If you’re looking for the best beach towns in California for your next West Coast getaway, this guide has you covered!
California boasts over 800 miles of stunning coastline and there are dozens of noteworthy beach towns. From Crescent City to Carmel-by-the-Sea, these charming towns boast sandy shorelines, charming atmospheres, and unobstructed views of the beautiful Pacific Ocean.
The best beach towns in California are all amazing places to visit, and they each have something a little different to offer. You can check out the purple sand of Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, keep an eye out for your favorite celebrities in Malibu, or opt for a bit more seclusion on Catalina Island.
Whether you’re after a day trip or a weekend getaway, one of these charming towns will make your heart swoon.
In This Post:
12 Best Beach Towns in California
This guide to the best beach towns in California includes the best things to do and see, fun tours to go on, and more! Even though these coastal gems are similar in terms of amazing views, each one is unique and offers something different.
Here are 12 of the best beach towns in California!
1. Malibu, California
Malibu has long established itself as one of the best beach towns in California. With stunning beaches, prime surf spots, and frequent celebrity spottings, Malibu is a fantastic getaway destination.
The best beaches in Malibu for swimming, surfing, or suntanning include Zuma Beach, El Matador Beach, Leo Carrillo State Park, and Pirates Cove Beach. As for the best places to see celebrities, the Malibu County Fair and Malibu Country Mart are relatively consistent celebrity hubs.
But, beaches and celebrities are far from all that Malibu has to offer. You can admire the artwork at the Getty Villa, climb the sand dunes near Point Mugu, try an acai bowl from Sunlife Organics, or tackle a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Best Beaches in Malibu:
- Amarillo Beach
- Broad Beach
- El Matador State Beach
- El Sol Beach
- Pirates Cove Beach
2. Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara is a hidden gem of Southern California. With its relaxed beachy atmosphere, the collection of mouthwatering eateries, and the beautiful Mediterranean-inspired architecture, you should definitely consider taking a trip to this California beach town.
This little town has a surprising number of things to do, but there are three must-dos. First and foremost, you have to head to Butterfly Beach at some point in the day, although sunset is best thanks to the beautiful colors that paint the sky at that time of day.
Second, you have to climb to the top of the Santa Barbara courthouse tower to check out the unobstructed views of the city.
And third, you simply must stop by McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams for a scoop of the best ice cream in town – and maybe even in all of Southern California.
Best Beaches in Santa Barbara:
- Butterfly Beach
- Leadbetter Beach
- Summerland Beach
- Arroyo Burro Beach
- East Beach
3. San Diego, California
With its sunny skies, sandy beaches, talented surfers, and year-round warm weather, San Diego is undoubtedly one of the best beach cities in California. In other words, this Southern California destination is the perfect place for some much-needed rest and relaxation.
When visiting any California beach town, the first thing you’ll want to do is head to the beach. Pacific Beach and Coronado Beach are two of the most famous San Diego beaches.
And while these sandy shores are certainly the highlight, you can also try authentic Italian food in Little Italy, wander around the Embarcadero, and go on a hike at Torrey Pines Nature Preserve.
Best Beaches in San Diego:
- La Jolla Cove Beach
- Coronado Beach
- Pacific Beach
- Bermuda Beach
- South Mission Beach
4. Big Sur, California
Big Sur is one of the few California beach towns that has managed to avoid a shocking surge of visitors. This is probably because you have to go out of your way to reach Big Sur, unlike many of the other towns on this list.
To get to Big Sur, you’ll have to drive for three hours from San Francisco, four hours from Sacramento, or five hours from Los Angeles. And despite what you may think, it’s definitely worth the hours of travel.
First of all, Big Sur is home to one of the only purple sand beaches in the world: Pfeiffer Beach. While the entire beach isn’t covered in purple sand, the north end has quite a bit, thanks to the manganese garnet gemstones found in the cliffs there.
And while you can easily spend hours admiring this amazing natural wonder, there’s so much more to do in Big Sur. You can gape at McWay Falls, admire the beauty of Andrew Molera State Park, and pay a visit to the Point Sur Lighthouse.
Best Beaches in Big Sur:
- Pfeiffer Beach
- Sand Dollar Beach
- Limekiln State Park Beach
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- Garrapata State Park – Garrapata Beach
5. Santa Monica
In just about every Hollywood movie set in Los Angeles, the go-to California beach town is Santa Monica. With the pastel sunset and the colorful Ferris wheel on the pier, it’s picture-perfect. Before you head to Santa Monica, tackle this epic Los Angeles bucket list so you don’t miss out on this beautiful city.
There are quite a few things that you can do just at the Santa Monica Pier. You can watch the beautiful sunset, try out your trapeze skills, visit the arcade, or stop by the beach below.
But there’s so much more to Santa Monica than just the pier. You can head to Third Street Promenade for fantastic shopping, talented street performers, and delicious restaurants. Or you can check out the breathtaking views from Palisades Park, purchase some local finds from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, or take the kids to Tongva Park.
Best Beaches in Santa Monica:
- Will Rogers State Beach
- Sorrento Beach
- Santa Monica State Beach – South Beach
- Santa Monica State Beach – North Beach
Carmel-by-the-Sea, simply referred to as Carmel, is situated two hours south of San Francisco. In other words, it’s the perfect place for a relaxing getaway away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
While visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea, you can spend hours at Carmel Beach, try California-grown wines and a local winery, hike the nature-filled paths of Point Lobos State Reserve, and simply stroll around the charming village.
