With oceanfront vistas as pretty as a picture, it’s no surprise that Santa Monica has become a major art hub, with more than 120 museums, galleries, and public art installations within the city’s roughly 8 square miles/21 square kilometers. But don’t expect ho-hum paintings of sailboats cruising into an endless sunset—this pedestrian-friendly waterfront city includes multimedia installations that are at the cutting edge of today’s art scene. Worthy stops include Bergamot, housing Santa Monica’s single largest concentration of art galleries, and Broadway Gallery Complex for contemporary works by local and international artists.
Dance and the performing arts find strong support here too. In summer, the Santa Monica Pier becomes a stage for a series of outdoor concerts. The 3rd Street Promenade is a well-known place for catching quality street musicians and performers. Downtown venues for music, dance, and theater include state-of-the-art The Broad Stage, on the campus of Santa Monica City College, and Edgemar Center for the Arts.
With nearly four miles of beaches and a vibrant urban scene, Santa Monica blends the sophistication of an international coastal city with the laidback vibe of a California beach town. Even though it’s only 15 miles/24 km west of downtown Los Angeles, it feels like a weekend getaway spot.
Celebrated for its dining, Santa Monica is home to restaurants helmed by such renowned chefs as Wolfgang Puck (Chinois on Main), Josiah Citrin (Citrin and Mélisse), as well as a pair of spots recently awarded coveted Michelin stars (Rustic Canyon and Dialogue). Many local chefs buy their produce at the bounteous Wednesday and Saturday morning downtown Farmers Market, which ranks with the country’s very best.
Shopping hotspots range from open-air Santa Monica Place to the showcases for major brands that line downtown’s Third Street Promenade, an area made all the more lively by street performers. The stylish boutiques on Montana Avenue are perfect for finding the perfect so-L.A. item to take home, and keep your eyes peeled: This is a great place to spot local celebs. On Main Street, peruse handmade accessories and gifts by local artists at Mindfulnest, or shop for unique home goods at Lost and Found.
A cultural hub for Southern California, Santa Monica boasts numerous art galleries all around the city, with the biggest concentration at Bergamot Station, a former railroad station and industrial site where you’ll find leading 20 galleries. For performing arts, the intimate Broad Stage presents notable jazz, classical, and world music performers in concert, and also stages acclaimed theatrical productions.
Fabled Route 66 once traveled along a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard and reached the terminus of its 2,448-mile/3,940 km run from Chicago near the beach in Santa Monica. A sign commemorates the “end of the trail” on Santa Monica Pier, where you can marvel at amazing coastal views from atop the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel at Pacific Park amusement park.
Rent a bike and cruise down the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, a.k.a. “The Strand,” which travels for 22 miles/35 km along the coastline between Pacific Palisades and Torrance. And with Santa Monica’s extensive network of bike lanes, as well as outstanding public transportation on its Big Blue Bus system and an easy connection to downtown Los Angeles via the Metro E Line, this environmentally conscious community is one of Southern California’s top car-free destinations.
Over the years, Santa Monica has never lost its beach town soul, even as it has become more glamorous with luxury beachfront hotels, sophisticated restaurants, and high-end boutiques. Today you can experience the best of both worlds: broad California beaches with surfing and volleyball, plus a sophisticated, city-within-a-city scene. On your next visit, try some of Santa Monica’s ultimate experiences.
Wake up by the beach in a stylish hotel
If you’ve ever dreamed of your own beach cottage, it probably felt a bit like Shutters on the Beach. Effortlessly chic, this gray-shingled hotel’s bright and breezy rooms are both relaxed and elegant, with balconies overlooking the expansive sands of Santa Monica’s beach. Hang by the pool or rent a beach cruiser at the hotel, then set out on the bike path that stretches for 22 miles along the shore. Shutters is just one of many high-end resorts to choose from in Santa Monica; other fantastic options include Casa Del Mar, Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows, and the Viceroy Santa Monica.
