16 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Santa Monica, CA
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Santa Monica is the top seaside destination for Los Angeles and the surrounding Los Angeles County. It's a beautiful city with consistently sunny weather and a sprawling beach. Thanks to its location, less than 15 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the city receives more than seven million visitors every year.
There's an undeniable excitement buzzing from Santa Monica. It has energy spurred by the lapping waves of its western border, and a visceral excitement from the pedestrian-friendly downtown district, buzzing with activity well into the night. Its nautical spirit is best experienced at Palisades Park, perched atop a coastal bluff overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica State Beach.
And no visit is complete without walking down the Santa Monica Pier, which also serves as the seaside terminus of Historic Route 66. This tourist-friendly boardwalk defines many Southern California vacations, complete with amusement park rides and miles-long views across the ocean.
Pack your bags and start planning your next Southern California vacation with these best things to do in Santa Monica.
1. Santa Monica Pier
The Santa Monica Pier is a classic landmark of the city and the seaside terminus of historic Route 66. It's surrounded on both sides by Santa Monica State Beach and this family- and dog-friendly pier is filled with fun things to do and plenty of people to watch.
Pacific Park on the pier is perhaps the most eye-catching attraction, thanks to its iconic Ferris wheel and roller coaster jutting high above the boardwalk. The Ferris wheel is especially noticeable at night, when the ride illuminates the pier from a distance. This ocean amusement park also features the popular Playland Arcade, adding a bit of nostalgia to 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 Twilight on the Pier music festival is one of the biggest, with live world music from across the globe. This celebrated concert series occurs in the evenings throughout the summer.
Address: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, California
Official site: https://santamonicapier.org/
2. Santa Monica State Beach
Santa Monica State Beach spans over 3.5 miles on either side of the iconic Santa Monica Pier. It's one of the top beaches in the Los Angeles area, less than 15 miles from Hollywood, attracting millions of beachgoers to spread their towels out on the sand each year.
The Santa Monica Pier bisects the beach into Santa Monica State Beach North and Santa Monica State Beach South. Both sides of the beach have different access points, but each caters to activities like building sandcastles, surfing, and soaking up the sun.
Fun places to visit at Santa Monica State Beach South include 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. Santa Monica State Beach also has easier beachfront parking.
North of the pier, facilities like the Annenberg Community Beach House provides inclusive beach amenities, including volleyball courts, beach seats, and a swimming pool. Santa Monica State Beach north is only accessible by descending from Palisades Park over the Pacific Coast Highway via the Pier or pedestrian bridge.
Address: Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, California
3. Marvin Braude Bike Trail
The 22-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail, also known as The Strand, spans the entirety of the Santa Monica shoreline. It stretches from Will Rogers State Beach north of Santa Monica all the way down to Torrance County Beach. And navigating this sandy expanse is one of the most popular things to do when visiting.
The path is popular for bicyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers, and anyone getting around without a motor. The trail is split between a walking and biking path along busier sections of the trail, including the Santa Monica waterfront. And as the most-used pedestrian path in the city, the trail certainly gets some use.
The real appeal of the Marvin Braude Bike Path is its length. The 22-mile route connects every beach within Santa Monica Bay, enabling nearly every ocean activity under the sun, as well as bonfire destinations for the evening. Whether looking for the best waves, the most solitude, or any number of beach volleyball courts, The Strand connects them all.
4. Palisades Park
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 and provides a well-manicured space with non-stop ocean vistas.
Palm trees, rose bushes, and plenty of places to take a seat line the cement path navigating this landmark city space, as well as pedestrian bridges that cross the highway and access the ocean. Palisades Park is also home to unique amenities like a camera obscura, pétanque courts, and public art installations.
Palisades Park is also a connecting point for several other attractions in the area, including the Santa Monica Pier. And 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. 3rd Street Promenade
The heart of downtown Santa Monica is the 3rd Street Promenade. This pedestrian-only shopping space features a lot of foot traffic and tons of entertainment. Shops, restaurants, and talented street musicians line every block well into the night when this lighted area really shines. But whether day or night, something is bound to catch the eye on this fashionable retail strip.