Best Beaches in Carmel:
- Carmel River State Beach
- Del Mar Beach
- Monastery Beach
- Carmel Beach
- China Cove and Gibson Beach
7. Venice Beach
Venice Beach has a vibe that’s different from the rest of the best beach towns in California. While most of them revolve around the beach, Venice Beach offers much more than just miles of golden sand.
Venice Beach is most well-known for Muscle Beach Gym, which is where many popular bodybuilders – both past and present – have worked out. Vic Tanny, Joe Gold, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all have been regulars at Muscle Beach Gym.
And the exercise doesn’t stop within the walls of the gym either. If you head to Venice Beach, there’s a good chance that you’ll find quite a few people using the equipment on the sand as well.
If you don’t plan on exercising at Venice Beach, there’s so much more to keep you occupied. You can stop into the many boutique stores on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, grab a scoop of uniquely flavored ice cream from Salt & Straw, and sample dishes from dozens of food trucks during First Fridays.
Other Beaches Near Venice Beach:
- Marina Beach
- Mother’s Beach
- Will Rogers State Beach
- Sunset Beach
8. Catalina Island
While you can drive to most of the best beach towns in California, you have to take a boat or a plane to get to the stunning Catalina Island. Officially known as Santa Catalina Island, this little island is only 75 square miles but is filled with fun activities.
You can stop to smell all the blooming plants at Wrigley Memorial & Botanical Garden or check out the amazing views from the Hermit Gulch Trail Loop. Or you can even try something new, like parasailing, stand-up paddleboarding, scuba diving, or zip-lining.
Best Beaches on Catalina Island:
- Lovers Cove
- Descano Beach
- Crescent Beach
- Hamilton Cove
- Shark Harbor
9. Santa Cruz
Given its location towards the middle of the California coastline, Santa Cruz manages to blend the Southern California surfer vibes with the chilly Northern California weather.
The most popular thing to do is visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. With tons of rides, loads of fried foods, and a fun atmosphere, you’ll need at least one full day to experience everything that this quintessential boardwalk has to offer. And don’t forget to spend some time on the accompanying beach!
And while the boardwalk is certainly the most popular attraction in town, it’s definitely not the only one that’s worth your time. You can bike along the scenic West Cliff Drive, learn about sea creatures at the Seymour Marine Discover Center, stop by the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and see the breathtaking rock formations at Natural Bridges State Beach.
Best Beaches in Santa Cruz:
- Mitchell’s Cove Beach
- Capitola Beach
- Natural Bridges State Park
- Waddell Beach
- Lighthouse Beach State Park
10. Newport Beach
Newport Beach is arguably one of the most luxurious beach towns in California. As a matter of fact, most households in Newport Beach make a six-figure income, and that wealth is displayed throughout the city. While in Newport Beach, you can drive around the lavish homes, shop at the boutique stores, or try new fancy restaurants.
But there are budget-friendly things to do in Newport Beach as well. You can look for critters in the tide pools of Crystal Cove State Park, enjoy a picnic at Inspiration Point while taking in the views, or watch the surfers catch the 30-foot waves at The Wedge.
Best Beaches in Newport Beach:
- Cameo Shores Beach
- West Newport Beach
- Balboa Peninsula Beach
11. Laguna Beach
Situated between Newport Beach and San Diego, the underrated Laguna Beach is one of the best beach towns in California. Somehow within its 10 square miles of land, Laguna Beach is packed with natural beauty everywhere you turn.
Crystal Cove State Park, which is split between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, tops the list of things to do in this amazing California beach town. You can also head to the secluded 1,000 Steps Beach, the breathtaking Heisler Park, the gorgeous Crescent Bay Point Park, and the popular main Laguna Beach.
Best Beaches in Laguna Beach:
- Shaw’s Cove
- Pearl Street Beach
- Victoria Beach
- Thousand Steps Beach
- Treasure Island Beach
12. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is one of the most quintessential beach towns in California and it’s located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the infamous Pacific Coast Highway.
With a small hometown feel, Pismo Beach is bursting with things to do. This town offers long, white-sand beaches and there are wineries in the area!
You can spend the day at Monarch Butterfly Grove, have a picnic at Palisades Park overlooking the ocean, or relax at Avila Hot Springs.
If you’re up for a real adventure, head to Pismo Beach in October to experience the Pismo Beach Clam Festival. This event is three days long with clam digs, surf competitions, and more.
Best Beaches in Pismo Beach:
- Pismo Beach Pier Beach
- Spyglass Park
- Eldwayen Ocean Park
- Elmer Ross Beach
- Memory Park
Do you have any suggestions to add to this list of the best beach towns in California? Let me know in the comments below!
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Disha Smith is the founder of Disha Discovers. She quit her job in 2017 to travel the world to explore new cultures and experience new adventures. She has since been to 95+ countries and counting and has lived in South Africa, Thailand, Croatia, and Australia. She has done all kinds of travel ranging from luxury to budget backpacking, and her mission is to inspire others to discover their own sense of adventure and to help them plan a life full of meaningful experiences through travel.