The Complete Guide To The Santa Monica Pier and Amusement Park

Santa Monica Pier

TripSavvy / Christian Hundley 

For fun in the sun, after-dark thrills, perfect selfie spots, fascinating people watching, fresh seafood, and even educational entertainment, you can’t beat the Santa Monica Pier.  

History

For most of its 110 years, the pier has attracted locals and tourists alike with the promise of endless entertainment options. But it didn’t start out that way. The West Coast’s first concrete pier debuted in September 1909 as a public utility for piping treated sewage out to sea.

But it didn’t take long for someone to put the fun in function. That someone was carousel carver Charles Looff who added a wider wooden pier alongside the municipal one and plopped an amusement park on top of it in 1916. He also added the Hippodrome, which still houses an antique merry-go-round. Looff sold the pier to a group of realtors in 1924 who expanded the property to include the La Monica Ballroom. The dance hall drew 50,000 people on opening night, causing the city’s first recorded traffic jam. After the Depression, it found renewed purpose as a convention center, lifeguard headquarters, roller rink, and the city jail. After World War II, it hosted musical acts like Roy Rogers and Desi Arnaz. The Hoffman Hayride, hosted in the ballroom, became the first variety show broadcast live in 1948.

In 1929, cartoonist Elzie C. Segar, who often brainstormed ideas for his comic strip Thimble Theatre in a rented rowboat at the pier, was inspired by Olaf Olsen, a retired Navy man who operated a fleet there, to create Popeye.

In 1934, the Santa Monica Yacht Harbor opened and one of its first moorings was purchased by Charlie Chaplin. The breakwater wound up changing the ocean current and caused the beach to expand into the wide swath it is today. The calm harbor was also a haven for watersports. Paddleboards were just as trendy then as they are today and the Hui Maiokioki Club (later renamed Manoa) organized races and invented paddleboard water polo and ballet in the 1940s.

By the ‘70s, it had become a hippie hangout and an eyesore. To make it more viable, a city manager proposed building a resort island and removing the pier to make way for a bridge. In 1973, the city council agreed, but plans were tossed when the community fought back until the decision was rescinded. Voters passed 1975’s Proposition 1 to preserve the pier forever. Severe storms destroyed a third of it in 1983, but it was rebuilt to the way it looks today by 1990 and the new theme park opened in 1996.

Like most LA landmarks, SMP has had its fair share of screen time. It’s been seen in TV shows and movies like Forrest Gump, Top Chef, Hannah Montana, Hancock, Iron Man, The Sting, Sharknado, Beverly Hills 90210, Charlie’s Angels, Criminal Minds, South Park, Modern Family, and Her. Jack even tried to impress Rose in Titanic by telling her he bravely rode the pier’s roller coaster. Too bad that ride wasn’t built until four years after the ship sank. 

What To See and Do 

On the boardwalk, down by the sea, there truly is something for everyone including an amusement park, aquarium, fishing, and spectacular sunsets. 

Pacific Park, the last of the West Coast’s amusement parks located on a pier, has carnival games, fair food, and 12 rides including a 35-mph roller coaster, spinning sharks, a sea dragon swing, and traffic-themed bumper cars. It also has the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel.

• Ride the antique hand-carved wooden carousel inside the historic Hippodrome built when Looff was in charge.

Heal the Bay operates a marine-education center under the carousel building. There are more than 100 species, all of which live in the bay just outside the door and some of which can be touched, on exhibit at the aquarium. Kids under 12 are free and California locals get a $2 discount on admission.

• The same family has run an arcade at SMP since 1954. Today, Playland Arcade has a mix of nostalgic classics like pinball machines, skeeball, and air hockey and updated video games, many of which help players earn prizes. 

• Fly high like Carrie Bradshaw on Sex And The City by taking a class in trapeze, silks, or trampoline at Trapeze School New York.  

• Fishing from the top deck is legal. The bait and tackle shop rents equipment, sells bait, and gives advice on what’s biting.

• Rent bikes and ride the paved path known as The Strand north to Pacific Palisades or south through Venice and Manhattan Beach to Torrance County Beach. All together the trail is 22 miles long.

• Take a selfie with the controversial Route 66 End of Trail sign. It’s controversial because the pier was designated as the official finish of the famed road at the 100th-anniversary celebration in 2009. It’s a replica of the sign that once stood at the intersection of Ocean and Santa Monica Boulevard, the true terminus of the highway.

Annual Programming

These special events will help you determine when you #wishyouwerepier.

• ROGA is held most Saturdays from late March to August. It pairs an 8 am beach/pier run with a 9 am yoga class on the boardwalk. 

• The Twilight On The Pier concert series has set the Santa Monica night to music for 35 years. Typically held August through September, it features free live music and DJ sets as well as art, comedy, games, and a beer/wine garden.

• Pride is celebrated for the entire month of June.  

• Pier 360 is a free all-ages two-day festival in June that combines ocean sports competitions, live bands, food, drinks, and beach culture brands.

• November and December are reserved for a variety of holiday-themed programming including craft classes, puppet shows, art installations, holiday markets, and interactive experience.

Where To Eat

From fast to fancy, there’s plenty here to put in your stomach.

• Casual and quick options include Pier Burger, Japadog (hot dogs with Japanese-style toppings), and the Pacific Park food court.

• When at the shore, it makes sense to slurp down seafood. The Albright was the pier’s first sustainable business and has live oysters, crab, and lobster. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and The Lobster (an expensive sit-down spot) specialize in their titular crustaceans, but also have other fish and meat. Seaside On The Pier has seafood plus pizza, burgers, and a rooftop lounge.

Rusty’s Surf Ranch usually pairs comfort food like chicken wings and fried pickles with live music. 

• At the very end of the pier since 1991, Mariasol serves in coastal Mexican cuisine — think tableside guacamole, shrimp fajitas, and Baja fish tacos — and is a great spot for sipping margaritas during sunset. 

• Satisfy a sweet tooth with ice cream from Soda Jerks. The latter offers tours of the soda fountain, which includes a sundae or specialty drink with admission.

• Although it isn’t technically on the pier, corndog connoisseurs should make the pilgrimage to the original Hot Dog On A Stick, which is about 350 feet south on the beach level. It was there in 1946 that Dave Barham first adapted his mom’s cornbread recipe.

How To Get There

Go west to Santa Monica State Beach via Interstate 10 and the Pacific Coast Highway (1). The famous neon sign crowns the entry ramp where Ocean and Colorado Avenues intersect. The ramp is open to pedestrians, bikes, and cars. Pier deck parking is also accessible by the ramp. Use Appian Way to park in either of the two beach-level lots. Or ride the Metro’s Expo Line to the Downtown Santa Monica Station and then walk straight down Colorado for less than 10 minutes. It's also a 10–minute walk to the Third Street Promenade and nine miles from LAX.

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