California is well-known for its stunning coastline, and this post highlights the best beach towns in California from laid-back surf communities to glamorous resort towns.
As a California native, there’s nothing we love more than spending time in the best coastal towns in California. Each offers their own unique blend of natural scenery, city or village flair, and vibrant experiences in the sun.
From the most famous spots like Malibu, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz to hidden gems like Corona del Mar and Pacific Grove, Here are the best California beach towns.
There’s a perfect California Coastal town for everyone and one thing is for sure, visiting all the towns on this list, will make the best California road trip ever.
Planning a trip to California? Here are some other posts to help you plan your trip.
- 25 Best Things to do in Los Angeles
- 10 Best Scenic Drives in Los Angeles
- 15 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting LA
- Glamping in the Big Sur Redwoods
- 13 Prettiest Southern California Beaches
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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 Coastal & Beach Towns in California
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 in California to the next is the ultimate summer dream.
This group of handpicked, amazing coastal towns in California is where you can meet friendly locals and see what it would be like to live and vacation in the Golden State.
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.
Mendocino is One of The Best Northern California Beach Towns
A Northern California Road trip on 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.
RELATED POST: 15 Best Things to do in Sonoma County California
Sausalito Has An Awesome View of San Francisco Bay
One of the best things to do in San Francisco is to take 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.
Or take a Sausalito Food and Wine Tour and get the inside scoop on the best spots.
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.
If you’re traveling with a pup, Old Mill Park is a great dog friendly redwoods nearby.
Where to stay in Sausalito: Waters Edge (9.4)
San Francisco is the Most Iconic of California Coastal Cities
There’s no California coastal city quite like San Francisco. The city’s combination of unique coastal views, diverse neighborhoods, amazing restaurants, and vibrant arts scene make it truly spectacular.
One of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge is a must-see. Spanning across the strait, the bridge offers exceptional views of the Pacific Ocean, the city skyline, and the rugged coastline.
There are several best places to see the Golden Gate Bridge, but we love the Golden Gate Overlook, the entire coastal side of the Presidio, and the Battery Spencer for a great view from the northern side.
Though very touristy, Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf is worth a visit to the huge sea lions hanging out on the docks . You can also find plenty of seafood restaurants nearby.
California is home to one of the world’s best wine countries, but you don’t have to leave the city for it.
San Francisco is home to some amazing wine tasting rooms. And if wine isn’t your thing, there’s also a plethora of local breweries to visit as well.
If you want a unique way to see the best sites of San Francisco, hop on this 70s VW hippie bus for the San Francisco Love Tour. Ride around to iconic spots Chinatown, the Mission, downtown, and more.
Santa Cruz is One of the Most Popular Beach Towns in Northern California
Santa Cruz is renowned for its idyllic beaches, long wharf, and laid-back beach culture. It’s one of the best beach towns to visit in California for a lively time.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a must-see, standing as somewhat of a symbol of fun and nostalgia. It’s one of the oldest amusement parks in California, and it offers a mix of thrilling rides, classic carnival games, and a vintage 1911 Looff Carousel.
The city also boasts a thriving arts scene, home to numerous galleries, theaters, and live music venues. So, see a show or visit a gallery during your visit!
You’ll also find downtown Santa Cruz to be a hub of creativity, offering unique boutiques, street performances, and a bustling farmers market.
Despite being a larger town, there’s still an abundance of nature spots. Besides, Santa Cruz is surrounded by majestic redwood forests, picturesque coastal cliffs, and pristine beaches.
Then, the wildly picture-perfect Natural Bridges State Beach with its Monarch butterfly grove and natural rock structures that jut out of the shore make for an exceptional adventure full of wildlife, hiking trails, and picnic spots.
On top of all that, Santa Cruz is also hailed as one of the premier surf destinations in California. Take advantage of the waves by booking a beginner’s surf lesson right on the lovely Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz.
Capitola is One of the Warmest Beaches in Northern California
Capitola is 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. You can absolutely stop by for a few hours but there is also enough to do for a few days.
Capitola Beach, positioned at the center of town is a great place to spend the day. During the summer they have a concert series and movie nights that are great for the whole family.
