Hidden Gems in Santa Monica

Santa Monica is one of L.A.’s most popular destinations for domestic and international visitors alike.

Museum of Flying
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Flying, Facebook

Named one of the Top 10 Beach Cities in the World by National Geographic, Santa Monica is one of L.A.’s most popular destinations for domestic and international visitors alike. Beat the crowds and go on a trek less-traveled to some of the hidden gems in sunny Santa Monica. Included are historical structures with incredible backstories, as well as cultural bastions of Santa Monica life today. You'll enjoy getting to know the real city by the beach by visiting these places.

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Route 66 End of the Trail Sign | Photo courtesy of C H Ogawa Photography, Flickr

Route 66 End of the Trail Sign

Called the "Mother Road" by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, known as the Will Rogers Highway and Main Street of America, the 2,450-mile-long Route 66 was originally built to connect Chicago to Los Angeles in 1926. Route 66 was decommissioned by the Federal Government in 1985 in favor of the Interstate Freeway System, and received its commemorative sign at the ocean in 2009. Though the official end of the highway has been debated for decades, it's said that the end was at 7th street in Downtown L.A., and then at the intersection of Olympic and Lincoln Blvd. The End of the Trail Sign at the Santa Monica Pier stands as the democratic and official final frontier of the great highway that’s so deeply rooted in American history.

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Chess Park | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Santa Monica Beach

Located near the volleyball courts at the Santa Monica Pier, International Chess Park is the site of chess matches played by locals and visitors alike. In the sidewalk is a life-size chess board, with permanent tables and chess boards nearby. Stop by to play your own match with a friend (remember to bring your own chess pieces) set against the pier, or watch the intensity of the games already going on. People-watching rarely gets more cerebral than this.

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Original Muscle Beach | Photo courtesy of JKG II, Flickr

Original Muscle Beach

Most people think of the Muscle Beach located in Venice Beach. However, the original Muscle Beach dates back to the 1930s on the beaches of Santa Monica. With L.A.'s temperate climate, the beachfront view and the influence of Hollywood, it became a destination for gymnasts, stunt people, wrestlers, acrobats and circus performers who could be seen there at all times - hence the name, "Muscle Beach." In the 1950s, the site known especially for the fine tuning and display of beautiful bodies became somewhat of an anomaly during this conservative era, with a fitness movement led by weightlifters such as Vic Tanny, Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold of the famous Gold's Gym chain. When day-to-day maintenance became difficult, the gymnastics platform and weightlifting shed were bulldozed, and the City of Santa Monica closed the area down in 1958. The previously little used outdoor weightlifting facility at Venice Beach Recreation Center inherited the Muscle Beach name. In 1989, the City of Santa Monica rededicated the original area, which is now primarily used by gymnasts, acrobats and youth.

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Singing Beach Chairs | Photo by Sondra Stocker, courtesy of Santa Monica CVB

Singing Beach Chairs

There's a lot of public art on display in beautiful Santa Monica. One of the most popular works are the Singing Beach Chairs by Doug Hollis (1987). Located on Santa Monica Beach between Pico Boulevard and the pier, the Singing Beach Chairs are steel and aluminum sculptures that produce oboe-like tones when the wind blows through them. Each chair is large enough to seat two people. You'll also love spotting the un-commissioned street art that's scattered throughout the city on your journey from one Santa Monica hidden gem to another. The artist community is alive, well and in the open. You'll spot works by street artists who are known in the area as well as traveling artists while in residency. From eco-conservancy-themed murals to Banksy-authored social commentary, you never know what you'll stumble upon next. Online blogs will help your search.

