In the famous West Coast vs. East Coast beach debate, I’d like to think I have a bit of experience. I grew up in New Jersey (and yes, went to the Jersey Shore every summer), but lived in San Francisco for two years.
Now that I’m back living on the East Coast, I can finally announce there is definitely a clear winner of this argument. The West Coast has (in my very unbiased opinion) the best of the US beaches.
For me, it comes down to variety. No two beaches on the West Coast are the same. California beach towns are widely different– Carmel is nothing like Malibu. And the beaches are just as different. Big Sur’s steep cliffs have nothing to do with the boho flat surfer vibes of La Jolla.
When picking the best beach towns in California, there are no wrong answers. You drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, and you will find a picturesque beach or a hole in the wall taco place with icy Coronas and surfboards nailed to the wall.
25 Best Beach Towns in California
Still, some of the best known beaches in California are best known for a reason! And if you’re planning a road trip down Highway 1 anytime soon, all of these are greatest hits.
Just be warned that not all of these beaches are the palm tree, piña colada type of vacations.
Some beaches in California, especially NorCal, are on the chillier side pretty much year round. Think 50-60 degrees. Which is nicer than the East Coast this time of the year, but it’s good to bring layers!
One of the most Northern beaches in all of California, Trinidad is giving major Pacific Northwest vibes. I’m thinking of La Push, Jacob, Bella, and that amazing surfing scene in Twilight.
Dotted with tons of little islands, the beach itself is very unique. The hiking opportunities are huge here, with the Tsurai Loop being one of the most popular. It’s right on the beach and is a moderate loop just under 2 miles.
Turtle Rocks Inn is definitely where I would stay if I had the chance! It’s right on the beach, and has that NorCal feel that I want when I’m in this area of California. It’s covered in greenery, and the design is rustic chic.
Plus, the property sets out lawn chairs that directly overlook the ocean. You don’t have to go down to the beach for the perfect view.
2. Fort Bragg / Mendocino
Fort Bragg is a super teensy, adorable old logging town in NorCal. Redwoods and beaches may sound like a wacky combo, but it’s one of the best hidden gems in all of California.
Newport Inn and Ranch is definitely the spot to stay. Not only is it located on an insanely gorgeous cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but the classic, rustic accommodations are perfect for the vibes.
Couples massages and a well-rated spa make it a cozy spot and one of the best hotels in California.
A little further south, and you’ll be in Mendocino. Mendocino is well known for beautiful hiking trails and gardens. I highly recommend a trip out to Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.
The plant life is one of the most gorgeous pops of color against the cliffs and blue water of Mendocino.
You also can’t come to Mendocino/Fort Bragg without visiting Glass Beach. After years of (very unfortunate) garbage dumping, tons of glass has been completely transformed into these amazing colored pebbles that line Glass Beach. Definitely worth a visit.
Lastly, you simply must take the Skunk Train deep into the Redwoods to a secret bar for libations, fire pits and live music.
Not to be confused with another type of California Jenner normally found in Calabasas, Jenner, California is a gorgeous wine and hiking destination in Sonoma.
Kayaking the Russian River is one of the top must-dos in Jenner. Water Treks is one of the best companies to float down the river, as they offer not only kayak rentals, but tours as well.
In terms of where to eat, stop by the Café Aquatica for one of the best kept Sonoma County secrets. This is the perfect place for a light breakfast in the morning or sandwiches and salads in the afternoon. The view is the top sell here– the restaurant is directly overlooking the Russian River!
4. Bodega Bay
Sticking around Sonoma for a while longer and hit up Bodega Bay. These beaches are giving stormy, moody perfection. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Bird was filmed here, so it all adds up.
The birds are a major draw. There’s an entire coastal walk dedicated to just taking in the avian radness.
Bodega has beaches, wine, and of course, amazing taffy. Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy is the best taffy I’ve had in my life (this is insane praise– I’m from Jersey), and a million flavors including chicken & waffles and peanut butter & jelly.
5. Point Reyes Station
Hog Island Oyster Co. is one of the best oyster destinations in all of Point Reyes. I won’t say the best because there are just too many to count. If you’re an oyster fan, book it to Hog Island and get a variety of the day’s catch immediately.
And if you’re not an oyster fan, I don’t know what to say except have you tried one from Norcal? Maybe try the mead instead?
Mead, a naturally sparkling form of fermented wine, is well represented in Point Reyes. Heidrun Meadery is one of best known, and for good reason. Top notch wine tasting destination for sure.