When you’re done at the beach, spend some time shopping in Capitola village. Enjoy lunch or dinner with waterfront views at Paradise Beach Grill. Or for something more unique, ride a tram to the historic Shadowbrook Restaurant.
New Brighton State Beach has long stretches of undisturbed beach where you can walk and play. But this state beach is especially popular with campers since it has more than 100 beachfront campsites, including 11 with RV hook ups.
Nearby you’ll find Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. It’s a great place to hike or mountain bike ride in the redwoods with 35 trails. Maple Falls via the Bridge Creek Trail is one of the prettiest.
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.
Where to stay in Capitola: Inn at Depot Hill (9.3) is a nice bed and breakfast with themed rooms or Best Western Plus Capitola By-the-Sea Inn & Suites (8.6) for a clean, comfortable and convenient place to stay with a pool.
Pacific Grove is a California Coastal Town Hidden Gem on the Monterey Peninsula
Pacific Grove offers a stunning coastline on Monterey Bay. This hidden gem is celebrated for its enchanting Monarch Butterfly Grove, captivating 19th-century historic homes, and a gorgeous rocky coastline adorned with breathtaking scenic overlooks.
While often overshadowed by nearby Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pacific Grove is one of the cutest beach towns in California with pastel colored Victorian homes.
Drive along both Oceanview Boulevard and Sunset Drive, which line nearly all of Pacific Grove, to soak up some of the town’s best highlights.
Start at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and drive along Oceanview Boulevard past Lovers Point Park to see Kissing Rock, and then on to Sunset Drive.
You’ll eventually arrive at Asilomar Beach, a picturesque one-mile strip of sandy and rocky terrain.
For added adventure, explore the Asilomar Coastal Trail for one of the prettiest coastal walks. It’s full of marine life, wildflowers, and birds to admire.
However, one of the absolute best things to do at Monterey Bay is go whale-watching.
This half-day whale-watching tour takes you through the Pacific waters in pursuit of gray whales, humpback, and blue whales, plus other species such as dolphins and sea lions.
Where to stay in Pacific Grove: Seven Gables Inn on Monterey Bay (9.2) a historic Victorian Inn for a romantic getaway or the Green Gables Inn (8.9) a California coastal boutique hotel with ocean views.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is the Artsy Northern California Beach Town
Carmel is a much-loved beach town in Northern California. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, this is the spot for you.
One of the best things to do in Carmel is stroll though the cobblestone streets perusing little boutiques, wine tasting shops, art galleries and restaurants.
Visitors love this Carmel Small Group Walking Food & Cultural Tour to learn about Carmel’s History while sampling the delicious cuisine. When you are done, head down to beautiful Carmel Beach, found at the end of Ocean Avenue.
Take an Electric Bike Tour of 17 Mile Drive stopping at Spanish Bay or the famous Pebble Beach. You can also make a leisurely drive along the stunning coast in your car.
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.
You can attend a mass, view the museum’s collection and tour Saint Junipero Serra’s living quarters.
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Morro Bay is the California Coastal Town of Charming San Luis Obispo
Morro Bay, nestled along the picturesque coastline of California’s Central Coast, is one of the best places to enjoy California’s abundant wildlife and natural beauty.
Dominating the skyline, Morro Rock is an iconic landmark that defines the town’s character.
This massive volcanic plug rises dramatically from the ocean, creating a unique backdrop for the town. An up-close close is not to be missed when visiting Morro Bay!
Also, visit the tranquil Morro Bay Estuary to see marshes and thriving wildlife. Spanning 2,300 acres, the area is home to more than 250 species of land, sea, and shore birds and dozens of endangered creatures.
Rent a kayak from the Morro Bay Estuary or at Morro Bay State Park, home to gorgeous natural beaches, for even more adventures.
However, another awesome way to see Morro Bay is on an e-bike. This top-rated guided e-bike tour of Morro Bay takes you to some of the top landmarks like Morro Rock, Estero Bay, Morro Strand Beach, and the local state park.
Where to stay in Morro Bay: Inn at Rose’s Landing (9.4) updated hotel with amazing views or Hotel San Luis Obispo (9.1) a trendy boutique hotel in San Luis Obispo near shops and restaurants, 15 minutes from Morro Bay.
Santa Barbara May Be The Best California Beach Town to Live In
This quaint beach town is located just 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Santa Barbara’s beaches are famous for their gentle waves and beautiful sunsets.
