Stunning scenery, cool playgrounds, and fascinating history—not to mention endless sunset selfie possibilities. Stroll along a California pier and you’ll encounter some of the best reasons for visiting the Golden State. While the piers of yesteryear were used for maritime trade and often reimagined as amusement destinations, today’s piers draw visitors for license-free fishing; encounters with ocean wildlife; and leisurely, sun-drenched days spent exploring, shopping, and dining. The Santa Monica Pier and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are just scratching the surface of the state’s vibrant pier heritage and activity.
“An attraction to California’s piers is human nature—there’s just something romantic about them,” says Ed Grant, author of Piers of the California Coast. Grant visited 37 piers for his research, intrigued by the idea of an eternally changing structure that lives above the waves. “The personality of the pier will change every minute with the shift of people, weather, tide, and sights,” says Grant. “When the surf is big, the piers literally vibrate and come to life. It’s an adventure to be a part of that dynamic environment.”
In addition to satisfying that appetite for adventure, a visit to California’s piers allows you to authentically experience the state’s coastal communities. Whether you’re kayaking beside resident sea lions, chatting with local fishermen, or attending a classic Woodies car show, pier life offers a window into a distinctly California culture. Choose your seaside favourite from this roundup of eight piers, listed from south to north.
When it was first built in the late 1920s, the Crystal Pier in San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighbourhood offered a classic amusement park setting above the water. Imagine a rainbow of flashing arcade lights and elegantly dressed couples dancing the night away in the Crystal Ballroom.
Today’s pier offers a much more subdued experience—in all the best ways. The amusement park and ballroom are gone, with only the Crystal Pier Hotel remaining. Guests stay in updated 1930s-era cottages, ranging from studios to two-bedroom suites, each with a seaside sundeck. The historic wooden pier is a serene spot to enjoy sweeping coastal views or watch surfers at play, plus the adjacent beach is an inviting spot to lounge with your toes in the silky sand. For a livelier scene, the intersecting boardwalk offers a three-and-a-half-mile stretch of eclectic shops and restaurants. SeaWorld San Diego is also just four miles away.
The surrounding beach and boardwalk is what makes this pier a must-visit destination in the colourful Venice district of Los Angeles, a few miles south of Santa Monica. While the pier itself offers a 1,300-foot walking path with expansive ocean views (and scenes of fisherman reeling in the day’s catch), you’ll enjoy some seriously entertaining people-watching in any direction.
To the immediate north: famed Muscle Beach—an alfresco weight-lifting gym—and a buzzing bike path that cuts through the sand and leads to Santa Monica. To the south: one of the widest beaches in Southern California that’s always packed with surfers, sunbathers, and volleyball players. Street performers and artists entertain on the adjacent boardwalk, which is home to a wide variety of shops that sell everything from souvenir muscle tees to local art. But you can’t live on eye candy alone: The dining options, ranging from foodie magnets (like Gjelina and bakery Gjusta) to sushi and street tacos, are abundant.
In the autumn, visitors to this pier are treated to up-close glimpses of migrating humpback whales feeding just off the Central Coast. The pier is located at the William R. Hearst Memorial State Beach, which is protected under the California Marine Life Protection Act, and is home to a sea otter reserve and part of a colony of 15,000 elephant seals that stretches into neighbouring Cambria.
While a lot of visitors pack onto the pier to catch glimpses of the sea life, the best way to explore the area is by kayak. Cubby Cashen, owner of Sea For Yourself Kayak Outfitters, leads guided tours that launch beside or beneath the pier (you can also hire a kayak for self-guided exploration). Cashen, who for the past 14 years has explored and studied the cove, says every outing yields a different discovery. 'Today I saw seals, otters, a sea lion and about 10 different types of birds, from ospreys to pelicans,' he says.
The sights aren’t limited to the ocean either. Hearst Castle, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s estate-turned-historical-monument, sits majestically atop the hillside directly opposite Highway 1.
