Fun things to do in Santa Monica with kids on your first visit

things to do in santa monica with kids what to do in santa monica with kids

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.

Did you know? We loved Santa Monica as a family destination so much, it made the list as one of our top family destinations for a beach vacation in the US!

Going to California with family? Don’t forget to check out these other articles you may like:

Visitor's guide to Santa Monica, California, with tips and advice on what to do in Santa Monica with kids. In the photo, Santa Monica beach with lifeguard station and the pier in the background.
Our guide to visiting Santa Monica with kids with tips for the first time visitor who wants to make the most of their time in this family friendly Southern California town

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, one of the best family beaches in Los Angeles.

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.

What to do in Santa Monica with kids? hit the beach of course! in this shot, Santa Monica lifeguard turret and Santa Monica Pier in the background
Soft sand, hot sun, cold water (not too cold!) and the pop of colour of Santa Monica pier: no surprise we spent so long on this beach, I’d go back today if I could!

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!

The lovely beach resturant of Annenberg Community beach house on Santa Monica beach with its distinctive orange umbrellas
We showed up in Annenberg community beach house on a weekday without reservation and got quickly served. However, at weekends we noticed the car park was always full so make sure you go early.

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.

Cycling in Santa Monica CA
Our Little Ms E got the best deal: as we melt in the sun, she just rides on her kart while papa’ pulls is – not a bad way to cycle around eh?

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!

unimpressed kids under the end of route 66 sign in Santa Monica
This is a funny photo for us. It was our first day in Santa Monica and because of jet lag we were so early the crowds hadn’t flocked to the pier yet. The kids were less than impressed with the sign as you can see but by the end of the holiday they were obsessed with Route 66 and demanded to get a photo again. Except at that point jet lag was over and we got to the pier when there  was a mighty line for the photo op. So,  this stayed as the only moment immortalised!

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!

Tongva park splash pad and little Ms E, making the most of the cool water
Tongva park was one of our favourite spots in Santa Monica and where we went to feel like locals: it is full with families!

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..

Palisades park follows the Santa Monica coastline and is dotted with benches and tall palm trees overlooking the beach below
Mr M in Palisades Park, Santa Monica: the city is the the left while the beach is below, to the right

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!

Our kids, loving the dinosaurs shaped fountains on Santa Monica 3rd street promenade
We discovered the Santa Monica dinosaurs our first morning there. We knew the promenade was popular with families but we didn’t expect these giants to be here: it was a lovely surprise and the children demanded photos with them every day!

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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What to pack for a family getaway in Santa Monica

Find our handy list of toddler beach essentials so you know you will have all you need for long hours on the sand.

Grab our list of kid-friendly snacks and make ahead easy meals for the beach

Get our tips for a first trip to the beach with baby

Get a good beach cooler and pack it up with beach-friendly snacks and make ahead meals

Equip yourself with a good beach bag for mamas, so you can carry all you need and look good in the process

Consider getting a summer baby carrier, to wear your baby in hot climate and even water without overheating.

Equip your kids with rash vests and water shoes for sun and skin protection.

Consider a baby sun tent to protect your little one from sun and wind.

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Your guide to all the fun things to do in Santa Monica with kids grown ups will love too! Family vacations can be fun for all ages and Santa Monica is perfect for children and adults alike. Click on the image for our visitors' guide to Santa Monica with kids
Is Santa Monica as child friendly as they say? We spent a fabulous summer there and this is our guide to all the fun things you can do in Santa Monica with kids, all chosen for being fun for adults too! Click for the full guide and make sure you pin this for later!

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5 thoughts on “Fun things to do in Santa Monica with kids on your first visit

  1. Hilary says:

    Great post! I live in Santa Monica and have for years, and can say that you’ve done a wonderful job listing many of the area’s best attractions! We live close to the Beach House, and love that area, many locals do! One of my favorite things to do is grab brunch with my feet in the sand. I also love the beach bike path and take advantage of it at least a few times a week. If you do come back, you should know that you can get much more reasonable parking prices in Venice if you stick with the city’s public lots… and its even less money if you get in early. #citytripping

  2. Allison says:

    There are so many things to do in Santa Monica! I’ve been to LA many times since my grandparents lived in the area for years while I was a kid. But I have never been to Santa Monica. I’ll have to change that and go with my own kids someday. #citytripping

  3. Corey | fifi + hop says:

    I may be heading to L.A. this year, but not sure at this point if it will be with or without the kids! Saving this in the events it’s with. I love Santa Monica and used to visit my aunt and friends all the time when I lived in San Francisco. It’s always at this time of year that I get envious (I live in NY) of Californians. #citytripping

  4. Cathy (MummyTravels) says:

    I never realised Route 66 ended here – or quite how different the reality is to the image I’d had in my head. For some reason, I’d always associated Santa Monica with being somewhere more glitzy, only for the rich, but it sounds much more family-friendly and chilled out. I only wish I could dash onto that beach right now. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

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