Onto a shore thing in splendid Santa Monica
It is easy to peer at a map of that portion of California’s sun-soaked coastline where Los Angeles spreads out, and assume that you are looking at one enormous metropolis. This area, however, is home to many distinct and individual cities and none of them are more distinct or individual than the oceanside enclave of Santa Monica.
Sometimes referred to as ‘California’s Most Celebrated Beach City’, Santa Monica is just that; a little city, with a big beach, surrounded on three sides by Los Angeles – and yet is separate from it. Santa Monica’s fourth side is, of course, framed by the Pacific Ocean – making it a vastly famous destination for those who want to enjoy a holiday within earshot of rolling waves.
At a compact 8.3 square miles, Santa Monica is a simple place to explore on foot or by bike and, from 2016, the incoming Expo Light Rail will connect downtown Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, allowing easy travel between the beach and the city in just 46 minutes. Santa Monica even offers shuttles for those who want to explore Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland Resort, just 1-1.5 hours away.
It has been listed as one of the ‘Top 10 Beach Cities’ in the world by National Geographic and it is easy to understand why Santa Monica earns such high praise. It boasts 3.5 miles of soft sands at the water’s edge – making it a haven for everyone from surfers and sunbathers to families seeking a few days of relaxation and couples who want to stroll in each other’s company. There is an iconic appearance to the seafront too, with the much-photographed Santa Monica Pier jutting far out into the breakers, awash with attractions.
And wherever you wander, you are guaranteed to find something that intrigues you. Santa Monica can loosely be split into eight distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own atmosphere and appeal: Downtown Santa Monica and Third Street Promenade (for shopping and restaurants), Santa Monica Pier & Ocean Avenue (the fantastically fabled seafront), Main Street (cool bars and trendy cafes galore), Montana Avenue (celebrity hang-outs and discreet luxury), Mid City (great art galleries), Ocean Park and Santa Monica Airport (an arty sibling to Los Angeles’ Venice Beach), Pico Boulevard (music and clubs) and Wilshire Boulevard (gateway to the big spaces of Los Angeles).
Gazing at the sumptuous view of the Pacific Ocean that is along the full length of Ocean Avenue. From boutique retreats and sophisticated temples of high style.many of these hideaways are located alongside or very close to the beach. Everybody can find their perfect retreat.
Of course, for those who wish to enjoy a few nights in the lap of luxury, then they can certainly do so in Santa Monica. The city is home to a number of hugely celebrated hotels, such as Shutters On The Beach which is a member of The Leading Hotels Of The World and which has been a five-star icon since it opened its doors within splashing distance of the Pacific tide in 1993. A discreet option for the Hollywood film set, it also revels in gourmet cuisine at its signature restaurant One Pico and at Coast Beach Cafe & Bar. Nor is it alone. Immediately next door, the Hotel Casa del Mar is equally respected: a grand place which started life as an exclusive beach club back in 1926.
Fresh flavours and healthy food in the restaurants of Santa Monica
Santa Monica is a place where travellers can really treat their tastebuds to the finest of fare and the most delicious of dinners – without worrying about the effect on ones waistline. Here is a city which puts an emphasis on fresh foodstuffs and local produce, with ‘farm to table’ cooking prevalent in the many restaurants and eateries, as well as in the markets.
The farmers market is a crucial element of the Santa Monica food scene. Four markets are held every week – two on Arizona Avenue in the heart of Downtown (Wednesday and Saturday), one on Pico Boulevard (Saturday), one on Main Street (Sunday); mini-events so popular that respected publication Travel + Leisure has listed them among the top ten markets in America. Foodies can find just about every foodstuff here, from fresh vegetables to fine wines, with over 200 producers displaying their wares. The busy stalls are a magnet for everyone, from locals doing a quick shop and visitors keen to join the fun, to professional chefs seeking key ingredients to take back to their kitchens and their menus.
Santa Monica knows how to eat in a healthy way. Should they wish, holidaymakers can dine out in an inviting range of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, or fill up on fruit in one of the many juice bars. This focus on looking after the body is most noticeable every January via the annual ‘Eat Well Week’ – which sees eateries across the city attempt to tap in to people’s New Year Resolutions by offering low-fat dishes and diet-friendly food.
Of course, visitors do not have to count calories in Santa Monica, and there are endless culinary hotspots where a hearty breakfast, lunch or dinner can be enjoyed – many of them close to the water. Great dining can be found within sight of the beach along Ocean Front Walk, Ocean Avenue, Palisades Park, Santa Monica Boulevard and on the famous pier.
A trip to Santa Monica also means a chance to eat gourmet meals prepared by a host of top chefs. The city is festooned with restaurants operated by gastronomic icons, such as Josie Le Balch, with her classic French cooking at Josie; Josiah Citrin at his fine-dining emporium Mélisse, and Andrew Kirschner – delivering seasonal American flavours at Tar & Roses.
Santa Monica at night – the city after that sumptuous sunset
There is an enormous amount to enjoy in Santa Monica during the day – but the city is just as much of a playground for those who want to party late (or early) into the evening.
