What to do in Santa Monica, California

9 March 2017
Santa Monica is an essential destination for anyone visiting Los Angeles, offering some of the best features of Southern California in an easily walkable area. It boasts a beautiful beach, plenty of spots at which to dine, great shopping, and a world-famous amusement park to entertain the whole family.
 
The entrance to the Santa Monica Pier. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
The Santa Monica beach is most people’s idea of the perfect Southern Californian beach: it’s wide and flat, with soft sand, gentle waves and, looking north, an incredible view of the mountains. It also offers plenty to do beyond the ocean itself. Take a dip at the membership-free pool at Annenberg Community Beach House, or wander just south of the pier, towards Venice Beach, to check out the bodies at the original muscle beach, complete with monkey bars, tightrope and volleyball courts.  
 
The Santa Monica amusement park. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
The pier itself is the perfect place to take children; the rides offer something for most ages. Perfect for younger kids, the indoor merry-go-round is the first thing you see as you enter the pier – even if you don't buy a ticket, stop and take a look at the hand-painted carousel, built in 1897. The Gyro Loop ride would be ideal for pre-teens as you can control the tempo of the ride by hitting a button. The rollercoaster is also easily manageable for young children and anyone not looking for a white-knuckle adrenaline ride – this is an old-fashioned rollercoaster, with speeds to match. From the top, the rollercoaster offers amazing views of the amusement park and the beach beyond.
 
Elsewhere on the pier is a selection of arcade games of varying eras – lots of fun if you're nostalgic for games of the 1980s like Pac-Man or Mortal Kombat. Going even further back to the pre-digital age, the shooting gallery offers the chance to practise your aim, or you could get your fortune told by Zoltar the Magnificent machine, the same one that plays a key role in the Tom Hanks movie Big. The pier was built in 1901 and is the last remaining pier on the west coast, so is a real piece of American history.
 
A vege “burger” at True Food Kitchen, Santa Monica. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
 
After a morning spent on the pier or the beach, it's time to think about lunch. You really are spoilt for choice in Santa Monica. The area has some of the best sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, from the elegant Sushi Roku at 1401 Ocean Avenue, to more casual options such as Sake House by Hikari at 401 Santa Monica Blvd, which has daily happy hour specials.
 
While there are plenty of fast food options around Santa Monica, for a true taste of California check out classic healthy eating spot True Food Kitchen at 395 Santa Monica Place. The menu is constantly changing and offers plenty of options for anyone looking for tasty food that isn’t tough on the waistline. Los Angeles tends to influence the rest of the world when it comes to eating, and True Food is the ideal place to try tomorrow’s healthy food trends today.
 
The Santa Monica Place shopping mall. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
You'll find a huge variety of retail outlets, including designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Aesop, Camper and Bloomingdales, at the Santa Monica Place shopping mall, which underwent a $250 million renovation just a few years ago. Heading north from the indoor mall, the Third Street Promenade was one of the first pedestrianised shopping districts in the world and is today home to more affordable brands such as Gap, Urban Outfitters and Steve Madden, as well as street performers and quirky market stalls. Third Street Promenade also houses a 17,550 square foot glass-roofed Apple store for all your tech shopping and support needs.
 
If you're in Santa Monica on a Wednesday or Saturday, go for a wander through the farmers market at Arizona Avenue, which runs across the north end of the Third Street Promenade. The size and range of the fresh produce needs to be seen to be believed and the soft fruit is a must buy.
 
Onyx cocktail bar at dusk. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
One of Santa Monica’s best rooftop bars is at the top of the art deco Hotel Shangri-La, 1301 Ocean Avenue. The newly renovated Onyx has amazing views of the ocean and the pier, making it the ideal place to watch the sunset while sipping a cocktail. A few doors down is another art deco hotel, The Georgian, a true throwback to old-school glamour with its aquamarine paint job and neon rooftop signage; its streetside eatery The Veranda Restaurant is a great spot to spend a couple of hours people watching. 
 
The beach, with the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance. Photo: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
In some ways, Santa Monica is California in a nutshell – the beach, the beautiful people, the shopping, the mix of high-end Hollywood style and let-it-all-out hippy weirdness. If you're visiting Los Angeles with the family, then basing yourself in Santa Monica is a no-brainer: it's pedestrian-friendly, easy to navigate without feeling overwhelmed and features more than enough things to do (and places to eat) to keep the whole family happy.
 

Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

​​Rebecca Zephyr Thomas is a New Zealand born, London based photographer, illustrator and writer. Her work has appeared in publications including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the Wall Street Journal.