The 21 Best Beaches in California

Be it sunbathing, surfing, or hiking, California's beaches have something for everyone.

Thousand Steps Laguna Beach California
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Oh, California. When it comes to America's third-largest state (after Alaska and Texas, in case you were wondering), it's nearly impossible to pick its best beaches, as almost all of them — in addition to those on its surrounding channel islands, like Catalina — have worthy attributes. However, the job had to be done, and we knew narrowing it down wasn't going to be an easy task. So, we crowd-sourced, researched, and checked in with our resident California experts to round up the best beaches the Golden State has to offer.

Into surfing? Head to Huntington Beach, a.k.a. "Surf City," where you can spend a day challenging the waves and end the evening with a stroll on its famed pier to watch the sun go down. Scared of the ocean, but love the seashore? Try Limantour Beach in Point Reyes, which is known for its long, white stretches of sand and immense wildlife population, where you can whale watch and hike for days. Or visit the picturesque town of Carmel-by-the-Sea (which also happens to be one of the world's most romantic getaways), where you can hike the trails and enjoy the exquisite scenery of Point Lobos State Reserve.

If you're a sun-worshipping beach bum, SoCal is the way to go. Famed beaches like Manhattan and Hermosa are excellent options — especially for West Coast first-timers looking to recreate scenes from Beverly Hills, 90210. For those chasing the perfect Instagram shot, head to Thousand Steps in Laguna Beach, where you can take a dip in your own, personal, aqua tide pool. Or visit Malibu's El Matador State Beach, which has rock formations and ombré sunsets reminiscent of fairytale landscapes. Looking to get lost in luxury? Check into the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica for a stay in one of their private bungalows, only steps from the shore, the pier, and some of the city's best shopping.

So whether you're a swimmer or a surfer, a birdwatcher or a shopper, or just a general beach lover — we've got you covered. Explore our favorites below to find out which California beach is the right one for you.

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El Matador State Beach, Malibu

El Matador State beach

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Undoubtedly one of Malibu's most beautiful landscapes, El Matador State Beach boasts incredible ocean views from the rugged cliffs above, which you'll have no choice but to perch upon, as the beach can only be accessed by a steep trail leading down to the shore. The magnificent cliffs, unique rock structures, and hidden sea caves make you feel like you're in a scene straight out of Game of Thrones. Here, you'll be able to witness one of the most mesmerizing sunsets in the world, and if you come during the off-season (anytime but summer), you may even find yourself with the beach all to yourself. After a long day of hiking, swimming, and exploring, head to Malibu Seafood for fish taquitos, and fresh ceviche — just don't forget to bring a cold six-pack at this laid-back, BYOB seafood joint.

02 of 21

Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach California
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This Big Sur beach is regularly mentioned as one of California's best. While it may be well known to West Coasters, it remains under the radar to visitors. The real attractions here are the purple sands, Instagram-worthy sunsets, and unique rock structures, which are reminiscent of many Croatian beaches. Make basecamp at one of the luxury cabins at Glen Oaks Big Sur, only a 15-minute drive from Pfeiffer Beach.

03 of 21

Thousand Steps Beach, Laguna Beach

Surfer on Thousand Steps beach

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Find yourself mesmerized by the beauty of Orange County at Thousand Steps Beach, which is best known for its "private" aqua tide pools and sea cave exploring. The beach gets its name from the long walk down (and back up!) the stairs that lead to the shore (jogging up and down these stairs is actually a well-known past time for exercise enthusiasts). Thousand Steps Beach is rarely crowded, is great for surfing, and boasts a variety of opportunities for explorers looking for hidden gems — or just the perfect Instagram shot.

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Santa Monica Beach & Pier, Santa Monica

Santa Monica Pier in California
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Just west of Los Angeles, this highly frequented destination draws in millions of tourists each year, thanks to its iconic pier, fantastic beach, and stunning sunsets. The pier, as well as its famous roller coaster, is a must-do during sunset after a long day at the beach. In a city with so many fabulous hotel options, choosing one can be hard, so opt for one of the luxury bungalows at the Fairmont Miramar. The state-of-the-art bungalows feature private patios and daily beach cruiser rentals.