Whether you catch it yourself, buy it fresh from a local fisherman, or eat it prepared on a plate, this is the spot to savour the catch of the day. While the original Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey gets the most attention from tourists due to its shops and restaurants, Wharf II is the true nerve centre of the local seafood trade.
Built in 1926, Wharf II, in addition to being an active fishing pier, is home to fish markets, an abalone farm, restaurants, and the (private) Monterey Peninsula Yacht Club. (Is there anything more spellbinding than watching a sailboat soar over the waves?) Home cooks can see fisherman unload the day’s haul at Royal Seafood, then hand-pick a crab dinner. If you want someone else to do the cooking, head to the Sandbar and Grill tucked beneath the wharf for piping hot fish and chips or a taste of local sanddabs. And don’t leave town without a visit to the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Reminiscent of a European village on the Mediterranean with its pastel buildings and shoreline dotted with café patio umbrellas, Capitola in Santa Cruz county feels like a special hideaway. Despite being only 855 feet in length, the pier is rarely crowded, leaving plenty of privacy for a peaceful stroll or picnic lunch on one of the wooden benches.
Rent a kayak at the pier’s base for a sunset dolphin-spotting excursion in Monterey Bay and then grab an outside table at the Wharf House for a fresh, seasonal seafood dinner with panoramic views of Capitola, one of the oldest resort towns on the West Coast. Music lovers take note: Capitola’s Art and Cultural Commission hosts twilight concerts in the village every Wednesday evening, June through August.
Host to popular annual events such as April’s Jazz on the Wharf music festival and June’s Woodies on the Wharf classic car show, this half-mile-long pier draws 1.5 million to 2 million visitors each year. Keep an eye out for resident sea lions frolicking beneath as you stroll the gift shops (check out Made in Santa Cruz for a local souvenir), belly up to the wine bar for a sunset view, and dine above the waves in one of the wharf’s 10 restaurants.
The wharf—the family-friendly counterpart to romantic, nearby Capitola Wharf—is also a hub for exploring the surrounding Monterey Bay, from fishing and whale-watching excursions to kayak and SUP rentals. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, home to one of the oldest amusement parks in the state, is also just east of the wharf: Don’t miss a ride on the Giant Dipper, the park’s famed wooden roller coaster.
At first glance, it looks like the film set of Pirates of the Caribbean. On the west end of San Francisco’s iconic Fisherman’s Wharf, the Hyde Street Pier is home to a half-dozen historic ships and is part of the San Francisco Maritime National Park. A daily guided tour titled “Adventures at Sea: Life Aboard a 19th Century Sailing Ship” takes visitors aboard the Balclutha, a cargo ship built in 1886.
The park houses the largest maritime collection on the West Coast, and the biggest museum and research collection in the National Park Service. More than 500,000 photographs and 2,500 pieces of folk and fine art showcase the region’s rich maritime heritage. The exhibit “The Waterfront! Sailors Called it Frisco” lets you walk through re-creations of six historical working waterfront neighbourhoods. Wrap up your visit with a stroll to the end of the pier for sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.
Eighty miles below the Oregon border, Trinidad Pier is the state’s northernmost oceanfront pier and sits on one of the most ruggedly beautiful stretches of California coastline. This is redwood country, where the jagged edge of the Pacific meets ancient emerald forests. Refurbished in 2012, the pier juts into Trinidad Harbor, a popular crabbing spot, and sits in the shadow of a massive rock crowned in greenery.
Take an exploratory walk along the cement pier and beachcomb some of the most breath-taking coastline you’ll ever encounter, then head to Seascape Restaurant on the pier for a hearty bowl of chowder and a local Humboldt County microbrew. You’ll also want to leave time to tour the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse and the quaint village of Trinidad (pop. 360), also filled with terrific dining options. To stretch your legs more, drive 15 minutes north to Patrick’s Point State Park for a hike to Wedding Rock.