Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites boasts an elevated pool and fitness center — Photo courtesy of Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites
Of course, there is an enticing side to Los Angeles that's all about the glitz and fame, the shiny sidewalk stars and see-and-be-seen, red-roped hangouts. Most will have heard about Tinseltown draws like Hollywood Boulevard, Rodeo Drive and Sunset Strip.
Yet there is so much more to this multicultural city with a fast-growing population of nearly 4 million people. Cultures and languages from around the globe come together to create a rich tapestry unlike anywhere else. While downtown Los Angeles is the main hub, Hollywood can be found to the northwest, Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley to the east, and inviting beaches with distinctive scenes to the west.
As it turns out, staying in one of the city's many colorful beach towns, located along 75 miles of sun-kissed coastline, is a great way to experience the best of all worlds. We've developed an itinerary that combines seaside downtime with culture- and adventure-fueled movement – and minimizes the hours you'll spend in the all-hours freeway traffic for which the city is notoriously known.
Bright murals inspire joy around Santa Monica, like this one created by Steffi Lynn and local eatery Alfalfa — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Once you arrive at LAX, consider heading just 12 miles to Santa Monica. It's a laid-back home base that consists of a walkable 8.3 square miles and features a bustling pier, 400-plus dining options, eight neighborhoods with distinctive personalities and an abundance of vibrant murals.
Find simple comfort in the coastal-chic Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites, which is said to offer the most suites of any local venue. Property perks include an outdoor pool and 24-hour fitness center, plus a tiny market stocked with local goods and an all-day, farm-to-table restaurant.
Fuel up for the day at on-site Monica's, a happening morning hub for lattes, breakfast burritos, veg-packed omelets, toasted granola parfaits and cayenne-chicken-and-waffle creations. Next consider finding movement, first by making the less-than-20-minute stroll toward the pull of the waves. Along the way, weave through residential streets marked by dogs lazily lounging on sun-kissed porches and citrus trees thriving in compact front yards. In this relaxed L.A. outpost, where no one seems too hurried, it's easy to simply fall into the rhythm of meandering days.
Guests enjoy relaxing in the central courtyard-lounge at Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites — Photo courtesy of Hilton Santa Monica Hotel & Suites
Upon arrival, speak with the hotel's front desk about booking a surfing lesson, a class at Pure Barre Santa Monica or an alfresco, waterside flow with Beach Yoga SoCal; one of these yoga sessions may just come with bonus views of playful dolphins bobbing amongst amused surfers. Those wanting to stay closer to "home" can fit in a workout at the hotel's light-filled fitness center, before soaking up Californian rays on the adjoining pool patio.
Hilton Santa Monica proves a prime jumping-off point for a variety of L.A. explorations. Grab lunch at nearby gems like Tartine, located inside a converted chapel (long used as a funeral home). At a tranquil garden table, savor seasonal iced teas, fresh pastries, decadent tartines topped with smoked salmon, mushrooms, butternut squash or the most unexpectedly memorable tuna sandwich – enhanced by avocado, hummus, pickles and frisée.
Outdoor sessions by Beach Yoga SoCal instructors offer some of the best exercise class views around — Photo courtesy of Beach Yoga SoCal
And no regional trip is complete without a visit to the Santa Monica HQ of Bay Cities Italian Bakery & Deli, an L.A. institution since 1925. Locals and in-the-know visitors queue up (and down) the labyrinth of market aisles to get their hands on signature treasures like the Godmother, considered by many to be the city's best sandwich (think prosciutto, ham, capicola, mortadella, Genoa salami and provolone cheese). The chicken salad served on a fresh baguette is also out of this world; ordering ahead online will expedite the process, helping you sink teeth into lunch even quicker at an outdoor table – or perhaps on a nearby beach.
Rediscover San Diego-area beach towns: Best things to do and places to stay
Rediscover San Diego-area beach towns: Best things to do and places to stay
If you happen to land closer to downtown, swing by Koreatown's Open Market for tasty pick-up treats like banh mi sandwiches and goods by Nam Coffee, launched in March 2022 and the first Vietnamese craft coffee importer and roaster based in Los Angeles.
Lovers of art and culture will enjoy an afternoon spent at the Getty Center or Getty Villa (located 14 miles away in Pacific Palisades); for the latter, you have to request an advanced, timed-entry ticket. Perched high in the hills above West Los Angeles, Getty Center is a free venue (minus the $20 parking fee) in which to ogle galleries filled with works from the Middle Ages until today.
The museum, accessible via complimentary tram from the bottom of the hill, displays hundreds of pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, sculptures and more, in addition to 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century photographs.
