15 Best Things to Do in Santa Monica (CA)

Written by Bart Meeuwesen
Updated on
Our travel recommendations are based on our personal experiences and research, written by locals and travel experts with deep familiarity with the destination. When you book a hotel or tour that we link to, we may earn a commission.

When it comes to coastal cities in California, Santa Monica is one of the more popular destinations for travellers seeking a wide variety of attractions and experiences.

Located on Santa Monica Bay only 15 miles from Los Angeles, this picturesque city of just under 100,000 people is mostly known for its pleasant climate and beaches.

The atmosphere around the city is a combination of vibrant and relaxed. These things, combined with the many top restaurants, shops, hotels, night clubs, and unique attractions, make Santa Monica an ideal base for your travels in Southern California.

There are several diverse shopping districts in the city, including Montana Avenue in the north, Main Street in the south, and the downtown district. Because the city is compact, it’s easy to get from one area to another on foot.

There are also several art galleries in Santa Monica, and various events and festivals are held throughout the year, including the Santa Monica Film Festival.

Below are 15 of the best things to do in and around Santa Monica, California.

1. Learn About Local History at the California Heritage Museum

California Heritage MuseumSource: Diane Grooms / Facebook
California Heritage Museum

Housed in a beautiful Victorian-era home known as the Roy Jones House, the California History Museum is a great place to start your adventure in Santa Monica.

During a tour of this museum, you’ll not only get to admire the unique architecture of the house itself, but you’ll also get to learn about local history through various exhibits showcasing artefacts, photos and documents.

There’s a permanent exhibit highlighting the history of the house and the Jones family and a number of temporary exhibitions are showcased throughout the year. On the Road, Broken Dreams and Art Quilts are just some of the past exhibits.

2. Spend a Day at the Iconic Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica PierSource: ESB Professional / shutterstock
Santa Monica Pier

A trip to Santa Monica isn’t complete without a visit to the iconic Santa Monica Pier. This beautiful pier has provided locals and visitors alike with a place to relax and be entertained in Santa Monica for over 100 years.

The pier itself is a great place to view the stunning sunsets, people watch, or stroll along the boardwalk while taking in the exciting vibe of the neighbourhood.

The immediate pier area is home to many services and attractions, including restaurants, cafes, and shops. Pacific Park is another attraction near the pier; it features an amusement park with rollercoasters, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and games.

The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, which is situated beneath the pier, features a variety of sea creatures that make their home in Santa Monica Bay.

Santa Monica Pier is also known for the many events held there throughout the year, including music festivals.

3. Kick Back Beachside at Santa Monica State Beach

Santa Monica State BeachSource: TierneyMJ / shutterstock
Santa Monica State Beach

While there are beaches all around the Santa Monica Area, none are quite as accessible and exciting as Santa Monica State Beach.

Extending almost four miles along the length of the city, this popular and beautiful stretch of sandy beach is where you can find the crowds on hot, sunny days. However, if you are seeking a quieter place to take a dip in the Pacific, there are more remote spots further down the beach that you can walk to.

Beach amenities include lifeguards, bathrooms, playgrounds, picnic tables, and wooden walkways. You can also rent bicycles and water sports equipment, and there are volleyball courts and chess tables on site.

4. Immerse Yourself in the History of Southern California Aviation

Santa Monica AirportSource: Michael Gordon / shutterstock
Santa Monica Airport

The Museum of Flying at the Santa Monica airport showcases the history of Southern California Aviation through a variety of exhibits and artefacts.

View historical artefacts and rare artworks related to flight. Learn how flight developed over the years and about aviation companies such as Boeing, Northrop, and Lockheed.

Admire the dozens of aircraft, including a replica of the Wright flyer and the nose of a Boeing 727. Try out the flight simulator for a more interactive experience.

Guided tours led by knowledgeable staff are available.

5. Sweet Rose Creamery

Ice CreamSource: oneinchpunch / shutterstock
Ice Cream

While ice cream parlours are a common sight in Southern California, Sweet Rose Creamery in Santa Monica is the only one serving homemade local ice cream treats in the greater Los Angeles area.

These delicious sweet treats, along with the toppings, are made on-site with local, organic ingredients. Choose from a variety of familiar flavours and unique ones such as sweet potato swirl.

6. Experience a Shopping Paradise on the Third Street Promenade

Third Street PromenadeSource: CYSUN / shutterstock
Third Street Promenade

The downtown district of Santa Monica is a vibrant and exciting place to be. Right in the centre of it all is the Third Street Promenade, a popular pedestrian shopping area spreading across four blocks.

Along this street lined with palm trees are numerous shops, restaurants, cafes, vendors, and nightlife venues. Street performers entertain visitors throughout the day, and several events are held on the street throughout the year.

7. Enjoy the Area’s Natural Surroundings and Scenery

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation AreaSource: Steven Guo / shutterstock
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the perfect route to take for a day-trip that combines a scenic road trip with an abundance of outdoor recreational activities in a pristine wilderness destination.

