Santa Monica. Aka what the rest of the world assumes the entirety of Los Angeles is. Beachy breezes, tan skin, palm trees against a cloudless blue sky. Santa Monica is pretty, we’ll give it that. But there’s little substance beneath that surface level beauty.
Santa Monica is everything you think it is. Lots of influencer-types walking their dogs to a coffee shop at 3pm on a Tuesday. Hip moms in Lululemons with strollers talking about their kitschy new business ventures. Chill dudes working at start ups or small agencies, the kind of place that has a pool table in the office and a regularly scheduled beach yoga session three times a week. An absurd amount of tourists and people from the suburbs, making up a strange occurrence in the LA street scene: crowds of pedestrians. Gross. Oh and a grimy beach (chalk it up to the tourists, a hackneyed pier and quite frankly way too many seagulls to feel safe walking around waiting to get sh*t on. Santa Monica lives up to all of its stereotypes, and more. That being said, there are pockets of good amid the eye rolls, and here’s a little orientation.
Downtown Santa Monica (aka where you actively avoid)
This is like the LA-equivalent of a suburban mall. It’s like everything from a suburban mall but amplified in an outdoor promenade and with the addition of tourists to add a lil spice to the jaded locals trying to run errands and teens thinking they exude cool after driving into the city from the actual suburbs for the weekend. Downtown Santa Monica is what most people experience as Santa Monica. It’s the heart of it, right along the beach. Right by the pier. Lots of shops and restaurants conveniently packaged in a series of pedestrian-friendly blocks dotted with pruned plant dinosaurs and seasonally adorned streets. The purpose this part of town serves, besides being a place to hold non-locals as they live their best LA life, is basically the same as a mall. If you’re on the west side and shop at normal stores (ahem, your typical national brands and not the bougie ones at the Century City mall), this is where you go do your returns and exchanges.
Main Street Santa Monica (aka the cute part of Santa Monica)
This is the nicer locals-mostly part of Santa Monica. As in, here are where the Santa Monicans live out their west side lives in their glory. Running parallel and just a couple blocks in from the coast, Main Street is the epitome of all the stereotypes you think of when you think of Santa Monica. Surfer dudes coexisting with pilates moms, equal parts start ups and small business owners and non-profits and miscellaneous media and creative companies. The street itself is adorable, lined with string lights all year long, a laid back bustle of activity with shops and restaurants packed on each side of the street. From breezy cafes to boutiques you can’t afford to vegan lunch spots to bohemian thrift shops, this is one of the few places in LA where it’s appropriate and encouraged to be caught walking around. Further up, residential streets with little houses that the rest of America dreams of (this is where you street park btw). And to the other side, the ocean in a moderately less chaotic scene than the beach by the promenade just up the coast.
Ocean Park (aka where the real people live)
This is like the normal people part of Santa Monica. Like the real people with real full-time jobs, or at least as much as the average LA resident. It’s quiet here (well, except during rush hour – again, full time jobs mean full time traffic). Most of the businesses serve the neighborhood and the neighborhood itself is hardly a destination — you only really come here if you’re working here or live here or perhaps for some bizarre reason are going to the Santa Monica airport. Families actually live here, in standalone houses with yards on idyllic tree-lined streets. Weekends feel a little sleepy and almost suburban. But that’s what makes it nice. It feels less chaotic. You get to appreciate the temperate west side weather without actually becoming enraged by going too far out. Most of the establishments in the area are small businesses, and many have been around for decades. There are hidden gems that actually manage to stay hidden.
Montana (aka where the rich people live)
This is like the Bel Air of Santa Monica. Tucked away on the northern (or rather, western) part of the city (Santa Monica is technically independent from Los Angeles), Montana is for the established wealth. And this is very much reflected in the businesses that line the street extending about 17 blocks in from the ocean. Just far enough from the chaos of Third Street and a safe distance away from the Silicon Beach part of town, Montana is like a world in itself, somehow capturing the charm of a quaint town while exuding laidback luxury.
Mid-City Santa Monica (aka where you should choose to exist)
This is like the functional part of Santa Monica, the part that actually participates with being a livable and workable neighborhood (home to the west side anchors Hulu, Amazon, Lionsgate, Riot) grounded in reality and a safe distance from the touristy downtown. It might not seem like much when you’re driving through it, just a bunch of chain retail storefronts and the occasional good restaurant lining Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvd, with apartments on apartments filling in the palm tree lined residential blocks. Perhaps the best thing about it is just how unremarkable and spread out this part is. You don’t really see where Brentwood and Sawtelle end and where Santa Monica begins besides the actual street address borders, because it fits with the rest of west LA in a way that other parts of Santa Monica don’t.