7 Things to Do in Santa Monica, CA

Los Angeles’s ultimate beach town offers a shopper’s dream, international cuisine, and one of America’s most awesome boardwalks.

“There’s the Ferris wheel!”

Yes, I’m a grown man, but as we wind down the Pacific Coast Highway toward Santa Monica, the sight of the iconic big wheel at Pacific Park, on the end of the Santa Monica Pier, still gives me a thrill. As my family arrives in Santa Monica, catching sight of the pier in the distance and the miles of sandy beach along the highway is the perfect way to get all four of us even more psyched for our Los Angeles vacation.

While Southern California is home to many coastal communities, Santa Monica delivers beach, shopping, dining, and culture perhaps more efficiently than any other, in a highly walkable and bikeable package that keeps me and my family coming back. We love making Santa Monica our base of operations for exploring Los Angeles. Here, seven ways you can make our itinerary your own (and check out my video, above, for an extra dose of trip inspiration).

1. HIT THE BEACH

For most visitors, the first, truly striking, impression of Santa Monica goes something like, “Wow, the beach is, like, right here.” For those of us whose beach excursions tend to involve some measure of pre-planning, sometimes involving long day trips or overnight stays, the 3.5 miles of beach that stretch alongside the Pacific Coast Highway are truly a gift. To hit the beach in Santa Monica, you can roll out of bed and walk or bike from many of the downtown hotels, or hop on the Blue Bus, or, sure, take a short drive, but be aware the traffic and parking can be a hassle in high season.

The well-maintained, soft sand may entice you to do absolutely nothing but sit and stare at the blue Pacific, and that’s fine. Perry’s Cafe and Beach Rentals will pamper you with lounge chairs, a small table, beach umbrella, cooler, water bottles, and more for $50 per day. But all those miles of beach do offer ample fun ways to keep busy. The stretch of beach near Bay Street is renowned for its surfing (the waves are, according to the experts, nicely spread out), and you can take lessons for a reasonable rate (you can find a list of authorized surf instructors at santamonica.com). The original Muscle Beach, where America’s ongoing fitness fixation was born, is here in Santa Monica, south of the pier, with parallel bars, rings, and swings for children and grownups. My kids were also psyched to watch the many beach volleyball competitions along the beach, something they don’t see too often in suburban New York. For more ambitious beach-going, rent bicycles (starting around $65/day) and hit the Marvin Braude Beach Trail (but call it the “Strand,” as locals do), which runs for 22 miles, from Santa Monica to Torrance County Beach.

Note to beach-goers: No matter how warm it may be when you head to the beach, always bring a light jacket or wind shirt, as ocean breezes and fog can bring temperatures from the sunny 70s to the 60s or cooler pretty quickly.

2. SAVOR THE SUNSHINE

Speaking of weather, do I really need to tell you that the sun is almost always shining here? From the Beach Boys’ gorgeous “The Warmth of the Sun” to Everclear’s haunting “Santa Monica,” the Southern California sun has been a fixture in popular culture. But did you know that Santa Monica basks in an average of 300 sunny days per year? It makes trip planning a little easier, especially if you want to spend most of your time outdoors. Beyond the beach, Santa Monica and its neighboring communities offer opportunities for mountain biking and hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and Will Rogers State Historic Park (in Pacific Palisades). The views of Los Angeles and the ocean from the mountains is more than worth the workout.

3. PARTY ON THE PIER

Another word about that iconic Ferris wheel: At nine stories high, the Pacific Wheel is the first solar-powered Ferris wheel in the world and California’s only “over-water” wheel (translation: you feel almost as if you’re dipping in and out of the ocean during your ride, which is a blast). But the Pacific Wheel is just part of the fun of visiting the Santa Monica Pier. We set aside several hours on a perfect summer evening to take our daughters and two friends on the rides, and we loved the pier so much we ended up staying much longer than we’d expected, chowing down on great Mexican food, riding and re-riding the rides, marveling at the sunset views of the beach and the coast of Malibu to the north, and just savoring the party atmosphere.

Pacific Park, at the end of the pier, boasts a five-story roller coaster, nine-story plunge tower, miniature golf, the Pacific Wheel, and an array of other rides and attractions, welcoming more than 6 million visitors each year. But the amusement park is only part of what makes the pier a favorite. The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium offers interactive hands-on experiences, and educates visitors on environmental stewardship. The Trapeze School of New York teaches visitors of all ages and experience levels how to be a safe, skilled aerialist. (No, I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s on my list for next time!) The 1922 Looff Hippodrome Carousel, a National Historic Landmark, is one of those ornately carved and painted carousels they really don’t make anymore, and even played a supporting role in the Academy Award-winning film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

4. ENJOY UPSCALE SHOPPING

When it comes to shopping on vacation, I fit the stereotype of the typical dad and try to spend as little time browsing merchandise as possible. But Santa Monica has earned its rep as one of the hottest shopping destinations in Los Angeles, and even I was impressed. For those who crave a familiar shopping experience, Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Place deliver varied shops, upscale options, and a fun atmosphere. To get a little off the beaten path, explore Main Street’s surfer/skater chic clothing, vintage books, and arts and crafts. And tree-lined Montana Avenue is where locals hit the boutiques.

5. EAT YOUR WAY AROUND THE WORLD

While I can’t claim to be an expert, I thought our lunch at Sugarfish sushi in Santa Monica was the best Japanese food I’d ever eaten; we caught up with old friends, devoured the chef’s multi-course tasting menu, and vowed to return as often as possible. It turns out Sugarfish, with its incredibly fresh seafood, design-forward interior, and engaging staff, is the norm in Santa Monica, where you can, at least figuratively, eat your way around the world. From seafood (the ocean, after all, is a just a few blocks away) to Asian fusion, farm-to-table, one of America’s finest farmers markets, an authentic British-style pub on the boulevard, and the awesome burgers, fries, and ice cream you’d expect at Southern California’s premiere beachside amusement park, this little city packs an enticingly dizzying culinary variety into its 8.3 square miles.

6. EXPERIENCE LOS ANGELES’S MUST-SEES

My family loves making Santa Monica our base of operations for exploring Los Angeles, and the scope of our L.A. trip deserves its own separate account. Suffice it to say that our week in Southern California included the jaw-dropping art collection at The Getty Museum, which is a short drive (and tram ride) up into the Santa Monica Mountains, visiting family in West Hollywood and Lakewood, spending a day at Universal Studios Hollywood and another at Disneyland, nabbing burgers at In-N-Out (they really are as good as Californians say they are), and enjoying every minute of it.

7. STAY IN STYLE

From functional chain hotels to luxe lodgings, from beachside motels to boutique B&Bs, Santa Monica offers tons of places to stay at a variety of price points starting well under $200/night. We were blown away by the design, comfort, and service at The Ambrose Hotel, a worth-it splurge for Budget Travelers who crave a pampering experience in a convenient location (starting around $250).

More From Budget Travel

Related Content