Whether you're a first-timer or a repeat visitor to the Los Angeles area (L.A.), with car or car-less, and whether you arrived as an individual, couple, or family, the best way to enjoy your first experience of L.A. is to visit the oceanside city of Santa Monica. You'll enjoy a milder climate (highs from middle 60's to low 70's) than the rest of L.A., especially in summer, but with plenty of sunshine and even an occasional morning fog. Santa Monica's public facilities provide easy access to the beach. The city has plenty of restaurants, hotels (some with cushy spas), and shopping, and enough to see and do nearby to fill either a shorter or a longer visit.
For a short stay in Santa Monica of one or two days, there's no need of a car or to drive the famous L.A. freeways. LAX airport is a relatively short taxi ride away (via the 405 Freeway or Lincoln Boulevard). Santa Monica's own best things to do are not far apart, and its mild climate will encourage you to walk and bicycle to many of your local destinations. Taxis are also available.
Before your car-less visit, learn about Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus service. It carries you all over Santa Monica, and reaches out to adjacent cities, including an express bus to downtown L.A. In early 2016, three new light-rail mass transit stations open in Santa Monica to connect you to Culver City and beyond to downtown L.A. The last stop in Santa Monica is downtown at 4th Street and Colorado Avenue.
If you're driving, plan ahead by reading the city's parking website. Downtown Santa Monica offers several conveniently located, multistory parking garages for 24-hour public use. Also, residential streets (4th Street and higher) offer free daytime on-street parking, but for overnight parking please heed each street's posted signs.
BEST EXPERIENCES IN SANTA MONICA
From lovely Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue, enjoy the beach view all the way to Malibu, and notice that you can reach the beach by several concrete footbridges that cross over the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Also grabbing your attention is the famous Santa Monica Pier at the foot of downtown's Colorado Avenue. The Pier is open to the public, with paid parking that includes beach access. On the Pier itself are walkways, benches, walk-up food stands, and casual restaurants. Buy tokens to enjoy the Pier's amusement rides and traditional American midway-style games. At the foot of the Pier, the small aquarium entertains and educates the little ones. Water quality near the Pier is not the best, so ocean swimming in that area is not recommended. However, other recreation near the Pier is very popular, so watch for notices of special events on the beach, even nighttime events such as September's annual GLOW outdoor art exhibit. On the PCH, the Annenberg Community Beach House outdoor pool complex and play facility (with parking, but its pool is closed October to May) has an admission charge.
The casual way to enjoy the beach is to walk or bicycle (look for rental stands) on the paved Marvin Braude Bike Trail. It begins north of the Pier at Will Rogers Beach in Pacific Palisades and extends south past the original site of Muscle Beach, where America's "fitness craze" was born, to the famous offbeat Venice Beach community then beyond to Marina del Rey, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and Torrance State Beach. The entire one-way journey along the water is 22 miles.
Back in Santa Monica itself, visit the Santa Monica History Museum at 1350 7th Street, Bergamot Station's cool arts-related stores at 2525 Michigan Avenue, and Montana Avenue's Aero movie theater. Look for notices of the Aero's special events, with movie stars and directors as invited speakers!
Santa Monica's primary shopping districts are found along Montana Avenue east of Lincoln Avenue, in downtown's Third Street Promenade, along Wilshire Boulevard, at Main Street and Ocean Avenue, and in Ocean Park village south of downtown.
Santa Monica's restaurants cluster along Montana Avenue, downtown near the Pier and along Third Street Promenade, and near downtown along Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards. Along Montana, look for popular Father's Office (gourmet burgers, dozens of tap beers), contemporary R+D Kitchen, Blue Plate, Locando Portofino and Spumoni Cafe for Italian, and cozy Marmalade for breakfast. And watch for the neighborhood's TV and movie stars in the upscale coffee shops, such as Caffe Luxxe!
Downtown restaurants to consider are Bar Pintxo (Basque-style tapas) at 109 Santa Monica Boulevard and Blue Plate Oysterette at 1355 Ocean Avenue. Since 1959, venerable Chez Jay at 1657 Ocean Avenue near the Pier rocks the early 1960's, where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack (also Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen) often ordered a drink. Dine with style in Rustic Canyon at 1119 Wilshire Boulevard, Milo & Olive at 2723 Wilshire Boulevard, or Mélisse at 1104 Wilshire Boulevard.
Just outside Santa Monica, the can't-miss sites are the beautifully situated Getty Center art museum (1200 Getty Center Drive) and the Roman-themed Getty Villa museum (17985 Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades) just north of Santa Monica. Without a car, reach the Getty Center on Metro Rapid Line 734 (Monday to Friday) and Metro Local 234 (weekends and holidays), or the Getty Villa on Metro Bus 534, and you must ask the driver to punch your Villa admission ticket.
DURING A LONGER VISIT (OR MAYBE YOU'RE EXTRA-CURIOUS)
For a different kind of dining in Santa Monica, consider The Misfit at 225 Santa Monica Boulevard, Opaque (dining in complete darkness) at 2020 Wilshire, or Typhoon at the Santa Monica Airport at 3221 Donald Douglas Loop South. East of downtown, the 18th Street Coffee House on 1725 Broadway is owned (and sometimes visited) by Bob Dylan. At 116 Santa Monica Boulevard, downtown's British-themed Ye Olde King's Head restaurant is outrageously decorated.
An unspoiled, miles-long beach walk begins at Malibu's Paradise Cove Beach Cafe (28128 Pacific Coast Highway), and without a car use the Metro Bus 534 to arrive. Or, investigate access to hiking trails within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which spans Malibu and parts of western Los Angeles.
From Santa Monica's San Vicente Avenue, descend Entrada Drive into the lush neighborhood of Santa Monica Canyon (also called Rustic Canyon), unlike any other district in L.A. Perhaps you'll be lucky to attend an event at the canyon's beautifully landscaped La Señora Research Institute at 565 Dryad Road. A little further away, at 17190 Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades, find the 10-acre Self-Realization Foundation Lake Shrine for a shaded, contemplative stroll around a man-made lake. Once a favorite site of Elvis Presley, the grounds hosted the memorial service for Beatle George Harrison.
Also just outside Santa Monica ... Stray from the Venice Beach strand at either Brooks or Westminster avenues to reach fashionable Abbot Kinney Boulevard in downtown Venice. In the Christmas season, exit the strand at South Venice Boulevard to view decorated homes along the Venice canals. In Culver City, choose from four museums: Museum of Jurassic Technology (whimsical miniature originals) at 9341 Venice Boulevard, the Wende Museum (Cold War artifacts) at 5741 Buckingham Parkway (Suite E), the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum (African-American history and culture) at 4130 Overland Avenue, and the Star Eco Station environmental science museum (with exotic wildlife) at 10101 Jefferson Boulevard. Later, sample tasty Argentine cuisine in the Grand Casino Bakery & Cafe on 3826 Main Street in Culver City. With your car, in Inglewood (south of LAX airport) stop by Randy's Donuts at 805 West Manchester Boulevard for a photo and souvenir before you visit the historic, Mexican-era Centinela Adobe (built in 1834) nearby at 7634 Midfield Avenue.
Finally, from the PCH near Santa Monica, drive Sunset Boulevard to the UCLA North Campus (visit its Fowler Museum of art and watch for notices of special events), to Beverly Hills, and into Hollywood itself, places with so much to see, like the rest of L.A., they require their own future Gorozhanka article!
Paul K. Sholar