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How to spend a day in Santa Monica, LA’s trendy seafront neighbour

From retro 1940s movie theatres to beachside art, Los Angeles’ coastal sidekick is more than worth a side trip, says Ellie Seymour

Thursday 15 September 2022 09:32 BST
The beachfront mini-city of Santa Monica, California
The beachfront mini-city of Santa Monica, California (Santa Monica Travel and Tourism)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Our microguides series is inspired by the slow travel movement, encouraging travellers to relax their pace and take a deep dive into one particular neighbourhood in a well-loved city. Rather than a whirlwind itinerary that aims to hit up every must-see attraction, these compact, close-up guides encourage you to zone in, take your time and truly explore like a local.

In the past, Los Angeles’ neighbour Santa Monica was seen as a sleepy beach town, with a sprinkling of grungy motels and roadside rest stops. It was a place UCLA students, artists and surfers could live cheaply, a spot that people overlooked in favour of cooler Venice and Malibu. Drivers on the Pacific Coast Highway would pause for a bite to eat and a rest before continuing straight onwards.

But today – since the rise of LA’s version of Silicon Valley in neighbouring Culver City and the Expo Line Metro extension linking it with Downtown LA – Santa Monica has grown into a slick coastal destination in its own right, with a distinct personality that makes it worth a side-tour from La La Land. Most people also aren’t aware that it’s a city in itself. It attracts sea-salty surfers, road-trippers and well-heeled urbanites alike.

Alongside Santa Monica’s beach scene, famous pier, historic dive bars and old-school motels, there are exciting new designer and independent shops, upscale restaurants and design-led hotels, plus cool cocktail bars to discover.

Street art in Santa Monica
Street art in Santa Monica (Santa Monica Travel and Tourism)

Things to do

Beach-hop by bike

It’s easy to walk around Santa Monica but it’s more fun to hop on a bike and skim along its 22-mile paved beachfront track, which meanders from Pacific Palisades in the north to Torrance in the south. It’s officially called the Marvin Braude Bike Trail but locals call it The Strand. Stop off along the ride for a picnic, a cooling dip in the Pacific or a lively game of volleyball.

Join a yoga session

Another way to enjoy the sands like a local is to sign up for a memorable Beach Yoga SoCal class right by the waves. Classes take place on Santa Monica’s beach, by lifeguard tower 26. Standing in mountain pose while the Pacific tickles the shore in front of you, the breeze in your hair, working out has never felt so good.

Take in some art

There’s no need to go into Downtown LA to get your culture fix when you can visit nearby Bergamot Station Arts Centre. Built on former railroad land north of downtown Santa Monica, this is the setting for 30 globally renowned private art galleries, including the influential Danziger photography gallery and Skidmore Contemporary Art, a big supporter of emerging artists. Stop by the modest Bergamot Cafe for a refreshing iced tea on the terrace.

Visit a retro picturehouse

Santa Monica has several cinemas but none more beautiful and nostalgic than the single-screen Aero Theatre, which opened in 1940 and still has its original ticket booth at the front. It’s still going strong today, thanks to a loyal local following, and specialises in arthouse films and documentaries, many projected in 35mm. 

Annenberg Community Beach House
Annenberg Community Beach House (Santa Monica Travel and Tourism)

Where to eat

Back on the Beach

Family-run Back on the Beach cafe has the dreamiest location, on a quiet, sweeping stretch of sand next to the historic Annenberg Community Beach House, a public venue set on a historic estate built in 1929 with Hollywood connections. After a dip in this historic house’s marble-clad pool, grab a seat at the cafe’s sandy terrace. It’s existed on this spot for 40 years and is a firm favourite with both locals and visitors in the know. The portions are generous, and the three-tiered lemon-hazelnut-meringue cake is a must-try.


