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.
Stretching for more than 30 miles along the Pacific and Highway One, Malibu has achieved almost mythological status among Californian beach towns. Hollywood stars and top athletes live in oceanfront homes here, under an elegant veil of privacy on long stretches of beach, and enjoy front-row seats for surfing and unforgettable sunsets.
While it may sound exclusive, there is plenty of Malibu magic for visitors to access too. Considered to have some of the most perfect waves anywhere, Malibu’s Surfrider Beach, just off Malibu Pier, was named the first World Surfing Reserve; nearby Zuma Beach is a sun magnet for locals and families. In winter, Point Dume, at Malibu’s north end, provides an ideal perch for spotting migrating grey whales.
The perfect aesthetics stretch beyond the beach, too. The Getty Villa—the original home of the Getty Museum, which opened in 1974—focuses on Ancient Greek and Roman Art (admission is free, but you need to make a reservation). For more contemporary, beachy masterpieces, check out the 30 historic surfboards on display, some dating back to the 1910s, at the Surf Museum at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library. And for wearable art—and perhaps to spot one of the local celebs—browse the shops at the Malibu Country Mart and Malibu Lumber Yard, two upmarket shopping centres, located next to one another.
Afterwards, grab a bite at Malibu Farm, the organic café and restaurant that sits on the pier. Or browse the fresh catches—and try one of the famed ahi tuna burgers—at Malibu Seafood, opposite Dan Blocker Beach. To spend the night like an insider, get a room at the 47-room Malibu Beach Inn, a former motel located on the so-called Billionaire’s Beach, which was given its original makeover by Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
Tough as it is to drag yourself away from the ocean, head inland a short distance and you can also walk through hills and canyons, filled with spring wildflowers and even waterfalls, on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. For a cool guided experience, take one of the two-hour Malibu Wine Hikes on the rolling terrain of Saddlerock Ranch vineyard; walks include stops to see Chumash cave drawings, a meet-and-greet with a film-star giraffe (he was in Hangover 3) and, of course, a wine tasting.
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.
Go to the International Surfing Museum, and you’ll see up close how this Orange County town, with 10 miles of beaches and consistent swells, got its nickname of Surf City, USA (don’t miss the World’s Largest Surfboard on display). Surfing forefathers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku both surfed here in the early part of the 20th century, and the U.S Surfing Championship—now summer’s Vans U.S. Open of Surfing—was first held here in the late 1950s.
If you'd rather run than hit the waves, you can still get in the surfing spirit by racing the Surf City USA Marathon (which also includes a half marathon or 5K), held on the first Sunday of February every year. Finishers receive a surfboard-shaped medal after running the flat beachfront course throughout Huntington Beach.
Year round, surfing definitely sets the tone, 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 Beach Pier.
From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s surf shops and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. Huntington’s newest outdoor mall, Pacific City, is where you’ll find one-of-a-kind artisanal eats and stylish boutiques—all with an ocean view.
You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach luxurious beach resorts—like the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach (known for its kid-magnet pool playground), Waterfront Beach Resort, and Paséa Hotel & Spa, opened in 2016. Check out Paséa’s Treehouse Bar for a rooftop cocktail at sunset. Or discover the more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in the 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or by hiking and bird watching in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
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 of Coronado feels like a private world surrounded by perfect beaches, including the ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. As well as 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 reception area and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; guides share anecdotes of 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 perfect for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific. Not far from the Del, the Loews Coronado Bay Resort sits on its own 15-acre peninsula and is known both for its water sports and for being especially dog-friendly.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Hire one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant ocean-front mansions and well-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 such as Il Fornaio Coronado and Peohe’s have extensive views of San Diego’s city-centre skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can be heavy, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay, to the Embarcadero. Water taxis are available too.