11 Best California Beach Towns You Need To Visit

Are you looking for the best stops along California’s Pacific Coast Highway? There are so many charming beach towns in California, it can be tough picking the best ones given limited time.

Each beach town has its own appeal and are popular for good reason. When you’re cruising through Highway 1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway, it’s easy to miss the small beach towns if you haven’t planned to stop by.

Having lived in Los Angeles for a few months and now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve grown fonder of the charming beach towns. They’re perfect for weekend or even day trips! It’s been so enjoyable to take it slow along the coast, search out good food and explore hiking trails.

In this article, we will be highlighting some of the best beach towns in California. I will also include ideas on things to do, places to eat, and where to stay.

This article uses affiliate links where I make a small commission if you make a purchase through my links. It will be at no additional cost to you, but will really help to support Where’s Janice.

Best Southern California Beach Towns

1. La Jolla

La Jolla beach

Located in the San Diego coastline, La Jolla is a beach town whose name translates to “Jewel of the Pacific”. Steeped in Spanish charm, it attracts artists, intellectuals and beach lovers alike.

For outdoor activities, consider kayaking, diving, or snorkelling through the crystal clear waters. The surrounding cliffs and sea caves offer an excellent backdrop for these amazing adventures. If you just want to get out to the beach, I’m sure you’ll enjoy an amazing sunset here.

Not only can you find stunning coastal scenery, La Jolla also has a thriving cultural scene. This includes the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: California Dreams Hostel – Pacific Beach (check on Hostelworld | Booking.com)

Amazing views: Scripps Inn

Luxury stay: Orli La Jolla

Activities to book

Since La Jolla is within San Diego, why not get the Go City Explorer Pass which allows you to access several museums and tours. This includes kayaking, museum visits, whale watching, and more. The pass is valid for 2 years from purchase, and can be used within 60 days from your first attraction visit.

2. Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier

Santa Monica’s iconic pier is one of the top places to visit in California because of its lively and fun atmosphere. From the Ferris wheel to street performers, there’s never a dull moment here. You can simply walk along the wooden planks of the pier and soak in the sea breeze.

There are miles of sandy shores for the quintessential Santa Monica experience. You can also enjoy a leisurely bike ride along the famous Ocean Front Walk. My favourite time of day to visit is during sunset when the amusement park lights up in bright colors against the pink sky.

When hunger strikes, explore the culinary scene in Santa Monica, from gourmet seafood at The Lobster to casual bites at the trendy Urth Caffe.

For shopping and a more urban experience, take a walk at the Third Street Promenade. It is a bustling outdoor shopping and dining district that’s popular among both locals and visitors.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: HI Los Angeles – Santa Monica (check on Hostelworld | Booking.com)

Amazing views: Bayside Hotel

Luxury stay: Shutters On The Beach

Activities to book

There are so many things to see and do in Los Angeles, and the most fuss-free way to explore the city is through a guided tour. That way, you can save yourself the woes of driving in the infamous Los Angeles traffic. Many of these tours include a visit to Santa Monica, giving you ample time to explore the pier and surrounding shopping areas.

3. Malibu

Perhaps you heard of this name through Miley Cyrus’ song called “Malibu”. Known for its breathtaking beaches and celebrity hideouts, Malibu is a beach town that represents both luxury and natural beauty.

Malibu’s coastline features pristine beaches like Zuma and Surfrider. It is one of the popular surfing locations in California, with miles of shoreline to accommodate all kinds of visitors.

If you’re looking to celebrate a special event, you can find some exquisite dining locations here. For example, check out the oceanfront restaurants like Nobu Malibu. You’ll surely love the sunset here.

If you’re in the mood for a hike, Malibu is home to canyons and scenic hiking trails. It is a great day trip destination from Los Angeles, with hikes like Sandstone Peak and Solstice Canyon luring you to visit.

Where to stay

Surfer vibe: The Surfrider Malibu

Amazing views: Malibu Private Beach Apartments

Luxury stay: Malibu Beach Inn

Activities to book

When in Malibu, do something iconic. Like a surf tour in a vintage VW van, or a helicopter tour landing on the Malibu mountains. For adrenaline junkies, consider a 30-minute tandem paragliding experience over the coast.

4. Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s appeal lies in the city’s architecture, which is a blend of Spanish colonial and Mediterranean influences. This laid back beach town is also known as the “American Riviera” because of its warm mediterranean climate and amazing dining options.

You’ll also find historic landmarks here, such as the Old Mission Santa Barbara, which point back to its Spanish roots way back in the 18th century.

Since it’s a beach town, you definitely can’t miss the serene Butterfly Beach. You can also visit Stearns Wharf which sits in the middle of East Beach and West Beach. There are shops selling ice cream and souvenir, and restaurants where you can get fresh seafood right on the pier. One of the popular spots for outdoor patio dining with ocean views is Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: ITH Santa Barbara Beach Hostel (check on Hostelworld | Booking.com)

Amazing views: Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort

Luxury stay: Hotel Californian

Activities to book

The top activities in Santa Barbara often revolve around the beach, food, and nearby wineries. Funk Zone is the nearby foodie paradise where you can explore via a food tour. Alternatively, a sunset kayak tour is the perfect way to end the day.

