California is a beautiful state with literally every single type of destination you could want. Big cities, mountains, national parks, skiing, beaches, wineries, surfing, desserts… we got it all here! I moved from Wisconsin to California in 2014 and fell in love with exploring this state. One of my favorite things to do is hit up spots along the coast. The North is rugged, the South is pristine. Both offer vastly different experiences and are equally as fun to spot by. These are my top California coast towns to visit before you die!
Mendocino is probably one of our favorite places in California that we keep visiting again and again. It’s home to beautiful rugged coastlines, towering Redwoods, a charming town and a general lack of crowds. There’s people, you won’t ever feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t feel touristy. You won’t get cell service in many places, which makes it the best place for a digital detox. We love coming up here to be in nature, but in an upgraded way. From glamping tents to luxury hotels, to seafood dinners after a day of kayaking… this place feels like home.
Travel Guide: Read my full Mendocino travel guide here!
Top things to do: Kayak, hike, eat seafood.
What to wear: It’s chilly up here year round, so make sure to pack some sweaters and layers!
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore is a magical hidden gem in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just a little over an hour’s drive from the city is rolling hills, blue ocean, the smell of fresh seawater and charming coastal town vibes. From cheese creameries, to lighthouses, an abandon ship and even a elk reserve Point Reyes has it all.
Travel Guide: 15 things to do in Point Reyes guide
Top things to do: Visit the lighthouse (it’s one of the best on the California coast!), try cheese at Cow Girl Creamery, walk under the Cypress Tunnel and go hiking!
What to wear: Like Mendocino, Point Reyes is up North and can bring chilly weather. On the right day, it’ll be warm. I suggest a mix of sweaters, coats and lighter ware, like dresses or skirts. Layers, people!
Stinson Beach is one of our favorite beaches in Northern California! It’s a big beach with pretty white sand, something that’s hard to find up North. On hot days, the entire beach fills up with locals and it’s a big party! Stinson Beach just isn’t a beach, it’s really a cute coastal town with a beach. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Muir Woods, a National Park with Redwoods! Spend a few nights here, or just a day trip! Our favorite thing to do is go hiking in Muir Woods, then pop over to Stinson Beach to relax, eat tacos and enjoy the water.
Travel Guide: More info on hiking in Muir Woods and ending at Stinson Beach here!
Where to stay: There aren’t a lot of hotel options here, which is why I suggest looking on Airbnb for cute coastal cottages directly in Stinson Beach! Use THIS link for $40 at Airbnb!
Top things to do: Go hiking at Muir Woods, eat tacos on the beach, surf or wander the downtown!
What to wear: Always pack a light jacket in case of a foggy day, but it’ll be warm here, so wear your dresses and sunhats!
so this is a city, not a coastal “town” but it still had to make the list! I moved to San Francisco from Wisconsin because I hated winters and I needed a change. I actually had never even been here before moving! I love San Francisco. It’s a 7×7 city, but packs so much in. Each neighborhood is so vastly different from the next. There are so many cultures clashing in this city, it’s a must visit for any travel lover.
Travel Guide: My full San Francisco travel guide, constantly being updated with new tips as I discover new corners of the city!
Where to stay: Airbnb is founded in San Franciso, so the options are endless here and can provide a more authentic experience. Use THIS link to get $40 off your first stay. I recommend staying in an Airbnb or hotel near Hayes Valley, as it’s one of my favorite neighborhood and sort of in the center of the city, so it makes a great home base.
Top things to do: Golden Gate Park (there’s bison in here!), eat Asian cuisine, tour Alcatraz, drink wine in a park, hike, visit museums.
What to wear: There are micro-climates in this city. That means one area of the city may be cold and foggy, while just 1 mile away it’s hot and sunny. There are also hills… oh man, hills everywhere. For those reasons, wear comfy shoes and layers!
Santa Cruz is a surfer town a short drive from Silicon Valley. On the way, you’ll drive through mountains with some wineries to get to the colorful town. There’s there famous Santa Cruz boardwalk, the only one of its kind in Northern California. There’s great coffee shops and Mexican food here, too!
Travel Guide: Haven’t written one yet, but it’s coming!
Where to stay: Chaminade Resort & Spa
Top things to do: Spend a whole day having fun on the boardwalk, take surfing lessons, stuff yourself with tacos. If you have a car, head into the mountains for wine tasting.
What to wear: Santa Cruz is warmer than San Francisco, but can still see the same fog. Wear shorts, dresses and skirts, but pack a sweater just in case.
