When California gets mentioned, warm and fuzzy feelings wash over anyone who’s spent time there, due in large part to the times spent on the beach, soaking in the beautiful sunshine while enjoying the surf.
Sure, California has the awe-inspiring Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree’s weird and wonderful rockscape. But, let’s be honest here, visitors don’t fly in from around the world just to check out these inland features; they come to California for its beaches.
Stretching 840 miles, California’s coastline is as impressive as it is vast, with literally hundreds of iconic beach towns to visit. The list is so long that seeing them all would be a tall order even if you’re on an epic California road trip. You’re going to have to narrow it down if you’ve only got time to visit the best.
We’ve put together a list of our favorite beach towns in California. Whether you’re looking to play “spot the celebrity” at Laguna Beach and Malibu, or slip into the low-key, surf-town vibes of a place like Encinitas – this is your itinerary for where to surf, eat, sleep, shop, and adventure along California’s Pacific coast.
Best Beach Towns in California
1. San Clemente
On the southern edge of Orange County lies one of the undisputed jewels of Southern California – San Clemente. Known as the “Spanish Village by the sea”, cruising around town gives you a sense of Mexico, as red-tile roofs and white-stucco walls catch your attention, wherever it wanders. If you’re interested in the why behind San Clemente’s Spanish aesthetic, then a stop by Casa Romantica Cultural Centre and Garden’s bluff-top vantage point is a must.
Like a lot of Californian’s trendiest beach towns, surfing has shaped San Clemente’s culture and still continues to this day. Surfing’s “World Tour Finals” are currently held in the high-performance waves of Lower Trestles each fall, as the surf world focuses itself on San Clemente. From San Clemente Pier to T-street, Trestles, and San Onofre, San Clemente has a rich surfing history that can be discovered at its Surfing Heritage and Culture Centre museum.
For the shoppers amongst us who love nothing more than spending a day perusing this season’s latest trends and threads, San Clemente’s Outlets have got you. This open-air shopping complex is filled with chic designers, big-name brand outlets, a movie theatre, and a string of world-class restaurants waiting to take your order.
So whether it be cruisy beach days, a culturally-themed trip, or a shopping spree, the warm embrace of San Clemente is already whispering your name.
2. Laguna Beach
The craggy coves and cliffs that line Laguna Beach have been an artist’s enclave of inspiration for over 200 years. Home to eight miles of coastline that is supremely unique to California, there is no mistaking Laguna Beach from the next town. Not only has its turquoise waters and white-sand beaches inspired countless artists over the years, but its ocean-view hilltops are where some of Hollywood’s biggest stars take up residence.
The 22,000-acre natural expanse of Laguna Canyon Wilderness Park has been furiously protected by locals, from developers, since the 80s. One of the last remaining untouched coastal canyons of Southern California. The park boasts 100 miles of hiking and biking trails and is the perfect place to stretch and test the legs.
With a bounty of wilderness to the east and an ocean playground to the west, working up an appetite in Laguna Beach is an easy thing to do. Luckily, the town is known for its delicious eats and long-time local haunt Nick’s Laguna Beach has your appetite covered.
Looking for somewhere to stay? Laguna Beach has it all. From super-luxe hotels like Hotel Joaquin to family-friendly RV parks and every lodging between. There’s a reason why Laguna Beach is so revered, and that reason is waiting for you down at Treasure Island Beach. In the meantime, hold tight to your hat, and dream of Laguna Beach’s salty sea breeze.
Another A-list celebrity hotspot, Malibu is where the world’s movers, shakers, and makers reside. Known officially as “Surfrider Beach”, Malibu’s fabled right point break has stoked California’s surfing fire since way back in the 50s. One of the most iconic surf spots in existence, it was, unsurprisingly, dedicated as the first “World Surfing Reserve” in 2010.
