Whether or not you’ve been to Santa Monica, you’ve likely seen the city in countless movies and television shows. More than one romantic scene has been filmed on the beach with the lights of the Santa Monica Pier in the background, and more than one adrenaline-fueled chase scene has taken place along The Strand. When people think of Southern California, images of this iconic beach town come to mind.
Santa Monica is a magnet for both Angelenos and international visitors because it’s chock-full of fun, creative, and quirky sights. And for foodies, Santa Monica is a must-visit, since it’s long been home to many of the Los Angeles area’s best restaurants.
Here’s how to spend a day in gorgeous Santa Monica.
Start At The Santa Monica Pier
First-time visitors should definitely start at the Santa Monica Pier. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s one of Southern California’s best-loved places. It’s also a lively and colorful spot that offers great ocean views.
Getting to the pier is easy: Just drive down Santa Monica Boulevard until it ends. Be prepared to walk a bit, as the majority of parking is in lots for the nearby beaches. If you’re lucky enough to nab a space on the street, be sure to feed the meter and return before it runs out -- tickets are pricey in this city.
Start your day with a photo at the End of the Trail sign that celebrates one of the most famous road trips in the United States -- Route 66. Though not its official end, Santa Monica Pier is considered the "spiritual end" of the iconic route. The official end, once located at 7th and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, was later moved to Highway 1 and Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica.
If you enjoy amusement parks, then head to Pacific Park and check out its 12 rides, including a Ferris wheel and roller-coaster. Or consider visiting the Heal the Bay Aquarium to see 100 species of local marine life. Along the way, you can play games in the arcade or grab a snack at one of the many food vendors along the pier.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, head to the Trapeze School New York, where you can learn to fly above the pier like a circus performer. If that sounds a bit intimidating, the company also offers trampoline classes for beginners.
Stroll Along Third Street Promenade
Just east of the pier, Third Street Promenade is a three-block pedestrian zone lined with dozens of shops and restaurants. But the real attractions here are the street performers. These aren’t your everyday guitarists and drummers -- they’re high-energy acrobatic acts featuring song and dance that attract large and enthusiastic crowds. Some of the performances can be lengthy, and on a weekend you could spend an hour or two appreciating the acts. If you enjoyed a performance, then consider tipping at the end.
Third Street Promenade is also home to the Santa Monica History Museum and dozens of colorful street murals. This short stretch of three blocks could keep you busy all day!
Hit The Beach
Santa Monica is located along 3.5 miles of oceanfront, so it’s the ideal place to visit if you want to soak up the sun. The two closest beaches are Santa Monica State Beach and Will Rogers State Beach. Both offer opportunities for swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, and volleyball. Public parking is available at adjacent lots. In the summer, get here early if you’re hoping to grab a space.
Since Santa Monica boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, there are very few bad days to go to the beach. Summer is probably a better time to visit if you’re hoping to work on your tan, but even during the winter, a walk or run along the beach will be enjoyable.
Visit The Museum Of Flying
Located north of the Santa Monica Airport, the Museum of Flying features historic aircraft, memorabilia from the Douglas Aircraft Company, and even a MaxFlight simulator. Aviation fanatics -- and kids -- will appreciate the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of a plane and pretend to fly. The museum is small, so it won’t take long to explore, but it’s a fun option for visitors traveling with grandkids. The museum occasionally closes for special events, so be sure to check the website before visiting.
Bike Along The Strand
A fantastic way to see several Southern California beach towns, including Santa Monica, is to bike along the Marvin Braude Bike Trail. The section of trail passing through Santa Monica is commonly referred to as The Strand. This 22-mile paved path starts north of the city at Will Rogers State Beach and ends south of the city at Torrance State Beach. Since the path runs through several busy beach towns, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to stop for a meal or a snack.
If you’re a visitor and need a bike, there are rentals available. Santa Monica Bike Rentals offers bicycles for men, women, and children. It also offers bike trailers or seats for young children.
Check Out The Farnam House
For 13 years, Aziz and Louise Farnam have spent their time decorating every square inch of their home with mosaic tiles. The Farnam House is now one of the most colorful homes in the U.S. Look closely, and you’ll see fish, a green macaw, a unicorn, and Shamu, the famous orca from SeaWorld.
At times the house has been a point of contention, but most people have come to appreciate the hard work it took to gather the materials and painstakingly apply them to walls, walkways, and even the front door. Visitors are welcome to take photos, but remember that this is a residential neighborhood.
Learn To Surf Or Paddleboard
If you’ve always wondered what it’s like to ride the waves, then maybe it’s time to learn to surf. Santa Monica has long been a favorite surfing spot. The three most popular places to surf are the Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica State Beach, and Bay Street.
A calmer and more laid-back alternative to surfing is paddleboarding. Learn To Surf LA offers paddleboard rentals and lessons.
Head To The Santa Monica Stairs
If you are in need of a great outdoor workout, then the Santa Monica Stairs are for you. These two sets of stairs -- one cement and one wood -- attract hundreds of fitness enthusiasts every day, and even more on weekends. The cement stairs offer 199 steps, and the wood ones offer 170. Locals often bring jump ropes or exercise bands to round out their workouts. You can find these famous stairs on Google Maps, but be sure to park in a non-permitted space.
Eating In Santa Monica
In order to truly appreciate the Santa Monica dining scene, you’ll have to move here. Even locals have a hard time keeping up with all the new restaurant offerings featured in the foodie publications. But there are a few classics to consider to make your day perfect.
Cassia, located in a historic art deco building, offers Southeast Asian cuisine. Food critics around the country rave about this place. I recommend the chickpea curry, beef rendang, and kaya toast.
For comfort food, head to Birdie G’s, where you can order dishes like noodle kugel and spicy Italian ravioli. This place earns praise from food critics and diners alike. In warmer weather, opt to sit outside on the patio.
For something quick and casual, try Huckleberry, a popular bakery and cafe. Excellent savory dishes include the fried egg sandwich and chilaquiles, but don’t leave without ordering one of the famous cinnamon rolls.
If you are having a hard time deciding what to eat, then SocialEats is your best bet. This place describes itself as a food discovery platform. Whether you’re looking for fried chicken, Spanish tapas, or Japanese bento boxes, you’ll find it here.
Shopping In Santa Monica
There are two great shopping destinations in Santa Monica: Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Place. Fortunately, they are located next to each other, making your shopping experience even easier.
After you’ve watched a few street performances on Third Street Promenade, check out the shops. You’ll find many national chains, including Adidas, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. A few international stores have moved in recently, including Muji and Superdry.
The promenade ends at Santa Monica Place, a large shopping mall with department stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. You’ll also find plenty of smaller boutiques, like Lorna Jane, Tory Burch, and Free People.
If you happen to be in town on Wednesday, Saturday, or Sunday, don’t miss the Santa Monica Farmers Markets. These are widely considered to be the best farmers markets in Southern California, and they’re where many of the area’s chefs do their shopping. If you can’t take home fresh produce, consider purchasing local honey, nuts, or bath products.