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Coronado Beach, Coronado, San Diego

Coronado Beach Sand Diego
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The long, white stretch of sand that makes up Coronado Beach is one of San Diego's most beautiful. The shore is as smooth as they come and the water is ideal for both surfing and swimming, but the real standout here is the famed Hotel del Coronado. It's a National Historic Landmark and is best known for its stunning Victorian architecture, as well as being one of the largest wooden structures in the U.S. If you're coming to San Diego, "The Del" is a must-visit. Just be careful: the historic property is just as famous for its topnotch interiors and amenities as it is for its history of hauntings.

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Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles

Manhattan Beach pier

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This family-friendly beach has sand so soft that Hawaiian beaches have actually been known to import it. The water sports are aplenty: you can try body surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and more, or if that's not your thing, set up shop under an umbrella and people-watch until the sun sets. Where to stay? Try the Shade Hotel, which boasts a rooftop pool with gorgeous ocean views and offers complimentary access to the nearby Equinox, or opt for an Airbnb rental right on the beach.

07 of 21

Stearns Wharf, East & West Beach, Santa Barbara

Stearns Wharf California
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Paddle board into harbor at these two beaches, separated by the famed Stearns Wharf, to find yourself up close and personal with the seals that are known to laze upon the harbor's buoys. Both beaches are enshrouded by palm trees and make for a perfect, lazy day at the beach during summer, but fall in Santa Barbara is just as magnificent. Don't forget to stroll along the iconic Stearns Wharf, where you can pick up everything from local souvenirs to fish and chips to homemade ice cream.

08 of 21

Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Boardwalk California
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Just an hour and a half's drive south of San Francisco, you can escape the fog and enjoy the sunshine at Santa Cruz's historic boardwalk. Since its 1907 opening, the boardwalk has transformed into one of the most well-known seaside amusement parks in California. Spend the day on the roaring 1924 rollercoaster, eating caramel apples on the boardwalk, or riding the waves of the Pacific Ocean. You could also just relax and spend hours tanning on the beach, or for the full California experience, show off your surfing skills.

09 of 21

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Point Lobos state park

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In the small, fairytale-like city of Carmel-by-the-Sea lies Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a beautiful area to visit for wildlife-watching, water activities (such as kayaking and snorkeling), and most of all, hiking. Yes, you can swim in the waters, but depending on the season, the temperatures could be quite cold and the waters a bit rough. However, this is one of the best spots for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy all the natural beauty Northern California has to offer.

10 of 21

Pacific Beach, San Diego

A surfer walking down Pacific Beach

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The beach is an excellent choice for those looking to surf, eat burritos, people-watch, and maybe even fall in love. The constantly, near-perfect weather seems almost suspicious, though the frequently reported beach parties and music-blasting day drinkers have given it a reputation for hosting a younger crowd.

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Baker Beach, San Francisco

People on Baker beach on a sunny day

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Many would argue that the best way to enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge is strolling down Baker Beach during the sunset. At this particular time of day, the golden glow pairs well with the fantastic view of the bridge bearing the name of this shade of light. Baker Beach is a great option for picnicking with your family or taking a hike with your dog, as there's a lovely trail along the cliffs that connect to the beach.

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Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles

Hermosa Beach California
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Hermosa Beach is named after the small Los Angeles beachfront city it lies within. Great for après-beach debauchery, this coastal spot is known for its abundance of beach activities, like volleyball, paddle boarding, and surfing. After a long day, head straight to the famous paved path known as The Strand (officially it's called the Marvin Braude Bike Trail), where you can eat, drink, and shop your heart away.

13 of 21

Limantour Beach, Point Reyes Station

Point Reyes Beach California
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In the small town of Point Reyes Station — which holds a population of less than 1,000 — lies Point Reyes National Seashore, which is made up of nearly a dozen gorgeous beaches well worth visiting. Limantour beach, however, makes our list due to its seemingly never-ending hiking trails and its plethora of wildlife (birds, seals, ducks, and even whales are commonly spotted along the shorelines). If you're one who enjoys the occasional chilly swim, walk to the nearby Drakes Bay, where the waters are quite calm — as long as you can stand the year-round 50 degree waters. As an important nature preserve, Point Reyes National Seashore is protected by the U.S. National Park Service, so don't forget to check out their regulations page before planning a visit.