Out of the water, immerse yourself in the exquisite art/ artifacts of ancient Greece and Rome at the Getty Villa Museum. Prefer to check out Malibu’s colorful history instead? Then head for The Malibu Lagoon Museum. If hiking is your digs, you’ll be pleased to know that Malibu is super close by to the amazing canyons, waterfalls, and grasslands of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
If fishing is the game, and catching dinner is your aim, cast your eyes and lines toward Malibu Pier. With rough-hewn planks, sweeping coastal views, and a unique vantage point over Surfrider Beach, this charming fishing pier is certainly worth a visit.
Across the road from the mecca of Malibu, and aptly named “The Surfrider”, a stay at this Californian beach house turned boutique hotel is as quintessentially Californian, as California gets. With plenty more postcard-worthy beaches to its name. Spots like Leo Carrillo and Zuma Beach, Malibu is where the filthy rich and filthy surfers mix in a melting pot of affluence and wave-riding passion, and it truly is a town to behold.
4. Venice Beach
If there’s one town in California that needs no introduction, it’s Venice Beach. Technically a neighborhood of Los Angeles, Venice is the next town down from world-famous Santa Monica, on the south side.
Taking a stroll along the mile-long Venice Boardwalk is something that every person must do at least once in their life. A place where street vendors, performers, fortune-tellers, muscle men, and the weird and wacky rest converge. This is America getting stirred up to become Venice. Like we need to say it, but the people-watching potential is unrivaled here.
After grabbing a bite to eat at one of the Boardwalk’s top-shelf food stalls, all paths lead to Venice Beach Skatepark. Arguably the beating heart of Venice, this skatepark is a direct result of the legendary, era-defining Z-Boys, circa the mid-1970s. Skaters from across America and the world come to cut their teeth on this challenging succession of bowls and ramps.
If you manage to pull yourself away from the sights, smells, and delights down by the beach, Venice’s tightly packed streets are lined with designer boutiques, artist studios, and upscale retailers. The trend-setting, celebrity-befriending mad hatter that is Nick Fouquet has his flagship store down on Abbott Kinney Boulevard. From the boulevard to the beach, and the chic curbside shops and eats, Venice is a place where people come, and sometimes never leave.
5. La Jolla
Loosely translating to “the jewel” in Spanish, La Jolla is a luxury seaside village a stone’s throw north of San Diego. Even with its close proximity to San Diego, this chic little village very much feels like its own thing. Famous for its culinary delights, La Jolla is home to a string of Michelin-star restaurants. For which the oceanfront Marine Room makes a good case for top honors.
Also along its shoreline, you will find a series of dramatic cliffs and quaint little bays. The jewel of the jewel “La Jolla Cove” is a heavenly nook of beach that’s popular with swimmers. Don’t be alarmed if you spot a few furry friends basking in the afternoon sunlight, as seals and sea lions often frequent La Jolla Cove’s rocky outcrops.
It’s almost as if we humans couldn’t let the seals have all the underwater adventures, because La Jolla is also a very popular diving spot. If you like the idea of getting down with the critters of the deep, then La Jolla Dive is the place to head for lessons, tours, rental gear, and the rest.
In the heart of downtown La Jolla, Girard Avenue and Prospect Street are lined with high-end fashion brands like Cartier, contemporary coffee houses, and traditional “mall-style” shopping outlets. In a little surprise, Prospect Street is also where the rather regal hotel of Grande Colonial has been operating, in style, since 1913.
6. Santa Cruz
Leaving the confines of Los Angeles’s big city limits behind, and traveling up the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (for six hours) will have you stepping foot on sacred Santa Cruz soil. Another name etched in both surf and skate cultures, Santa Cruz is a town that wears its heart on its sleeve. Known for its hardcore crew of local surfers who don’t take too kindly to “blow-ins”, it pays to show respect out at the town’s prized locale – Steamer Lane.
Luckily for you and us, surf beaches like Pleasure Point, Manresa State, The Hook, and Waddell are less guarded by locals, with perfect surf for beginner/ intermediate surfers on the right days. Natural Bridges State Beach is another beautiful spot that features bridge-like rock formations, making for some mighty fine photo opportunities on sunset.
