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Malibu Neighborhoods

Think of Malibu as a 27-mile stretch of meandering mountains and surf separated by a highway. Just 8 miles wide, the city is flanked by the Santa Monica Mountains to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the south, hippie haven Topanga Canyon to the east and the farmlands of Ventura to the west. The only road through Malibu is the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, which bisects the town and offers views both of the sea and multi-million dollar mountainside mansions. There aren’t neighborhoods so much as beaches and canyons, which people use to describe their coordinates or to give directions (e.g., opposite the pier, just above Zuma, past Malibu Canyon on the left). To make things easy, you can think of the city in four parts: South, Central, North and the Canyons. Just don’t bother looking for a center of town—there isn’t one. However, there are beaches galore. Keep in mind that beach parking isn’t cheap; $8 is customary. Channel your inner surfer and find free parking along the PCH.

Central Malibu

The middle part of Malibu, stretching from the Adamson House to Pepperdine University, is where the beaches open up and the commerce takes on a more chi-chi vibe. Take in the tile inside the Adamson House then plant yourself on one of the benches outside. The nearby Malibu Lagoon is a perfect spot to spy the 200 species of birds that make this saltwater marsh home throughout the year. Just up the road on the right is the Malibu Country Mart and newly opened Malibu Lumber Yard, with oodles of high-end boutiques to browse and celebrities to spy. Farther north, catch the view of Malibu Bluffs Park from the grounds of Pepperdine.

South Malibu

Running from Topanga State Beach (which some wits call “Topangry” after the aggressive surfers who ride this break) to the Malibu Pier, the southern end of Malibu is arguably the commercial center of town. Businesses like Zuma Jay Surfboards and Budget Rent-a-Car stand shoulder to shoulder on the inland side of the PCH. The oceanfront side of the road features few businesses, but densely packed houses obscure the ocean view. (Don’t let their nondescript high walls and garage doors fool you; these are some of the most exclusive homes in Malibu.) This part of town is great if you need to buy a surfboard or a bite to eat, but it’s shy on public beach access. Grab a drink at Moonshadows or a fish taco at Duke’s if you want to watch the waves. Or head north to the pier. The adjacent Malibu Surfrider Beach is a famous surf spot with a three-point break that reportedly can carry surfers 300 yards in one ride.

Santa Monica

With its innumerable restaurants, shops and art galleries, it’d be easy to forget that Santa Monica has 3.5 miles of beach to explore, too. Whether you’re shopping at the outdoor car-free mall known as the Third Street Promenade, trolling the galleries in Bergamot Station or dining al fresco on upscale Montana Avenue, remember to etch out time at the beach, where diversions abound. Take a spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier; rent a bike and peddle along the beach bike path to Ocean Park, aka Dogtown, where skaters and surfers defy gravity; or just spread out a blanket on the sand and people-watch. Once called the People’s Republic of Santa Monica for its liberal laws, Santa Monica today has enough yuppies and vagabonds to keep it interesting.

The Canyons

With few exceptions, if you hang a right off the PCH going northwest, you’re going to find yourself in the Canyons. Winding, single-lane roads etching through the Santa Monica Mountains promise a thrill to people who love to drive and an attack of vertigo to those prone to dizziness. Take it slow, watch out for wildlife and blind curves, and prepare for amazing views from the top. A few of the canyon roads are private; others lead you to state park land. Be sure to hike Malibu Creek State Park, where the TV show “MASH” and movie “Planet of the Apes” were filmed, and Solstice Canyon, stocked with waterfalls and a babbling brook. At the northern end of town, canyon roads lead to Park Place Stable and the Malibu Country Club.

Topanga

Tucked in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga prides itself on being bohemian. Made famous in the 1960s and 1970s for its embrace of drugs, nudity and all-around debauchery, Topanga continues to feel countercultural despite the modern-day influx of Cadillac Escalades and million-dollar homes with tennis courts out back. Maybe it’s the winding roads or the fact that Neil Young and Woody Guthrie once called the canyon home. Perhaps it’s the Will Greer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor amphitheater hidden in the woods, or Topanga Days, the annual three-day music festival held over Memorial Day weekend. The roughly 6,000 musicians, artists, jewelry makers, surfers, yogis, actors, naturalists, deadbeats and diehards living here certainly can’t hurt. 

North Malibu

After Pepperdine, the beach becomes king. While North Malibu has plenty of diversions and eateries that shouldn’t be missed (for instance, Paradise Cove), this slice of the Pacific Ocean shines as you edge your way north. Set back from the PCH, Westward Beach tends to be less-crowded and cleaner than some of Malibu’s more visible beaches. Point Dume State Preserve to the south is a perfect spot to eye migrating gray whales from December to March, while Zuma just north is the classic Malibu beach: surfers, volleyball nets, snack bar and plentiful numbers of bikini-clad girls and bare-chested boys. Keep moving to the northern end of town for a string of pristine and secluded state beaches marked by craggy sea caves and gigantic rocks.

Venice

In the early years of the 20th century, the investor Abbott Kinney hatched a plan to re-create Venice, Italy, in Southern California. While our Venice does have some gorgeous, aquamarine canals, the likeness ends there. Don’t despair; there are plenty of American attractions worth seeing in Venice. Check out the circus-like Venice Boardwalk. Try on hipster clothing and poke through antique books in the shops on Abbott Kinney Boulevard before bringing your dog into the Other Room for a pint of imported beer. Oh, and visit the canals. You won’t hear anyone saying “Ciao!” but you can catch residents rowing their boats on the water.

Pacific Palisades

If Topanga cut its hair, put on a tie and got a real job, it’d be the Pacific Palisades. An affluent, mostly residential community southeast of Malibu (the film "Carrie" was fittingly shot at Palisades High), the Palisades features acres of picturesque parklands and hiking trails like the ones in Temescal Canyon and Rustic Canyon. Visitors can tour the mid-20th-century modern Eames House (aka Case Study House No. 8), built by designers Charles and Ray Eames; poke through the collection of Greek and Roman antiquities at the recently renovated Getty Villa, and walk the lush gardens at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine Temple, where some of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes are enshrined.

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