23 Best California Beach Towns (in 2023)
California’s iconic coastline is perhaps the most famous feature of the golden state. Laid-back California beach towns dot the coast of the entire state from north to south with unimaginable scenery.
I spent my entire childhood exploring California’s beach towns; building sandcastles, staying in waterfront rental houses, and hiking next to jagged ocean cliffs.
I’ve been to so many of the best places to visit in California, and have created this ultimate guide to California’s beach towns to pass along some of my experiences. For more, you can also bookmark my guide to the best California beaches.
Table of Contents
- 23 Best Beach Towns in California
- FAQs About Beach Towns in California
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23 Best Beach Towns in California
La Jolla, San Diego
Stay in waterfront luxurious hotels with easy access to the beach
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Only a short drive from downtown San Diego, everything in La Jolla’s village is within walking distance at this San Diego beach town. There are romantic restaurants and dimly-lit bars for date night and an aquarium for a fun-filled family beach day.
Chic boutiques and fancy restaurants dress the La Jolla shoreline, giving it a relaxed yet casual feel. And yet, the famous La Jolla beaches (like La Jolla Cove) are only a hop, skip, and jump away from La Jolla’s waterfront hotels. This saves you the hassle of finding parking and provides early access to the beach to catch the best waves in town.
There are so many things to do in La Jolla, but I do recommend visiting sea lion locals along San Diego’s rugged coastline.
Rent a beachfront Newport home for an unforgettable beach experience with the family
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The sunbathing possibilities are endless at Newport Beach. The enormous Newport beach area is equipped with fire pits, volleyball nets, and a grassy soccer/picnic field right next to the ocean.
Roller skate down the beach walkway all the way to Huntington Beach or take a stroll down the pier to watch fishermen catch dinner for the night.
There is also a classic Ruby’s Diner at the end of the Newport Balboa Beach Pier that reels in beach-goers with the aroma of fresh fries and juicy burgers.
If you’d rather spend the day shopping than lounging on Newport’s beach, then you’re in luck. Fashion Island is one of the biggest malls in Southern California and is the most frequented attraction in Newport.
Explore California’s most fantastical seaside village
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This fairytale hamlet is one of the quaintest and most adorable seaside cities in California. Nestled on California’s central coast, Carmel-by-the-Sea captivates visitors with its romantic ambiance.
The attractions in Carmel are surprisingly abundant, given the town’s one-square-mile size. The whole town gathers on Carmel Beach to watch the breathtaking sunset over the storybook village.
Experience this unspoiled seaside gem like a local by visiting the boutiques, wineries, and art galleries that line the downtown village. Carmel-by-the-Sea is guaranteed to be your favorite California coast town.
Surf some huge waves or watch experts snap and turn on the sea foam waves
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Perhaps the most famous Southern California beach, Huntington is no stranger to large crowds. Huntington offers miles of golden sandy beaches and is a hotspot for watersports, which is one of the top things to do in Huntington Beach.
Situated along the Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach is one of the most popular beaches for young adults. With an array of bars and downtown clubs, Huntington’s nightlife is impeccable. Visitors also flock to Huntington for the famous U.S. Open surf competition each summer.
Make sure you comb through our beach packing list before you go, but don’t forget to bring your surfboard, skim board, boogie board, or snorkel gear to Huntington. It’s the best way to optimize a complete day of fun under the baking Southern California sun.
👉 Pro Tip: Beach volleyball courts are available at the pier, near 9th St., and on Beach Boulevard so make sure to bring your volleyball.
Be a part of history when you visit the Old Santa Barbara Mission
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Santa Barbara is much more than a renowned college town. This coastal paradise is home to some of the best wave breaks in the Pacific Ocean, and makes our list of the top spots to live in California.
Go on an outdoor adventure, lounge at the beach, enjoy the fascinating art culture, or indulge yourself in some local food and wine in Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara offers visitors every option possible for vacation activities.
Take your family to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to learn about local history and culture. History buffs must also check out the Old Santa Barbara Mission which dates back to 1786.
Eat from award-winning restaurants on the waterfront
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Individuals who appreciate the finer things in life come from all over the U.S. to visit Laguna Beach. Only an hour outside of Los Angeles, this beach town is the perfect escape from the busy city chaos.
