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Los Angeles: A first-timer’s guide to Santa Monica

Home to a mix of Hollywood execs, celebrities, surfers, skaters and young eco-conscious professionals, the beachfront city of Santa Monica is just 10 miles north of L.A International Airport and one of our favourite places to stay when in town.

Not only is Santa Monica blessed with near-perfect weather and a phenomenal stretch of sand, it’s the ideal starting point for trips up north along the Pacific Coast Highway and an excellent base for exploring metropolitan L.A. But we mostly just love it for what it is: a laid back beach town with a sophisticated urban edge. If you’re looking for the quintessential Southern California lifestyle, this is exactly where you’ll find it.


Beach and outdoors

The vast expanse of state beach is the city’s own backyard and a major pull for visitors. Wide sands, pale blue lifeguard huts, volleyball courts and rolling surf create the perfect California vibe, backed by the South Bay Bicycle Trail – the world’s longest beach path – running north towards Malibu and as far as Torrance to the south. Rent bikes (or rollerblades!) from Perry’s Café on the beach, or from the slick Santa Monica Bike Center on 2nd Street, who also offer a selection of guided or self-guided tours.

Don’t miss the Annenberg Community Beach House just north of the Fairmont Miramar hotel. Opened in 2009, this brilliant beachfront facility is the only no-membership public beach house in the United States and hosts a packed calendar of cultural events and art exhibits in addition to its super-sized pool and sun deck, children’s play area, cafe, viewing deck and yoga classes.


Fun attractions

At the end of Colorado Avenue you’ll find the entrance to one of Southern California’s finest vintage seaside piers, now more than a century old. Santa Monica Pier is the biggest draw in town, visible for miles along the coast thanks to its famous LED-lit ferris wheel, the first in the world to be solar-powered.

The wheel itself forms part of Pacific Park, a small amusement park housed entirely on the pier; there’s also an old-fashioned arcade, a trapeze school and a classic 1920s wooden carousel for nostalgia-seekers.

Art and culture

Santa Monica is big on art and does everything it can to make it accessible to all. Yes, there’s the usual array of galleries and museums – more than 60 of them are scattered across the city, including the excellent collection at Bergamot Station Arts Center, the Frank Gehry-designed Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Ten Women co-operatives on Main Street and Montana Avenue. But what gives the city’s art scene its sparkle is an unwavering commitment to the creative economy, with major works of public art commissioned alongside the majority of development projects, including sculptures, murals, interactive and light installations, ceramics and photography.

For cultural pursuits of the performance variety, head straight to the Promenade Playhouse on Third Street Promenade, which hosts indie, mainstream and comedy productions, or to the Santa Monica Playhouse for family-friendly shows and musicals. Also a landmark on Third Street is the classic pre-war movie theatre Aero Theatre. Music fans shouldn’t miss the chance to experience one of the live acoustic concerts in the intimate, pared-down setting of McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Pico Boulevard, or catch some late-night blues, jazz and soul at Harvelle’s.


Downtown and Third street promenade

Santa Monica’s Downtown has long been considered one of the best in America, with its varied concentration of shops and restaurants easily accessible from downtown Los Angeles via EXPO Light Rail.

Third Street Promenade is the main drag for all the familiar faces of US retail, bordered at the southern end by upscale open-air mall Santa Monica Place. There’s more to Downtown than Third Street however, so head slightly further afield for gems like Hennessey + Ingalls art bookstore on Wilshire Boulevard, recycled fashion boutique Crossroads Trading on Fourth Street, and men’s streetwear emporium The Hundreds on Broadway – and don’t miss the twice-weekly Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Most types of cuisine are well-represented in Downtown; try Border Grill for a contemporary Mexican menu and great pisco sours or Hillstone for classic American burgers, pork ribs and salads. Innovative small-plate hotspot Tar & Roses is another of our favourites, but be sure to book as far ahead as you can.

Main Street

One block from the beach, Main Street is the eco-conscious heart of already progressive Santa Monica. Along with a sizeable collection of designer boutiques and vintage stores, many of Main Street’s businesses come with a ‘local’, ‘natural’ or ‘green’ label as standard, and have done for many years.

Check out Vital Hemp and Natural High Lifestyle for natural-fibre clothing and Mindfulnest for great accessories and gifts. There’s no shortage of coffee shops and juice joints either; we like Urth Caffe and Dogtown Coffee‘s organic roasts, and Main Squeeze‘s extensive range of cold pressed juices and smoothies.

Dining-wise, Main Street runs the gamut from the green and healthy to the truly indulgent. Still making waves is the coastal cuisine at Hinterland, best known for having Jonas brother Joe as a minority partner. At the other end of the spectrum try highly-regarded Lula Cocina for plates of superb, piled-high Mexican cuisine. Wolfgang Puck’s Asian fusion fine-dining Chinois on Main is the place to book for special occasions. There’s also a weekly Farmers Market with a street-festival vibe every Sunday.


Montana Avenue

Slightly further north, Montana Avenue is a posh tree-lined street with a residential feel, full of independent boutiques, bars, cafes, art galleries, bakeries, spas and gift stores. The ten block stretch between 7th and 17th streets is the main commercial district, not to mention the likeliest place in Santa Monica to spot a Hollywood celebrity or two.


Written by Maxine Sheppard

Image credits:

Santa Monica beach houses © iStock: stellalevi

Santa Monica pier © iStock: stellalevi

Santa Monica beach & pier © iStock: Anna Bryukhanova

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