Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of the Golden State’s most appealing destinations. California beach towns stand out for their relaxed, inviting spirit, their beauty, and their boundless ways to play.
While most people associate sun and surf with Southern California, the classic beach town vibe can easily be found in more central regions, too. Santa Cruz, for instance, is one of the original surfer towns, but it’s also home to a fabulous pier and amusement park. Santa Barbara has a serene string of beaches, with the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop and the Channel Islands National Park off in the distance.
Head south into Los Angeles County and you’ll encounter clusters of movie-star beach homes, another old-school amusement park, and then, in Venice, the quirky exhibitionists of Muscle Beach. Farther south, the beaches of Orange County and San Diego County reveal more of California’s long love affair with surf culture, as well as a sophisticated beach village and an island with a golden-Hollywood past.
Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly destination or a romantic escape where the toughest thing you’ll do all day is decide what sunscreen to use, read on to find the ocean-hugging towns, listed north to south, that match your mood.