With a thriving art scene, Laguna Beach is an Orange County hidden gem. Visit during the summer to attend the annual Sawdust Art Festival which hosts over 1,000 local artists. This is perhaps the best way to experience local Laguna culture.
Although the Laguna beaches are well-kept and enticing, most people are lured into the Laguna ambiance by the fine dining options. Acclaimed Laguna Beach restaurants like Nick’s Laguna Beach and Sapphire have established a name for this seaside town.
Get planning with our list of things to do in Laguna Beach.
Look for sea life on a whale-watching cruise
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Monterey is a Northern California beach town classic. Enjoy the stunning coastline or one of Monterey’s many hiking trails for an entertainment-filled trip on the California coast.
Monterey’s scenic views are unmatched by any other coast town. Get carried away with golfing, shopping, outdoor recreation, or kayaking during your time in Monterey.
Monterey Bay is also rich in wildlife. Take a biologist-led whale-watching tour to cruise the harbor in sight of the majestic beasts. The Monterey Bay Aquarium showcases prime marine animals such as dolphins, sea lions, and orcas as well.
Lounge on Morro Rock Beach under the hot California sun
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Coastal scenery collides with surrounding rolling hills at Morro Bay. The most prominent feature, Morro Rock, serves as the backdrop for the sleepy fishing town and is the best place for a photo shoot in Morro Bay.
Enjoy the 3-mile stretch of Morro Strand State Beach for windsurfing, fishing, and jogging during your stay in Morro Bay. After a fulfilling day exploring the coast, try a deliciously fresh seafood dinner at one of Morro Bay’s waterfront restaurants like The Galley Seafood Grill & Bar.
Downtown also hosts an array of fun Morro Bay activities like vintage shopping, a movie theater, and local bars with pool tables. Morro Bay is a less-visited California coast town and provides visitors with a remote getaway experience.
Witness an entertaining art scene at this hip beach town
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Witness the chaos of the artsy downtown Venice Beach. Venice draws many unusual characters to its shoreline and is known as an entertainment mecca just outside of Los Angeles.
For physical activity, bring your skateboard to skate at the beachfront Venice skate park or pump iron at the Muscle Beach boardwalk gym. Visitors can also follow the walkway from the downtown Venice area all the way to the Santa Monica Pier and back.
Get a true Los Angeles experience at the High Rooftop Lounge in Venice Beach. Feel like a celebrity on the open-air deck as you enjoy food, specialty cocktails, and listen to the daily live DJ.
Venice Beach is the most entertaining beach town in Southern California, so make sure to add it to your California coast itinerary.
Explore both rugged coast and dense redwood forest on the same day
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Located in Humboldt County, Shelter Cove sits on California’s Lost Coast. Giant redwood trees intercept the rugged coastline of this small Northern California seaside town.
Investigate residential tidepools or wander down the black sandy beaches of Shelter Cove. Campers can spend the night right on the beach and more luxurious travelers can stay at a fabulous house rental on the oceanfront.
This small town has its own unique character and is one of the most secluded towns in California. Jagged peaks and mossy cliffs beacon you to explore this untouched beauty as you escape the modern world and venture into a coastal paradise.
Enjoy the Spanish-style architecture at this elegant beach town
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This Pacific Coast Highway town is one of the most scenic beach towns in California. Located in Orange County, San Clemente offers fun state beaches and excellent opportunities for hiking and biking along the coast.
Also known as “Spanish Village by the Sea,” San Clemente lives up to expectations of picturesque sandy beaches and beautiful colonial-style architecture. This Southern California town is always subject to the hot Cali sun and beacons water sport enthusiasts to its waters year-round.
The San Clemente Pier is the top attraction in town. Try some fresh oysters at a seafood restaurant on the pier or bring a rod and fish for your own wild-caught dinner right off of the boardwalk.
Avenida del Mar is San Clemente’s main shopping square. Just a few minutes’ walk from the pier, check out the various eateries, boutiques, galleries, and wine-tasting venues at this prime San Clemente location.
