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17 essential Santa Monica attractions

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

Photograph: Ryan Vaarsi/Flickr

With the beach on one side and mountains on another, Santa Monica feels like a salt-air sanctuary carved into the LA coastline. Of course, Santa Monica is a separate city from Los Angeles—but we're not here to lecture about city borders. Instead, we're here to help you fill that time between rush hour and happy hour with a trip to Santa Monica's most essential attractions.

The best things to do in Santa Monica

1

Palisades Park

This bluff-top park along Santa Monica's northern coast affords stunning views of the ocean and Santa Monica Mountains—it's the postcard picture of LA's coastline that lives in most people's heads. Steer clear of the tourist and homeless-ridden section by the Santa Monica Pier and instead keep toward the Pacific Palisades-adjacent end, past the stately concrete sculpture at Wilshire and the colorful totem pole at San Vicente.

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2

Santa Monica State Beach

This big beach, which effectively runs the length of Santa Monica itself, is usually crowded and has a festive, summer-holiday feel to it. The big attraction is the Pier, and the biggest crowds follow in its wake; keep your distance on either side if you're looking for a more relaxed vibe. You can find bathrooms, bike paths and paid parking along nearly the entire stretch.

Looking for more of LA's best beaches?

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3

Santa Monica Pier

Considered the focal point of Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica Pier includes Pacific Park—a traditional set-up with a Ferris wheel and roller coaster—as well as an aquarium, fairground games and a charming carousel housed in the historic Looff Hippodrome. The Pier also plays host to a number of outdoor film and music events, bringing a hipper clientele to the boardwalk.

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4

The Original Muscle Beach

Not to be confused with its showier Venice twin, this playground for grown-ups has hosted the beachside city's burliest since the early '30s. 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.

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5

Third Street Promenade

A four-block pedestrianized stretch that runs down Third Street from Wilshire Boulevard to Colorado Avenue, Third Street Promenade is a pleasant but commonplace parade of mostly familiar names. The restaurants are ordinary, but the Wednesday morning farmers' market makes up for it.

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6

Santa Monica Place

Set on the southern end of the Third Street Promenade, this revamped shopping center contains upscale department stores and boutiques centered around an open-air courtyard.

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7

Santa Monica Farmers' Market

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The next time you're at a restaurant and tempted to ask the waiter where your astoundingly fresh beets came from—don't. We'll save you the trouble and answer for you: the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. While the market occurs on a couple of days (Wed, Sat and Sun) in various parts of Santa Monica, the best day to go is Wednesday along Arizona Avenue.

Find the rest of LA's best farmers' markets.

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8

Tongva Park

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Parking lots turned into parks—it's the latest transformation sweeping LA, and who could complain after setting eyes on Santa Monica's Tongva Park? This idyllic and well-designed ocean-adjacent oasis harbors a playground, meadows, waterfalls, walking paths and a conch-like, wireframe lookout to the Pacific. Artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's kinetic sculpture, Weather Field No. 1, anchors the park as a minimal, serene and instantly memorable landmark.

Relax in more of the best parks in LA.

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9

Santa Monica Camera Obscura

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This 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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10

Santa Monica Stairs

These twin Santa Monica stairs are a mecca for hard bodies and weekend fitness warriors. Take your pick between 199 concrete steps or 170 (wider) wooden steps. Too crowded? Jog over to Mesa Road and the more secretive La Mesa stairs. Blink and you’ll miss the narrow entryway wedged between 404 and 410.

Feel the burn at these other free LA workouts.

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