Why Santa Monica Pier is a Destination for Everyone
The Santa Monica Pier has been one of LA’s most popular attractions for a hundred years. For many Angelenos, the Ferris wheel on the pier next to the beach is an easily recognizable landmark, and many of us have fond memories here.
Much of Santa Monica’s lasting popularity with tourists and locals alike is thanks to this famous pier. With the rides and carnival food, it’s great for families, of course, but this is a destination anyone can enjoy. In this post, I’ll share everything the Santa Monica Pier has to offer, so you can plan what to see on and around this famous pier while you’re visiting LA.
But first, let’s talk a little history.
Santa Monica Pier: From 1909 to Today
Around the turn of the 20th century, pleasure piers were common on the West Coast. Santa Monica first built a municipal pier which was used to pump treated sewage out into the ocean. (They stopped using it for this purpose in 1920; don’t worry.) People naturally gravitated to the pier, which led to the creation of the Looff Pleasure Pier in 1916, featuring carnival rides, arcades, a dance hall, and yacht harbor.
When Route 66 was finished in the ’20s, Americans now had a direct path leading to Santa Monica. Next to the pier, Muscle Beach — an outdoor gym you can still see today — brought in famous weightlifters and spectators. Tourists flocked to the beaches of Southern California and the Santa Monica Pier was the epicenter of tourism.
Fun fact: With so many people swimming on the beach, they had to have top-notch lifeguards on duty. At the Santa Monica lifeguard headquarters, Preston Peterson developed the Peterson lifeguard tube, the modern tube most lifeguards use today.
When the Great Depression hit, the tourism industry came to a screeching halt. The pier was losing its prestige, and many storefronts couldn’t make enough to stay open. A gangster named Tony Cornero ported his casino boats off the coast with water taxis to bring people from the pier aboard to gamble (illegally) what little money they’d saved. The pier was getting seedy, definitely not a place where you wanted to take the family for spring break.
The Santa Monica Pier We Know Today
The city was set to renovate the decaying pier in the late ’80s, but a storm in 1982 destroyed one third of the pier. A few months into the construction, another storm hit the coast, further damaging the pier along with the equipment.
The city faced a tough decision: scrap the project or spend more money to complete the pier. At this point, it wasn’t a guarantee that the pier would be as popular as it was when it first opened, so it was a big gamble for the city.
Thankfully for us and the city, completing the pier paid off. Since then, it’s held strong as Santa Monica’s attraction, and it’s officially considered one of the city’s historic landmarks.
Here’s what you can see and do when you visit.
Carnival Fun at Pacific Park
The amusement park at the pier, currently called Pacific Park, boasts a famous Ferris wheel that’s the world’s only solar-powered wheel of its kind.
Unlike many other amusement parks, there’s no admission charge to enter Pacific Park. Instead, you purchase tickets for individual rides like the roller coaster and bumper cars. The park contains a few gems for history lovers, too — a historic carousel and the Looff Hippodrome, a national historic landmark over 100 years old.
The hippodrome (pictured toward the top of this post) is rather interesting architecturally: cobalt-colored arched windows and lots of them on pale pink walls, almost Moorish in style. It’s worth a walk around outside just to admire the building.
Along with all the rides, there are plenty of carnival games at the pier. And you’ve got the usual fun theme park foods to splurge on. But don’t spoil your appetite too much because there’s good food in the area for lunch. (I’ll cover this more in the FAQs at the bottom.)
Fun fact: Here’s a little LA lore for you. Some believe the hippodrome at Pacific Park is haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. Even if you don’t buy into the idea that her ghost still walks the park, it’s true that the actress used to visit the hippodrome, though she had to come in disguise to avoid being mobbed by adoring fans.
Heal the Bay Aquarium
The Heal the Bay Aquarium used to be called the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, but since 2003, it’s been run by Heal the Bay, a nonprofit that focuses on protecting our waters.
There are touch tanks kids will love, plus exhibits on octopus, moon jellyfish, moray eels, and the diverse sea life that you can find underneath the pier. Yes, there really is quite a bit living under the pier. You’ll still find people fishing from the pier today.
Insider tip: The Heal the Bay Aquarium is small compared to other better-known aquariums in California, but it only costs $7 per person, so it’s an affordable one to bring the family to.
The Santa Monica Beach
Santa Monica Beach is one of LA’s busiest beaches thanks to its accessibility. Not only is the beach a popular tourist destination (thanks in large part to the pier), locals love it, too, since it’s easy to get to from downtown and other parts of LA. And it’s walking distance to plenty of restaurants and shops.
The beach is split into two parts: north and south of the pier. While most people enjoy the sand and ocean waves, you can take advantage of other amenities for entertainment, such as the playground and community beach house north of the pier or the chess park south of the pier.
Like many LA-area beaches, this place is also pretty scenic at sunset. If you’re a photographer, bring your camera.
Insider tip: Here’s another photo-worthy site, albeit a bit more unusual. If you want to see more historic landmarks in the area, check out the Camera Obscura built in 1898, just steps from the Santa Monica Pier.
Planning Your Day at Santa Monica Pier: FAQs to Help
How much does it cost to go to the Santa Monica Pier?
When you can go to Santa Monica Pier, you can spend as little or as much as you want.
When it comes to the amusement park, admission is free. Of course, each ride costs (they range from around $5-$10), so if you’re going with a large family and want to do all the rides, it could add up.
You can get free parking — if you’re willing to park farther away and spend less than 90 minutes in the area (more on this below). Or you can take public transportation and not worry about parking.
Similarly with food, you can grab something quick and affordable nearby, or splurge on a seafood dinner with an ocean view.
What’s the best place to eat around Santa Monica Pier?
There are a few places to eat on and near the pier. While many of them are touristy, there are some gems, including The Lobster, a long-standing restaurant serving up seafood dishes from a newly-hired celebrity with a nice ocean view.
For quick and casual eats, try the food stands on the pier, such as JAPADOG, which offers hot dogs with Japanese inspired toppings. Step a block or two away from the pier, and the food options are pretty much endless.
Can you walk from Venice Beach to Santa Monica Pier?
Yes, you can walk to Venice Beach from the Santa Monica Pier, but it’s not a short walk. There is a path you can walk or bike on that forms part of a 22-mile beach trail. The distance from Venice Beach to Santa Monica Pier itself is about 3 miles, so you can definitely do it if you’re looking for a nice long walk with ocean views.
How much is parking at the Santa Monica Pier?
There are different parking options around Santa Monica Pier. The closest parking is the Pier Deck parking lot, which costs $18 per day in the summer and $12 per day in the winter.
Parking rates generally tend to be cheaper the farther away from the pier and beach you go, and there are even parking structures in the area (around Third Street Promenade) with free 90-minute parking. Metered parking on the street is also available, but keep in mind the area gets pretty busy, so street parking can be very hard to come by.
Sand, Sun, and Carnival Fun for All at Santa Monica Pier
Whether you’re looking for a day on the sand, the chance to see historic landmarks, or just a fun outing with the family, the Santa Monica Pier is a classic choice. Even if you’re on a tight schedule while visiting Los Angeles, Santa Monica is so close that it’s easy to include on a tour of LA highlights.
If you need more ideas for family-friendly activities, check out our lineup of the best places to take kids in LA.