What’s better than a radiant sunny day with the wind in your hair as you drive along the California coast? Traveling from one beach town to the next is the ultimate summer dream. Some of the prettiest coastal towns in California, are names you’ve heard like Malibu and Santa Barbara. Others may be less familiar, but one thing is for sure, visiting all the beach towns on this list, will show you the best California has to offer.
With 284 days of sunshine and a mild climate, beaches and outdoor activity rank high for Californians. This group of 10 handpicked, amazing coastal towns in California is where you can meet the friendly locals and see what it would be like to live in the Golden State.
Best Time to Visit California Coastal Towns
California’s predictably agreeable weather is enveloped by fog in part of May and most of June near the coast. June gloom, is the chilly Pacific Ocean’s stubborn reaction to the onset of warm summer days. As soon as the ocean soaks up part of the heat, the cloud cover disappears and all is well in July and August. Northern California typically has more fog by the coast. The warmest, sunniest and driest months to visit are August – October. Blissful beach days often last well into December, especially in Southern California.
The Top 10 Coastal Towns in California
Heading from the north to the south, the coastal landscape will transition gradually from a rugged, windswept look to welcoming, wide, white sand beaches. These areas have coastal towns that feel like the perfect match for their location.
Scenic highway 128 winds you through towering redwoods, past lakes, wineries and restaurants until you eventually reach the remote, rocky coastline for which Mendocino is known. Honestly, getting to Mendocino, through Anderson Valley is half the fun. Pennyroyal Farm is a must visit. See their cheesemaking process and sample the goods with a glass of their delightful wine. Another highlight is Roederer Estate with award winning bubbly that competes with the finest Champagne.
Visit one or a few of the picturesque state parks in the area. Russian Gulch State Park has trails to a stunning waterfall and an impressive sinkhole created by an ocean tunnel. Hendy Woods State Park and Mendocino Headlands State Park are also worth a visit. Garden enthusiasts will love the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens at Fort Bragg that peak with blooms toward the end of summer. Kiddos will get a thrill out of taking the Skunk Train through the redwoods.
There’s so much to do in this area. Don’t forget the pretty beaches like Glass Beach or Jug Handle Beach or shopping in adorable Mendocino town. Get lunch at the Good Life Cafe & Bakery. Hotel: The Harbor House Inn (their restaurant has a Michelin star) or Glamping: Mendocino Grove
Any trip to San Francisco should include a walk or dive over the Golden Gate Bridge. On the other side, you’ll find prettiest California coastal town of Sausalito. Right after you cross the bridge, on the Marin County side of the bay, you’ll find multiple places to get great views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Towards the ocean are fantastic Golden Gate Bridge views in the Marin Headlands. Towards Sausalito, there are terrific San Francisco city views.
Bustling downtown Sausalito is a fun place to shop and have lunch or dinner. Copita’s patio dining is perfect for people watching while you indulge on yummy tacos and margaritas. For a fun activity, you can rent bikes and ride to other places in Marin. From a quick cruise down the Sausalito boardwalk to a bigger ride to Muir Woods redwood forest. Hotel: Waters Edge
A lively little town, 10 minutes south of Santa Cruz, with restaurants, boutiques, colorful houses and beaches is off the radar for most people. It would be such a shame to miss Capitola because it was eclipsed by the bigger towns surrounding it. Capitola beach, positioned at the center of town is a great place to spend the day. New Brighton State Beach, popular with campers, has long stretches of undisturbed beach where you can walk and play.
Nearby you’ll find Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. It’s a great place to hike or mountain bike ride in the redwoods. Stay here for a beach weekend or just stop by on a drive down the California coast. It’s well positioned between Santa Cruz and Monterey. Hotel: Dream Inn Santa Cruz or Airbnb: Historic Capitola Beach Cottage
Carmel is a much-loved beach town in Northern California. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, this is the spot for you. Stroll though the cobblestone streets of Carmel’s village perusing little boutiques, wine tasting shops, art galleries and restaurants. Let a lazy day overtake you by sitting at a cafe with a great book or breathing in the salty beach air at Carmel Beach, found at the end of Ocean Avenue.
Spend a leisurely half day driving the stunning coastline of 17 mile drive and stopping for lunch. This scenic route in and around Carmel showcases sweeping views of the Pacific ocean and jagged coastline. Carmel Mission Basilica, founded in 1770 is an opportunity to step into California’s historic past. Many a wedding is held at this beautifully restored mission, where you can attend a mass, view the museum’s collection and tour Saint Junipero Serra’s living quarters. Hotel: Candle Light Inn to be in the center of town or Carmel Valley Ranch.
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Santa Barbara is definitely one of prettiest California coastal towns. Start your visit in the middle of town on State Street and Paseo Nuevo, the outdoor mall. You’ll find great clothing stores, restaurants, bars, galleries and so much more. Filled with Spanish style colonial buildings, you will want to set aside a minimum of 2-3 hours to walk around and enjoy this laid back, picturesque town.
