California Road Trip: Tips for visiting Santa Monica and LA

Tips for visiting Santa Monica and LA

Read on for tips for visiting Santa Monica and LA on your California road trip with kids!

There are moments on a California road trip that you file away for future reference, knowing that you’re experiencing a full on, properly Cali moment.

Santa Monica Pier

One of them is definitely watching the sun set over Santa Monica pier.

With its golden beaches, old-school amusement park and wooden pier (complete with a solar powered ferris wheel), Santa Monica is the perfect base for a trip to LA – after all, why stay in the city when you can be sipping cocktails at the Shutters on the Beach hotel, looking out over golden sand, and watching some of the finest sunsets on the West coast?

The pier itself is home to a small amusement park with some great old school rollercoasters and a vintage carousel that’s one of the oldest in America. There are also restaurants and souvenir stalls, and plenty of stalls to get snacks.

Where to Eat in Santa Monica

Santa Monica is packed with restaurants and bars but the one I reckon you simply can’t miss is the Cha-Cha Chicken shack, handily situated just a block in from the ocean, at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Pico. It’s shabby and beachy, and serves the most a-ma-zing jerk chicken, coconut rice and iced tea. It’s affordable and informal and I promise you, it shouldn’t be missed.

We arrived in Santa Monica after a 2-hour drive from Santa Barbara. We rented a small apartment on Ocean Avenue, on the sea front, just opposite the pier. It’s a perfect location – you can hang out on the beach, which offers amazing body boarding and surfing – and easily walk to the pier, with its amusement park, restaurants and stores.

little venice freak show

Cycling to Venice

While you’re in Santa Monica, you absolutely must rent a bike (we got bikes free with our rental apartment) and make the 2 mile journey down the beach path to Little Venice. The ride is unbelievably pretty, especially in the early morning, and there are countless bike hire places to choose from.

Little Venice is a bit like Camden on acid. There are street entertainers, a freakshow theatre, market stalls, street artists – and more than a smattering of pot shops and questionable street décor. When else are you going to see a guy playing an electric guitar while wearing a turban and home-made roller blades? There are a lot of really happy people here, too. We came across a group of people who spend their mornings just holding up motivational signs for passersby. You don’t get that in rainy Lancashire, do you?


What to do in DTLA

From Santa Monica, it’s a simple 20 minute drive to downtown LA – you’re really not missing anything by not staying in the city, since getting from anywhere to anywhere in LA inevitably involves driving, and usually spending some time sitting in traffic on the freeway.

Once you’re in downtown LA, there are a few “must see” sights – we love the LA Farmers’ Market at Fairfax and 3rd, for some amazing international food, fresh fruit and veggies, and a healthy dose of flat-out bizarre stalls. During the evening, bands play in the market, and you can watch people dancing in between the strawberries and $15 candy apples.

From the market, it’s a small hop across to The Grove, one of the prettiest shopping districts in the city – there’s music and a picnic lawn, and a movie theatre, and when you’re done with all that, you can shop up a storm in Pottery Barn, Barnes and Noble and Gap – and don’t forget to visit the weirdest doll shop in the world – American Girl. Even if you don’t have a doll fan in the family, you don’t want to miss out on a store where people can buy outfits to match their dolls; book their dolls in for a hair styling session and FACIAL, and then treat themselves to afternoon tea with their dolls. Seriously. No, seriously. It’s an actual place. I love the world.


Once that Festival of Weird is done, do spend some time on Hollywood Boulevard to see the famous Chinese theatre and the ‘stars’ on the sidewalk. It’s cheesy, but Flea had a ball trying to find her favourite stars, and being most excited when she found The Muppets. Top tip – the cheapest parking we found was underneath Tussauds – it’s valet, for just $12 a day, and right next door to the main attractions.


From this part of town, it’s a short drive up to Mulholland Drive, a 26-mile road that winds across the top of the Santa Monica Mountains, giving amazing views over LA, including the famous Hollywood sign.

How to find the Hollywood Sign

Please, please, please – ignore all the directions you find online for how to drive this route – we tried them over the world’s most soul-destroying three hour period, and can confirm they all fail to take account of the fact that half of Mulholland Drive isn’t open to vehicles, your sat-nav will have a meltdown and you haven’t a sniff of a 3G signal on your phone to find your way back to the route once you hit that “no entry” sign. Instead, plug “Hollywood Bowl overlook” into Google Maps, use that as your guide from Hollywood Boulevard, and you’ll end up in the right place.

Having said all of that, we found a WAY more fun way to get great views of the city – a private helicopter tour with Orbic Air.

There are lot of helicopter tours in LA, but we LOVED these guys. They were beyond lovely when we were stuck in traffic en route to Burbank airport, and on arrival we were welcomed with drinks and fruit, while waiting for our pilot.

what to do in Santa Monica California Road Trip

We spent an amazing hour in the air, flying over all the LA sights – swooping over Santa Monica pier and Little Venice, hovering over the Hollywood sign, and even getting a birds’ eye view into the back gardens of the Hollywood stars. Our pilot, Brennan, was so lovely, even popping AC/DC on the stereo as per Flea’s request. It’s not cheap, but it really was the perfect way to round off our trip to the city.

Just past the halfway mark of our road trip and we left LA for a day in Anaheim – home to Disneyland california – before driving down the coast for two hours to San Diego, home to some of the best surf in California.

We hope you enjoyed our tips for things to do in LA and Santa Monica on your California road trip!  You might enjoy these posts about our California road trips: 

What to do in Santa Barbara

What to do in Santa Cruz 

What to do in Monterey 

What to do in San Diego 

What to do in San Francisco 

6 thoughts on “California Road Trip: Tips for visiting Santa Monica and LA”

  1. Oh wow your trip looks unreal (that might just be the most American sentence I’ve ever written). I love LA, some of my closest friends from university live there, and a short film I wrote and directed won an award at an international film festival it screened at in the city a few years back so I had a pretty ‘Hollywood experience’ meeting up with big execs, hanging out with the cast of Entourage-we stayed at The Standard, had dinner at Chateau Marmont, a bit mental but wonderful (something to tell the grandkids hey). I definitely want to take the family there for a holiday (husband wanted to move to LA when Oliver was 5 months old but we relocated to Leeds instead- same thing right?!)… I think it’s got such a productive, exciting and positive energy. Santa Monica is the ideal location for families and I liked the serenity of OC too. Flea looks like she’s having the time of her life. Loved this post 🙂

  2. It all looks so awesome Sally and sounds like such a happy place, I can see why you had such a good time. The one thing I regret about our time in New York is not making time to see it from the air, you must get such a different perspective from above.
    Please tell me you snuck a photo of the turban wearing, blade clad electric guitar playing chap!

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