Santa Monica travel guide: what to do, where to stay and what not to miss

a collage image one shows the ferries wheel on santa monica pier, image two shows shutters on the beach and image three shows a lifeguard hut
Santa Monica travel guide: what not to missSanta Monica pier / Shutters on the Beach

From the palm trees to the green juices and the famous pier, you’ve definitely seen Santa Monica before (on the big screen and on your FYP).

Hollywood’s favourite holiday destination, this beach city has it all. Picture the glitz and glamour of neighbouring LA, then transport it to a much more laid-back setting, and you’ve got Santa Monica.

Whether you’re celeb spotting at breakfast (peering over the biggest pancake stack you’ve ever seen) or strapping on your roller skates ahead of a jam-packed day, you can trust you’ll be doing it with a smile.

The golden sand and sun-kissed residents make you feel like you're on a movie set, and the list of things to do is just as epic as the blockbusters filmed here. Whether you’re working up a sweat at the Original Muscle Beach or enjoying a yoga class by the ocean, you’ll be living the Californian dream.

Where to stay in Santa Monica

Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows

For ocean views and A-list treatment, nothing compares to this five-star luxury resort. The Miramar has been the destination for over 100 years, welcoming everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Angelina Jolie, and the historic estate, which once belonged to the city’s founders, exudes Hollywood glam.

Sprawled across five acres, you could be tempted to spend your entire holiday inside the resort. With everything from a spa to a barbershop, there are also fitness classes and six on-site dining options - including an eight-person sushi bar.

When it comes to accommodation, you’ve also got plenty of options. If it’s views you’re after, check out the Ocean Tower or Palisades block (do note not every room has an ocean vista). Or, if you want to get away from it all, pick one of the beach-inspired bungalows (which is where we stayed during our visit). Accessed through the gardens, the coveted bungalows are perfectly situated for access to the heated pool, though solo travellers may prefer being closer to the hustle and bustle of the main building come evening.

Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, Fig Restaurant is well worth a visit, and don’t forget to snap a photo of its namesake, the grandiose fig tree found by the hotel’s entrance. Britney Spears visits annually (no, we’re not kidding). Just be warned, once you’ve had a taste of the food on offer, you’ll be back more often than Britney.

Rooms at Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows start from £511 a night

Shutters on the Beach

Beach lovers, this one’s for you. Not only does this hotel enjoy unrivalled views of Santa Monica State Beach and the pier, but it’s just as breathtaking inside of the resort, not least because of the sun-drenched pool terrace and the glittering ocean beyond it.

Overlooking the waves, there’s nowhere better to enjoy the sunset. If you can tear yourself away from the view - and the inviting outdoor pool - there’s also a state-of-the-art fitness centre and a spa if you want to get away from it all. One of the city’s most iconic hotels, it’s also home to Coast (the beach cafe and bar you can hear us rave about below).

Rooms at Shutters on the Beach start from £696 a night

Hotel Casa del Mar

For a romantic getaway, this glam beach-front property is sure to impress. From the grand lobby (think chandeliers and sweeping staircases) to the views of the Pacific, there’s a surprise around every corner.

Once a 1920s beach club, it’s since been transformed into a Mediterranean oasis, and just like its sister property, Shutters on the Beach, the hotel offers an unforgettable stay.

Sure, it’s more traditional than its beachy neighbour but that’s no bad thing. It’s hard not to love this red-brick retreat, included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Our recommendation? Split your stay between both of the gorgeous properties. Good luck choosing which of the Insta-worthy pools is your favourite.

Rooms at Casal del Mar start from £678 a night

Santa Monica Proper

This hotel is seriously sexy. No, really. There’s a rooftop pool and rooftop bar, with panoramic views you won’t want to miss (especially on 4th July).

Inside the sleek, contemporary property you’ll find So-Cal style and natural finishes - the kind that make you feel instantly at ease. Everything, and we mean everything, is easy on the eye. It’s like stepping inside the artwork you can see at Frieze - this urban resort is one-of-a-kind and every detail has been accounted for.

Amenities include the cold plunge, state-of-the-art gym, and Surya Spa, where treatments are centred around age-old Indian wellness principles.

Unlike some of the other properties on this list, it’s a little further from the coast, but you’ll hardly notice when you’re tucking into fresh produce at Santa-Monica’s weekly farmers' market, held on nearby Arizona Ave every Wednesday and Saturday.

Rooms at Santa Monica Proper start from £526 a night

Other recommendations

With over 40 hotels all within four miles of the ocean, Santa Monica boasts plenty more options if you're still on the search for your perfect vacay spot. If you're all about the location, we really enjoyed our stay at Huntley Santa Monica Beach (rooms start from £300 a night), and for adventures, be sure to look for one of the many hotels that offer bike rentals. More budget-friendly picks are also available on Santa Monica's website.

Things to do in Santa Monica

Get arty

You don’t need to be an aficionado to appreciate Santa Monica’s thriving art scene, but even the most selective critics are sure to be impressed.

The obvious attraction is Frieze Los Angeles. The world-famous art fair made the move to Santa Monica Airport last year - and it makes for a brilliant day out.

With almost 100 galleries featured, expect to see world-class installations as you rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the industry. No, really, this is the art world’s Met Gala, and celebs including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Biel, Will Ferrell and Jessica Alba are known to attend.

