Santa Monica Pier: BEST Things to Do & Tips for Visiting

Reviewed by Suneel Jain
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From roller coasters to iconic restaurants, shops, games, and beautiful coastal views, the Santa Monica Pier is one of the most recognizable, must-see spots in Los Angeles!

The Santa Monica Pier, with its amusement park, beach, and proximity to the city, is one of the most iconic attractions for visitors to Los Angeles and Southern California.

It hasn’t gained its reputation as a national historic landmark without reason! 

With a whole week’s worth of attractions packed onto one beautiful pier, there’s something for everyone. 

For a first-timer, however, the plentiful activities and bustling crowds may feel a tad fast-paced if you’re going in blind!

Amidst the rides and games, street performers, vendors selling art and Santa Monica Pier souvenirs, and cars driving right out over the ocean, there is movement in all directions at all times on the pier. 

If you’re anything like me, this amount of action can be equally exciting and overwhelming at times. To help with this, I like to show up with an idea of what to expect and where to invest my time and energy. 

From my several experiences visiting the pier both alone and with friends and family, I’ve compiled a Santa Monica Pier guide.

Read on for the best Santa Monica Pier activities, food, and pro-tips before you get swept up in the energy of all the bustling crowds and beachgoers!

A bird's eye view of people walking on the dock over blue-green waves at the Santa Monica Pier.

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Santa Monia Pier Overview

A bird's eye view of amusement park rides lit up at dusk at the Santa Monica Pier.
  • Location: The Santa Monica Pier is located in Santa Monica, a coastal city just a 30-minute drive west of central Los Angeles. The pier juts out over the Pacific Ocean from the bottom of Colorado Avenue in Santa Monica beside Santa Monica Beach.
  • Origins: The Santa Monica Pier was first opened in 1909 and has served as a popular fishing and entertainment destination in the Los Angeles region for well over a century!
  • Santa Monica Pier Hours: The Santa Monica Pier is open year round daily from 6am-10pm.
  • Cost: Santa Monica Pier admission is free! Games and rides each have their own cost, though. Depending on what you do, your day can range from free of charge to a couple hundred dollars.
  • Recommended time to spend: It’s possible just to stroll up and down the pier in under an hour. But if you’re planning to get involved in the action, you’ll want at least two hours. You could easily spend a day around the pier, but three to four hous is reasonable.

Things To Do at the Santa Monica Pier

A view of sandy cliff and palm trees overlooking houses and the beach, with the Santa Monica Pier visible in distance.

Pacific Park Amusement Park

Pacific Park is the largest and grandest of the Santa Monica Pier attractions. The amusement park is located right on the pier over the Pacific Ocean. 

Its iconic ferris wheel is visible clearly on Santa Monica State Beach as well as for miles down the west coast! 

Pacific Park first opened in 1996 and occupies two acres of rides, games, eats, and treats for the whole family while also remaining in reach of the Pacific Ocean breeze. 

The park is open year-round from 11am-9pm daily (10pm on the weekends) and is free to enter, so folks can come and go as they please.

Santa Monica Pier rides, and games are priced individually and range from $5-$12. If you’re a big ride buff, there’s the option to purchase an Unlimited Ride Wristband for $40 ($20 for kids under 7).

Ride the Historic Carousel 

The historic Santa Monica Pier Carousel is located in the Loof Hippodrome building at the far end of the Santa Monica Pier. 

While going for a spin on the carousel, remember to take a look at the building itself. Constructed in 1916, it’s the oldest building on the pier and a national historic landmark!

The carousel was originally constructed in 1922 and remains available to ride Monday-Thursday from 10am-5pm, and Friday-Sunday from 11am-7pm. It costs $3 for all riders. It’s also wheelchair accessible!

Visit The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium: Heal The Bay Aquarium  

The Heal The Bay Aquarium is located on the lower level of the Santa Monica Pier. It’s open year-round Wednesday-Sunday from 12pm-4pm (adults for $10, kids 12 and under are free). 

Inside the aquarium, you’ll find a diverse array of animal and plant life from the Santa Monica Bay, including a kelp forest, a shark nursery, eels, lobsters, jellyfish, and much more!

