A Few Days In

A Mix of Old and New in Santa Monica

by Natalie Torres Gallagher
Élephante Good friends, great snacks, ideal late-afternoon sun at Élephante. Photo courtesy of Élephante.

The iconic beachside city of Santa Monica offers a little bit of everything to visitors old and new— here’s how you can take advantage of it all.

SANTA MONICA – When in a car, the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway that weaves through Santa Monica can be an alluring distraction from the surrounding traffic. 

The road languidly follows the contours of the beach, where clusters of umbrellas and colorful towels and folding chairs indicate the territory of one club of weekenders or another. A medley of vehicles — new Audis and Porsches, rusted pick-ups, restored Volkswagen buses, and plenty of Honda Accords — are parked on both sides of the highway, one tight row dividing the sand from the asphalt and the other hugging the craggy shoulder. Distant waves swell to a roar before greeting the shoreline with a foamy purr, like a great yawning lion. When the sun is at its peak and has chased away all clouds, the distant horizon is indistinguishable — there is only blue.

And this is just the view from the car. No wonder Santa Monica is one of California’s most popular tourist destinations, an honor it has claimed since the early 1900s when the iconic Santa Monica Pier made its debut. But though the Pier may be Santa Monica’s established postcard image, there’s more to this storied, eight-mile collection of zip codes.

Photo courtesy of Marina del Ray Parasailing.

What to Do

Santa Monica’s most obvious appeal is, of course, the beach. This 3.5-mile slice of coast caters to a variety of interests: There are the surfers, of course, groups of muscled volleyball enthusiasts, and cruise boats packed with whale watchers. Multi-generation families turn out with portable speakers and coolers. It’s entirely possible to plan your entire day on the shoreline.

Hit the Beach

If you’re new to surfing, this is a great place to practice your paddling. (If you’re not new, then you already know that Ocean Park on the south side of the Santa Monica Pier offers a jumping-off point for all levels.) Gear is readily available to rent, and if you want to get the most out of your experience, book personalized instruction with the folks at Golden State Surf Co. From there, you can lean into the SoCal lifestyle with yoga on the beach (Yada Yoga offers customized private classes) or strap into a parasail for an entirely different kind of view. Marina del Rey Parasailing will take you as high as 800 feet above the water. Despite appearances, the experience itself is extraordinarily peaceful — and there’s a good chance you’ll glimpse a dolphin.

Walk the Pier

The admission-free Pacific Park is pretty much obligatory if you’re in Santa Monica. Whether you choose to hop on the solar-powered Pacific Wheel or simply enjoy it from the ground — perhaps while participating in a silent disco, because that happens here, too — there is no way to avoid being charmed. It might be enough for you to simply meander through the crowds, observing couples young and old and watching the animated faces of children devouring globs of cotton candy as big as their heads. Embrace the nostalgia and get in line at Hot Dog on a Stick, the colorful snack shack that has been serving hand-battered corn dogs and other treats since 1946. (Today’s modern menu offers turkey and vegan corn dogs in addition to the traditional beef.)

Stroll the Park

On a bluff north of the Pier, you’ll find the (mostly) tranquil Palisades Park. You'll find a small rose garden and a large statue of Saint Monica and a historic Camera Obscura, and those things are all very well and fine, but the best thing about this 26-acre park is its position above the fray. If you time it right and luck calls the crowds to other sights, Palisades Park will deliver stunning views of the ocean and sunsets designed for lovers.

Cave for Cliché

Speaking of lovers: When the sun goes down, the beach mostly empties. If you’re not too exhausted from the day, make your way back down to the shoreline. Carry your shoes in one hand and grasp your paramour’s hand with your other. Embrace each other under the moonlight while the cool ocean water cascades over your feet. It might be the cheesiest thing you ever do, but it will also be one of the most wonderful.

Photo courtesy of Moondance.
Photo courtesy of Zibby's Bookshop.

Where to Shop

You’re better off leaving the big-box retailers behind and heading further inland.

Find a Walkable Stretch

Third Street Promenade is generally billed as Santa Monica’s premier shopping district, and the pedestrian-only, three-block area is worth your time if you have a specific destination in mind (like, say, the downtown farmer’s market on Wednesdays and Saturdays). 

