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 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 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 is Venice Beach—simply Venice to locals. The community was born in 1905, developed by eccentric millionaire Abbot Kinney, who modeled the town after his favorite Italian city, complete with piazzas and canals. You can still see those canals, along with quaint original cottages, in the Venice Canal Historic District.
Today’s Venice, though, is most famous for the quirky goings-on along its iconic beachfront boardwalk, where street entertainers and vendors create an unforgettable scene of local characters and happenings. 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 Invisible Perfumes to blend your own eau de toilette, or buy a comfy-soft top at All Things Fabulous. A great time to visit is the First Friday of each month, when food trucks and live music line Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
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.
If you'd rather run than hit the waves, you can still get in the surfing spirit by racing the Surf City USA Marathon (which also includes a half marathon or 5K), held on the first Sunday of February every year. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat beachfront course throughout Huntington Beach.
Year round, surfing definitely sets the tone, 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.
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 bars. 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. The town also has a thriving surf scene, thanks to more than 8 miles of beaches and the bodysurfers’ bucket-list spot known as the Wedge, with raucous waves that can easily reach 20 feet in height.
Shirley Temple was crowned Miss Newport Beach at age 13, while James Cagney is rumored to have won Collins Island in a poker game.
But even with the many changes, you’ll see traces of both old and new in Newport Beach. Go to historic Dory Fleet Market, founded in 1891 and 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 manse. 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 as well as June’s annual Newport Beach Jazz Festival. Come to town in spring and you can watch screenings at the Newport Beach Film Festival. “When we set out to found the film festival in 1999,” says festival director Greg Schwenk, “we could think of no more beautiful spot to hold it in than Newport Beach.” Schwenk’s favorite festival memory: listening to Richard Sherman, who penned the music and lyrics for Mary Poppins, playing songs from the movie on the baby grand at the Island Hotel.
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 all to form your own opinion.
The southern origin of California’s Highway One offers some gorgeous drama, like beach town Dana Point. It was named after Richard Henry Dana, who first arrived there on a trading ship circa 1835 and was entranced by the romantic cliff-lined area.
The town has been wooing whale-watchers and water lovers ever since. In the 1950s and 60s, the right-breaking waves that tended to form here could produce 12-foot surf breaks known as Killer Dana and Doheny. A few blocks 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, boutiques, and eateries along this stretch of Highway 1, as well as nearby Salt Creek Beach, Baby Beach, and Doheny State Beach. Otherwise, the town very much revolves around the harbor, which, when it opened in 1971, tamed Killer Dana. The quieter waters, though, created abundant options for kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, sports fishing, and a lot of whale-watching.
Indeed, you can spot giant mammals breaching and frolicking in the waves nearly year-round. “We see the migrating grey whale from November through April,” says Kim Tilly, a spokesperson for Dana Point Harbor. “Then we start to see the 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. 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 Monarch Beach 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.
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.
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.