Don’t miss dinner on the cool rooftop of the Santa Monica Proper Hotel, at its glam Calabra restaurant. Its curvy, earth-toned, plant-filled design, along with the panoramic views of Downtown Santa Monica to the beach and a Cali-Mediterranean fusion made with ingredients from the Santa Monica farmers’ market, attract a well-heeled crowd each weekend.


A former chapel with a neat front lawn is the setting for Tartine, a light and airy bakery and cafe. All the baked goods and dishes are so easy on the eye that it’s hard to choose what to have, but also impossible to go wrong. It’s a good place to pick up edible souvenirs like bags of coconut macaroons.

Tar and Roses

The service and food are impeccable at Tar and Roses, a stylish yet low-key neighbourhood favourite that hasn’t given in to the lure of expansion, despite its local success. The oxtail dumplings alone are worth walking in this direction. They melt in the mouth and will change your view on both oxtail and dumplings forever.

The retro Aero Theatre
The retro Aero Theatre (Santa Monica Travel and Tourism)

Where to drink

Chez Jay and The Backyard

Jay Fiondella passed away in 2008 but his tiny roadside bar-come-steakhouse, Chez Jay – complete with neon sign – looks as it did when it opened in 1959. Grab one of the seven tables or a stool at the bar and join in with the banter. Alternatively, follow the sound of live music to the buzzy back terrace.

The Bungalow

Hidden on the swanky Fairmont Miramar Hotel grounds is The Bungalow, a cool SoCal-style beach house bar. It’s filled with vintage finds like slouchy leather sofas, faded rugs, retro lamps, surfboards and photographs of bygone California. Order a hot dog and a margarita and kick back by the fire pit outside.

Santa Monica Brew Works

Opposite the new MGM offices is the city’s first and only brewery. The Santa Monica Brew Works does dozens of specialty beers as well as five core brews, which a craft ale-loving crowd gather to enjoy in their tasting room and beer garden. The 310 California Blonde Ale is the bestseller, designed for year-long summer vibes.


If you like a cafe that cares less about the latest hipster decor and more about quality coffee, Demitasse, near the Third Street Promenade, is your place. It’s inviting and laidback, with friendly staff and baristas who blend the best coffee in town. The cinnamon rolls are just too good, and they also do a great breakfast.

The Bungalow
The Bungalow (Santa Monica Travel and Tourism)

Where to shop


A browse around Burro will fuel your secret desire for a cool South Californian aesthetic at home. Shelves are lined with lust-worthy coffee table books celebrating surfing and the art of the American West. Rails are filled with flannel checked shirts, 1970s-style kaftans, denim shorts and stylish beach accessories like Mexican beach blankets.

Santa Monica Antique Market

America does outdoor flea markets like no other. If you plan your Santa Monica trip around either the first or fourth Sunday of every month, you’ll experience one of the best in the country when Santa Monica airport becomes the setting for the Santa Monica Antique Market, featuring hundreds of stalls selling everything from vintage Native American jewellery to couture fashion.

A playfully cool boutique hotel
A playfully cool boutique hotel (Palihouse Santa Monica)

Where to stay

Sea Shore Motel

For a quintessential American roadside experience, book a room in this powder-pink family-run motel. It’s affordable and well located (on buzzy Main Street) for shops and restaurants, as well as being just a block from the beach. Rooms are plain, simple and spotlessly clean. Doubles from £125, room only.

Palihouse Santa Monica

A playfully cool boutique hotel in a 1927 landmark building (formerly The Embassy Hotel Apartments), Palihouse sits in a residential area a couple of blocks from the beach. It has a lush garden, a courtyard and a lobby with a roaring fire. The best rooms are spacious suites with kitchens; there’s free coffee in the lobby each morning and bikes for hire. Doubles from £245, room only.

Getting there

Trying to fly less?

Occasional cargo ships go from Europe (Le Havre, Rotterdam) to Houston, Texas, from where you can take multiple trains to reach Los Angeles and travel onwards from there to Santa Monica.

Fine with flying?

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United and American all have direct flights from London.

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