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A Day In Santa Monica: LA’s Beach Resort

Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica has long been considered the beach resort for Los Angeles. Now the city is practically part of LA, but until the 1950’s it was separated from its much larger neighbor by open farmland. Angelenos, and visitors, would come to Santa Monica to swim in the cool Pacific waters and frolic on the beach. Nowadays there are many options in and around LA for doing that – Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and, of course, Malibu. However, there are more than enough interesting things to see and fun activities to do to while away a day (or three) in SaMo, so read this article for our recommendations to make the most of your visit.

Some Santa Monica History

The first people to inhabit Santa Monica were the Tongva (for which Tongva Park, in front of Santa Monica City Hall, is named). However, in 1769 the Portolá Expedition passed by and within a few years the Spanish had set up camp in the area and Tongva life and culture, as they knew it, was ending. While passing, the Portolá expedition had stopped at some very pleasant springs, which were called Kuruvungna (“the place in the sun”) by the Tongva who lived in the village located there. Their name for the springs sounds cool to me, but the Spanish immediately renamed them, as was their wont at the time, as the San Gregorio Springs.

As time passed they were renamed the Santa Monica Springs, apparently because it was felt that they resembled the tears that Santa Monica, an early Christian martyr from what’s now Algeria, shed for her errant and impious son (as a side-note Monica is the only Berber name in the English language). Natural features such as springs were very important during those years, since most of the activity in the area revolved around cattle ranching, and in 1828 the name first officially appeared with the granting of the Rancho Boca de Santa Monica to Francisco Marquez and Ysidro Reyes, two important figures in Mexican Alta California. Later the rancho passed through the hands of the famous Sepulveda Family, for whom nearby Sepulveda Boulevard is named (another side-note – the longest street in Los Angeles, at nearly forty-three miles).

Santa Monica 1840
Santa Monica c1875

In the early 1870’s Colonel Robert Baker and Senator John Jones, rich businessmen who’d made their fortunes from silver-mining in Nevada, bought nearly forty thousand acres of the ranch and created the town of Santa Monica. The first lots were sold at public auction on July 15, 1875. At that time most of the fresh water for the nascent community came from the Santa Monica Springs but, funnily enough, the springs are actually in Los Angeles. Now they’re on the property of University High School, about a mile east of Santa Monica, and are under the care of the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation. In 1975 a grave was discovered there dating back to the fifth century BCE, showing how long the area has been inhabited.

The Long Wharf, in 1903

For a while there was a port at Santa Monica, facilitated by the Long Wharf (at 4,700 feet the longest in the world at the time), which allowed ships to unload their cargo to waiting freight trains to carry into Los Angeles. However, with the development of the Port of Los Angeles at Long Beach in the early twentieth century, shipping activities ceased, and Santa Monica reverted to being a resort town for Angelenos and visitors. They would take the train from Los Angeles (what’s now downtown) and spend the day “taking the waters” (as it was known then), before journeying back to the city, or spending the night at one of the big hotels that had opened on the cliffs above the beach. The grandest of them all was the Arcadia Hotel, named after Colonel Baker’s wife, which dominated the beach a little south of where Santa Monica Pier is now. It was here, in 1903, that Colonel Griffith J Griffith (as in Griffith Park) shot his wife in the head, shocking behavior even by the looser standards of Los Angeles in those days! The modern Metro E-Line follows the route of the old Pacific Electric streetcar route to this day and we take it on our LA in a Day tour.

Arcadia Hotel, Santa Monica
The Arcadia Hotel, the beach is much wider now

Then in the 1920’s The Douglas Aircraft Company was founded here, at what’s now Santa Monica Airport. In the 1940’s, with the Second World War in full swing it became one of the biggest aircraft manufacturing facilities in the world. A lot of the housing in the area was built for the workers at the factory. It was the American Dream – they’d earn a good salary doing a good job (they had a strong trade-union), they were able to buy a nice house, close to their workplace (property prices weren’t so crazy back then), and their children would grow up to have even better lives. The American Dream is of course distinct from the California Dream – which is to find gold and get rich baby (or nowadays invest in a tech start-up and get rich). In a few years Santa Monica Airport will be closing, to be turned into a park and housing.