Camp on the beach or visit Hearst Castle
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The sandy coves of Moonstone Beach make this California town a must-see. A wooden boardwalk spans 1 mile along the coast and will bring you to the best sites Moonstone Beach has to offer.
The Moonstone Beach town of Cambria has many accommodation options. Rent a tent, RV, beach house, or stay at a waterfront hotel. An exciting day trip from Moonstone Beach is Hearst Castle, one of the largest and most extravagant castles in all of the United States.
Partake in exciting aquatic adventures at Moonstone Beach like boating, surfing, and jet skiing and you may run into one-of-a-kind marine life. Unwind during sunset to a relaxing glass of wine in a Cambria waterfront restaurant to commemorate your perfect central coast adventure.
Golf on award-winning courses on a cliffside overlooking the ocean
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If you like golfing, then you must visit Pebble Beach. This is one of the best beach towns in California for golfing so don’t forget your golf balls and make sure to reserve a tee time before your trip.
Not only does Pebble Beach house the number 1 public golf course in the country, but it is also home to world-class accommodations and extraordinary dining options.
Go horseback riding through wild spring flowers right on the edge of rugged ocean cliffs in Pebble Beach. If you would rather relax on your California beach town vacation, then head to one of Pebble Beach’s spa sanctuaries for relaxation.
🚗 Need a ride? Pebble Beach is 2 ½ hours from San Francisco. Rent a car with Discover Cars from the San Francisco airport and take the I-280 S to the CA-1 S to arrive at your destination.
Camp in backcountry seaside wilderness
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Technically a part of Newport Beach, Crystal Cove is a Pacific Ocean oasis that welcomes visitors to its sandy shores. Spanning 12.3 acres along the California coast, there is no shortage of beaches to lounge on at Crystal Cove.
Crystal Cove State Beach comprises 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness and a large variety of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails. It also features some of the best camping near San Diego.
The main features of the state park include unbelievable surfing and ideal conditions for scuba diving. Crystal Cove is a stunning nature haven that sharply contrasts an urban landscape.
The Crystal Cove Historic District has coastal cottages with a rich history and nightly rental availability as well.
Go on thrill seeking rides at the Santa Cruz boardwalk arcade
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Venture 35 miles north from Monterey to find this coastal town where the forest meets the sea. From the beach boardwalk to the downtown art walk and souvenir shops, Santa Cruz is a top tourist destination with hundreds of attractions.
The Santa Cruz Pier Amusement Park resides in this charming beach town on top of the white sand beaches of Santa Cruz. Ride pier roller coasters, eat a giant funnel cake, or try to win a carnival prize at the pier amusement park.
If you’re looking for a Santa Cruz experience away from the crowds, take an expedition into the surrounding redwood forests. Camp under the tree canopy or go on a scavenger hunt for some famous Santa Cruz banana slugs.
Catch sight of humpback whales as they pass through on their way to Baja Mexico
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11 miles north of Santa Cruz lies this California coastal retreat. Davenport Beach and Shark Fin Cove are the two resident beaches of this coastal town where you will find tidepools and plenty of surfers cresting the Pacific Ocean waves.
This is a great spot to see migrating gray and humpback whales as they make their way to and from Baja Mexico. Davenport is a wildlife haven and you can see dolphins, sea lions, and sea otters as well.
Find some shade under the prominent beach rock formations as you watch windsurfers. One of the best aspects about Davenport is that its beaches are dog-friendly, so you don’t have to leave Fido behind this time!
Carpinteria City Beach
Escape the heavy crowds of Santa Barbara with a visit to this remote beach town
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The wide sandy beaches of Carpinteria City Beach are a prime location for beachside mansions and rental property, making your stay at this California coastal town memorable and luxurious.
There are volleyball courts, picnic tables, and a campground available at the state beach.
Go for a walk in Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park to see rare plants and birds in their natural habitats. Carpinteria is only a 10-minute car ride from Santa Barbara and the light crowds make it well worth the trip.
Santa Catalina Island
Enjoy the island vibes of Catalina while you sip on a cocktail at the beach
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Santa Catalina Island feels like a vacation within your vacation. Only accessible by boat or ferry, leave your city blues behind to discover an aquatic, seaside town built on a remote, yet stunning, island.