Take a stroll along a historic pier
A lot of fun begins where Route 66 ends, on the landmark Santa Monica Pier. Its neon gateway sign is one of Southern California’s most recognizable icons, and the pier, which opened in 1909, puts you out over the surf, with spectacular views up and down the coast. Go for a spin on the beautifully preserved 1922 Looff Hippodrome carousel and catch a glimpse of the world beneath the waves at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.
Enjoy old-school fun at Pacific Park
With its updated roller coasters and bumper cars, Pacific Park, on the Santa Monica Pier, brings the classic amusement park experience into a new era. The West Coast’s only amusement park on a pier, Pacific Park has an arcade where you can fine-tune your skills at Whac-A-Mole or the Balloon Bust. Then take a ride and enjoy incredible coastal panoramas on the Pacific Wheel, the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel.
Escape to a bungalow on the bluffs
Inspired by both Santa Monica’s chilled-out vibe and the romance of a Baja California-style casita, The Bungalow is the beach life incarnate. With its raftered ceilings, funky furnishings, and game room, this hideaway on the grounds of the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows is like a private beach club—as conceived by surfers. Hang out on the patio with a craft cocktail as you take in one of Santa Monica’s unforgettable sunsets.
Browse the Third Street Promenade
With an all-star retail lineup that includes the likes of Lululemon, Abercrombie & Fitch, and a spectacular Apple Store, the open-air Third Street Promenade is a shoppers’ paradise. Browse the stores as you walk this vehicle-free thoroughfare, where busking musicians serenade passersby and the fantastical topiary dinosaurs add a whimsical touch. Afterward, if you have children in tow, check out the Cayton Children’s Museum—it’s right across the street.
Also, don’t miss…
Art lovers will definitely want to stop at the 26th Street Art Center, a.k.a. Bergamot Station, a onetime water-heater factory and warehouse complex that’s now home to one of Southern California’s leading collection of galleries. And for high-end fashions in a low-key setting, go to Montana Avenue, where you’ll find cool boutiques, restaurants, and a good chance of spotting a few A-list celebrities.
Hotel Casa del Mar, an eight-story brick mansion located just steps from the shore, looks like a beach house fit for a billionaire. With a history that dates back to 1926, this uber-exclusive Santa Monica property, designed by architect Charles F. Plummer, remains one of the very few hotels in Los Angeles County with direct beach access.
The impressive lobby delivers an Italian Renaissance Revival-meets-SoCal coastal vibe. The first thing you’ll notice is the stately double staircase, coffered ceilings, and intricate mosaic tiled floors. Stroll around the corner and you’ll see indoor palm trees and cozy cabana-style lounges, draped with nautical striped privacy curtains and decorated with plush seats and fresh flowers.
The rooms at this Forbes Four-Star resort mirror the lobby’s yacht club feel. A chic walnut four-poster bed centers each of the 129 guest rooms and suites, many of which boast epic views from Malibu to Palos Verdes. Built-in cabinets in the bedroom display dried coral and conch shells, while the bathroom’s hydrothermal massage tubs come with a cheeky touch: your own rubber duck.
The resort’s two restaurants specialize in—what else?—perfectly prepared seafood. Floor-to-ceiling windows in both Terrazza Lounge and Catch provide a breezy sense of place as waves lap through the glass. The lovely Terrazza, designed by Michael S. Smith, serves lighter bites with an Italian influence like Dungeness Crab Crostini. Catch is the marquee dinner spot where guests slurp down Kumamoto oysters before tucking into a plate of Seared Chilean Sea Bass or petit filet.
Guests can work up an appetite, or simply catch some rays, at the Pacific-facing pool overlooking Silicon Beach. Step onto the sand with a yoga class or personal training session, done al fresco, before rewarding your efforts at the Sea Wellness Spa. The eco-friendly establishment offers one-of-a-kind treatments like the Vibrational Crystal Facial and three different kinds of CBD massages. Pure bliss.
