Kid-Friendly California: Santa Monica

Published on March 06, 2020 - Updated on April 23, 2020

Kid-Friendly California: Santa Monica

The First Installment In Our West Coast Series

We are learning quickly how much California culture supports active family lifestyles and we’ve just scratched the surface. My stepson is a freshman at UCLA so our southern California travel has increased substantially and will continue to do so for at least the next few years.

We love visiting with him and enjoy the unique opportunity to better understand the West Coast. During our visits, we pursue kid-friendly activities for all ages. We are in search of places worthy of the happyly stamp of approval based on our experience, as well as the perspective of our four-year-old outdoor-loving kiddo.

Santa Monica with Kids

Santa Monica

The closest beach access to the UCLA campus is in Santa Monica, so we started there. Beach time and rides on the pier are obvious starting points. If you look a little deeper, there are additional gems of fun all over Santa Monica, and it turns out it is an active family’s playground. 

If you have a couple of days of travel in Santa Monica, here are a few highlights.

  • The beach: Setting up to the right of the pier feels a bit less crowded, casual and family-friendly. 
  • Cayton Children’s Museum: On the third floor of Santa Monica Place, this is our favorite excursion in the neighborhood for kids seven and under. 
  • Rent bikes: Rentals are available all over for biking along the Pacific, but well-kept bikes with helmets, kiddo seats, and all necessary accessories can be found at Santa Monica Beach Bicycle Rentals. It’s a cash-only shop, but the service is very accommodating. There are also several bike rental trucks that have new bikes in great condition.
  • Breakfast at Shutters: It’s a worthy splurge with delicious food, kid-friendly service, and a very clean environment. 
  • Lunch or dinner at Hot Dog On A Stick: Sometimes it’s just necessary to keep it simple, and while you’re there be sure to grab a sweet, fresh lemonade to quench your thirst. 
  • Stroller running or walking: The Ocean Front Walk runs four miles north to the beautiful Will Rogers State Beach. With average temperatures in the 65 to 70 range, spending the whole day outside is a viable option.
  • North Beach Playground: This playground has features suitable for kids of all ages.
  • Fish tacos: Don’t leave the area without sampling a high quality and fresh local staple! 

los ángeles with kids

We visit often, and always look for a great deal on Hotel Tonight when booking. Lodging is characteristically expensive in the area, and Santa Monica hotels generally range from $200 to over $600 per night (which honestly feels a bit crazy). Alternative options that are less pricey can be uncovered ten to fifteen minutes inland but we’ve uncovered a few worthwhile favorites.

  • Le Meridien: Boasting a nice pool, and just a ten-minute walk to the beach, the hotel is located across from the high school. Great fish tacos and simple kids meal options are available on the menu for under ten dollars. 
  • Viceroy: Just one block from the beach and three from the pier, this spot also has a nice pool area. It feels a bit more adult, but we still like it. Renovations are underway until May 2020. 
  • Shutters: While a definite splurge, this is the nicest property in Santa Monica in our opinion, because it still maintains a true beach cottage feel. The pool is on the 2nd floor with ocean views and when considering overall value, it doesn’t get much better than Shutters - the food, the view and the service are all exceptional. 

Santa Monica vacation with kids

Santa Monica is equipped with a lovely, sprawling beach and miles of paved bike paths for hiking, running and exploring along the Pacific Ocean. Popular for these wonderful elements, Santa Monica is perhaps even more well-known for the lively pier with restaurants, rides, and carnival games. 

From the beach area, you can’t miss the sky-high solar-powered Ferris wheel or roller coaster and, I’m guessing that if you’re traveling with kids, they’ll be drawn into the amusement park vibe immediately. 

Embrace it. The full-day pass is the best deal offering, with unlimited ride access. Several restaurants provide options for a quick bite to eat, and as mentioned, with so much going on, a quick lifesaver is to grab a corn dog at Hot Dog On A Stick with the refreshing company of sweet, sweet lemonade.

Alternatives close by include the many touristy locations like Bubba Gump Shrimp. There’s also a nacho stand and several options for ice cream. 

If you have time to explore, simply walk up the ramp. There are miles of restaurants seeking to lure you in. For something really delicious and perhaps a bit healthier, check out the downstairs grill at Shutters.

Le Meridien is just a few blocks away and features ten fish taco options and simple, cost-effective kids meals like pasta, grilled cheese or chicken fingers. We also really love Flower Child, located just 2 blocks off the beach. 

If you’re looking for additional food options, Culture Trip is helpful! They are on point with a range from splurge spots to great family-friendly take out locations.

For more information about Flower Child or Cayton Children’s Museum check them out on our blog.

LAX Travel Tips

lax airport

Traveling is always better with preparation and I’ve noticed recently that while we have great success departing on a smooth trip, journeying home can get a little bumpy. Here are a few tips we have followed when our home journey has proved almost as smooth as our initial departure.

  • Leaving to head home we at times underestimate the traffic and generally run into a ton of traffic in Los Angeles. We were enjoying the beach time so much recently that we cut it too close. Returning a car at LAX and getting to your gate requires at least an extra hour, which means pulling into your rental car return at least two hours before your flight.
  • Additionally, by the end of the trip, I’m almost always out of cash. The rental car bus drivers are generally quite helpful and I suspect would welcome a token of appreciation, at least a few dollars. 
  • As we've all experienced, our dirty clothes and souvenirs never quite fit neatly back into our bags. It’s always helpful to pack a soft duffel bag at the bottom of your suitcase to help eliminate this avoidable stress factor when heading home. 
  • Also, on the backend of the trip, the snack supply has generally dwindled. When I’m thinking ahead, we try to pack a separate snack stash to deploy when we are homeward bound. When this is not an option, always allow an extra 20 minutes to check out the options at the airport. Many airports now offer vending machines for healthier, on the go items like wraps, salads and more, so keep an eye out when you are in a hurry.

If you have local kid-friendly recommendations in Santa Monica or other favorite tips for travel success, we would love to hear from you at  If you feel inclined, tag us on Instagram @gethappyly with some of your family’s highlights in the area.

Also, please take a moment to download the happyly app for fast access to all of our weekend roundups, frequent blog content, and favorite activities, both locally and in many communities and travel destinations across the country. 

Parents can now get more time back in their days with the country’s only mobile-first family activity planning app. Happyly provides scores of carefully-reviewed activities for parents, grandparents, and caregivers who are looking to spend less time planning and more time happily exploring with their kiddos.

Caitlin Iseler
Washington, D.C.
Caitlin Iseler, happyly founder and CEO, was born in New York and is one of eight children. Her favorite holiday is Thanksgiving and the chance to sit at one table with her favorite 40 people. Caitlin and her family live in Jackson, Wyoming. Caitlin is married to Thomas and they have three children that she adores more than anything. Being a mom has always been something she dreamt of and it is her favorite thing in the world. Caitlin attended the University of Virginia and was a member of the National & ACC Championship Team. Before starting happyly, Caitlin spent 15 years working in executive search with technology companies.
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