Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of the Golden State’s most appealing destinations. California beach towns stand out for their relaxed, inviting spirit, their beauty, and their boundless ways to play.
While most people associate sun and surf with Southern California, the classic beach town vibe can easily be found in more central regions, too. Santa Cruz, for instance, is one of the original surfer towns, but it’s also home to a fabulous pier and amusement park. Santa Barbara has a serene string of beaches, with the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop and the Channel Islands National Park off in the distance.
Head south into Los Angeles County and you’ll encounter clusters of movie-star beach homes, another old-school amusement park, and then, in Venice, the quirky exhibitionists of Muscle Beach. Farther south, the beaches of Orange County and San Diego County reveal more of California’s long love affair with surf culture, as well as a sophisticated beach village and an island with a golden-Hollywood past.
Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly destination or a romantic escape where the toughest thing you’ll do all day is decide what sunscreen to use, read on to find the ocean-hugging towns, listed north to south, that match your mood.
Stretching for more than 30 miles along the Pacific and Highway One, Malibu has achieved almost mythological status among California beach towns. Hollywood stars and top athletes live in oceanfront homes here, under an elegant veil of privacy on long strands of beach, and enjoy front-row seats for surfing and unforgettable sunsets.
While it may sound exclusive, there is plenty of Malibu magic for visitors to access too. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, just off the Malibu Pier, was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families. In winter, Point Dume, at Malibu’s north end, provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating gray whales.
The perfect aesthetics stretch beyond the beach, too. The Getty Villa—the original home of the Getty Museum, which opened in 1974—focuses on Ancient Greek and Roman Art (admission is free, but you need to make a reservation). For more contemporary, beachy masterpieces, check out the 30 historic surfboards on display, some dating back to the 1910s, at the Surf Museum at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library. And for wearable art—and perhaps to spot one of the local celebs—browse the shops at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two upscale retail centers located next to one another.
Afterward, grab a bite at Malibu Farms, the organic café and restaurant that sits right on the pier. Or browse the fresh catches—and try one of the famed ahi tuna burgers—at Malibu Seafood, right across from Dan Blocker Beach. To spend the night like an insider, get a room at the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn, a former motel located on the so-nicknamed Billionaire’s Beach, which was given its original makeover by Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
Tough as it is to drag yourself away from the ocean, head inland a short distance and you can also hike through hills and canyons, filled with spring wildflowers and even waterfalls, on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For a cool guided experience, take one of the two-hour Malibu Wine Hikes on the rolling terrain of Saddlerock Ranch vineyard; walks include stops to see Chumash cave drawings, a meet-and-greet with a movie-star giraffe (he was in Hangover 3) and, of course, a wine tasting.
Abutting Santa Monica’s south side on the Pacific Coast Highway, Venice Beach—or simply Venice—was developed as a Los Angeles beach resort that paid homage to its Italian namesake with canals, piazzas, pedestrian bridges, a lagoon, and a colonnaded business district. Designed by eccentric millionaire Abbot Kinney in 1905, Venice’s original waterways and charming beach cottages can still be seen on Dell Avenue in the Venice Canal Historic District.
Today’s Venice, though, is more famous for quirky happenings on its iconic beachfront boardwalk, where mimes, jugglers, musicians, and street performers of all kinds inhabit an ever-changing and unforgettable bohemian subculture. Watch the scene from the loud and lively waterfront skate park, or sit near the daily drum circle on the beach. Feel free to grab a can and a stick—or anything that makes noise—and join in. Stop by the outdoor weight room at Muscle Beach Gym, once the home turf of bodybuilder and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later went on to become California’s governor. For a dive into Venice’s film history, sign up for a stroll with Venice Beach Walking Tours. You’ll learn about the city’s role in Orson Welles’ film Touch of Evil (1958) and other locally shot movies.
On Venice’s south side, boho-chic Abbot Kinney Boulevard contains a mile-long stretch of high-end restaurants, posh galleries, and edgy boutiques selling furnishings and fashions. On the First Friday of each month, food trucks and live music line the boulevard, but any day is perfect for stopping by Strange Invisible Perfumes to procure hydro-distilled eaux de toilette. Shop for comfy-cute loungewear at All Things Fabulous, or browse custom stationery and writing utensils at Urbanic Paper Boutique. Cap off a day in one of L.A.’s best shopping districts at the boutique Hotel Erwin, where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the area (and perhaps a blood-orange julep) at the High Rooftop Lounge.
Swaying palms, white-sand beaches, and melt-your-heart sunsets—that’s what you’ll find at island getaway Santa Catalina Island, just 22 miles/35...
The endless summer was born in Huntington Beach. Surfing forefathers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku mastered these waves in the early part of the 20th century, and the U.S. Surfing Championship—now summer’s Vans U.S. Open of Surfing—was first held here in the late 1950s.