Bergamot Station
U.R. Art Festival at Bergamot Station | Photo courtesy of nightmoves.me, Facebook

Bergamot Station

Previously a steam-powered railroad station, and then a Pacific Electric trolley station from 1873 to 1953, Bergamot Station is a prominent reminder of L.A.’s transportation history. Named after the North American flower that once flourished in the area, it ceased operations when the trolley cars stopped service to become used for light freight delivery, celery packing and even the manufacturing plant for water heaters. Eventually, the City of Santa Monica purchased the station in 1989, but its use was in question when plans for a light rail fell through. Wayne Blank helped the city retain use of the station for the arts, and it became a campus-like complex for the showcasing of art from within its industrial and rustic design elements. Today, more than 600,000 visitors per year visit Bergamot Station as a cultural destination in Los Angeles.

Santa Monica Farmers Market
Santa Monica Farmer's Market

Santa Monica Farmers' Markets

In Los Angeles, you can find a handful of farmer's markets running every day of the week. In Santa Monica alone, you'll find four. During the weekend, there are two Saturday markets located in Downtown Santa Monica - at Arizona Ave between Second and Third Streets, and at Virginia Ave. Park - as well as a Sunday market on Main Street. You'll find families, singles and tourists shopping for produce, eggs, meat, seafood and other treasures from area farmers. The Farmer's Market on Wednesday mornings is where you'll find many of the chefs you've seen on TV actually shopping for their restaurants - a celebrity scene in and of itself for foodies.

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Photo courtesy of Annenberg Community Beach House, Facebook

Annenberg Beach House

Offering swim classes, pool hours, volleyball camp, yoga classes, chamber music, dance classes, cultural tours and more, the Annenberg Community Beach House sits atop five acres of beachfront and has historical roots with William Randolph Hearst, who developed the area for actress Marion Davies in the 1920s. The Beach House was originally a mansion with 100 rooms and a marble swimming pool, set to entertain actors on Santa Monica's Gold Coast. It later became a hotel known as Oceanhouse and the members-only Sand and Beach Club. The site reopened to the public as the Annenberg Community Beach House on April 25, 2009 and combines elements of the historic Marion Davies Estate with new amenities to create a truly unique community destination that's open to all - no membership required. Check the schedule for pool hours, camps and classes.

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Photo courtesy of the Museum of Flying, Facebook

Museum of Flying

The museum at 3200 Airport Ave. was first opened by Donald Douglas, Jr., the second President of the Douglas Aircraft Company, in 1979. It had mostly artifacts but no aircraft, which changed when it relocated to its newly constructed home on the north side of the Santa Monica Airport. Renamed the Museum of Flying, it opened in 1989 with an original collection of vintage aircraft, with an emphasis on those from World War II. Following a six-year hiatus, the museum relocated to the south side of the Santa Monica Airport and a monument was built to the DC-3 aircraft. On February 25, 2012, the new building opened to the public as it stands now, featuring many of the original artifacts from the first museum, a variety of exhibits, aviation art and many aircraft and aircraft displays.

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Photo courtesy of Basement Tavern, Facebook

Basement Tavern

Green cushions and dark wood are the finishing touches to this 1920's-era speakeasy, located in the basement of the popular weddings and events space, The Victorian on Main Street. Visitors can enjoy sitting down with a beer, glass of wine or cocktail paired with bar bites or a burger. You may even find a live band playing on the night you visit. Basement Tavern's generous Happy Hour lasts until 8 p.m. everyday except Sunday, when it goes all night. Reduced prices like $5 on whiskey and half-off food may be just the occasion to get you through the door, but it's also opportune since it's generally pretty packed as the night hours go on.

McCabe's Guitar Shop  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

McCabe's Guitar Shop

Specializing in acoustic and folk instruments, McCabe's Guitar Shop also doubles as a live music venue, with its concert room holding 150 people. First opened in 1958, the shop has been known to showcase "the best guitar music west of the 405 Freeway." With its bare bones decor and genuine vibe, you'll find instruments such as mandolins, bouzoukis, and sitars in addition to ukeleles, banjos and of course, guitars. The list of musicians who have performed in this extremely intimate venue would impress anyone, and the shop as a whole is known as one of the best things not only in Santa Monica, but all of Los Angeles.