I hopped off the plane at LAX. Look to the right and I see the Hollywood Sign.
Okay, okay enough with the Miley Cyrus references, but in all honestly it has always been a dream of mine to visit California. The celebrities, the west coast vibe, and of course the gorgeous coastline - it was all calling my name. So when my sister and I were deciding where we should go for our third annual sister trip (#1 Waco and #2 Nashville) it seemed like a great choice.
We visited in mid-February and the weather most days was mid 60s which was a welcome change from the Michigan winter we were used to and actually felt a lot warmer with the sun out. Most of the areas we went to weren't as busy as I was expecting them to be and this time of year definitely seemed like an off season. In addition to exploring West Hollywood, we also spent time in Santa Monica and Malibu.
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Where to Stay
We spent four amazing days in Cali (flew in on Friday and flew out on Tuesday morning) and it seemed to be the perfect amount of time for us. Where you stay will depend a lot on what activities you're planning and what all you want to see during your stay. Everything is relatively close mile wise but with traffic it tends to take twice as long to get everywhere so I would recommend grouping your days together by location so you don't waste a lot of precious vacation time driving. We wanted to be out of the hustle and bustle of the city and one of the main reasons we booked this trip was because my sister was dying to see the Santa Monica Pier so we knew we would definitely be spending some time in this area. We ended up finding the cutest Air Bnb in Santa Monica which was a more affordable option than some of the other pricey hotels and also served as a good central location to the other areas we would be exploring (Malibu and West Hollywood). It was also only 15 minutes from the airport which was super convenient for our early morning flight home.
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When I was doing my own research for our trip, most of the blogs I read recommended not renting a car and using public transportation or ride sharing. We wanted a bit more freedom to explore on our own and ended up renting a car and I'm so glad we did. I was actually surprised with how affordable the parking was everywhere we went. Most garages were free for the first 90 minutes and then $2/hour after that. It was also fairly easy to find street parking which was often free for the first two hours. Malibu was the area we paid the most in parking due to the fact that most of the spots we went to were valet only. Since it was just the two of us we rented a compact car and only ended up using $20 in gas for the whole trip!
Day 1: Venice Beach/Santa Monica
Our flight landed around 10:30am at LAX and we couldn't check in to our Airbnb until 4pm. Travel tip - if you know this is going to happen pack a change of clothes in your personal bag so you can easily change at the airport and start exploring. After picking up our rental car our first stop of the day was Venice Beach. We were starving after the 3 hours time change so we parked downtown to grab tacos and margs at Cabo Cantina. They have locations all throughout the area and their margs are HUGE and perfect for splitting between two people.
After our stomachs were full we walked to the Venice Canals. This canals are actually man made to resemble Venice, Italy and are found in a residential neighborhood. There are sidewalks lining the canals and unique wooden bridges that cross over each one. Most of the houses have their own tiny docks with kayaks or other boats which adds to the charm. This is a free activity and we spent about 30 minutes just walking around and taking in the sights.
From there we stopped by our car to put more money in the parking machine so we could continue walking down to Venice Beach. The beach itself is only a block from the restaurant but you'll want to keep walking until you get to the Venice Beach boardwalk which is an experience that can't be missed. Here you'll find the famous Muscle Beach, graffiti park, street performers, and countless shops and vendors. Near the heart of the boardwalk is also the iconic VENICE sign hanging over the street which is a great photo-op. We also walked down to the ocean and spent some time exploring the rock formations which create their own tide pools.
After checking in to our Airbnb, we headed to downtown Santa Monica for dinner and to enjoy the pier. Most of the downtown area is easy to walk to and you can easily find parking on Second Street. I recommend parking in the garage at 1571 2nd Street as it's closest to the pier. Here you'll also find the "Greetings from Santa Monica" mural on the wall of Bloomingdales (off Colorado Avenue).
We were craving sushi and decided on Sushi Roku which definitely seemed like a spot locals like to hang out. From there we walked down to the Santa Monica Pier. It was so neat to see the Ferris wheel all lit up at night. On the pier you'll find carnival games, rides, restaurants, and so much more. Definitely one of our favorite parts of the trip! If fact, we liked it so much we went back again on day 2 (see below).
Day 2: Santa Monica
We started our second day in California with brunch at Bardonna LA. Order at the counter and then grab an available seat on the patio. In addition to a full menu they also have a variety of unique baked goods (try the smoothie muffin!) and speciality coffee and juice. Be sure to snap a picture with the colorful Love Wall by James Goldcrown painted on the side of the restaurant. The Montana Avenue neighborhood is also home to more than 150 boutique shops and restaurants lining the 10-block area so spend some time strolling the tree-lined streets after brunch for both high end and local shopping.
Next, we drove a few miles to Palisades Park which runs the length of Ocean Avenue on top of the coastal sandstone bluffs and offers scenic views of the Pacific Ocean and palm trees lining the walking paths. This is such a beautiful area and there were so many people out biking or walking their dogs. After relaxing in the sun for a while, we walked down Ocean Avenue to grab a drink at The Bungalow. If you're wondering where all the young, hip people in Cali hang out - you'll find them here. It feels like you're at a house party with multiple bars and seating areas in each room, a pool table, and a full garden patio.