Downtown Santa Barbara is also worth exploring, with its shops, restaurants, and Spanish colonial architecture. 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 or try a Santa Barbara Electric Bike Tour.
Don’t miss the Santa Barbara County Courthouse right in town. They have a 360 degree 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 Wharf for a stroll along the coast. It’s specially pretty at sunset. Bring surfboards, inflatable kayaks or inflatable paddle boards and enjoy the Pacific Ocean.
If you are a newbie to the world of surfing or SUP, take a surf lesson. Then enjoy a seafood lunch or dinner with a view at one of the many restaurants.
Santa Barbara is definitely one of prettiest California coastal towns so just relax and take it all in.
Summerland is the Littlest Coastal Town in California
Summerland is the cutest little town you’ll ever see. It’s bustling downtown area is 3 blocks filled with cute shops and boutiques.
But don’t let Summerland’s small size fool you – the shops here are top notch. Explore antique stores, home decor shops, clothing stores and more.
Even if you aren’t looking for anything in particular chances are you will find something that catches your eye! For home decor, don’t miss these swoon worthy stores – Porch, The Well Summerland, Botanik and Garde.
For a delicious meal, try the Summerland Beach Cafe. Field and Fort, is the best of both worlds with a delicious restaurant and a shop. They will also pack a picnic lunch that you can take to Lookout Park and walk down to Summerland Beach.
Summerland’s glitzy neighboring town of Montecito is a must visit. Go for drinks and appetizers at the Rosewood Miramar Hotel’s Beach Bar. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunset and you can walk down the stairs to the beach.
Butterfly Beach is another dreamy spot to lay out a towel and enjoy the sun.
Carpinteria is One of the Best Beach Towns in California
Carpenteria is a small city in Santa Barbara County, home to the state’s largest salt marsh and plenty of shops and restaurants. With an easy-going beach town vibe, people fall in love with Carp!
Whether you want to relax by the beach, explore nature preserves or grab a drink with friends, there are so many fun things to in Carpinteria for a weekend getaway.
One of the biggest draws to this town is Carpenteria State Beach when you can have fun in the sun and maybe see dolphins swim by.
On your way to the beach, Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park, a 230-acre estuary, is home to coastal wildlife and plants. There are trails that run throughout the park so it’s perfect for hiking, strolling or even biking.
Another beautiful spot with ocean views is the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. It’s great for a short easy hike. There’s also an amazing Seal Sanctuary and Tar Pits Park nearby that kids will love.
In town, there are lots of cute boutiques and several coffee shops and restaurants to keep you busy for the entire afternoon. It’s a great place to pick up some California souvenirs.
Definitely try Padaro Beach Grill, Teddy’s By The Sea, Sushi Teri, Rincon Brewery, and Siam Elephant Thai Restaurant.
Malibu is a Surfer’s Paradise With Some of the Top California Beaches
Malibu, the most notorious beach town in California, can be found on our favorite Los Angeles scenic drive up Pacific Coast Highway.
Known for its gorgeous coastline, trendy stores, cafes, restaurants and famous residents, Malibu 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. Another fun option is a Small-Group Malibu Wine Hike through vineyards.
Surfrider beach is one of the most popular surf spots and 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. There is a great play area for kids right in the middle if you have your littles in tow.
You should also check out The Real Coconut, a new favorite in Malibu that has its original location in Tulum. Nobu Malibu is famous for their sushi.
Peruse all the cool California boutiques after your yummy meal. With all this eating, you definitely want to check out our favorite Malibu Hikes to burn it off.
RELATED POST: 10 Best Hikes in Malibu and Pacific Palisades
Manhattan Beach is the Quintessential California Surf Town
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 18 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 true California local beach day in Manhattan Beach instead.
Huntington Beach is One of the Most Popular Beach Towns in California
Offering miles of sandy shores in Southern California, Huntington Beach is renowned for its world-class surf breaks, attracting wave riders from around the world to take on its pristine shores.
As a result, the town’s surf culture gives it a nice laid-back atmosphere.
Combine this chilled-out attitude with a stroll down the iconic Huntington Beach Pier and a sunset picnic on the beach, and you’re in for a relaxed day at one of the best beach towns in California.
