Start your trip in this idyllic oceanfront city, bounded by a 3.5-mi/5.6-km-long beach, and feeling more like a weekend getaway spot than a city just a few minutes west of downtown Los Angeles. Car-free options, including a shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport (8 miles/13 km south) make it a relaxing destination too—hang out on the city’s broad beach or the lively pier (complete with its own amusement park and rides) without having to stress about traffic or parking. Another great way to get around: rent cruiser bikes (rental shops abound) to follow the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail. Known locally as “The Strand, the paved, multi-use path follows the oceanfront for roughly 22 miles/35 kilometers, from Santa Monica south to Torrance.
Santa Monica also stands out as a place for seriously great shopping. Downtown, pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade is lined with big-name brands, galleries, movie theaters, and comedy shows, including a luxurious, open-air shopping destination, Santa Monica Place. Visit its rooftop The Market, offering creative, artisanal cuisine from assorted high-end food vendors, then take your food to relax on the rooftop dining deck with ocean views—especially nice at sunset. For a fresh take on the shopping scene, visit to one of Santa Monica’s outstanding farmers’ markets, which pop up weekly on city streets. Each of the city’s year-round market locations has its own unique charms: there’s picnicking on the lawn at Virginia Avenue Park (Saturdays), jazz at the Main Street market in Heritage Square (Sundays), and celebrity chefs looking for fresh produce at the Downtown Santa Monica market (Wednesdays and Saturdays).
From the coast, head inland to one of Southern California’s top theme parks, Universal Studios Hollywood.