Sometimes it’s nice not having a car. Sometimes what you really want is to be in a place where you don’t need a car. Santa Monica can be such a place, especially if you’re a visitor just trying to make a day of it.
This beachside city offers a world of opportunities, attractions, and landmarks all concentrated in a central downtown area, and/or easily accessible via public transit. Shopping, art, food, and entertainment are available virtually everywhere you look. But where to start?
Let’s imagine you’ve just arrived at the Downtown Santa Monica Metro station. Or maybe you’re staying at a nearby hotel for work or pleasure. It’s 11 a.m. and you’re now standing at the corner of 4th and Colorado with an open day you aim to fill with adventure.
Where might you go? What might you do? How will you get there? Let us offer you a few starting points below.
Getting Around Santa Monica
The great news is that public transit in Downtown Santa Monica is in no short supply. As a primer, we wanted to just go over a couple of local transit options so there’s no confusion if we make references later on.
Metro (L.A.’s light rail system) has an east-west route called the Expo Line that originates at the 7th Street station in Downtown Los Angeles and ends at the Downtown Santa Monica Station. If you’re coming into the city from an outside area and want to avoid the traffic, this is a terrific entry point. One-way rides on Metro are $1.75 and you can purchase a day-pass for $7. For more detail we suggest checking out their fare sheet and trip planner.
The Big Blue Bus is Santa Monica’s municipal bus line, which offers a dense grid of service routes criss-crossing the DTSM area. Individual rides are $1.25 if you pay cash. For more info check out the BBB fare sheet and Routes & Schedules page.
In addition to the city-run public transit options, you might use ridesharing services (like Uber and Lyft), or bike and scooter rentals (like the ubiquitous Bird scooters). Any or all of these can be handy in a pinch depending on where you need to go, and how fast you need to get there.
Things to Do and See in Santa Monica if You’re Car Free
Pacific Park and the Santa Monica Pier
Walk west on Colorado from the Expo station and in just a few short blocks you’ll arrive at the world famous Santa Monica Pier. Chief among the Pier’s many attractions is Pacific Park, L.A. County’s only admission-free amusement park (and the only amusement park located on a pier on the west coast!). A visit to Pacific Park includes everything you’d want in an authentic California experience: games, twelve different rides, cotton candy, ice cream, an ocean-air food court, and tons of family fun. Rides and attractions are priced individually and range in price from $5 to $10, or you could buy an unlimited ride wristband for $32.95 (or grab them online ahead of time for a discounted price) that gives you access to all 12 rides as many times as you’d like.
Additional to-dos along the Pier include Trapeze School New York, Playland Arcade, and the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium (just to name a few). More than anything, you’ll want to take a leisurely walk and enjoy the sights and sounds!
Santa Monica State Beach
Santa Monica State Beach stretches over 3.5 miles of Southern California coast line, with the sand space divided in two by the Santa Monica Pier. Just south of the Pier is the Original Muscle Beach (not to be confused with Muscle Beach Venice), and at the far north end you’ll find one of our favorite spots in all of Santa Monica: The Annenberg Community Beach House.
The Annenberg Community Beach House offers all you’d ever want from a private beach club experience, just without the fancy price. In fact, it’s free. So what does free get you? Among the features and amenities are a pool, playground, splash pad, beach courts and fields, beach access, free wi-fi, tables, chairs, and umbrellas. Some free reservations are available online, but mostly it’s first-come, first-serve. A couple things to keep in mind: It’ll draw big crowds on hot days (you could be put on a wait list) and the pool is closed from October to May.
