20 Best Beach Towns in California to Visit

8 min read
Blue lifeguard house with a white, red, and blue flag on a golden sandy beach
Beach cities in California offer activities like surfing, shopping, and fine dining

From sunny SoCal to the moody skies of the Pacific Northwest, California's beach towns have something to offer everyone. Surf shacks, fine dining, quirky markets, people-watching, and people-escaping are all time-honored traditions here.

But each nook and cranny along the expansive coastline has a distinct personality to it, which may leave you wondering where to begin. This list of the 20 best beach towns in California will either help you find a favorite or give you itinerary ideas for an epic road trip. Continue scrolling to learn more!

  • 20 California beach towns

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20 Best California Beach Towns

California Beach Towns Map

A map of California. Use the map to explore all the beach towns.

One of the best beach towns in California to visit is La Jolla
La Jolla is one of the best beach towns in California to visit

La Jolla

About fifteen minutes from Downtown San Diego, the upscale beach town of La Jolla inhabits a craggy coastline with no shortage of seafood, steakhouses, international fare, and vegan creations. These dining options are often paired with sweeping views of the Pacific, Michelin ratings, or both.

With a full belly, head to La Jolla Cove, one of the famous landmarks in San Diego, to see seals and sea lions. Or, take a short trip north to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve where you can catch migrating humpback whales, desert foxes, and plenty of cacti.

© SherryVSmith via Depositphotos
Two surfers on a sandy beach with waves, on a windy and sunny day
Encinitas is a prominent surfing destination that has also inspired Beach Boys songs

Encinitas

Encinitas is one of the original surf towns in California and has attracted beach bums and misfits alike for nearly a century. The resultingly eclectic town is famous for inspiring Beach Boys songs and for its midnight picnics at Moonlight State Beach.

Downtown Encinitas is home to boutiques and cafes intermingling with century-old buildings, giving it a satisfyingly bohemian feel.

Waves crashing against rocky cliffs with ocean-view mansions at the top
Camping, scuba diving, and snorkeling are some favorite activities in Carlsbad

Carlsbad

About halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, you'll find the town of Carlsbad. It's a resort community with a European feel, and the addition of Legoland makes it a great stop for families and grown-up kids alike.

For the outdoorsy types, enjoy scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and even some beach camping along the protected coastline and warm waters of Carlsbad State Beach.

Beach mansions on a rocky cliff overlooking the sand and ocean at sunset
You can access Thousand Steps Beach by going down two hundred steps

Laguna Beach

Moving further from San Diego towards Los Angeles and into Orange County, the next of the coastal California towns is Laguna Beach. For many, its equidistance between the two megacities of the West Coast makes it the ideal combination of comfort, convenience, and getting away from it all.

Thousand Steps Beach in South Laguna Beach may sound intimidating, but in reality, only about two hundred stairs line the path down to the shore. This beach is also one of the fun free things to do in Orange County, California.

If you want to get even further away, Laguna Beach gives you easy access to both Corona del Mar State Beach Park and Crystal Cove State Park.

Wooden pier with benches, umbrellas, and palm trees in the background
Avalon is just a one-hour ferry boat ride from Dana Point or Long Beach

Avalon

For time away from the mainland, catch a one-hour ferry from Dana Point or Long Beach to get to Avalon on Santa Catalina Island. There's a romantic, old-world charm here, and it's small enough that visitors mostly get around on foot or in rented golf carts.

Jeep tours are available if you want to see Catalina's unique landscape and wild bison, and you can even board a submarine to explore the aquatic life surrounding the island.

Check out tour options, pricing, and availability.

Palm trees line a boardwalk as people walk alongside a sandy beach under a blue sky
Venice Boardwalk in L.A. is one of the most famous attractions in the world

Venice Beach

Venice Beach and its world-famous boardwalk are cultural staples of the Los Angeles area. It was created as the "Coney Island of the West" but has transformed into something altogether unique.

Once you're done exploring this lively boardwalk and famous Los Angeles landmark, you can head to Abbot Kinney Boulevard for a shopping mecca. The restaurants, retail outlets, and trendy boutique shops will allow for nearly endless days and nights here without repeating the same stops.

A theme park on a pier with a beach and buildings in the background
The amusement park in Santa Monica is a must-visit attraction when you are in L.A

Santa Monica

Santa Monica is the last of the Los Angeles, CA beach towns to see on this list. Once you arrive, you probably won't need your car anymore in this highly walkable town, and its bike paths offer twenty-two miles of roaming.

Be sure to stroll down to Santa Monica Pier, a famous California landmark, for the amusement park and concessions. Or, just head there to catch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean before venturing out after dark for the bustling nightlife.

Beach mansion with trees overlooking the ocean and a rocky beach
Malibu is a famous surfing destination and where many celebrities live

Malibu

Nestled between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, you'll find the picturesque town of Malibu. Its status as a surfing capital and a neighborhood of choice for celebrities make it an exciting destination in Southern California.

For some more seclusion, take a quick trip past the surfers at Zuma Beach to reach Matador State Beach Park. You'll find hiking, sunbathing, and snorkeling opportunities, but the rocks make swimming dangerous.

Aerial view of a Spanish church with houses, trees, and mountains in the background
Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1786 by Franciscan Friars

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara's history stretches back to the founding of the Mission Santa Barbara in 1786 by the Franciscan Friars.

The Old Mission still remains active, with the kiosks along State Street Promenade and renowned art exhibits joining it as popular destinations. It is one of the fun things to do in Santa Barbara.

You can also enjoy the city's own beaches; head to the nearby Arroyo Burro Beach, or take an hour-long ferry ride to Channel Islands National Park.

