Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of California’s most appealing destinations. The Golden State’s beach towns stand out for their relaxed, inviting spirit, their beauty, and their boundless ways to play. Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly destination, or a romantic escape where the toughest thing to do all day is deciding what sunscreen to use, you’ll find the ocean-hugging town that matches your mood.
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.
Stretching for more than 32 miles/51 kilometers along the Pacific, Malibu is a beach town like no other. Hollywood stars and top athletes escape to oceanfront homes on long strands of beach with front-row seats of surfers and unforgettable sunsets. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families; aim for quieter weekdays if that’s your style.
You can shop for beach fashions, and maybe even spot one of local celebs, at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two adjacent and upscale retail centers. There’s dining and fishing on Malibu Pier (a great place to watch the action at Surfrider), and in winter, Point Dume at Malibu’s north end provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating gray whales.
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.
Abutting Santa Monica’s south side (and back in L.A. proper) is Venice Beach—simply Venice to locals. This region, a blend of hip new condos and funky beach cottages, is 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 to blend your own perfume, buy a comfy-soft top at All Things Fabulous, or browse artsy jewelry at Altered Space Gallery.
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. Surfing definitely sets the tone in Huntington Beach, 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 Pier.
From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s stylish boutiques and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in Huntington Beach’s fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach luxurious oceanfront resorts. Or discover more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in 354-acre/143-hectare Huntington Central Park, and with bird watching and by exploring trails in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
Look one way, 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 Corona del Mar, 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.
La Jolla is (so many) different things to different people. Posh shopping? Browse the boutiques along Girard Avenue. At La Jolla Shores, surfing, snorkeling and white sand beaches with made-for-sunset fire pits (and an adjacent park playground for the kids). Kayaking? Explore the sea caves; like everything else in La Jolla, placed in perfect proximity (La Jolla Kayak will take you there). Broadway quality productions? The La Jolla Playhouse. World-class art (with an equivalent view)? The La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Kid-friendly aquarium? Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the world renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is one of the best. Hiking to the wind-whisper of Torrey Pines among 809 hectares of ocean front preserve? Golfing among the same whisper? Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Torrey Pines Golf Course. A place to hang after the sun goes down? How about next to the fireplace at Mustangs & Burros at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel, or the famed Marine Room right on the beach at La Jolla Shores? And don’t leave, because you have to start the next day with buttermilk pancakes and coffee and a bluff-top view at Caroline’s Seaside Café.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community 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.
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.