The 15 Best Beaches in California
Oh, California. When it comes to America’s third-largest state (that’s 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 famed for its long, white stretches of sand and immense wildlife population, where you can whale-watching 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 cities—more on that, here), 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, Hermosa, and Huntington are all excellent options — especially for West Coast first-timers looking to recreate scenes from 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 scenes from Game of Thrones (for all the show's fans out there, check out our official GOT travel guide, here). 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. Click through our gallery to find out which California beach is the right one for you.
El Matador State Beach, Malibu
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 dirt 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.
Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
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 (for the best beaches in Croatia, read here). Make basecamp at one of the luxury cabins at Glen Oaks Big Sur, only a 15-minute drive from Pfeiffer Beach.
Thousand Steps Beach, Laguna Beach
Find yourself mesmerized by the beauty Orange County has to offer 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.
Santa Monica Beach & Pier, Santa Monica
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 breakfast for two.
Coronado Beach, Coronado, San Diego
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 both a National and California Historic Landmark, and is best known for its stunning Victorian architecture, as well as being the second-largest wooden structure 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 (for more on that, read here).
Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles
This family-friendly beach has sand so soft that Hawaiian beaches have actually been known to import it. The water sports are aplenty at this famed beach: 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.
Stearns Wharf, East & West Beach, Santa Barbara
Paddle board into harbor on the two beaches, separated by the famed Stearns Wharf, to find yourself up close and personal to 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.
Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk, Santa Cruz
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 1865 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 challenging 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.
Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel by-the-Sea
In the small, fairytale-like city of Carmel by-the-Sea lies Point Lobos State 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.
Pacific Beach, San Diego
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.
Baker Beach, San Francisco
Many would argue that the best way to enjoy the Golden Gate Bridge is strolling down Baker Beach during the sunset. During 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.
Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles
Hermosa Beach, like Pacific, is also 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 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.
Limantour Beach, Point Reyes Station
In the small town of Point Reyes Station—which holds a population of less than 300—lies Point Reyes National Seashore, which is made up of 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—but we recommend staying on dry land. 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.
Huntington Beach, Orange County
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. Though a bit kitschy, a visit to Ruby’s Diner at the end of the pier is a must-do for first-timers. Whether you want to learn how to surf, or just recreate Baywatch’s opening scenes, Huntington Beach is the ultimate destination.
Venice Beach, Venice, Los Angeles
This list wouldn’t be complete without the infamous 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, like edible tonics, dusts, and cosmic provisions, as well as cold-pressed juices and healthy snacks.