Explore one or all of Santa Monica’s eight neighborhoods, each boasting its own unique identity and experience. Downtown, pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade, four blocks east of the beach, offers big-name brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Old Navy, as well as galleries, movie theaters, and comedy shows. On the promenade’s south end is luxurious, open-air Santa Monica Place.
It’s not all about chains here. On Main Street, peruse handmade accessories and gifts by local artists at Mindfulnest, or shop for unique home goods at Lost and Found. Kids go crazy playing dress-up and just plain playing in the Acorn Store, specializing in wooden toys.
The promenade keeps things lively too, with entertaining street performers, especially on weekends (permits required, so the bar tends to be higher here than just your average street-corner act).
For another slice of heavenly shopping, stroll along Montana Avenue downtown. If you’re into flea markets, beeline to Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic Couture. Get your skin “mapped” during a spoil-yourself facial at Dermalogica. And find ultra-hip outfits at Jill Roberts and a flurry of other designer boutiques.
Protecting an astounding 1.6 million acres/647,497 hectares of pristine desert wilderness, the Mojave National Preserve lets you hear singing sand dunes, explore weirdly contorted Joshua trees, and hike up volcanic cinder cones. Take time to explore, and let the desert’s magic unfold.
Take a stroll along Santa Monica’s signature pier at sunset, that enormous sun sinking into the Pacific, and you’ll probably wonder if it can get much better than this. But wait; it can. Right here. First, there’s an amusement park—perched right on the pier—called Pacific Park, with not-too-scary roller coasters and classic carnie rides that make a nice mix even for little ones. Then there are incomparable views from atop the pier’s solar-powered Ferris wheel. On weekends, you can join free historical walking tours to learn more about the pier, which dates to 1909. And then there are those simple pleasures—a creamy thick shake, a simple necklace of seashells—at snack shacks and trinket shops lining the pier. And there are the local fishermen adding color to the scene; hang out for a while and you’re bound to hear some good yarns and watch some slippery fish reeled in. Find out what those fish might be by heading under the pier (directly below the turn-of-the-20th-century wooden carousel), to the inviting Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, with some 100 species of fish and aquatic animals, and lots of family-friendly educational displays.
And then of course, there’s the beach, a broad expanse of pale yellow sand lining the coast for 3.5 miles/5.6 kilometers. For the complete beach treatment, explore the ocean atop a paddleboard (various rentals and lessons are available) or go VIP with your own Perry’s on the Beach Butler service.
Bright sunshine, stands overflowing with fresh produce, street musicians strumming and singing—Santa Monica’s four city-run farmers markets are like perfect pop-up festivals in the heart of the city. Each of the year-round, rain or shine market locations has its own unique charms, but they all feature only fruits and veggies that were grown without pesticides, and all sourced directly from the farm where it was grown. Live music is also featured at many of the locations; visit the schedule to see where the music’s happening.
The Saturday market in Virginia Avenue Park, called the Pico Market (the park is at the corner of Pico Blvd. and Cloverfield Blvd.), features about 35 farmers selling produce picked the day before, and is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. There’s picnicking on the lawn, and prepared food vendors serve coffee and breakfast items.
On Sundays, the Main Street market in Heritage Square has produce but also a very active prepared foods area as well, with such offerings as breakfast burritos, crepes, pancakes, pastries, and other baked goodies. There are bi-weekly cooking demonstrations and activities to keep the kids happy, like face painting and balloon art.
The longest-running of Santa Monica’s markets are the ones held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in Downtown Santa Monica, on Arizona Ave. at 2nd St. First opened in 1981, it’s where area shoppers and chefs go to find both staples and more exotic seasonal items. With around 75 farmers selling, the Wednesday market is one of the largest in Southern California; the Saturday market hosts about 50 farmers selling.
