Recently Peter and I took a trip south to the Los Angeles area, spending time in both Santa Monica and Venice Beach, two quintessential SoCal coastal towns. We had three days to explore, by car, on foot, and by bicycle and were able to cram a boatload of activities into just those three days. Which is a good thing, as there is so much to see and do.
There are a lot of activities you could do in a weekend but I wanted to share the best things to do in Santa Monica and Venice Beach.
Both Santa Monica and Venice Beach are west of downtown Los Angeles and just north of Los Angeles International Airport, along the Pacific Ocean. If you are coming from Northern California or San Diego County, they are easily accessible via the 5 and 405. If you are from out of state, you are just a hop, skip, and a jump from LAX.
Because we drove, we had a car at our disposal, but one is not strictly necessary. Each town can be explored on their own by foot, and you can travel the 4 miles between the two by renting bikes (see below), walking, or using a taxi/Uber/Lyft. (Or if you are a Zipcar member, there are multiple locations in the area to pick up a car.)
We stayed at the Marina del Rey Marriott in Venice Beach and we only used the car to drive to dinner at night. We mostly walked or biked around.
So here are some of the highlights of our trip, what we saw and experienced, and where we spent our time. We hope that sharing will help inspire your next quickie vacation.
Things to do in Santa Monica
1. Muscle Beach
This is the original Muscle Beach, begun in 1933 by gymnasts and acrobats to have a place to train. Soon, athletes of all kinds were making their way to the oceanside venue and, in the 1950s, a weight pen was added and became a haven for bodybuilders and fitness buffs. Popular lore holds Muscle Beach as the “birthplace of the fitness boom.”
Today there is still a weight pen, numerous adult-sized exercise equipment (rings, parallel bars, balance beams, climbing apparatus, etc.), and a grassy area. You can even test your mettle on a rope climb or hone your swinging skills. We had fun just hanging out, drinking a smoothie and watching all the activities (with a bit of envy and awe). This is definitely on the top of things to do in Santa Monica, even if you’re just a spectator.
2. Santa Monica Farmer’s Market
California, the land of milk and honey and abundant produce. There’s no better place to witness the bounty of this West Coast state than at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. You can choose from the Saturday downtown location (featuring primarily organic fare) or Sunday’s Main Street/Heritage Square location. Both offer everything from soup to nuts…literally. You have produce, meat/poultry/fish/seafood, flowers, baked goods, as well as food vendors that offer a lot of options for breakfast and/or lunch. You can find Asian greens and Mexican cactus, scrumptious cinnamon rolls or French macarons, herbs and spices, as well as fresh eggs. The Sunday market also has music, arts and crafts, and activities for children, such as face painting and pony rides.
We went to the Sunday Farmers Market in Santa Monica and loved it. We were surprised by the amount of breakfast options they had.
3. Brunch at One Pico
Located within Shutters on the Beach (hotel), One Pico is the perfect place to have brunch. This upscale restaurant provides a beach view of Santa Monica that you can enjoy while having a nice mimosa or gin fizz and dining from their seasonal market menu. I loved their lemon ricotta pancakes, and their Eggs Benedict was done to perfection. Linger awhile and enjoy the view!
TRAVEL TIP: If you’d like something more casual, try their downstairs restaurant, Coast Beach Café and Bar.
4. Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica
What’s a vacation without a little shopping, right? I found the perfect venue in Santa Monica to be the Third Street Promenade. This upscale shopping and dining area is a far cry from the trinkets and fried food you’ll find along the beach or at the pier.
You can wander down the pedestrian mall and find high-end goods from Armani, clothing retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Anthropologie, Fred Segal and J. Crew, as well as small boutiques, bookstores, jewelers, and home goods. You can get a spa treatment, step into a nail salon for a quick mani or pedi, or take advantage of one of the many hair salons. Oh…and there is a Tesla dealership! If you can’t find it at the Third Street Promenade, they probably don’t make it. You won’t find a shortage of things to do here!
You also have the opportunity to take in a movie at one of three theaters, catch a concert in the evening, or watch an entertaining street performer. This is also where the Saturday Organic Farmer’s Market is held.
TRAVEL TIP: In Santa Monica, use one of the downtown parking structures for super affordable rates. We paid $O on our first visit and only $1 on our second!
5. Evening Visit to Santa Monica Pier/Pacific Park
Built in 1909, the pier was originally a promenade and popular fishing spot for locals. An amusement park was added in 1916 and lasted until the Great Depression. It was resurrected on a small scale in the mid-1940s but never became the destination it once was. In 1983 a full-scale renovation was begun that took almost a decade to complete, yielding what we have today: carnival rides, games, food, and a fun place to gather.
