12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Santa Monica, CA

Written by Brad Lane
Jun 18, 2019

The sprawling beach and consistently sunny weather of Santa Monica is less than 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles, significantly adding to the seven million visitors this seaside city receives each year. The epitome of Southern California coastal appeal, Santa Monica has an energy spurred by the lapping waves of its western border, and a visceral excitement found on the pedestrian-friendly streets, buzzing with activity well into the night.

Perched atop a coastal bluff overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica State Beach, Palisades Park is where tourists often get the first intuition of how special Santa Monica really is. Throughout this 26-acre linear park with stunning ocean views, landscaped rows of flowers, palm trees, and picnic benches invite a leisurely stroll. From Palisades Park, it's easy to access the Ferris wheel and boardwalk of the Santa Monica Pier, which also serves as the seaside terminus of Historic Route 66.

Downtown Santa Monica offers just as much appeal and reasons to visit as the beach, with a few inland attractions, including weekly farmers markets and abundant opportunities for shopping and dining. The pedestrian-only 3rd Street Promenade features a lot of foot traffic and storefronts, as well as talented street performers adding a soundtrack to the shopping experience. For the most magical time in Santa Monica, everywhere in the city really seems to shine as the sun smolders with some of the best sunsets in SoCal.

Plan your visit with our list of the top tourist attractions in Santa Monica.

1. Santa Monica State Beach Editor's Pick

Santa Monica State Beach and Santa Monica Pier at sunset

Fifteen miles from Hollywood, this iconic coastline is one of the top-rated beaches in the Los Angeles area. Spanning over 3.5 miles and bisected by the equally iconic Santa Monica Pier, the beach attracts millions of beachgoers, who spread their towels on the sand each year. Building sandcastles, surfing, and soaking up the sun are popular things to do, at this oceanfront attraction, which embodies everything a Southern California beach has to offer.

Attractions and things to do line the entire beach on both sides of the pier, with fun places to visit to the south including the International Chess Park and Carousel Park. The original Muscle Beach is also south of the pier, featuring a wide range of fitness equipment, including gymnastic rings. North of the pier, facilities like the Annenberg Community Beach House provide inclusive beach amenities, including volleyball courts, beach seats, and a swimming pool.

The 22-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail, also known as The Strand, spans the entirety of the beach, providing a popular pedestrian path for walking, running, rollerblading, and bicycling. At the trail's southern end, the vibrant Venice Beach offers a distinctively different vibe to explore. Don't forget your surfboard when visiting Santa Monica, and for those without, numerous outfitters offer rentals and lessons.

Address: Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, California

2. 3rd Street Promenade

3rd Street Promenade | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The heart of downtown Santa Monica, the 3rd Street Promenade is three traffic-free blocks just east of the Santa Monica Pier. Featuring a lot of foot traffic, this bustling pedestrian pathway is lined with shops, restaurants, and talented street musicians on every block. Strolling through the 3rd Street Promenade during the day is always a good way to catch some sun, and the area really shines at night with cooler temperatures and decorative lighting.

On the south end of the Promenade, more shopping and dining opportunities await at Santa Monica Place, the city's premier outdoor shopping mall. Familiar storefronts like Nike and Nordstrom fill out the directory of Santa Monica Place, as well as nationally recognized restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory and Johnny Rockets. New to the outdoor shopping plaza in 2019, the Cayton Children's Museum offers an abundance of play space and learning opportunities.

Address: 1351 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica, California

3. Santa Monica Pier

Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The seaside terminus of historic Route 66, the Santa Monica Pier is a classic landmark of the city. Surrounded on both sides by Santa Monica State Beach, this family- and dog-friendly pier is filled with fun things to do and plenty of people to watch. Pacific Park features an iconic Ferris wheel and rollercoaster on the pier, and a historical carousel and Playland Arcade add to the nostalgia of this central beach attraction.

Other attractions on the pier include bike rentals, beach and souvenir shops, as well as the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium hidden beneath the carousel building. Much of the experience of visiting the pier is simply strolling the length and appreciating the ocean views and people watching, including numerous musicians playing on the boardwalk. Of all the special events that take place on the pier, the annual Twilight on the Pier music festival is one of the biggest, with live world music from across the globe.

Address: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, California

Official site: https://santamonicapier.org/

4. Palisades Park

Palisades Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Tourists and residents tend to gravitate towards Palisades Park. This 26-acre coastal-bluff park on Ocean Avenue overlooks the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica State Beach, providing a well-manicured space with non-stop ocean vistas. The cement path that navigates this landmark city space is lined with palm trees, rose bushes, and plenty of places to take a seat, as well as pedestrian bridges that cross the highway and access the ocean.

