The Santa Monica State Beach is the most popular tourist destination in the city, and for good reason. Thanks to the cool ocean breeze, the air is fresh and clean, and temperatures are mild along the entire length of this three and a half mile stretch of pristine, sun-drenched coastline, making it one of the most pleasant spots in all of Southern California.
And the city works hard to keep it that way. The sand is cleaned and raked daily, the baker's dozen public restroom facilities are serviced every day, and smoking is not allowed anywhere beyond the sidewalk at the perimeter of the park. Fun, however, is not only allowed, but encouraged. Visitors can swim or surf in safety, thanks to lifeguard services provided by the LAFD, or engage in non-water sports like beach volleyball. World-famous Muscle Beach, located on the south side of the pier, has chinning bars, parallel bars, a safely padded area in which to practice gymnastics, and some jungle gyms for the kids to play on. Rollerbladers, skaters, and bikers have a bike path to themselves, separate and parallel to the pedestrian pathway. There are even facilities for sports more cerebral than physical. The International Chess Park, located just south of the pier, is equipped not merely with standard-issue public chess tables, but also a human-scale chessboard set into the sidewalk, allowing games to be played with people serving as the chessmen.
It's not even necessary to step foot on the sand to pack a vacation's worth of amusement into a trip to the beach. The Santa Monica Pier is a marvel all by itself. Beyond the arched entrance, a treasured century-old landmark, there are street entertainers, shops, restaurants, an arcade, an aquarium, a carousel, and even an amusement park. The pier's Playland Arcade offers a wide variety of inexpensive games, and the aquarium's many marine life exhibits include three touch tanks, but the carousel and Pacific Park are the crown jewels of the pier's attractions.
The carousel is housed inside the lovingly restored Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome, a building on the National Registry of Historic Places. Pacific Park doesn't have the Hippodrome's landmark pedigree, but it does have a lot more rides. The amusement park's adult rides include the world's first and only solar-powered Ferris wheel, and the West Coaster, a thirty-five-mile-per-hour steel roller coaster, while the children's rides include an eighteen foot bouncing drop tower.
The beach is paralleled by Pacific Coast highway and Ocean Avenue, and either can be used to get there. If approaching from the north on Pacific Coast Highway, watch for the directional signs toward beach parking after reaching the California Incline. If approaching from the north on Ocean Avenue, parking can be reached two blocks south of Santa Monica Boulevard, at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Colorado Avenue. If that lot is full, there's another that can be reached by driving south two additional blocks to Seaside Terrace, turning right, and following the posted directional signs. If approaching from the South, go north on Ocean Avenue until reaching Colorado Avenue, then turn left. If that lot is full, continue north to California Incline and turn left. Turn left again onto Pacific Coast Highway, move over to the right hand lane, and follow the directional signs to the parking area.