And if you’re curious to give surfing a go, head over to Bolsa Chica State Beach for some fun-filled surf lessons.
Whether you’re a total newbie or have some experience under your board, rentals and lessons are a great way to embrace the Surf City USA lifestyle.
You can also discover the area’s natural beauty on two wheels by taking a scenic bike ride along the Huntington Beach Bike Path.
This paved pathway stretches for miles, hugging the coastline and offering stunning ocean views.
With numerous rental shops available, you can easily take a bike out to explore this picturesque coastal route at your own pace.
Take your visit to Huntington Beach even further with whale-watching cruise. Venture off the coast of Orange County in pursuit of whales as you enjoy the rugged Pacific Coast beauty along the way.
Where to stay in Huntington Beach: Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort (8.9) is a nice beachside resort.
Newport Beach is the Upscale Coastal City in California
For one of the largest beaches offering numerous activities, Newport Beach is a fantastic place to visit just south of Los Angeles. Take advantage of its beachfront fire pits, volleyball nets, and other outdoor amenities.
Newport Beach is also known for its picturesque harbor and waterfront homes (many of which you can rent for an amazing stay).
Newport also has a high end feel with gorgeous homes, Fashion Island shopping center, plenty of nice cars and some of those House Wives of Orange County.
That said, the whole area gives off a very relaxed Orange County vibe while offering plenty of natural scenery and fun things to do.
For example, if you drive just a few minutes south of Newport Beach, you’ll find Crystal Cove State Park.
Boasting a pristine coastline, it also has craggy canyons and dramatic cliffs – all of which offer all sorts of outdoor adventures and picturesque scenery.
You can also visit Balboa Peninsula, a charming coastal neighborhood with a small-town atmosphere.
Walk along the pier with panoramic views, visit the waterfront amusement park called Balboa Fun Zone, and try the neighborhood’s best-known treat, chocolate-dipped frozen bananas.
Plus, Newport Beach is a fantastic spot to surf! Book a private surf lesson, suitable for all ages and experience levels, and fine-tune your skills or learn something new during your trip to Southern California.
Where to stay in Newport Beach: Resort at Pelican Hill (9.3) is a 5 star luxury resort with private bungalows and 36 hole golf course or Lido House Autograph Collection (8.9) for a stylish boutique hotel with spa services.
Corona del Mar is One of the Coolest California Beach Towns
Part of Newport Beach, Corona del Mar offers beautiful beaches, its own brand of California beach town vibe, and beautiful coastal scenery. All together it’s a nice blend of natural beauty and small-town charm.
Lovingly known as CDM, many people come to Corona del Mar State Beach for a swim, thanks to its half-mile-long sandy beach bordered by cliffs.
And on Little Corona del Mar Beach, you can enjoy exploring tide pools teeming with marine life. Keep your eye out for colorful sea anemones, starfish, and other small sea creatures.
We also recommend a walk around the lovely village of Corona del Mar. There you can unwind in a relaxed atmosphere with tree-lined streets, local boutiques, and cozy cafes.
To uncover some of the best spots along Orange County’s lush coast, take a guided sightseeing tour that will take you along the Pacific Coast Highway to spots like Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, and Dana Point.
Where to stay in Corona Del Mar: Sea Crown by AvantStay is a beautiful 4 bedroom vacation home that’s great for a whole family and walking distance to Corona del Mar State Beach.
Laguna Beach is the Artsy Southern California Beach Town
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 available. Try the popular Laguna Beach Ocean Kayaking Tour with Sea Lion Sightings.
For other active 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.
La Jolla is One of the Best Beach Cities in California
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 the Original La Jolla Sea Cave Kayak Tour. 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.
For more options of things to do, check out this La Jolla guide. There is so much to see.
Where to stay in La Jolla: La Valencia Hotel (8.3)
California is so diverse and there are so many amazing towns to explore. No matter what you do on your California trip, these pretty 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!
Other California Posts:
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- MANHATTAN BEACH: 7 Fun Things to do for a Manhattan Beach Day Trip
- JOSHUA TREE: A Complete Joshua Tree Weekend Getaway Guide
- LAKE ARROWHEAD: 10 Fun Things to do in Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear
- BIG SUR: Glamping in the Big Sur Redwoods