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Visit Santa Monica: The Best Attractions in This Charming Town on California’s Coast

June 4, 2021 /
what to do in santa monica

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

We are in Southern California, also known as SoCal for short, and more specifically, we are taking a Los Angeles vacation. Our destination today is Santa Monica, a “sunny” destination on the Santa Monica Bay. What comes to mind when you think of Santa Monica? No doubt the answer is entertainment, the beach, the pier, and images from famous movies. While this is all true, let’s not forget that in addition to having a 3.7-mile coastline, this is also a large city of about 90,000 inhabitants.

Things to Do in Santa Monica

What are the places to visit in Santa Monica? What is the best way to plan a visit? Let’s discover the main attractions and places of interest!

Santa Monica Pier

things to do in santa monicaThe starting point of our tour is none other than the pier, the most popular and representative landmark. Given the importance of the pier and the variety of attractions it offers, we have written an article about the pier. To learn more information, take a look at our guide to the Santa Monica Pier.

Santa Monica Beach

what to do in santa monicaNow that we have described the pier, we now turn our attention to Santa Monica State  Beach (Pacific Coast Hwy.), the other spectacular place that Santa Monica is famous for. It is a magnificent beach that extends to the sides of the pier that we have already mentioned in the article about the most beautiful beaches in Los Angeles. This wide golden sandy shoreline is just over 3.4 miles long and is accessible from sunrise to sunset.

In some places the coast is bordered by slender palm trees that rise up to the sky. Here you can swim, surf, play volleyball, have a picnic in the picnic area, and best of all, enjoy pleasant walks. In fact, even during months with less favorable weather, walking along this beach, whether it is done alone or with another person or a pet, is one of the favorite activities of the residents to relax and disconnect from the stress of life.

best things to do in santa monicaOn this beach, there are parks, playgrounds for children, and even a large paved chessboard. There are quieter, pristine areas where you are just surrounded by the ocean and nature, as well as more lively areas where the houses overlook the shore.  Also, there are observation towers and orange Jeeps that run along the shoreline. In fact, the beach should be considered as two sections divided by the pier. The northern part is connected to the city by bridges, walkways, and stairs, while the southern part is at the level of the city, and here you can find parking lots, parks, houses, and hotels on the beach.

A section of the beach was once nicknamed “The Inkwell” and “Negro Beach”. This dates back to the mid-20th century when the coastline at Bay Street was one of the few areas in California where African-Americans could enjoy the beach at a time of severe discrimination against African-Americans. It is incredible to admire Santa Monica State Beach from one end to the other and to enjoy a splendid view of the coastline along the Ocean Front Walk, a wide pedestrian and bicycle path flanked by palm trees, In addition to enjoying the beauty of the coast, you can really feel that you are in California, since Santa Monica is used as the typical setting of California in countless movies and series.

Ocean Avenue, Palisades Park, and Tongva Park

attractions in santa monica
Ocean Avenue

Ocean Avenue is a long well-kept street parallel to the beach with restaurants, hotels, a few shops, trees, and areas where you can stroll and admire the coastline. Even though Santa Monica is a big city, it also has welcoming spaces for people to gather. In fact, along Ocean Avenue, there are two places where you can relax, admire the view and take beautiful walks.

Palisades Park can be reached by a staircase or a bridge raised by the modern structure. From the top, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Santa Monica Bay, the coast, and the sun setting on the ocean. As you walk through the park, you can observe more than thirty varieties of plants and trees, such as eucalyptus, pines, palms, figs. There is even a garden with roses and some sculptures as well as benches and picnic areas.

Tongva Park is another park, which is accessible from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm, that has paths, fountains, sheltered picnic areas, and an amphitheater. There are three fig trees that weigh more than one hundred tons each. This is another ideal location to admire both the Pacific Ocean and the pier. The park is named after the Native American tribe that lived in this area.

California Heritage Museum

A little further away from the beach and pier, there is the California Heritage Museum (2612 Main St.) a museum that promotes the diversity and rich history of California’s culture through exhibitions, publications, readings, and events. The museum is located in a historic building built in 1894. You can visit this museum Wednesdays through Sundays from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm by purchasing a ticket. For more information, take a look at the official website.

Santa Monica Catholic Church

As you gradually move farther from the coast, you will reach Santa Monica Catholic Church (725 California Ave.), a Catholic church founded in 1886 in honor of Saint Monica, who is revered for her exceptional Christian virtues. On the outside of the church, there is a bell tower and rose window, while the interior is divided into three naves with finely colored windows.