Connecting with other prominent attractions, including the Santa Monica Pier, Palisades Park is also home to unique amenities like a camera obscura, pétanque courts, and public art installations. On Ocean Avenue and farther inland, the lively streets of Downtown Santa Monica and the 3rd Street Promenade compliment the ocean activity. While all vistas from Palisades Park catch the eye, the aptly named Inspiration Point on the north side of the park is worth the walk.

Address: Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, California

5. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Point Mugu State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Santa Monica Mountains meet the sea in dramatic fashion, representing a stunning Mediterranean environment where it's possible to climb a mountain and surf some waves all in the same day. Extending north from Santa Monica nearly to Oxnard, the Pacific Coast Highway narrows throughout this rugged section of coastal mountains as it passes through other iconic destinations, including Malibu. Easily accessible from downtown L.A., Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is an easy contender for a top-rated day trip from Los Angeles.

The 2018 Woolsey Fire severely affected the landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains. Much of the 500-mile network of trails has re-opened by 2019, as well as the many campgrounds throughout. Some of the best state parks in California are within the Santa Monica Mountains, including Topanga and Malibu Creek State Parks, as well as Point Mugu State Park with stunning ridgelines and great views of the ocean.

Address: 26876 Mulholland Highway, Calabasas, California

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/samo/index.htm

6. Annenberg Community Beach House

Annenberg Community Beach House | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

North of the Santa Monica Pier and stemming from the city's Gold Coast era of the 1920s, this sprawling public beach facility was once a private beachside mansion belonging to the actress Marion Davies. The state of California now operates this oceanfront cultural center, including amenities like beach courts, playgrounds, and a splash pad, as well as a seasonal swimming pool. The Marion Davies Guest House on-site features free tours and rotating art exhibits.

Address: 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, California

Official site: https://www.annenbergbeachhouse.com/

7. Santa Monica Farmers Market

Fresh strawberries at the Santa Monica Farmers Market

Operating throughout the year, rain or shine, Santa Monica offers four different farmers markets throughout the week. Occurring Wednesday and Sunday mornings, with two different markets on Saturdays, these acclaimed Farmers Markets have been a treasured city tradition since 1979. Alongside seasonal local produce, the farmers markets also include special events like live cooking demonstrations, street musicians, and hot-cooked fares that add a savory aroma to the whole experience.

Official site: https://www.smgov.net/portals/farmersmarket/

8. Venice Beach

Venice Beach

The southern city bordering Santa Monica, and connected via The Strand Beach Path, Venice Beach offers its own distinct flavor of coastal attraction. More bohemian in spirit, Venice Beach is well regarded for the art found on the streets and the style represented by the community. The Venice Beach Boardwalk is a common tourist magnet of scenic appeal, and a visit isn't complete without strolling down Ocean Front Walk and getting a taste of the flavor and atmosphere of this creative seaside city.

9. Tongva Park

Tongva Park

Encompassing six acres off Ocean Avenue, south of the Santa Monica Pier, this sprawling city park is infused with gardens, sculptures, and the smell of the ocean. Inviting for a relaxing moment off your feet, Tongva Park is a great spot to enjoy an afternoon picnic that is less crowded than the beach. Adjacent to Tongva Park, the newly instated Ken Genser Square adds an extra acre of natural space to explore with a fountain and babbling brook.

Address: 1615 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, California

Official site: http://tongvapark.smgov.net/

10. Santa Monica Stairs

Santa Monica Stairs | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Once a hidden gem within the community, the secret might be out about the fun fitness to be had on the Santa Monica Stairs. If one thing is for sure, it's the thigh-burning feeling from navigating up and down the 300-plus steps of this public walkway. Comprised of both wooden and concrete steps, the Santa Monica Stairs are tucked within a quiet residential neighborhood less than a mile from the ocean. Even with the limited parking, it's not uncommon to see crowds of people exercising on the stairs.

Address: 699 Adelaide Drive, Santa Monica, California

11. Montana Avenue

Strolling down Montana Avenue at dusk

Extending into the city's northside, Montana Avenue is a popular thoroughfare for dining and shopping. Over 150 restaurants and storefronts line the sidewalks of this inland street, providing an abundance of daytime window shopping and outdoor cafes for a casual lunch. Many of the boutique storefronts and fashionable retail shops on Montana Avenue are found nowhere else in California. At the heart of Montana Avenue, the Aero Theatre is a renovated 1930s movie house now featuring independent and classic Hollywood films.

Official site: http://montanaave.com/

12. Bergamot Station

Platform signs for Bergamot Station | Joey Zanotti / photo modified

In north Santa Monica away from the ocean, this world-renowned creative space was once a railroad station between 1875 and 1953. After transitioning between manufacturing and packaging warehouses, the city of Santa Monica purchased the abandoned property and in 1994, the nearly five-acre Bergamot Station Art Complex opened to the public. With numerous galleries and workshops, Bergamot Station regularly features rotating exhibitions of artists from across the globe, all with free admission and free parking.

Address: 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica, California

Official site: https://bergamotstation.com/

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