Catalina Island is a Southern California paradise. Although just 22 miles long, there is an abundance of Santa Catalina Island activities like scuba diving, gambling, parasailing, bar hopping, and so much more.
Catalina has a Mediterranean aesthetic with cobblestone streets and Spanish-style buildings. A trip to Catalina Island will likely be one of your favorite stops on your California vacation.
Try wild-caught fresh seafood at waterfront Dana Point eateries
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You can’t visit Dana Point without going on a whale-watching tour. This is the most popular thing to do in town and one of the best places to see whales in the Pacific Ocean.
The Dana Point Harbor has over 30 specialty shops, wine-tasting opportunities, and 20 waterfront restaurants that all supply fresh, wild-caught seafood. Admire the Dana Point street art or go for a ride on one of the town’s mountain biking trails. You won’t run out of things to do in this coastal village.
⛰️ Read Next: 15 Top Mountain Towns in California
Be a part of the monarch butterfly migration by visiting Pismo Beach in the wintertime
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Pismo Beach is known for its wineries and monarch butterfly sanctuaries. This town is a stop along the famous monarch migration route and a trip to Pismo during the winter may lead to an encounter with hundreds of these beautiful winged creatures.
This classic beach town is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Active visitors get their fitness fix on the top-grade golf courses or by riding the beach dunes in an ATV.
The Pismo Beach Premium Outlets also receive a fair share of visitors each year. Shop until it’s time for dinner at a high-class waterfront restaurant for the perfect Pismo Beach experience.
Luck out with a celebrity sighting at the cliffside Malibu town
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Famous for its many celebrity homes and sightings, visitors are always on alert for A-list celebrities and athletes in Malibu. Besides the possible surprise rendezvous, Malibu is also an exciting California beach town with Spanish-style architecture and views of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Lounge on the beach or hike to canyons and waterfalls in the Santa Monicas during your stay in Malibu. The beach town has an upscale ambiance and appeals to visitors who are looking for a 4 or 5-star getaway.
There are endless things to do in Malibu, but explore private beach coves and organic eateries during your stay for an unforgettable Malibu experience.
Enjoy the local wineries in Mendocino
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Traverse Mendocino’s cliffside trails and craggy beaches of the Mendocino State Park. This California beach village is considered one of the most beautiful beach towns in California with vibrantly colored, charming cottages.
Enjoy the oceanfront Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens to learn about native plant species in the area. You can also go wine tasting or rent a bike and ride through the whole seaside town to fully explore the area.
This town is only a short trip from the San Francisco Bay area and its nationally-acclaimed wineries are worth the visit.
The gateway town to Redwood National Park
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The crescent-shaped sandy beach of this seaside city allures many tourists each year. Crescent City is the perfect combination of redwood forest and the California coast.
This city is one of Humboldt County’s gateway towns for visitors staying near Redwood National Park. An abundance of wildlife can be found in the dramatic landscapes of Crescent City, so bring your binoculars and be cautious of black bears.
The rocky Crescent City Beach bears a picturesque lighthouse with an old-timey feel. If you are road-tripping throughout the California coastal towns, this will likely be your endpoint. It’s the perfect spot to end a spectacular trip.
🛣️ Read Next: Ultimate California Road Trip Itinerary
FAQs About Beach Towns in California
What is the most beautiful beach town in California?
Mendocino is notably the most beautiful beach town in California. It is famed for its picturesque seaside cottages and charming atmosphere.
What is the warmest coastal town in California?
Southern California beach towns are the warmest in the state. Newport, Huntington, and San Clemente are all warm beaches, with Newport Beach taking the cake for the warmest water year-round.
What is the most affordable beach town in California?
Crescent City is one of the most affordable beach towns in California. Eureka and Fort Bragg/Glass Beach are also cheap Northern California beach towns.
What is the safest beach town in California?
Carpinteria is known as the safest beach town in California. Only 10 miles east of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is the safest beach town for families.
Have fun exploring the 23 best beach towns in California! Check out best towns in California to explore other small and metropolitan towns on the west coast.
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