Beyond the mead and oysters, you’ve got to get out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. It’s one of the most famous lighthouses in all of California, and beyond being super cool, is a great photo op.
Olema House is my top recommendation for where to stay. Not only is it adorably cozy accommodation-wise, but if you’re looking for NorCal vibes, this is what you need. The greenery, the ocean view, the gazebo eating area, it all makes sense.
I loveeeee Bolinas. Bolinas has gorgeous ocean and mountain views, and an absolute to die for restaurant scene.
Bolinas Beach is lovely for a couple key reasons. Key reason number one: it is dog friendly all day!!! I have a dog who happens to thrive at the beach, so this is key.
Bolinas Beach also rocks because despite being public, it’s super quiet and private. Coast Café is one of my favorite stops for something quick, light, and delicious. They’ve got a top tier oyster selection, too.
Eleven Wine Bistro is an amazing dinner option. Nothing hits quite like wine and woodfire pizza post beach.
San Mateo County has a lot of the amazing San Francisco things without all the fog. Pacifica, a super cool and rustic beach town between SF and Half Moon Bay is the perfect example.
Besides the incredibly beautiful rock lined beaches, Pacifica is perhaps most famous for the beachside Taco Bell (lol). I’m dead serious– people come to the Bay just to visit this Taco Bell! It’s got a beachy sandalwood exterior and is literally right on the beach.
Nothing like a Doritos Locos Taco overlooking a beach sunset!
8. Half Moon Bay
Beyond being a great place to visit, Half Moon Bay is one of the best small beach towns in California to live in.
If this is a more ~bougie~ stop on your trip, I suggest the Ritz. It’s literally on top of an oceanfront cliff. As expected with any stay at the Ritz, the accommodations are absolutely top of the line.
Apart from the beach, for whatever reason pumpkins are a massive deal in Half Moon Bay. Autumn is really this town’s time to shine, and there are about a zillion places for cute fall photo ops with the plumpest pumpkins you’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately it only runs till the end of October, but there are plenty of other pumpkin destinations should that be your fix.
But, Half Moon Bay gets some of California’s best wildflowers — September it’s full of sunflower fields and in spring, the hills are covered in wild mustard that is bright yellow!
This is a littleeee less California Coast, as Pescadero is a city slightly more inland. But whatever! It still counts. This area of California is so stunningly beautiful, it doesn’t matter how close it is to map.
The Pigeon Point Lighthouse is one of the top travel draws of Pescadero. It is totally free to visit, and while you can’t actually go inside, it’s a stunning view off a cliffs edge into blue water and a rocky shoreline.
If you’re planning on sticking around more than an hour or too, definitely stop by Harley Farms. They’ve got a massive field of goats, donkeys, chickens, dogs, and llamas. Need I say more?
The selection of all-natural goat milk based soaps is another reason to pull over.
I would keep Pescadero as more of a highway rest than an actual stay– no need for a hotel here!
Not only does Shark Fin Cove actually look like a shark fin, but it’s backdropped against the absolutely ridiculous Davenport blue ocean waters and surrounded by grassy cliffs.
The Swanton Berry Farm is one of the best and most iconic highway 1 stops. You can’t drive south from SF without pulling off for some of the absolute best and most fresh strawberries in the country.
Again, no need for a hotel here! More of a pull off stop on your way down the coast!
11. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is the place to be for surfers, skateboarders, and anyone who loves a good boardwalk. Which is me.
The Santa Cruz Pier is a good time for games, rides, and lots of good small bites. I personally like getting food from somewhere in town and eating out on the pier to people watch.
Just know that to park in the pier itself can be pricey– probably going to want to park down the street and walk in.
Santa Cruz is a sleepy surfer town in many ways, so I always find myself in need of a coffee kick before hitting the road. Mr Toots is my pick not only for the adorable name, but for the coastal vibe and indoor/outdoor seating views of the beach.
As to where to stay, I’m going to say something a little controversial. Stay outside of Santa Cruz overlooking the Santa Cruz mountains in this Treehosue AirBnb. It’s just too unique to miss out on.
Ugh, Monterey. The betchy, Big Little Lies city of my dreams. This is one of the best beach towns in California for families because there are so many activities beyond just “go to the beach.”
Part of the reason I love this area is because of the sea life. Monterey has one of the most amazing and beautiful aquariums in the country, let alone the state. Partly because of the fact this area is home to the best whale watching on the entire coast.
