I’ve been to Santa Monica dozens of times over the years, but for some reason I’d never stayed here overnight. Since I’ve lived in Southern California for thirty years, Santa Monica has always been a great day trip for me. But recently my daughter, Jessica, and I decided to spend more time in this beachside town and get to know it better.
So I’ve combined my years of day trips with a recent 3 day vacation to share the things to do in Santa Monica that I recommend. (Since there are currently many restrictions in place while traveling, this article reflects my current experiences. I will be sure to update information as restrictions are lifted.)
Santa Monica Pier
Even if you’ve never been to the Santa Monica Pier, you’ve likely seen it in movies and television shows. It appeared in Beverly Hills Cop 3, Forrest Gump, Iron Man, and Rocky III, just to name a few. It is among the most iconic sights in Los Angeles.
Currently the pier is open for visitors to stroll and appreciate the great views of Santa Monica. There are also a few small snack bars and souvenir shops open. However, the amusement park, Pacific Park, is closed. Personally, I really enjoyed the chance to walk along the pier with far fewer people.
Santa Monica Pier is also the symbolic end of the Historic Route 66. If you’re not familiar with this famous highway, it began in Chicago and wound its way through the Western United States for 2,451 miles. Technically Route 66 ends a mile away from the ocean, but to create a more picturesque terminus, the sign was installed on the pier in 2009.
Biking Along the Strand
Jessica and I stayed at The Shore Hotel which offered complimentary bicycles to borrow throughout our stay. I usually gripe about the resort fees at hotels, but not this time--I loved having access to the bikes!
So the first morning of our trip, we grabbed two bikes and headed to The Strand, the concrete path that follows the beach for several miles. We rode from Santa Monica Pier to Venice Pier and back, that’s six miles roundtrip. Most of the way the path has three well marked lanes, one for walkers and runners, and two for bicycles coming in opposite directions.
I enjoyed the riding so much that I got up early the next two days and explored further. On our final morning in Santa Monica I rode into Will Rogers State Beach in Malibu and then back to Santa Monica. If you’re looking for a longer ride, the Marvin Braude Bike Trail is 22 miles, beginning in Malibu and ending in Torrance. Most of it is along the beach, but for a few miles in Marina Del Rey the trail follows local streets.
If you’re not staying at a hotel that offers bikes, they can be rented several places along the beach including Santa Monica Bike Rentals.
Third Street Promenade
Third Street Promenade has long been the shopping epicenter of Santa Monica. This three block long, pedestrian only open-air mall is full of shops, restaurants, and street performers. Right now the street performances are minimal, but I’ve no doubt they will be back. In past years I’ve seen mimes, musicians, dancers, and balloon artists.
I am a bit disappointed that over time small, local shops along the promenade have been replaced by national and international chains. But there are still a few gems like BookMonster, a large, used bookstore with an inventory of 200,000 items.
If shopping makes you hungry (pretty much anything makes me hungry) head to Gallery Food Hall. This used to be a rather uninteresting food court, but was recently overhauled and now offers a nice range of food choices including tacos, fried chicken, ice cream, Asian noodles, burgers, and coffee.
Relax On The Beach
If you’d like to work on your tan while laying on a stretch of sandy beach, there is ample opportunity to do that in Santa Monica. Or do what I did, and get up early to watch the surfers bobbing in the water waiting to catch a wave. In fact Santa Monica Beach is 3.5 miles long, so you can definitely find some socially distanced space to hang out.
If you’re coming for the day, be sure to bring beach chairs and an umbrella. If you don’t have these items, that’s ok too, there are plenty of places offering rentals. When you get hungry pop into one of the many cafes and snack bars along the way.
To get a great view of Santa Monica Beach and the pier, head to Palisades Park. Perched above the ocean, this green space is full of trees offering shade on a hot day. Or, if you’re a jogger, this is a great spot for your morning run. The park starts at the pier and continues North for 1.6 miles. Along the way are several monuments, a rose garden, and picnic tables.
Santa Monica Farmers Market
I've known about the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market for decades. It’s the place West LA chefs go for their fresh produce. The market is available Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday--check their website for hours and locations. We were in town on a Wednesday, and since Jessica and I always love visiting farmers markets at home, we knew we had to go.
The farmers markets in Orange County offer a mix of fresh produce, prepared food, and gift items. But in Santa Monica, fresh produce is king. There were no prepared food or gift items. I later learned that the Wednesday market is the largest grower-only certified market in Southern California. I understand that other items are available on the weekend.
I became a vegetarian this year, so this market was my dream come true. There were such a wide array of fruits and vegetables, including many varieties I had never heard of. If you get a chance to visit, definitely talk to the growers. They are experts about their specific items and love to educate consumers. Its also important to know that many of the growers prefer cash.
Dine With A View
If you’re not from the Los Angeles area, you may not know that Santa Monica is the foodie capital of the region. So if I’m being perfectly honest, the real reason for our three day vacation here was to eat. And boy did we do a good job of that!
Two of our three nights we had a goal of exploring Santa Monica rooftop bars and restaurants. And to make the most of the views we made reservations around sunset.
The first night was dinner at Calabra Rooftop located in the Santa Monica Proper Hotel. The interiors at this property were designed by Kelly Wearstler, a highly successful and creative American interior designer. Before heading up to the restaurant Jessica and I explored the eclectic lobby that features a variety of seating areas. This isn’t your standard hotel lobby with matching chairs, instead there’s a fun mix of sofas, tables, sectionals, and even a recliner.
Calabra has a nice mix of entrees including salads, burgers, fish, and seafood. I ordered their vegetarian Meze platter which was loaded with fresh veggies, dips, and grilled pita bread. Since this hotel is located about a mile inland, the views are of the surrounding city and foothills.
The next night we scored a table at Élephante Beach House, another Santa Monica rooftop restaurant, but this time with ocean views. If this place interests you, make reservations a week or two in advance and request an outdoor table. The Italian entrees we tried were excellent. I ordered the rigatoni verde and Jess enjoyed the cacio e peppe. Located about two blocks from the ocean, the views are lovely, and even better during sunset.
More Things To Do In Santa Monica–Keep Eating!
If someone asked me what to do in Santa Monica, I’d probably answer “eat.” Everything else I mentioned is great, but the food here is seriously good. Here are a few more places I recommend in Santa Monica and nearby Venice Beach;
Double Zero Pizza--Serving fabulous vegan food
Little Ruby--Great breakfast spot
Huckleberry--Another good breakfast spot, also serving great baked goods
Forma Restaurant & Cheese Bar--The number one rated Italian restaurant in Santa Monica and for good reason
Philz Coffee--My new favorite coffee shop. There are several locations in LA and Orange County.
Where To Stay In Santa Monica
We stayed at The Shore Hotel and loved it. Its location across the street from the pier is ideal, the rooms clean and tastefully decorated, and the staff friendly and helpful. Definitely splurge for the ocean view rooms which feature balconies.