Sometimes it seems like every road ends in Santa Monica. Or, at least, every freeway does, and for some ungodly reason or another, I tend to find those freeways at sunset, just as the sun has passed under the scope of the visor and above the protection of my dashboard.

Go figure.

But if your eyes survive the drive, and your patience gets you through the stalled cars and unfortunate number of people who have forgotten the use of their blinkers in favor of their horns, you’ll reach a town steeped in history that has developed a flavor all its own.

Anybody who thinks of Santa Monica as just another cultureless town on the beach hasn’t spent enough time there. Emerging from the PCH tunnel from the east is like coming out of Alice’s proverbial rabbit-hole: without warning the lifeless concrete box that is Los Angeles gives way to golden beaches and palm trees that look like they’re actually supposed to be there.

For a USC student like myself, Santa Monica is an escape from the empty shell of downtown L.A., alive with events, art and the simple pleasure of walking down a coiffed street without that sense of impending doom that you’re about to be mugged. But it’s not just the beauty of the place that fascinates me so – there’s a history there that has bred a rather singular feel to the environment.

One of the biggest attractions of Santa Monica is the pier, built in 1909. Even if it’s a total tourist trap and charges $4.25 for a small latte, resisting the siren song of the old rollercoaster is an insult to your inner child and should not be forgone.

The pier has always been a place to let your hair down and indulge. From the apex of the historic ferris wheel, look out over the water where rich young people used to ferry themselves to the floating casinos where they could take joy in their vices without fear of the lawman.

In fact, the town still maintains an aura of alternative culture that is evident in the crowd-drawing live performances that are hand-picked for the Third Street Promenade, which can range from musicians to in-your-face political activists. So show up for the trendy shops like Anthropologie and Sur La Table, and let yourself get caught up in the attitude that is Santa Monica.

As you exit the Promenade, you won’t even have touched upon the best part of Santa Monica: the food. For this aspect alone, it would be a shame to limit yourself to just the Third Street area, evidenced by a quick walk up Arizona Avenue to Angelato (301 Arizona Ave.), a gelato joint with an unbelievable array of flavors from the basic to the risqué.

Now, I could recommend for you a million amazing places to eat, so instead I’ll tell you about the places to buy. Right in line with its neo-hippy culture, Santa Monica is the foodie mecca of Southern California for two big reasons.

First of all, the Whole Foods (2201 Wilshire Blvd.), and smaller organic food supplier Wild Oats (500 Wilshire Blvd.), offer incredible prepared foods if you don’t feel like cooking for yourself, and ingredients you won’t find anywhere else if you do.

It’s the cheapest night out you’ll ever go on and one of the most worthwhile if it’s just you, a friend and something delicious and to-go from Whole Foods. They provide the food, the beach provides the scenery and you have an unforgettable night out.

Second is the Santa Monica Seafood Company (1205 Colorado Ave.). This is the best location to buy sushi-quality fish in the area, a commodity that is shockingly difficult to find despite our proximity to the ocean. From amazingly fresh fish to the tools and flavors with which to prepare it, Santa Monica Seafood knows fish and is an utterly unique store.

Santa Monica is as much of an entity as it is a place. It has a history of deviance that echoes into the modern day (Santa Monica is one of the few places that passed legislature to push marijuana use to the bottom of the police priority list, essentially decriminalizing it.) and yet is a place of rest and relaxation. It is quintessentially Californian.

Now, if only they’d clean up that damn freeway.