This last part is very important of course, as Santa Monica grapples with the issues of how to accommodate more affordable housing, in a relatively small city that’s blessed with such beautiful natural features. It’s a hard balancing act – how to retain its natural charm, while allowing for natural growth. And change – how to manage that? Still, I have to admit that so far it has retained a ton of its charm, so maybe Santa Monica isn’t doing that bad of a job.

Our Recommendations

So, what are some worthwhile things to do and see in Santa Monica? Which activities would enable you to spend an enjoyable day here?

1. SANTA MONICA PIER

Santa Monica Pier today

You’re going to go there no matter what I say, so I might as well put the pier at the top of the list. And, anyway, it’s worth at least a quick visit. Historically the end point of Route 66, interestingly it started life as a sewage conduit to the ocean, before being bought by one Charles Loof, who expanded it and built the Entertainment Park. That was ballsy of him, because at the time there were no less than five other piers in Santa Monica alone. Check out the carousel in the old Hippodrome, on the left as you walk down to the pier, it was Paul Newman’s hideout in The Sting (and if you haven’t seen that film you must). I definitely don’t recommend eating on the pier though, the food is mostly high-priced and low-quality.

2. ANNENBERG BEACH HOUSE

Situated about a mile north of the pier the Annenberg Beach House sits on what was silent-movie-star Marion Davies’ compound. She had built a mansion and guesthouses here in 1929 and a contemporary described it as “the biggest house on the beach — the beach between San Diego and Vancouver”. Cary Grant bought a neighboring house the following year and many other Hollywood luminaries followed suit in the 1930’s and 40’s. Now the house has gone (demolished in 1956), but you can swim in the original gorgeous, huge, heated pool and look around one of the guesthouses (which is pretty fancy too).

3. SWIM IN THE OCEAN

It might sound obvious, but it’s always surprising to me that more people don’t swim here (there’s no comparison to places like Copacabana, or even Bondi Beach). The water’s certainly not tropical in temperature, but during the summer months it’s close to perfect and very refreshing. There are showers and toilets at the back of the beach too. How about a surfing lesson, while you’re in California?

4. DO A BIKE TOUR OF THE AREA

Santa Monica & Venice Bike Tour video

We’re obviously biased, but one of the nicest things you can do in Los Angeles is cycle through Santa Monica and Venice (that’s why we created the tour in the first place). It’s mostly flat, so it’s minimal effort – for the maximum of results. You’ll see the pier, Muscle Beach, Venice Canals, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Santa Monica Main Street and City Hall, as well as several spots only locals like us know about, and learn a ton of interesting (and potentially useful) information. You can book the tour here.

5. SANTA MONICA MAIN STREET

Main St, Santa Monica
Main Street, Santa Monica

Most visitors go to Third Street Promenade, but the locals usually head to Main Street. It’s where the best bars, pubs and restaurants are, as well as the independent shops and stores. It’s only a couple of blocks from the beach, so it’s easy to find.

6. ABBOT KINNEY BOULEVARD

Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Abbot Kinney Boulevard

Abbot Kinney is actually in Venice LA, but it’s only a short walk down Main Street from SaMo, so it’s an easy place to visit. If you want to see somewhere that’s the epitome of LA cool, this is it, with some great shops, bars and restaurants – and a Med Men (marijuana dispensary), of course.

7. HOTEL SHANGRI-LA, ROOFTOP BAR

Santa Monica, California
The sun sets on Santa Monica

Looking to finish your day exploring the area with a drink, while you watch the sun drop into the mighty Pacific? Then visit the beautiful rooftop bar of the Hotel Shangri-La. The hotel opened in 1939 and still has the stylish Streamline Moderne look that was all the rage at that time. A good (affordable) option for dinner is Tender Greens, just round the corner.

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If you have any feedback on A Day in Santa Monica: LA’s Beach Resort please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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