There are plenty of things to do in Santa Monica, whether you're visiting solo or with family. This palm tree-lined, sunset-hued Californian city is more often seen on screens than in person, with far too many films and TV shows featuring the beachfront town's gorgeous scenery.

    More than a few of Santa Monica’s sights mark Hollywood history in ways you would never expect. You can find an aquarium sitting beneath a mini-theme park – excellent if you have kids in tow. Avid walkers and cyclists can explore every beach on the coast via a 21-mile bike trail or hike down a beautiful path with cliff-side views. Forget Baywatch – come to Santa Monica for Santa Monica.

    What are the best things to do in Santa Monica?

    1

    Santa Monica Pier

    A nostalgic and quintessentially American experience

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo
    • Budget

    Santa Monica Pier is an iconic sight from day to night. The sight of the Pacific Park Ferris Wheel lit up above the Pacific Ocean is very popular among photographers. You can take a ride and soar high above the waves. Did you know this is the only solar-powered Ferris wheel in the world?

    There’s plenty to do at Santa Monica Pier no matter the time of day. There's a historic merry-go-round dating back to 1916 and a rollercoaster that propels you over the waves. You can even find a vast arcade decked out with all the classics. Bring the kids and allow a few hours for this multisensory experience.

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    Location: 200 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

    Open: Daily from 10 am to 8 pm

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    2

    Santa Monica State Beach

    Look no further when it comes to Southern California beaches

    • Families
    • Photo
    • Budget

    Santa Monica State Beach is, in a word, expansive. Don't worry about finding the best place to spread out your blanket here – a good spot is virtually guaranteed even on busy summer days. Add to that the incredible sunset shining through the palm trees and you've got a beach that you won't soon forget.

    Downtown Los Angeles is so close that you can easily skip to the beach in your spare time. Even so, you might find yourself staying all day for surfing, swimming, and the abundance of facilities. This is the kind of place where the day doesn't have to end.

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    Location: Santa Monica State Beach, California, USA

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    3

    The Georgian Hotel

    Stay in a little slice of Hollywood history

    • History
    • Photo

    The Georgian Hotel is not only second-to-none when it comes to accommodation – but it is also a sight in and of itself. The Art Deco architecture evokes Tinseltown nostalgia, walking you back through nearly a century of LA history.

    If you choose to stay in the Georgian Hotel, you gain the luxury of being a stone's throw from several key Santa Monica attractions, like the popular Santa Monica Beach. There’s nothing like starting the night with a mixed drink on the veranda to your own private sunset view.

    Location: 1415 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

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    4

    Camera Obscura Art Lab

    Before the silver screen, there was the humble camera obscura

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo

    The Camera Obscura in Santa Monica is nothing less than a piece of 1898 art history. Much of what you see of history is reconstructed or renovated, but here, you can experience the photographic technology of the 19th century as it existed at that time. There's a small room with a white disk and a wheel, which you can use to steer the lens and mirror fixed in the turret above. The result is an image projected onto the disk.

    Think of the ingenuity it took to arrive at this point, and then the leaps and bounds that allowed the image to be captured. It’s fitting that such a monument should be located so close to Hollywood. Visit the adjoining Art Lab for a one-off art lesson during your visit. 

    Location: 1450 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

    Open: Monday–Friday from 9 am to 3 pm, Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm (closed on Sundays)

    Phone: +1 310-458-2239

    Map

    photo by Lorie Shaull (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified

    5

    Original Muscle Beach Santa Monica

    Train with legends at old Hollywood's de facto workout space

    • Families
    • History
    • Photo
    • Budget

    The Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica is a monument to the physical fitness boom of the 20th century. The Great Depression took opportunities away from many, so a space where Hollywood-adjacent cast and crew could train for free was a fortuitous convenience. Even so, no one foresaw it turning into a cultural phenomenon.

    Muscle Beach, a pun on the informal ex-moniker Mussel Beach, became a social hub where many famous people crossed paths and made names for themselves. The original gym is not there, but parallel bars and other stationary equipment ensure you can still work up a good sweat.

