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Santa Monica is the absolute embodiment of California culture. Health foods, sunshine and bohemian beach fashion are everywhere. My boyfriend had been there before and assured me I’d love Santa Monica. He was right! We stayed three nights in February as part of our three week California-Mexico trip. Despite being winter, each day was glorious and sun-soaked and Santa Monica formed some of the best memories of the holiday. If you’re looking for a base in Los Angeles and want to be beachside, I can’t recommend it enough.
Three days would be plenty, although my “do it in a day” suggestion is below too. If you’re not a shopper or sun-lover, you could sub a day with other LA sightseeing, like Hollywood Strip or Universal Studios. More on those another time. For now, here are my Santa Monica highlights!
Santa Monica Beach
The sandy shores of Santa Monica Beach span far and wide. Embrace the Pacific Ocean with a surf, swim or stroll before paying homage to Muscle Beach, which spurred the US fitness revolution from the 1930s. There’s some equipment if you feel like a work out, otherwise watch the talents of athletic types, circus folk and ordinary citizens. It was too cold to get in the water during our February visit, but people watching and having sand between our toes still felt pretty good.
Santa Monica Pier
It’s the most iconic feature of Santa Monica and you can’t miss it! Santa Monica Pier boasts a ferris wheel, rollercoaster, arcade, plenty of restaurants and a few stores. There are historical walking tours on weekends but I adore the atmosphere of carnivals after dark, and the Pier is perfect for an old-fashioned date night. We walked the length of the Pier one mild evening and rode the famous ferris wheel. To be honest, the ride was a bit disappointing as it only went around a few times and didn’t reach that high. But it sure was romantic to snuggle up and take in the night lights.
If you haven’t experienced American fair food, you can get your funnel cake fix or root beer float right here. If you prefer sit-down dining, restaurant options include Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Read more about the Pier here: http://santamonicapier.org.
Repeat after me… THIRD STREET PROMENADE. Every retailer you could ever want is in this glorious street and when I’m in the United States, that’s exactly what I want! This pedestrianised, open air mall spans about three blocks and features Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, M.A.C., Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Lululemon, Zara, Tiffany & Co., Free People and Anthropologie, along with Barnes and Noble, Paper Source and Papyrus. I literally spent an entire day here, stopping briefly in Starbucks to refuel around 4pm when my hotel buffet breakfast had worn off.
Most stores are open until 9pm so you can literally shop all day, all night. There’s also a movie theatre and plenty of dining options around too, along with a valuable set of public restrooms near Athleta. Click here for a directory of Santa Monica Place, and here for another broader list.
All that shopping is bound to leave you thirsty, so head to West 4th and Jane and sample the best local beers. It was this venue where my boyfriend and I first discovered “sours,” a type of beer that’s tarty and almost cranberry like. Staff kept replenishing the paddle with other feature brews while we played a fierce competition of Connect 4.
Cycle the Coast
Whether it was the sunshine or exercise endorphins, cycling along the Santa Monica coast was an absolute highlight of the trip. We rented our retro bikes from Santa Monica Beach Bicycle Rentals on 4th Street for US$15/each for the day (and yes, it’s right near the aforementioned West 4th and Jane pub).
From there, we cycled on the grass-lined, coastal footpath of Ocean Avenue before making our way down to the beach path. We continued at a leisurely pace past runners, families and tourists to another famous LA beach, Venice. Cycling was such a good way to take it all in, and we kept riding until Marina Del Ray (about 4 miles or 6 kilometres). Getting across the Marina looked like it’d take some time, so we turned around and had lunch in Venice.
There was a huge line outside Venice Ale House so we went to Simmzy’s, which had great online reviews and importantly: BEER. The daily selection was served to us on a skateboard (yes, a skateboard) and the food was great as well. We asked staff if we could try another round of beers and they were happy to oblige. I think we went a third round too. The cycle back was a bit wobbly but we survived.
ONLY HAVE ONE DAY?
Start with hiring bikes and cycle along the coast to Venice Beach. Try some beers and food, cycle back and check out Third Street Promenade. As the sun sets, head to Santa Monica Pier.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Santa Monica is about 30 minutes by car or cab from LAX Airport. Once you’re there, you can easily get around on foot. We relied on buses, trains and ridesharing to get us to other parts of LA as the Santa Monica Metro station was still under construction during our visit (it opened three months later, in May 2016).
WHERE TO SLEEP?
We stayed at the DoubleTree Suites on 4th Street, mostly because of its location. The hotel is 10 minutes walk to Third Street Promenade and 10 minutes walk to the beach. My boyfriend also had Hilton Honours Diamond membership, meaning we were guaranteed an upgrade, free Internet and free breakfast. We had a 10pm flight so baggage storage was also important to us, something not guaranteed with Airbnb.
Our king bedroom suite (US$250/night + 11% tax) was bright, spacious and while the style was a little dated, the fit out felt fairly new. The breakfast buffet was huge – cereals, breads, pastries, fresh fruit, cold cuts, hot items such as beans and sausage, and made to order omelettes. It was for this reason we hardly ate lunch during our stay! The gym was also near new (although I did most of my cardio on Third Street Promenade).
Staying in Santa Monica was a real insight into just how diverse LA is and gave me such a real appreciation for Californian lifestyle. Given flights between the US and Australia are so cheap lately, there’s a good chance I’ll be passing through this city again soon. I know where I’ll be staying!
QUESTION: What’s your favourite ‘hood in LA?