There are more fun things to do in Santa Monica than you can hope to get to on your vacation. One of the top tourist destinations for people visiting Southern California, this modern, vibrant city by the sea attracts well over 8 million tourists each year. That’s why we created this list of things to do in Santa Monica – to help you prioritize what to put on your bucket list!
While Santa Monica is best known for the famous Santa Monica Pier and expansive beach, downtown Santa Monica begins where the pier ends. It’s clean, modern and you’ll find over 500 stores to shop at ranging from big name department stores to unique and trendy shops. You’ll also find gourmet restaurants, theatres, world class hotels, and an abundance of tourist attractions. The seaside paradise is in biking distance of Venice Beach and Marina del Rey which are also both top travel destinations. It’s also well served by the major traffic arteries to give you easy access to anywhere else you might want to see in Los Angeles.
While there are plenty of 4 and 5 star hotels, there are plenty of affordable budget hotels in Santa Monica as well. One of them that we mention in our post on How to Find Affordable Hotels by the Santa Monica Pier, one of them is directly across from the pier!
Here’s our list of the most fun things to do in Santa Monica
1. Go to the Santa Monica Pier
The world famous Santa Monica Pier is Santa Monica’s biggest tourist attraction. The pier is lined with arcades, shops, restaurants, cotton candy stands, and an amusement park midway out the pier for the kids. Known as Pacific Park, the amusement park features the world’s first solar powered ferris wheel. Near the entrance to the pier is the famed Looff Hippodrome that was built in 1916 and houses the carousel. The pier, Hippodrome an carousel were a key location in the 1995 movie The Net starring Sandra Bullock.
Under the pier near the Hippodrome is the Heal the Bay Aquarium. There are over 100 local species of marine life on exhibit, activities for children and educational programs.
The Santa Monica Pier is very photogenic, both when you are on the pier and when looking at it from the shore. We wrote a post dedicated to the best vantage points to get the best photos of the Santa Monica Pier! If you’re a travel blogger and also want some killer video I highly recommend the DJI Osmo Pocket Handheld 3 Axis Gimbal Stabilizer with integrated Camera. It can shoot professional, 4k video without the need of a tripod or stabilizer. Authorities on the pier are quick to run off anyone with camera gear that looks too professional and they might even fine you for shooting without a permit. They walk a tightrope between allowing tourists to take photos and making the pros pay for the privilege. You can get away with a DSLR now that so many people have them, but a tripod, stabilizer, monopod, etc can ruin your experience if only being told you and your gear have to leave.
2. Take a Selfie Under the Historic Route 66 End of Trail Sign
At the point where the Santa Monica Pier departs land and starts out over the Pacific Ocean, there is a sign making the end of the Historic Route 66. It reads: Route 66 End of Trail. It’s definitely worthy material to post to your Instagram account. As a note, Route 66 never made it quite this far, but its fitting that the historic marker be placed at the water’s edge.
3. Surf or Soak Up the Sun or Play Volleyball on the Santa Monica State Beach
The Santa Monica State Beach is 3.5 miles of pristine sand and ocean divided in half by the Santa Monica Pier. The characteristics and quite different on the north side and south side. To the south is vast sandy beach that you can walk onto from the city. North, there is a narrower strip of beach with the parking lots behind it, the Pacific Coast Highway and steep bluffs reaching up to Palisades Park and Ocean Ave. The south beach where the long running television show, Baywatch, was filmed.
4. Workout at the Original Muscle Beach
Muscle Beach is where the whole modern fitness craze began. Today Muscle Beach is more associated with Muscle Beach Venice, but the Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica is where it all started. It’s just south of the pier.
5. Grab Your Friends and be Life-Sized Chess Pieces at the International Chess Park
The International Chess Park is just a few steps from the Original Muscle Beach. It has a number of tables and benches with permanently affixed chess boards and a life-sized chess board. You can actually check out the chess pieces and play a game, or as the titles suggests, have your friends dress up and be life size-chess pieces for some great photos.
6. Eat at the Restaurant that Only Serves French Fries
As you depart the pier and head into the city, you’ll notice a permanent food truck called the Great American French Fries Co. The menu consists of two different types of french fries… and a lot of sauces. Why not give it a try. If the only food they serve is french fries, they must be good.
7. Revitalize Your Soul at Palisades Park
At the base of the pier, head north along the path at Palisades Park. The 26 acre park runs along the top of the bluff that meets Santa Monica Beach on the north end. The views of the ocean and the pier are breathtaking. Grab a bench, rest your feet, then walk along the path overlooking the Santa Monica Bay taking in the rose garden, enjoying the pavilion and drinking in the beauty.
8. Step INSIDE a Camera
Camera Obscura is in Palisades Park along the Pacific Coast Highway. There are a number of art programs and things to see and do there but the most unique is that you can step inside a real camera. It’s an old camera obscura and yes, it’s big enough to step inside it.
