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Los Angeles: A First Timer's Guide to Santa Monica

by Moderator February 2013 - last edited June

Santa Monica Pier at night courtesy Santa Monica CVB.jpg

Home to a mix of Hollywood execs, celebrities, surfers, skaters and young eco-conscious professionals, the coastal resort of Santa Monica is just 10 miles north of Los Angeles International Airport and our favourite place to stay when in town.

Not only is this city-by-the-sea 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 Santa Monica 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.

Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica © Maxine Sheppard.jpg
Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica © Maxine Sheppard

What to see and do

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 Cafe on the beach, or from the slick new 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.

 Santa Monica CVB.jpg
Santa Monica Pier © R. Landau / Santa Monica CVB

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.

Baile Oakes sculpture in Palisades Park, Santa Monica © ideowl.jpg
Baile Oakes sculpture in Palisades Park, Santa Monica © ideowl

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. Classic pre-war movie theatres are also a feature of Third Street, including the Criterion and 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.

Where to stay

Budget

Genuine budget options are somewhat hard to come by, but there are a couple of standouts. 1950s stalwart Ocean Lodge has an Ocean Avenue address with clean, air-conditioned rooms from $US120, while Seaview Hotel just a stone's throw from the pier has newly-renovated rooms from $US88. Retro courtyard-style Seashore Motel is two blocks back from the beach but a good choice for the great shopping, restaurants and coffee shops along Main Street - standard rooms from $US110.

Mid-range

One block from the pier, the Holiday Inn Santa Monica Beach has recently had a facelift and its spacious rooms and decent pool are a good option for families. Expect to pay around $US215 for a standard double room. Ivy-clad Hotel California has direct ocean access, a pleasant Spanish-style garden and bright, modern rooms with fridges, free wi-fi and flatscreen TVs from $US219.

© Hotel California Santa Monica.jpg
© Hotel California Santa Monica

Ocean View Hotel doesn't have the prettiest of exteriors, but the prime location, large sun-filled rooms and sunset views more than make up for it. Courtyard rooms start from $US219, Ocean View rooms from $US259. If you're after good looks, then make a beeline for The Georgian. This handsome turquoise-and-gold Art Deco hotel is bang opposite the beach and oozes 1920s vintage charm - rooms from $US254.

© The Georgian Hotel.jpg
© The Georgian Hotel

Luxury

Santa Monica is not short on top-notch hotels, with high-end rates to match. The grand Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows occupies a premier spot among tropical gardens on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, with king-sized rooms in the ten-storey Ocean Tower starting from $US359. Shutters on the Beach is a beautiful Cape-Cod style property opening out directly onto the sand. Truly relaxing, the hotel is more of a retreat than others in town, with calm beach house-style rooms from $US625, though promotional offers are often available. All rooms have balconies.

© Shutters on the Beach.jpg
© Shutters on the Beach

Gleaming glass-and-steel Shore Hotel on Ocean Avenue opened in October 2011 and has quickly won accolades with its contemporary styling and sustainable approach. Rooms start from $US365, with packages from $US299 at certain times of year. There's a round-the-clock buzz at Viceroy Santa Monica which wows guests with its emerald green and dove grey colour scheme, secret nooks and crannies and elegant poolside cabanas. City view rooms start from $US348*

© Viceroy Santa Moncia.jpg
© Viceroy Santa Moncia

Dining and shopping

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 soon to become even more accessible when the EXPO Light Rail arrives in 2015 to connect it to Downtown Los Angeles.

Third Street Promenade is the main drag for all the familiar faces of US retail, bookended at the southern end by upscale open-air mall Santa Monica Place, with the high-fashion boutiques of Fred Segal two further blocks away. There's more to Downtown than Third Street however - 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 opened early last year to wide acclaim, but be sure to book as far ahead as you can.

Third Street Promenade © Santa Monica CVB.jpg
Third Street Promenade © Santa Monica CVB

Main Street

One block back 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. Celebrity-favourite Euphoria loves Rawvolution is one of L.A's leading lights in the rawfood movement, or 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.

Virgin Atlantic operates two daily flights to Los Angeles from London Heathrow.

* looking for the Ultimate Honeymoon? Check out our full Viceroy Santa Monica review.

Header photo © Santa Monica CVB


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About the author: Maxine

Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.