Santa Monica: Welcome to the playground

Santa Monica has gone from a dull suburb to a California tourist mecca.


Standing proud: the Santa Monica skyline from above the Pacific Highway

Standing proud: the Santa Monica skyline from above the Pacific Highway

Just 40 years ago it was a rather dull suburb of Los Angeles where the main attractions were the beach, a British pub and a shop selling Marmite to homesick expats.

But as LA’s creative types began moving in, in the 1970s — to join the Brits who always knew they were on to a good thing — Santa Monica’s shopping, dining and entertainment offerings improved dramatically.

Now this pleasingly heimishe beach town is a fully-fledged tourist destination in its own right, especially when enjoyed in tandem with the surrounding neighbourhoods of Malibu, Venice and Westwood.

Santa Monica’s sandy beaches and clean ocean air are a major draw in a city blighted by smog and traffic, as is the strong walking culture — contrary to myth about nobody walking in LA, the pavements of Santa Monica, Westwood and Venice positively teem with pedestrians.

All LA’s major attractions — Universal Studios, the Hollywood Bowl, Disney Hall and the art museums — are an easy freeway drive away. But what has really made Santa Monica viable as a holiday playground is vastly improved public transport which puts the whole LA metropolitan area within the visitor’s grasp without total dependence on a car.

But that’s for those who want to bother with side-trips at all. Santa Monica itself boasts a jolly pier (celebrating its centenary this year), which provides ever-changing live entertainment. And the sands are broad, clean and supervised — though the Pacific can be surprisingly cold for swimming. From this spring, bathers will find a significant new public asset in the form of the Annenberg Beach House, offering rentable chairs and parasols, a historic 1930s swimming pool and a beach café.

Just a stroll away is the pedestrianised Third Street Promenade, lined with shops, casual restaurants and a cinema, plus nightly live entertainment, and for many visitors an even greater attraction than the beach — restaurants with patios facilitate people-watching (Locanda del Lago is a good choice for fans of Italian food).

Palm-lined Venice Beach: one of the more edgy neighbourhoods

Palm-lined Venice Beach: one of the more edgy neighbourhoods

Elsewhere in town, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are enlivened by a pukka farmers’ market packed with fresh flowers, veggies, locally-produced honey, breads and cheeses which attract the “locavores” seeking to limit their food miles, and visitors will particularly enjoy the food tent which acts as a weekly showcase for local favourites like the wonderful Border Grill.

Located on Fourth Street, it is not to be missed by lovers of Mexican food. It is a hugely buzzy, colourful place which serves a proper margarita (sadly rare in LA) and does really good, authentic south-of-the border fare. It is one of several establishments participating in a new credit-crunch campaign to offer better value — go between 4 and 7pm for reduced rate drinks and delicious green corn tamales for just £2 apiece.

Santa Monica’s affluent singles make their home on Montana Avenue, which has some super, more sophisticated boutiques, of which Harari is one of the most beloved by local fashionistas and Citron, on the opposite side of the road, worth a look for the same kind of loose, elegant silk clothes with a slightly ethnic vibe. There is a whole Montana dining scene, but the street is best enjoyed by day; check out the 17th Street Diner opposite Citron for a great breakfast, and Peet’s for good coffee.

Currently the hottest restaurant in town is the revamped Wilshire, which sits on the eponymous east-west drag, Wilshire Boulevard. Offering easy access to Wilshire, which is not an exciting shopping street but served by frequent fast buses to the beach and Promenade in one direction, Westwood and Beverly Hills in the other, is the Ambrose, one of Santa Monica’s newer boutique hotels.

Apart from sumptuous decor, the hotel throws in continental breakfast and free parking for the majority who will probably opt for the convenience of a car.

Given that parking close to the beach is not so affordable or easy, families may prefer to stay within walking distance of Ocean Avenue, which runs parallel to the sea and is fringed by a broad, grassy promenade with lots of benches.

The town becomes edgier and more interesting as it segues into Venice, its neighbour to the south. The two are joined by Main Street, which has its own somewhat more bohemian and unique boutiques. Notably Eyes on Main for a hugely stylish spectacle selection, and CP Shades across the road for affordable linen shirts and slacks.

Venice — named for the canals which punctuate its picturesque back streets — was once riddled with crime, but no longer. Today, this is film-star territory.

After spending the morning on Muscle Beach, where the body-builders strut their stuff and there’s a great morning vibe, devote the afternoon to gawping at the pretty canalside houses on a towpath stroll. A great street to repair to on a Venice evening is Abbot Kinney, which has two of LA’s most interesting restaurants in Joe’s (great food and sophisticated vibe, if slightly pricey) and Hal’s (noisy, good value local haunt with great art).

Santa Monica itself is packed with affordable eateries, ranging from The Lobster, which offers great seaview dining from the pier and a menu which includes plenty of permitted fish; the funky old celebrity haunt Chez Jay and the cheerful Enterprise Fish Company just off Main Street.

A newer addition to the dining scene drawing the crowds is the trendy but relaxed Rustic Canyon, with food sourced from local farms, wines from boutique vintners and a pleasing buzz.

To the north of Santa Monica lies the real grandeur of the coast: the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of California’s most exhilarating driving experiences, even if only taken for 45 minutes up to Malibu.

A major visitor attraction here is the Getty Museum, with fabulous clifftop views over the ocean and an acclaimed art collection.

Topanga Canyon — an old ’60s playground which has never lost its hippy vibe — offers a beautiful drive through the hills from PCH as well as the charming Inn of the Seventh Ray, still a favourite for organic alfresco dining in the most romantic of settings.

It’s lovely to eat by the sea, too, and while there are many choices, it’s hard to improve on the original beach restaurant Moonshadows, where drinks can be taken onto an outside verandah dramatically perched on stilts above crashing waves.

About an hour north, turning inland to Oxnard, a real — and completely kosher — treat awaits at the Herzog winery restaurant, which serves some of the best food in Los Angeles and showcases its fine California kosher wines. It is also a great place to rest the feet after a run round the nearby Oxnard outlets, whose shops are of even more interest than usual in tough times, and can be expected — like the main Santa Monica department stores — to have huge winter sales.

Travel Facts

Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnz.co.uk) offer non-stop flights London-Los Angeles from £340; one-stop from £314 at the Flight Centre (0870 499 0040; www.flightcentre.co.uk). Rooms at the Ambrose (001 310 315 1555; www.ambrosehotel.com) from about £150 double including continental breakfast. Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers a week’s car rental in Los Angeles from £127. More in-formation at www.santamonica.com

Jewish Santa Monica

The first Jew arrived in Los Angeles in 1847 and in 1850, the US Census recorded eight Jews residing in Los Angeles County.
By the early 20th century, some 2,500 lived in LA. Today’s Jewish population is around 668,000.
Santa Monica has several synagogues and is close to the plethora of kosher restaurants lining Pico Boulevard in adjacent West Los Angeles.
The Museum of Tolerance is nearby.
Chabad runs the kosher Malibu Beach Grill at 22935 Pacific Coast Highway

    Last updated: 11:25am, July 20 2009