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Manhattan Beach vs Santa Monica – Which One Should You Visit?

I recently spent some time exploring Los Angeles and two of my favorite areas were Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica.

I know a lot of people have a tough time choosing between these beauties so, seeing as I’ve visited both, I thought I’d put together this guide highlighting the differences.

I’ll be covering a range of things including hotels, activities, atmosphere, nightlife, beaches and more!

Summary – Manhattan Beach vs Santa Monica

Manhattan BeachSanta Monica
Relaxed &
laid-back vibe
Busy & urban
Hotels away
from the beach
Hotels by the
Limited nightlifeVibrant nightlife
Surfing, volleyball,
Water sports, roller
coasters, cycling
Less activitiesMore activities
Santa Monica Pier and beach

Manhattan Beach is a laid-back beach city featuring an expansive beach that is lined with volleyball nets. It’s also super popular with surfers. 

Santa Monica, on the other hand, is a vibrant coastal city known best for the Santa Monica Pier which features an amusement park, aquarium and panoramic ocean views.

I definitely found that Manhattan Beach had more of a small town feel compared to Santa Monica which felt a bit more urban like a city.  

Santa Monica is a major tourist spot so it did get very busy however Manhattan Beach wasn’t anywhere near as busy and had more of a relaxed, small town vibe. 

In Santa Monica, I loved that you could stay right by the beach itself but in Manhattan Beach most of the hotels were a long walk away from all the action. 

Which Is Bigger?

Santa Monica is much bigger than Manhattan Beach as it covers 21.8km2 whereas Manhattan Beach covers just 10.2km2.

Even though it’s bigger, I noticed that Santa Monica was way busier and more crowded as it has a much higher population. 

Santa Monica has a population of 91,500 compared to Manhattan Beach which has just 35,500.

Which Has Better Activities?

Manhattan Beach

As Santa Monica is a popular tourist spot, there’s way more activities available there compared to Manhattan Beach.

Activities In Manhattan Beach

Whilst Manhattan Beach doesn’t have as many things to do as Santa Monica, there are still a small range of activities to keep you occupied.

Top Activities In Manhattan Beach: 

  • Surfing
  • Volleyball
  • Manhattan Beach Pier
  • Roundhouse Aquarium 
  • Marvin Braude Bike Trail

Most people spend their time in Manhattan Beach doing some shopping or relaxing on the beach. I personally loved taking a bike ride along the bike trail which runs parallel to the beach. 

Surfing is a super popular activity in Manhattan Beach so put on your wetsuit, grab your surfboard and catch some waves.

Slightly inland, you’ll find Downtown Manhattan Beach which is the bustling city center where you’ll find high-end boutiques, shops, bars and lots of restaurants.

I enjoyed just wandering around here looking out for souvenirs or snacks.

My favorite spot by far was the Manhattan Beach Pier as you can walk out to the end for epic views of the beachside mansions and surfers.

Activities In Santa Monica

Mural in Santa Monica

Santa Monica is super popular with tourists so it has a wide range of activities available. 

Top Activities In Santa Monica:

  • Santa Monica Pier
  • Pacific Park 
  • Santa Monica Beach
  • Palisades Park
  • Downtown Santa Monica

Without a doubt, Santa Monica’s most popular attraction is the Santa Monica Pier. This place was absolutely heaving with people when I went but I still had a fab time.

The pier is the location of an amusement park, including a ferris wheel, roller coasters, a carousel and an aquarium.

I went on a few of the rides and they’re not scary so they are perfect for the whole family. 

I loved just taking a stroll along the iconic pier at sunset for unforgettable views or just grabbing a snack or trinket from one of the stalls that line the pier. 

You can also join an electric bike tour and explore the beaches and streets of Santa Monica. You could explore Santa Monica by segway if you prefer.

Activities In Los Angeles

Both Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach are close to central Los Angeles so you can easily enjoy the wide range of activities there including visiting the famous Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills and more. 

I’d recommend booking onto a Los Angeles tour so you can see all of LA’s top sights in one day.

Which Has Better Accommodation?

