When I explain why I love Santa Monica and have called in home since 2005, outsiders (especially those just as weary of LA as I used to be) listen with skepticism. But when I mention how Santa Monica is its own city, has a great, active community, award-winning bus service, a twice weekly famous farmers market, bike lanes, the beach, a high walking score, is incredibly eco-friendly, and really does have lots of parks and green space, all of a sudden I’ve got people wanting to come and visit!
And over the years, I’ve even been the tipping point for people debating about moving to Los Angeles, especially when I explain all the great local things to do and the community that is here. And the list of favourites that I give to both potential locals and visitors is almost always the same, and so here is my list to share with you:
I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in Santa Monica and frankly, only a handful have been worth it. My picks?
- The Palihouse Hotel (formerly The Embassy) is my new favourite and go-to hotel in Santa Monica. Having lived literally behind this hotel for years, I can vouch that the location is amazing. What else is amazing? The decor – from the dark, cool, eclectic lounges to the light, airy rooms. And what large rooms they are – with kitchenettes, walk in-closets and large rooms you feel like you’re living like a local in Santa Monica. And with free bikes on hand, you can bike like a local, too.
- A good, affordable, and eco-friendly option is the Ambrose Hotel – in walking distance to Whole Foods, a block to Wilshire, about a 30min walk to the beach and on top the hotel is 100% eco-friendly with comfortable beds and amenities. Parking, wifi and breakfast (from the wonderful and famous Urth Caffe) are all included making this hotel a great value. The downsides? It’s further from the beach than most properties but the walk is nice and even better if you have a bike.
- Staying at Casa del Mar amongst the celeb’s will have you feeling glam, especially if your room overlooks the ocean (mine did and I couldn’t. stop. staring at it).
- The Viceroy and Huntley Hotel (people love the top floor restaurant, I like the bedding) are in the same style in my opinion. Trendy, hip and often over-priced. The Huntley is in a quieter area (and better I think) but the Viceroy has better outdoor seating and scenes – if you’re into that.
- Hotel Oceana suites are great for families because of their size; the ones overlooking the ocean are the peak of Santa Monica perfection. Right along ocean avenue and Palisades Park, the location is ideal. Less than ideal? Any of the interior rooms which overlook the pool and I would think would be noisy.
- I’ve had three different rooms at the Fairmont Santa Monica (one in the old part, one in the tower, one of the private cottages) and it’s a nice hotel but for the money, I’d stay in one of the others above unless you get the cottage. The cottage is private, spacious and away from the main hotel. Some have patios (great for pets and outdoor privacy) and the cosines feels like old Hollywood – luxury.
- Vegan? Gluten free? You’ll love this city which has a lot of great-tasting options that even gluten eating omnivores will love! True Food Kitchen has bar seating for singles and lots of (indoor/outdoor) seating for groups. The decor is California cool, the food even better with a clearly labelled food menu for those with food allergies. And you can get a glass of local chardonnay.
- Burger Lounge has hands down the best burgers anywhere. They’re grass-fed beef with lots of organic (and really, really tasty) options. This has an outside area so you can bring your dog and they also have gluten-free buns.
- Sweet tooth? Coffee Lover? Then Sidecar Doughnuts is your BFF (they even have gluten free options). These artisanal, amazingly delicious doughnuts from salt + butter to huckleberry to ham + bacon can be the perfect breakfast or afternoon pick up. And with Stumptown Coffee on draft, you’ll have the perfect drink to wash it down (or get their Vietnamese Coffee – so good!). Bonus? Free parking in the back.
- For a casual lunch that won’t break your bank, take a long time, or be filled with things you can’t pronounce, Mendocino Farms has terrific sandwiches and salads (also with gluten free and vegan options). You can even order ahead and pick up to take to the beach.
- If you’re a coffee snob, then Caffee Luxxe is your place. Two locations (one on Montana Ave and one in Brentwood Country mart) for your java needs. They do the best (hot or cold) iced almond milk latte. The cafe’s are small and charming and their coffee? Really the best. A second option is Philz, a transplant from San Francisco. One location downtown Philz can take a moment to understand if you haven’t been there before but their blends and style make it a learning curve worth learning. My favourite? Mint Mojito.
- Ice cream is a must for hot days and Rori’s Ice Cream on Montana is the best. Rori (yes, she’s an actual person) opened up her first shop in Santa Barbara making small-batch ice cream. Now, in Santa Monica, she does both regular and seasonal flavours (the earl grey lavender is one of my favourites) and her rootbeer float is definitely recommended.
- For breakfast or lunch, The Hive is going to be your acai bowl haven. One of these in the morning will give you enough energy to do all the Santa Monica sightseeing and keep you full the entire time, too.
- A Votre Sante on 26th & San Vicente feels like a traditional, quaint but oh so nice and good European restaurant (with gluten-free options). It’s charming in the evenings and packed on Sunday mornings. But if you want to feel like a local, this is a great option.
- R&D Kitchen on Montana is a great meeting spot that’s always packed as is the institution Father’s Office (which has the best burgers).