If you like eating good food, perusing good art, and flicking through racks of preloved vintage treasures, then Pacific Avenue, Downtown Santa Cruz is the place to be. Keeping with the vintage theme, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s vintage fun rides like the Giant Dipper are ready to give the kids, and big kids at heart a weightless feeling of fun.
A short stroll from the boardwalk and you’ll find yourself walking onto Santa Cruz Wharf. Measuring 2,745 feet, this 100-year pier holds the title for “Longest Wooden Pier” in the U.S. Fishing, dining, drinking, dancing, sea-lion gawking, gift shop browsing, boat tour booking – Santa Cruz Wharf is an experience all in itself. A spectacle that should not be passed up, if at all possible.
On the same stretch of Central Cali as Santa Cruz (just an hour south), Monterey is known for its rugged coastline, abundance of sea life, and subsequently, super fresh seafood. Etched in American history by John Steinbeck’s classic American novel of the same name, Monterey’s Cannery Row is now a far cry from its sardine packing plant days.
The area’s de-funked factories have been repurposed and given a new lease of life through an impressive assembly of good-time bars, shops, arcades, hotels, and nightlife venues. Monterey Bay Aquarium is another must-see attraction on Cannery Row, with over 1000 sea creatures waiting to be discovered.
If aquariums aren’t your thing, and you’d prefer to witness the wild side of the sea, then jumping on a whale watching/ dolphin-pod spotting tour at Monterey Bay Whale Watch is your best bet. Just like Santa Cruz, Monterey’s ocean temperature (even in the summer) rarely peaks over 57°F, which indicates that a wetsuit is advised all year round.
If cold water gives you the chills, then Adventures By The Sea has got your canoe, kayak, paddleboard, and E-bikes rentals covered. Sure, Monterey is considered a middle-class town by Californian standards. But, Monterey has a real and honest charm that the more affluent areas further south couldn’t capture, even if they tried.
8. Half Moon Bay
Roughly an hour’s drive south of the free-spirited city of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay is steeped in Northern Californian surfing folklore. Nearby to big wave surf spot “Mavericks”, every winter the world’s best big-wave riders flock to Half Moon Bay with the sole aim of staking their claim on the gnarliest waves at this spooky arena.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be a daredevil waterman to enjoy yourself around Half Moon Bay, as it’s also a prized California wine country. The area’s rolling hillsides and temperate climate are perfect for wine-making, and you’ll notice a bunch of vineyards and wineries on your drive into town. If you’d like to sample the fortified fruits of the area, booking onto long-time local Tommy John’s Wine and Brew Tours is guaranteed to please.
If you’d rather do your wining and dining in town, then Harbor Village and Downtown are both worthy of your time, appetite, and camera. With a laid-back atmosphere, trendy breweries, fresh seafood joints, cafes, and historical-significant buildings, you can spend a very pleasant few days in the seaside village of Half Moon Bay.
Hightailing it back down to where the weather (and water) is warmer, Encinitas is where the cool kids hang. Once a sleepy surf town, Encinitas is now a hub for surf-centric creatives escaping the LA rat race. It is also home to plenty of perfectly peeling waves and quirky cafes, naturally. So happening is Encinitas right now, it was recently named among the “20 best surf towns in the world” by National Geographic.
As a result of its mellow surf, this six-mile stretch of coast is a beginner and intermediate surfer’s paradise. Breaks like Swami’s offer up playful waves most days of the year. After you’ve put in your time catching (or trying to catch) its perfect peelers, a stop by the iconic Swami’s 101 Cafe is all in a day’s work. Serving up a classic selection of honest cafe bites like breakfast burritos, three-egg omelets, soups, salads, and sandwiches, it’s easy to walk through their doors ravenously and walk out merrily fed.
San Elijo is another popular Encinitas beach for all-day beach hangs, swimming, and surfing. Right opposite the break, you’ll find San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center. A well-maintained state park, this scenic spot features seven miles of easy-to-moderate hiking trails.
