If you’ve never been to Santa Monica before, you’re missing out. This coastal California city is best known for the amusement park rides on the historic Santa Monica Pier and the 3.5 miles of sandy coastline. But delve a little bit deeper, and you’ll quickly see that there’s so much more to Santa Monica than its most famous attractions.
This is Southern California, so it’s no surprise that many of the best Santa Monica activities take place outside. Whether you want to learn how to surf at Santa Monica Beach or take a bike ride along the 22-mile beachfront Marvin Braude Bike Trail, you’ll find endless ways to enjoy the California sunshine.
If art is your thing, you’ll find dozens of art galleries and art-forward community events at Bergamot Station, an abandoned warehouse district turned art and culture center. Or, if you prefer to spend your days shopping, the store-lined Third Street Promenade has got you covered!
Santa Monica is a city for food lovers. From hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints and casual cafes to upscale farm-to-table restaurants and trendy rooftop restaurants, there’s something to suit all tastes and budgets.
With so many things to see, do, and eat, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Santa Monica for you. Stick to these fun and unique Santa Monica bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time in this laidback beachside city!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Santa Monica, CA
1. Eat Fresh at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market
If you consider yourself a foodie (or you just like to eat food!), a visit to one of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Markets is a must on your Santa Monica bucket list. These markets take place in different areas of the city on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday and have been named as some of the best markets in the United States by Travel + Leisure.
The most popular (and largest) market of the bunch is held downtown on Arizona Avenue each Wednesday and Saturday from 8 am to 1 pm. This is one of the top Santa Monica attractions, and don’t be surprised if you spot celebrity chefs from all over LA shopping for farm-fresh ingredients for the night’s dinner menu.
Visit early, and you’ll find 75 farmers and artisans spread out over a four-block area. From local fruits, veggies, and honey to freshly-baked bread, artisanal cheeses, and a variety of handicrafts, you’ll love perusing all of the booths.
It’s the perfect place to shop for picnic supplies to bring to the beach or one of the many lush parks. But if you’re feeling peckish while shopping, rest assured there are plenty of booths hawking prepared and made-to-order meals, which you can enjoy while listening to live music.
2. Bike Along the Marvin Braude Bike Trail
Santa Monica is all about enjoying the great outdoors, and what better way to do it than by going for a bike ride along the Marvin Braude Bike Trail. Also known as “The Strand” and Los Angeles’ “most popular bike path,” the Marvin Braude Bike Trail stretches for 22 miles from Will Rogers State Beach to the north of Santa Monica to Torrance County Beach down south.
The trail is closed to motorized vehicles. But if you want to walk, run, bike, or rollerblade, the trail is open to you. Meandering along the entire Santa Monica coastline, the oceanfront Marvin Braude Bike Trail will take you to some of Santa Monica’s prettiest stretches of sand. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of bonfire pits, volleyball courts, popular surf spots, and picturesque picnic areas.
3. Spend a Fun-Filled Day at the Santa Monica Pier
The Santa Monica Pier is the city’s most iconic landmark and offers some of the top Santa Monica activities. Whether you’re traveling with kids or taking a trip with friends, you’ll find all sorts of entertaining things to do at this historic 1909 pier.
Be sure to take a ride on the West Coaster and the Pacific Wheel before checking out the historic merry-go-round, trying your luck at the carnival games, and playing games in the classic arcade. Plus, you’ll be endlessly entertained by all the street performers and the incredible trapeze artists flying high above the pier.
If you’ve got the time, the Santa Monica Pier is also home to the Heal the Bay Aquarium, where you can marvel at moray eels, sharks, and other sea creatures, while learning about the aquarium’s conservation efforts. Once you work up an appetite, fill up on tamales or churros at one of the kiosks or enjoy a leisurely meal at one of the pier’s multiple sit-down restaurants.
4. Peruse the Galleries at Bergamot Station
Bergamot Station is one of the most unique Santa Monica attractions and a must-visit for art and culture enthusiasts. This place served as a railroad station between 1875 and 1953. After being abandoned for some years, this space was entirely repurposed into the largest art gallery complex and cultural center in Southern California.
The eight-acre Bergamot Station is now home to dozens of galleries, shops, museums, and public art installations. This is also where you’ll find the Santa Monica Museum of Art! While Bergamot Station is a great place to visit year-round, you’ll definitely want to see what events are happening during your trip to Santa Monica.
Depending on when you visit, this space hosts everything from outdoor concerts, visual arts exhibitions, and theatrical performances to comedy shows, cultural events, and farmers’ markets. If you’re feeling hungry, you can dine on soups, sandwiches, and bowls at Bergamot Cafe. Bergamot Station is also home to Birdie G’s Supper & Cocktails, which serves up creative regional American fare.
