Growing up in Texas and spending the majority of our time until recently on the east coast, Santa Monica had always seemed like the essence of Southern California. Once we got the chance to explore it for ourselves (2019), we found that although the area is pretty rad it didn’t shine quite as much as some of the other spots in California. However, its close proximity to LAX as well as it’s iconic nature still make it worth spending a day exploring. After all it is the end of classic Route 66!
Santa Monica Pier
On the summer day we visited, the one hundred plus year old Santa Monica Pier (built in 1909) was chock full of tourists. Although Dom and I enjoy touristy sights to some extent, we prefer the slightly less beaten path when we travel even more. However, it’s impossible to bypass iconic landmarks, yes? Enter: Santa Monica Pier, one of the very last operating oceanfront amusement parks. The pier itself is free to stroll and way back when was actually two separate structures that were later combined. Although much of it has been replaced over the years it still does have that nostalgic feel, and well, that’s pretty sweet.
Additionally, Pacific Park (the amusement park on the pier) offers twelve different carnival-style rides as well as has an abundance of food stalls. Cool, right? Although I wouldn’t claim to travel on a shoe-string budget, I also wouldn’t say that we are free with our travel funs either. We like to see AND do a lot and thus have to be fairly careful with what as well as how we choose to do things. Overall, we found the oceanside park to air a bit on the pricey side ($5-10/ride or $32.95 for a daily access wristband). Compromising with our kiddos we let them each choose one activity. Miles chose the iconic (+ thrilling) West Coaster. At $10/ride, it is most certainly pricey, but at least does take you around twice.
Not digging Pacific Park? The 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 (particularly in COVID times).
- 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.
Heal the Bay Aquarium
Our kids love aquariums, zoos, aviaries…basically anything that involves animals. Thus this stop was a must. Albeit small, this fairly inexpensive aquarium is tucked neatly underneath the Santa Monica Pier making it an easy stop. Lots of different species on exhibit and a good number of hands on activities for the kids kept our little travelers engaged and happy (plus it’s a nice little break from the sun’s rays). Being petite in nature we suggest budgeting 30-45 minutes for exploring.
- Hours: Daily, 1230 – 1700
- Admission: $7/Adults and Children 13+, free for children 12 and under
- Parking: see Santa Monica Pier parking above
Looking for a place to just walk or bask in gorgeous Cali weather? Seek out Palisades Park, a 25 acre sliver of green space between the beach cliffs and Ocean Avenue. Dotted with benches, picnic areas, and several restrooms it’s a nice spot to just sit and be or enjoy a picnic lunch. Located really close to the pier the park makes a great next stop in the daily flow.
- Hours: Daily, 0500 – Midnight
- Admission: Free
- Parking: Please see Santa Monica Parking above
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/fountains that the kids got a kick out of.
Third Street Promenade:
- Hours: Varies depending on the store
- Parking: Pedestrian only. We left our car parked at the pier and walked.
This six-acre public park might have been our kiddos favorite – they love freedom, gardens, splash pads, and climbing #allthethings. Tongva checked all those boxes and thus deserves a solid spot on our list! 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.
- Hours: Daily, 0600 – 2300
- Admission: Free
- Parking: See Pier parking above
Santa Monica Brew Works
We only spent a day in Santa Monica, so it’s laughable to think that we could even attempt at making a comprehensive restaurant recommendation section. We did, however, stop for some food truck eats as well as a couple beers at Santa Monica Brew Works, so check it out below. As we revisit, we plan on continuing to add to the list.
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 or heck, do both! In addition to being a family-friendly spot it also has quite a few free parking spots right out front. While we can’t say its our favorite craft brewery, 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.
- 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.