Manhattan Beach hotel

Both Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica have some great places to stay however I thought that the hotels in Santa Monica were way better located and closer to the beach and main town area.

In Santa Monica, I ended up staying at the Shutters On The Beach hotel which was just mesmerizing. It was super luxurious and very comfortable.

I actually didn’t stay overnight in Manhattan Beach and instead drove back into central LA as I had plans there the next day.

Accommodation In Manhattan Beach

In Manhattan Beach, there are not many hotels close to the main beach area.

Most of the hotels are on Sepulveda Boulevard which is a long walk from the shops, restaurants and the beach. 

Be prepared to get an Uber or Lyft every day to and from the beach if you plan on staying here. 

Best Hotels In Manhattan Beach:

The Sea View Inn At The Beach is one of the best places to stay in Manhattan Beach as this is the closest hotel to the beach. It’s also one of the only hotels by the beach in the area.

Accommodation In Santa Monica

Santa Monica has lots of great hotels within walking distance to the beach, shops and restaurants. All of the hotels are clean, modern and comfortable. 

Best Hotels In Santa Monica:

Which Has Better Beaches?

Santa Monica Beach

I absolutely adored the beaches in both Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica.

I did find that Manhattan Beach was way more relaxed and laid-back compared to the beach in Santa Monica. 

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach’s biggest draw is it’s beach. This flawless beach has ultra-smooth sand and is dotted with volleyball nets. It’s also a hotspot for surfing!

Manhattan Beach features a small shopping area with local shops and restaurants right next to the beach itself which I thought was super handy.

I also loved taking a walk along the scenic boardwalk which runs parallel to the beach or along the Manhattan Beach Pier where Manhattan Beach meets the Pacific Ocean. 

I took a nice relaxing stroll up here to enjoy the breathtaking views of the expensive beachside homes that line the beach. 

Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica also has a pretty impressive beach! I spent an entire day here just relaxing on the sand, going for a swim in the ocean and reading my book. It was utter bliss.

In Santa Monica, you’ll find a large expansive beach with bike trails and lots of activities nearby.

Santa Monica State Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Los Angeles. This soft, sandy beach is 3.5 miles long and is within walking distance to hotels, shops and restaurants. 

I really enjoyed getting out onto the water. You could try stand-up paddle boarding or surfing. I also took a bike ride along The Strand which is a bike trail that runs along the beach. 

This beach is also home to the iconic Santa Monica Pier which you’ll definitely want to visit in the evening.

Which Is Better for Nightlife?

Bar in Santa Monica

Both Manhattan Beach and Santa Monica have a great nightlife scene. There’s much less choice in Manhattan Beach but it still has a good range of bars and clubs. 

Nightlife In Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach has a range of bars to choose from as well as upmarket and exclusive clubs. 

Head over to The Strand House for unforgettable ocean views and speciality cocktails.

Nightlife In Santa Monica

I loved the nightlife in Santa Monica as it was super vibrant and really exciting. You’ll find everything here from dive bars to upscale lounges and live music venues.

Santa Monica’s nightlife is pretty relaxed which was another thing I loved about it.

You don’t have to worry about pre-booking and getting tickets (as you generally have to with LA). The atmosphere and dress code are also relaxed too – it’s a beach town after all! 

I found that many of the bars have great happy hour deals too so you don’t have to spend a lot to have a good time.

Which Is More Affordable?

Anywhere you stay in Los Angeles will be pricey.

In general, I found that Manhattan Beach was a bit cheaper than Santa Monica. This is mainly because Santa Monica is more geared towards tourists.

I ended up spending slightly less in Manhattan Beach but the difference was minimal. 

And that’s it!

I hope you gained some useful knowledge from this article and have your heart set on either Manhattan Beach or Santa Monica.

If you’re still undecided then why not check out these guides:


Megan Jones is a travel expert and founder of Traveller's Elixir, who has been travelling the world full time since 2021. Megan's travel tips been featured in numerous media outlets including Metro, Timeout, Thrillist and more.

Learn more about the Traveller's Elixir Team.

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