I highly recommend taking a whale watching tour to enjoy the whale watching capital of the US. Rather than trying to chase the big guys down yourself, you’ll be taken straight to them and able to enjoy a day out on the water!
13. Carmel by the Sea
Carmel by the Sea is my all time fave. It’s not exactly one of the most affordable beach towns in California (a cup of coffee is like, $10), but it is probably my favorite coastal town on the list.
I don’t even go to the beach here– I just hangout in town. It’s among the most walkable beach towns in California (the beach is literally less than ten minutes from the town itself), I just don’t care to go. There’s too much to do!
I like to start with wine. Not always, but definitely in Carmel.
There is no hotel beyond Mission Ranch Hotel (okay, I’m sure there is, this is just my favorite). Located on a working ranch, the views are breathtaking, and most rooms have private balconies. In autumn, the fall foliage is on full display too. Definitely a ~romantic~ hotel stay.
14. Big Sur
Big Sur is the mac daddy of the best beach towns in Northern California. I feel like a picture of Big Sur on Stock Image is what pops into people’s heads when they think of Norcal beaches.
I’m not going to rec many hotels here because of all the California Coastal cities, Big Sur has the best camping opportunities. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is absolutely stunning, and has insane views of the Big Sur River.
If you do wind up near Pfeiffer Beach, be sure to check out the Keyhole Rock too. If you time it right, the sunset peaks through, and you have an instant Instagram classic. Or take a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a guaranteed otter sighting!
The one hotel rec I do have is the Ventana Hotel. This hotel is definitely for a SPLURGE– think weddings, honeymoons, big anniversaries. It is adults only (love), and is home to one of the best spas in the area as well as gorgeous views of Big Sur and mid-century modern coastal rooms.
It’s on the pricey side, but is worth it for a big splurge!
15. San Simeon
San Simeon is a perfect pitstop down the coast! In addition to some awesome sandy beaches, San Simon is mainly known for Hearst Castle.
Originally developed in 1865 by George Hearst, the castle is now a popular tourist site to check out gorgeous antique rooms, a massive pool overlooking the coast, and a massive art collection. They offer tours as well, which is fantastic for all the history buffs.
If you want to take a walk along the beach without the sand, head down to Cambria where you’ll find the perfect boardwalk walking path at Moonstone Beach.
16. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is worth at least a pit stop, but I think a very convincing argument could be made for an entire day trip! I’ll start.
There are two parts to Morro Bay: the outdoorsy half, and then the fun, cutesy things to do in town. For in town, I highly recommend a visit to Top Dog Coffee. In addition to delicious coffee and immaculate vibes, proceeds go to various animal shelters!
Coalesce Bookstore is super cute too. It has all the hallmarks of any amazing local bookstore with messy shelves, random posters, and of course, way too many house plants. Very Notting Hill.
On the outdoorsy end, Morro Bay is famous for the astounding Morro Bay Rock. Take a hike up Black Hill Trail for one of the best views.
17. Los Osos
Continuing down south, we come up to Los Osos! This small coastal town is perfect for a quick visit and pee break, or maybe even a day trip.
Los Osos is best to grab a bite with a view. I would strongly recommend The Nautical Bean for coffee with a view, or perhaps grabbing one of a thousand delicious pastries from Wayward Bakery and bringing it to your beach destination.
In terms of hiking, Valencia Peaks is a gorgeous 4 mile loop with a steady incline and stunning views. It’s right near Avila Barn, which is an ESSENTIAL highway 1 pitstop for fresh produce and menu items alike.
18. Pismo Beach
Dunes, dunes, dunes! Not a plug for the newest Chalamet movie, but more of a preview of what you’ll find at Pismo Beach.
Pismo Beach is most famous for its insanely expansive, all encompassing dunes. They look straight out of the set of Aladdin, and are the number one thing you have to be sure to do while in Pismo.
If you enjoy camping, you are actually able to camp right on the dunes themselves. If you DON’T enjoy camping, the SeaCrest OceanFront Hotel is a great bang for your buck stay that really does feature an ocean front view.
Besides the dunes, the Pismo Beach Pier is one of my favorite places in all of SoCal. There’s so much good shopping, and tons of good food options too.
19. Santa Barbara
Ugh, I LOVE Santa Barbara. I think it is so, so, so underrated. No shade to LA, but I really do think this is the best of the Southern California cities.
