When I lived in Washington, D.C., every visitor from out of town wanted to site see downtown — the White House, Washington Monument, the museums and the other landmarks and attractions. As a resident of LA, visitors asked me to show them the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, and always, my favorite tourist spot, the Santa Monica Pier.
The Pier is a great place to people watch, shop for trinkets, play arcade games or ride thrill rides, or spend a casual day by the beach and even go fishing. In the evening there are plenty of great restaurants for every taste, and for those staying overnight, there are many wonderful luxury and boutique hotels. If visiting just for the day or weekend, here are our picks for places to go, see, dine and stay.
Sea and be seen, and eat
A great place for lunch or dinner is Del Frisco’s Grille, directly across from the Pier entrance at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. While this happening eatery is right on the beaten path, it’s glass-walled patio is a shelter from the crowd, while diners can still note the qualities of the people going by; or those at the buzzy bar or seated inside in the upscale dining room can take respite from the throngs of tourists outside. The menu includes signature entrees including a generously portioned non-fried lump crab cake and adorable aha mini tacos in a with avocado, spicy citrus mayo and fresh tuna tartar spilling out of them. Then menu describes their offerings aptly, such as large salads (Big Greens) ample burgers (Two-Fisted Sandwiches), and chef specialties (Knife & Fork) along with an array of signature steaks and fish, like the delicate parmesan lemon sole with arugula-crab salad, roasted tomato and chive-lemon butter. Save room for the incredible heap of Nutella bread pudding with coffee ice cream.
Stay a while, leave no footprint
The Shore Hotel boasts ocean views, on Ocean Avenue, and it’s easy walking distance to the pier and many other Santa Monica attractions, including the bike path along the ocean and shopping, cinemas, and many restaurants. It’s a cleanly designed and chic hotel, with lots of glass and chrome, but despite its modernism, the hotel is known for being down to earth. It is a LEED-certified building, with building materials, paints, carpeting, bedding and other textiles within the hotel all conforming to the hotel’s eco-friendly policy. Sure hotels goes beyond simply asking people to reuse their bath towels, they provide a recycling trashcan in each room, and there are reminder signs throughout the hotel to encourage visitors to reuse and recycle.
Even the landscaping around the hotel uses recycled water and features region appropriate succulents. The pool is also solar heated, and conditioning in each room automatically goes off when the balcony door is opened to save energy. The rooms themselves are designed to let in lots of natural light, and since 90% of the rooms have an ocean view with plenty of daylight, there’s no need for artificial lights in the room during the daytime, and the lobby is equally light and airy with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let in the light and show off the hotels spectacular setting across from the beach.
Take a long walk on a historic pier
The Santa Monica Pier itself is a main attraction of the city. Like most boardwalks, it is a mix of souvenir shops and walk-up and casual restaurants offering custard ice cream, pizza, French fries, hot dogs on a stick and other typical fast food fare, along with a few sit-down restaurants, like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and an upscale option of The Lobster for fine dining.
At the entrance of the pier, the beautiful historic carousel is only one dollar for rides and a must experience for children. There’s also an aquarium that while small in size has many exotic fish and is a great educational sidetrip for kids. For those who prefer their fish on the end of a hook, the Pier has license-free fishing, where my son snagged a spiny backed stingray — which we threw back, due to the the fellow fisherman warning us that fish caught there were contaminated because of pollution.
There is, of course, a noisy arcade with cranes and video games where you can spend $50 to win prizes worth about $2. The Pacific Park, located on the pier, offers midway games, like skee ball and the water balloon filling game, and an assortment of rides for all ages, including the West Coaster, a small but thrilling roller coaster. The rides can be expensive, up to $8 each for the premium rides, but you can purchase an all-day wristband for $29.95 for adults and $17.95 for kids under 7.
What is considered the boardwalk, a walkway along a strip of shops and restaurants adjacent to the pier, is known as a great place for people watching, where tourists can see street performers jump into piles of glass and the famed Jimi Hendrix on rollerblades often cuts through the crowds jamming on his electric guitar. The scene can get rather seedy at night, so usually families and kids start to disappear around nightfall, when the hippies burning sage and drum circles make their appearance.
If you enjoy a see-and-be-seen lounge atmosphere, head over to the Viceroy Hotel, an ocean front stylish boutique hotel known for its fashionable crowd and hipster happy hours. The hotel’s restaurant, CAST, features an eclectic menu of California cuisine with unexpectedly delicious food and flavor combinations artistically presented in a swanky atmosphere, at the poolside patio restaurant, with its Alice in Wonderland high-back chairs and black and white checkered tables. The restaurant has an award-winning weekend brunch, but get reservations early, or you will get left out of the in crowd.
Shop a while
Shopping in Santa Monica includes indoor and outdoor retail destinations. Besides the random boutiques, there is Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade plaza, which is basically a three-block-long outdoor mall of stores and restaurants, with a variety of food and drink offerings, from juice and smoothie bars to fine Italian dining at Locando del Lago. 3rd Street Promenade also features movie theaters and street performers, including one dead ringer for James Taylor who usually draws a huge crowd. The shops themselves are mostly retail chains, such as Banana Republic, GAP, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Pottery Barn but there are also a slew of independent stores worth checking out.
A short walk away is Santa Monica Place, a galleria of upscale shops, such as Kate Spade A, Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, and Coach and healthy food offerings like True Food Kitchen, Fresh Healthy Café, and 40 Carots (inside Bloomingdale’s). The mall features concierge services and parking valet and other high-end services for the discerning shopper. The good and bad thing about Santa Monica Place is that it almost always seems deserted, so you can have the place to yourself, but you can also feel like you’re walking in a ghost town.