Our guide to visit Santa Monica with kids: what to see, how to get around, where to stay. Find out our selection of the fun things to do in Santa Monica with kids grown up will love too!
When asked where we spent our summer vacation last year, I usually answer ‘Los Angeles’ but this is not quite true. Our accommodation was indeed in LA but we spent the vast majority of our days in the seaside city of Santa Monica.
Surrounded on three sides by the city of Los Angeles proper and to the West by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica is a lovely city with a family friendly vibe and unmistakable seaside town feel.
We got there on our first day in LA (out accommodation was a mere 10 minutes drive from it, in a gorgeous area called Pacific Palisades, where we did a home swap) and fell in love with it at once.
Curious about the practicalities of a home swap with children? Find all you need to know about a family home exchange here.
Many things make Santa Monica family friendly. You don’t need a car to enjoy Santa Monica, you get a lovely ocean breeze that takes away the edge of the otherwise scorching LA summers and the city has one thing that worked on us like a magnet: the stunning sandy expanse that is Santa Monica beach.
Here, you can sunbathe and swim with the palm-tree framed backdrop of the Malibu mountains plunging into the ocean, one of the most beautiful coastlines I have ever seen.
Here are our favourite things to do in Santa Monica with kids.
Going to California with family? Then you may also like out take on visiting Joshua Tree, one of out favourite gateways from LA!
Fun things to do in Santa Monica with kids
Please note. We know Santa Monica as visitors and we list in this post activities we believe tourists and out of town visitors would enjoy.
Hit the beach
The star attraction in Santa Monica is Santa Monica State beach: vast, soft and golden, it stretches for miles along the shimmering Pacific coast all the way from Venice beach, South, towards Malibu, immediately to the North.
Is Santa Monica beach free?
Access to the beach is free and people flock here with umbrellas, beach loungers and cooler bags.
Coming from Italy, where beaches are often under management of private establishments, this was a lovely surprise.
We had imagined Los Angeles to be a land of exclusive clubs and private access beaches and while solid gates suggest the 1% indeed hangs around this area, in Santa Monica there is much more than that.
Access to this soft sand paradise is open to all and if you bring your own pic-nic you can have a day here almost for free.
Where to park near Santa Monica beach?
Parking (pay and display) is available in many locations along the main road. With kids, we found the handiest to be just beside Santa Monica pier. If you go early enough to find a place here, you are walking distance not just from the beach but from the city centre too.
Should you get there late or on a very busy day, such as summer weekends, a good alternative are hotel parking lots: they dot Ocean Avenue and you can get parking for about 15$ a day – if this sounds like a lot, it is worth comparing with other areas such as Venice Beach where we were asked up to 50$ a day for a spot under the scorching sun! In case you are wondering no, we did not accept that price and instead opted to visit Venice differently: I will share all details in my next post!
Is Santa Monica beach busy?
The beach is extremely popular but it is so vast you will always find a spot: the busiest area is just around the pier where you will find the highest concentration of families and easy access to the pier amenities.
Water access is organised in sections: part is strictly for surfing, part for bathers. Life guards are on duty and children of the 80s will recognise the red swimsuits and beach patrol cars made famous by a popular TV show.
As cringe-worthy as it sounds, this is what happens in LA: foreigners (like us!) will spend half their time marveling at things they believed existed on the silver (or small) screen only!
Play and relax in the Annenberg community house
For a more organised beach experience and a hot lunch, our favourite place was Annenberg Community Beach House. Located just on the beach, a little farther North than Santa Monica pier, Annenberg community house has a nice cafe/ restaurants, a terrace with umbrellas and a playground.
During the summer the house gets very popular and the parking fills up quickly. We opted to cycle here instead and a handy bike rack just outside meant we could enjoy our day there worry free.
Annenberg community house is a lovely spot: if you opt to have lunch here, you can have a juicy burger while sitting with your feet in the sand and, while you wait, the kids can have a play in the playground just beside the dining area.
You can eat outside or inside and kids menus are available. The staff deserves a special mention as we found them exceptionally nice!
Ride a bike
Santa Monica beach is framed on one side by the mighty Pacific and on the other by a cycling and pedestrian path.
The path is popular with adults and kids, well kept and flat. We cycled from Venice beach to Annenberg one July morning at it stays as one of the highlights of our family trip.
You can rent bikes in several location along the path and pay either by the hour or by the day. Kids bikes are available in many shops along the paths with also helmets and trailers for smaller kids.
The path is safe for kids but make sure they stay on the cycle lane and have a basic understanding of the rules of the road to avoid collisions: bikers and skaters abound and can go quite fast!
