With its world-famous beach, shopping promenade, and fair-like pier, it’s no surprise that tourists flock to postcard-worthy Santa Monica. The coastal city is fringed by lush Palisades Park, and offers spectacular views overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The iconic Santa Monica Pier attracts fun-seekers of all ages with its amusement park and aquarium, while the stylish Third Street Promenade boasts a range of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. Whether you’re staying in Santa Monica or want to take a day trip from LA, there are plenty of things to do in the destination that National Geographic named one of the Top 10 Beach Cities in the World.
Though Santa Monica may be small—the city is less than 2 percent the size of neighboring metropolis LA—it’s home to 8 different districts, each with their own unique personality.
Thanks to shopping centers like Santa Monica Place and the Third Street Promenade, Downtown is perhaps the most vibrant district in Santa Monica. While the area claims the highest concentration of restaurants, shops, and hotels, the twice-weekly farmers’ market lures locals in search of fresh produce and artisan goods.
Bursting with quaint galleries, international eateries, and the highest number of coffee shops in town, Santa Monica’s Main Street gives off the laid-back vibe that’s come to define the city. Its boutiques offer something for everyone, from high-end vintage goods to handmade candles and soaps.
As the cultural center of Santa Monica, Mid-City is home to Bergamot Station, a facility housing one of the largest contemporary art collections in Greater LA. Mid-City also boasts some of the city’s best fine dining options, including 2-Michelin-starred Mélisse.
Though this section of Santa Monica is largely residential, you can find more than 150 shops and restaurants lining its charming, tree-lined streets. Just a short walk from Downtown but with a vibe that feels removed from the bustle, this is the ideal spot to peruse luxury clothing and beauty boutiques.
The artsy atmosphere of Main Street is matched in Ocean Park, an area made up of funky galleries, hip boutiques, and independent coffee shops. East of the neighborhood is the Santa Monica Airport, where you can find old-school aircraft and artifacts at the Museum of Flying.
With its cool record stores, ethnic eateries, and live music venues, Pico is perhaps the freshest and most diverse neighborhood in Santa Monica. Nearby Santa Monica College and an influx of striking street art only add to its youthful spirit.
The Santa Monica Pier—Santa Monica’s most iconic attraction—dates all the way back to 1909 and features the Pacific Park amusement park, a solar-paneled Ferris wheel, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, and a vintage carousel. Along palm-tree lined Ocean Avenue, you’ll find a number of unique hotels, open-air restaurants, and sophisticated lounges.
Running from the shore of Santa Monica through the heart of Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard is one of the best-known streets in the city. It’s home to a variety of designer consignment shops and restaurants catering to every palate, especially those with a love for Mexican cuisine. The strip ends at picturesque Palisades Park, famous for its breathtaking sunset vistas.
Scope out stunning views of the Pacific with a leisurely stroll along Ocean Front Walk or soak in the sunset during a Segway tour at twilight. For even more spectacular scenery, take your sightseeing to new heights with a private airplane flight that takes you up along the coast over the Malibu Hills.
If you prefer to keep yourself firmly on ground, embark on a tour to discover the area’s art scene, from colorful street creations to contemporary galleries. On a guided bike tour from Santa Monica into Venice, see eye-catching murals and intricate graffiti, or lead yourself through the galleries at Bergamot Station.
A visit to Santa Monica wouldn’t be complete without an afternoon spent at the Santa Monica Pier. Home to iconic Pacific Park, the destination offers fun for the whole family, including a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, carnival games, and food such as hot dogs, popcorn, and cotton candy. The educational aquarium brings you into an underwater world with more than 100 local species and hands-on exhibits, while the trapeze school near the end of the pier can teach you how to fly high like an acrobat.
If sand and surf are more your speed, you’ve come to the right place. The golden stretch of Santa Monica State Beach is an ideal spot for sun-worshipping, while the Original Muscle Beach has bars, rings, and ropes free to be used by outdoor exercise enthusiasts. If you’re looking to take to the waves, try a surfing lesson with a private pro.
Of course, there are plenty of shopping and dining options in Santa Monica, as well. Relish an array of well-known brands at Santa Monica Place and the Third Street Promenade, or shop local at the trendy boutiques along Main Street and Ocean Park Boulevard. For something especially unique to the city, make your way to the pier for a visit to the Route 66 Last Stop Shop. Here, where the legendary highway ends at the sea, find American-made goods dedicated to the route’s history.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head out for a food tour to uncover the tasty California treats and international eats that can be found throughout the city. Come nightfall, hit the town for cocktails at any of the bars, clubs, or lounges along Ocean Avenue.