If you read this post, you’ll know I’ve launched a new series of travel guides on Ellie & Co. In the next instalment, we’re exploring things to do in Santa Monica, Los Angeles’ cool beachfront neighbourhood, also my home city of Brighton’s new twin city.
When I heard that Santa Monica had twinned with Brighton, I was curious about what could be similar about quaint, pebbly Brighton and cool, sun-kissed-and-sandy Santa Monica. It also meant I couldn’t get Sheryl Crow crooning about Santa Monica Boulevard, dive bars and bottles of Bud in her 1993 hit All I Wanna Do, out of my head.
Santa Monica city guide
The news came as a huge surprise to Brightonians and outsiders alike. Everyone I told assumed the two destinations couldn’t be more different. But with its Victorian-era pier, independent shopping district, galleries, aquarium, thriving restaurant scene and diverse population, Santa Monica is – as I discovered – more similar to Brighton than I thought it would be. Let’s explore…
Short History of Santa Monica, Los Angeles
Back in the day, Santa Monica was seen as a sleepy beach town, with a sprinkling of divey motels and roadside rest stops. It was a place UCLA students, artists and surfers could live cheaply and drivers on the Pacific Coast Highway would pause for a bite to eat. It was often overlooked in favour of the cooler beachside towns of Venice and Malibu.
Today, since the rise of LA’s version of ‘Silicon Valley’ in neighbouring Culver City and the opening of the Expo Line Metro extension in 2016 linking Santa Monica with Downtown LA, the city has grown into a slick beach destination. It still attracts sea-salted surfers and road trippers but alongside its beach scene, famous pier, historic dive bars and old-school motels is a throng of designer and small independent shops, upscale restaurants and design-led hotels, and cool cocktail bars.
Santa Monica neighbourhoods
Unlike most areas in car-centric Los Angeles, Santa Monica is one of the few that’s easily walkable, which makes it a dream to explore especially if like me you’re too scared to drive stateside! The busiest and most central neighbourhoods are Downtown home to the Third Street Promenade lined with chain shops and malls and where the weekly Farmers’ Market takes place; Ocean Avenue overlooking the sea where you’ll find the Santa Monica pier; and Wilshire Avenue running parallel to the Third Street Promenade home to lots of independent bars and restaurants.
Quieter and further away from the centre are the areas of Montana Avenue, a mostly residential neighbourhood home to several local and high-end independent shops; Ocean Park with its art galleries, shops and coffee shops, Pico Boulevard, the most ethnically diverse area in the city and also the setting for a smaller weekly farmers’ market and finally Mid-City, furthest inland neighbourhood where many of the large entertainment companies are located.
Things to do in Santa Monica
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.
Go gallery hopping
Former railroad land north of downtown Santa Monica in the Mid City neighbourhood has been transformed into a cutting-edge arts destination which negates the need to travel into Downtown LA to get a culture fix. Bergamot Station Arts Centre is home to 30 globally renowned private art galleries, including the influential Danziger photography gallery and Skidmore Contemporary Art, a big supporter of emerging artists. With this now in Santa Monica, no need to go into Downtown LA to get your culture fix when you can visit nearby. Stop by the modest Bergamot Cafe for a refreshing iced tea on the terrace.
Catch a movie at the Aero Theatre
Santa Monica has several cinemas but none more beautiful and nostalgic than the single-screen Aero Theatre which opened in 1940 complete with the original ticket booth in 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. It’s also one of the few remaining single-screen cinemas left in Los Angeles.
Do yoga on the beach
Another way to enjoy the beach is to sign up for a memorable Beach Yoga SoCal class with an immersive twist. Classes take place on the beach by lifeguard tower 26. Standing in mountain pose, feet grounded in the soft sand, while the Pacific tickets the sandy shore, the breeze in your hair, has never felt so good.
Where to Eat in Santa Monica
Dinner at Calabra restaurant on the super-cool Santa Monica Proper Hotel rooftop is a must. If only just to spend time taking in the beauty of its earthy, plant-filled design, the panoramic views of Downtown Santa Monica to the beach. Together with its simple Mediterranean-Californian menu of sharing plates made using ingredients from the Santa Monica farmers’ market, it’s a Santa Monica dining experience to treasure.
Tar and Roses
Tar and Roses could be my favourite restaurant in Santa Monica, a stylish yet low-key neighbourhood favourite which hasn’t given in to the lure of expansion despite its local success. This is for two reasons: the impeccable service and the oxtail dumplings which, I would not have tried had my waiter (Chad) not insisted. They melt in the mouth and changed my view on oxtail and dumplings forever.
A former chapel with a lawned front garden is the setting for Tartine, a light and airy bakery and café. So easy on the eye are all the baked goods and dishes, it’s hard to choose what to have, but impossible to go wrong. It’s a good place to pick up edible souvenirs, like bags of coconut macaroons.
Back on the Beach
The honest family-run Back on the Beach café has the most dreamy location on a quiet sweeping stretch of sand next to the historic Annenberg Community Beach House. After a dip in the historic home’s marble-clad pool, grab a seat at the café’s sandy terrace. It’s been in this spot for 40 years and has become a favourite with locals and visitors in the know. The portions are generous, and the three-tiered lemon-hazelnut-meringue cake comes highly recommended.
Where to Drink in Santa Monica
Chez Jay and The Backyard
Jay Fiondella passed 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.
If you like a café that cares less about the latest hipster décor and more about quality coffee, Demitasse near the Third Street Promenade is a must. It’s inviting and laid back, with friendly staff and baristas who blend arguably the best coffee in the city. The cinnamon rolls are just too good, and they also do a great breakfast.
Hidden on the swanky Fairmont Miramar Hotel grounds is The Bungalow, a cool SoCal-style beach house bar. It’s exactly the kind of place I like to discover on my travels. It’s filled with vintage finds like slouchy leather sofas, faded rugs, retro lamps, surfboards, and black-and-white photographs of bygone California. Order a hotdog and a margarita, and kick back by a 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 speciality and five core beers which the cool craft ale-loving crowd gather to enjoy in their tasting room and beer garden. The 310 California Blonde Ale is a bestseller designed for year-long summer drinking.
Where to shop in Santa Monica
A browse around Burro will fuel your secret desire for the cool South Californian and American West aesthetic, Shelves are lined with lust-worthy coffee-table books celebrating surfing and the art of the American West. Rails are filled with flannel check shirts, 70s-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 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.
Where to stay in Santa Monica
Palihouse Santa Monica
The Palihouse Santa Monica is a playfully cool boutique hotel in a 1927 landmark building (formerly The Embassy Hotel Apartments) in a quiet 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 I can vouch for. There’s free coffee in the lobby each morning and bikes for hire. Doubles from £245, room only.
Santa Monica Proper
The impressive Santa Monica Proper has 271 rooms split across two wings. Those set inside a historic landmark formerly the 1920s-era Santa Monica Professional Building are retro-style with floral print wallpaper; those in a modern curved glassy extension have sleek midcentury furniture. Overall, it’s a dreamy plant-filled experiment in earth tones and textures. There’s also a rooftop pool and restaurant giving it that west coast USA feel, and make a good stop for a sunrise breakfast.
Sea Shore Motel
For a quintessential roadside America experience, book a room in the pastel pink family-run Sea Shore Motel. It’s affordable and well-located on buzzy Main Street for shops and restaurants and it’s a block from the beach. Rooms are plain, simple and spotlessly clean. Doubles from £125, room only.