5. Take a Surf Lesson at Santa Monica Beach
Take a look around, and you’ll quickly see that surf culture is deeply ingrained in this coastal California city. And whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a complete newbie, it’s safe to say that catching some waves is one of the most fun things to do in Santa Monica.
Don’t worry if you don’t have your own gear. You’ll find plenty of surf shops and rental places lining Santa Monica Beach. You can either paddle out on your own or sign up for a private or group lesson if you’re not quite sure what you’re doing.
Santa Monica may be small, but you’ll find small, beginner-friendly waves at the Santa Monica Pier and just off Bay Street. If you need to fuel up before you paddle out, grab a breakfast burrito or an acai energy bowl at the iconic Dogtown Coffee!
6. Shop Till You Drop at the Third Street Promenade
If you’re in the mood for some serious retail therapy, you’ll want to beeline it to the Third Street Promenade. One of the top Santa Monica attractions, this three-block, pedestrian-friendly area stretches from Broadway to Wilshire and is lined with some of the best shops and restaurants in town.
Even if you don’t feel like shopping, this is a great spot to people-watch and soak up the Santa Monica vibes. You’ll find everything from H&M to Gap here, as well as unique boutiques and specialty bookstores. For even more shopping, you’ll find the Santa Monica Place mall at the southern end of the Third Street Promenade.
The Third Street Promenade is also where you’ll find the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, which is an absolute must if you’re in town on those days. Don’t be surprised if you find a pop-up event, live music, or a whole slew of street performers when you visit!
7. Sip Cocktails With a View at a Rooftop Bar
When it comes to cocktail hour, take advantage of Santa Monica’s seaside location and find a bar with an epic view. After all – that’s how the locals do it!
Grabbing drinks at Élephante is easily one of the best things to do in Santa Monica. The cocktail menu features all sorts of creative concoctions – from the vodka, honey, and matcha tea-infused Off the Grid to the tequila, elderflower, and pistachio-filled Silk Road. Either way you go, you’ll love taking in the Pacific views while you sip and socialize.
For more ocean views, make your way to the iconic art deco-style ONYX rooftop bar, which is perched at the top of the Hotel Shangri-La and offers unobstructed Pacific views, making this a popular spot for spectacular sunsets.
For a more chilled-out vibe, The Bungalow at the Fairmont Hotel boasts a relaxed yet stylish terrace directly across from the beach. Cocktails, beers, and seltzers aside, the menu features a tempting selection of So-Cal-style bar bites. Think Spicy Fish Tacos, Carne Asada Fries, and Churros with Jim Beam whip cream.
8. Go on a Delicious Donut Walking Tour
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Santa Monica, why not embark on a fun and tasty donut walking tour? During this two-hour tour, you’ll be guided by a donut aficionado who will lead you to four iconic donut shops in Santa Monica. And yes, you’ll be sampling sweet morsels of goodness as you go!
Tours will take you to the famous Randy’s Donuts, where you can snap a selfie with the giant donut-shaped sign on the roof. The other three stops are top secret. You’ll get to sample classic flavors – like glazed and cream-filled – but rest assured you’ll taste flavor combinations that you’ve never heard of before, too!
Tasting aside, your guide will tell you all about the origin and evolution of donuts in Southern California, as well as the stories behind each shop.
9. Take a Bike Ride to Venice Beach
Venice Beach is right next door to Santa Monica, and it’s well worth spending at least a few hours, if not an entire day, in this bohemian beach town. The best way to explore Venice is on two wheels, so borrow a bike from your hotel or rent one from the many companies in Santa Monica and take the 20-minute bike ride south to Venice Beach.
There are tons of cool things to do in Venice Beach. Start your day with brunch at The Butcher’s Daughter before cruising around the iconic Venice Canals and checking out the area’s picture-perfect arched bridges and beautiful homes. After that, explore the Venice Beach Boardwalk and watch the skaters impress at the Venice Beach Skatepark and the bodybuilders work out at the outdoor Muscle Beach gym.
Make sure to take some time to cruise around Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which is lined with some of the best shops, restaurants, and street art in Venice Beach. Then end your day at High Rooftop Lounge! This rooftop bar is the best place to grab sunset drinks while taking in views of Venice Beach and the Pacific.
10. Take a Spin on the Historic Merry-Go-Round at the Looff Hippodrome
If you’re traveling to Santa Monica with kids, visiting the Looff Hippodrome is easily one of the most fun things to do in Santa Monica. You’ll find this National Historic Landmark on the Newcomb Pier (adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier).
This iconic building dates back to 1916 when it was brought to life by the famous carousel and amusement park designer Charles I.D. Looff. Its purpose was to hold the whimsical Looff Carousel, as well as a variety of carnival rides. Although the original Looff Carousel is long gone, it was replaced by a historic merry-go-round in 1954.
