Planning a trip to Southern California but don’t want to fight LA’s traffic?
Or maybe when you hear the word Disneyland you think, “Been there, done that”?
Check out the city of Santa Monica in all its picture-postcard beauty.
From a funky old pier surrounded by some of the world’s best beaches to its upscale shopping district, scores of art galleries, top-rated restaurants and bountiful nightlife, there are enough things to do in this little oasis just 19km west of downtown Los Angeles to keep you not only occupied but enthralled.
Santa Monica Place: This rather mundane looking 1980s shopping mall was transformed in 2010.
It’s now a bright, open-air gathering spot of upmarket restaurants and stores that connects directly with the city’s pedestrian-friendly Third Street Promenade, forming the heart of Santa Monica’s downtown.
The mall not only rivals Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive in offering high-end, celebrity-frequented brand-name outfits like Kitson, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Barneys, but also provides an abundance of relatively reasonable parking within walking distance of the beach.
A new-old addition to that beach is the Annenberg Community Beach House. Built in the 1920s by William Randolph Hearst for his companion, actress Marion Davies, it was acquired by Santa Monica and opened to the public in 2009. Tours of the guest house and its art gallery are free.
Start by making a beeline to Santa Monica Pier, the 99-year-old landmark with an entrance sign proclaiming it as the final stop on Route 66, the historic highway John Steinbeck declared America’s Mother Road. (Fact check: Route 66 actually ended a block to the north, but the sign still makes for a nice photo opp.)
Here you’ll find everything from musicians, snake handlers, artists and other street performers, to quiet areas set aside for fishing.
In the middle of it all is an amusement park with dozens of rides and attractions, including a solar-powered Ferris wheel that carries riders 40 metres up. The wheel provides arguably the best panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, its beaches, Southern California’s mountains and urban skyline found anywhere.
Near the pier’s entrance is the Hippodrome, built in 1916 and home to a vintage carousel with hand-carved horses, only $US2 to ride ($US1 for kids).
One caveat, the food on the pier is nothing special. For a better dining experience, go south of the pier, past Southern California’s original Muscle Beach where bodybuilders still work out.
There is One Pico, which offers Mediterranean food served at tables almost literally on the sand. Or head inland a few blocks. Zagat rates the French restaurant Melisse “No 1 for food in Los Angeles,” but, really, it’s in Santa Monica.
As for the beach, there is 5 kilometres of it, plenty to go around for surfers, swimmers, sunbathers and the like. You can check it all out by biking, roller skating or walking the boardwalk (actually made of concrete) that parallels the sand.
If there isn’t a concert you want to see at McCabe’s Guitar Shop (Christine Lavin and Holly Near will be there later this month), the night time destination is the Third Street Promenade.
It rejuvenated Santa Monica’s ageing, moribund downtown when it was closed to cars in the late 1980s and remains the city’s signature downtown area with upscale shops, restaurants, bars, boutiques, yoga studios, art galleries and the like.
Santa Monica may give off a small town vibe, but it still covers more than 21 square kilometres in a part of the country where the car is the primary means of transportation, traffic jams are common and road construction projects seemingly never end.
That said, the city’s Big Blue Bus system covers Santa Monica pretty well. Basic one-way fares are $US1 with multiple-ride passes available at discounted prices. For full schedule and fare information visit http://bigbluebus.com . Several hotels also provide shuttle service to the pier, and bicycle rentals can be a handy alternative.
If you do want to drive, be warned that street parking is difficult to find in most tourist areas and restricted to locals in most residential areas.
On the way into town check out Bergamot Station Art Centre. A collection of modest buildings near a maintenance yard in the section of town farthest from the beach, it’s easy to overlook. But inside this 19th century rail yard you’ll find a small art museum and more than a dozen contemporary galleries displaying photos, sculptures, paintings and more.
There’s also a good, reasonably priced restaurant with an outside dining area. Or ask for directions to “Food Truck Alley”, a nearby street on the edge of the city’s high-tech district where a dozen or more food trucks congregate every weekday lunch hour.