Located on the sunny shores of the Californian coastline, Santa Monica is one of the best places to locate yourself if you are looking to explore Los Angeles and the surrounding areas.
Santa Monica is a beautiful place in its own right.
A laid back, surf-loving, culture-filled city that’s home to excellent restaurants and upmarket bars, Santa Monica really is the gateway to southern California.
By staying in Santa Monica, you escape the hectic nature of life in LA, but you’re close enough to visit the city whenever you please.
Hollywood is just a short drive away, as are the theme parks of Anaheim, while all along the coast – north and south – you can find some of the most iconic beaches and coastal communities in the United States.
There are many great day trips from Santa Monica, but here are the best ones to make during your stay in the city.
Venice is the next community along the coast to the south of Santa Monica and it’s one of the most iconic beachfront destinations in the Los Angeles region.
Venice has always been a resort town, and that tradition continues today as it welcomes tourists from across the world.
Most visit for the relaxed, chilled out beach vibe, the stunning, golden sands of Venice Beach and the long and always entertaining Venice Boardwalk, which is always a scene of vibrant and colorful performances.
If you fancy, you can even stop by at the famed Muscle Beach, where the strange sight of over the top bodybuilders will make for an interesting addition to your day.
The small city of Malibu stretches along a narrow but lengthy stretch of coastline that looks out over the Pacific Ocean.
This is movie star territory, as the beautiful vistas and relaxed atmosphere have attracted the rich and wealthy of LA out to this quieter spot.
The beach at Malibu is one of the best in California, and this protected area has long been a favorite for surfers looking to tackle the huge waves that can form offshore.
Be sure to visit the Malibu Lagoon and, if you want to see something different to endless beaches, then head inland to visit the Malibu Creek, a unique state park.
3. Point Dume
Carry on further north along the Pacific Highway from Malibu, enjoying the stunning views along the way, and you will soon reach Point Dume.
This is a distinctive, long cliff that stretches out across the sands.
The rock is a great place to rock climb while the beach itself is marvelous.
Point Dume also has a long association with Hollywood; you may recognize the beach or the cliffs from many older, iconic movies, such as Planet of the Apes.
Being so close to LA, it was for a long time a favored filming location.
4. Point Mugu
Another very distinctive promontory along the Pacific Highway to the north of Santa Monica is the beautiful Point Mugu.
This whole stretch of coastline is wild and rugged, windswept and weather-beaten, and the surrounding area forms part of the protected Point Mugu State Park, where there are fantastic opportunities for hiking, surfing, and many other outdoor pursuits.
Point Mugu itself a huge piece of rock that stands alone on the beach, its enormous size making it visible from miles and miles away.
Ventura is one of the oldest continually inhabited regions of California.
Local indigenous cultures were based here for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the late 18th Century.
The city’s old Spanish mission is still standing and can date its construction back to the 1780’s.
People are more likely these days to visit Ventura for the consistent surf conditions found along the shore, or for the beautiful beaches and surrounding nature.
6. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is another of California’s historic, Spanish-influenced cities.
Founded in the late 18th Century, the original mission can be explored, along with the distinctly colonial outlook of the streets and seafront.
History aside, Santa Barbara is found in dramatic surroundings, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the towering shape of the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains on the other.
It’s an excellent place to enjoy beaches, mountain hikes and to explore the great outdoors.
7. Los Padres National Forest
Close to the city of Santa Barbara is the magnificent wilderness area of Los Padres National Forest.
This protected area is home to some of California’s most untouched and wild scenery.
The forest covers a huge area of almost 3000 square miles.
All of it is pristine, overshadowed by mountain peaks that reach a maximum height of just under 3000 meters in some places.
It’s a truly unique place.
Being such a large area, you may find that one day trip from Santa Monica is simply not enough to really appreciate all there is to find here.
Hit the hiking trails, climb some peaks, and immerse yourself in the solitude of this spectacular national forest.
8. Channel Islands National Park
Found just off the Pacific coastline of southern California, the Channel Islands National Park makes for an excellent day trip from Santa Monica, and a beautiful escape from the densely populated coastline.
The huge diversity of the wildlife found on the five islands that make up the National Park – and in the surrounding waters of the Pacific – have led to UNESCO designating it as a unique biosphere reserve.
Visit these windswept islands to explore the natural flora and fauna found here.
You can dive, snorkel or simply boat around the islands.
Travel here in the right season and you may be lucky enough to see whales migrating past too.
9. Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina is found off the coast of California, to the south of Santa Monica.
Technically, the island is part of the Channel Islands, but it doesn’t fall under the protection of the National Park.
It’s easier to reach, however, and is more set up for tourism, being just an hour away from Los Angeles by ferry.
You’ll find it’s beautiful; full of unique wildlife to discover, but you’ll also find it’s the perfect place to enjoy a relaxed trip to the beach in the sunshine.
Visit Avalon Beach to experience incredible white sands, before taking a glass bottom boat tour of the colorful reefs that are found fringing the island.
Bakersfield isn’t usually on many tourist’s radars when they visit Santa Monica or the wider Los Angeles area.
It’s to the north and away from the coastline, but makes for an interesting alternative to beachside cities that form most people’s perception of California.
It’s a different way of life in Bakersfield, and the city is fast becoming a cultural hub, known in particular for its music scene that encompasses everything from rock and roll to country.
11. Los Angeles
Los Angeles, the big city.
It’s impossible to miss out on exploring this huge, world-famous city while you are staying in Santa Monica.
It’s a huge place – the largest city in California and the second largest in the entire United States.
There are hundreds of districts to explore, each with their own distinct culture, food, and attractions.
Of course, make sure to visit Hollywood, the home of film and television, visit the movie studios and movie sets, tour around the luxury houses of Beverly Hills and take a picture underneath the iconic Hollywood sign.
Anaheim is to the south of Los Angeles and has slowly been absorbed in the ever-expanding sprawl of the metropolis.
Anaheim should be visited for one reason only – to explore the thrills of California’s huge theme parks.
This is where Disneyland is found; the home of Disney and the modern American amusement park as it’s known today – with impressive sets, adrenaline-fueled rides and themed shows.
Even if you aren’t a real Disney fan, you might still find yourself caught up in the fun if you visit Anaheim.
13. Huntington Beach
Huntington Beach – just a short journey south of Santa Monica – styles itself as Surf City USA, because this is one of the legendary homes of surfing in California.
You can visit the Surf Museum to see how this Hawaiian cultural practice took over the world, and you can try your hand on the big waves if you dare.
The beach here is long and beautiful, while the Huntington Pier is a great place to take a seaside stroll.
14. Orange County
Huntington Beach is part of the huge Orange County area south of LA and it’s worth taking the time to explore much of the rest of the region, a place made famous worldwide by the TV show of the same name.
Santa Anna is the largest city in the county and it’s a fantastic place full of great restaurants, bars, and galleries.
There are plenty of famous beaches too, from Laguna Beach to Newport Beach, making it one of the most interesting parts of California to visit.
15. Angeles National Forest
The huge, sprawling urban center of Los Angeles suddenly ends to the north, where its progress is reined in by the high mountains of the Angeles National Forest.
This beautiful area of wilderness is so close to the city, but so far removed, making it an unmissable escape to the great outdoors.