As a result of its proximity to the border and its vibrant Mexican community, Encinitas has an abundance of authentic Mexican eateries. Raul’s Shack, Jorje’s Mexicatassen, and Mexico Viejo are where the locals go for their all-flavor, no-fuss Mexican munch. Although Encinitas has changed a bunch in recent years, it’s still a very chill place to live and visit. Perfect waves, warm weather, and great food – you’d have to try really hard not to slip into this town’s laidback lifestyle.
10. Huntington Beach
No list of California’s best beach towns would be complete without the O.G of California surfing – Surf City itself, ladies and gentleman, without further ado, we give you Huntington Beach California. Hawaiian waterman and surfing pioneer George Freeth first surfed Huntington way back in 1907, which makes this hallowed stretch of sand ground zero for American surfing.
Home to the International Surfing Museum, Surfers’ Hall of Fame, and Surfing Walk of Fame, if you have an interest in surf history, you head to Huntington. Not only that, but the town has played host to the U.S Open Of Surfing since 1959. Taking place in the summertime, this mammoth competition lights up the town with a festival-like atmosphere for two non-stop weeks of fun.
You didn’t think New York City was the only place with a Central Park now did you? Orange County’s largest city-owned park, Huntington Central Park is a lush 350-acre haven that is prime real estate for weekend picnics, exercise regimes, and dog walkers alike. Fun fact: the park also boasts the largest children’s library west of Mississippi – getting book smart and playing in the grass, what more could the kiddies want?
From the uber-upmarket Paséa Hotel & Spa to the budget-friendly Travelodge, Huntington’s beachfront is lined to the nines with places to stay. In the thick of it and right opposite Huntington Pier, you might as well join in on the chaos, mayhem, and fun that is Huntington Beach, California, and live your best “Californian Dreamin” life.
11. Ventura, California
You might not have heard of Ventura before. It’s not as talked about as some of the other glitzy California beach towns, but that’s exactly what makes it perfect for a quiet beach vacation without all the crowds.
The Ventura beach isn’t nearly as crowded as others. You can usually easily find a place to park at the public parking lot that leads to the gorgeous stretch of beach that’s right next to the famous Ventura pier, with MadeWest Brewery and Beach House Tacos available for refueling. Then you’ve got miles of pristine beach to explore.
The town of Ventura is also rather cozy. Along Main Street, which has been pedestrianized since Covid, you’ll find all manner of restaurants, cocktail bars, and breweries to explore, like Rocks & Drams and Ventura Coast Brewing.
The best way to enjoy and explore the beach is to get an Airbnb or VRBO house right on the beach in Pierpont on Seaward Drive. It’s steps from the beach and has a great old-time vibe that hasn’t been ruined by commercial enterprises.
I can’t express how cute Carmel-by-the-Sea is as a beach town. It is almost completely unspoilt by chain stores and big resorts. Instead, the town has managed to keep itself very local and boutique.
If you’re looking for a Marriott-type destination, this isn’t it. The local beach vibe here is intermingled with a European sophistication that you can only find in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Thing local, high-end boutiques and charming beach-side BnBs.
One of my favorite things about Carmel is the plethora of wine tasting rooms, like Wrath Wines and Scheid Vineyards tasting room. There’s a whole wine walk you can do within just a few blocks. There are many restaurants to go along with your wine, like Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar French fare at La Bicyclette.
What they say is true – variety is the spice of life. And after visiting each of these beach towns, you’ll be so spiced up off life, you won’t know what to do with yourself. Whether you prefer the quieter vibes of Half Moon Bay and Encinitas. Or, you are already picturing yourself exactly where the action is at Huntington and Venice, at least you now know what you’re in for.
The world may be a little unhinged in places, the mercury may be rising, house prices may be skyrocketing. But, at least we have the magic of California and its warm Pacific breeze waiting for us to experience, at least once in our lives.
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.