This church has some interesting connections with celebrities. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former governor of California, is one of the most famous parishioners of Santa Monica. In 1995, the funeral of the actress Lucille Ball, a very famous actress known for I Love Lucy, was celebrated here. Lucy Lawless, the protagonist of the Xena Warrior Princess series, got married in this church.

The Museum of Flying

santa monica things to seeNot too far from the airport, to the fans of the sector, we point out the Museum of Flying (3100 Airport Ave.), with historical airplanes, collections of aeronautical finds, and an interactive and educational area for children. The most famous aircraft inside is the replica of the “Wright Flyer”, the aircraft with which the two brothers made their first flight experiments on the North Carolina coast. To visit the museum, you must purchase a ticket. The operating hours vary according to the season.

Downtown Santa Monica

santa monica los angeles things to doIn the city, there are three main streets that are great for walking and for shopping. In downtown, there is the 3rd Street Promenade, a pedestrian street with shops and restaurants. The most famous place to shop here is Santa Monica Place, a three-story outdoor shopping mall where you can also watch the shows at the Comedy Theater. The lanes of the street are separated by elongated fountains adorned with hedges that look like dinosaurs.

Not far from 3rd Street Promenade, there is Main Street. Here there are other shops and restaurants, the Center for the Arts, which has several programs and events, the Visitor Information, and the City Hall, which dates back to 1938 and houses original Art Deco paintings. Within walking distance of downtown, along Montana Avenue, there are boutiques, restaurants, offices, and more. Also located here are the Branch Library, a large technology library, and the Aero Movie Theatre, a movie theater that was inaugurated in 1940. At that time, this movie theater was the only facility of its kind to be open 24 hours a day so that shift workers could go enjoy movies as well.

Map of the Attractions

Events

We would like to mention some of Santa Monica’s events. On July 4th, Independence Day, there is a parade in the morning that starts at the intersection of Pico Blvd. and Main St. and continues along Marine St. and Barnard Way until parking lot number 5 on the beach. During the parade, there is music and also people dressed up in costumes. Every Saturday night in August, Gandara Park (1819 Stewart St) hosts Jazz on the Lawn, an event that jazz lovers should definitely attend.

Are you in the mood to watch a movie? Every Friday night in July and August, Cinema on the Street shows free outdoor movies along the 3rd Street Promenade. The celebration of the Christmas holidays begins in November and ends in January with the lighting of a large tree, the arrival of Santa Claus, and a skating rink (corner of 5th Ave and Arizona Ave).

Restaurants in Santa Monica

Santa Monica restaurantsWe suggest you try the following dining options, starting with Mexican cuisine at El Cholo (1025 Wilshire Blvd.) which has been in business for twenty years. The place is part of a restaurant chain in California. You can enjoy lunch and dinner in a pleasant and authentic atmosphere that really makes you feel in Mexico. If you want to have some Caribbean food, go to Cha Cha Chicken (1906 Ocean Ave.), a family-run restaurant since 1996. You can either dine inside this colorful restaurant or on the patio with a garden. The restaurant also has takeout and provides catering services. Try the Jerk sauce, which is typical of Jamaica.

A casual and fun atmosphere characterizes Cabo Cantina (1240 3rd St. Promenade), especially during happy hour from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm (Buy one, get one free). On the menu, there are, of course, tacos and burritos. Sports fans can watch their favorite events on a high-definition screen. But if you are looking for an elegant restaurant with two Michelin stars, then Melisse (1104 Wilshire Blvd.) is the place for you. The restaurant serves American cuisine with French influence that is created by talented owner and chef Josiah Citrin.

Accommodations in Santa Monica

where to stay in santa monica
Shutters on The Beach

How do you choose the best place to stay overnight? We have already addressed this topic in our article on where to stay in Los Angeles – Santa Monica. Below we will give more specific recommendations for all budgets and occasions.

Directly on the beach, you can see Shutters on the Beach (1 Pico Blvd.) in all its elegance and refinement. The rooms and suites have scenic views of the waterfront and the interiors are designed in such a way “that guests wish this was their home on the ocean”. The hotel has a spa, a fitness center, and restaurants, such as Coast, a lovely casual-chic venue with a view of the beach and a family-friendly atmosphere. The menu is inspired by California cuisine. When you dine here, you can also enjoy your meal on the patio.

The Cottage (2219 Ocean Ave), located close to the beach and the pier, is a fabulous Bed & Breakfast with refined rooms designed with light colors. From the attic, you can enjoy the view of the ocean. The property offers many services to its guests, such as a full kitchen, a dining room, a living room, 24/7 service, and a “utility room” with a washing machine, a dryer, and a closet, but in addition to all of this, it is the location of the property, and the fact that it is so peaceful, that makes this B&B so charming.

