Secrets of the Santa Monica Pier

CNN  — 

No place exudes that Southern California hang-10 beach vibe more than Santa Monica.

Tanned surfers come here to catch waves and bikini beauties catch some rays in this always-sunny beach town. But there’s one attraction that stands out beyond the pristine surf and sand: the Santa Monica Pier.

The iconic red and yellow Ferris wheel has been the backdrop for decades’ worth of postcards along with the numerous rides at the famed Pacific Park amusement park and the arcade with more than 200 games.

Tourists and locals alike come to wander around the shops, eat at the restaurants, marvel at the aquatic life at the aquarium, take a spin on the historic carousel and indulge in some child’s play (think cotton candy and air hockey).

This is all while looking out at the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean.

It’s been that way since September 9, 1909, when the then 1,600-foot-long boardwalk – the first concrete pier on the West Coast – was first opened to the public.

Of course, attractions have been added over the years, such as the carousel in 1922, named Santa Monica’s first national historic landmark, and the modern version of Pacific Park, which opened in 1996. Now, more than seven million visitors a year check out the playful hot spot.

Here’s how to make the most of your visit when you travel here:

Planning your visit

The Santa Monica Pier is open every day of the year 24 hours a day, but business hours for the variety of activities at the beachfront destination vary. Pacific Park is typically open from 11a.m to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday and until 8 p.m. on weekdays, but these times also vary depending on the season, private events, and weather. It’s best to call (310) 260-8744 to get the latest.

The aquarium is open Tuesday through Friday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and on weekends from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Also, the Heal the Bay marine education center is not to be missed with its many hands-on activities. And if you’re thinking about maybe joining the circus, take lessons at the Trapeze School at the pier, which is open Monday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Another option, if you aren’t interested in any of the kiddie activities, is to grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants that dot the pier. Or pop into the 66 to Cali store, which sells Route 66-themed goods marking the end (or beginning) of the famous cross-country road trip.

There are a couple of free activities as well. On weekends, you can join a historical walking tour to learn more about the route and fun tidbits about the beachy landmark. Then on Thursdays during the summer they have the Twilight Concerts at the beach.

Santa Monica's moderate climate makes it a popular destination year-round.

Arrival by car is best if you’re planning on exploring other parts of Los Angeles and parking is actually available right on the Pier deck via the ramp at Ocean and Colorado, which is open 24 hours. Rates for parking start at $2 an hour during the winter on weekdays (with a $10 max per entry) to $3 an hour on weekends and during the summer (with a $12-$15 max per entry). There are also two lower lots: one accessible via Appian Way (open from sunrise to sunset for $1 an hour with a 2-hour maximum) and the other at Lot 1 North located at 1550 Pacific Coast Highway (open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. for $8 or $12 per entry depending on the season).

Alternative car-free options include taking the light-rail Expo Line from downtown L.A., and a shuttle from Los Angeles International Airport. Or rent bike cruisers and follow the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail, known as The Strand, which stretches about 22 miles along the oceanfront from Santa Monica south to Torrance.

Don’t forget to check out the nearby Third Street Promenade. It’s a pedestrian-only strip filled with restaurants, shops and street performers.

Did you know?

Before there were visions of making the pier into a playground for all ages, it was first meant to act as a public utility.

Built as the Municipal Pier, a pipeline originally ran underneath the boardwalk bringing sewage to the ocean. The rides and games were merely a distraction. Thankfully, this practice was stopped in the 1920s and folks were able to go on enjoying the attractions – sans sewage smell.

Opening day was a huge hit, however. Thousands turned up to check out the attractions, but the highlight might have been the running, boating, and swimming events judged by legendary surfer George Freeth.

And it wasn’t just folks interested in the amusements who were clamoring to get in on the action; fisherman lined the docks to cast their rods in hopes of catching “a big one.” Legends of 500-pound catches have been told over the years and it’s actually still a popular spot for fishing enthusiasts.

Another fun piece of trivia: there was actually a Battle of Santa Monica Bay. No, this wasn’t some great military feat you forgot from the history books; it was a 1939 raid of mobster Tony Cornero’s offshore gambling operations led by Attorney General Earl Warren.

Oh, and the 44-horse vintage carousel was featured in “The Sting” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Photography tips

The Santa Monica Pier has captured amateur and professional photographers’ attention for over a century. A popular spot for snapping pics of the famous 85-foot Ferris wheel as the sun sets is actually from the beach. Whether just below the wood planks or positioned up the beach a bit, you’re sure to get a quintessential SoCal snap of the landmark and sand.

If a sunset over the ocean is what you’re after, then head to The Lobster restaurant at the entrance of the pier (1602 Ocean Ave; (310) 458-9294). Not only do you get some delicious seafood, but the floor-to-ceiling windows giving you an unobstructed view of the pier all the way up to Malibu.

Other fun shots include the classic Santa Monica Yacht Harbor entrance sign erected in 1940 and located at the end of Colorado Avenue, and the famous Route 66 sign situated about halfway along the Pier.

Feeling brave? Then you can try to snap a selfie from the top of the steel roller coaster where you’ll get a shot of Pacific Park and the glittering Ferris wheel. Also, underneath the pier might not have all of the colorful attractions, but it’s a hot spot for couples doing their engagement shoots.

Where to eat

Whatever you’re craving, the Santa Monica Pier has something to offer.

Want Mexican? Mariasol (401 Santa Monica Pier; (310) 917-5050) serves up delicious margaritas and tacos at the west end of the pier, so you get stunning views with your chips and guacamole. How about Italian? Ristorante Al Mare (250 Santa Monica Pier) is the newest eatery to take up shop on the Pier offering pizza and pasta with rooftop views. It’s due to reopen for business on January 8, 2018.

Of course, you can’t visit a pier and not expect a plethora of seafood options. There’s the family-friendly chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (301 Santa Monica Pier), The Albright (258 Santa Monica Pier), and Rusty’s Surf Ranch (256 Santa Monica Pier) which all have a Baja flare.

There’s plenty of more casual fare too. Pac Park Food Court (380 Santa Monica Pier) has all of your typical grab-and-go amusement park fare. Pier Burger (330 Santa Monica Pier) has juicy no-frills burgers and milkshakes, while Soda Jerks (200 Santa Monica Pier) serves up the same with a, you guessed it, soda jerk vibe.

Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a freelance writer covering travel, food and wellness, and is also an avid truffle lover. Follow her on Instagram at @welltraveler.