How to visit the Santa Monica Pier from Hollywood

A light rail train heading to Santa Monica, CA from Hollywood in Los Angeles
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Here are some tips and suggestions for visiting Santa Monica if you decide to stay in Hollywood during your vacation to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles boasts an abundance of things to do for visitors on vacation in Southern California. When you start planning an LA vacation, its easy to get overwhelmed by the different options, the vast geography, and sheer number of websites and offers promoted online.

To get started, you need to understand that LA is HUGE. The City of Los Angeles is just shy of 500 square miles; that’s just the city of LA and does not count the other 87 cities and 140 unincorporated areas within LA County. Many of the places people think of when they talk about visiting LA are not even in LA County (Disneyland is in Anaheim, which is in Orange County). Unlike New York, Miami, or Nashville, there’s not really a “central” part of LA in the civic or cultural sense. LA is a tapestry of many smaller communities and experiences spread out over a large, geographically diverse area that stretches from the beaches, over the mountains, and into the high desert. The activities you are most interested in doing in LA should determine where you stay, not the other way around. Depending on your preferences, you may even consider staying a few nights in one area, then move to another side of town for the remainder of your visit.

The itinerary below makes a few assumptions about your visit: this itinerary could be ideal for a couple of people or small group of travelers who want to stay in the heart of Hollywood, who will not have a car, and who are on a limited budget in Los Angeles for a long weekend of 3-4 days. Since you will not have a car, group your activities by neighborhood. For example: you are flying into LAX late on Wednesday night, taking a Lyft or Uber to your hotel in the heart of Hollywood, so you can get a good night’s rest to be up bright-and-early on Thursday. Spend your first day exploring Hollywood Boulevard; Friday you could take the Red and Expo lines to Santa Monica to check out the pier, beach, and promenade; Saturday take the Red Line to downtown to explore; Sunday can be back in Hollywood to buy a few souvenirs before heading back to LAX to catch your flight home.

Santa Monica Pier Sign

Santa Monica gets pretty busy on the weekends, so consider visiting the west side on Friday or Monday. A lot of vacationers will visit Santa Monica on the last day of their trip due to its relative proximity to LAX. If you decide to do this, just be aware that there are limited luggage storage options here; do not drag your bags around all day – that’s just miserable.

Leave your hotel early and grab a bite at The Waffle or Groundwork Coffee. If you want an old-school standard, walk up to 101 Coffee Shop – its been in several movies, but is a no frills coffee-and-toast kinda joint. After breaky, head over to Hollywood Blvd / Vine Street (intersection where Richard Gear picks up Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). Look for signs around the W Hotel with a big “M” on them and head underground to the Metro where you can catch the Red Line towards downtown LA (you will also see this referred to as the “A Line” – new name, hasn’t quite caught on). Get off at the 7th/Metro stop (it’s a big one – lots of people will get off here) and follow signs for the Expo Line to Santa Monica (now called the “E Line”). More info about the Metro.

This trip, with walking and transfers, will be around an hour, maybe hour-15. The Expo terminates in Santa Monica. The rides at the pier don’t start until 11 AM, so depending on how much of a morning person you are, you may need to kill sometime. Walk up and down the 3rd Street Promenade to check out the shops, performers, and get in some good people watching. You can also grab a bite or beverage at the many restaurants in Downtown Santa Monica. Get to the pier at 11 AM. Even if you are not into amusement park rides, go on the Pacific Wheel – great views of the bay. Afterwards, walk to the end of the pier to look at the fisherman and poke into the Bait & Tackle Shop. After the pier, you can walk (or rent bikes / scooter) to Venice; trip is about a 45 minute to walk from the pier or 20 minutes by bike.

Venice is wild. There is a lot of homeless activity in the area, but you may not even notice since the area is filled with street performers, hippie shops, and just general oddness. Definitely stop by Muscle Beach to look at the bulky fitness junkies. If you’re into it, you can continue south to Marina del Rey to take a whale-watching trip or rent kayaks and paddle around some of the huge yachts there. Another optional excursion is to walk over to the Venice Canals to see how millionaires spend their money. If the restaurant options in Downtown Santa Monica did not satisfy your cravings, nearby Abbot Kenny in Venice is lined with kombucha bars, ice cream shops, and vegan joints.

