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So You Think You Know Santa Monica?

Yes, the beach is spectacular—but don’t miss the city’s cultural side and its many quirky and hidden treasures

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Posted 20 days agoby Matt Jaffe

Sophisticated and cosmopolitan Santa Monica is not your average beach town. Beyond such major destinations as the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade awaits a community known for its commitment to the environment and with a cultural life cities many times its size might envy. So even if you’ve come here for a day at the beach, leave time to explore other areas of Santa Monica and to discover local haunts and the occasional oddity. Note: Some of the attractions listed here are temporarily closed or operating virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Click on the provided links for the latest information.

HiHo Cheeseburger

Santa Monica’s most famous burger might be chef Sang Yoon’s no-substitutions gourmet creation at Father’s Office on Montana Avenue, but if you want to have it your way, as the old commercial goes, consider HiHo Cheeseburger on Second Street. Southern California is America’s burger capital, and HiHo’s 100 percent grass-fed Wagyu burgers, made from sustainably raised beef free of hormones and antibiotics, rank with the finest anywhere. The ratio of beef to plush bun is just right, and the attention HiHo gives to its burgers extends to hand-cut, twice-fried fries and milkshakes made with ice cream from a farm-to-table creamery in Seattle.

Chez Jay

As dive bars go, Chez Jay is pretty darn respectable, and like many dining establishments in Santa Monica, has shifted operations outdoors to make use of its patio and the year-round warm weather. After all, Santa Monica declared this joint a local landmark back in 2012. But respectability is beside the point for the surfers, celebs, and locals who have been escaping to this nautically themed bar and restaurant ever since it opened on Ocean Avenue back in 1959. This is a joint where you can hang out over stiff drinks, steaks, and sand dabs late into the night. And if these walls could talk! The portholes supposedly came from a gambling ship that sank in Santa Monica Bay. Legend has it that John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe secretly dined at Table 10.

Uplifters Kitchen

When this community hub on Ocean Park Blvd. shut down temporarily during the pandemic, its future was uncertain. Enter Salima Saunders, a budding young chef and entrepreneur who revived the space, created a dynamic vegetarian menu, and partnered with likeminded female artisans who produce sourdough bread, branded face masks, floral arrangements, and more. “Uplifters Kitchen is my first cafe, and I am so excited to share a bit of my family’s recipes and warmth with you,” Saunders said. “While the timing of opening a cafe seems less than ideal, I know that now more than ever we all need a bit more comfort and support in our lives.”

Tongva Park

Because the beach is the big draw in Santa Monica, plenty of visitors never make it a couple blocks inland to explore beautiful and innovative Tongva Park. Designed by James Corner Field Operations, the same firm that created New York City’s celebrated High Line, this award-winning park reinvented the urban desert of an asphalt parking lot into a soulful expanse with low rolling hills, drought-tolerant plantings, and even a meandering arroyo fed by a water feature in front of city hall.

John Drescher Planetarium

Thanks to the John Drescher Planetarium, celebs aren’t the only stars in Santa Monica. Located on the Santa Monica College campus, the planetarium, with its 28-foot-diameter dome, opened in 1971 and hosts a variety of virtual and zoom shows that take viewers on mind-blowing galactic journeys narrated by astronomers. The planetarium also leads occasional observing events that give viewers close-up looks at the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as zoom lectures focused on the latest news about space exploration.

Annenberg Community Beach House

Can’t afford that Malibu beach house of your dreams? Well, Santa Monica has the next best thing. Along five oceanfront acres on the site of an estate that William Randolph Hearst built in the 1920s, the Annenberg Community Beach House lets you savor the good life along the coast without having to shell out millions of bucks. Families can spend the morning enjoying the beachside playground, and then head to Back on the Beach Café for a toes-in-the-sand meal with breathtaking ocean and mountain views. The Annenberg Community Beach House is also home to the Marion Davies Guest House—the only surviving building from the original estate—as well as a sprawling pool and art gallery, all of which are planned to re-open in 2021.

The Bungalow

Laid-back and mellow in the finest Santa Monica tradition, The Bungalow is nearly as satisfying as catching a perfect wave. In a restored 1947 cottage at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, The Bungalow brings the vintage California surfing lifestyle (be sure to check out the old boards) together with touches of Morocco and Mexico to create a casita that’s hip without ever feeling trendy. Play pool and ping-pong, then hang by the fire pit while washing down fish tacos and shrimp ceviche with an IPA from Santa Monica Brew Works. Table reservations are required, so plan ahead before visiting.

McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California

McCabe’s Guitar Shop

The name of McCabe’s Guitar Shop only tells part of the story of this music store that opened in 1958. With its huge selection, McCabe’s is the place to shop for stringed instruments, whether you’re interested in a new guitar or taking up the bouzouki. And if you need repairs to your oud or hammered dulcimer, come on over. Over the years, the backroom at McCabe’s has also hosted Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, REM, and Elvis Costello, to name a few. In fact, Acoustic Guitar Magazine hailed McCabe’s as “one of the world’s most treasured music venues.”

Street Art and Architectural Walking Tours

Santa Monica is an arts and culture hub, home to 130+ street art murals all within its 8.3 square miles and eight neighborhoods. The murals are brought to life by a combination of different entities from the City of Santa Monica, local business improvement districts, private parties, as well as Beautify Earth. Visitors can map out and plan their own self-guided street art walking tours using Santa Monica Travel & Tourism’s comprehensive online guide. History buffs can also discover Santa Monica’s architectural gems and culture through a self-guided walking tour curated by the Santa Monica Conservancy.

Bergamot Station Arts Center

Long before it became an oasis for the arts, the property where the Bergamot Station Arts Center now operates had many incarnations: It was a railroad station, then a celery packing operation, and ran hot (as a water heater factory) and cold (as a facility for ice making). Since 1994, Bergamot Station has served as a one-stop destination for art lovers, thanks to its eclectic collection of galleries that includes the modern and contemporary Latin American art at Latin American Masters and the Craig Krull Gallery, a showcase for major Southern California painters. It’s convenient too: A stop for the Metro E Line (Expo) light rail is just steps away. Before visiting, contact the invidual galleries in advance as they are currently open by appointment only.

Cayton Creators Outdoor Community Program

While in Santa Monica, young artists and their families can create their own art and masterpieces under the guidance of teaching artists via the Cayton Creators Outdoor Program. The Cayton Children’s Museum is first museum of its kind in Los Angeles, offering 21,000 square feet of discovery-based exhibits and learning for children up to age 10. Similar to many other museums and learning centers, Cayton has shifted its programs online and outdoors in order to continue engaging families in the celebration of basic artistic themes that are critical for early childhood development. One such program is Cayton Creators, which takes place outdoors each Wednesday and Saturday, and includes weekly themes such as rhythm, poetry and spoken word, and abstraction and curiosity.

Before you explore, be sure to visit our Responsible Travel Hub, which includes helpful Travel Updates. Also, find more hidden gems around the state here.

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