A First Timer’s Guide to Santa Monica, California

Santa Monica Pier with a Ferris wheel and backdrop of the beach and city

Santa Monica is the No. 1 place to go for anyone with a rosy, rom-com-like vision of a Los Angeles vacation. It’s a sunny, lively, visitor-friendly beach city that feels familiar even if it’s your first visit. Santa Monica is genuinely walkable and bikeable (a rarity in Southern California). It’s more urban than Malibu, more mainstream than Venice, and it boasts a picture-postcard beachfront lined with approachable, all-ages attractions.

Take a trip to Santa Monica and play on the famous pier, chill on the beach, and then continue enjoying the beautiful coastal scenery long after you’re done with the sand. Explore downtown Santa Monica’s shops, trendy restaurants and bars, pick up some fresh fruit at a farmers market and catch the sunset over the bay. 

Archway signage and palm trees at the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier, a top visitor destination
The entrance to the Santa Monica Pier (Photo by Gerson Repreza on Unsplash)

Another great feature of Santa Monica is that its top attractions are all close to each other. Downtown, the beach, a linear beachfront park and bike trail all converge at the entrance to the pier. This is the major hub of tourist activity in Santa Monica, and typically very crowded. If you want to break away from the herd, just take yourself on an ocean-view stroll through this ever-cool city. 

Santa Monica Pier

Attracting millions of visitors each year, the Santa Monica Pier is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southern California. With its illuminated Ferris wheel over the ocean, the pier is also an instantly recognizable icon, the backdrop of choice for local weather forecasts and filming location for many movies and TV shows. For example, “The Sting” (1973) was filmed inside the pier’s 1920s Looff Hippodrome with its vintage carousel ride, a National Historic Landmark. A memorable scene in “Forrest Gump” (1994) sees the title character pause his long-distance run at the end of the pier, having reached as far west as possible. 

A crowd of tourists in front of the Pacific Park amusement park entrance on Santa Monica Pier
Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier (Photo by Shrey Gupta on Unsplash)

The Santa Monica Pier’s place in pop culture gives it a nostalgic familiarity that adds to a sense of timeless, family-friendly fun. Join the crowds in slowly wandering along the pier’s 1,652-foot length, passing churro vendors, street performers, sit-down restaurants and the classic arcade games and rides of Pacific Park. You might find yourself involuntarily grinning, or holding hands with your sweetheart. Reach the fishing deck at the end of the pier, find a bench seat and enjoy some top-notch people-watching over the waves. On a clear day you get fantastic views of the coast and across the water to Catalina Island. 

Entrance is free to Pacific Park, “the west coast’s only amusement park located on a pier.” Buy individual ride tickets or an unlimited-ride wristband at a ticket booth. The park features a dozen rides including the famous Ferris wheel that carries you 130 feet above the ocean. There’s also a roller coaster, pirate ship, drop tower, shark-themed tilt-a-whirl and bumper cars. Try your luck at the midway games and then treat yourself to funnel cake.

A sign reading Santa Monica 66 End of the Trail located on the Santa Monica Pier
A sign marking the end of Route 66 on the Santa Monica Pier (Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash)

Don’t miss the fun photo op at the End of Route 66 sign, located near the entrance to the pier. The original Route 66 terminates in Santa Monica, 2,448 miles from its eastern end in Chicago. (Scandal! According to the Santa Monica Conservancy, the actual end of Route 66 is not on the pier but at a far less photogenic I-10 off-ramp.)

Santa Monica State Beach

The broad stretch of sand that flanks the pier and wraps around the bay is Santa Monica State Beach. The beach is a popular spot, but wide and long enough that it’s easy to claim your own section of sand. The state beach runs the full length of the city, over 3 miles, and features picnic areas, volleyball and basketball facilities, chess tables and iconic lifeguard towers. 

You can sunbathe, dip your toes in the water, watch the surfers, or get active with a walk or bike ride along beachside trails. The 22-mile Marvin Braude Bike Trail runs along Santa Monica State Beach, making it possible to ride north to Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades or south to Venice and through to Torrance County Beach. The bike trail and adjacent walking trail offer unrivaled views of the coast with surfing action and marine life as potential highlights. Note that Santa Monica State Beach is slated for surfing and beach volleyball at the 2028 Summer Olympic Games. 

The wide sands of Santa Monica State Beach with a boardwalk and bike trail seen from the Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica State Beach (Photo by Viviana Rishe on Unsplash)

Along the section of Santa Monica State Beach closest to the pier, look out for the “Original Muscle Beach.” Not to be confused with the better-known Muscle Beach in nearby Venice, this landmark dates to 1934 and features bare-bones equipment for gymnastics and aerobic exercise. You’re welcome to work out there for free.