Don’t miss the Santa Barbara County Courthouse right in town. They have a great 360º city view from the top of the clock tower and it’s probably the prettiest courthouse you’ll ever see. Many couples take wedding photos in front of this historic building and others enjoy the beautiful garden for picnics. You can also take a free tour or the courthouse and garden.
To take in more of the beach, go to Stearn’s Warf for a stroll along the coast. It’s specially pretty at sunset. You can also go kayaking, surfing, or paddle boarding on the Pacific Ocean. If you are a newbie to the world of surfing or SUP, there are a lot of other beginners here so go have a blast. Then enjoy a seafood lunch or dinner at one of the many restaurants. Hotel: Hotel Californian
The upscale Malibu beach community, known around the world for its gorgeous coastline, trendy stores, cafes, restaurants and famous residents is a great place to spend the day. Start with breakfast at Malibu Farm at the end of the Malibu Pier. It has flawless views of the ocean and surrounding mountains. While they serve food all day, the totally yummy, organic eatery it’s much less crowded and fun at breakfast.
Practically next door, take a tour of Adamson House, a historic estate and garden set on an incredible piece of beachfront property. Surfrider beach, one of the most popular surf spots is right in front. Surfing in Malibu should definitely be on your California bucket list. You can rent a surfboard, a stand up paddle board (SUP) or just body surf. There is an area with the perfect beach experience for you whether it’s surfing, sun bathing or building sand castles.
Some of the best shopping and restaurants in Malibu are found right in the center at the Malibu Country Mart. If you want to get the local experience, have lunch at John’s Garden, a Malibu staple for more than 30 years. Grab a spot at the picnic tables and take in the relaxed atmosphere. You should also check out The Real Coconut, a new restaurant to Malibu that has it’s original location in Tulum. Nobu Malibu is famous for their sushi. Peruse all the cool California boutiques after your yummy meal. Hotel: Malibu Beach Inn or The Surfrider Malibu
If you are looking for a fun, super chill, Southern California beach day, look no further than Manhattan Beach. It’s one of the prettiest and friendliest coastal towns in California. Ride your bike or take a walk down the Strand where residents and visitors fill the beaches with fun activities like volleyball, surfing, swimming and more.
Manhattan Beach Boulevard is filled with trendy shops and delectable restaurants. Here are 7 Fun Things to do in Manhattan Beach for a perfect day trip itinerary. After shopping, walk straight down Manhattan Beach Boulevard to the pier. There’s a cute little, free aquarium at the end of the pier if you have kids. Skip the crazy tourist filled beaches of Santa Monica and Venice, and opt for a day in Manhattan Beach instead. Hotel: The Belamar
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Laguna Beach is one of the best California coastal towns. Located in Orange Country, just outside of Los Angeles, it’s a great place for a weekend getaway. The highlight here is the Pacific ocean and some of the prettiest beaches in California. 1,000 steps beach and Victoria Beach are must-sees! You’ll also find great tide pools if you love strolling around the beach and finding fun creatures. Surfing, kayaking, SUP, snorkeling and other ocean sports are favorites for locals and visitors alike.
For other fun outdoor pursuits, take advantage of the hiking in Alta Laguna Park, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Crystal Cove State Park where you can see unbelievable views from the 5 mile El Moro Canyon Loop Trail. There is also a shorter version that is 2.9 miles. Wait until you see the sunset from this vantage point!
Another huge draw to the area is the art scene. There is a monthly First Thursday’s Art Walk from 6-9pm that makes a fun night out followed by dinner. Laguna also hosts the wildly popular Pageant of the Masters and the Festival of Fine Arts Show. Not to be outdone by the others, the Sawdust Art Festival is a summer long outdoor marketplace that rotates exhibits from 100 artists. This town loves it’s art and art enthusiasts love Laguna. Hotel: Surf and Sand Resort
La Jolla is a stunning, upscale beach town in San Diego. Once you step foot here, you’ll never want to leave! Being that La Jolla is situated right on the coast, you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore and relax on the warm, sunny beaches of Southern California. La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores are two of the best. Scripps beach is also fun with a great pier and wide sandy area. There are other incredible Southern California Beaches right nearby and you will be kicking yourself if you miss them.
La Jolla has a very unique coastline with multiple sea caves. Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave is a small store with an entrance to an underground staircase and a tunnel until you reach the water. Another option is to take a 2 Hour Kayak Tour of 7 Sea Caves. It’s a great way to get out on the water and explore this distinctive part of the California coast.
After fun on the beach or by the pool, take a stroll down Prospect Avenue for boutique shopping, art shops, clothing stores, cafes and restaurants. There’s a whole downtown area that can keep you busy for a few hours of window shopping. There is so much to see. Hotel: La Valencia Hotel
California is so diverse and there are so many amazing towns to explore. No matter what you do on your California trip, these 9 prettiest California coastal towns won’t steer you wrong. If you have any additional questions, feel free to comment below. I’m confident you’ll love these West Coast towns just as much as we do!
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- MANHATTAN BEACH: 7 Fun Things to do for a Manhattan Beach Day Trip
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- LAKE ARROWHEAD: 10 Fun Things to do in Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear
- BIG SUR: Glamping in the Big Sur Redwoods