18 November 2014 by Debbie Mayger
Just eight miles north of LAX international airport, sandwiched between undulating mountains and the golden beaches of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica is a city enjoying itself. Rated by National Geographic as one of the top ten beach cities in the world, this desirable west coast enclave is home to an eclectic mix of Hollywood producers, fashionistas, hipsters, tech gurus, skaters, surfers and soccer moms, all enjoying their very own slice of southern Californian sunshine - 340 days a year of it in fact - and a welcome escape from the smog-filled mania of nearby LA. Here the people are happy, healthy and socially mobile, the shopping and dining world class, the beach long, golden and sandy, and the real estate prices some of the highest in the world.
Here we take a look at some of the attractions that make this forward-thinking seaside city such a popular hotspot for holiday makers and why, if you're planning a California driving holiday, or you're just in the area for a few days on the way to far-flung destinations like Hawaii or New Zealand, you can't afford to leave Santa Monica out of your travel plans.
Santa Monica Pier
Extending almost a quarter of a mile over the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica's 106 year-old pier is one of Southern California's most iconic attractions. The pier is dedicated entirely to fun, with the five-story West Coast Rollercoaster and the vertigo-inducing Pacific Plunge Tower providing the thrills and the more sedate Pacific Wheel ferris wheel offering wonderful ocean views and the chance to take things a little slower. For high-flying fun and the opportunity to test your aerial prowess, head to the Trapeze School of New York, or perhaps indulge in some 80s nostalgia with a game of PacMan or Skeeball in the pier's arcade. There's also a superb aquarium; an oceanfront footpath, perfect for a late afternoon stroll; and the Santa Monica Pier Carousel, a National Historic Landmark, which featured in the 1973 film The Sting, starring the late, great Paul Newman. During the hot summer months, visitors and locals alike flock to enjoy free concerts and outdoor movies.
Santa Monica Farmers' Markets
Spend a morning wandering one of Santa Monica's four farmers' markets - The Santa Monica Farmers Market, Pico Farmers Market, the Saturday Downtown Farmers Market, also known as the Organic Market, and the Sunday Market - which cater for around 900,000 shoppers each year. Once you've been drawn in by the bustling rows of colourful stalls and hunger inducing smells you'll find live music, free cooking classes, an almost unimaginable selection of seasonal and regional produce and the chance to taste your way around southern California without spending a dime.
Perhaps it's that famous British reserve, but the idea of flexing ones muscles, however bulging, on a public beach in front of a crowd of gawping tourists simply isn't that appealing. But at Muscle Beach, on Santa Monica's gorgeous golden sands, that's exactly what happens, and has done in one form or another each and every day since the 1930s. For many years the original Muscle Beach was something of an icon in the bodybuilding world, with everyone from Hollywood royalty to America's best-known bodybuilding legends working out on its famous bars and beams. Since the late 1980s however, when the site fell into disrepair and the bodybuilders headed south to Venice, this historic landmark was reinvented as a training area for gymnasts and acrobats, with chinning bars, parallel bars and rings, along with a padded gymnastics area and even a small jungle gym for Santa Monica's fitness-crazy kids.
Out and about
Santa Monica is one of California's most walkable cities, a rare and refreshing change in this car-obsessed country. The downtown and beachfront areas, home to Santa Monica's best shops, restaurants and many of its attractions is compact, clean and easy to navigate, while problem parking and heavy traffic are just two more reasons to leave the car at home. A great alternative to walking is to hire a bike, with an abundance of trails taking in a variety of scenic routes throughout the city. The beachfront is a great place to start, weaving between joggers, dog walkers and inline skaters past some of the city's most iconic attractions. If you fancy heading a little further afield on your two-wheeled adventures, the 26-mile bike path takes you along the Pacific shore, past the pier, Muscle Beach and the International Chess Park to Venice Beach and Marina del Ray to the south, while the northbound route takes you up to Will Rogers State Beach, a long sandy bay perfect for swimming, surfing, sun bathing and escaping the crowds.
Arts and culture
Quirky or conventional, Santa Monica is blessed with a wide-ranging variety of museums, art, culture and entertainment. Hire a bike or take a walk through the parks, gardens, boulevards and side streets of the city and you'll encounter street performers, sculptures, murals and public art displays at almost every turn. And don't miss the city's fine array of museums, which include the acclaimed Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Santa Monica History Museum and California Heritage Museum.
Whether you're a second hand obsessive or a king or queen of couture, Santa Monica is right up there with Southern California's best shopping destinations.
Perfect for people watching, the pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade in the heart of downtown combines a selection of high-street brands, unique boutiques, vendor carts and souvenir stalls with salsa dancing street performers and a superb selection of cafes and restaurants to help give you, and your credit card, a well earned break.
From fresh seafood and five-star fine dining to chilled-out beachfront cafes and family-run taquerias, Santa Monica's food scene is as eclectic as its inhabitants. Fresh organic produce and world-leading Californian wines, sourced from the abundant vineyards along the Pacific Coast Highway, have helped turn Santa Monica into an epicurean's dream, while Forbes.com has included Santa Monica on its list of the world's Top Ten Cities for Foodies, an accolade richly deserved.