By: Scott Smith and Sandra Wells
Long Beach is California’s seventh-largest city, but is known more for its ultra-busy port than tourism. Yet there is actually a lot to do there, according to its website for visitors: https://www.visitlongbeach.com/. It is also popular for LGBTQs seeking affordable housing near the water (downtown has a Harvey Milk Park and an Equality Square). In November 2020, we spent a couple of half-days, had fun, and learned a lot.
Museum of Latin American Art https://molaa.org/
We’ll confess that we’re not usually fans of most contemporary art because too many schools teach what galleries have brainwashed customers to believe: they really like talentless crap that could be created by accident by a five-year-old having a bad day. So when we read that MOLAA was the only museum in the Western U.S. that exclusively features modern and contemporary Latin American and Latino art, our expectations were low. But we were astounded by the quality and variety of both the permanent collection (1,300 works thus far) and exhibitions (it also recently added a 15,000 sq. ft. sculpture garden). The geometric optimal illusions of Carlos Cruz Diez and the ceramics in the central room were particularly impressive. There is also a notable Celebrating Diversity exhibition, including Afro-Latinx and Mexican-American artists. But the reason to head there ASAP is the retrospective on pioneering Chicana muralist Judy Baca, which was set to end Jan. 31, 2022, though we heard it was being extended to March. She is best-known for her half-mile-long Great Wall of Los Angeles in the Tujunga Wash Flood Control Channel, but there is a multi-media experience of some of her best works and she has other eye-popping pieces, such as When God Was A Woman.
Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum
Across the street from MOLAA is this collection of contemporary art from the culturally quite diverse Pacific islands aka Oceania (just how enormous the area represented is can be seen on a map on the wall). It has a colorful building and an outdoor sculpture garden, with indoor areas for its resident artist Jason Pereira (Samoan descent) and for Roldy Ablao (Guam), who designed a mirrored niche for families to play some interactive games.
Long Beach Museum of Art https://www.lbma.org/ was unexpectedly closed for an installation, but seems worth visiting for its 3,200 permanent collection of American and European art and changing exhibitions (it also has a very popular restaurant, Claire’s).
Rancho Los Cerritos
The area that is now Long Beach was part of a 300,000-acre Spanish land grant to a soldier as thanks for his service. The 27,000 acre Rancho Los Cerritos was bought by John Temple in 1843, where he built a two-story adobe and operated a cattle ranch, herding the cows north to feed gold miners. It was sold to the Bixby family in 1866, who pastured 30,000 sheep. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of indigenous peoples there as far back as 2,500 B.C. and of Native Americans 500-1200 A.D. The current 4.7 acres of beautiful grounds and the adobe are popular for special events. The main building is undergoing refurbishing, but we did see rooms of the Mexican workers as they were when it was a cattle or sheep ranch, including a blacksmith shop. There are also virtual exhibits on the website, such as one about medicine in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. In March 2022, the visitor center will be debuting a new exhibit “Roots in California: Concepts of Home” (Raices de California: Conceptos de Hogar) and there will be an orientation film to the property. There are self-guided tours of the gardens (March and April are when many flowers bloom) and the open rooms or you can sign up for one led by a docent (first come, first served in English or Spanish by appointment). Nearby, another part of the original land grant, Rancho Los Alamitos, is also open: https://rancholosalamitos.org/
Long Beach Antique Market
With 800 vendors, you can find almost anything vintage in a sea of flea market merchandise. A very short list of collectibles we saw includes toys and games, newsworthy issues of magazines and newspapers, books, sports collectibles, kitchenware, funny signs, comic books, vinyl records, furniture, political buttons, military uniforms, and Christmas decor (year-round). Go for the fun of browsing for a at least a couple of hours of exercise and bring something to carry or cart whatever you can’t resist buying.
Aquarium of the Pacific
By far the most important institution to visit is the world-famous aquarium. While being mostly closed during the pandemic, it was significantly upgraded and provides a vivid education for kids of all ages (the visitors guide is not only in Spanish and English, but a number of other languages). It pioneered jellyfish exhibits and the current ones are really jaw-dropping, such as the pure white local sea jellies, others that are mating, and some seem hopelessly entangled. It is especially fun being able to pet the rays and to watch the pure joyous play of seals, sea lions, and otters. Among the 11,000 animals and 500 species are also penguins, sharks, octopuses, truly gigantic crabs, sea turtles, and huge tanks of fish from Baja to the tropics in every hue of luminescent colors (the corals are nearly as vibrant). Be sure to look for the really unusual sea dragons in the Australian Kelp Forest. Plan to spend at least a couple of hours in order to take in the films about sea life and how climate change is impacting the oceans.
Long Beach has a lot of art galleries and is also famous for its murals and public art. You can see examples highlighted by the Arts Council of Long Beach: https://artslb.org/public-art-map/ (a good example on the side of the Varden Hotel, just across from the 4th Horseman pizzeria, with its monster movie decor).
It also has a lot of significant architecture, with 18 historic districts, the largest being California Heights, with many of its 1,500 homes in the Spanish Colonial Revival style popular in the 1920s. An itinerary for art-and-architecture buffs is suggested in this blog: https://www.visitlongbeach.com/blog/art-architecture-long-beach-getaway/. Although it was not active when we were there, check with Long Beach Heritage about their walking tours: https://www.lbheritage.org/.
There is a wide range of other activities available in the area, from whale watching and gondola rides to musical theater and specialty retailers. At some point, the once-popular Queen Mary will reopen after its renovation is finished.
Don’t take too long to visit Long Beach, before everyone else makes it too popular.