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16 Must-See Beach Towns & Coastal Cities in California

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In need of a quick beach getaway? We have the perfect beach towns and coastal cities in California to soak in those gorgeous sunset views and warm vibes. 

California is one of the US states located along the West Coast, which makes it perfect for road trips and weekend getaways. It is also one of the largest and popular states in the country with stunning cities like San Francisco, Santa Cruz to LA, and beach towns like Morro Bay, Catalina Island, Malibu, Santa Barbara, and more!

Coastal cities in California to visit

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Coastal Cities in CaliforniaPerfect Getaways

Here are our top picks for bucket list coastal cities in California that you must visit!

San Francisco

Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco California USA West Coast of Pacific Ocean
Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco

San Francisco is not known as a beach city, but it is a perfect base to experience coastal vibes in and around the bay area. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the city is inviting for those who love city vibes with a coastal twist. 

With tons of things to do in the city which are ocean and beach perfect. Start with the Lands End Park, located in San Francisco within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Go hiking, meditate or just soak in the sun.

Baker Beach is one of our favorites, with those stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. A close second is the pretty Crissy Field East Beach, all located in San Francisco. 

China Beach is another cool spot in San Francisco, located between Lands End and Baker Beach. 

Half Moon Bay

Poplar Beach Road Trips from San Francisco
Poplar Beach

Half Moon Bay is a small coastal city, located only 45 minutes outside of San Francisco. It is a perfect spot for a day or road trip from SF. Being a coastal city it has multiple beaches that are perfect for picnics, day hikes, fishing or sun-bathing. 

Poplar Beach is one of the popular beaches here, which is completely free to enter. This beach is only open during the day (hours, and no overnight camping or stay). 

Our favorite is the Half Moon Bay State Park, which is a stunning and a picturesque site. It is a great spot for nature walks, picnic with kids, camping and fishing. 

The resort town in Half Moon Bay is super pretty, with small outdoor cafes and ice-cream parlors. 

READ: All the amazing West Coast Road Trips that you can take 

San Diego County

San Diego  coastal cities in California
San Diego

By Maria from San Diego Explorer

San Diego is the perfect California beach city and a must for any California itinerary. Also known as America’s Finest City, San Diego has a lot to offer, whether you are looking for a beach getaway at one of the many beach resorts in San Diego, a fun time in the city, or a mix of both. Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego:

Explore Downtown: There is a lot of stuff to do in Downtown San Diego. From eating delicious Italian fare in Little Italy, visiting the Midway Museum, strolling through Seaport Village, or having a fun night out in the Gaslamp Quarter, there is something for everyone. If you love the outdoors and animals, visit Balboa Park and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.  

San Diego Beaches: San Diego has some of the best beaches in Southern California. Some of the most popular ones are Mission Beach, Coronado, and beaches in La Jolla. You can relax on the sand, take surfing lessons, or ride your bike along the boardwalk for a fun day on the beach.  

San Diego has so much to offer and is simply a fun city, no matter what you are in the mood for. 

La Jolla

La Jolla stunning coastal towns in California

By Maria from San Diego Explorer

La Jolla is simply stunning. Whether you are looking for long, white sandy beaches or stunning cliffs, La Jolla has it all. This upscale California beach town should definitely be on your list of places to soak up the SoCal vibe. 

There are tons of things to do in La Jolla from outdoors, to retail therapy and food & dining

Go Kayaking: Kayaking is a fun way to explore La Jolla’s stunning coastline and see some wildlife. You can explore some of the caves and even kayak into them. Depending on your skill level, you can rent kayaks and go out on your own, or go on a guided tour. 

Snorkeling or Diving: While there might not be any coral reefs in La Jolla, it still has a fascinating underwater world to explore. If you visit between June and October, you can even swim with Leopard sharks – an exciting, but harmless adventure. 

Shopping and Art Galleries: La Jolla Village is a great spot for some high end shopping. If that is out of your budget, you can still enjoy window shopping and visiting some of the many art galleries in La Jolla. 

So if you are visiting Southern California, definitely put La Jolla on your list of places to check out. 

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara - Best Coastal cities in California

By Melissa from High Heels & a Backpack 

Santa Barbara is a charming upscale beach town. It is situated just an hour north of Los Angeles, making it an easy day trip option in Southern California. Every corner of Santa Barbara is aesthetically pleasing – from the red-tiled clay buildings to the pristine coastlines. 

The town is affectionately known as “The American Riviera”. The locals here are every bit as elegant as the scenery. State Street is the main boulevard that leads from Stearns Wharf and up towards the mansions of Mission Canyon. There is a charming old, San Francisco-style trolley that runs up and down the length of State Street and is free to use.

