This place is nostalgic, and for a couple reasons. First, it reminds me of my childhood; although I didn’t come often, I was filled with awe when I did. Second, it harkens back to an earlier time, one before large theme parks, the days of soda fountains and Ferris wheels. So while it is overly touristy, to my mind the Santa Monica Pier still has plenty of value.
I am here on a holiday weekend Sunday, so the pier is packed. I park up the street at one of Santa Monica’s many parking garages, and walk past the iconic sign and down the hill toward the blue of the Pacific Ocean. Stepping onto the wood of the pier, I find myself excited. Here are spots from the past, both mine and California’s, and for a day they are mine to explore and to relive.
Santa Monica Pier was technically built in 1909, though what we see now is actually a combination of that original Municipal Pier and the 1916 Pleasure Pier. The pier marks the official end of Route 66, which took travelers to California from Chicago. (Click here to read more about Route 66.) While many similar pier amusement parks were demolished, popular opposition to a planned destruction of the pier in 1973 won out, and it was instead designated a historic landmark. And so it remains today, one of not many similar places in the country to survive modernization.
My first stop is lunch, and fish is what is on the menu. I avoid the line at Bubba Gump’s, opting instead for the also-overpriced-but-not-quite-so-touristy Seaside on the Pier for fish tacos on their rooftop patio. Seagulls fly overhead, probably hoping I share my lunch. I decline to do so.
The Santa Monica Pier stretches 500 meters, and a walk through the crowds to the end is a necessity. Here, staring at the endless blue and sparkling of the Pacific, I’m able to view both the coastline of my home state, as well as a nice view of Pacific Pier, the current amusement park. Pacific Pier features a few attractions, headlined by a lovely Ferris wheel. There are also carnival games, a small and tame roller coaster, and a much less tame trapeze setup. It’s fun to watch those enjoying their rides, although I choose not to pay to join them.
On either side, a wide sand beach stretches along the water. Stairs lead down to the sand from the pier, and families picnic on blankets there while others join me on the pier itself. It is a beautiful day in the sun regardless of which one chooses.
Many visitors wait in line for funnel cake. While it looks delicious, I have something different in mind for my sweet tooth. Inside the original 1920s hippodrome which houses an old carousel sits Soda Jerks, an old-fashioned soda fountain. A few minutes later I am sipping a chocolate egg cream (basically carbonated chocolate milk), another nostalgic experience from my childhood and those of countless others.
Of course, a visit to the Santa Monica Pier is just a small part of a trip to this part of Los Angeles. My car is parked just off the famous Third Street Promenade, several blocks of pedestrian-friendly shops and restaurants, although many closures during Covid have not yet reopened. Make sure to look for the dinosaur-shaped fountains. One can also have a drink at any number of bars, or just sit and stare at the ocean from the cliff top park lining this stretch of Santa Monica.
I don’t get out here very often, but each time I do, I’m glad for the experience. Santa Monica Pier occupies a warm spot in my heart and in my memories, and it marks an era that has seemingly been forgotten in most parts of the country. It is twentieth century Americana at its purest, and worth a visit.
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