Free Travel Fun In Santa Monica, California

Author: Family Travel Forum Staff

Tags : Beach, California, Cheap Vacation, Kids, North America, Teens, USA
Ocean Beach and Santa Monica Pier, Photo: Kristin Beinke

In a chic westside community like Santa Monica -- the "beach" to most Angelenos -- there are many options for free family fun. All ages will enjoy the relaxed Main Street, a truly walkable route that's narrower than most Los Angeles boulevards and boasts that laidback, sun-toasted, California vibe that tourists search for. In addition, there's the Third Street Promenade, the famous pier filled with amusement rides, an aquarium and a trapeze school and, of course, the Pacific Ocean shoreline. There are many unexpected pleasures along the way.

Start your no-cost tour parallel to the beach and two blocks inland on Main Street, and discover the beach life with an urban edge. Encourage the kids to stroll in and out of the lively boutiques, trendy clothing stores and design showrooms to see the styles coming next to your hometown. You can all take a self-guided tour with the Santa Monica Design District Map, available at any of the three Santa Monica Visitors Center locations.  

The Santa Monica Pier is as much a family magnet as a landmark; kids are drawn to its towering Ferris Wheel, carousel, shops and lively cafes. With the pier celebrating its 101st anniversary in 2010, it seems to have been this way as long as most families can remember. If you prefer a stroll that avoids any commercial establishments, walk atop the Palisades along pretty Ocean Avenue. You'll find it just north of the pier and Olympic Boulevard, and when you see a staircase, you can descend to the shoreline and continue along the beachwalk.

 

Free Beach Fun

With sun block, beach balls, a pail and shovel and a good book, families can head out to enjoy the Southern California scenery on picturesque Santa Monica Beach, which stretches for 3.5 miles between Venice and Malibu. This is the stretch of beach filled with colorful dog walkers and other characters celebrated in films like "I Love You Man" and many others, and it's always a great place to people watch.

Ask directions to the original Muscle Beach, an open-air gym along a three-acre stretch of beach where not-shy locals actually work out. Test out the fully restored areas featuring chinning bars, parallel bars, rings and small jungle gyms for children. Celebrities such as Jack LaLanne, Jayne Mansfield, and Mae West were frequent visitors at Muscle Beach, helping to establish Southern California as a body builder’s paradise. Head south of Muscle Beach along the Ocean Front Walk to find Santa Monica's International Chess Park complete with permanent chess tables and a delightfully human-sized chessboard. Tables are free to use and chess-watching is welcome

If you prefer more structure to your beach days, you can drive (or bike) north of the pier to the Annenberg Community Beach House. This gift from the philanthropic Annenberg family is a public community recreation center on a historic five-acre beachfront estate. William Randolph Hearst originally developed the site in 1926 as a 100-room mansion for his beloved Marion Davies, and it became a haven for Hollywood A-listers.

After years of neglect, it reopened in 2009 to offer residents and guests sweeping ocean views, gardens, public art, volleyball, beach tennis, a large pool (open summers) and a playground. Among newer facilities at the only public beach house in the United States are free yoga classes, a kids splash pool, beach lounge chairs and an outdoor cafe.

 

Enjoy the Historic Santa Monica Pier

You haven't been in Santa Monica till you've walked out on Santa Monica Pier, hailed as the oldest pier on the West Coast of the United States. Featured in the Oscar-winning movie, “Forrest Gump,” the Pier is open year-round and is the perfect spot for viewing a sunset, fishing, or taking a stroll.

Of course there's Pacific Park, a midway filled with classic rides including the only solarpowered Ferris wheel in the world. It also happens to be in the opening shots of many LA based shows like American Idol, ABC's Private Practice and Jay Leno's show. With a small budget, you could hit Playland Arcade for quarter-eating games, but for free fun, check out the drive-in movies on the Santa Monica Pier. 

Offered Thursday evenings in September, movies are projected onto a huge screen in the open air. It's an extra special place to bring your car, as it's been recognized as being where historic Route 66 ends. It's true that there are a few other contenders in the surrounding streets for this honor, but while you're on the pier you can understand why it might have been where that famous highway that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles began.

At any time of year, the how-does-it-work folks in the family will be fascinated by a visit to Camera Obscura, now located above a Senior Citizens Center along Palisades Park north of the pier. The original turn of the century, walk-through pinhole camera designed to capture panoramas with a mirror-and-lens combination was made by Robert F. Jones, nephew of the founder of Santa Monica, and existed by the pier -- always free of charge -- as a novelty attraction. Today, you can request a key from the Senior Citizens Center reception desk, walk upstairs, and marvel at the images of the beach, palms and promenade brought into the room by the magic of lenses. It is said that if you tilt the plate the images are shown on, you can improve the focus.

Light and the magical art it creates are honored at Glow, literally a "Dusk ‘til Dawn" Arts and Culture Festival. Imagine a Ferris wheel orchestra; a glowing grotto underneath the Pier; images projected onto a water wave on the beach. The festival is the first of its kind in the U.S., an all-night art event featuring original artwork commissions. Its festivals attract over 100,000 people gathering on the city's beaches and pier to experience and engage with awe-inspiring public art displays from sundown to sunrise.  

 

There's Music in the Air

This is one city that is always working to better the lives of its citizens with festivals and public arts events. In summer, you can grab the kids and sway to the tunes at the Twilight Dance Series held on Santa Monica Pier. Sure, you might hear buskers and other street performers looking for a handout, but there are also free evening concerts given by some favorite musicians. On summer afternoons, you can indulge your ears with the “Jazz on the Lawn” series at Santa Monica City Hall, where talented jazz artists bring their own flavor to the genre.

For a totally different sound, try to catch the award-winning Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, which presents four concerts a year, at no charge, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Music buffs and rock 'n' roll fans will want to drop into the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop. You might catch a performance, some jamming, or try your hand on a a vintage guitar. Opened in 1958, McCabe’s specializes in acoustic and folk instruments and offers thousands of books and recordings.