Best Central California Beach towns

5. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is known to attract adventure seekers because of its expansive sand dunes. Hold on tight because you can go on ATV and off-roading adventures in the vast Oceano Dunes.

Pismo Pier is also located at Pismo Beach, dating back to 1928. It now stands as a historic landmark and a perfect spot for fishing or enjoying the coastal views. You can also watch people surfing at Pismo Beach from here.

If you’re visiting during late fall to early spring, you may even get to see the Monarch butterflies that have landed in the Monarch Butterfly Grove. Every year, thousands of butterflies gather onto trees here during for the over-wintering phase of their migration journey.

In addition, I recommend dropping by Old West Cinnamon Rolls in Downton Pismo Beach as it is a popular vintage bakery. Grab some cinnamon rolls and coffee to enjoy as you explore Pismo Beach.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: The Wayfarer San Luis Obispo, Tapestry Collection by Hilton

Amazing views: Cottage Inn by the Sea

Luxury stay: Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, Autograph Collection

6. Morro Bay

Morro Bay exudes a quaint charm with its eclectic shops and art galleries. It is framed by the iconic Morro Rock, a type of volcanic plug that is now protruding from the sandy beach. Don’t worry, it’s currently dormant.

You can explore the boutiques along the Embarcadero where you might find unique souvenirs crafted by local artists. The heartbeat of this beach town is no doubt the harbor, where swaying fishing boats and sailboats create a postcard-worthy scenery.

You can also kayak at Morro Bay as it is shielded by the four-mile-long sand spit. Wouldn’t it be cool to paddle alongside sea otters? There are a variety of sea excursions you can sign up for too, such as the popular whale watching tours.

You can also look forward to local seafood markets and waterfront eateries in Morro Bay. Some typical menu items include clam chowder, butter lobster rolls, and the freshest oyster.

If you’re keen to learn more about the maritime history of this beach town, check out the Morro Bay Maritime Museum. For some one-of-a-kind souvenirs, drop by the Embarcadero’s Shell Shop which has been open since 1955.

Where to stay

Affordable stay: Harbor House Inn

Amazing views: Estero Inn

Luxury stay: Inn At Rose’s Landing

7. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea’s fairytale charm is found in its storybook cottages, secret passageways and cypress-lined beaches. This is a popular hangout for those who love nature and good food. You’ll also feel like you want to take pictures everywhere you go in this town.

There are restaurants and wine tasting rooms for various budgets, and my personal go-to is French-Italian cuisine at La Bicyclette. For tea time, check out the goodies at Carmel Bakery and grab a coffee from Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co. These places can be found near Ocean Avenue, the main shopping street that leads directly to Carmel Beach. Why not stay a little longer to watch the sunset too?

This beach town also boasts numerous art galleries showcasing works by local and renowned artists. You can also immerse yourself in the town’s history and culture by exploring landmarks like the Carmel Mission Basilica.

If you want to experience the rugged coast, head down to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve with trails leading you to cool spots like the Cypress Grove, Sea Lion Point, and China Cove. It takes about 4 hours to cover the entire perimeter, including hiking up to Whaler’s Knoll Lookout. To the north, you also have the scenic 17-Mile Drive that connects all the way to Monterey.

Where to stay

Affordable stay: Hofsas House Hotel

Cozy communal spaces: Candle Light Inn

Luxury stay: L’Auberge Carmel, Relais & Chateaux

Activities to book

One of the best ways to experience this beautiful California beach town is to have a local bring you around. This way, you’ll get to see the not-so-obvious hidden gems without spending a lot of time researching and trying to find your way around. For example, the e-bike tour around 17-Mile Drive is actually a really smart idea because you won’t have to look for parking each time you want to check out a viewpoint. Trust me – you’ll want to stop at every one.

8. Monterey and Pacific Grove

Monterey Bay Whale Watching

You may have heard about the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, but there’s so much more to explore in this coastal haven. Dive into Monterey’s rich history with attractions like historic Cannery Row and the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. This is also a popular spot for whale watching tours throughout the year.

Although I’ve mentioned this one in the earlier Carmel section, this scenic drive is worth highlighting again. Don’t miss the chance to cruise along 17 Mile Drive which winds through the coastline between Spanish Bay in Pacific Grove to Pebble Bay near Carmel-by-the-Sea. There are lots of scenic vista points you can pull over to explore, including a view of Lone Cypress.

From late fall to winter, check out the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary to see clusters of butterflies on the Eucalyptus trees during their over-wintering season. Pacific Grove also has gorgeous Victorian architecture and amazing dining options, such as Passionfish which serves seafood with a creative twist.