One of your first stops has to be the Santa Barara Botanical Garden. It feels nothing like a coast botanical garden– lush green trees, flowers, and shrubbery take this place over. We felt like we were in one of the Avatar movies.
The Color Gate is a must see for the photo ops, obvi. Right in the center of town, it’s a super popular attraction for pictures.
For dinner, I suggest anywhere in the Wine District. The Funk Zone is one of the cooler tasting experiences.
As to where to stay, my girlfriend and I had the best time at the Ritz-Carlton. It was bougie, beachfront, and very fun. Just southeast of Santa Barbara, you’ll find the “World’s Safest Beach” in Capinteria.
20. Santa Monica / Venice Beach
I can’t think about Santa Monica or Venice Beach anymore without thinking about Ken & Barbie rollerblading in the recent movie adaptation. So, it makes sense that my first suggestion for this area is to rent bikes to ride down the boardwalk!
The boardwalk is so iconic and absolutely cannot be skipped over. Besides a limitless number of rides, food options, and stores, Venice Beach must have some rule that it’s always gorgeous out while on the boardwalk.
The beach itself is just off the boardwalk, and is a nice, classic sandy beach that’ll more than suffice for a day of tanning and swimming.
21. Newport Beach
About a twenty minute drive from Laguna Beach, Newport is the epicenter of SoCal and Orange County. You’ve got San Clemente, LA, Laguna, and Dana Point right at your fingertips.
The public Newport state beach is super nice and free to use. Tons of surfers and locals crowd here, so if you’re looking for something more private, maybe keep it moving. If you want killer views and tons of restaurants, check out San Clemente Pier!
The bar and club scene in Newport is very fun, too. The Wild Goose was an out of control night I had with my friends the year after I graduated college… Be ready to drink and dance the entire night and into the morning!
Searching for more adventure? You can take a ferry from Newport to Catalina Island. A popular destination for locals with some of the most beautiful views and beaches.
Oceanside is one of the best beach towns in California to vacation in. It’s one of the lesser known, underrated beaches that still has lots to do without the crowds.
The surf culture is big here. It’s like a microcosm of California surfer bro culture in the best possible ways.
And with that culture comes good beer, most times. I was a huge fan of the Oceanside Brewing Co. I love breweries that offer flights. I think the experience is so much more fun than a regular beer tasting.
For that relaxed, vacation feel, I recommend the Seabird Ocean Resort. Beach access, a spa, a pool– there isn’t much more to ask for out of a vacation!
When I think of Carlsbad, I don’t think of it as just any California beach. This is where I want to grow old one day– it’s that nice.
I think of Carlsbad as one of the best coastal towns in California to retire in because of the natural, undeniable beauty.
The flower fields come most readily to mind. These gorgeous rolling hills just outside of San Diego are completely covered in vibrant, sweet-smelling flowers. It’s something out of a movie.
24. La Jolla
La Jolla is the best of the best. This is one of the best beach places in California for the food, nature, and of course, the beach.
Snorkeling is a must hit in La Jolla. There are a couple different companies, but I suggest a guided tour so you can make the most of your time in La Jolla Cove. Surfing is another great option. Unless you’re a pro, consider a lesson for these killer waves.
In terms of where to stay, I strongly suggest you consider Pantai Inn at La Jolla Cove. It has a stunning view of the Cove, and amazing amenities to guarantee a relaxing stay.
25. San Diego
You’ve made it to the bottom of the state! San Diego! Also known as one of the best California beach towns, and the best of the California cities on the coast!
The downtown area of San Diego is so cute and very fun to explore. The Gaslamp Quarter has an insanely fun nightlife.
My favorite part of San Diego, however, has to be the Padres. Despite being a die hard Giants fan, I have to give it to them– Padres games are a stupid amount of fun.
If you can schedule your visit around a trip to a game, I definitely encourage it. Nothing beats peanuts and baseball under a San Diego sunset.
Anyone lucky enough to live in California knows the beauty hidden along every exit of highway 1. California truly is such a diverse state in terms of its beaches, and it’s what makes it the absolute best.
If you’re new to the state or just visiting, the best way to get a taste for this massive state is to pull off at as many stops, eat at as many restaurants, go to as many dive bars, and put your feet in the sand of as many beaches as possible.
Living in New York City, I realize now how spoiled I was to have the beach at my fingertips in California. It makes the visits all that more special.