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10 Best Beach Towns in California for Your Next Escape

September 22, 2022

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California is spoiled with choice when it comes to coastal towns to spend some quality time in. Choosing the best beach towns in California can then get tricky, with so many charming places from Southern California to the Central Coast to Northern California worth your attention.

Here are 10 of the best coastal towns in California that should get your attention, offering everything from opportunities to explore the state’s natural wonders, relaxation spots for sunbathing and delicious food to chow down on once you’re done with the sightseeing.

 

Coronado

It’s referred to by some as an island, but Coronado is actually a peninsula, reachable by car or ferry from either end. The most popular approach is driving over the Coronado Bridge, an impressive, curved structure that has graced many San Diego postcards.

Coronado is perhaps most well-known for the historic—and potentially haunted—Hotel del Coronado, an inspiration for Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book and its sequels. You’ll see it no matter where you’re at on the bridge, its red rooftops dotting the landscapes here. Visit inside even if you’re not spending the night for its eateries, boutique shops and ice cream, or just to admire the architecture inside. 

The city itself is a little bit fancier than neighboring San Diego. The homes are bigger, the boutiques pricier and the sand just a little less crowded for a weekend morning of sunbathing. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a very casual time in Coronado. It’s also known for its beachfront cocktail bars, sand castle building and dog beach, for those traveling with their furry friends.

 

Oceanside

Less than an hour north of San Diego with light traffic, Oceanside is often overlooked by America’s finest city to the south and Los Angeles to the north. It’s referred to as O’Side by some locals, a signal on the kinds of casual vibes you’ll experience here. A stop here will reveal a beach town full of delicious restaurants, the California Surf Museum and a harbor that will make you feel like you’re in New England, not Southern California.

Oceanside is an eclectic sort of place, and the best way to experience that is to take a food tour of your own making through some delicious eats in one of the best southern California beach towns. 

Eat pizza with a view at Blade 1936, taste some of the best fish tacos in town at Hello Betty Fish House or grab some inventive sushi rolls at the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub. Oceanside has arrived as a place to grab great grub.

Boardwalk pier at sunset in Oceanside, CA Photo Credit: Mark Neal, Unsplash

 

Malibu

Malibu is the quintessential beach escape for Los Angeles locals, with 21 miles of sand to choose from on a sunny morning. Find a less populated stretch of beach and this city just west of the big city almost feels small. Malibu Lagoon State Beach, or more casually known as Surfrider Beach, is a popular option for surfers and sunbathers who love watching them. Don’t miss a stroll along Malibu Pier for fantastic views of either side of the coast.

Malibu is also host to some of the best hiking in the region, with Malibu Creek State Park within a short drive of the shore. 

For the most iconic hike in the park, trek the flat nearly 5-mile trip to the old MASH filming site. It gets hot on summer days with little shade to enjoy along the way, but you’ll be rewarded with old vehicles from the television show and a shaded bunker. Gaze at the Santa Monica Mountains and the very picturesque Century Lake along the way.

Houses on the beach in Malibu, CA Photo Credit: Carlos Bastias, Unsplash

 

Ventura

Spending time by the water is the preferred activity in Ventura, whether that’s renting a paddle board, hiring a fishing boat or grabbing a drink at any of the waterfront bars and eateries that dot the working harbor and marina. 

Stroll the Ventura Pier, a long, wooden promenade that’s more about the views than the tourist offerings. A compact but packed Main Street offers easy access to the history of this town, including the San Buenaventura Mission and its 1800s-era church.

Along with nearby Oxnard, Ventura is also a great base for adventures into Channel Islands National Park. Book one of the regular tour boats that leave from the Ventura Harbor for hikes to spectacular panoramas and wildlife, including the island foxes, that you won’t see anywhere else.

Beach in Ventura County Photo Credit: Steven Pahel, Unsplash

 

Carpinteria 

Carpinteria is one of the best small beach towns in California, if only because it’s so much less crowded with tourists than its neighboring Santa Barbara. Enjoy calm waves along the beaches here and excellent wildlife spotting from the Carpinteria Bluffs. From winter into spring, the bluffs are a popular spot for seals and sea lions, and all the waterbirds that call the California coast home.

