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Santa Monica Pier
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Scott Trento

17 essential Santa Monica attractions

Find the best attractions in the beachfront city beyond just the Santa Monica Pier and Third Street Promenade

By Michael Juliano
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Surrounded by mountains on one side and the beach on another, the urban sprawl of Los Angeles seems to melt away as soon as you hit Santa Monica. This beachside city has a charm all of its own and is the essence of that classic postcard picture of Southern California—yes, including traffic. But we’re not here to complain about the 10 or PCH. Instead, we’re here to help you fill that coveted, less-trafficked window between morning rush hour and happy hour with a trip to Santa Monica’s most essential attractions.

RECOMMENDED: Discover more of the best things to do in Santa Monica.

The 17 best things to do in Santa Monica

Palisades Park, Los Angeles
Palisades Park, Los Angeles
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Palisades Park

Things to do Santa Monica

For stunning views of the ocean and Santa Monica Mountains, this bluff-top park along Santa Monica’s northern coast is the spot. It’s the classic image of L.A.’s coastline that lives in most people’s heads. You’ll find thicker crowds of tourists in the section by the Santa Monica Pier, so instead keep toward the northern Pacific Palisades-adjacent end, past the stately concrete sculpture at Wilshire and the colorful totem pole at San Vicente.

Go on a Santa Monica and Venice Beach bicycle ride.

Santa Monica Farmers’ Market
Santa Monica Farmers’ Market
Photograph: Courtesy Dane Deaner

2. Santa Monica Farmers’ Market

Shopping Markets and fairs Santa Monica

When you’re next sat in a local restaurant and feel tempted to ask the server where the incredibly fresh vegetables on your plate came from; don’t bother. We can save you the trouble and answer that for you: the Santa Monica’s Farmers’ Market, of course. The market takes place on Saturdays and Sundays in other parts of Santa Monica, the best day to pay a visit is Wednesday when it fills Arizona Avenue.

Find the rest of L.A.’s best farmers’ markets.

Savor the best bites of the city on a Downtown Los Angeles food tour.

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Santa Monica State Beach
Santa Monica State Beach
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Gerson Repreza

3. Santa Monica State Beach

Attractions Beaches Downtown Santa Monica

Running the length of Santa Monica itself, this huge beach is usually packed with people, but has a festive, summer-holiday feel to it. The main attraction is the world-famous Pier, and the biggest crowds can be found clustered around it. If you’re looking for a more relaxed vibe, stroll out as far as you can for quieter patches. There are bathrooms, bike paths and paid parking positioned along almost the entire stretch of beach.

Looking for more of L.A.’s best beaches?

Rent a bike and cruise Santa Monica.

Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica Pier
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Matthew LeJune

4. Santa Monica Pier

Attractions Historic buildings and sites Downtown Santa Monica

The center and focal point of Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica Pier is home to a whole host of different attractions. Pacific Park is a traditional fair with a roller coaster and Ferris wheel, plus plenty of fairground games, an aquarium and a classic carousel housed in the historic Looff Hippodrome. There are also regular outdoor music and film events hosted at the Pier, bringing a different, hipper crowd to the boardwalk.

See the Santa Monica Pier on a guided bike tour.

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Swings, rings and ropes south of Santa Monica Pier
Swings, rings and ropes south of Santa Monica Pier
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

5. The Original Muscle Beach

Things to do Santa Monica

Not to be confused with its showier Venice sibling, this workout playground for grown-ups has given Santa Monica’s biggest and burliest somewhere to sweat and strut their stuff for a century. On weekends, you’ll see some amazing gymnasts tackle the parallel bars, uneven bars and rings swings. Even with all that machismo, the vibe here stays friendly and no one will mind if you choose to get involved, or just sit and take it all in.

Stop by Muscle Beach on a bike tour.

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Tongva Park
Tongva Park
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Joshua L

7. Tongva Park

Things to do Downtown Santa Monica

What was once just another concrete parking lot has been transformed into a oceanside oasis of green space at Santa Monica’s Tongva Park. This idyllic and well-designed verdant space includes a playground, waterfalls, walking paths, meadows and a conch-like, wireframe lookout to the Pacific. Sneak over to Chez Jay at the corner of the park for a drink.

Relax in more of the best parks in L.A..

Aero Theatre
Aero Theatre
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Emily Mathews

8. American Cinematheque at the Aero Theatre

Movie theaters Independent Santa Monica

Temporarily closed.

The Aero Theatre has been in operation since the 1940, a history and legacy it flaunts with screenings of classic films and contemporary independent cinema. This Art Deco landmark also hosts special feature programs plus director lectures and appearances. The Aero is operated by American Cinematheque, who also programs the famous Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood—another venue film buffs should take the time to visit.

Catch a film at some of our other favorite movie theaters.

