Santa Monica Vacations

Lifeguard tower on Santa Monica beach.

The mere mention of Santa Monica vacations tends to conjure up images of endless white sandy beaches, the ultimate in fine dining, and no-limit budgets lavished on ultra-luxe hotels.

Is it because of the seemingly constant parade of celebrities who flock here for memorable meals, the laid-back locals who hardly glance at them, or the five-star hotels that cater to their every whim?

It's safe to say the answer is found in all of the above, and then some.

The then some part: Santa Monica is all that, and is also a great place to vacation on a real-life budget, too. You can spend a week or two here as inexpensively as you can in any other California beach city. Or, you can max out your AMEX Black card and live the California dream.

This  5-step guide to planning Santa Monica vacations can help you plan a seamless trip while staying within your budget (or lack thereof).

Step 1:  Getting to Santa Monica

If your travel to Santa Monica is by air, the most accessible place to arrive is at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). While Santa Monica does have a small airport, it is for small private planes only.

From LAX, you can take an airport hotel shuttle, a taxi, or the Big Blue Bus the 8 miles north to arrive in Santa Monica.

When traveling to Santa Monica by bus, get on the Airport Shuttle C and look for a blue, triangular "Blue Bus Line" sign and wait for the Big Blue Bus (Rapid 3). Most buses run about every 20 minutes on weekdays.

Step 2:  Reserve Your Place in the Sun

The next step is find a place to stay. Vacation options range from ultra luxe beach hotels to cheap hotels near the beach

You can expect to spend about $150 nightly for a budget hotel, around $250 a night staying at a mid-range, 3-star hotel; and upwards of $500 per night at 5-star Santa Monica Beach hotels.

The luxury resorts and hotels in Santa Monica are the best of the best, offering superb accommodations, stellar ocean views, and impeccable service, each with a uniquely Santa Monica vibe. Here's a quick look at the top hotels and resorts.

Santa Monica also has many charming, low-cost and mid-priced hotels near the beach. Check out cheap hotels in Santa Monica.

Step 3:  Getting Around 

Driving along the famed Route 66 may have helped put Santa Monica on the map, but today you won't need your own four wheels - or even a taxi - to cruise around the city. 

Group of bicycle riders on city street.

You can easily hop on and off the Big Blue Bus, bike using one of the 500 city bikes that are part of the new bike share program, or hail a free golf-cart style cab: Santa Monica Free Ride (646-504-FREE).

These breezy rides will to take you anywhere between Wilshire Boulevard and Marine Street and from the ocean to 5th Street, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, with later hours on weekends. 

For jaunts outside Santa Monica, the Santa Monica train cruises the 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles, with stops in hubs like Westwood and Culver City. Get the details and train schedule here.

Step 4:  Reserve a Table Nightly

Santa Monica restaurants are celebrated for their diversity of cuisine styles and dedication to healthful eating. After all, they have to keep celebs like Kate Hudson, Dennis Quaid, Rhianna, and Jake Gyllenhaal coming back.

There are so many great Santa Monica restaurants - but only a couple dozen or so that also serve up great views of Santa Monica beaches and the Santa Monica Pier to go along with those great eats. (You can get a list of Santa Monica Pier restaurants here.)

Peruse the offerings, choose a few places for lunch or dinner, and reserve a spot for each night of your stay. You'll be glad you did - wait time can be up to two hours at some of the most popular eateries on weekends.

Some, like Boa, the Penthouse, The Lobster, and Catch, are chic, sophisticated and popular venues. Others, like the Blue Plate Oysterette and Sushi Roku, are what we could call casually elegant or laid back. (Ties, dresses, and heels are not necessary.)

Step 5:  Choose Activities & Attractions

Whether you're in the mood for a bike ride along the beach, an up-close look at the marine life of Santa Monica bay, to shop until you drop, or even ride a ferris wheel above the Pacific Ocean, you can do it all here. Here is a look at Santa Monica activities.

When it comes to Santa Monica sports, you can expect just about everything under the sun. (Of course you can, it's Santa Monica after all!)

The most popular of Santa Monica sports? Surfing, or course! The water's fine and especially friendly to first-time riders, thanks to shallow waters with a forgiving, sandy bottom. 

It probably helps, too, that rarely do Santa Monica waves break above 4 feet. But they often curl nicely, making for an easy, friendly ride for beginning boarders. You can get more on Santa Monica sports here, and biking around Santa Monica here. 

Finally, there are always special events - especially during the summer - worth checking out.

One free event you definitely won't want to miss if your vacation plans bring you to Santa Monica during the summer is the free fall concerts at the Santa Monica Pier.  You can get a full list of Santa Monica events by month to help plan your itinerary here.