9. View the Pacific Ocean from Inside a Sculpture
Across the coast highway is Tongva Park with unique gardens, fountains, play areas for children and two modern art sculptures you can walk inside of and look out over the pier and ocean. It also provides a peaceful place to step away from the crowds and rest your feet.
10. Spot Celebrities at Ivy by the Shore
Ivy by the Shore is across Ocean Ave from Palisades Park. It’s a known celebrity spotting restaurant. But be warned, they’re not cheap! It’s located at 1541 Ocean Ave.
11. Stroll down the Third Street Promenade
The Third Street Promenade is a hip, cool and modern open air pedestrian shopping mall covering a few blocks of Third Street. Walk straight east from the pier for three blocks and you’re there. You’ll find your typical upscale brands mixed with unique local merchants, restaurants, bars, theatres, kiosks and street performers… all mixed in with some rather interesting art and fountains.
You’ll find more of the same on Colorado Ave, the street leading to the pier, Arizona Ave and the rest of the nearby streets, but the Third Street Promenade is the only one on which vehicular traffic is banned.
12. Enjoy Shopping and Celebrity Spotting on Montana Ave.
Montana Avenue is a ten block stretch where over 150 restaurants and shops are located. It has a quieter, more relaxed feel than the pier and downtown Santa Monica and is a favorite shopping ground of A-List celebrities. Montana Avenue gives a strong nod to Santa Monica’s small businesses which are what make its shopping experience so unique.
13. Shop for Fresh, Organic and Artisan Foods at Four Farmers Markets
Santa Monica has four different farmers markets each week. These are on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. In addition to the great food items, the markets hold live cooking demonstrations, cooked foods to eat while you shop and street musicians.
The Santa Monica Farmers Markets are:
Wednesdays: On Arizona Ave between 4th St and Ocean Ave from 8:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Saturday: On Arizona Ave between 4th and 2nd Streets from 8:00 – 1:00
Saturday: 2200 Virginia Ave from 8:00 – 1:00
Sunday: 2640 Main from 8:30 – 1:30
14. Appreciate and Shop for Art at Bergamot Station
Bergamot Station is an internationally renowned arts complex that is considered a must see cultural attraction for visitors to Los Angeles. The center houses about 30 galleries and creative businesses. The Center is open from 10 AM – 6 PM and 11 AM – 5:30 PM on Saturday, though the hours of individual galleries vary. You’ll need to hop in the car for this one. Bergamot Station Arts Complex is a couple miles away at 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90404, There is ample free parking at the complex.
15. Visit the Museum of Flying
The Museum of Flying has a number of aviation exhibits and flight simulators you can experience. It’s located at 3100 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, California 90405. You’ll need your car for this one too… and the rest of the Santa Monica attractions on this list. You won’t miss it, it is the building that has the DC-3 flying at its entrance. The Museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 5pm. Tickets are Adults: $10; Senior / Students: $8; Children ages 3-12: $6 and children 2 or younger are free. Parking is free.
16. Visit the Santa Monica Airport
If you visited the Museum of Flying, you’re already there. It’s the oldest operating airfield in L.A. County and the birthplace of the Douglas DC-3. Originally called Clover Field, the Santa Monica Airport has developed over time into an arts incubator and is home to a number of creative venues housed in converted airplane hangars like Santa Monica Art Studios and the Ruskin Group Theatre Co
17. Stroll through the Santa Monica Art Studios
The Santa Moncia Art Studios are individual artist studios within a converted old airplane hanger. Artists work their own schedules and the studios may or may not be open but since you are there, check it out. It’s the next hangar down from the Museum of Flying at 3026 Airport Ave.
18. Drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Malibu Pier
The Pacific Coast Highway is considered one of the most iconic scenic road trips in the United States. The stretch between Santa Monica and Mailbu has heavy traffic, but somehow you won’t mind. It will give you time to take in the sights. It’s a beautiful, scenic road along the beaches and beach homes and the Malibu Pier is one of my favorite spots.
19. Rent a Bike or Scooter and Ride The Strand to Venice Beach
A paved bicycle path known as The Strand runs along the beach from Will Rogers State Beach north of Santa Monica south for 22 miles to Torrance in the South Bay area. You can rent Metro bicycles from racks that are on it, or simply hop on one of the Bird or other e-scooters and travel along it south 2 miles to the funky Venice Beach Boardwalk and all of the attractions there. Or go just a bit farther to the beautiful, peaceful Marina del Rey. Venice offers as many things to do as Santa Monica, though the flavor of the the two towns is distinctly different. Where Santa Monica is clean and modern, Venice is funky and Bohemian.
Using this method of transportation spares you the traffic and parking hassles of taking a car the short distance between the towns. It’s also well worth riding The Strand with no destination in mind. It’s great exercise, with expansive beautiful views of the towns and the ocean.
We hope this roundup of all of the fun things to do and places to see in Santa Monica California make your vacation more more fun and memorable. Check our LA Tourist Attractions and LA Travel Guides categories for the best things to do in Los Angeles on your vacation.
More photos after the break…
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