    Location: Ocean Front Walk, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

    Phone: +1 800-544-5319

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    6

    Marvin Braude Bike Trail

    See California on a long and winding bike trail

    • Families
    • Photo
    • Budget
    • Adventure

    The Marvin Braude Bike Trail, or the Strand, offers up a dozen-course meal of California beaches. Cycling on this 21-mile bike trail is a great way to sample every local neighbourhood while staying in shape.

    Note that this is a casual bike trail, so expect to take it easy and enjoy the sights. Most of the trail is paved and wide, so it’s fit for just about all ages and experience levels. Bike rental is available throughout the trail. Some of its most popular stops include Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach, Torrance, and Manhattan Beach.

    Location: Manhattan Beach, CA 90266, USA

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    7

    Heal the Bay Aquarium

    The slimy skin of starfish awaits

    • Families

    Heal the Bay Aquarium, also known as Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, is a modestly-sized aquarium with over 100 local species to see and learn about. Children will love this spot for the touch tanks, where they can run their hands over the bodies of starfish and jellyfish with knowledgable staff standing by.

    Fun and educational programs take place at the centre throughout the day, so make sure to check what's on offer before visiting. This aquarium is just a few steps away from the Santa Monica Pier and Santa Monica Beach, giving you the chance to have a whole day of activities without worrying about transport.

    Location: 1600 Ocean Front Walk, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

    Open: Daily from 12.30 pm to 5 pm

    Phone: +1 310-393-6149

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    8

    Palisades Park

    A vast green space on the Santa Monica beachfront

    • Families
    • Photo
    • Budget

    Palisades Park goes on and on – a narrow strip of land that extends for a mile and a half with panoramic views and beautiful scenery to spare. It might not seem like much, but you’ll be stopping often and walking slowly – that's the only way to take it all in.

    The first thing you'll notice when visiting Palisades Park is the trees. There are so many of such varying shapes and sizes that you may not even notice some of the beach views. Suffice it to say, this is a breathtaking place to spend an afternoon in Santa Monica.

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    Location: Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

    Phone: +1 310-458-8300

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    9

    Chez Jay

    The dive bar which is also a landmark

    • Nightlife
    • Food

    Chez Jay is that divine combination of a divey, unpretentious interior and delicious food. It’s hard not to have a good time here with its jovial and no-nonsense staff serving up unbelievable steaks and creative cocktails.

    The banter may be unpalatable to some, but that's only because, at Chez Jay, they know the food is gourmet even if the tablecloths are checkered. The confidence of this eatery needs no outside validation – just like LA. If you're looking for a piece of California's heart, Chez Jay is a place built on reputation alone.

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    Location: 1657 Ocean Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

    Open: Monday–Friday from 11.45 am to 2 pm and from 4.30 pm to 9.30 pm, Saturday–Sunday from 9 am to 1.45 pm and from 4.30 pm to 9.30 pm

    Phone: +1 310-395-1741

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    10

    Third Street Promenade

    A buzzing open-air strip near the beach

    • Shoppers

    Third Street Promenade sits just a few blocks back from the shore and offers an electric alfresco shopping experience. Los Angeles’ lovely balmy weather brings folks here in droves, only stopping the shopping to gawk at a street performer or catching up for coffee with friends.

    The pedestrian-only thoroughfare has got everything from fancy big-name boutiques to fresh farmer’s market produce and a bewildering array of knick-knacks. The popular Santa Monica Place lies at the upper end, from where you can beat the traffic going downtown by hopping on the Metro Expo Line.

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    Location: 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica, CA 90401, USA

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    photo by Cayambe (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    11

    California Heritage Museum

    A house where every piece of California has a home

    • History
    • Photo

    The California Heritage Museum is a place where all the multitudes of California intersect. Works by modern artists commingle with artefacts from a time when the territory spilt into Mexico, with plenty of Hollywood paraphernalia filling in the spaces between.

    Not many localities call for a museum celebrating the idea of itself, but California is one of them. The museum occupies a Victorian-style home from the turn of the 20th century, with no partitions or glass cases separating you from the culture.

    Location: 2612 Main St, Santa Monica, CA 90405, USA

    Open: Tuesday from 6 pm to 9 pm, Wednesday–Sunday from 11 am to 4 pm (closed on Mondays and Tuesdays)

    Phone: +1 310-392-8537

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    Benjamin Gorman | Contributing Writer

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