Enjoy views of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean in a beautiful area, where you can frolic in the waves and scale a mountain in the same day. Pass through well-known beach towns such as Malibu and Oxnard. Go hiking on the 500 miles of trails, and, if you don’t want to return to the hustle and bustle the same day, stay the night at one of the campgrounds.

You can also explore several state parks along the way, including Topanga State Park, Malibu Creek State Park, and Point Mugu State Park.

8. Browse the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market

Santa Monica Farmers' MarketSource: Gran Turismo / shutterstock
Santa Monica Farmers’ Market

As you approach the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, the first thing you’ll notice is the scent of freshly-cooked food filling the air. The second thing you’ll notice is the vibrant atmosphere. This long-standing market, which has been a tradition in Santa Monica for more than 40 years, has more than fresh vegetables on offer.

As you make your way through the market, you’ll see street entertainers and live cooking demos. You’ll be able to purchase a range of produce, baked goods, and freshly-cooked meals. The market operates throughout the year.

9. Bike the South Bay Bicycle Trail

South Bay Bicycle TrailSource: Idealphotographer / shutterstock
South Bay Bicycle Trail

Grab your bicycle or rent one in Santa Monica and head to Will Rogers Beach, where you’ll begin a 22-mile-long journey along the coast.

The South Bay Bicycle Trail is the longest oceanfront bicycle trail in the world. Witness beautiful coastal scenery and see iconic sites, including the Venice Boardwalk and the Venice Pier, as you make your way through several coastal towns.

10. Spend the Day at Annenberg Community Beach House

Annenberg Community Beach HouseSource: Mario RM / Flickr | CC BY-SA
Annenberg Community Beach House

Imagine the excitement of living in a California beach town in the roaring 20s, and add a luxurious Beach House and Club to the mix.

The Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica was once owned by the actress Marion Davis, and it was the place to be in those days.

Today, the vast grounds are open to the public, and many leisure facilities are on-site, including a swimming pool, café, and volleyball and tennis courts.

The Marion Davies Guest House, also situated on the grounds, features an art gallery. Free tours are offered.

11. Admire Fine Art at Bergamot Station

Bergamot StationSource: Joey Z1 / Flickr | CC BY
Bergamot Station

Once a railroad station but now a celebrated Art Complex, Bergamot Station is the perfect place to spend a rainy day browsing some galleries and exhibits. Inside this five-acre complex, you’ll see modern and classic art from all over the world.

Even the building is something to behold with its eye-catching architecture. At the end of your tour through the building, sit down to a hot drink and a sweet treat at the on-site cafe.

12. Try Some Hawaiian Cuisine at Sea Salt Poke

Poke BowlSource: Studio KIWI / shutterstock
Poke Bowl

Sea Salt Poke is a traditional Hawaiian restaurant serving Hawaiian cuisine with a focus on poke bowls.

You have the choice of building your own poke bowl, with a variety of ingredients to choose from, or you can order from the Chef’s Menu. All ingredients are fresh, and all the toppings and sauces are made on site.

13. Catch A Show at the Broad Stage

TheatreSource: thanasus / shutterstock

Since 2008, the Broad Stage at the Performing Arts Center in Santa Monica has provided locals and visitors alike with a unique and intimate venue in which to enjoy a wide variety of arts performances.

It’s the largest performing arts venue in the city, but it only has 500 seats, so you can bet on a cosy atmosphere. Theater, dance, musical, symphony and orchestra performances are among the events that take place throughout the year.

14. Grab a Healthy Meal at Pono Burger

BurgerSource: neil langan / shutterstock

When you think of burgers, you likely think of the unhealthy, greasy, fast-food variety. At Pono Burger in Santa Monica, you’ll find a different kind of burger.

Pono Burger serves a variety of healthy burgers and other items at lunch and dinner. All items on the menu are organic and made with local ingredients. The beef in the delicious, hand-crafted burgers is grass-fed only.

On the menu, you can choose from an assortment of items to go with your burger. Fries, sandwiches, milkshakes, and craft beer are just some of the items available.

15 Best Things to Do in Santa Monica (CA):

  • Learn About Local History at the California Heritage Museum
  • Spend a Day at the Iconic Santa Monica Pier
  • Kick Back Beachside at Santa Monica State Beach
  • Immerse Yourself in the History of Southern California Aviation
  • Sweet Rose Creamery
  • Experience a Shopping Paradise on the Third Street Promenade
  • Enjoy the Area's Natural Surroundings and Scenery
  • Browse the Santa Monica Farmers' Market
  • Bike the South Bay Bicycle Trail
  • Spend the Day at Annenberg Community Beach House
  • Admire Fine Art at Bergamot Station
  • Try Some Hawaiian Cuisine at Sea Salt Poke
  • Catch A Show at the Broad Stage
  • Grab a Healthy Meal at Pono Burger