The salty spray of the ocean blows across the highway as the Southern California beaches come more clearly into view. An inexplicable energy rises up from the sandy ground, creating a childlike sense of excitement as the faint sounds of joyous screams are heard coming from the pier. All signs of city life are left behind as you drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, through the McClure Tunnel, and along the seemingly endless shores that make Santa Monica a quintessential beach town.
Contrary to the frigid weather currently settling in among the high-altitude regions of the state, Santa Monica temperatures hover just below 70 degrees during November, welcoming in consistent surf and satisfying swells. Though this coastal oasis only covers 8.3 square miles of land and about three miles of coastline, there are endless things to do in Santa Monica, from surfing and skating to wandering around the farmers market and seeing the end of Route 66 at the Santa Monica Pier. The oceanside city’s fresh air and turquoise waters embody the spirit of an endless summer, so pack your bathing suit, grab your outdoor gear, buckle up, and hit the road for an unforgettable weekend in Santa Monica, California.
Cruising along the 10 between Anaheim and Santa Monica, the childlike excitement of going to amusement parks begins to transform into a craving for the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean. The need to relax has fully settled in, and nowhere sounds better than the beaches of Santa Monica. While the infamous Los Angeles traffic could easily derail the vacation’s leisurely mindset, the journey is half the fun. With the windows rolled down, the radio turned up, and the L.A. skyline popping out next to the palm trees bordering the highway, the world seems peaceful.
After what feels like an hour of driving through the concrete-laden city, the urbanscape is replaced with green foliage, eucalyptus trees, and the occasional cypress. The smog gives way to blue skies before being overcome with the gentle fog that indicates the ocean is near. While it is tempting to jet directly to the white-sand beaches, a cup of coffee and a douse of history are just what the doctor ordered. When it comes to historic coffee shops in Santa Monica, it doesn’t get much better than Dogtown Coffee. Housed in the building that was once home to Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions—which helped to popularize skateboarding in the 1970s—Dogtown Coffee serves up the Santa Monica spirit in every cup of micro-roasted, local, and organic coffee. Opt for the DTC Salty Dog caramel iced coffee for a decadent cold brew mixed with sweet caramel and finished off with a sea salt–infused foam. Pick up the avocado toast with organic hard-boiled eggs, black sesame seeds, and bacon for an unbelievable start to a fantastic vacation. After grabbing a pound of whole-bean coffee and a jute tote, head back to the car and drive along the coast to the Saturday farmers market.
The towering palm trees and ivy-covered overpasses offer great distractions from the drab grays that coat everything from the sky to the pavement, until the surreal ocean vistas come into view and consume every bit of focus. Pedestrian bridges and quaint beachside real estate seem to appear out of nowhere as the monotonous freeway views are replaced by the dreamy panoramas of vacation.
Though side streets offer a more direct route to the market, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to see the ocean glistening in the morning sun. The cyan waters are dotted with the occasional ambitious surfer catching the cresting waves, hoping to avoid riptides like those present at the Venice Fishing Pier a town over. Families lay out their beach blankets, post their umbrellas in the sand, and prepare to build sandcastles as the day warms up and the waters become much more inviting. Though it’s a quick drive, there is something incredibly memorable about these shores that lingers as you hook inland towards the Third Street Promenade.
Between the artisanal olives, fresh organic dates, and locally grown pecans, there is no shortage of fall produce at the Santa Monica farmers market. Unlike most cities throughout California, Santa Monica is home to three different markets; of these, the Saturday event is most geared towards home chefs. The Wednesday market is more focused on supplying local goods to the nearby eateries, and the Sunday setup is full of prepared goods for the whole family. Being surrounded by so many local farmers and residents, it’s easy to imagine making Santa Monica your permanent home.
A jar of local honey, a pound of juicy apples, and a dozen or so fruit samples later, the beach is calling. While there are so many things to do at Santa Monica pier, lounging by the water’s edge at Santa Monica State Beach sounds like the right introduction to the area.
The powdery sands envelop your feet as you walk towards the waves, and though it’s more difficult to traverse this landscape, the weight of everyday life seems to slough off a bit more with every passing second. The sun’s rays are surprisingly warm for this late in the year, but nothing feels worth complaining about in such an incredible environment, so an extra layer of mineral sunscreen replaces every concern.
A few hours of forgetting about the rest of the world is enough to make you feel like a new person, but as the morning’s bites begin to wear off, it becomes essential to grab something to eat. The sand seems to stick to every inch of skin—including the bits that didn’t even touch the sand—but some vigorous toweling off takes care of most of it. A quick change of clothes and a dose of leave-in conditioner renew the vacation glow, so it’s off to Stella Barra Pizzeria to satiate your hunger.
