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Southern California is a sprawling metropolis of freeways and strip malls with mountains, desert, and the ocean tearing at its edges. This place was built for cars and runs on Botox and unnamable drugs. Among the ordinary people keeping this place afloat, there plenty of the self-obsessed and halfway famous. For all the glitz and glamor, there is just as much poverty here as anywhere else in the U.S. Just as much political division, just as much consternation. Except here, we can watch the sunset over the pacific ocean at night, whether we're watching from a multi-million dollar home or from a van parked on the beach. Sometimes, friends or colleagues will mention, off-handedly, that I live in L.A. To an outsider, Southern California can look and feel the same. I've never lived in Los Angeles proper, and have never even visited most of its neighborhoods. When I go to L.A., I may as well be a tourist from another state; a visitor with one-day, prepaid parking and a sincere desire to not stay.
I live in Laguna Beach, in a nice apartment I rent with my boyfriend on a street called Cedar, a few blocks from downtown. I am not poor, but I am many millions away from being able to buy a house here. Last I checked, a fancy South Laguna mobile home costs no less than half a million, plus a $4,000 monthly land lease that is subject to a yearly increase. We live in a four-plex near the busyness of downtown, and we love it. There is simply, very little not to love. My favorite time of day is the early morning, before most people have hit the road, when the beach is quiet and empty and the trails smell like sage and sound like birdsong and silence. My favorite time of year is October, when the summer heat has subsided and the tourists have all gone home. If you come to visit, I might have an extra room. And if you're just passing through, there are a few things you should definitely do.
Trails: I'm more of a land animal than a water animal, so the beaches weren't what initially caught my interest. Laguna is home to miles of hilly, coastal trails that I run on nearly every day. The Laguna Bowl trail starts near the Pageant of the Masters, as you enter Laguna from the 133. You can hike this beginner friendly loop, or hike to the "Top of the World" via Canyon Acres. Both trails are near downtown and offer a steep hike with a rewarding view. If you're in South Laguna, Aliso Peak via Valido trail is a short, beautiful hike to a bench with a stunning view as well.
Coffee: Everyone loves a great cup of coffee, and no matter your preference, Laguna has you covered. Avoid the long lines at Urth and hit up Succulent for a smooth latte, Laguna Beach Coffee Company for coffee and food that all the locals love, or Zinc if you're planning on breakfast or brunch. Zinc serves their coffee in giant, bowl-sized mugs that feel especially indulgent on a chilly weekend morning. If you're looking for a laid back coffee shop to do some work or to relax with a friend, the Koffee Klatch is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with plenty of seating and wifi.
Beaches: The beaches in Laguna are packed on summer weekends, and for good reason. With dozens of beaches and coves, there is room for everyone, if you can find parking. I love Shaw's Cove, a popular spot for divers and where you can explore tide pools during low tide. Fisherman's Cove has a cool cave (again, during low tide), and Moss Cove is your best bet for the least crowded beach. Table Rock is a South Laguna favorite, and Thousand Steps (really 218) is iconic, if not a bit hard to get to if stairs are an issue. If you're at Thousand Steps during low tide, you can access Totouva beach, which is very secluded because it has no public access from town.
Restaurants: There are a ton of restaurant options, so I'll only recommend places I've been. Nicks/South of Nicks are good, always packed, and honestly great for people watching. If you're vegan, your best bet is The Stand, Bonzai Bowls, or Active Culture. If you're looking for tacos, try La Sirena, The Taco Stand, or Rasta Taco. There are about ninety taco places to choose from though, and they're all probably pretty good. For a nice night out, try Broadway, 230 Forest Avenue, The Ranch, or Brussels Bistro (which turns into a nightclub after 10:30 Friday and Saturday nights).
Bars: If you're looking for a nice, expensive drink, you don't have to look far. Marine Room has live music, good whiskey, and a pool table that's always occupied. It's been around since the 30's and has a cool, Hemingway vibe. If you're looking for a dive bar, the Sandpiper is the only place worth going. Hotel Laguna has a great outdoor patio for happy hour, as does The Rooftop (but you'll want a reservation). Finally, you can't go wrong with Mozambique (they have giant parrots) or Skyloft.
Fun Things: You never know what you'll find in the Laguna Exchange, a fun little thrift store not far from Main Beach. Laguna Beach Books is my favorite place to find the hottest new fiction, books from local authors, or a thoughtful gift. If you're looking for a surf or SUP rental or lessons, look no further than CA Surf N Paddle. Dolce Gelato has the best assortment (including vegan options) of gelato in town, and if you're here in the summer, you have to check out Sawdust and/or Pageant of the Masters. Sawdust also opens in December for a holiday edition, with fake snow, Santa, live music, and plenty of artsy gifts for sale. As far as shopping goes, I don't, but I did buy my nephew a cute onesie at the Little Bohemian, and the owner was extremely kind and wonderful. Finally, there are a million art galleries here, and you could spend an entire day visiting all of them.