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Women doing yoga on the beach. (Photograph courtesy Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau)

The Best of Santa Monica

A recent visit to the Santa Monica Pier immediately transported me back to my college days when I would crash in a friend’s dorm room at USC. We’d find some hopping chain restaurant and the night would inevitably end at the end of the pier, cotton candy in hand, looking out towards Malibu.

Today, the pier evokes nostalgia for me, but it’s the cross between urban culture and SoCal cool that keeps me coming back. Somehow, even on the hottest of days, there always seems to be a breeze that promises excitement.

Here’s my guide to the best of Santa Monica. Sound off on what I missed by leaving a comment below!

Get on two wheels. Navigating Los Angeles in a car can be a nightmare, but watch how manageable it becomes on a bike. I recently did a 32-mile “L.A. In A Day” ride with Bikes and Hikes L.A., and highly recommend it. As we rode into Santa Monica on Georgina Avenue beneath towering palms, our wonderfully knowledgeable guide, Kim Beaudoin, said: “Bus tours can be voyeuristic as you’re seeing everything from above. On a bike, you’re absorbing the city and becoming a part of the sights.” After our tour, I couldn’t agree more.

Visit Palisades Park, a beautiful stretch of paths, outdoor sculptures, and gardens with incredible coastal views. Sure, you can jog or bike, but this is also the perfect spot to just sit and watch the world go by. The park runs alongside Ocean Avenue from Colorado to San Vicente.

Stay at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows. This hotel has a storied history dating back to 1921 and is a personal favorite. Today, it offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and delicious dining at FIG (chef Ray Garcia’s warm quinoa salad is reason enough to visit L.A.). I also try to visit their Exhale Spa for core fusion classes and a skin-brightening facial while I’m in town.

Go downtownChannel your inner kid by taking a ride on the solar-powered Pacific Ferris Wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. If you’re visiting in summer, make plans to check out the Twilight concert series, which has partnered with Central Park’s SummerStage to bring the best artists and acts to both. Close by is the Third Street Promenade, a vibrant outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment district. The Santa Monica History Museum is also worth seeing (especially the “Then and Now” photos of the city).

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Santa Monica Place reopened in 2010 with major upgrades. (Photograph courtesy Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Embrace freshness. The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market on Arizona Avenue (Wednesdays and Saturdays) is the largest in L.A. For an insider tour, sign up for a monthly meet up with chef Michael McCarty, a pioneer of California cuisine who will introduce you to his favorite vendors. It ends with a meal cooked from the market finds at his restaurant, Michael’sMatthew Kenney Culinary Academy offers weekend intensives in raw food preparation, and classes on pies, cookies, quiches, pizza and more are on the schedule at the Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories.

Eat well. Must-visit restaurants include Tar & Roses for the industrial meets cozy vibe with the wood burning oven at the center of it all; Hostaria del Piccolo for pastas and pizzas that can be prepared gluten-free; The Misfit for gourmet comfort food and signature cocktails; Rockenwagner Bakery for pretzel baguette sandwiches; Capo for a big night out and delicious steak; and The Ivy at the Shore for almost guaranteed celebrity sightings and an overpriced but delicious menu. Santa Monica Place is a more recent addition, with plenty of shops and a top level “Dining Deck.”

Explore Montana Avenue. Spend an afternoon on Montana Avenue, and you just might run into Reese Witherspoon running errands. I always find time to visit Bellacures for a manicure and love places like Planet Blue for California fashions and The Broot for custom hair masks. The Aero movie theater dates back to 1940 and shows both classics and lesser known films. While Montana Avenue goes quiet when the shops close, there are plenty of places to go for a nosh. R&D Kitchen is a perennial favorite for American dishes; Locanda Portofino is a romantic trattoria; and Blue Plate is a great lunch spot for healthy salads, sandwiches, and wraps. Angelenos are still obsessed with Father’s Office and their well-known Office Burger, while Cafe Montana is great for brunch or date night.

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Tuck in to cozy comfort food at the Misfit. (Photograph courtesy Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau)

Don’t forget Main Street. Main Street has a surfer culture and yogi vibe, steps from the beach. Stella Rossa Pizza Bar serves exceptional pizzas and a memorable burrata with grilled, smoky grapes. Make sure and ask to say hi to chef Jeff Mahin, a self-proclaimed food scientist who’s currently on ABC’s “The Taste” with Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain. Chinois on Main is Wolfgang Puck’s Asian fusion place, and a long-time anchor in the area. The Basement Tavern is best for live music and cocktails. Need a pick me up? Try the sea-salt caramel iced latte at Dogtown Coffee or a sweet Spanish latte at Urth Caffe.

Don’t miss out on Mid-City. People travel from afar for a Godmother sandwich from Bay Cities Italian Deli, but the chance to get a whiff of their freshly baked bread is reason enough to visit. Rustic Canyon is a wine bar with plates meant to be shared, and Wilshire has a Top Chef alum at the helm. Huckleberry is a perfect lunch spot with an ever-changing menu of salads, sandwiches, desserts, and more. Explore more than 40 galleries of art, jewelry, and designat the Bergamot Station Arts Center.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.