Ventura County. Besides that, it’s a unique specimen in its own right, boasting a menagerie of hand-painted animals that includes camels, a dog, and a rooster on a rotating platform that’s sunken into the floor rather than elevated above it. The animals are on the small size and carry a weight limit of 180 lbs., so some parents and adult riders may want to stand rather than mounting one for a spin. The carousel is temporarily closed, but that could change, so check the Ventura Harbor Village pages for any updates. And if you do get there, sample some tasty fudge, partake in some good old arcade fun, and redeem your winning tickets for a seaside souvenir. There’s plenty of free parking and lots of shops and eateries to keep you entertained before and after taking a spin.
3. Ventura Harbor Boat Rentals and Charters
One of the most robust offerings of Ventura is the access it provides to the calm waters of its harbor as well as to the open sea of the Pacific Ocean and what lies just beyond its shores. Besides cruising to the Channel Islands courtesy of Island Packers, you can linger closer to the mainland by renting a pedal boat, kayak, or paddleboard or even taking advantage of one of Ventura’s many popular surf points. Ventura is also a popular setting off point for a number of dive charter boats for scuba and snorkeling – including the Spectre Boat for day-diving the waters of Anacapa or Santa Cruz island or the Peace Dive Boat for multi-day trips and diving for lobster. For a little more boat and a little less contact with the actual water, there are also a number of pleasure boating and sportfishing options. You can find all of these and more along Spinnaker Drive, west of Harbor Boulevard in the Ventura Harbor marina area.
4. The Old Mission San Buenaventura
If you’re going to spend some time digging into Ventura, one of the best places to start is the mission that helped put the city on the map – The Old Mission San Buenaventura, whose patron is Ventura’s own namesake, Saint Bonaventure. The ninth of the Spanish missions to be founded in California, it was actually the last to be established by Junípero Serra – in 1782, two years before the now-canonized padre died. The extant chapel in Ventura’s historic downtown (just a little more than a half-mile inland from the nearest beach, as the seagull flies) is actually the second built, as the first was destroyed by fire. This “Mission by the Sea” has survived multiple earthquakes (and resulting tidal waves), the threat of a pirate attack in 1818, and even secularization in 1836. When you visit, you can take in some history through a museum display of artifacts including two wooden bells, the beauty of a garden courtyard with a tiled fountain and statuary, and lots of art. The Mission San Buenaventura is also at the center of a significant archaeological site and includes ruins of the former Mission Aqueduct that once brought water from the Ventura River – including a filtering tank and remnants of the original Zanja.
We’ve got plenty of California mural towns to explore within easy driving reach -- and not just the street art of Los Angeles. There’s also the local history as depicted on the walls of Barstow and Twentynine Palms and the “big art” of Lompoc. But thanks to everything from FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s to the Ventura Public Art Commission in modern times, this "City of Good Fortune" takes the cake in showcasing monumental works where “old” and “new” Ventura collide. Start at the post office on East Santa Clara Street, where you’ll find epic mural work by Gordon “G.K.” Grant that depicts the agriculture and industries of Ventura circa 1936-37. Next, head over to the historic Peirano's Grocery building to take a gander at a Ghirardelli ad that dates back to 1910 and was restored by muralist Linda Lorr Taylor in 1986. More recent additions to Ventura’s public art include the California Dreamin’ mural at East Thompson Boulevard and South California Street and Chris Saunders’s Amaterasu, which you can find on the wall outside Crush Salon and Dry Bar on Main Street. One of the most exciting new murals in Ventura isn’t painted on a wall, though – it is a wall, consisting of 2,300 glazed terracotta tiles, mounted in celebration of the city’s sesquicentennial in 2016. Designed and fired by local artist Michael O’Kelly, the 50-foot, privately-funded wall was actually completed and unveiled two years later – which means its chronology of Ventura history includes everything up to and including the 2017 Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in the Golden State’s history on record. You’ll find it facing Main Street, just outside the mission.
Note: This article has been updated June 29, 2021 to reflect the latest available information.