At the southern end of the USA’s famous Route 66, you’ll find Santa Monica, a city within the wider conurbation of Los Angeles. Santa Monica has everything going for it; it’s surely LA’s most walkable district, it has good shopping, it’s right on the beach and it’s just a 30 minute cab ride from LAX. If you’re choosing where to stay on a visit to LA, look no further!
The first time I visited LA was at the end of my coastal drive down from northern California. We stayed in central Hollywood, right on the Walk of Fame but despite the glitzy zip code, it was difficult to explore because in LA you always need a car to get anywhere. So this time when I would be without the car, I chose Santa Monica.
I visited in late October and wanted to stay by the beach so I chose the comfortable DoubleTree by Hilton Suites. They are are a couple of blocks back from Santa Monica pier on Olympic Drive and 4th Street.
Having landed late Friday night, I was determined to make the most of this visit which meant an early start on Saturday. I’d forgotten quite how warm it would be in LA (it was mid 20s in late October) and on top of that, LA was experiencing a 38 degree heatwave. Having just finished 3 weeks of travel in colder climes, my case was full of hats and jumpers. Not to be deterred, I picked out my running gear and trainers and set off to the pier. If there’s one look you can’t really fail here, it's 'athleisure-wear' – there are so many health freaks here!
Enjoying every single ray of late autumn sun, I took a ten minute stroll down to Santa Monica’s most famous landmark, the pier. Stepping on to the board walk, I was greeted with the familiar childhood smell of fresh popcorn as the sound of buskers of all varieties. From pan pipes to the fiddle, to crowds of people applauding some guys covering the Chain Smokers. Every busker had a poster directing you to their perfectly curated Instagram profile. Stardom in the making.
There’s a mix of touristy stalls and shops and Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company (inspired by the film Forrest Gump). On a cloudless, sunny morning listening to a busker playing sax, there’s no better way to feel relaxed.
When you reach the end of the pier, look ahead and you’re greeted by the views over the clean, rippling blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and the touches of a gentle sea breeze. Turn back and you’ll have the classic view of the Ferris wheel on the pier (which I recently discovered is actually solar powered). North of the pier you can see Palisades Park, a palm tree-lined park in between Ocean Avenue and the sea with views over the beach. I decided to walk over and take a stroll in the shade.
This 1.5 mile park strip is on top of the coastal sandstone cliffs above the beach, with views over HWY 101 and the sea so it has lovely views. Your walk is shaded by classic Californian palms as well as pine trees towering overhead. You can walk all the way from the pier, following the coastline until road bends inland before a creek.
You can’t stop yourself people watching here. Whether they’re power walking or running, or working out on the beach, it’s quite clear that wellness is a big trend here. Many fitness trends started here, including Spinning, birthed by fitness guru "Johnny G" Goldberg in the early ‘90s. Muscle Beach is no exception; from ridiculously strong guys swinging from hoop rings to joggers and cyclists, it’s enough to inspure anyone to join a gym. Or move here.
All this fitness suited me fine. After over indulging on my travels before this visit, I was craving a dose of exercise. And some expensive, vegan, superfood fare. If you’re after some clean living, you’ll find it in LA and certainly in Santa Monica. I had an amazing protein bowl with black beans, quinoa and turkey picante with the most amazing coconut and ginger green tea at Tocaya Organica and followed that up with some frozen yoghurt (there aren’t any calories in fro-yo, surely?)
Because it’s so easy to wander around in this compact and diverse city, you need to know that it’s made up of several districts. I walked for hours just enjoying the warmth on my back, and the changing streets.
If you have time to spend here, I’d say the golden rule is to just keep walking and see where it takes you. Every block brings a change; as one district peters out, another begins, often different in character.
I wish I’d done this myself, but every Saturday at 10am they offer a 2 hour Santa Monica walking tour that takes you through the city’s architectural sights – that’s one for next time.
If you’re after shopping, head to the car-free Third Street promenade. There are all the usual big name brands and one of the largest Converse store where you can get your trainers personalised. The pedestrianised street is full of performers and there’s an upbeat, outdoorsy vibe that adds to that feeling that you’re on holiday. It’s a good place to get an iced coffee and sit in the sun and watch life pass by.
2 blocks back from the sea, Main Street heads south from the pier area and definitely warrants some exploration. You’ll find hipster coffee hang outs like Dogtown Coffee, where you’ll find exactly what you’d expect from the LA scene; local, organic, micro-roasted coffee and healthy/vegan/gluten/free options. There are plenty of cafes and eateries to choose from during the day whether you’re after sushi or steak.
Continuing south on Main, you’ll walk past a green space full of flowers and veggies – Santa Monica’s community garden in between Strand and Hollister. Around here I spent a few hours just browsing in little boutiques with everything from cactus accessories to pyjamas, jewellery to stationery and names like ‘Hiptique’ should say it all. There are lots of places to get Spa treatments along main street, with manicures and pedicures for under $40, if you're feeling like a treat.
As you walk, the architecture gives way to a red brick-built style and a completely different vibe. It feels like it becomes less hipster and more family-orientated as you come across the Saturday Farmers’ Market near the California Heritage Museum. I had a snoop round the market and there is a wide selection of jewellery, handmade ceramics, lovely bags, plants and succulents and plenty of coffee, juice and pies too. Keep walking and beyond the junction with Ashland, you’ll come across trendy thrift stores full of second hand and vintage finds and I saw the nifty mobile boutique Beautiful Things LA (a shop on a bus) parked up here too.
If you’re here for a weekend when it’s hot, it will be HOT. Pack casual. Bring your shorts and Birkenstocks or sandals, or don your running gear and trainers and you’re good to go. Santa Monica is really close to the LAX airport (30 minutes’ drive), so unless you literally have an overnight layover that warrants a stay in an airport hotel (in which case I recommend the Custom Hotel by the way) - you should consider coming out to Santa Monica. Join everyone else who’ll be down on the pier to catch a sunset over the Pacific, then take yourself off for a drink or some dinner at any one of the popular farm-to-table establishments in the city.
If you’re visiting the USA or planning an LA stopover and want to know where to stay in Santa Monica, we can help. This area is absolutely ideal for families with the beach, parks, shops and healthy eating on tap. We can tailor-make your USA holiday to include LA and any destinations you choose; LA is a common stopover en route to New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific Islands. Simply call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.