Explore Santa Monica Like a Local
When one thinks of California beach towns, images of Santa Monica may spring to mind. There are gorgeous sandy beaches dotted with palm trees, volleyball courts, and a bike trail that stretches for miles down the coast. Perhaps the most iconic emblem is the Santa Monica Pier with its famous sign, ferris wheel, and amusement park. I’m lucky to live in this amazing city and wanted to share some of what I enjoy as a local as well highlight some of the well-known sights.
The first spot most visitors head to is the Santa Monica Pier (built in 1909). Flashback to childhood and visit the pier’s famous wooden carousel, which is from the 1920s. As the painted horses go up and down and the music plays, you’ll be transported to another time. The ferris wheel is another classic ride, although this one has been updated. It is solar-powered, and at night it glows with a dynamic light show of colors and patterns. The views of the coastline are stunning as the ferris wheel’s gondolas rise up over the ocean. During summer there’s a weekly Twilight Concert series on Thursday nights. In fall, grab your popcorn and enjoy The Front Porch Cinema on Friday nights.
Say the name ‘Muscle Beach’ and most people will think of Venice Beach, but actually Santa Monica is home to the original Muscle Beach. It’s on the sand just south of the pier and what remains are gymnastics rings, parallel and high bars, balance bars, and other equipment. Kick back and watch some of the amazing aerial feats performed by the regulars, or perhaps you’ll give it a try yourself. The rings have an especially passionate group of devotees that nimbly fly to the delight of onlookers.
If you want to stay away from the bustle of the pier but still want to enjoy the view, Palisades Park is perfect. The park runs along Ocean Avenue, atop the bluffs overlooking the ocean. The view may look familiar; many movies have been filmed here. It’s a beautiful place to take a walk and people watch.
Santa Monica happens to be home to the largest grower-only certified farmer’s market in Southern California. It’s every Wednesday on Arizona Blvd. in Downtown Santa Monica. You’ll see many chefs in their distinctive jackets collecting the freshest produce for their restaurants.
For shopping, Montana Avenue has a quieter neighborhood charm than the better-known Third Street Promenade. Located in a residential area, it’s where locals shop and meet friends for a meal, coffee, or healthy smoothie. You’ll also see people with their yoga mats running off to class. One of its most unique spots is the Aero Theatre, a flashback to a time before multiplexes and stadium seating were the norm. The Aero shows films from all eras, but the best part is that they sometimes have well-known filmmakers or actors speak after the film. If you want to see Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca on the big screen, this is the place to do it.
California is known for its fertile farmland and grows some of the tastiest fruits and vegetables in the world. Santa Monica happens to be home to the largest grower-only certified farmer’s market in Southern California. It’s every Wednesday on Arizona Blvd. in Downtown Santa Monica. You’ll see many chefs in their distinctive jackets collecting the freshest produce for their restaurants. Perhaps you’ll even run into Wolfgang Puck, like I once did. Be sure to talk to the farmers, who are more than happy to share about what’s in season and what’s distinctive about their farm. You’ll also come across heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that you’ll never find in a supermarket.
The produce from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market is featured at many of Santa Monica’s farm-to-table restaurants. Breakfast and lunch are served at Huckleberry Café, which bakes its own fresh pastries and bread. Care to try a California-style pizza? Both Milo & Olive and Stella Barra pride themselves on their farm-fresh fare. For an upscale dinner, Tar & Roses specializes in dishes highlighting organic sustainably-farmed ingredients. For dessert, try Sweet Rose Creamery’s hand-crafted ice cream made with organic ingredients and fresh fruits and nuts from the farmer’s market. They also feature seasonal flavors.
After eating all the delicious food, you may want to work off the calories. Santa Monica offers a cornucopia of athletic options. It’s the beach, so take full advantage and swim or play volleyball. Rent a bike or roller blades and ride down to Venice Beach (or if you’re really adventurous, the bike path goes all the way to Redondo Beach). If yoga is more your speed, Santa Monica is home to a multitude of yoga studios. For an extra special class, get on the sand and try Beach Yoga with Brad. But if you really want to exercise like a local, try the Santa Monica stairs. They are always bustling with dedicated exercisers. Not only will you get a great workout, but you may even see some of the quirky personalities. I’ve seen people with their dogs, babies, and even carrying a log. But the quirkiest was a well-known actor’s brother who goes up and down on his hands—yes, in a handstand! One tip—don’t overdo the stairs or you may find yourself sore the next day.
After eating all the delicious food, you may want to work off the calories. Santa Monica offers a cornucopia of athletic options. It’s the beach, so take full advantage and swim or play volleyball. Rent a bike or roller blades and ride down to Venice Beach
Santa Monica isn’t just a beach town. There’s a vibrant arts scene ranging from public art to galleries and theater. Bergamot Station is a popular arts center where you can visit many galleries in one complex. More recent additions to the Santa Monica cultural scene are The Broad Stage and The Edye (both in the same complex). The Broad Stage hosts theater productions, dance, opera, musicals, and orchestra. The Edye is a black box theater that presents innovative theater, music, and dance.
If you want to end your day with a fancy drink and a beautiful view of the sun setting over the ocean, there are a few hotels that have postcard-perfect views. If you crave vistas from up high, The Penthouse at The Huntley is perfect. It’s on the 18th floor and boasts a stunning panorama. If your preference is to be at the sand, both Shutters on the Beach and Casa del Mar have picturesque options for a cocktail or a bite.
Santa Monica offers a unique blend of beach town and vibrant small city. From its famous landmarks and tourist sights to the lesser-known gems, there’s something for everybody. I hope I’ve given you some ideas to both play tourist and enjoy some local spots.