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Once the very end of the mythical Route 66 and still the object of a tourist love affair, the Santa Monica Pier dates back to 1908 and is the city’s most compelling landmark. There are arcades, carnival games, a vintage carousel, a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster and an aquarium, and the pier comes alive with free concerts (Twilight Dance Series) and outdoor movies in the summertime.
There are also a number of bars and restaurants, but the thing here is the view: the pier extends almost a quarter-mile over the Pacific, so you can stroll to the edge, hang out among the motley anglers and lose yourself in the rolling, blue-green sea.
Kids get their kicks at Pacific Park, a small amusement park with a solar-powered Ferris wheel, kiddy rides, midway games and food stands. Check the website for discount coupons.
Near the pier entrance, nostalgic souls and their offspring can giddy up the beautifully hand-painted horses of the 1922 carousel, also featured in the movie The Sting.
Peer under the pier – just below the carousel – for Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Sea stars, crabs, sea urchins and other critters and crustaceans scooped from the bay stand by to be petted – ever so gently – in their adopted touch-tank homes.
South of the pier is the Original Muscle Beach, where the Southern California exercise craze began in the mid-20th century. New equipment now draws a fresh generation of fitness fanatics. Close by, the search for the next Bobby Fischer is on at the International Chess Park. Anyone can join in. Following the South Bay Bicycle Trail, a paved bike and walking path, south for about 1.5 miles takes you straight to Venice Beach. Bikes or in-line skates are available to rent on the pier and at beachside kiosks.