Check Out The Playland Arcade

The lit-up sign on the facade of the Playland Arcade at sunset.

The Playland Arcade dates back to the 1950s! It offers all the best of 20th-century arcade nostalgia, including air hockey, Skeeball, pinball, foosball, and lots more!

This iconic Santa Monica Pier arcade is located right beside Pacific Park. It’s open daily from 10am-10pm and is one of the must-do activities on the pier.

Witness the students training at the Trapeze School!    

Perhaps one of the most unique attractions of the Santa Monica Pier is the Trapeze School.

Adjacent to the Playland Arcade, go watch as trapeze and aerial arts students fly through the air right before your eyes! It’s a free circus show!

Visit the Iconic Route 66 Sign & Last Stop Shop

The black-and-white Route 66 Street Sign with the red-and-white striped awning of Pier Burger in the background.

The original Route 66 sign at the end of the Santa Monica Pier marks the end of the historic American highway.

There, you can visit the Last Stop Shop for one-of-a-kind “Route 66” merch to commemorate the iconic American east-to-west route.

Santa Monica Pier Events

A light blue lifeguard's office on the beach, with the rides at the Santa Monica Pier boardwalk behind it.

In addition to all of the year round attractions on the Santa Monica Pier, there are special events throughout the year on the pier! Here are some festivities that the Santa Monica Pier hosts:

  • In June, catch the Santa Monica Pier 360 Beach Festival for free, all ages family fun, or check out the PRIDE festival and PRIDE events happening all month!
  • Later in the summer, the pier is a perfect place to spend the 4th of July or Wednesday evenings for the Twilight Summer music series, with concerts running until late August-September.
  • During non-summer months, meet Santa Monicans at Third Thursday’s Locals Night: Once a month, join the car show, music, youth activities, and more!
  • Wellness & Waves: A weekly community event focused on health and wellness activities.

What to Eat at the Santa Monica Pier

Crowds of people walking on the boardwalk in front of the red-and white painted Pier Burger at the Santa Monica Pier.

Amidst all the action, there are plenty of choices for food right on the pier, as well as around the Santa Monica area. 

Below is a list of dining options ranging from grab-and-go to fine dining, both in and around the Santa Monica Pier.

On the Pier:

  • Soda Jerks: Inside the historic carousel building, Soda Jerks appeals to nostalgia with classic 1940s American ice cream and soda shop vibes.
  • PierBurger: A classic all-American burger joint with window service as well as indoor and outdoor dining. 
  • Bubba Gump Shrimp: Arguably the most famous of the Santa Monica Pier restaurants, Bubba Gump Shrimp is part of the iconic American seafood chain made famous by the film Forest Gump.
  • Seaside on the Pier: Fresh seafood and classic American food in a casual setting. 

Off the Pier:

  • Cassia: An award-winning, upscale South Asian cuisine spot recognized as one of LA’s top restaurants. One of the more pricey dining options. 
  • Birdie G’s: American cuisine with Eastern European influence served in a trendy, industrial setting in Bergamot Station.
  • Crudo e Nudo: Local, fresh seafood with modern Italian twists, in a cozy setting.

History & Fun Facts About the Santa Monica Pier

Amusement park rides on the boardwalk at the Santa Monica Pier, with ocean waves beneath it and a partly-cloudy sky behind it.

The Santa Monica Pier was built in 1909 and became the West Coast’s first concrete pier, reaching 1600 feet into the ocean! 

Interestingly, the Santa Monica Pier was originally designed to help with the city’s sewage disposal into the ocean.

The original purpose was abandoned quickly (thank goodness!), and the pier instantly became a favorite destination for fishing and other forms of leisure. 

 In 1916, entrepreneur Charles Looff constructed the Looff Pleasure Pier on the municipal pier. His first project was the carousel, which still operates today! 

Looff’s vision then expanded to include a roller coaster, bowling and billiards, and a games room. 

The pier has a long history of resilience between the Great Depression and a devastating storm in 1983, which destroyed a third of the pier.

In 1996 the Pacific Park opened, returning the pier to its former amusement status with a rollercoaster and many more rides and games!

