Directly south of downtown Los Angeles, the city of Long Beach (pop. 462,257) is the second-largest of LA’s constituent cities, but it feels more like the Midwest than the cutting-edge West Coast. Long Beach is probably best known as the home of the cruise ship RMS Queen Mary (877/342-0742, tours $27), one of the largest and most luxurious liners ever to set sail. Impossible to miss as it looms over Long Beach harbor, the stately ship is open for self-guided tours. You can also stay overnight in one of the many staterooms and cabins, traveling back to a more elegant time for surprisingly reasonable overnight rates.
Across the bay on the main downtown Long Beach waterfront, the Aquarium of the Pacific (562/590-3100, daily, $30 adults) explores the diverse ecosystems of the Pacific Ocean, from tropical coral reefs (shown off in an amazing, 350,000-gallon display) to the frigid waters of the Bering Sea.
Other Long Beach attractions include a former “World’s Largest Mural,” a 116,000-square-foot painting of migrating gray whales on the outside of the Long Beach Arena; and the self-proclaimed “Skinniest House in the USA” (708 Gladys Ave.); and a collection of memorabilia related to brother-and-sister pop singers Richard and Karen Carpenter, inside the main concert hall on the CSU Long Beach campus where they went to school.
Long Beach also marks the southern end of LA’s reborn rail transit system, and you can ride the Blue Line north to downtown and connect to everywhere else. It’s an inexpensive base for exploring the Los Angeles area, especially if you avail yourself of the Best Western (1725 Long Beach Blvd., 562/599-5555, $99 and up) right downtown, directly across from a Blue Line train stop.