There isn’t a bus stop directly in front of the Beach House on Pacific Coast Highway so if you’re coming from near the pier your options become walk (about 30 minutes), rent a bike to go along the beach path (about 10 minutes), or perhaps, most advisedly, take a rideshare (7 minutes during low traffic times… longer if there’s gridlock on PCH)
Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica’s most walkable street features four lively blocks of retail shops, restaurants and performers of all sorts. On the southern end you’ll find Santa Monica Place, a traditional outdoor mall sprinkled with luxury boutiques. Dining options around the Promenade are endless, but we have a few suggestions you might look into. Try SUGARFISH for a five star sushi fix or True Food Kitchen for innovative and delicious health conscious eats. Top the evening off with a posh cocktail at Copa d’Oro, a dimly lit bar with speakeasy vibes.
Third Street Promenade is also near a few unique spots worth going off the path for. We Like L.A. recommendations includes live music at Harvelle’s Blues Club located on 4th street (jazz, hip-hop, blues and more every evening since 1931) and M.I.’s Westside Comedy Theater which offers affordable ticketed improv shows and occasional drop-ins by some of the most famous names in comedy (Dave Chappelle, Dana Carvey, Judd Apatow, Zach Galifianakis, Tig Notaro, to name a few).
Bergamot is a massive art gallery complex spread over 5 acres of city-owned land multiple buildings that offer more than 60,000 square feet of space. The site is open daily, with most galleries open for view from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays. Two great things about Bergamot: entry is free, and there is an Expo line stop literarily at the doorstep of the facility.
McCabe’s Guitar Shop
McCabe’s Guitar Shop claims to have the “largest collection of stringed things to make music in California,” which would be impressive enough on its own. What’s even cooler is their stripped-down backroom / concert space, which regularly showcases some amazing players and musicians. Any guitar player or hardcore music fan owes themselves a visit if they’re in the area.
The shop is about 2.5 miles from Downtown Santa Monica. You could take the Expo line, depart at Bergamot Station and then walk an extra 15 minutes (0.8 miles). If that’s not in the cards, a rideshare works just as well, and the Big Blue Bus #7 has a stop on Pico Blvd not too far away.
Camera Obscura at the Santa Monica Art Lab
The Camera Obscura Art Lab on Ocean Ave plays host to a number of community classes and workshops throughout the year, but perhaps the most unique feature is a dark room on the second floor that contains a four-foot disk in the middle of the space. Light from outside is projected onto the disk via a mirror from the ceiling and casts an image of what’s happening directly outside the building. It’s kind of like being on the inside of a giant, working camera as you watch what looks like a surveillance footage being beamed in from above. You won’t spend a ton of time here, but the cost (free!) makes it worth a visit. The Camera Obscura mechanism is free to visit on Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tongva Park is a beautiful six-acre public space divided into four sections (or hills). The park features gardens, a natural amphitheater, a children’s splash pad, shaded picnic areas, a restroom, and free-wifi. It makes for a perfect morning walk destination, or a lovely spot for an afternoon family outing. You can get there with a short walk southwest from the Downtown Santa Monica Expo Line station.
Downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market
The best Los Angeles chefs know you won’t find fresher produce anywhere in the city than at The Downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market, which you’ll find twice weekly on Arizona Ave near 2nd St. Two version of this market happen weekly: The Wednesday edition (that’s the larger one) runs from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m, and routinely hosts over 75 different farmers. A smaller affair focused on organic produce runs at the same location (but a couple blocks shorter) on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The market makes for a perfect morning stroll filled with plenty of tasty samples to enjoy.
Santa Monica History Museum
If you want to learn about the Santa Monica of yesteryear, the Santa Monica History Museum is the place. The museum features six galleries and a research library. The collections include over six hundred rare photographs, and a permanent exhibit on the city’s history that features authentic artifacts and fabricated environments. Admission is normally $10 per adult, $15 for couples (two adults), and the museum offers a free day every second Thursday of each month. To get there is about a 10-minute walk from the Third Street Promenade at Santa Monica Blvd.
“How to Spend a Lovely Day in Santa Monica Without a Car” was originally published on We Like L.A. For more ideas on things to do, places to see, and all things Los Angeles, check out their website at www.welikela.com.