Fun Facts

  • The white and blue arch of the Santa Monica Yacht Harbor is a historical icon dating back to the 1940s internationally renowned boat dock. The first person to buy space for his boat was Charlie Chaplin, making this a popular location for tourists to see stars.
  • The Pier collapsed during the Great Depression, causing one LA local to open a casino on his boat off the shore. For some time, the pier was a seedier, not-so-family-friendly place.
  • The pier has been featured in several Hollywood films, including Forest Gump, The Sting, Hancock, Her, 2012, Iron Man, Rocky 3, and many more!
  • The Pacific Wheel is the world’s first solar-powered ferris wheel!

Santa Monica Pier Directions, Parking & How to Get There

A view of the road and parking lot for the Santa Monica Pier, with amusement park rides and the beach in the background.

If you’re driving

If you’re heading to Santa Monica by car, the area is located right on the Pacific Coast Highway, making it a popular stop for California road-trippers heading south down the coast.

Parking is made easier thanks to this real-time parking map. Here are a few of my preferred locations:

Other options

There’s also an accessible city transit system in LA that offers relatively direct access to Santa Monica daily. 

If you’re coming from Los Angeles by foot, Bus 8 Downtown Santa Monica / UCLA will bring you right to the pier at Ocean Avenue and Colorado Avenue. 

Another fun option is to use LA’s bike share service, which is a bike rental platform that reaches all over Los Angeles by bicycle.

This is definitely my preferred way to get around the coastal beach areas in order to avoid looking for parking!

Best Time to Visit the Santa Monica Pier

People strolling on the beach at sunset, with the Santa Monica Pier in the background.

While the Santa Monica Pier is bustling year-round, it is definitely most lively through the summer months, May-September.

This is when many of the events happen, the Trapeze school is open, and all the street performers are out to share their tricks. 

That said, it can get quite hot between July and August. Make sure you prepare the family for the summer heat or spend part of the day on Santa Monica State Beach!

I would also recommend an earlier start if you’re hoping to find convenient parking and beat some of the lines. 

Try to get there around 10:30-11am and stay into the early afternoon, and then perhaps stroll down off the pier onto Ocean Avenue and find yourself a nice spot for food in the area.

Tips for Visiting the Santa Monica Pier

Silhouette of amusement park rides at the Santa Monica Pier, with the sun setting behind it.
  • If you’re visiting on a budget, I’d recommend eating breakfast beforehand or hitting one of the fruit stands or coffee kiosks down the beach on the boardwalk before the pier. This will save you a couple of bucks on food before you get started!
  • Save the solar-powered ferris wheel for sunset and take in the stunning views of the horizon! Santa Monica Pier at night is absolutely beautiful.
  • After a day spent on the pier, take a bike ride south along the bike paths beside the beach and parks at sunset, and find yourself in Venice Beach for the evening!
  • Santa Monica hotels can be surprisingly affordable, especially if you choose to go a little bit more inland–just remember to book in advance.

What is so special about the Santa Monica Pier? Is it Worth Visiting?

Six young people in bathing suits laughing and splashing water at the each other in the waves at the beach, with the Santa Monica Pier behind them.

So, is it worth all the hype? 

Absolutely. Taking a walk along the pier, hanging out at the nearby Santa Monica State Beach, eating from all the food stalls, and admiring the beautiful sunset–there’s not much better.

It’s definitely a really fun way to spend a Los Angeles summer day with the family and experience so many iconic establishments. It’s a must-see for a Los Angeles visitor and an iconic Southern California staple!

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Taylor Neal

Taylor is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, yoga instructor and frontline worker who spends most of her time in her van (Vannigan) winding through the coastal and mountain roads of California where she feels most at home. From navigating the realities of van-life to the fluctuations in diverse climates and landscapes, Taylor is excited to bring everything she’s learned about California to fellow wanderers seeking beauty and adventure.

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A view of the colorful ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier, with the text over, "Best Things to Do & Tips for Visiting."

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Hi, I'm Mimi! I'm an outdoorsy Californian who has spent over 28 years immersed in the incredible natural beauty that California has to offer. My goal is to inspire others to get out and find their next adventure in California. Whether it’s escaping to an alpine lake in the Sierras, finding peace among the giant redwoods, or road tripping down the PCH, there’s always more to explore in this beautiful state.


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