The streets are awash with bars where it’s easy to sip on a chilled beer, a carefully crafted cocktail or a happy-hour tipple – watering holes of all styles and shapes. Chez Jay, for example, is an unfussy institution on Ocean Avenue – a place for good conversation and music. The Misfit offers clever creations with gin, tequila, vodka and myriad other spirits in a 1920s clock tower building on Santa Monica Boulevard. Father’s Office, on Montana Avenue, is renowned for its beers – a wide host of ales in intriguing and fulsome flavours.
Then there are the truly trendy hotspots. The Bungalow, for example, is one of California’s chicest options for a night out. Tied to the Fairmont Miramar (but very much its own entity) it sits in a prime location where Ocean Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard meet. An outdoor seating area looks towards the Pacific, the cocktail list is long and inventive, and the party runs until late, with the bar open until 2am every day but Sunday.
This is just one of many bars that offer splendid views of the ocean. The sunset is an art form in Santa Monica and there are numerous drinkeries from which you can gaze west at the fading of the light. The Shangri-La hotel on Ocean Avenue has the rooftop retreat Suite 700 and The Penthouse bar at the Huntley Hotel on Second Street is just as glorious.
There is, in short, something for everyone – including classic American sports bars and even old-fashioned British pubs. Ye Olde King’s Head on Santa Monica Boulevard looks as if it has leapt the Atlantic with its draught ales, fish and chips and London vibe.
Of course, there is far more to a night out in Santa Monica than something to drink and entertainment can include jazz, comedy, open mic nights or even magic shows.
Visitors to Santa Monica will also find an array of nightclubs open for evening entertainment. On Main Street, Circle Bar (the oldest bar in Santa Monica), Barcopa and Main on Main offer DJs and drinks ‘til late, whilst African-inspired Zanzibar has music and dancing on 5th Street and Trip features live music seven days a week on Lincoln Boulevard.
Piers, cycle paths and Promenades – there’s so much to do in Santa Monica
With so much sunshine filling the skies (this, after all, is a city that enjoys over 300 days of bright and warm weather every year) the day can seem splendidly long in Santa Monica. Happily this leaves plenty of time to explore the city, where there is much to do.
The beach, of course, is always in focus. It curves for a full 3.5 miles, a splendid crescent of sand that attracts residents and visitors alike – a wave-lapped wonderland where you can go surfing (in certain areas) or swimming, play a game of volleyball, indulge in that age-old pleasure that is people-watching, or simply top up your tan on a gentle afternoon.
Alternatively, visitors can set off by pedal power along the dedicated cycle lane which traces the beach. The South Bay Bicycle Trail runs for 22 miles north towards Malibu and south towards Torrance following the flank of Santa Monica State Beach as it goes. A safe option for a dash of exercise, it is ranked as the world’s longest oceanfront bike path, yet it can be tackled in a single day with a few leisurely cafe and coffee pauses en route.
The city’s prime coastal icon is, of course, Santa Monica Pier – and with good reason. At over 100 years old, this legend of the California seaside juts out into the Pacific at the foot of Colorado Avenue supplying the most photogenic of full stops to the fabled Route 66 (which finishes at this point). Visitors of all ages will find lots to enjoy on a structure which dates back to 1909 – not least the rides and carousels of Pacific Park (the only free-admission amusement park in southern California) and the marine creatures of Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Visitors can also join the locals for a spot of fishing, or gaze at the often spectacular sunset from the Pier’s end.
Of course, there is much more to Santa Monica than the beach. Shopaholics can find a good deal to entice them along the Third Street Promenade in Downtown – a pedestrianised haven of stores and boutiques which plays host to Santa Monica Place, with its upscale fashion outlets. Meanwhile, culture vultures can find plenty to intrigue them at Bergamot Station which showcases 40 galleries of modern works and sharp images by local and international artists.
Visitors will find the perfect photo opportunity at Santa Monica Pier with the End of the Trail Route 66 sign. Though the official end of the 2,450-mile highway was long debated, here holidaymakers can take a snap with the sign that now marks the end of this historic route.
As well as cycling, there are plenty more ways for visitors to get active in Santa Monica. Surfing is permitted year-round and there are a number of outlets along the beach offering lessons. Sandy volleyball courts are available to the public free of charge and fishing fans can rent rods and bait from the end of the pier to drop a line alongside the locals.
Pacific Park on Santa Monica Pier is perhaps most famous for its iconic Ferris wheel. The world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel, it offers panoramic Pacific Ocean views from 130 feet (40 metres) above the Pier. Free hour-long walking tours are offered for those who want to delve deeper into the Pier’s history and how it has changed over the past 100 years.
Santa Monica is home to the Original Muscle Beach. Fitness fanatics can take to the gym equipment themselves, which includes rings, swings and pull up bars on the beach, or take a seat at an oceanfront bar or café and enjoy people-watching whilst others work out.
In addition to Santa Monica Place and Third Street Promenade, visitors will find opportunities to shop throughout the city. Main Street is home to a range of local stores and fashion boutiques, whilst on Montana Avenue shoppers can explore 10 blocks of stylish upscale retail outlets and spas. Pico Boulevard features funky art galleries, plus the city’s Saturday farmer’s market.
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