That said, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you only visit Frieze. 18th Street Arts Center (just across the road from Frieze, whose events schedule is available here) is a must-see if you consider yourself an art fan. Home to Southern California’s largest artist residency programme, this community-focused non-profit, and its dedication to activism and social justice, is truly special.

Oh, and don’t forget Bergamot Station Arts Center, where you can take in fine art galleries, live performances and more. We recommend visiting in the afternoon before heading to Le Great Outdoor for dinner (more details below).

Shop 'til you drop

Souvenir shopping? Montana Avenue is the place for you. With more than 150 boutiques and restaurants and retailers, there really is something for everyone. Pick up stationery, cheese, fine jewellery, pastries, candles, flowers, books, lingerie… the list goes on. Whether you’re looking to upgrade your wardrobe or drop by for lunch, expect to be charmed.

It’s well worth dropping by Santa Monica Place and Third Street Promenade too, if it’s the bigger shops you’re after. We’re talking The Cheesecake Factory, Forever 21, Nordstrom, Sephora and the like.

Surf’s up!

Santa Monica is a beach city so we couldn’t miss the State Beach from our must-see list. How you choose to spend a day on the sand is up to you, but surfers, swimmers and sandcastle makers will all be delighted. We’re talking miles of sandy shores, plus all sorts of water sports opportunities. We recommend stand-up paddle0boarding!

Flex those muscles

Santa Monica is home to the Original Muscle Beach, a perfect training spot for gymnasts, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts. Alternatively, like us, you might just fancy a quick go on the parallel bars, hoop rings and tightrope before heading off the sand for a smoothie. The good news is the free-to-use equipment is impossible to miss, found near the volleyball courts close to the pier. You could even visit while walking along the beachfront en route to Muscle Beach Venice, just down the coast.

…And breathe

From the hiking trails to the endless classes (anyone for SoulCycle followed by reformer Pilates?), there’s no end of workouts on offer in Santa Monica. But have you ever tried yoga on the beach? We recommend giving it a go while you’re visiting to make the most of this outdoor city. Or, if you time your visit right, you can take a class on the pier…

Tour Santa Monica Pier

Last but not least, we couldn’t forget the famous pier. The symbolic end of Route 66, the birthplace of Popeye and a Californian icon, the pier is almost as famous as Santa Monica’s residents. For a trip back in time, take a historic tour of the landmark; or plan your own leisurely stroll along the waterfront. Forrest Gump fans will love the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., while thrill-seekers shouldn’t miss the amusement park.

If you’re visiting mid-May to June, don’t miss the Wellness and Waves schedule which sees yogis host free classes on the pier. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be in town on 29 and 30 June check out Santa Monica Pier 360 Beach Festival (think sports competitions, games, and live music).

Where to eat and drink in Santa Monica

Fig Restaurant

Sweet-toothed tourists, this one’s for you. While Fig Restaurant serves all sorts of yummy food, we need to take a minute to talk about the Nutella french toast. If you think you’ve tasted delicious French toast, think again. Nothing compares to the ginormous chocolate offering at Fig which comes complete with chantilly cream, maple syrup and strawberries. The only word that could come close to describing this dish is ‘heavenly’, but even then that doesn’t do this creation justice. Although it’s the only meal we tried at Fig, we can see why Britney Spears keeps coming back for more.


For mouth-watering brunch, head to Coast. Both charm and comfort are on the menu at this casual beachfront cafe and bar, offered by Shutters on the Beach, and the views are quite literally to die for. Overlooking the sands and the ocean beyond that, it’s the perfect place for a spot of people watching. Tuck into eggs benedict and lemon ricotta pancakes or the breakfast skillet and freshly-baked muffins, while sunseekers stroll by. We’ve never felt quite as relaxed as we did during our visit, and we’ve never tasted a breakfast as nice since.


If you want to dine like a local, you can’t miss this hidden gem. Blueys is all about seasonal cooking and locally-sourced produce; its offering is also seriously tasty. There’s all sorts available from burritos to sandwiches and burgers to grain bowls (think quinoa with lentils and veggies). The best part is it’s super easy to customise everything, making it a great lunch spot for groups. Add your choice of protein, including grilled chicken breast, grilled halloumi or falafel (for an additional fee) to each meal, and trust everyone is happy.


Listen, we were lucky to enjoy lots of delicious food in lots of lovely restaurants during our visit, but Cassia was our favourite of them all. We had high hopes for the Southeast Asian Brasserie based on glowing reviews and, even then, it exceeded our expectations. Our group shared several dishes from the impressive menu (including Kaya Toast, Lemongrass Chicken Satay, Mapo Tofu, House Special Lobster, and Chickpea Curry to name a few) and every dish went down a treat. Trust us when we say there’s a reason critics (and celebs alike) love this place. You might even find yourself dining next to royalty.

Le Great Outdoor

Anyone for a backyard BBQ? Let us introduce Le Great Outdoor. This open-air experience (just in case the name didn’t give it away) is not to be missed during the warmer months. Expect lots of veggies, meat and fish cooked over fire; in other words, this is simple, fresh food cooked well.


If you’re looking to dine like a celeb, look no further than Citrin, named for Chef Josiah Citrin, whose CV is just as impressive as his food. Citrin is a two-star Michelin chef, and it’s no surprise why after tasting his Californian cuisine. We’re talking à la carte, baby! Expect luxury and you won’t be disappointed.

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