Alongside the shopping, dining, and entertainment options like a movie theater and Augmented Reality Museum, the promenade is also home to beautiful landscaping. Dinosaur hedge sculptures, photo booths, and various sitting options define the aesthetic of this downtown district.
Address: 1351 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica, California
6. Dining in Santa Monica
Part of the Santa Monica experience is enjoying a meal out on the town. The city's food scene is wide and varied and highly lauded. From downtown digs to oceanfront views, it's easy to find something for everyone's taste.
A few notable favorites include Forma for Italian food and Tar & Roses for unique menu items like oxtail dumplings. And just about every taste is catered for – Japanese, Caribbean, and Polish cuisine are among the wide range of world flavors.
7. Venice Beach
Venice Beach is the southern city bordering Santa Monica, connected by the Marvin Braude Bike Path, also known as The Strand Beach Path. Venice offers its own distinct flavor of coastal appeal that's a bit more bohemian in spirit. The oceanfront district 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. Waves of people walk this tourist path bordering the beach, and several unique storefronts and sidewalk vendors line the boardwalk. A visit isn't complete without strolling down this Ocean Front Walk and getting a taste of the flavor and atmosphere of this creative seaside city.
The bike path at Venice Beach winds and weaves throughout many sandy attractions. Public art and tasteful graffiti surround this bike path, as do other amenities, like playground equipment and basketball courts. And like Santa Monica State Beach to the north, the sand is broad and welcoming and has plenty of space to handle the crowds that gather.
8. Annenberg Community Beach House
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 on-site Marion Davies Guest House features free tours and rotating art exhibits.
Address: 415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, California
Official site: https://www.annenbergbeachhouse.com/
9. Santa Monica Farmers Market
Santa Monica offers four different farmers markets throughout the week, rain or shine. Two different markets take place on Saturdays, and two others take place on Wednesday and Sunday mornings.
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/
10. 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. It's inviting for a relaxing moment taking a break from downtown and is a great spot to enjoy an afternoon picnic away from the crowds at 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/
11. Santa Monica Stairs
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. They were once a hidden gem within the community, but the secret might be out regarding the fun fitness to be had on this long set of stairs. And even with limited parking, it's not uncommon to see crowds of people exercising on the stairs.
It's no secret that the 300-plus steps of this public walkway leave visitors with a distinct thigh-burning sensation.
Address: 699 Adelaide Drive, Santa Monica, California
12. Montana Avenue
Montana Avenue is a popular thoroughfare for dining and shopping extending into the city's northside. Over 150 restaurants and storefronts line the sidewalks of this inland street, providing an abundance of daytime window shopping and outdoor cafés for a casual lunch.
Many of the boutique storefronts and fashionable retail shops on Montana Avenue are found nowhere else in California. And 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/
13. Bergamot Station
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/
14. Santa Monica Place
On the south end of the 3rd Street 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.
The Cayton Children's Museum opened in 2019 in Santa Monica Place. This family-favorite, experienced-based museum features an abundance of play space and learning opportunities.
15. The Getty Villa
The Getty Villa is near the oceanfront in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, north along the coast from Santa Monica. It's one of two sites operated by the Getty, a philanthropic foundation dedicated to preserving the world's artistic legacy.
The Getty Villa is a reconstruction of an ancient Roman country home, complete with intricate gardens and a peristyle. Simply admiring the luxurious grounds and architecture of the villa is an experience alone, and it's a popular spot to photograph.
Perhaps more incredibly, ancient artworks occupy nearly the entire villa. On display are several marble statues, Roman coins, and ancient mummies. And the second floor of the villa is home to a rotating exhibition space, where premier collections from across the world are regularly displayed.
Address: 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades, California
Official site: https://www.getty.edu/
16. Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area
The Santa Monica Mountains meet the sea in dramatic fashion north of Santa Monica and are readily visible from the beach. These elevations and Santa Monica's Mediterranean climate make it possible to climb a mountain and surf some waves all in the same day, throughout the year.