The current merry-go-round is still one of the top Santa Monica attractions, famous for its hand-carved wooden horses, intricate details, and 1,100 electric lights. Plus, after you take a whirl, you’ll have easy access to all of the roller coasters and carnival games on the Santa Monica Pier!
11. Check Out the Original Muscle Beach
Stopping off at the Original Muscle Beach is a must on any Santa Monica bucket list. Located right on Santa Monica Beach, just steps away from the Santa Monica Pier, this is considered to be the birthplace of the physical fitness trend in the US.
Not to be confused with Muscle Beach Venice, which got its start much later, the Original Muscle Beach has its roots in Santa Monica. This is the place where top athletes, stuntmen, gymnasts, and acrobats would train and show off their skills (and muscles) beginning in the 1930s.
This famous outdoor gym featured city-provided equipment, including weightlifting equipment used by the country’s most famous bodybuilders at the time. Today, the space is a fun, free fitness area complete with climbing ropes, parallel and uneven bars, and ring swings for acrobats and gymnasts.
Muscle Beach Venice was created as an homage to the Original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. Much like the original, Venice Muscle Beach features an outdoor space with everything from weightlifting equipment to acrobatic bars to rope climbing.
12. Play and Picnic at Tongva Park
Tongva Park is the perfect reprieve if you need to escape the hustle and bustle of the Santa Monica Pier. Plus, it’s a great option if you’re looking for free things to do in Santa Monica.
You’ll find this lush 6.2-acre park at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Colorado Avenue. While it’s just a five-minute walk from the pier, you’ll feel like you’re worlds away! The park is divided into four areas: Observation Hill, Discovery Hill, Garden Hill, and Gathering Hill.
Kids will love splashing around at the free splash pad and clambering around the playground and climbing wall on Discovery Hill, while adults will love enjoying a leisurely picnic at Fig Picnic Grove on Gathering Hill. If you’re in town on a Wednesday or Saturday, pick up your picnic supplies at the nearby Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on Arizona Avenue!
You’ll find some of the best Santa Monica attractions on Observation Hill, including the famous (and very Insta-worthy) steel cocoon-like sculptures, where you can take in epic Pacific Ocean views.
13. Fill Up at One of the Best Breakfast Joints in Town
Santa Monica is a city for foodies, which means you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to brunch and breakfast options. But if you’re looking for one of the best breakfast spots in town, you really can’t go wrong with Bru’s Wiffle.
The menu here is long, which means there should be something to sate everyone in your crew. If you want to sample some of their most popular dishes, order up one of the many variations of the chicken and waffles – think huevos rancheros topped with a fried egg, guac, and refried beans or the Nashville hot chicken and waffles with coleslaw and pickles.
Then there’s the Giant Housemade Biscuit Sando with eggs, fried chicken, cheese, and bacon or the Stuffed Cheesy Hash Brown & Crispy Chicken. There are plenty of creative sweet waffle dishes and french toast concoctions, too.
And if you’re in the mood for something lighter, go with the Housemade Granola Bowl or the Smoked Salmon and Avocado Toast. And be sure to wash it all down with one of their excellent smoothies or coffee beverages!
14. Splash Around at the Annenberg Community Beach House
Spending the afternoon at the Annenberg Community Beach House is easily one of the coolest things to do in Santa Monica. You’ll find this gem overlooking the north end of Santa Monica Beach near Palisades Park.
This cool Santa Monica attraction is located on the site of what was once a 110-room mansion built by William Randolph Hearst for actress Marion Davies. Although the mansion was demolished, the grand pool was repurposed and is now open to the public, as is the massive newly-built pool house.
This is a popular spot for families to splash around in the public swimming pool. There’s also a playground and splash pad for little ones. The adults in your crew will love joining in on one of the fitness classes, which range from yoga to beach volleyball. And if you want to get out on the water, you can rent stand-up paddleboards and get paddling!
15. Take a Hike in the Santa Monica Mountains
If you’ve had enough beachside fun and you’re craving something a bit more active, make your way into the spectacular Santa Monica Mountains. Here you’ll find 500 miles of trails perfect for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
The Los Liones Trail is an amazing trail if you want to be rewarded with epic views of the Pacific Ocean. This moderate, 4.4-mile trail takes about two hours to complete. But you’ll spot plenty of birds, wildflowers, and ocean views along the way. Alternately, the moderate, 5.6-mile Mishe Mokwa Trail will take you to an elevation gain of 1,371 feet, a vantage point that offers panoramic mountain and ocean views.
You’ll also find plenty of trails for all abilities at Will Rogers State Park and Topanga State Park, which are both tucked away in the Santa Monica Mountains. Whichever part of these beautiful mountains you choose to explore, you won’t be disappointed!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Santa Monica. What’s your favorite thing to do in Santa Monica?
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