Explore this picturesque, beachside, and pedestrian-friendly model “city within a city.”
Los Angeles Tour: Santa Monica
Credit: Young Grasshopper/ Flickr

Santa Monica promises the picture-postcard Los Angeles experience with its wide, palm-tree-lined beaches and stunning sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. What started as a seaside retreat in the early 20th century has today settled into a model city (clean, walkable, and eco-conscious) with a laidback urbanity that attracts artistic types, young professionals, affluent families, and celebrities as much as surfers and beach bunnies. A good deal of the action happens downtown on the pedestrian-friendly Third Street Promenade–lined with shops, restaurants, and street performers–and the tourist-flooded Santa Monica Pier, while Montana Avenue and Main Street are more low-key shopping satellites that cater to locals.

Santa Monica Pier

Near the western terminus of historic Route 66, this old-timey seaside amusement park has an enduring, if kitschy, popularity. Untold thousands of parents have been dragged by their children toward the Ferris wheel that sparkles at night above the nearly century-old pier. Here, sunset-gazers and cotton-candy-hawkers rub shoulders with elderly men fishing for Pacific mackerel along the 1,800-foot-long boardwalk; there’s a modest aquarium and a group of carnival rides, including a roller coaster and the 44-horse vintage carousel featured in The Sting. Nearby is the Third Street Promenade, a favorite pedestrian-oriented shopping/entertainment district.

Fairmont Miramar Luxury Hotel & Bungalows, Santa Monica

Since the 1920s, privacy-seeking Hollywood starlets—among them Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe—have found refuge at this bluff-perched resort overlooking Santa Monica beach. The property’s 32 stand-alone bungalows, with patios surrounded by thick tropical greenery, are still coveted by A-listers today—but plenty of nonfamous luxury-seekers appreciate the 302 Edwardian-meets-California-cottage rooms set in the 1924 Palisades Building or the newer 10-story Ocean Tower. Snob appeal is blissfully absent here: service is warm rather than white-gloved; the scene around the pool and at the Exhale spa is laid-back; and the cuisine at the inventive, farm-to-table FIG restaurant is unfussy. It’s a perfect mix of Beverly Hills luxe and barefoot Santa Monica.

Annenberg Community Beach House

Formerly a private beachfront estate that William Randolph Hearst built for actress Marion Davies, the Annenberg Community Beach House is now open to the public as a place to enjoy the Santa Monica sand in style. No membership is required—access to the courtyards, view deck, splash pad, sand sports courts, children’s play area, gallery, and Marion Davies Guest House is free. The historic pool is open in the summertime for a small fee.

Santa Monica Place

A recent revamp turned this once-indoor mall at the edge of the popular Third Street Promenade into a hip, open-air shopping and dining experience. Though Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s are the anchors, specialty shops like Fluxus, Tory Burch, and 7 For All Mankind are a cut above standard mall fare. Gone is the outdated food court, replaced by the rooftop “Dining Deck” with chef-driven restaurants, a gourmet marketplace, and views of the Pacific Ocean.

Josie / Next Door by Josie

The French- and Mediterranean-kissed American fare at neighborhood fine-dining gem Josie is some of the most highly regarded on the Westside. Organic, responsibly sourced ingredients and simple yet sophisticated preparations come together in dishes like the whole “campfire” trout with blue lake beans and beef short rib tagine studded with butternut squash. The more casual Next Door by Josie, a recent addition, focuses on small plates and snacks paired with cocktails, wine, and craft brews—don’t miss the beer and bacon caramel corn.

Sunny Blue

Japanese street food has arrived in Santa Monica with the opening of this perky omusubi shop. The tasty, grab-and-go treats consist of warm Japanese rice balls stuffed with fillings like chicken curry or miso mushrooms and wrapped with nori (seaweed). Pair yours with sides like daikon salad with ponzu dressing or pickled cucumbers, and feel free to partake liberally of the fresh-brewed complimentary barley iced tea.

The Basement Tavern at The Victorian

This “secret” subterranean bar is hidden below a popular wedding and events venue and offers a sultry speakeasy vibe for cocktailing and live music. The entrance—through the parking lot behind The Victorian and down a flight of stairs—is appropriately hard to find. Elaborate chandeliers, leather armchairs, and bourbon cocktails complete the Prohibition-era feel.