The Santa Monica Mountains extend north nearly to Oxnard. The Pacific Coast Highway narrows throughout this rugged section of coastal mountains as it passes through other iconic destinations, including Malibu. And some of California's best state parks are within the Santa Monica Mountains, including Leo Carrillo and Malibu Creek State Parks, as well as Point Mugu State Park, with stunning ridge lines and great views of the ocean.
The mountains are easily accessible from downtown L.A., and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is an easy contender for a top 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 re-opened in 2019, as well as the many campgrounds throughout, and visitors are asked to respect any current closures.
Address: 26876 Mulholland Highway, Calabasas, California
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/samo/index.htm
Where to Stay in Santa Monica, California for Sightseeing
- For a decadent vacation in Santa Monica, Oceana offers a seaside escape on Ocean Avenue. With an excellent location minutes away from the beach, boardwalk, and downtown dining, the hotel provides a private enclave amid all the excitement. It offers 70 personalized suites with an elegant but breezy decor that matches the coastal vibe outside. The hotel offers several opulent amenities, including complimentary outdoor yoga, beach butler service, and a full-service spa. Two full-service restaurants are also available on-site.
- The laid-back luxury of the Santa Monica Proper Hotel is apparent the moment you walk into the well-lit living room that serves as the hotel's lobby. Here, the ocean breeze and bright sunshine highlight the cozy coastal-inspired decor that defines the hotel. This organic furnishing is also throughout the rest of the property, including the 271 rooms and suites. Alongside an undeniable style that speaks to luxury, other resort offerings include a rooftop pool, a full-service spa, and on-site ocean-view dining.
- The JW Marriott Santa Monica Le Merigot is another luxurious hotel with an excellent location. It's within easy walking distance of the beach, the pier, and the 3rd Street Promenade. Alongside its prime location, the hotel offers decadent places to rest and relax between adventures. Overnight accommodations include standard rooms and suites, all with views of either the city or the ocean. Two on-site restaurants entice guests and the public alike, one offering patio seating and the other featuring a full French-American menu.
- The Shore Hotel is one of the closest hotels to the Santa Monica Pier. And despite its prime location in the city, this hotel retains a moderate rate. The hotel also has an eco-conscious reputation as one of the few Gold LEED overnight accommodations available. A few of their sustainable initiatives include solar energy production, stormwater treatment, and in-room climate control. Each room also features an abundance of natural light and a balcony, and most rooms have clear views of nature or the ocean.
- In a quiet neighborhood only a few blocks from downtown, The Ambrose Hotel offers a more local feel to enjoy Santa Monica. It's close enough to all the tourist excitement but far enough away to relax after exploring. California craftsmanship presents itself throughout the hotel, including the stylish outdoor courtyard. Overnight accommodations range from traditional king rooms to luxury king studios with a personal terrace and fireplace.
- Across from Palisades Park and a short distance from the Santa Monica Pier, Ocean View Hotel also provides a fantastic stay at a more affordable rate. The hotel prides itself on its beach glamour-inspired aesthetics and coastal decor. This style is apparent in the welcoming lobby area and throughout all 67 rooms. Amenities that add to the comfortable stay include Nespresso coffee makers in each room, pillow-top mattresses, and ocean views.
- For budget-conscious travelers or anyone who enjoys a great deal, the Santa Monica Motel is always a popular choice. This stylish beach motel is just seven blocks away from the beach. It has an excellent reputation for cleanliness and customer service, adding to the overall value. Accommodations include single-queen rooms and double-bed rooms. Convenient amenities include free internet access and complimentary coffee in the lobby.
- Established in 1938, the Rest Haven Motel still offers affordable overnight rates. The motel features a collection of rooms and cottages, each with unique decorations and decor. The rooms are cozy and feature amenities like flat-screen TVs, fans, and internet access. When it comes time to explore the city, the motel is within a short drive or 20-minute walk to places like the 3rd Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier.
- Near the Santa Monica Pier, the Ocean Lodge Hotel offers one of the best hotel deals on Ocean Avenue. This popular budget-friendly hotel features 20 recently renovated rooms with a light and breezy coastal decor. Complimentary coffee and tea are available in the lobby throughout the day. Other amenities that add to the great value include free internet access and surfboard rentals.
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