Annenberg Community Beach House

Enjoy resort-like amenities free of charge at the Annenberg Community Beach House, a unique, city-run recreation facility that’s open daily to the public. A splash pad and swimming pool are open in summer, along with paddle board rentals and a viewing deck. Visitors are welcome to join a docent-led tour of the on-site Marion Davies Guest House. The lavish Georgian revival guest house was built in 1929 as part of a much larger property belonging to Marion Davies, early Hollywood movie star and mistress of William Randolph Hearst. 

Palisades Park

One of Santa Monica’s top destinations is Palisades Park, which starts at the pier and runs parallel to the beach along 1.6 miles of Ocean Avenue. The linear park features walking paths, grassy areas, a rose garden, public art and some interesting historic landmarks. Among those are a Civil War cannon, a circa-1920s totem pole, a Craftsman archway built in 1912 by the famous architects Greene and Greene, and a 1912 redwood pergola overlooking the California Incline. Throughout the park, take in postcard views of the beach and mountains. Some spots boast clifftop panoramas. 

A brown wood and stone building with a vintage sign reading Camera Obscura in Palisades Park, Santa Monica, California
The Camera Obscura Art Lab in Palisades Park (Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash)

Look for a weathered mid-century structure named the Camera Obscura Art Lab. It houses a historic camera obscura mechanism built in 1899 as a tourist attraction along an old streetcar route. The camera obscura has been open to the public in the recent past, but is currently closed. 

Heal the Bay Aquarium

Heal the Bay Aquarium is located underneath the Santa Monica Pier. Run by an environmental nonprofit, the aquarium has a mission to teach visitors about marine conservation through hands-on experiences and fascinating exhibits. Creatures representing more than 100 local species are on display, among them sharks, rays, crabs, octopuses, sea stars and urchins. Learn about the kelp forest ecosystems that thrive off the Southern California coast, home to the bright orange garibaldi, California moray eel and giant kelp fish. 

Check the aquarium’s opening hours before visiting – it’s currently open Wednesdays through Sundays from 12 to 4 pm. 

You might also like to read: Three Amazing Marine Life Attractions in SoCal

Third Street Promenade

For Santa Monica visitors who enjoy shopping, people-watching and plentiful dining options, Third Street Promenade is a must. This four-block, pedestrianized stretch of Third Street between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard – within easy walking distance of the pier – is always abuzz. In between browsing big-name and independent stores, you can sit outside and watch street performers or find a lively happy hour at a local bar. 

Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica in the evening
Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade (Photo by Piermario Eva on Unsplash)

The downtown retail and dining district in Santa Monica expands beyond the Third Street Promenade. If you want a less touristy vibe, just venture a block or two away. For more shopping opportunities, head to the Santa Monica Place shopping mall, which anchors the promenade. The open-air mall offers more than 80 stores over three levels along with rooftop dining. 

Farmers Markets

Santa Monica is home to three well-established farmers markets that always draw a crowd. If you’re visiting Santa Monica on a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday, be sure to check one out. 

The Pico Farmers Market, a favorite among local chefs and foodies, is on Saturdays from 8 am to 1 pm at 2233 Pico Boulevard.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 am to 1 pm, peruse the Downtown Farmers Market at 155-199 Arizona Avenue. The bigger Wednesday market has been a Santa Monica staple since 1981. It is one of the nation’s largest certified farmers markets with over 60 California farms offering fresh, often organic produce. 

The Main Street Farmers Market at 2640 Main Street is from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm on Sundays. The market was established in 1995 and has grown to around 40 farm stands joined by diverse retailers and live entertainment. 

More Things to Do in Santa Monica

If you want to go out to see a movie in Santa Monica, there’s no finer venue than the historic Aero Theatre. The intimate and dapper 425-seat theater was built in 1939 in the Streamline Moderne style. It’s since been renovated to offer modern comforts and technology. Classic and contemporary movies share space among the Aero Theatre’s showings. 

Among dozens of parks across Santa Monica, Tongva Park stands out for its proximity to the pier and views of the ocean. The park features walking trails, sculptures, a playground, and water features including a splash pad in summer. 

Want to delve into Santa Monica’s history? Visit the Santa Monica History Museum, open Thursdays through Sundays. The museum’s collection includes over 1 million items. It has permanent exhibits dedicated to the Tongva (the original inhabitants of the area that is now Santa Monica), the city’s 19th and 20th century heritage as a beach destination, its many movie and TV roles, the local arts scene and its aviation history. 

Planning a SoCal Vacation?

Take a look at our other first timer’s guides to other LA-area destinations such as downtown Los Angeles, Griffith Park and Hollywood.

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