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McCabe’s Guitar Shop
McCabe’s Guitar Shop
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/

9. McCabe’s

Music Music venues Santa Monica

Concerts, in-person lessons, rentals and coffee are currently unavailable.

A revered guitar shop by day, stocked to the ceilings with rare and obscure guitars and other instruments, McCabe’s also has a cozy back room where performances are held in an intimate environment. Gigs are usually held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays but it’s a worth a visit just to gawp at the dozens of beautiful guitars hanging from the walls.

Santa Monica Camera Obscura
Santa Monica Camera Obscura
Photograph: Michael Juliano

10. Santa Monica Camera Obscura

Things to do Downtown Santa Monica

Temporarily closed.

This curious old optical contraption is a historical and offbeat place to catch your breath, whether you’re waiting for late stragglers to your dinner reservations or trying to find a quiet escape from the pier. Though the technology behind this rudimentary camera-like room is thousands of years old, it still feels like magic.

Have an hour to kill along Ocean Avenue? Take a step inside the Camera Obscura.

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Santa Monica Place
Santa Monica Place
Photograph: ARTYOORAN/Shutterstock.com

11. Santa Monica Place

Shopping Shopping centers Downtown Santa Monica

Located at the southern end of the Third Street Promenade, this revamped shopping center is packed with upscale department stores and designer boutiques from brands like Coach and Louis Vuitton. There’s nothing particularly notable about Santa Monica Place, but it’s a pleasant destination for some retail to-dos thanks to three floors of sophisticated shopping set around an open-air courtyard.

Santa Monica Stairs
Santa Monica Stairs
Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

12. Santa Monica Stairs

Things to do Santa Monica

Does your idea of a good time involve some serious aerobics and muscle burn? Well, get yourself over to these twin Santa Monica stairs that are a mecca for hard bodies and weekend fitness warriors. You can choose to ascend via either 199 concrete steps or 170 (wider) wooden steps. If it’s all a bit too corwded, jog over to Mesa Road and less well known La Mesa stairs. Blink and you’ll miss the narrow entryway wedged between 404 and 410.

Feel the burn at these other free L.A. workouts.

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13. Bergamot Station

Art Galleries Santa Monica

Home to a slew of different contemporary and fine art galleries, this artsy enclave is the perfect destination for cheap dates and lazy days. If the art doesn’t do anything for you, the edgy architecture, stylish café (housed in an old heater factory that serves meatloaf and mint lemonade), and fragrant stands of wild bergamot scattered about should amp up the atmosphere. And though a number of the galleries have shuttered in recent years, you’ll find fresh activity thanks to standout restaurant Birdie G’s.

Annenberg Community Beach House
Annenberg Community Beach House
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Joe Utsler

14. Annenberg Community Beach House

Attractions Historic buildings and sites Santa Monica

Pool and volleyball courts temporarily closed. Beach, playground and cafe open.

This modern community beach club was originally built by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s as an opulent beachfront estate for Hollywood star Marion Davies. These days, it’s very much open to the public. The five-acre beach house includes a recreation room for games as well as a swimming pool, sports facilities, a cafe and paddle board rentals. You can also take a sunset swim on select evenings during the summer.

Splash around in some other public pools throughout L.A.

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California Heritage Museum
California Heritage Museum
Photograph: Courtesy California Heritage Museum

15. California Heritage Museum

Museums History Santa Monica

Temporarily closed.

Step out of the sun and take in a bit of California history in a restored 1894 house. Though the house itself—devoted to the Victorian period—is worth a look, rotating exhibitions on topics related to the region are the real draw. The museum is at its busiest on Sundays, though only outside: It hosts the Santa Monica farmers’ market every Sunday morning.

Santa Monica Airport observation deck.
Santa Monica Airport observation deck.
Photograph: Michael Juliano

16. Santa Monica Airport

Things to do Santa Monica

It’s the oldest operating airfield in L.A. County (though slated to be closed and turned into a park by the end of the decade) and the birthplace of the Douglas DC-3. Originally called Clover Field, the Santa Monica Airport has developed over time into an arts incubator and is home to a number of creative venues housed in converted airplane hangars like Santa Monica Art Studios and the Ruskin Group Theatre Co.

Have an hour to kill near the 10 or the 405? Watch planes land up-close at Santa Monica Airport.

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Museum of Flying
Museum of Flying
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Alan Wilson

17. Museum of Flying

Museums History Santa Monica

Temporarily closed.

This small museum dedicated to the history of aviation moved into new premises at the Santa Monica Airport in February 2012. Inside you can learn all about the history of Southern Californian aviation companies including, Boeing, Lockheed, North American and Northrop with numerous exhibits and displays bringing the planes and their stories to life. Flight fans will love the carefully preserved static and flyable aircraft that call this place home.

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