Since Stella Barra is located near Dogtown Coffee, the roads begin to look more familiar, but the warmth of this eatery feels entirely new. The marble bar top, industrial furniture, and thick wooden tables welcome hungry guests looking for a luxurious meal. As a California-style pizza joint, Stella Barra is constantly changing its menu to accommodate the freshest local and sustainable ingredients from the nearby farmers markets. Start off with the creamy, organic tomato bisque if you get the chance, and you’ll swear you’re in heaven after a single bite of bisque-drenched garlic bread. Next, make the most of seasonal veggies with an order of crispy brussels sprouts drizzled with balsamic vinegar, topped with Parmesan, and sprinkled with breadcrumbs.
After luxuriating in these incredible dishes, it’s finally time to move on to the main event. There are nearly a dozen different pizzas to choose from, so it’s difficult to make a decision, but the prosciutto and egg pizza with Parmesan cream sauce and a dash of chili flakes is never the wrong choice. For a bit of simplicity, order the pecorino and rosemary tavern-style pizza; its organic tomato sauce, olive oil, Grana Padano cheese, and sea salt provide familiarity without being boring.
Once your fully satisfying meal comes to an end, climb back in the car and make your way to the Viceroy Santa Monica. While there is no shortage of hotels in Santa Monica, there is nothing quite like the elegance of the Viceroy. Striped floors complement the city- and ocean-view rooms as the soft linens beg for a cozy night in. Though the comfort of the suites offer enticing opportunities to take it easy, there are so many fun things to do in Santa Monica that just can’t wait.
The first stop is the Camera Obscura Art Lab along Ocean Avenue. While there are dozens of activities—including crafts, cultural programs, painting lessons, and salsa classes—offered here, the main attraction can only be seen if you exchange your drivers license for the key to the camera obscura. After climbing a set of stairs, you’ll enter a dark room with a white disk in the center that shows the projections of whatever is passing by outside. Like the camera obscura in San Francisco, this is one of the last functional camera obscura devices remaining in California.
Continue the cultural exploration of Santa Monica by making your way to Bergamot Station. Bergamot Station has a rich history; it started as a railroad station before being turned into a celery-packing house, an ice-making plant, and a water heater manufacturing facility before finally getting a new life as the renowned art complex it is today. This unique spot in downtown Santa Monica hosts a dozen-plus global artists and is the ideal place to see a wide range of artwork for free.
The day seems to be over in a flash, and it doesn’t seem possible that half of your vacation could already be behind you. Trying to shake this reality from your mind, drive back towards the ocean to get a closer look at the Santa Monica Pier and its surrounding attractions. While it might appear to be a tourist trap, the pier is actually home to some of the best things to do in Santa Monica; from riding the carousel and checking out the ferris wheel at Pacific Park to stopping by the Original Muscle Beach (which is surprisingly in Santa Monica, not Venice) and seeing the end of Route 66, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in this area. Grab a funnel cake, have a caricature drawn, and take plenty of touristy photos to make the most of this carefree destination before the night is over.
Waking up without a blaring alarm feels so foreign and so amazing that it’s hard to believe it’s not just another dream. A cup of coffee in bed seals the deal, and though you’re not ready to return to real life after such an incredible weekend away, there’s still enough time left to enjoy Santa Monica that there’s no use in focusing on the inevitable. So for now, it’s time to don a bathing suit and take a dip in one of the hotel’s plunge pools.
There’s something extra special about swimming in a hotel pool that just can’t be replicated back home. Of course, the adorable dogs prancing around the property at this dog-friendly hotel don’t hurt. But the combination of the two make the time pass by in the blink of an eye, making checkout time nearly upon you. Thankfully, packing doesn’t take long after such a short stay.
Once you catch your breath and throw the luggage in the car, brunch at the Viceroy’s Cast restaurant is the perfect reward. The artisanal charcuterie and cheese board comes complete with dried fruits and grilled crostini and proves to be the antidote for the end-of-vacation melancholy that has settled in. This dish was made for sharing, so there’s plenty of room left for the decadent eggs Benedict or the unexpected delight of feta, tomatoes, and poached eggs dotting the shakshuka. The bespoke coastal furnishings, the way the indoors greet the outdoors, and the seasonally fresh ingredients combine to transport diners to faraway places without them having to leave the beautiful weather of Southern California.
The morning was nothing if not well spent, but the afternoon approached all too quickly. While the coastal vibes and surfing spots tug at your heart strings, there are too many things to do near Santa Monica that come highly recommended and thus can’t be ignored. Since Malibu is so close by, a quick trip isn’t optional—even if it is just for a drive to Point Dume to watch the rock climbers for a few moments or to Malibu Farms for a quick drink.
With time running out and numerous Santa Monica attractions left on the to-do list, you should already be planning your next trip. A hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, a meal at Rustic Canyon, a dip in the pool at the William Randolph Hearst–designed Annenberg Community Beach House, and a concert at McCabe’s Guitar Shop are all unique experiences only available in this small region of California—so you don’t want to miss out.
Though it seems much too soon, the journey from Santa Monica to San Diego County is about to begin. But don’t worry—we’ll be back, Santa Monica.