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 carnival rides that make a nice mix even for little ones. Then there are incomparable views from the top of the pier’s solar-powered Ferris wheel. On weekends, you can join free historical walking tours to learn more about the pier, which dates back to 1909. And then there are those simple pleasures—a creamy thick milkshake or a simple necklace of seashells, at snack shacks and trinket shops lining the pier. And there are the local fishermen adding colour 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-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. For the complete beach treatment, explore the ocean atop a paddleboard (various hire equipment and lessons are available) or go VIP with your own Perry’s on the Beach Butler service.
The oceanfront city of Santa Monica, lined with its nearly four miles of beaches, feels like a weekend getaway spot, even though it’s only 15 miles/24 kilometres west of downtown Los Angeles. Car-free options such as the light-rail Expo Line from downtown L.A., and the Big Blue Bus make it a relaxing destination too.
You can hang out on broad beaches or the lively Santa Monica 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, from Santa Monica south to Torrance.
Whichever way you explore this beach town, the key is to take your time (and, ideally, stay at one of the luxurious oceanfront hotels). After all, this is a prime area to see stars going about their business in their own neighbourhood, strolling the shops along Montana Avenue, or browsing the celebrity-chef-worthy produce at the farmers’ markets (the town has several each in different locations).
Explore one or all of Santa Monica’s eight neighbourhoods, 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 theatres, 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.
If you like a little stargazing while you shop, the assorted farmers’ markets held in this coastal city are a good bet for spotting celebs loading up on fresh organic fruit and veg. On Saturday and Wednesday mornings, several blocks of Arizona Avenue in town are blocked off for a massive market, jammed with impossibly attractive locals. This market is known as a showcase for local chefs, who do weekly cooking demos using ingredients from that day’s 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.
Michelin-starred French cuisine, including an impeccable Kagoshima Wagyu beef filet, can be enjoyed at Josiah Citrin’s Mélisse. Sample irresistible creations (don’t miss the maple-bacon biscuits) at 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-onion compote, and gruyere and Maytag blue cheeses. Just don’t ask for ketchup. Yoon doesn’t allow anyone to mess with his masterpieces.
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 kilometres. 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 theatre include state-of-the-art The Broad Stage, on the campus of Santa Monica City College, and Edgemar Center for the Arts.
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 skateboard 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 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.