The drive to Santa Monica requires a time investment and patience no matter where you're coming from. In the midst of that eagle-eyed determination to defeat traffic, it's easy to overlook one of the most unique attractions right in the heart of downtown SM: the camera obscura. The old optical contraption is a historical and offbeat place to catch your breath and enjoy a view of one of the best beaches in LA, whether you're waiting for late stragglers to your dinner reservations or trying to find a quiet escape from the pier.
Enter the recreation center on Ocean Avenue at Broadway. Don't let any heated bingo games fool you—this is the place.
You'll need to leave your ID with the greeter in exchange for a key. The wait shouldn't be longer than a few minutes—if there's any at all—so head up the stairs to the camera obscura.
Walking into the room with the lights on is a bit like experiencing a broken down Disneyland ride. The century-old contraption, which has sat attached to the rec center since 1955, only sparks to life in the dark.
The projection of the Santa Monica beachfront looks static and ordinary until an agave stalk or a palm tree sways in the breeze, and suddenly the ancient technology is brought to life.
Natural light squeezes in through a not-so-small pinhole in the ceiling, where it bounces off a mirror and projects an image from outside into the darkened chamber.
A turn of this wheel—be gentle—technically focuses the projection, but we found it more effective at pretending to be a pirate.
The plate can be a bit dusty and the image fuzzy, but on a bright day the projection pops with enough detail to spot passing birds and beachcombers.