- Just need bubbly? Shutters on the Beach offers a Champagne tasting every Wednesday for $25 which is great for meeting up with people while relaxing beach side. It’s sister property, Casa Del Mar also has a great champagne and wine menu with a lounge made to relax and drink in!
- The famous Santa Monica Farmers Market happens every Wednesday and Saturday and is not to be missed. It’s amazing with every kind of local produce you can imagine sold by the farmers who grow them. Not too sure what something is or how to cook it? They’ll be more than happy to tell you. It’s a great place to browse and pick up something for picnicking on the nearby Palisades Park.
- Have something to celebrate? Or want a long-standing local favourite? Michaels is your man. Make sure to make a reservation and ask for a table in the (covered) outdoor patio. The ambience is magical, the food is top notch and the staff? On point. Michael himself makes the rounds each night to say hello and introduces himself to everyone. How wonderfully old-school is that?
- Urth Caffe is one of my favourite cafes in the world. Their Mild Spanish Latte, Iced Green Tea Latte and salmon scramble are my staples. I am here all. the. time!
- Montana Avenue. Everyone will tell you to go here and there’s a reason; it has great boutiques but doesn’t have the crowds the Third Street Promenade. It’s a nice leisurely walk up and down with great cafes and shops. My favourite stores include Shabby Chic, Planet Blue, Le Partie, Footsie (the place to go and get fitted for bras), Michael Stars, Benefit and The Wagging Tail.
- Third Street Promenade is always busy and for good reason; lots of shows are filmed on it, there area always street performers and every major retail brand you can think of is on this pedestrian street. The newly renovated and opened up Promenade mall has high end boutiques along with Nordstrom and Bloomingdales. Anything you want to buy, you’ll find here. Just be careful of pick pockets!
- Main Street is a lot more laid back and connects Santa Monica and Venice. Smaller shops line the street but you’ll find bigger brands here as well like Patagonia and Muji. This treelined street is perfect for strolling especially when the local farmers market is happening.
- Brentwood Country Mart has been around since the 50’s and over the past several years has been restored back to its original red-barn, Hollywood glory days. Every shop here is thoughtful and unique – like Space.NK, James Pearse, Calypso and Sugar Paper to name a few. Great dining at The Farm and coffee shops to keep you pumped. Worth a visit.
- If antiques or unique things are on your list of items to get, the Santa Monica Outdoor Market. It’s held twice a month and worth the $5 admission. Don’t have the time but have the money? Then head to Shabby Chic on Montana Avenue; owner Rachel Ashwell often finds pieces from the market and sells them in her store.
- My favourite things in Santa Monica is the Aero Theatre on Montana. In operation since 1933 it now showcases a different movie each night, from classics to special premieres and screenings. I have met so many amazing directors and actors here because there’s a lot of Q&A’s with the movies. It’s just an amazing, very much locally supported theatre. Besides, what is a trip to Santa Monica without a movie star experience? Even if it’s just on the big screen.
- The Santa Monica Public Library is one of the most beautiful library’s I’ve ever been to. Recently built it has an outdoor courtyard, a cafe, meeting rooms and every magazine you can think of. If you need a break from the sun, step inside, read a magazine and sip a latte.
- The 13 block long Pacific Palisades Park is perfect for strolling if you’re north of Wilshire. South of Wilshire tends to not be so great. The views either way are amazing. I like to walk along it, down ocean Avenue through Santa Monica Canyon and up through 7th and then walk up the large, beautiful streets north of Montana. Walking through the neighborhood and seeing the huge, beautiful homes with amazing gardens is a great way to spend an afternoon. Or jog up San Vicente like every one else. If you’re feeling up to the challenge, on 4th street just north of San Vicente are the infamous stairs. You’ll hear people panting before you get there. It’s one of the most beautiful, tough and free ways to work out in the city.
- Biking is super easy in Santa Monica thanks to dedicated bike lanes and lots of bike rentals including the Santa Monica Bike Share (IE pike up in one place, drop off in another). It’s worth it to do this if you want to see every inch of Santa Monica or even just take a leisurely stroll on the beach board walk.
- Don’t have the time (or the money) to join one of the exclusive Santa Monica beach clubs? Or your hotel doesn’t have a pool? Don’t worry, thanks to volunteers, donations from high-profile locals and California taxpayers, there’s a gorgeous new and free (except for the pool) beach house for everyone. The Annenberg Community Beach House is a community spot offering tours, courts, games, refreshments, halls and swimming right on the beach. Splash in the pool while looking at the ocean, tour Marion Davies house (free) or borrow equipment that you didn’t bring on the plane (like volleyballs, tennis rackets and umbrellas).
- As a local, I’ve only been to the Santa Monica Pier twice, and that’s once more than most locals. It’s a bonafide tourist trap and I’d suggest you look at the solar-paneled Ferris Wheel from the Palisades Park than go down and visit. But if you must go, be on guard, then hit the beach and walk or bike (rentals available) down to Venice or up to the Beach house.
You can see these and updated favourites on my Travel: Santa Monica Pinterest board.