Montana Avenue cuts through a dozen or so blocks lined with independent shops and high-end boutiques offering everything from bespoke fine jewelry (Curated, Moondance) to designer clothing (see Jill Roberts, Savannah, and Last Resort for a wide array of labels) to upscale home goods (find modern prayer candles at Saint Candles and dinnerware at Goodies).

Also on Montana: Eco-fashion retailer Flannel is an Australian import; Margaret O’Leary stocks luxurious cashmere garments; Cami and Jax boasts swimwear designed by a former pro surfer; Zibby’s Bookshop curates its collection based on recommendations from authors. Pop into Ele Keats Jewelry and be awed by the mass of colorful crystals (and take a little piece home with you from her one-of-a-kind precious gemstone jewelry collection). And under no circumstances should you skip Divine Vintage: The eclectic wine shop-cum-vintage clothier offers the best of both worlds, plus tastings and events.

Hit the Farmers Market

No trip to Santa Monica is complete without a visit to the Santa Monica Farmers Market, held on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays (check for times and locations). It doesn’t matter if you’re not planning on buying any produce – this is a quintessential California experience. If the sheer mass of color doesn’t impress you, perhaps some of the rarer and special items – say, black truffles, Asian pears, or persimmons, when they’re in season – will convince you that the quality of the produce is on another level.

Visit a Landmark

Finally, on the border between Santa Monica and Brentwood lies the red-barn facade of Brentwood Country Mart. Tenants at this boutique shopping mall are all luxury retailers catering to a very specific kind of bougie (i.e.: an outpost of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop).

Photo courtesy of Xuntos.

Where to Eat

The dining options in Santa Monica are overwhelming.

Follow the Buzz

If you have your heart set on a fashionable destination — say, the buzzy Élephante, with its downtown rooftop lounge — make reservations in advance.

Downtown newcomer Xuntos has a pretty Spanish tapas bar great for an aperitif and pre-dinner snack (everyone talks about the scallops with saffron butter for good reason). And though it has over 17 years under its belt, Rustic Canyon continues to reinvent what California cooking tastes like (look for the return of chef and partner Jeremy Fox to the kitchen this September).

Keep It Old School

As hard as it is to keep up with the trendiest spots in town, the truth is that it’s even harder to have a bad meal. You might as well choose a restaurant for the ambience, and for over four decades the patio at Michael’s has been a romantic pick. The French-influenced fine dining menu is reliably good, if conventional — though you will be hard-pressed to find fault with your miso-glazed cod or local calamari while fireflies glow around you under the open canopy.

If a low-key hang is more your vibe, amble down to Chez Jay. This LA icon has been around since 1959, and like a well-heeled Hollywood star, it wears its age unapologetically well. Part steakhouse — you can enjoy premium cuts of beef béarnaise or au poivre over a red-and-white checkered tablecloth — and part stiff-drink-serving dive bar, regulars at this watering hole have included the likes of Marilyn Monroe and the Beach Boys. The ghost of Old Hollywood lingers at Chez Jay’s: It’s there in the Christmas string lights and the scarlet paneled walls, in the peanut shells that decades of foot traffic have crushed into the wood grain floor. You’ll feel it as you dig into your shrimp cocktail or sip your martini. You’ll hear it in the casual way the bartender recalls “That one time when …” and gestures to the wall of framed photographs. Chez Jay’s might be the most magical place left in all of LA, and it’s just a short stumble from the pier. Lucky you.

The morning after your Chez Jay experience will be proof enough of all the fun you had the night before. In this situation, the best thing you can do for yourself is pick up a Godmother — that’s a sandwich — from Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery. This stacked sub is the stuff of dreams, and a real Santa Monica legend: five cold cuts (salami, prosciutto, mortadella, capicola, and ham) with provolone, and “the works” (onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and a cacophony of condiments). The deli counter is a singularly chaotic experience — and one you can avoid by ordering ahead online. (Pro tip: Wait out your order with a sip of something local at Bodega Wine Bar next door.)

Taste a California Classic

Don’t leave Santa Monica without a stop at Tartine Bakery & Cafe. The award-winning San Francisco import is famous for all things bread and pastry, and choosing which bakery case item to savor on your visit will likely be the most difficult decision you face in the entire trip. Commit to indulgence. The morning bun is not optional: Buttery croissant dough is encased in a sweet shell of sugar, cinnamon, and orange zest, and it sounds so simple until the taste travels from your tongue to neurons and you start seeing fireworks. Plan for the avocado tartine from the menu, because you can’t go to Tartine and not partake in its namesake. Might as well grab a loaf of country bread, too, just in case. What are you going to do, not eat it?