For a more moderate price, not too far from the pier and the ocean, we recommend the SureStay Hotels (3102 Pico Blvd). It has rooms equipped with a coffee maker and air conditioning, and some have a refrigerator and a microwave. The property has a 24-hour front desk service, covered outdoor parking, free Wi-Fi, laundry service, and a conference center. In the garden, guests have access to a barbeque grill and a patio with tables and chairs. The hotel is pet-friendly.

HI L.A. Santa Monica Hostel (1436 2nd St) is a hostel with single rooms and shared dormitories. It offers laundry service, breakfast, and free wi-fi. Nearby there are shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and also the beach.

For all other accommodations, click on the button below:

All accommodations in Santa Monica

How to Get There and How to Get Around

Santa Monica can be reached via the Santa Monica Municipal Airport (3223 Donald Douglas Loop S.) or you can opt for Los Angeles International Airport (1 World Way). We always recommend using (or renting) a car to be as independent as possible while traveling (have a look at our tips on how to rent a car in Los Angeles), but you can also use local buses, for example, those of the Big Blue Bus line, which run in the city of Santa Monica and some areas of Los Angeles, or of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority that circulate in Los Angeles County.

The Expo Line’s Light Rail, which is similar to the tram line, is 6.6. miles long and connects Santa Monica to the Culver City district further east and makes 80 stops on its route. For more tips on travel in the Greater Los Angeles Area, I suggest you read our article on how to get around Los Angeles.

Day Trips from Santa Monica

day trips from santa monicaIf you are in Santa Monica, you have the option of taking day trips in the surrounding area, for instance, to Beverly Hills and Bel Air (about 15-20 minutes) or you can tour to the homes of Hollywood stars, or go to Venice (about 15 minutes) to visit its beach, canals, and myriads of “characters” who compete along the boardwalk in extravagant performances.

You can go to Hollywood, home of cinema (about 25 minutes), to Long Beach (about 30 minutes) to explore its beach and to see the Queen Mary Transatlantic Hotel, and finally to Anaheim (about 40 minutes), the home of Disneyland. Further north, we recommend visiting beautiful places such as Santa Barbara (about 1 hour 30 minutes) and Solvang (about 2 hours), where you can explore its Danish culture. To the south, you can visit the San Diego area, about 2 hours away from Santa Monica, where you can see La Jolla, a renowned coastal town, and Coronado, an exclusive peninsula.

Climate of Santa Monica: When Is the Best Time to Go?

Santa Monica has an eternal spring, so the climate of Santa Monica is pleasant all year. Thanks to the ocean breeze, it is never too hot or too cold. The rainiest season is from October to March, while from May to early July, there will often be morning fog coming from the ocean.

Parking in Santa Monica

Parking in Santa MonicaIs it possible to park near the pier? Parking on the pier is open 24 hours a day and costs $3 per hour or $15 for the day in the summer and $12 for the day in the winter. You can access parking on the pier via a bridge ramp. There is also a parking area at Lot 1 North (1550 Pacific Coast Highway) that is open from 6:00 am to 2:00 am.

Another alternative is the 2-hour parking at 1640 Appian Way. It is possible to park there from sunrise to sunset at a cost of $1 per hour for up to two hours. Other parking options are located below the street level near the coast. In the downtown area, you’ll find several paid parking spaces at different rates.

For more information, read our in-depth article about where to park in Los Angeles.

A Few Fun Facts…

  • The city has been the backdrop of movies and television series and has been mentioned in some songs. Various movies and mini-series have been filmed here, either partially or completely. Some examples are Beverly Hills Cop III, Rocky III, Iron Man, Ocean’s Eleven, Forrest Gump, Baywatch, and Pacific Blue.
  • It is said that beach volleyball was developed in Santa Monica in the 1920s and was created by Duke Kahanamoku, a great Hawaiian surfing champion.

You can enjoy many outdoor activities in this city, but it is also nice to get to know its culture. Stroll through the parks, on the beach, and on the pier, watch the sunset reflecting on the water, let the ocean breeze caress your face, and walk through the streets of the city among the modern and historic buildings. Explore and let your heart guide you. You will not regret discovering Santa Monica and learning as much as you can, because the possibilities here seem endless, and as the locals say: “it’s all here in Santa Monica!

All the activities in Santa Monica


Our Tip:
Looking for accommodations for your trip from California to other parts of the Southwest? Read our guide that contains reviews of hotels and strategic tips for finding accommodations near major attractions: Where to Stay: Our Tips for the SouthWest Area

Marianna Licia e Paolo

There are two passions that we share: photography and traveling, especially in the United States.

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