How to Spend One Day in Santa Monica

If you’ve ever wanted to visit the end of Route 66 then you’ve wanted to head to Santa Monica, CA. Located just 20 miles west of downtown L.A. and featured in numerous television shows and movies, the Santa Monica Pier is one of those iconic California sights that’s fun to experience at least once in your lifetime.

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We visited this hip (+ super trendy) city back in 2019 on our way home from a weekend in Malibu. To be completely honest, we thought we were going to like it way more than I think we actually did. It’s not that Santa Monica is a bad place, it’s just that California has so much to offer it’s hard to be enamored with what felt like a pretty touristy area. That being said, the city is a sweet spot to spend 24 hours along the SoCal coast.

Of course everyone has their take on where to begin, but if you’re short on time this is how we think you can maximize your adventure. The following is an itinerary is completely walkable and will take the majority of a full day. 

1. Santa Monica Pier & Pacific Park

For starters we will just tell you up front that the one hundred plus year old Santa Monica Pier (built in 1909) isn’t our most favorite place to hang (we vastly prefer Stearns Warf in Santa Barbara to this scene), however despite some of the negative aspects (dirty, overcrowded) we feel it is a good place to at least visit once as it is such an iconic piece of Southern California and is one of the very last operating oceanfront amusement parks. Plus the people watching is top-notch as well! Did you know that originally the pier was actually two separate structures that were later combined? Much of the pier over time has been replaced, however it still does feel like you’re stepping a bit back into time (which is kind of the point).

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Also if you’re a Forrest Gump fan, this is where Tom Hanks ran to before turning around and returning to the east coast. Run Forrest, Run! The park offers twelve different carnival-style rides as well as has an abundance of food stalls, however we found most of it to be a bit on the pricey side ($5-10/ride or $32.95 for a daily access wristband). Miles and Dominic couldn’t resist, however, and rode the West Coaster. It’s $10/ride but at least does take you around twice, so don’t go getting off after round one! Also, it’s kinda cool to note that the Ferris wheel is solar powered!

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Views from the pier are also pretty spectacular and it’s neat to get a wide view of the ~3 mile expanse of beach. This beach can get crowded during the summer though, so that is something to keep in mind.

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Santa Monica Pier + Pacific Park:

  • Hours: Daily, 0715 – Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Parking is available at the Pier, however it fills up quickly. We suggest parking at the pier and leaving your car in the lot for the remainder of your visit.

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2. Heal the Bay Aquarium

We considered grouping this little aquarium with the pier above, as it is actually tucked partially underneath/along the pier. They make such great use of the space, however, we felt that it should really stand on its own as due to its relatively small size, it is surprisingly easy to miss. There were over 100 different species on exhibit and lots of hands on activities for the kids.

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We spent about 45 minutes here exploring the exhibits before moving on to our next stop. As far as aquariums go this is a pretty small one, but our kids love sea life so much they still had a blast.

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Heal the Bay Aquarium:

  • Hours: Daily, 1230 – 1700
  • Admission: $7/Adults and Children 13+, free for children 12 and under
  • Parking: see Santa Monica Pier parking above

3. Take a Stroll through Palisades Park

Looking for a place to just walk and enjoy the gorgeous Cali weather? Seek out Palisades Park, a sliver of green space between the beach cliffs and Ocean Avenue. This is a 25 acre urban park has benches, picnic areas, and several restrooms. It’s a great spot to camp out if you brought a picnic lunch or if you are looking for some pretty good people watching. Overall it’s a convenient way to enjoy a bit more of the Santa Monica coast, but not a stop that is going to take a very long time.

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Palisades Park:

  • Hours: Daily, 0500 – Midnight
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Please see Santa Monica Parking above

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4. Downtown Santa Monica (+ Third Street Promenade)

At the time we explored Santa Monica we were living pretty much out in the middle of the desert (aka the nearest Target was a good 40 minute drive away). So perhaps Third Street Promenade was more impressive to us than if you’re visiting from an area chock full of popular stores and eateries. To be frank, as a family we aren’t big shoppers. If anything we love to save and travel as much as possible. But, even with that in mind, Third Street Promenade is a great place to stroll and we love that the four blocks it includes are pedestrian only!

The kids got a little more freedom to roam and there are lots of places choose from if you are looking for some eats. There are also some really cool dinosaur statues that the kids got a kick out of.

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Third Street Promenade:

  • Hours: Varies depending on the store
  • Parking: Pedestrian only. We left our car parked at the pier and walked.

5. Tongya Park

This six-acre public park might have been our kiddos favorite – they love freedom, gardens, splash pads, and climbing #allthethings. To boot for adults the park also has free-wifi available as well as restrooms (always a bonus when traveling with littles!). The best thing about this park was that the playground equipment was pretty varied and different than the typical “slide and swing” fare seen at most playgrounds.

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To be honest, our kids could have spend nearly the entire day here. Perhaps the highlight was when Miles almost threw up after insisting he ride this off balance spinning contraption three or four times in a row. Good times. Good times.

Tongya Park:

  • Hours: Daily, 0600 – 2300
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: See Pier parking above

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6. Santa Monica Brew Works

Billed as Santa Monica’s first and only independent craft brewery, Santa Monica Brew Works features a great tasting room where you can sample a few of their SoCal inspired brews or bring home a few cans to enjoy later. It’s definitely a family-friendly brewery and has quite a few free parking spots right out front. While we can’t say its our favorite craft brewery, but it still makes for a great spot to stop, have a beer, and enjoy the last few minutes of coastal Santa Monica sunshine before heading back to wherever you came from.

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Santa Monica Brew Works:

  • Hours: Currently on reduced hours due to COVID (08/2020). Check their Facebook page above for the most up to date hours.
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free, just find a spot along the neighborhood street. As always, be aware of the street parking signs.

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Happy Travels!

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