Rocky cliff near the ocean on a sunny day
There are lots of activities at Pismo Beach, such as a docent-led hike and golfing

Pismo Beach

In Pismo Beach, you can take a docent-led hike through the Pismo Preserve, go golfing at nearby Avila Beach, or try your hand at clamming, though finding any large enough to keep has been unlikely for decades now.

If you happen to arrive between November and February, you'll be migrating with Monarch butterflies escaping the cooler weather of Northern California. They make their seasonal home in the Eucalyptus trees of the aptly named Monarch Butterfly Grove.

Sea lions relaxing on a wooden deck surrounded by water, with boats in the background
Morro Bay is famous for its dive sites and is one of the smallest beach towns

Morro Bay

Morro Bay is among the smaller of the CA coastal cities on this list and offers a slower pace of enjoyment. Scuba divers can take a quick boat ride to explore the bay's teeming kelp beds and vertical sea walls and easily be back in town for lunch.

The "Mural Mile" is another great way to meander through this beach town, taking a self-guided tour through artworks that depict the history and culture of the town.

"City of Carmel-by-the-Sea" signage shaded by trees, on a street with parked cars
Clint Eastwood was the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a one-square-mile town

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is perhaps most famous as the town that Clint Eastwood once "Mayored," in real life, and this one-square-mile town really packs in the architectural charm.

Good thing it's small, too, as the lack of street addresses would otherwise make it difficult to find the many inns and restaurants that populate its largely cobbled walkways.

Add that it's a great launching point to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and a trip here is a no-brainer.

A bridge between green mountains overlooking the turquoise ocean on a sunny day
Monterey is a cool-weather town with rocky cliffs and misty seascapes

Monterey

Crossing into Northern California and cooler climates, Monterey beachgoers are less likely to go for a swim but are compensated with a rugged, rocky beauty on the often-foggy coast.

The more temperate weather also marks this as the beginning of California's wine country, and wine tours in nearby Salinas Valley are a must for connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike. Popular attractions also include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a fun thing to do on California's Central Coast, and Cannery Row.

Colorful homes reflecting in still water during sunset
Capitola is famous for its brightly colored houses and is certainly worth a visit

Capitola

The colorful Capitola is the next of the California coastal towns you'll want to see. This once small town has grown into the larger Santa Cruz urban area, and it is known for its brightly-painted adobe seafront buildings.

It's more than just a pretty postcard or social media posing location, though. Outdoor movies and concerts are staples of the warmer months, so do your research to see what you can catch.

View from the sea of a sandy beach with a colorful amusement park
Santa Cruz is a beach town known for its seaside amusement park and rich history

Santa Cruz

At the far northern end of Monterey Bay, you'll find the quirky Santa Cruz. Along with many smaller, hidden beaches, Santa Cruz has a city beach that provides a carnival atmosphere.

When you're finished with the rides and games, you can go exploring its thriving streets steeped in history and thick with eateries. The eclectic combination of modern and colonial-style architecture makes it a journey for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Sunset by a rocky coastline with a hill in the background
Half Moon Bay is a popular spot for photographers because of its amazing cliff views

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is further up the Pacific Coast Highway and into San Mateo County. Its proximity to San Francisco makes it a popular getaway from city life and offers heaps of outdoor fun.

Visitors can go horseback riding, bird-watching, SUP boarding, or just take a spa day in town. Photography enthusiasts will have a blast here seeking views of its dramatic cliffs descending into the beach and ocean.

© Wirestock via Depositphotos
Cars parked in front of homes with green trees and blue sky behind
Sausalito is a small town near the famous Golden Gate Bridge

Sausalito

Protected from the sprawl of San Francisco by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Sausalito has maintained a small-town identity. It's one of the coastal towns in California that manages to be both busy and relaxed, thanks to its low population and a steady stream of day-trippers.

It's worth a trip across the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, one of North America's famous landmarks, to sit in one of Sausalito's many seafood restaurants, gazing upon the notorious Alcatraz Island between you and San Francisco.

A winding road through foggy mountains overlooking the ocean
Bodega Bay is a beach town in Northern California famous for Sonoma Coast vineyards

Bodega Bay

Getting further into Northern California, there are now some truly remote towns on the coast of California. Bodega Bay is just such a beach town, with little around it but the ocean, nature trails, and of course, the Sonoma Coast vineyards.

If mixing world-class wine with Pacific panoramas ever gets old, Point Reyes National Seashore is an easy trip south along Route 1.

Breaking waves on a beach covered in multicolored sea glass and rocky cliffs behind
Colored stones can be found at Glass Beach in Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg

The moody coast of Fort Bragg is great for nature lovers. Beachcombers will love the menagerie of colorful stones on Glass Beach, and woodsy types can hop on "Skunk Train" to see the local redwood forest.

The redwoods through here are not as massive as the sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park, but this region's forests do host "Mendocino," which have been ruled the world's largest tree until 2000, at a neck-aching 368 feet skyward.

A huge tree trunk near a walking path passing through a luscious forest
Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Crescent City

Finally, the northernmost of the California coastal cities on this list is Crescent City, near the border of Oregon. In-and-around the town, you'll find Crescent Beach, Pebble Beach, and the historic Battery Point Lighthouse, built in 1855.

Crescent City is also at the doorstep of both Redwoods National Park, a popular West Coast national park, and the 10,000-acre Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, the latter of which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its concentration of old-growth redwoods.

Conclusion

There are far more beach towns to see in California, but this sampler should have something for everyone.

It's easy to switch any of the beach towns on this list with some of the day trips or activities mentioned within them, so go have some fun and enjoy the cities in California by the beach!

This article was edited by Loredana Elena.

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Written by Andrew Sayles

atsayles WRITER Traveler, teacher, and blogger currently based in Oregon. I have lived in 5 countries, traveled to 60, and crisscrossed the continental US an unhealthy number of times.


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