Santa Monica is the perfect beach town. More so than adjacent Malibu or Venice Beach, Santa Monica manages the ideal balance of seaside charm and coastal sophistication. This makes it an entirely attractive travel destination. At just 8.3 square miles, you’ll find Santa Monica to be very walkable, yet with a laid-back warmth to it.
The city also offers plenty to do. Your itinerary can be as complex or as simple as you wish—fill your days with museum-hopping and world-class shopping, or relax on the beach and watch the world go by. Here are some of the top Santa Monica attractions and activities.
SANTA MONICA BEACH
The long, wide expanse of Santa Monica Beach is distinguished from other Southern California shorelines by the sheer extent of activities one can enjoy. Both sand and ocean are clean and beautiful, making for some grade-A beachcombing, swimming and surfing. But that’s not all. Bike down the 26-mile bike path, the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (also known as The Strand), with the wind at your back and the crash of the waves in your ears, indulge in some seaside chess, try your hand at a game of beach volleyball, or stop to enjoy the outdoor activities offered at the Annenberg Community Beach House. After a day out, stick around for the finest Santa Monica attraction of all—a fiery beachside sunset.
Popular activities at the beach include:
Although a very popular Southern Californian attraction, the beach is also very large (3.5 miles long) which provides plenty of room for summer crowds. Manned lifeguard stations, paved walkways, restrooms and restaurants are plentiful and easy to find.
The South Bay Bicycle Trail is a 22-mile long, paved trail that starts in Santa Monica and finishes at the Torrance County Beach while passing through Venice, Hermosa and Redondo beach. Bicycle rentals, bike tours and hotel loaner programs are available for visitors.
SURFING AND PADDLEBOARDING
Bay St., just south of Hotel Casa del Mar is a popular surf spot because of easy accessibility, a sandy beach break and a spread out line up (not too crowded). Rentals and lessons adjacent to the beach offer beginners an introduction into surfing Southern California.
SANTA MONICA PIER
When one thinks of Santa Monica, the attraction of the Pier inevitably comes to mind. Its red and yellow Ferris wheel is a city icon. The Pier offers Pacific Park, a full service amusement park, combined with plenty of restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops, as well as an entertaining arcade with more than 200 games. Pacific Park’s solar-powered Ferris wheel makes it the only one of its kind in the region. By day, marvel at the historic Looff Hippodrome Carousel, check out the street performers, or snag a stick of puffy cotton candy. The views of Malibu and the South Bay are pretty outstanding and make for the perfect evening when watched with a beer in hand. Stick around past sunset and you might just catch live local music to the sound of the nearby waves. The Pier is a must-visit Santa Monica attraction that really sets Santa Monica apart as an ideal destination for families and visitors of any age.
Popular attractions at the Santa Monica pier include:
The pier has 7 restaurants, ranging from fine seafood to classic American food. Because of the unique location over the Pacific Ocean, visitors come for the view as much as the food.
Located on the pier, the Pacific Park amusement park features a five-story West Coaster roller coaster, the nine-story Pacific Plunge tower ride, the only over-water miniature golf course, and the nine-story Pacific Wheel ferris wheel – the only over-water ferris wheel in California, and the first solar-powered wheel in the world. More than 6 million visitors a year stop at this iconic Santa Monica attraction and popular photo spot.
The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium is located at beach level under the historic Carousel. Featuring hands-on presentations and interactive exhibits, the Aquarium is a part of Santa Monica’s own “Heal the Bay” program, an initiative to educate, inspire and empower its visitors to be stewards of the environment.
TRAPEZE SCHOOL OF NEW YORK
The Trapeze School of New York (TSNY) offers up a high-flying, fun-filled experience on the Santa Monica Pier. There are opportunities for everyone, from the thrill-seeker to fear-facer, athlete to couch potato, casual flyer to serious aerialist. Classes are two hours long and are taught in groups of up to 10 people. No prior experience is necessary.
OCEAN FRONT WALK
This wide, paved footpath extends south from the Pier and is lined with shops and restaurants. The kids will love the stone-walled sandbox with a concrete Viking ship in its midst. An interactive dragon’s head looming in the grass nearby rounds out this children’s attraction. A row of volleyball courts is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
A National Historic Landmark, the 1922 Looff Hippodrome Carousel is where Paul Newman worked in The Sting.
The Playland Arcade is packed with over 200 games and attractions in Santa Monica, from the classic to the contemporary. Play PacMan while your kids try out Dance-Dance Revolution… or vice versa.
Fishing from the Santa Monica Pier is a popular pastime with local residents and also available to visitors. Pier Bait and Tackle offers gear, poles and bait for fishing in the Pacific Ocean.
Ready to go shopping? With multiple walkable shopping neighborhoods, great sales and designer threads are always within arm’s reach. Whether you prefer name brands or global couture, you’ll find it here. But where Santa Monica shopping really shines is with independent boutiques that reflect the city’s casually sophisticated style. From the quaint little shops of Montana Avenue—Lucy, Splendid, Ruti, Citron—to the glittering storefronts of Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom at Santa Monica Place (to say nothing of the extensive Third Street Promenade), you won’t want for options.
Popular shopping areas / activities include:
THIRD STREET PROMENADE
A pedestrian-only, open-air shopping destination is only two blocks from the city’s beaches and is noted for its weekly farmers’ market, street performers and people watching along with its variety of stores.
SANTA MONICA PLACE
Anchored by Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom, Santa Monica Place features a wide range of luxury and specialty shops such as Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Michael Kors and Emporio Armani as well as a third floor rooftop deck with views of the Pacific Ocean.
Named by Travel + Leisure as the best Farmer’s Market in the county, Santa Monica’s four weekly farmers’ markets attract the city's residents and local chefs with the fresh produce, flowers, meats, cheeses, nuts, fish, and more.
ARTS & CULTURE
Santa Monica is home to more than 75 museums and art galleries; clearly this is a city that embraces culture. The abundance of public art and sculpture as well as street performers shows that all of Santa Monica’s art isn’t locked up within four walls, either. Must-visit Santa Monica attractions include L&M Arts, a branch of the New York City gallery by the same name, Bergamot Station (an old train depot containing some 35 galleries). If you’re visiting in the summer, make sure to check the calendar for live events, farmers’ markets, and the popular summer concert series. The variety of art and culture, along with a host of great restaurants, make Santa Monica a perfect date spot for locals and tourists alike.
Stick around past sunset and you’ll find the city shifts and changes. Locals from all over the LA area head to Santa Monica, where the combination of walkable and casual make for a memorable evening no matter what the occasion. Start with happy hour on a rooftop bar overlooking the Pacific Ocean, such as Suite 700 at Hotel Shangri-La at the Ocean or Sonoma Wine Garden at Santa Monica Place, and end the night dancing at Circle Bar or Bar Copa, or sidled up to the counter at one of the city’s dive bars, such as Chez Jay.