To understand how surfing has defined this Orange County city—and earned it the nickname of Surf City USA—step into the city’s International Surfing Museum and immerse yourself in a world of waves, winds, tides, and swells. Even if you never get your toes on the nose, you can still watch locals riding the waves alongside the landmark 1,850-foot-long pier, or browse through Huntington Beach’s wealth of surf shops. Don’t miss a stop at Jack’s Surfboards, a surfing palace that began as a modest shop in 1957. Outside the shop, pay tribute to surfing legends memorialized in granite at the Surfing Walk of Fame. On the opposite corner is Huntington Surf & Sport’s flagship store, home to the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, where the footprints and handprints of surfing’s biggest names are embedded in cement.
Savor the beach life by bicycling along the oceanfront path or watching the pros play volleyball on the sand. Where sea and land meet, go hiking or bird-watching at the restored estuary at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, one of Southern California’s most vital coastal wetland habitats. Or lace up your shoes and run in the annual February Surf City USA Marathon, which also includes a half marathon and 5K. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat oceanfront course.
If you’d rather live out your sand-and-sea fantasies without breaking a sweat, sit down to a lunch or dinner at Duke’s, a perennial favorite for coastal views and Hawaiian-style seafood. Or stroll through Huntington’s newest outdoor mall, Pacific City, where you’ll find one-of-a-kind artisanal eats and stylish boutiques—all with an ocean view. Or plop down in a chaise lounge at one of Huntington Beach’s luxurious beach resorts—like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa, The Waterfront Beach Resort, or Paséa Hotel & Spa (don’t miss Paséa’s rooftop lounge for a sunset cocktail).
Look one way in Newport Beach, and you’ll see oceanfront mansions and a yacht-lined harbor. Look another, and you’ll find historic cottages, dive bars, and a friendly controversy about ice cream. With its mix of high-end living and world-class surfing waves, Newport Beach offers both luxury and beach-town delights.
Like any glamorous icon of a certain age, this coastal town has changed its identity a few times over the years. Back in the 1830s, Newport Beach was a rancho known as Bolsa de San Joaquin, owned by a settler who preferred livestock to seafaring: He had 14,000 head of cattle and 3,000 horses, but no boats. Over the next century, the community first changed its name to Newport—in the 1870s, when the main industry was commercial shipping—then to Newport Beach in 1902. After that, the town increasingly attracted tourists and Hollywood elite such as Shirley Temple (crowned the first Miss Newport Beach at age 13), James Cagney (said to have won Collins Island in a poker game), and John Wayne, who moved here permanently in the early 1960s.
The city’s heart and soul still revolve around the harbor, which comprises two bodies of water. There’s Upper Newport Bay, an ecological reserve ringed by a 10-mile loop trail that attracts birders, joggers, equestrians, and cyclists. The four-mile-long Lower Newport Bay, meanwhile, features lovely shops and restaurants—especially in Cannery Village, Balboa Peninsula, and Balboa Island.
Thanks to more than eight miles of coastline, the city boasts a vibrant surf culture. Tucked along the jetty that marks Newport Harbor, the Wedge is arguably the best bodysurfing spot in the country, with waves that can easily reach 20 feet in height. Most of the year, the Wedge is even considered too raucous for most traditional surfers. For more manageable waves, any surfer (or bodysurfer) has plenty of other options along Newport Beach. Experienced surfers flock to Echo Beach and Blackies, while Little Corona is popular among beginners. For a leg up, opt for a lesson at local spots like Endless Sun Surf School, Newport Beach Surfing Lessons, and Newport Surf Camp. Those searching for a gear should visit The Frog House, Newport’s quintessential surf shop since the early ’60s.
In fact, you can find traces of both old and new everywhere in Newport Beach. Go to historic Dory Fleet Fish Market, which was founded in 1891 and has been operating as a fish market ever since. It sits near popular seaside restaurants such as Bluewater Grill, Fly ’N’ Fish Oyster Bar, and Bear Flag Fish Co. Note how some folks around here do the “dock and dine”—pulling their boats up to a restaurant for dinner. You can even take a Hornblower Cruises tour of John Wayne’s old yacht, the Wild Goose, and catch a view of his oceanfront mansion. Belying his cowboy image, the Duke was reportedly once a bodysurfer himself.
Then browse the boutiques of the Corona del Mar neighborhood, or go to the open-air Fashion Island, home to high-end retail stores. Come to town in spring and you can watch screenings at the Newport Beach Film Festival or listen to music at the Newport Beach Jazz Festival.
Beyond any glitz, Newport offers a few small but sweet luxuries—and one long-standing disagreement. Sugar ’n Spice and Dad’s, each on Balboa Island’s Marine Avenue, are proud of their frozen chocolate-dipped bananas, and both claim to have invented the Balboa Bar, a chocolate-dipped ice cream bar rolled in sweet or salty toppings. No doubt, you’ll need to try them both to form your own opinion.
The southern origin of California’s Highway 1 winds through some gorgeous locations, like beach town and whale-watching mecca Dana Point. The town has been wooing whale- and dolphin-watchers and water lovers for generations, earning the designation of Dolphin & Whale Watching Capital of the World®. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the right-breaking waves that tended to form here could produce 12-foot surf breaks known as Killer Dana. A short walk away, California’s first surf shop was opened in 1954 by Orange County local Hobie Alter.