If you’re here for the beaches and the beaches only, Carpinteria State Beach and Carpinteria City Beach could both offer plenty of room for you to find a spot to call your own. Nearby Rincon Beach is one of the most popular surf spots in the state, earning its nickname of the “Queen of the Coast” for its wave action.

Wave breaking on a rock in Carpinteria, CA Photo Credit: James Lee, Unsplash

 

Cambria

Cambria is a popular stopover for coastal travelers heading from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but once you spend a night or two in this seaside village, you may not want to leave. It’s known for its proximity to the Hearst Castle, once the very impressive home of businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Its most intriguing beach is Moonstone Beach, home to beautiful, smooth stones that give this place a special sparkle. Nearby Moonstone Boardwalk is a great way to get a feel for this place. It’s a one-mile stretch of scenic strolling next to Cambria’s scenic beaches to Leffingwell Landing. If you have more time, Leffingwell Landing is a great starting point for wildlife trails, as it’s home to native seabirds, otters and the occasional whale sighting.

Worn rocks on the beach in Cambria, CA Photo Credit: Catalina Johnson, Unsplash

 

Carmel-by-the-Sea

This town on the Monterey Peninsula looks like it came straight out of a children’s fairytale. It’s big on charm, with homes covered in climbing vines, pitched rooftops and porthole windows that make you wonder what kind of magic is happening inside some of these buildings.

Many of them are boutiques and restaurants that maintain that whimsical aesthetic inside. If you’re one for fun facts, Carmel-by-the-Sea was also served by Clint Eastwood as its mayor for two terms, starting in 1986 and 2001. Either way, it’s a beautiful place to get lost in or use as a base for exploring the region’s wineries and natural wonders.

Courtyard in Carmel by the Sea, CA Photo Credit: mana5280, Unsplash

 

Capitola

Capitola is a fun stop on any California coastal itinerary, if only for those picture-perfect, multi-colored rentals along the town’s main shoreline. You’ll have a great view of the buildings of the Capitola Venetian Hotel, painted in pastels and more vibrant aquas and purples, from many of the waterfront dining spots along the shore. 

While it’s fun to have the beach mostly to yourself in the winter months, Capitola really comes alive in the summertime. Live music and movie nights on the beach are popular activities for the locals here and visitors curious about this colorful California town.

Villas on the beach in Capitola, CA Photo Credit: Sean Barker, Unsplash

 

Bodega Bay

California may be known for its beaches, but it may be just as well-known for its variety of wine regions. Bodega Bay is unique in that it’s both close to the water and some of California's best wine in Sonoma County. While the wineries further inland are certainly scenic in their own right, the views here while you’re sipping on tasting flights at the wineries of Bodega Bay can’t be beat.

If you’re not here for the wine, there’s still plenty to do. The town of Bodega Bay is full of options for delicious seafood you’d expect close to the water, and eclectic shops and galleries to browse through. The town is also a popular stop for whale-watching adventures. The Bodega Head peninsula has a peak whale migration season from January through May, but you could be lucky enough to see spouts, even whale tails, no matter when you visit.

Green hillside by the ocean in Bodega Bay, CA Photo Credit: Y S, Unsplash

 

Crescent City

Crescent City’s namesake beach, the crescent-shaped stretch of sand that’s perfect for beachcombing, makes this one a great choice for one of the best Northern California beach towns. Its access to some of the state’s best parks to walk among the giant redwoods bumps it up to one of the best coastal towns in California altogether. 

Head to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park or Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park for some of the easiest access to these magnificent trees from Crescent City. Prairie Creek in particular is home to one of the country’s bucket list hikes, a trek through Fern Canyon via the James Irvine Trail. If you visit, you may recognize Fern Canyon from the movies. It was featured in several scenes of Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.

View of the ocean in Crescent City, CA Photo Credit: Rizwana Shujathali, Unsplash

This list only scratches the surface of the best beach towns in California. No matter what you’re after, whether that’s a relaxing weekend on the sand or a more rugged coastal adventure, the state has a coastal town for it all. California coastal road trips are an excellent way to find your personal favorite, so get in the car and take a drive to see what speaks to you.

Written by Agnes Groonwald for Knockaround.

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