Just down the shore from Santa Cruz is the small town of Capitola. This town is famous for the rows of colorful houses along the beach. It really looks like a mini Cinque Terre! There is also a small but charming beachfront area with eats, coffee shops and bars. It’s a fun little break from Santa Cruz!
Travel Guide: Coming soon!
Where to stay: There aren’t many hotels here, for that reason I suggest staying in Santa Cruz or looking for an Airbnb. Use THIS link to get $40 off at Airbnb.
Top things to do: Visit the colorful houses, hang out on the beach, eat tacos!
What to wear: It’s just like Santa Cruz. You’ll need warm weather clothes, like swimsuits and dresses, along with a jacket just in case it’s foggy.
You’re probably familiar with Monterey from Big Little Lies. It’s about 2.5 hours South of San Francisco and has some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen in California. From the Monterey Bay Aquarium to wineries to a lighthouse and the famous Pebble Beach, Monterey makes for a fun weekend getaway.
Travel Guide: A weekend guide to Monterey.
Where to stay: Stay downtown at the Monterey Hotel which is in walking distance of all the fun things.
Top things to do: Spend a day the Monterey Bay Aquarium, drive down the 17 Mile Drive to Pebble Beach ($10 to enter, cash only) go wine tasting on Cannery Row.
What to wear: It’s usually warm here, but pack a light cardigan for that chilly sea breeze.
Carmel by the sea
Carmel is a legit fairytale town. Due to city rules, houses don’t have numbers. Most of the buildings look like they were plucked from a Disney movie and many of the streets are cobblestone. It’s one of the most charming towns in the entire United States! We love coming here to really escape the city. We eat, wine taste, visit historical sites and always make sure to stick around for the sunset, because it’s one of the best on the West Coast. People flock to the beach at sundown to see it!
Travel Guide: 36 hours in Carmel, a complete guide!
Where to stay: Stay at the Hotel Carmel.
Top things to do: Wine tasting, shopping at the local stores, visit the historical Mission Basicilla, watch a sunset.
What to wear: Such a pretty setting calls for pretty outfits! Bring your best.
Big Sur is a jaw-dropping region of California. Rugged coasts, endless hiking trails, fresh air… if you’re in need of a digital detox, head here! From camping to luxury hotel, lodging here is far and in-between, so you’ll find just the type of escape you’re looking for. It’s been blocked off from easy access for a few years due to a huge mudslide, but should be open again now!
Travel Guide: Coming soon!
Where to stay: Hyatt Big Sur has a hot tub with an ocean view that’s out of this world. The food is also top-notch.
Top things to do: Hiking, camping, stargazing, Brixby Bridge.
What to wear: The coastal winds can be strong here, so bring a coat!
Santa Barbara is totally underrated!While it’s a nationally known city, it’s also off the radar. With LA 70 miles South, I feel like Santa Barbara is often overlooked. For everyone who writes this city off, you are missing out on one hell of a gem! Small town feels, beautiful beaches, top-notch food, sunshine and an award-winning wine region next door… it’s a city not to miss!
Travel Guide: Santa Barbara Travel Guide.
Where to stay: The Kimpton Goodland is the best hotel in town!
Top things to do: Have a beach day, wine taste in the Funk Zone, bike around the city, sailing or a day trip to Santa Ynez!
What to wear: Your favorite swimsuits, shorts and tropical clothing!
My favorite part of all of LA! From cute houses to trendy restaurants and a vibrant beach boardwalk, Venice is where I would live if I had to live in LA. It speaks to the hippie in me. Spend a day biking up and down the boardwalk, shopping at local stores and eating a lot of avocado and toast!
Travel Guide: Things to do in Santa Monica and Venice.
Where to stay: Hotel Erwin is right on the beach and has an amazing rooftop bar!
Top things to do: Bike the boardwalk, sit on the beach, eat tacos.
What to wear: Swimsuits and dresses. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
San Diego is our favorite warm-weather beacy city. From fancy beaches in La Jolla to intense hiking at Potato Chip rock to Mexcian food and cocktails downtown, San Diego has it all. It’s a great place to visit year round, but especially in the late summer when the days are hot and the nights are long.
Travel Guide: San Diego Travel Guide.
Where to stay: Lodge at La Jolla Shores so you are right on La Jolla beach, my favorite part of San Diego!
Top things to do: Start the morning on the beach, go snorkeling, hiking, visit Balboa Park, sail, go mural hunting.
What to wear: Dresses, shorts and lots of sunscreen!
I hope this helps you plan an amazingly fun trip to California! Let me know if you have any questions at all!