Santa Cruz by Tai Power Seeff

10 Perfect Beach Towns

Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of California’s most appealing destinations. The Golden State’s beach towns stand out for their relaxed, inviting spirit, their beauty, and their boundless ways to play. Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly destination, or a romantic escape where the toughest thing to do all day is deciding what sunscreen to use, you’ll find the ocean-hugging town that matches your mood.

Harriot Manley/Sunset Publishing

Spotlight: Santa Barbara

Mediterranean style magic and a perfect ocean breeze

Bougainvillea twining across red-tiled rooftops, birdsong mingling with the ocean breeze, islands and whale spouts on the horizon—...

Santa Monica by Tom Story

Spotlight: Santa Monica

Visit the perfect sunny strip for sand, surf, and shopping

This oceanfront city, bounded by a 3½-mi/5½-km-long beach, feels like a weekend getaway spot even though it’s only 15 miles/24 kilometres west of...

Photo by Tom Story

Malibu

Malibu
Explore a fabled beachfront town with real star power

Stretching for more than 32 miles/51 kilometres along the Pacific, Malibu is a beach town like no other. Hollywood stars and top athletes escape to oceanfront homes on long strands of beach with front row seats of surfers and unforgettable sunsets. Considered to have one of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families; aim for quieter weekdays if that’s your style.

You can shop for beach fashions, and maybe even spot one of local celebs, at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two adjacent and upscale retail centers. There’s dining and fishing on Malibu Pier (a great place to watch the action at Surfrider), and in winter, Point Dume at Malibu’s north end provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating gray whales.

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 Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Golden State of Mind: Pioneer of Fashion - Jennifer Meyer
See how designer Jennifer Meyer uses her California surroundings as inspiration for her whimsical line of fine jewelry.
Venice by Jen Judge

Venice Beach

Venice Beach
Edgy, artsy, and sometimes odd—welcome to L.A.’s out-there beach town

Abutting Santa Monica’s south side (and back in L.A. proper) is Venice Beach—simply Venice to locals. This region, a blend of hip new condos and funky beach cottages, is famous for the quirky goings-on along its iconic beachfront boardwalk, where street entertainers and vendors create an unforgettable scene of local characters and goings-on. Watch it all stream by from the loud and lively waterfront skate park, or sit near the daily drum circle on the beach (you can even grab a can and a stick—or anything that makes noise—and join in).

For edgy boutiques focusing on furnishings and fashions, explore boho-chic Abbot-Kinney Boulevard, one of L.A.’s best shopping districts. Food trucks often pull up here, and there are plenty of places to grab a bite or a treat (consider N’ice Cream for decadent salted caramel gelato). Stop by Strange to blend your own perfume, buy a comfy-soft top at All Things Fabulous, or browse artsy jewellery at Altered Space Gallery.

Kodiak Greenwood

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach
Catch a wave in Surf City, USA

The endless summer lives in Huntington Beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf.

Go to the International Surfing Museum, and you’ll see up close how this Orange County town, with 10 miles of beaches and consistent swells, got its nickname of Surf City, USA (don’t miss the World’s Largest Surfboard on display). Surfing forefathers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku both surfed here 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.

Year round, surfing definitely sets the tone in Huntington Beach, and even if you never grab a board, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great viewing of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Beach Pier.

From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s surf shops and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. Huntington’s newest outdoor mall, Pacific City, is where you’ll find one-of-a-kind artisanal eats and stylish boutiques—all with an ocean view.

You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach luxurious beach resorts—like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (known for its kid-magnet pool playground), Waterfront Beach Resort, and Paséa Hotel & Spa, opened in 2016. Check out Paséa’s Treehouse Bar for a rooftop cocktail at sunset. Or discover the more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in the 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or by hiking and bird watching in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.

World's Largest Surf Board Makes Waves In Huntington Beach
42 feet. 66 people. One world record. In Huntington Beach on International Surfing Day, 66 people climbed aboard the world’s largest surfboard and rode it to a new world record.
Dave Lauridsen

La Jolla

La Jolla
Find something for everyone in this multi-faceted seaside jewel

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, 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 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, on 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 see a future Broadway hit at La Jolla Playhouse (co-founded by Gregory Peck in 1947), the birthplace of Jersey Boys and Come From Away. 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.

Dave Lauridsen

Coronado

Coronado
Explore the Del and get a dose of small-town charm

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 Candelas on the Bay 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 Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.

Photo by Kodiak Greenwood

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach
Catch a wave in Surf City, USA

The endless summer lives in Huntington Beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf. Surfing definitely sets the tone in Huntington Beach, and even if you never grab a board, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great viewing of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Pier.

From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s stylish boutiques and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in Huntington Beach’s fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach luxurious oceanfront resorts. Or discover more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in 354-acre/143-hectare Huntington Central Park, and with bird watching and by exploring trails in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.