While you can actually go to Pacific Park at the Santa Monica Pier any time of day, nighttime is a very special time. The park, lit in neon and bright lights, resembles something out of Willy Wonka. All the rides, carnival games and food vendors are on glorious display and it’s a true feast for the eyes. The highlight for us was riding the Pacific Ferris Wheel, which afforded us a night view of both Santa Monica and Venice Beach. This is definitely a place to bring kids if you’re traveling with family. Peter and I brought my little sister here and she loved it. It’s on of the best things to do in Santa Monica for kids.
TRAVEL TIP: If you are here during the summer on a Thursday night, you can enjoy one of their free twilight concerts (7-10 pm).
Things to do in Venice Beach
1. Venice Beach Boardwalk
I never get tired of visiting boardwalks—Atlantic City, Coney Island, Santa Cruz—and the Venice Beach Boardwalk is no different. A bit more bohemian, and definitely with a laidback California vibe, but all the usual suspects can be found here. Street vendors, fortunetellers, chalk artists, restaurants, and food carts line the 1.5-mile Ocean Front Walk. You can get pierced or tattooed, get a healthy acai bowl or a greasy corndog, watch jugglers and skateboarders, there is something for everyone.
You’ll also get to see Muscle Beach Venice (not to be confused with the original in Santa Monica). Look for the gated area with all the weightlifting equipment and prepared to be in awe of some of the bodies and feats they perform here. There are even bleachers, so you can park yourself and get an eyeful!
TRAVEL TIP: Many of the performers along the Venice Beach Boardwalk are nothing short of amazing and entertaining, so be sure to bring a few dollar bills to reward their efforts.
2. Lunch at Simmzy’s
We loved this local pub. It has a great selection of craft beers on tap, ranging from 4.6% to 10% alcohol by volume, with some fun names like Smog City Hoptonic, 3 Weavers Kill the Lights Dark Lager, Noble Man’s Milk (stout), and Great Divide Espresso Yeti Imperial Stout. They also feature some locally made wines.
The food was wonderful, with most dishes tending toward American, Mexican or Asian flavors. We loved the grilled sweet corn, had a tasty shrimp, citrus & avocado salad, and devoured the Tuna Banh Mi.
TRAVEL TIP: This joint gets pretty busy, so go early for lunch or between meals after the rush.
3. Venice Beach Canals
Visit the Venice Canal Historic District. This area, located inland a few blocks between Muscle Beach and the Venice fishing pier, was built in 1905 in homage to the town in Italy of the same name. Quite popular when built, the canals fell into disrepair mid-century and some were filled in. A renovation project took place in 1992-93 making the neighborhood desirable again.
Today it is a quiet, lovely neighborhood with walking paths and bridges that allowed us to wander to our heart’s delight. We only wish we could have borrowed one of the homeowner’s boats and taken a ride through them the canals!
TRAVEL TIP: Check the local tide charts, as the canals look swampy and have very little water during low tide. You definitely want to go when they’re full!
4. Venice Beach Skate Park
If you’d like to witness some other athletic endeavors, head over to the Venice Beach Skate Park. We hung out around the perimeter of this mammoth man-made course that was filled with skateboarders of all ages. We witnessed them performing tricks, riding rails, maneuvering stairs, and doing some scary aerial stunts.
5. Enjoy Drinks at Sunset at Hotel Erwin Rooftop Bar
The Hotel Erwin, located a block from the Venice Beach Boardwalk, has the only rooftop bar in Venice Beach, appropriately named High Lounge. From this vantage point you can see out to the Pacific Ocean, which made it the perfect place to relax and have a drink at sunset. We hung out on comfy, padded lounge chairs and sipped cocktails while we watched the sun lower itself into the horizon, producing colors more beautiful than those of our drinks! Highly recommended sunset activity!
Biking from Santa Monica to Venice Beach (or vice versa)
A crossover activity, I suggest that you rent bikes at Venice Beach and bike your way to Santa Monica (or vice versa). Bikes are easily rented at several venues at both beaches; ours cost $7/hour per bike. Once you’re mounted up, take the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (aka The Strand), a paved path that meanders along the coast. The path itself is 22 miles long and runs from Will Rogers State Beach in the Pacific Palisades south to Torrance, but the VB-SM route is about 4 miles one way (20 minutes if you don’t linger at any of the beaches!). It’s a great way to enjoy the ocean and get a little exercise at the same time.
I’d also like to suggest that you make a short foray north to Palisades Park. This 26-acre park sits above the ocean on sandstone bluffs and affords some of the most gorgeous photo ops we had our whole trip. Wander through the rose gardens, check out the Camera Obscura, and head to the overlooks for a view of Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean. We promise you won’t be disappointed!
Last, but not least, don’t forget to dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean! The hot sun and warmer temperatures during the summer make a quick stroll along the ocean’s edge a very pleasant experience. The water itself is pretty cold, so full immersion is only for the brave (even the heartiest of surfers wear wetsuits year round).
I hope this list help you plan your weekend trip to these awesome coastal cities! Now you know what are the best things to do in Santa Monica! 🙂