You can't overlook the Santa Monica Pier. It starts where Colorado Avenue stops, it dates to 1909 and its Pacific Park amusement zone includes the world's first solar-powered Ferris wheel. You'll find plenty of junk food, several restaurants, free live music on Thursday nights in summer and abundant people-watching at all hours. This is Southern California's Coney Island. You'll also notice the bike trail that runs past the pier — it goes north to Temescal Canyon, south to Washington Boulevard in Venice — 8 1/2 miles in all. If you don't mind navigating around Marina del Rey, you can rejoin the beach and pedal to Torrance, about 18 miles south of the Santa Monica Pier. The Spokes 'n Stuff Bicycle Shop (1715 Ocean Front Walk) is ready with rentals at $22 a day for a grown-up's bike. But before you roll anywhere, stroll over to Muscle Beach, just south of the pier, where dozens of regulars perform gymnastic feats of strength, grace and daring on rings, ropes and parallel bars. Once upon a time, Jack LaLanne hung out here. Ask nicely, and they'll literally show you the ropes. Then head a few blocks north to 1355 Ocean Ave. for seafood at BP Oysterette. (The initials stand for Blue Plate, not British Petroleum.) Then bed down for the night just a block away, behind the blue Art Deco facade of the historic but relatively affordable Georgian Hotel (1415 Ocean Ave.).
4. Retail, produce, magic, beer and darts. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times )
You know that Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade isn't as trendy as it was 20 years ago. You understand that Santa Monica Place, a mall that reopened at the south end of the promenade after a major rehab in 2010, generates more retail heat these days. So you do both, because pedestrianism is next to godliness, because the promenade's street performers are good and plentiful, because a serious farmers market sets up at Arizona and 3rd on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and because there are plenty of distinctive non-national enterprises nearby. Hennessey + Ingalls Art & Architecture Bookstore at 214 Wilshire Blvd., for instance. Or Magicopolis (1418 4th St.) with its weekend magic shows. And don't forget Ye Olde King's Head pub (116 Santa Monica Blvd.) with its British beers, twin dartboards and devoted expats.
5. Let's face it, you're cheap. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times )
Just a block off the Third Street Promenade, at 1436 2nd St., is Hostelling International Santa Monica, a 260-bed haven built in 1990 for frugal, youngish travelers, and later upgraded. Don't expect a pool or much privacy; all hostel options involve shared bathrooms, from the nine private rooms (most $159 a night) to the $36 dorm-room beds. Especially for younger travelers without children, the place has an agreeable global collegiate buzz.
6. Then again, you may be rich. (Casa Del Mar )
If so, Santa Monica hoteliers are ready for you. Prove your cool by choosing the historic grandeur of the beachfront Casa del Mar, a redone '20s building with cool tile, big views from its upstairs bar and brochure rates that begin at $565 a night. Or, for a comparable price, hop across Pico Boulevard to Shutters on the Beach, which looks like a New England beach house that just kept growing and seems to draw more celebrities (even though the same owners control both hotels). Another option, of course, is saving a few hundred dollars and staying at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel (a block up from the beach, palm trees inside its five-story atrium) or using Marriott Rewards points at nearby Le Merigot. With the money you save, you can buy one round of drinks at Casa del Mar, another at Shutters and round out the night with cotton candy on the pier.
7. Sweat, then shop. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times )