In the 1800s, a real estate agent called Santa Monica “the Zenith City by the Sunset Sea.” The 21st-century version of Santa Monica fulfills its early promise with a bustling downtown and beach that draw millions of visitors per year. By the shore are athletic activities and the West Coast’s most famous pier; on dry land are shops that suit a variety of tastes and hundreds of dining options. Pacific Coast Highway connects SaMo with destinations such as Malibu and Topanga.
Third Street + The Pier
Third Street Promenade, three pedestrian-only blocks on 3rd Street between Broadway and Wilshire Boulevard, is perpetually teeming with people. Visitors can hit dozens of boutiques, watch movies at three cinemas or gawk at the myriad street artists.
If they don’t refuel at the eateries along 3rd, visitors can venture to the surrounding blocks to Blue Plate Oysterette or Sugarfish, and imbibe at the Hotel Shangri-La’s rooftop bar or pubs such as Ye Olde King’s Head that hint at the city’s large population of British expats.
Anchoring the promenade at Broadway is Santa Monica Place, a pristine open-air shopping center with Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, 80 boutiques and a top-level Dining Deck with a food court, upscale restaurants and a gourmet marketplace. East on Broadway is the
legendary Fred Segal, an emporium of high-end shops on each side of 5th Street.
Santa Monica Pier, built in 1909, is at the end of Colorado Avenue and features Pacific Park, a miniamusement park with food stands and rides, including a solar-powered, LED-lit Ferris wheel.
More Hot Blocks
Northeast of Third Street Promenade, the stretch of tree-lined Montana Avenue between 6th and 17th streets is busy, but still pleasant. Its boutiques, including Anat B., Planet Blue and Roseark, are of a more independent variety than those lining the promenade. Father’s Office, known for its stellar burger, Locanda Portofino and R+D Kitchen are tops for dining; dessert lovers might venture to Sweet Lady Jane for its famous cakes, adored by celebs.
Just minutes south of downtown Santa Monica, Main Street is a quieter destination that still retains Santa Monica’s beachy-upscale vibe. The long stretch between Pico Boulevard and Rose Avenue contains a number of galleries, restaurants, British pubs and boutiques (mostly femme-friendly) such as Mindfulnest, Goga and Hip’tique. The California Heritage Museum is in a transplanted Victorian-era home, as is the Victorian, adjacent to the museum, which features a cool downstairs speak-easy, Basement Tavern.
Visitors can take in plays at Main Street’s Edgemar Center for the Arts, housed in an angular concrete structure designed by Frank Gehry. An even wider variety of entertainment is at the Broad Stage, Santa Monica College’s first-rate, 499-seat performing arts center that hosts pop and classical music concerts, film, dance and theater.
As L.A. has emerged as a fine-arts capital, the campuslike Bergamot Station (2525 Michigan Ave.) has become an important destination. It’s home to 30 galleries, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and a cafe.
Twenty miles north of Santa Monica on Pacific Coast Highway is Malibu. Stars have made their homes here since the 1920s when May Rindge, the eccentric wife of an heir who once owned all of Malibu, began inviting celebs to live in Malibu Colony to pay the legal bills she had racked up from fighting developers.
Much of Malibu’s best destinations are visible from PCH, such as the many restaurants with ocean views, from the casual (Malibu Seafood) to the upscale (Nobu Malibu). Adjacent to the Malibu Lagoon and Bird Sanctuary, the Adamson House is filled with historic tile. The celebrity-frequented Malibu Country Mart serves as the area’s town square. Together with adjacent Malibu Village and Malibu Lumber Yard shopping centers, there are enough trendy shops and restaurants to while away an afternoon.
Inland, nearing Calabasas, are many wineries such as Malibu Family Wines and Sip Malibu, which offer tastings. Malibu Discovery Tours hosts tours of the region.
Topanga + The Palisades
In the counterculture 1960s, hippies and musicians such as Neil Young hid out in idyllic Topanga, accessed by long, winding Topanga Canyon Boulevard from PCH. Removed from urban activity, it retains its bohemian vibe and independently owned businesses. Hiking trails allow visitors to bask in Topanga’s woodsy beauty. Dining is best by the burbling creek at restaurants such as Abuelitas and Inn of the Seventh Ray. Pine Tree Circle has a lovely bistro and a few boutiques and galleries.
There’s more than initially meets the eye in seemingly sleepy, family-friendly Pacific Palisades, south of Topanga on PCH and accessed from Temescal Canyon Road. Hikers love the shady trails in Temescal Gateway Park. Cafes such as Maison Giraud and upscale mom-and-pop shops such as Elyse Walker and Madison can be found between Via de la Paz and Monument Street near Sunset Boulevard. One relatively unknown gem is the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine on Sunset, a breathtaking oasis on 10 acres with a lush garden and koi- and swan-filled lake.
Also, the resplendent Getty Villa, often mistakenly identified as being in Malibu, is in Pacific Palisades. Styled as a Julius Caesar-era villa, it’s filled with Greco-Roman antiquities. Advance timed tickets are required.
Abbot Kinney famously won the land that would become Venice in a coin toss. He sought to develop it as an American version of the Italian city; the canals are still there, today lined with sleek modern homes and million-dollar bungalows. His namesake Abbot Kinney Boulevard is Venice’s coolest section, where The Tasting Kitchen, Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea and boutiques such as Steven Alan, Linus Bikes, Satine and Jack Spade are the main attractions. Looky-loos love to stroll Ocean Front Walk to ogle the street vendors and performers, or bodybuilders at Muscle Beach.
Reese Witherspoon, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are some of the celebrities who live in this affluent enclave northeast of Santa Monica. San Vicente Boulevard functions as the neighborhood’s main street, with copious independent shops, bakeries, cafes and restaurants between Bundy Drive and where San Vicente becomes Federal Avenue. The petite Brentwood Country Mart, a unique open-air shopping center built in 1948, maintains a retro farmhouse charm but keeps retail offerings contemporary and upscale.
The area’s biggest draw is the Getty Center, the hilltop museum that houses J. Paul Getty’s spectacular art collection.
Marina del Rey
Marina del Rey’s main attraction is the marina, the largest manmade small-craft harbor in the world. Restaurants in the fisherman’s wharf are positioned to take advantage of the views. You can rent kayaks from UCLA Marina Aquatic Center (14001 Fiji Way), or shop and dine at Waterside at the Marina, located at Lincoln Boulevard and Fiji Way.
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