At some point, walk out into the sand and dip your toes into the Pacific. Santa Monica / Venice is not the best beach in LA, but it is the most famous and for those used to east coast or gulf beaches, it is pretty amazing. If you are feeling adventurous, there are many surf schools that will rent you gear and take you into the water for some surf 101. The swells are small, but very consistent between the two piers, so not a bad place to try surfing If you’ve never been.

After Venice, walk / bike / scoot back up to Santa Monica. If you have spent all day here, consider hanging out until 8 PM to see the sunset – one of the best places in the world to see it. You can also try more rides on the pier as it becomes a completely different experience at night once all of the ride lights have been turned on.

If you are really interested in visiting Malibu, you need to catch the bus from Palisades Park in Santa Monica. The 134 will take you as far as Zuma Beach. Malibu is magnificent, but if you have limited time, it should not be a priority. The bus ride is long, and there’s honestly not a lot to see unless you plan to surf, visit Pepperdine, or eat delicious fish. Malibu is really better enjoyed by car so you can cruise through the neighborhoods to see the houses and carry all your beach gear.

If you decide not to spend more of your day at the beach, you can head back to the Expo line and start your journey back to Hollywood. Here some suggested stops along the way:

  • Bergamot Station – really cool cluster of high-end and experimental art galleries.
  • Culver City – home to Sony Studios and now YouTube, Apple, and Netflix. Culver City was nothing to speak about 20 years ago, but the local government has invested millions in the area and it has become a real hot spot for restaurants and studios. Other than the Sony Studios Tour, there’s not really a lot of organized activities here, but the Museum of Jurassic Technology is an interesting place to visit if you’re looking for a unique experience you can’t find anywhere else. Depending on the timing of your day, Culver City is a good place to stop for dinner.
  • Expo Park – Adjacent to USC, this stop on the Expo line is home to the Natural History Museum and CA Science Center (and soon to be the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art) as well as the LA Memorial Coliseum, Banc of California Stadium (home the LAFC). You can just walk around and look at some of these interesting buildings, but it is strongly recommended to walk into the Science Center – its FREE! Although most of the exhibits are aimed at kids, this museum has one of the most impressive collections of space exploration history, not the least of which is the Space Shuttle Endeavor. No advanced tickets required; just stroll in and ask anyone where they shuttle is. There may be a tiny line to get into the building where they have shuttle parked, but it usually goes very quickly.
  • Downtown LA – You will need to transfer from Expo back to the Red Line. You could pop out of the train station and walk around Downtown a bit, but there’s tons to see, so it might be best to do this with a whole day to explore.
  • Thai Town – off the Red Line, east Hollywood is comprised a several neighborhoods that range from hipster-rich, to sketchy. Thai town is a bit in between, but if you like Thai food at all, do yourself a favor and have dinner here.
    • Sapp Coffee – order the Boat Noodle Soup and the Papaya salad. If you like spicy, look the server in the eye and say real slow “Thai Spicy”. They will mess you up. (NOTE: this place is cash only and closes at 8 PM)
    • Pa Ord – a little trek from the train stop, but this place is on the “newer” side for restaurants in Thai Town. Also offering really spicy dishes, they have lots of non-spicy options as well as some tasty veggie and noodle options. They are more accustom to visitors from outside of the neighborhood here, so if you’re not confident on what restaurant to try, this might be your best option.
    • Jitlada – a bit more of a trek, bit probably the most popular Thai restaurant in LA. Matt Groening used to frequent this spot while making the Simpsons, so check out some of the artwork on the walls!
  • Back in Hollywood – if you’re not completely exhausted, it may be interesting to walk up and down Hollywood Blvd again to see how different it is at night with all the lights on and freaks on display.

Before committing to a specific neighborhood, you should to do a little homework. Some reliable sources of vetted information about Los Angeles include:

  • https://www.santamonica.com/experience-santa-monica/
  • https://www.discoverlosangeles.com/things-to-do
  • https://www.tripadvisor.com/Tourism-g32655-Los_Angeles_California-Vacations.html

Be wary of sites that are only focused on selling hotel rooms, travel packages, or tours as their intentions are less about tourism and enjoying a visit in a specific way, and more about commerce and selling specific goods or services you may or may not need for your visit. Similarly, some of the recommendations linked above should be considered only if they fit your travel preferences and tastes. If you seek travel advice from sites that rely on user submissions like TripAdvisor, Facebook or Reddit, you can find some credible suggestions and recommendations, but there are also lots of trolls or reviewers that may not share your specific outlook or expectations, so don’t necessarily take the advice there as sage.


Feature image courtesy of @caraanmarc

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