I have a love/hate relationship with Santa Monica. I love being there. My favorite thing is the fresh, ocean air. It’s also beautiful and walkable. The beach is fantastic. It’s a huge beach (long and wide) with mountains, palm trees, volley ball nets, and clean bathrooms! In August the air temperature was about 75 and the sea temperature was warm too. It was perfect — no frying on the beach, no freezing in the water. There’s the famous Santa Monica pier with a ferris wheel, merry go round, people with parrots, etc., but most of the beach is free of tacky boardwalk stuff. It’s just a big, beautiful beach. It’s great for walking. You can walk on a lovely paved trail above the beach or take the stairway down to the beach itself.
Lunch & Shopping
Santa Monica has excellent restaurants, hotels, and shops. The 3rd Street Promenade is a pedestrian street where you can catch live entertainment while you shop and eat. I’ve heard wonderful musicians here, and sometimes see performance art as well. For a pleasant afternoon, grab an outdoor table at Trastevere, order a salad, pizza, and a glass of wine and enjoy the live music and great people-watching. I remember sitting there in December in a short-sleeve top, and I was soooo happy! There are shops all along the Promenade, and if you keep going you’ll end up at the mall.
Of course there is an excellent Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica. You can catch it downtown around Arizona and 2nd on Wednesdays and Saturdays and on Main Street on Sundays. Check the schedule in case things change. You can buy fresh produce to make your own lunch, or get something ready made from one of the lunch-time food trucks. Speaking of food trucks, Tuesday nights are the big food-truck night here. Another option for a quick, casual lunch is Tender Greens on Arizona Avenue.
For an elegant lunch, I suggest going to the Fairmont Miramar Hotel. There are two choices. 1. Walk through the lobby bar to the outdoor patio and try to grab a table. This is a beautiful outdoor lounge, with first-come, first-served seating, but if you snag a seat they’ll serve food from the FIG restaurant in addition to drinks. It’s a wonderful setting to meet friends, hang out, and enjoy the beautiful vegetation and fresh air. (I believe you are expected to at least order drinks if you’re out here.) 2. Go to the FIG restaurant and ask for either a table outside by the pool or a table in the indoor vestibule with a view of the outdoors. I just love it here. Fig features “only the freshest local and organically grown ingredients straight from the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.” My favorite lunch has been a glass of Prosecco, roasted mushroom salad with the addition of spicy red shrimp with charmoula, followed by a perfect cappuccino. I’ve also tried the arugula salad and one of the pizzas. The food and service are very good, but the scenery steals the show.
For dinner, I love The Misfit Restaurant. There’s a vibrant happy-hour scene and an interesting cocktail list if you want to stay just for drinks and appetizers, but the food is fantastic. You can read my full review here.
There are two other areas in Santa Monica for shopping and restaurants that not many tourists visit: Montana Avenue and Main Street, which is technically in the Ocean Park neighborhood. You can walk to both areas from downtown Santa Monica. Montana Avenue is kind of small and cutesy, while Main Street has a pretty cool vibe and growing number of shops and restaurants.
Obviously, I’m a fan of Santa Monica. There’s so much to do on foot, it’s pretty, clean, and it probably has the best air in L.A. But I said I have a love/hate relationship with Santa Monica. What I hate about it is trying to leave. I usually get there in about 30 minutes from the Hollywood area, but every single time I’ve left, no matter what time it is, I’m stuck in a 2-hour traffic jam trying to get back. Leaving Santa Monica during rush hour is absolutely foolish. But even at 8:00 p.m., traffic can be a bear. If you’re on vacation, I recommend staying a couple of days in Santa Monica just to avoid this. The only hotel I’ve been in and can recommend is the Fairmont Miramar, which is going to be pricey but plush. You could check out the iconic Georgian, Shutters on the Beach, or Google the rest. There are vacation rental options on Airbnb and TripAdvisor, but they may be limited as the city is trying to do away with most of them.
From Santa Monica, it’s a short drive, 20-minute bike ride, or 45-minute walk to Venice Beach. The first couple of times I went to Venice, I didn’t like it, but I didn’t venture in far enough to really explore. Venice is a mix of everything and everyone. The tacky, the beautiful, the upscale, and downscale all coexist here. You’ll find all ages, and all types of people, and you’ll find art everywhere you look. Venice used to be the coolest place in the U.S., then it went downhill for awhile, and is now in a revival. The main boardwalk area is tacky and crowded, but I like Menotti’s for good espresso drinks, and High is a fun rooftop bar with a Hollywood vibe, perfect for both people-watching and sunset-watching. Abbott Kinney Blvd. is a cool, sought-after place to live, work, shop, and dine. Like many places in L.A., it’s hard to assess a neighborhood by driving through. If you’re visiting and don’t know the area well, I suggest going in the daytime. Pickpocketing and petty theft have been problems, so hang on to your belongings, and use a U lock for your bike. Beyond the boardwalk you’ll find a great beach with long piers, and nicer shops and restaurants. We ate very pricey but delicious California-cusine at Leona on Washington Blvd. Wandering around the Venice Canals Walkway to see the homes built on man-made canals, makes for a nice afternoon walk. I recommend parking your car and getting around like the locals do: by foot, bike, or skateboard. One thing for sure, Venice is not boring.
Malibu is the playground of the rich and famous. Honestly, I haven’t had much luck there. There’s even more traffic around Malibu than there is in Santa Monica, and after inching along for what seemed like an eternity, we were sick of it before we were even able to get out of the car. While stuck in traffic we could see many magnificent homes, but we wondered how the owners ever got in or out. While all the beach is technically public, it’s not easy to find a spot to enter unless you know the ropes. The easiest way is to go to a public beach entrance where you pay to park and walk to the beach there. Go early to try to avoid traffic. If you like hiking, there are several hiking trails around Malibu that offer beautiful views.
The most fun I’ve had in Malibu was spending the day at Malibu Wines. This is a great picnic spot with live music on the weekends, beautiful views, and beautiful people. Show up with a picnic lunch, buy some wine, and sit on the green artificial turf. It’s really a pleasant way to while away the day. The downside is that Malibu Wines may have the worst wines in all of California. I would skip the wine tasting — it isn’t really worth the money. It’s too crowded, and they are too rushed to offer a real tasting experience. And, like I said, most of the wines aren’t good. I recommend buying a bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc (I tasted them all so you don’t have to!), and get right to your picnic. You can park and walk or park and take a shuttle bus. No one under 21 is admitted — not even infants —and there is a minimum purchase of one bottle of wine per group of 1-4 people. Check the website for details. It’s a fun day, just don’t try to go to the beach afterward unless you want to sit in your car for a couple of hours!
That’s my take on Santa Monica, Venice, and Malibu. If you have any recommendations, please leave a note in the comments section.