Some Getty Center visitors pack a picnic to enjoy on the stunning grounds — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
At Getty Center, you can choose also to simply sit back and soak in the complex's design by renowned architect Richard Meier, while grabbing a meal at one of two cafés or a full-service restaurant, or lounging about in the 86-plus acres of lovely, landscaped spaces. Lulled by the sound of a stone waterfall, hours can easily pass when people-watching from a bench in the Central Garden, an exquisite collection of more than 500 vibrant plant species and a cactus garden, too.
Cinema aficionados will want to reserve several hours for the brand-new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the country's largest venue devoted to the arts, sciences and artists of moviemaking. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, the museum has seven floors of exhibition halls, education and special event spaces, a conservation studio, a café and a store. Throughout the year, screenings and events enliven the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater and 288-seat Ted Mann Theater.
One of L.A.'s newest additions, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened late last year — Photo courtesy of Josh White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
Timed-entry tickets must be reserved online in advance. For those wanting to momentarily pretend they've stepped onstage to accept their own golden trophy, a special ticket must be bought for The Oscars® Experience.
Begin with a three-floor "Stories of Cinema" exhibition that presents "the diverse, international and complex stories of moviemakers, the works they create, and the impact their art has on the world." Prop-, photo- and video-filled spaces whisk visitors away to other times and places as they explore narrative and documentary films, both animated and live-action, as well as some behind-the-scenes technicalities of moviemaking.
A venue highlight? No doubt the Dolby Family Terrace, an open-air pavilion with a dome consisting of 1,500 glass shingles arching overhead – and a prime view of the famed "Hollywood" sign reigning in the distance.
Dinnertime back at your Santa Monica hotel might feature truffle French fries, pomegranate salad, crispy shrimp tacos and Snake River Farms braised short ribs, enjoyed in a mellow, casual atmosphere. Or you can stroll south down Main Street, where many restaurants and bars have added temporary outdoor seating beneath enchanting trees strung with twinkle lights.
At locations in Santa Monica and San Diego, JuneShine tasting rooms allow visitors to sip exclusive draft-only flavors and sometimes to hear live music, too — Photo courtesy of JuneShine
While Sol Agave is a welcoming spot near the hotel for happy hour ceviche and margaritas, it's also worth making the less-than-25-minute stroll, past a community garden and uplifting street art, to JuneShine's tasting room. Inside a perfectly curated, bohemian-tinged space and out on a welcoming street "patio," neighborhood folks enjoy 8- and 16-ounce pours (or a flight of three mini-tasters) of hard kombucha. Flavors range from Blood Orange Mint and Acai Berry to Mango Daydream, Ice Tea Lemonade and Hopical Citrus. Jamaican patties – made of jerk chicken, beef, veggie and Impossible burger – are the perfect small-meal accompaniment to a sweet evening spent soaking up easy vibes under a warm night sky.
Looking for evening tunes? Check out the Sofar Sounds schedule to see if there might be any shows happening nearby.
Meals on the Jute patio are a highlight of any westdrift Manhattan Beach stay — Photo courtesy of westdrift Manhattan Beach
After a couple nights in Santa Monica, consider heading 15 miles south, where westdrift Manhattan Beach provides a lush retreat in which to fully unwind. Your heart rate will drop from the moment you enter the soaring, airy lobby. There is plenty to do on property here, like chilling in cabanas next to the spacious pool, booking an in-room massage from SandSpa or borrowing the hotel's complimentary Solé cruisers to explore nearby neighborhoods (or to pedal down the hill to the beach, if feeling more adventurous).
Begin the day with a lazy breakfast enjoyed on Jute's patio overlooking the property's verdant, nine-hole golf course. Drink in soothing vacation views over carafes of coffee and avocado toast with wild mushrooms, fruit-topped pancakes, oatmeal or a classic American breakfast feast.
Comfortable and functional rooms at westdrift Manhattan Beach come with dreamy patios and a calming interior palette — Photo courtesy of westdrift Manhattan Beach
Charming Manhattan Beach features the South Bay Bike Path – with a parallel walking trail – that's ideal for strolling all the way to Redondo Beach, ogling a jam-packed lineup of oceanfront homes along the way. Certain parts of the beach scene buzz with resident surfers and volleyball players, while others show off less populated expanses of paradise.
Evening at the hotel is best spent around a fire pit – perhaps relishing conversation and cocktails, alongside Jute offerings like burgers, flatbreads or fish tacos. Dusk slowly slides into night, as you watch flames dance against a fading pastel sky dotted with palm tree silhouettes. This, you think, is why people covet this pocket of our vast, varied country.
When all is said and done, westdrift Manhattan Beach is situated only four miles from LAX, meaning a smooth departure makes it slightly easier to tear yourself away from this joyful, sun-streaked place, where responsibility and reality feel just out of reach. You vow to return soon, knowing there is so much here left to explore.