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Santa Monica: LA’s Beach Resort

Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica is a city with Los Angeles County, but it’s long been considered the beach resort for Los Angeles. Now the city is very much part of LA’s Westside, 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. It’s largely where beach culture in California, something so intrinsic to the image of LA, really began.

Nowadays there are many options in and around LA for frolicking on the beach – 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 there are more than enough reasons to visit.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of Santa Monica and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.

Early History of Santa Monica

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. Tongva life and culture was, tragically, 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.

Over time though 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 an interesting 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 economic 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).

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.

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 onto waiting freight trains to carry into Los Angeles.

Santa Monica After 1900

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 streetcar from Los Angeles (what’s now downtown) or Hollywood and spend the day “taking the waters” (as it was known then). Journeying back home after supper, or spending the night at one of the big hotels that had opened on the cliffs above the beach.

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. It’s the best way to get there, and you save a ton on parking.

The grandest of all the resort hotels 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 there, in 1903, that Colonel Griffith J Griffith (as in Griffith Park) shot his wife in the head one morning, shocking behavior even by the looser standards of Los Angeles in those days (thankfully she survived)!

Then in the 1920’s The Douglas Aircraft Company was founded here, at what’s now Santa Monica Airport. By the 1940’s, with the Second World War in full swing, it had become 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 plant.

It was the American Dream – they’d earn a good salary doing a good job (there was a strong trade-union representing them), they could buy a nice house, which was close to their workplace (property prices weren’t so crazy in SaMo back then), and their children would grow up to have even better lives than them. It’s the Immigrant Dream.

The American Dream is of course distinct from the Californian Dream – which is to find gold and get rich baby (or nowadays it’s to invest in a tech start-up and get rich). Many commentators get the American and Californian dreams confused, but it’s an important distinction.

SaMo Today

In a few years Santa Monica Airport will be closing, to be turned into a park with housing. And this is very important, as Santa Monica grapples with the issue 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 SaMo isn’t doing that bad of a job. One thing you may notice about Santa Monica is that, unlike many other big cities by the sea, the ocean front is not dominated by high rise apartment blocks and most of the area is decidedly low-rise, allowing the city to retain much of its low-level, seaside feel.

Our Recommendations

Most visitors to Santa Monica head straight for the pier, which makes sense because it is cool, but there’s much more to the city than that and Third Street Promenade, which is a shopping Mecca for many visitors to the area.

Santa Monica is easy to visit using public transport, using either the Metro E-line or the Big Blue Bus.

1. SANTA MONICA PIER

You’re going to go there no matter what you read here, so I might as well put the pier at the top of the list. And, anyway, it’s worth at least a quick visit.

Interestingly it started life very simply as a sewage conduit to the ocean, in 1909, before being bought by Charles Loof in 1916. Loof was a pioneer amusement park creator and he expanded the pier to the south, and built the entertainment park on top of it. That was actually pretty ballsy of him, because at the time there were no less than five other entertainment piers in Santa Monica alone (and several further down the beach in Venice too).

During the late 1930’s and early 40’s enterprising gangster/entrepreneur Anthony Correro anchored an old ocean-going liner, the SS Rex, three miles off-shore in the bay. Patrons would take a water taxi from the pier out to the ship, where there were gaming tables, a fine-dining restaurant and other forms of “entertainment” (allegedly).

Hardly surprisingly the government was none too happy with this state of affairs and there was a three-day stand-off in 1942 with the U.S. Coastguard (after the U.S. maritime boundary was extended to twelve miles), before the ship was captured and confiscated. Not long after that the mob, led by Bugsy Siegel, moved their gambling operations to the newly built Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

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 definitely should). There are also signs advertising the end of Route 66. The highway was extended to Santa Monica, from downtown LA, in 1935, but technically it ended at Lincoln and Olympic Boulevards, not at the pier itself.

I wouldn’t recommend eating on the pier though, the food is mostly high-priced and low-quality.

2. SANTA MONICA & VENICE BIKE TOUR

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 you’ll learn a ton of interesting (and potentially useful) information.

Tour runs 10 am, daily. Tickets are $70 pp, including bike rental. More information here.

Santa Monica & Venice Bike Tour video

3. ANNENBERG BEACH HOUSE

Situated about a mile north of the pier the Annenberg Beach House sits on what was silent-movie-star Marion Davies’ estate. She built a mansion and several large guesthouses here in 1929. You can judge the scale of the house by a contemporary’s description:

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 old guesthouses (which is pretty fancy).

4. 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?

5. SANTA MONICA MAIN STREET AND THIRD STREET PROMENADE

Most visitors go to Third Street Promenade, but the locals usually head south, to Main Street. It’s where the best SaMo bars, pubs and restaurants are, as well as a lot of independent shops and stores.

Main Street’s only a couple of blocks over from the beach and about 10-15 minutes walk from the Promenade, so it’s easy to explore both.

6. HOTEL SHANGRI-LA, ROOFTOP BAR

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.

7. ABBOT KINNEY BOULEVARD

Abbot Kinney is actually in Venice LA, but it’s only a short walk down Main Street from Santa Monica, so it’s an easy place to include on a visit to the area.

If you want to experience something that feels like the epitome of LA’s laidback charm, or the epicenter of LA’s beach vibe, then this is it. Abbot Kinney has some great shops, bars and restaurants, as well as a Med Men (marijuana dispensary), of course.

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you have any feedback on 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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