14 of 21

Huntington Beach, Orange County

Huntington Beach California
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One of SoCal's best-known beaches, this iconic stretch of sand is best known for its surfing culture (it's literally nicknamed "Surf City") and its famed pier. Whether you want to learn how to surf, or just recreate Baywatch's opening scenes, Huntington Beach is the ultimate destination.

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Venice Beach, Los Angeles

A park in Venice Beach

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This list wouldn't be complete without the iconic Venice Beach, in the small, beachfront neighborhood of Venice in Los Angeles. Venice Beach is best known for its bohemian vibes, tattoo parlors, skateboarders, and local hippies selling all sorts of crafts along the promenade, which runs directly parallel to the beach. Here, you can find all sorts of eccentricities, as well as first-rate food — but you can also find some of L.A.'s best under-the-radar shopping spots, like Moon Juice, which sells a unique variety of beauty and wellness products, including edible tonics, dusts, and cosmic provisions, as well as cold-pressed juices and healthy snacks.

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Monterey State Beach, Seaside

Houghton M. Roberts Beach on a Cloudy Day

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Fish, surf, or explore tide pools at this state beach, which is comprised of three separate beaches between the coastal cities of Monterey and Seaside. With miles of flat, wide sand, Monterey State Beach is a popular spot for walking between the beaches (about a mile apart each), jogging, and volleyball. But the fun isn’t just on the shore. Scuba dive beneath the waves to explore the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Or, take to the sky for some paragliding, which is also popular at this location.  

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Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo

Pismo Beach

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Located on California’s Central Coast, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Pismo Beach is probably most well-known for its Monarch Butterfly Grove, which sees over 10,000 butterflies annually. Every year between late October and February, the beach is covered in the bright orange and blue hues of the Monarch Butterfly as they migrate south for winter. It’s also a great spot for dune riding, surfing, fishing, horseback riding, and sipping the day away at one of the nearby wineries. If you’re looking to stay, Pismo Beach is home to the stylish Vespera Resort and the boutique Inn at the Pier.   

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Redondo Beach, Los Angeles

Redondo Beach, California, United States

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Named for the Los Angles city it resides in, Redondo Beach can be found in the South Bay Area along Santa Monica Bay. Find all the classic beach activities — fishing, boating, swimming, and surfing — at this quintessentially California locale. Head to the horseshoe-shaped Redondo Beach Pier for even more activities, shopping, and plenty of outdoor dining and drinking. 

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Descanso Beach, Catalina Island

Descanso Beach on Catalina Island

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Catalina Island, known for its sweeping, colorful views, is home to Descanso Beach and its popular beach club of the same name. Here, you’ll find Catalina's only beachside restaurant and bar. Take in the beautiful ocean views from a private cabana, chaise lounge, beach towel, or ocean-view table at the restaurant. The Presidential Cabanas include a beach butler and complimentary snacks and drinks, while the Hillside Cabanas are situated over the beach for even better views. The beach club also hosts events and beach parties for guests to enjoy once the sun has set in the summer. And when you’re finished on the shore, head to the iconic Catalina Casino located nearby.  

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La Jolla Shores, San Diego

Aerial Drone Photograph Of Sandy Beaches In La Jolla

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Known as the “Jewel of San Diego,” the La Jolla coastline offers something for any kind of beachgoer, including cliffs, reefs, and quiet coves. We suggest traipsing down to the mile-long crescent known as La Jolla Shores. This beach, home to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier, is a popular swimming, diving, and surfing spot. It’s a great place to launch a kayak, or to keep the beach party going once the sun has set with a summer bonfire.  

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Dunes Beach, Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay's wildflowers bloom in all their glory

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Part of Half Moon Bay State Beach, Dunes Beach is a beautiful place to sunbathe the day away, with sandstone bluffs and, of course, spectacular beach dunes. There’s good running, walking, and biking opportunities, and you can even take the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail over to Redondo Beach. There are plenty of dining options nearby, as well as luxe accommodations. Check in to The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay or the Seal Cove Inn for five-star comfort just a stone’s throw from the beach. 

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