We wanted to see the pier in the daytime so we decided to head back just before sunset. Another great photo op is the Historic Route 66 sign which marks the end of the iconic highway that connects the middle of the country to the coast. Purchase a $10 ticket and hop on the Ferris wheel for stunning views of the pier at sunset. The pier also offers numerous restaurants to choose from and hardly any that we passed had a wait. We chose to eat at Seaside on the Pier which offers rooftop patio views overlooking the boardwalk.
Day 3: Malibu
Home to 21 miles of coastline and nearly three dozen beaches it's no wonder countless celebrities call this city home. Since we were staying in Santa Monica it was only a quick 20 minute drive to Malibu with lots to see and do.
The first stop of our morning was to explore the iconic Malibu Pier which was built in 1905 and is the definition of coastal charm. Be sure to get there early to secure a free parking spot along the side of the road. Otherwise you can expect to pay $15 for the pier lot or $10 for a lot across the street which is what we chose. Stroll down the pier and watch for surfers, dolphins, or the occasional celebrity sighting. If you came hungry you can dine at the insta-worthy Malibu Farm which features seated dining at the oceanside patio as well as full service bar with fresh juice cocktails, beer, and wine. We snagged a seat at the bar and tried the papaya and berry smoothie which were both delicious. Malibu Farm Cafe is located at the end of the pier which is a more casual atmosphere with counter service and rooftop seating options.
On our drive farther inland we stumbled upon Malibu Cafe at Calamigos Ranch sort of by accident but I'm so glad we did. This place is SO dreamy and I highly recommend dedicating more time to spend here. Their outdoor space offers a full service restaurant as well as a number of different seating areas and outdoor games such as pool, chess, and Jenga. Of course you can't forget about the many insta-worthy photo ops including the Howdy! sign when you walk in and the We Love U lighted sign found in the lawn. You will need to valet park in order to get in ($9 for 2 1/2 hours or $14 all day) and they accept both cash and card.
The main reason we planned a day in Malibu was for our Malibu Wine Safari tour and it was SO worth it! Located on the 1,100 acre Saddle Rock Ranch and vineyard nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains this is so much more than a wine tasting experience. Once you check in you'll climb aboard your open-air safari vehicle and head to your first stop on the tour - a meet and greet with the Stanley the giraffe who is a retired movie star. During the two hour experience you'll also enjoy a red and white wine tasting as well as stops to visit a number of other animals including zebras, llamas, donkeys, and water buffalo.
If you can't get enough of the Saddlerock label wine from your safari tour, head to Malibu Wine and Beer Garden in West Hills for another tasting experience. Here you can enjoy wine and regional craft beer as well as wood fire pizza from Two Doughs on the weekends. Guests are welcome to bring in their own prepared or picnic food or have food delivered from a local restaurant which makes it a great stop for dinner after a long day of exploring.
Day 4: West Hollywood
No trip to LA is complete without checking out some of the iconic tourist sites. We started our morning on the hunt for the Hollywood sign. While there are many different ways to see the sign, including a hike behind it, we had a lot to see in one day and wanted an easy way to get a good view. This led us to Lake Hollywood Park. The drive winds through neighborhood streets but eventually leads to a grassy park with views of the sign above. There is plenty of free parking alongside the street just make sure you're inside the lines as they do monitor it and will give you a ticket if you're not (I may be speaking from first hand experience). Walk up the hill to get another angle of the sign from atop the cliff with a dirt lookout.
Next, we headed to Hollywood Boulevard to check out the Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theatre. Parking is available in the main garage off Hollywood Boulevard and any of the stores or restaurants within the garage will validate your parking for a cheaper rate. Stroll down the street in search of your favorite stars or see the concrete handprints in front of the theatre. Unfortunately, they were setting up for a movie premiere while we were there so we couldn't see any of the handprints. If you have time you'll also find countless other attractions in the area including wax museums, Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the Museum of Selfies. We were there around lunch so we walked a few blocks down to In-and-Out - one of our favorite stops anytime we're on the west coast.
After lunch we headed to Melrose Avenue for a little mural hunting. This neighborhood is so unique and has TONS of street art. Lots of street parking available including 2 hour free spots which is more than enough time to explore. A few of my favorite murals in the area are:
Next, we made a stop at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to check out the Urban Lights display. This is a free exhibit and available 24/7. While you're there you can also check out the art museum itself or wander around the courtyard. It was getting late in the day so we decided to just stop for photos. We had an early flight the next morning so we opted to head back to our Airbnb with some takeout Chinese food and call it an early night but you could definitely grab one last dinner out on the town.
I love creating detailed travel guides to ensure you get the most out of your time. On this blog I'll be sharing some of my past trips in hopes that it helps you plan your next adventure. Pack your suitcase you never know where I'll be heading next!
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