Long Beach, California (CNN) — While Long Beach is in Los Angeles County, it often feels more linked to Orange County, the suburban mecca just to the south.
But thanks to rent prices going up in Los Angeles (who could have seen that coming?) and the improved L.A. Metro going all the way to downtown Long Beach, this quieter oceanside city is about to have a moment. Here are the best things to do when you travel here:
On and off the water
Long Beach is chock-a-block with things to do even if you opt to skip the beach. The city is probably most famous for the Queen Mary, an elegant Cunard cruise liner that retired to life as a hotel in the 1960s.
The ship is noted for its well-maintained Art Deco interior, and it's hard not to feel glamorous a la Lady Mary or Rose DeWitt Bukater when you're strolling past the wood paneling, glass inlays and other design touches. (No one will judge you for wearing a gown at breakfast.)
Whether you opt to stay the night or not, the ship is absolutely worth a visit. There are several tours you can take, including ones focused on some of the celebrities and notable figures -- like Princess Di -- who have a connection to the Queen Mary, and afternoon tea served in elegant cups decorated in the ship's own registered trademark rose pattern.
Get up close with 11,000 species at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
While Los Angeles has Venice, Long Beach has Naples. This upscale residential neighborhood along three canals has a dreamy feel at night, which makes it an ideal time for a tour on an actual Italian gondola, complete with gondoliers (often local college students) wearing black-and-white striped shirts just like they would in Venice.
Book a sunset tour with Gondola Getaway for the best experience -- in addition to the ride, gondoliers will make sure you're comfortable under blankets and offer you a glass of wine to enjoy along the way. As this is a private community, it's one of the only ways to experience the area as a non-local -- and the dreamy, slow ride is a nice way to cap off a day.
Another place to experience aquatic life -- this time from the comfort of (mostly) dry land -- is Aquarium of the Pacific, a multilevel complex with some 11,000 marine life species and a specific focus on the Pacific Ocean.
You may have been to aquariums before, meaning you'll recognize some of the hands-on experiences and be ready to gawk at sea lions, otters, sharks and all manner of colorful fish.
But Aquarium of the Pacific's scope goes well beyond simply "hey, animals are cool." The enormous complex has space for all kinds of approaches to education, and the aquarium's staff makes the best of it -- there are photo exhibits (as well as contests), a movie screening room, summer and winter day camps for kids, a sea turtle rehabilitation center, periodic opportunities to feed animals such as penguins, and plenty more.
That means you're as likely to see couples on dates as you are kids on a school field trip -- and you may even wind up learning something while awwing over the baby animals.
The Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Hwy, Long Beach, CA 90802, +1 (877) 342-0738 Gondola Getaway, 5437 E Ocean Blvd, Long Beach, CA 90803, +1 (562) 433-9595
Food and culture
Further from the beach, Long Beach has cultivated a diverse art scene. The Museum of Latin American Art, aka MOLAA, is the only art museum dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary work by Latin American artists in the United States.
Though the museum is small, it's jam-packed with work in a variety of styles, and docents are more than happy to have long conversations with visitors.
Plus, the size is deceptive -- the museum's most beloved spot is the sculpture garden in the back (walk past the restrooms and down the hall to get there). You'll feel like you've gone through a wormhole and ended up at a sunny Mexican hacienda, complete with cacti and native palms alongside abstract metal and clay sculptures.
The East Village Arts District, centered around the 4th Street thoroughfare, is home to a vibrant collection of street art -- use the regularly updated Long Beach Art Walk digital map to find your new favorites.
The area is also home to some great shopping -- mostly homegrown and the polar opposite of Rodeo Drive.
The Beer Belly gastropub in Long Beach.
Stop in at Berlin Bistro on East Fourth to get a sample of everything the neighborhood does well -- you can get used books and vinyl at Fingerprints Music, then walk through the connected building to Berlin, which has SoCal staples like Impossible Burgers and avocado toast as well as seems-decadent-but-is-still-mostly-good-for-you grilled cheese.
If you're jet-lagged and up early, grab a counter seat at The Breakfast Bar and enjoy the healthier, more West Coast take on traditional diner fare -- sure, there are waffles and pancakes, but you can also score "naked" cakes (made with wheatberries in the batter) and breakfast burritos with mix-ins like soy chorizo.
At night, check out Beer Belly. The original Beer Belly opened in L.A,'s Koreatown and quickly became popular for its mix of duck-fat fries and fried chicken paired with craft beers from throughout southern California.
The team chose Long Beach for its second outpost, where the food and drink are equally solid but the parking is somewhat less disastrous.
Berlin Bistro, 20 E 4th St, Long Beach, CA 90802, +1 (562) 435-0600 Beer Belly, 255 Long Beach Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90802, +1 (562) 436-2337
The front entrance of Hotel Maya.
Hotel Maya, a Hilton property that has a Latin flair with bright primary-color design details and succulent plants in every room, gives SoCal cool without a hint of stuffiness.
Since the weather is reliably temperate, there's a heavy emphasis on outdoor spaces, like a fire pit, pool and plenty of cozy chairs for an afternoon outside with a magazine and a margarita.
The outdoor fire pit at Terranea Resort
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Further afield, put that rental car to good use and consider a stay at Terranea, a sprawling waterfront resort about 17 miles west of Long Beach in the town of Rancho Palos Verdes.
You can take advantage of the reliable southern California weather with rounds of golf or settle in at the award-winning eco-friendly spa, where treatments are designed based on the season and on circadian rhythms -- perfect if you're recovering from jet lag or trying to catch up on sleep.
Hotel Maya, 700 Queensway Dr, Long Beach, CA 90802, +1 (562) 435-7676 Terranea, 100 Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275, +1 (855) 938-4047
A roller coaster at Knott's Berry Farm.
Knott's Berry Farm/Facebook
Many people make pilgrimages to southern California to visit Disneyland. But that's far from the only amusement park in the area.
Knott's Berry Farm, about 20 miles away in the Orange County town of Buena Park, has a more old-school theme park feel. (Don't let the name trick you -- it's not actually a berry farm, although it used to be.)
In addition to roller coasters -- including a brand-new steel coaster called HangTime that opened in 2018 -- Knott's is home to a water park, a replica Western ghost town where kids can pan for gold, a Virtual Reality area and an old-timey restaurant called Mrs. Knott's.
From Long Beach, it's also easy to visit beautiful Santa Catalina Island, the most-visited of the Channel Islands group off the Californian coast and one of the best islands in the United States.
Catalina Island is a popular getaway for people in southern California.
Known as just "Catalina" to the locals, you can get there via the Catalina Express ferry from Long Beach in about an hour, with departures every half hour most of the year.
The main town, Avalon, is famed for its lack of cars -- residents get around via golf cart -- and for technically being the southernmost city in Los Angeles County.
While on Catalina, enjoy the Wrigley Botanical Garden and peek into some of the 1920s-era Art Deco buildings that dot the area, such as the Catalina Casino, specifically its ornate red-and-gold ballroom.
Catalina Express terminal, 320 Golden Shore, Long Beach, CA 90802, +1 (800) 995-4386