Where to stay

Affordable stay: Arbor Inn Monterey

Amazing views: Spindrift Inn

Luxury stay: Seven Gables Inn on Monterey Bay, A Kirkwood Collection Hotel

Activities to book

Monterey is one of the best places for whale tours and viewing other marine life because of the deep submarine canyon that’s just off the shore near Moss Landing. There are various species of whales migrating and feeding through these waters throughout the year, so which kind you’ll see depends on when you visit. For example, you’re likely to see migrating gray whales throughout winter, blue whales in summer, and killer whales in spring and fall. Dolphins and sea otters are also known to frequent these areas too!

Best Northern California Beach Towns

9. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Laid back, cool, and vibrant. These are how most people would describe Santa Cruz, a beach town that is well known for its surf culture. Not only is it a great spot for surfers, you’ll also find a good mix of art, history and nature here.

One of the most iconic landmarks is the amusement park located on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s just beside the lively Santa Cruz Wharf which offers a variety of souvenir shops and restaurants, against the backdrop of surfers and barking seals.

To enjoy a slow morning here, head to Shrine Coffee for breakfast and bring your coffee along for a walk at West Cliff Drive. If you’re there at low tide, you can also go tide pooling at Natural Bridges State Beach. You may also see the over-wintering Monarch butterflies on the Natural Bridges Monarch Trail.

If you’re here for the Santa Cruz Mountains, drive inland towards Felton where you can hop on the Roaring Camp steam train that goes through the redwoods. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is also another hidden gem with huge trees along the historic Redwood Grove Loop Trail.

Before you leave, make sure to check out the colorful beach town of Capitola. It the perfect place for lunch as you dine along the esplanade facing the iconic Capitola Venetian Hotel.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: Santa Cruz Hostel (check on Hostelworld | Booking.com)

Amazing views: Marea Sol Hotel

Luxury stay: Dream Inn Santa Cruz

10. Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is a scenic coastal town that is almost midway between San Francisco and the rest of Bay Area. As one of the early beach towns along the California coast, it has a rich history which you can learn more about when you visit. Some of the older structures are still preserved to this day, including the Half Moon Bay Jail Museum.

One of the unique places to eat is Dad’s Luncheonette that’s operated from a historic train caboose. Their tasty sandwiches are the ultimate comfort, a testament to the experience of the Michelin-starred chef. Alternatively, enjoy a cocktail and some finger food at the Ritz-Carlton’s outdoor patio that faces the golf course and ocean. If you haven’t had any seafood yet, check out Sam’s Chowder’s clam chowder and lobster rolls.

There are several beaches along Half Moon Bay for you to enjoy a day at the coast. You could even camp near the beach, such as at Francis Beach where you’ll be atop a bluff. If you’re looking to hike up to a vista point, Purisima Creek Open Space Preserve nearby offers a great view of Half Moon Bay, including Pillar Point in the distance.

If you’re a surfer, you might already know that Mavericks Beach is a world famous site for surf competitions. The Pillar Point Bluff Trail takes you along this side of the coast, suitable for watching the waves come in from the top of the bluff.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel (check on Hostelworld | Booking.com)

Amazing views: Beach House Half Moon Bay

Luxury stay: Seal Cove Inn

11. Pacifica

Pacifica

If you’re driving from San Francisco southwards along Highway 1, you’ll immediately be wowed when Pacifica comes into view. The coast feels a little more rugged here with multiple hiking options.

Mori Point is a popular spot for admiring the scenery, and also appreciating the fact that people had to climb up this steep and unpaved point just to unload the illegal alcohol shipments. Devils Bunk and Montara Mountain are also worth checking out, as both give you an elevated view of the ocean as well.

For lunch, visit the “most beautiful Taco Bell” that’s situated right at the beach. You can dine on the outdoor deck as you watch surfers and beach goers enjoy their day. Nearby, Soul Grind Coffee Roasters is a convenient beachfront stop for coffee, or even for people to work from. They roast their beans in Pacifica and you can even see the machine at the side of the cafe.

Despite it being a small beach town, its natural beauty is hard to ignore. If you’re heading on a coastal road trip through Pacifica, consider stopping by for at least a coffee.

Where to stay

Hostel vibe: HI Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel (check on Hostelworld | Booking.com)

Modern cabin aesthetic: Anchor Inn Pacifica

Luxury stay: Fairfield by Marriott Inn & Suites San Francisco Pacifica

Tips for exploring the best California beach towns

  • Browse more California tours and activity options here.
  • Check Weather Forecasts: Pack appropriate clothing and gear, especially if you are hiking. The weather can also be unpredictable and windy especially at the coast.
  • Watch for Rip Currents: Be aware of rip currents when swimming or surfing in the ocean. These strong, narrow currents can pull swimmers out to sea.
  • Respect Wildlife: Keep a safe distance from wildlife and refrain from feeding or approaching animals.
  • Practice Leave No Trace: Pack out all trash, don’t feel wild animals, and stay on designated trails to minimize your impact on the environment.
  • Plan for Parking: Beach town parking can be limited, especially during peak tourist seasons.
  • Be Mindful of Tides: Keep an eye on tide schedules when planning beach activities like tide pooling, which is generally best at low tide.

Ready to explore more of California?

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