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Long Beach, California took pride in calling itself the “Navy Capital of the United States.” But in the 1990s that would change with the closing of the all things Naval including the base, hospital, housing and shipyard. The economic impact was devastating. But lately sunny Long Beach has come roaring back. The first word that comes to mind? Vibrant.

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Your first impression of a city starts at the airport. That’s a good thing for Long Beach. Even the food at the airport wins awards. In a USA Today 10Best.com Reader’s Choice poll last year, Long Beach Airport (LGB) was named the “Best Airport for Dining.” Much of the fare comes from local restauranteurs. The 4th Street Vine Wine & Beer Bar offers outdoor, as well as indoor seating. You probably haven’t seen fire pit tables at an airport restaurant, well you will in Long Beach. Much of the airport is outdoors, a hint of the awesome weather you can expect.

Rainbow Harbor | Photo courtesy of Visit Long Beach

Truth is, you may not know what to expect from this city of around 500,000 that’s 22 miles south of downtown Los Angeles and 90 miles north of San Diego. Long Beach is Southern California’s middle child of sorts, often overlooked despite its six miles of beach and waterways. Old timers will tell you that in the ’90s downtown was in decline and home to adult theaters and tattoo parlors. But the next decade would bring a more than $1 billion investment to revitalize downtown, adding 12,000 in residential units  that in turn fueled the growth of restaurants, bars, movie theaters, nightlife, wine bars, craft breweries, and coffee shops.

Downtown alone has roughly 130 restaurants.  You can find just about any cuisine, be it Cambodian, Polynesian, Thai and plenty more. Many young professionals continue to move downtown and work in Los Angeles, which is an easy commute via the Blue Line light rail. Ask the locals and they’ll tell you Long Beach over the last five years in particular has become a lively place to hang out.

Pine Avenue Music Festival | Photo courtesy of Visit Long Beach

Pine Avenue is the heart of downtown’s action and boasts historic buildings (many of them Art Deco) from the ’20s and ’30s. Take for example, trendy Federal Bar. Housed in a former bank, the huge space was transformed into an elegant restaurant with three-story, vaulted ceilings, long windows, ornate wood everywhere and the original bank vault making for a cool atmosphere. Pine Avenue is also home to the Rock Bottom Brewery, George’s Greek Café, BO-Beau and King’s Fish House. You can watch flamenco dancers at Café Sevilla and at Alegria which is the place to be on weekend nights when the restaurant hosts Latin Salsa nights, with live music and dancing.

Every second Thursday of the month, Live After 5 celebrates the arts and music culture of downtown. The free event has performers on street corners, parks, restaurants and bars. Thrice annual Taste of Downtown, meanwhile, offers musical entertainment and a chance to sample the best of the Avenue’s cuisine.

Sailing in Long Beach | Photo courtesy of Visit Long Beach

But downtown is just the beginning of the fun. Go minutes east and you’ll find the sandy beaches, lagoons and canals plus numerous funky shops, restaurants and Italianate homes in Belmont Shore, Naples and Alamitos Bay. Water junkies can get their fill of windsurfing, jet skiing and water-skiing or take a romantic gondola ride in an authentic Venetian gondola (Your gondolier will ever so sweetly serenade you). If your preference is shopping, 15-block Second Street with its boutiques and specialty stores should do you. Feeling energetic? Ride, walk or run  the city’s 26 scenic miles.

The place for breakfast is The Breakfast Bar, a funky eatery with a hipster crowd where diners can eat outside or in. You might hear reggae or other music to start your day with a groove. Enjoy BB sliders—three mini country biscuits, a dollop of Nana’s gravy, jack cheese, egg with bacon or sausage patty or the marinated pork belly glazed in maple and bourbon and served over apple slaw. There is also Beachwood with its vast assortment of brews, deviled eggs, scotch pickled eggs, smothered steak fries, fried green tomato salad and duck and alligator andouille gumbo.

For lodging there are a lot of options including marquee names like the Renaissance, Westin, Hyatt Regency and others. A favorite is the Hotel Maya, a Doubletree by Hilton hotel. With its premium tequilas, waterside location, fire pits and warm ambience it feels like a Latin American resort. There is also the historic Varden Hotel, a boutique classic that’s been around since the 1920s.

ALSO: Earn sunny discounts on your next Golden State vacation by signing up for Orbitz Rewards!

Aquarium of the Pacific | Flickr CC: Allie Caulfield

Don’t want to miss the Aquarium of the Pacific, especially if you have children. It’s interactive and exciting, even for adults. There’s a good reason it’s the fourth most attended aquarium in the country. It is also a scientific research facility and animal care center. The aquarium is noted for being the first to breed weedy sea dragons in captivity. Now these endearing but endangered cousins of the seahorse can be shared with other aquariums around the world. The aquarium has also been successful in breeding endangered Keyes Island penguins.

To get another view of sea life, go whale watching or take a harbor tour and glimpse the sea lions and of course get a look at the legendary RMS Queen Mary, which was the largest, fastest and most elegant ocean liner in the world when she first sailed in 1936. Today, though she’s a hotel, complete with shopping, dining and entertainment. Some folks say she’s haunted so if you dare, go on the evening Paranormal Ship Walk Tour.

For the arts and culture crowds, there’s ballet, opera, theater, galleries and museums like the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), the only museum of its kind in the U.S., featuring art from Latin America and the Spanish speaking Caribbean.

It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for Long Beach.

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Tagged: California

Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl is a writer and editor, specializing in travel, personal finance, business and career topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Money, DailyFinance.com, Forbes.com, ABCNews.com, Upscale Magazine, Essence, Black Enterprise and others.
Sheryl Nance-Nash

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