Photo courtesy of Proper Hotel Santa Monica.
Photo courtesy of The Ambrose Hotel.

Where to Stay

Santa Monica is blessed with an abundance of stylish hotels, each alluring in their own way. To simplify things, consider whether you’d like a beachside view — which means being close to the downtown action — or inland where it is a little more quiet.

Welcome a Newbie

The Pierside
When beachside proximity is your top priority. Directly across from the Santa Monica Pier and a short walk across Ocean Avenue to feel your toes in the sand. The Pierside, which opened in 2023, plays into its strengths by appealing to water enthusiasts with The Board Shop, a full-service, on-site gear rental facility with a host of equipment from surfboards and boogie boards to beach toys and furniture, board games and gaming consoles, and even a GoPro (guests get two free rental hours daily). Bonus on top of bonus: The hotel schedules a free yoga-on-the-beach class every Saturday morning with a complimentary mimosa at its restaurant, Surfing Fox.

Inside the hotel, you’ll find a bright, sun-filled lobby and well-appointed rooms in polished blonde woods, calming blue tones, cheery bright whites. The walk-in showers are particularly luxurious in the king suites (you could fit a whole beach volleyball team in one, if you needed to).

Think Sustainably

The Ambrose Hotel Santa Monica
Minutes away from the headache-inducing traffic of downtown Santa Monica, on a cozy corner lot in a shady residential neighborhood. Despite its proximity to the beach — under two miles, a perfectly walkable distance in fair weather — this 77-room boutique lodging feels like a complete departure, as though it lives in its own idyllic version of SoCal. The hotel is named for Saint Ambrose, whom legend tells us was born into a swarm of bees untouched. In most stories, Saint Ambrose is a beloved pillar of the community. The Ambrose Hotel pays homage to these threads in various ways, from the art deco-style bee in its branding to the partnerships it has cultivated with local businesses (guests can take advantage of discounts at several nearby shops).

When the Ambrose opened in 2007, it made history as the first LEED-certified hotel in the country. What makes this accomplishment notable today is not necessarily the effort required to maintain this certification, but the fact that the Ambrose does so without beating its chest obnoxiously: You may barely register the low-flush toilets or the electric car chargers in the parking garage, but these and so many other details indicate the hotel’s commitment to sustainability. Guests are encouraged to take advantage of complimentary bicycles, e-bikes and even the Tesla house car. At a glance, you could mistake the Ambrose for an upscale apartment building: Private terraces hang off the L-shaped structure, where guests lean against the railing inhaling the sea air and squinting at distant palm trees. The large outdoor patio is so pleasant, its furniture so comfortable, that you would be forgiven for spending an entire vacation day there, tucked into a book with a glass of local wine (the hotel offers free pours daily during happy hour) and noshing on a pain au chocolat from Tartine (the bakery is oh-so-conveniently located across the street). If you are lacking in books, by the way, The Ambrose offers a library full of interesting titles, many from local authors, and, just next to it, an intimate outdoor fireplace and lounge.

Go Big or Go Home

Proper Hotel Santa Monica
This sumptuous and chic hotel opened in 2019 on Santa Monica’s iconic Wilshire Boulevard. With the Proper’s Ayurvedic spa, pristine fitness center, and two on-site restaurants, you might not need to leave the building. Feast your eyes on a spectacular ocean view – and delectable Mediterranean plates – at Calabra, the hotel’s rooftop bar and restaurant. Palma, the lobby bistro, offers an all-day menu and a more low-key lounge vibe (at least, as low-key as any space planned and personally decorated by renowned interior designer Kelly Wearstler). A host of top-tier amenities and personalized service will ensure that your time here is stress-free. 

The Georgian Hotel
The 1930s icon is back in action — and glorious from head to toe. Read more about it on Fathom.

Explore Southern California

Want to Stay Cool in the Desert? Try the Ace Hotel & Swim Club
Refreshed in Palm Springs
Family Harmony in Magical Ojai
Saddle Up for a Ride Through This Sprawling La Jolla Estate

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.