Take a photo at the end of route 66
Legendary route 66 finishes in Santa Monica and its end is marked by a sign as iconic as the route itself.
It is located right on Santa Monica pier and you can’t miss it: while not big, it is majour photo op for tourists and in the busy season you will have to wait line if you want to be immortalized beside it!
The route 66 sing is only one of the many attractions on Santa Monica pier: on it, you have pacific park with many rides and the beautiful Santa Monica ferry wheel, arcade games, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops.
We took strolls along the pier often but I’ll be honest: it didn’t do much for me.
If you get there before the crowds, the view is beautiful but once ‘rush hour’ hits, you are basically fighting for elbow room! This is why I made the controversial decision to not include the pier, as such, among our favourite things to do in Santa Monica with kids, at least in high season!
Splash around in Tongva park
On the other side of PCH lies Tongva park, a lovely green space our kids adored. The park is beautifully maintained, it has recycled water features (water in California is a scarce resource and must be used carefully) and has a gorgeous play area.
This has a soft pavement, slides and frames and a splash park kids find irresistible. Amazing kid-friendly space!
Tables under shady trees are just beside the play area making this a pleasant location for adults too.
What we loved about the park was the relaxed atmosphere: kids were playing and splashing in their swimsuits or clothes, parents often joined in, the Californian sun taking care of getting you dry in no time.
It was one of our go-to spots in Santa Monica and one of the things that made Santa Monica such a lovely place for a family day out.
Take a stroll along Palisades park
Another green area in Santa Monica is Palisades Park.
More than a park as such, this is a green area along PCH with trees, the Camera Obscura, art lab and benches.
Strolling here, you find people from all walks of life: some practice yoga, some smoke, some simply sit and watch the beautiful coast behind them.
While not a destination in itself, we always made a point of strolling along Palisades Park, especially when the sun was about to set: the view is gorgeous..
3rd Street Promenade
3rd street promenade is a pedestrianized street in the centre of Santa Monica.
It stretches along few blocks and is immensely pleasant for families. The road is dotted with shops, restaurants and cafes and since it is closed to cars, street performers fill it with acts going from balloon sculptures to acrobatics to singing.
We loved spending time here and the kids could run around freely: as a joke, I said to Philip it was like being in Brighton but with a distinctive American feel… I still stand by the statement and I meant it in the most positive way possible!
Santa Monica 3rd street promenade also had something special for the kids: fountains in its centre with statues of dinosaurs. We saw them on our first day and somehow they kept catching their attention three weeks later.
Over the course of our vacation, we spent uncountable hours sitting in cafes while the kids made friends with these watery giants, one of the easiest things to enjoy when visiting Santa Monica with kids in tow.
Where to stay in Santa Monica with kids
As I mentioned, we didn’t stay in Santa Monica proper but we loved the city so much we put a lot of research into finding good Santa Monica hotels for kids we could call home during our next trip.
For convenience, the best place to stay in Santa Monica with children is close to the pier and the beach itself. While busy at night, this area allows you to move around without a car, gives you easy access to the beach, the pier and many restaurants and also puts you walking distance from green areas such as Tongva park.
Here are some of the best Santa Monica hotels for kids we identified.
Loews Santa Monica (luxury). This resort prides itself for being ‘more than just kid friendly’. Here, kids under 18 go free when sharing a room with their parents and are welcome in the onsite restaurant, offering them healthy kids menus. The hotel has several types of rooms suitable for families, offers a complimentary “Loews Loves Kids” Welcome Gift for children under 10, a “Kids Closet” with toys, books, car seats, strollers, night-lights, potty seats etc, child-proof kits for families with children under 4 and DVD and games for teenagers.
Double Tree Suites by Hilton Santa Monica (4 stars). We like Hilton hotels for families and this one in Santa Monica seems to have good facilities for kids including family rooms with refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker and outdoor swimming pool on top of a handy beach side location. If you are a Hilton Honor member, click here to access the Hilton Group site directly
Gateway Hotel Santa Monica (3 stars). While not on the beach this hotel caught our attention for their family policy: children under 18 stay free with an accompanying adult. The hotel has a 24h reception desk, onsite parking and is close to restaurants and supermarket.
Hotel Carmel by the sea (2 stars). This hotel caught my attentions for the reasonable price (for local standards!) and for the excellent reviews it gets from families with kids. In a great location close to the beach and all Santa Monica attractions, it gets praise for clean, big family rooms, good service and onsite cafe.
Between the stunning beach, the family friendly vibe and the shops, Santa Monica keeps calling us back, to such an extent that we are hoping to go back next summer.
I hope you enjoyed this round up of fun things to do in Santa Monica with kids. Safe family travels!
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