Today, you’ll still find a Hobie Surf Shop on this stretch of Highway 1, two blocks from where the original one was located, plus boutiques and eateries, as well as Baby Beach, Strand Beach, and Salt Creek Beach, as you continue north. Otherwise, the town very much revolves around the harbor, which, when it was constructed in 1966, tamed Killer Dana and created Doheny State Beach. Though a celebrated surfing spot was lost, the formation of the harbor also resulted in abundant options for kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, sports fishing, and whale-watching.
Indeed, you can spot giant mammals breaching and frolicking in the waves year-round. Migrating grey whales are seen from November through April, then blue whales from April through October, along with sightings of humpbacks, orcas, fin whales, and minke whales. Take a paddleboard ride—the harbor’s waveless anchorage is especially kind to first-timers—and you might also spot pods of dolphins, sea lions, and seals. There are also several companies that offer dolphin- and whale-watching cruises. Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari will take you out on a high-speed catamaran that is equipped with Eye-to-Eye Underwater Viewing Pods, which will give you the sensation of swimming underwater with the big fish. Come during the holiday season to double the viewings out on the water: One of the town’s biggest events of the year is December’s Dana Point Harbor Boat Parade of Lights.
Many of Dana Point’s hotels and eateries sit on cliffs above the harbor (like the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and the Blue Lantern Inn) or on the water itself, such as the sustainable and locally sourced seafood offered at Waterman’s Harbor, or the mesquite-grilled fresh catches at The Harbor Grill. For a classic view, stroll along the Bluff Top Trail and, while looking out over the water for whales, check out the statue honoring 19th-century hide droghers—tradesmen who literally tossed hides over the cliffs to merchant ships anchored below. And if you’re looking for an ultra-luxe experience, check in at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, a longtime Dana Point oceanfront institution.
Insider tip: Check for music festivals, surfing competitions, and more on the Visit Dana Point upcoming events calendar.
Although technically part of San Diego, the community of La Jolla feels like a destination unto itself: You could easily spend a few days in this enclave and get a full Southern California experience—along with a walkable village of hotels, shops, and cafés that possess a sophisticated vibe.
For starters, La Jolla (pronounced la HOY-uh) has a prime perch on San Diego County’s coastline. Located about 20 minutes north of downtown, La Jolla is home to the wide, white-sand beaches of La Jolla Shores, with surfing, snorkeling, and made-for-sunset firepits, as well as an adjacent playground for kids. Head out onto the waters with one of the local operators, like La Jolla Kayak or San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours, and paddle or snorkel among La Jolla’s marine denizens, from colorful garibaldi to (harmless) leopard sharks. To see more aquatic critters while on land, explore the Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or stand along the sea wall at a beach known as The Children’s Pool, and watch a large community of seals lounge, bark, and tend to their cubs.
The seals live right next to the heart of La Jolla, the hilly village areas known as The Cove and Bird Rock. The ocean is still in plain view amid the shops, eateries, and places to stay—like La Valencia Hotel, the Mediterranean-style “Pink Lady” that once hosted World War II soldiers about to ship out, as well as Hollywood A-Listers like Gregory Peck. Shop in the upscale boutiques along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, or dine at beloved George’s at the Cove, farm-to-table WhisknLadle, colorful taco haven Puesto, or seafood-rich Nine-Ten.
Don’t miss the cultural stops, too, like the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Warwick’s (the nation’s oldest family-owned bookstore), or the local art galleries such as Legends Gallery, where you can see out-of-the box paintings by the late Theodore Geisel, the longtime La Jolla resident better known as Dr. Seuss. (Insider tip: Look at the unique flora around La Jolla to see what may have inspired Seuss’s whimsical plants and trees).
Some must-stops in La Jolla stretch beyond the Cove. The Marine Room, in La Jolla Shores, offers incredible “high tide” brunches and dinners where the tall waves crash into the giant windows as you eat. To the north, tee off at Torrey Pines Golf Course (which will host the U.S. Open again in 2021), next to the sumptuous Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Or, go see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse, located on the University of California San Diego campus. Co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947, the theater has been the birthplace of a long list of crowd-pleasing and Tony Award-winning hits, from The Who’s Tommy and Thoroughly Modern Millie to Jersey Boys and Come From Away. Come for one of its Page-to-Stage performances to watch (and offer feedback on) works still in progress. You can even bundle in a dinner of fresh seafood or a Kobe burger at the theater’s on-site James’ Place, helmed by acclaimed sushi chef James Holder.
Another great option: Hike the ocean-view trails at the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, under the shade of the rare, long-needled pine trees that are common in this little pocket of the Golden State.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community of Coronado feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share tidbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific. Not far from the Del, the Loews Coronado Bay Resort sits on its own 15-acre peninsula and is known both for its water sports and for being especially dog-friendly.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Il Fornaio Coronado and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to the Embarcadero. Water taxis are available too.