Insider tip: Wednesday Farmers Markets are when many Santa Monica chefs do their produce shopping for the week (after they finish surfing that morning). Coast, Fig, LAGO, and Ocean & Vine, and other fine restaurants typically craft their menus on Wednesdays and Saturdays around what they pick up fresh that day at the market.
Whether you want to wake up with an ocean view out your window, or prefer to feel like a high-style fashionista, Santa Monica has a luxury hotel that suits your style.
Check into The Huntley Hotel for its alluring blend of beachside chic and urban sophistication, plus the hot scene and chilled cocktails at The Penthouse, which offers sweeping ocean views. There’s the streamlined art deco glamor of Hotel Shangri-La, a 1939 landmark where you can join the hip crowd at ONYX, a rooftop bar and lounge. Or live like a star at Viceroy Santa Monica in an ocean-hued room as cool and breezy as the nearby Pacific.
With its Cape Cod-inspired architecture and homey, yet elegant rooms created by star designer Michael S. Smith, oceanfront Shutters on the Beach epitomizes Santa Monica’s relaxed coastal charms. Or just down the beach, step inside the graceful Mediterranean-style lobby of the 1926 classic Hotel Casa del Mar, where rooms offer flawless ocean views through your arched floor-to-ceiling windows.
With restaurants helmed by both celebrity chefs and rising culinary stars, Santa Monica boasts a sizzling-hot dining scene. Start with a classic, Chinois on Main, where Wolfgang Puck pioneered the fusion style of cooking. There’s also Michael McCarty’s Michael’s restaurant, a landmark for California cuisine since 1979.
Chef Josiah Citrin split his two-Michelin-starred Mélisse restaurant into two in late 2019. Mélisse is now an intimate 14-seater featuring only a tasting menu, and Citrin serves creative variations on caviar and progressive California cuisine in a bistro setting. Sample irresistible creations (don't miss the organic fried chicken sandwich) at all-day breakfast hotspot Huckleberry Bakery & Café, home to James Beard award-winning pastry chef Zoe Nathan. (Her pastries and desserts, like Champagne chocolate tart and sticky toffee pudding, are also served at farm-to-table Rustic Canyon restaurant.)
Even burgers get the special treatment in Santa Monica: Head to gastropub Father’s Office for chef Sang Yoon’s deliciously decadent burger topped with a smoked-bacon and caramelized onions, and gruyére and Maytag blue cheeses. Just don’t ask for ketchup. Yoon doesn’t allow anyone to mess with his masterpieces.
Steps from the Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel, The Albright features local, sustainable fish dishes on its menu—Lobster rolls, Hawaiian poke, black tiger shrimp taco, and fish-and-chips—in a casual, low-key environment. Parents will appreciate the al fresco dining and the view of the ocean; kids will love the nearby games and rides.
Venice is the ultimate L.A. neighborhood where the surf meets the human circus. Spend a day along Venice’s palm-lined, beachfront boardwalk and you might spot a skateboarding guitarist, a guy juggling chainsaws, bodybuilders, and bikinis. You may also see some of the country’s best pickup basketball games on local outdoor courts, as well as fearless skateboarders on the skate park nestled right in the sands of Venice Beach. Find a bench to watch the passing parade, or become part of it, by renting beach cruiser bikes to follow Venice’s stretch of the 22-mile/35-km Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail, linking Santa Monica to Torrance. For a truly wild experience, find something to bang with (an empty soda can and your car keys will do) and join the nightly drum circle out on the beach.
Walk inland away from the beach to discover a different Venice. The town’s most popular street, stroll-able Abbot Kinney Boulevard, is a shopping treasure trove. Browse for designer duds in stylish boutiques that draw Hollywood celebs, and search for home furnishings—from vintage to mid-century. Blend your own scents at Strange Invisible Perfumes. Cafes and food trucks make sure you don’t go hungry while you shop. And yes, there are canals in Venice: Stroll past the original cottages, lush gardens, and modern homes of the Venice Canal Historic District.