The majority of the town’s architecture has been built in Spanish style – stemming from the town’s roots in 1602 when Sebastián Vizcaíno arrived here from Mexico. Locals are proud of their town’s Spanish heritage, and the “Old Spanish Days” festival is celebrated here every August.  

Dozens of chic boutique stores and international eateries line State Street. You will find well-known stores, in addition to trendy spots that showcase the works of local independent designers. Paseo Nuevo, La Arcada, and De La Guerra Plaza are great spots to search for clothing and accessories. 

There are countless dining choices in Santa Barbara, but the town, like everywhere, has those places that are local favorites. Head to Natural Cafe for incredibly flavourful vegetarian and vegan food, as well as fresh-pressed juices. The Hamburger Habit is every Santa Barbarian’s favorite burger joint. Expect a queue outside, but know it will be worth the wait! 

As far as nightlife is concerned, the Santa Barbara bar scene is diverse. The Funk Zone is an area filled with independent breweries and wineries. Be sure to sample the local 805 beer – named after the town’s zip code. 

Many of the wineries here offer tastings for as little as $5 per person. If unassuming dive bars are more your thing, head to The Neighbourhood Bar on West Montecito street and enjoy All-American food, beer pong, and heavy rock music. 

East and West Beach are the most popular beaches. However, even during the height of summer, they are never overbearingly crowded. For something more secluded that oozes desert island vibes, head to butterfly beach. Amtrak trains run almost hourly between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara along with Ventura, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey Bay make up the Central Coast of California.

Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach coastal towns in Cali

By Heather from That OC Girl

Possibly the most picturesque beach town in Orange County is Laguna Beach. With 30 different little coves and beaches, the cutest downtown area filled with boutique shops, restaurants with rooftop views, and a massive wilderness park, there are so many reasons to visit Laguna Beach!

The most popular thing to do in Laguna Beach is obviously hit the beach. You can find beaches with coves like Crescent Bay, a beach that takes 222 stairs to get to like Thousand Steps, and a beach that has a magical “pirate tower” complete with an Instagram famous round man-made pool. 

There are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails in Laguna Beach, and a lot of them with panoramic ocean views. You can explore Laguna Coast Wilderness Park or Crystal Cove State Park, which also has hiking and biking trails, beaches, camping, and a cute little historic district with cottages for rent.

Laguna Beach is very much into the arts and you will find a lot of galleries and events around that theme. The Sawdust Art Festival and Pageant of the Masters are a must-see. These are only offered on a seasonal basis so be sure to check the schedule first.

If there is one thing that you absolutely have to do, at least take a stroll through Heisler Park. It is the most gorgeous spot in Laguna Beach and a great place to start if it is your first time visiting.  

Santa Monica

California's coastal cities - Santa Monica

By Sarah from Dukes Avenue

Whichever LA itinerary you choose to follow, Santa Monica will likely feature in all of them. Located a mere 20 minutes’ drive away from Beverly Hills, Santa Monica beach offers a plethora of things to see and do.

Aside from the gorgeous weather, soft sand at your feet and every water sport you could think of, there are plenty of attractions to see too. The most popular is the Santa Monica pier. Most notably, it marks the end of the infamous Route 66, symbolic of the highway only ending when the sea stands in the way. 

In addition, visitors can enjoy the restaurants and arcade games at Pacific Park – the pier’s very own amusement park. A short stroll down the beach will take you to the Original Muscle Beach; what can best be described as an open-air gym where spectators often watch the acrobatics taking place on the rings and bars.

Whilst others work out though, be sure to head over to Shutters on the Beach and order yourself a slice of coconut cake. You will not regret it! 

For those that wish to explore more, wander away from the beach and head to Santa Monica Place just behind the pier. It’s the perfect place to stop and shop for some luxury treats whilst in LA. The Farmers Market is close by too – voted the best farmers market in the county by Travel and Leisure!

San Luis Obispo 

San Luis Obispo Coastal towns in California

San Luis Obispo is one of the must-visit coastal towns in California, especially if you are road-tripping from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is located at a convenient halfway point between the two cities. 

However, it is also worth visiting for gorgeous views alone. Coastal mountains and warm weather definitely entices this Canadian gal. Their town is the coolest with a farmer’s market, and delicacies.

The popular historic sites of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and Mission San Miguel, are a must-visit if you have additional time on your hand.

Apart from the small town, coastal vibes, you can also opt for kayaking at the Morro Bay, or hang out in Pismo Beach or Avila Beach.

Avila Beach

Avila Beach California USA

By Abi from Happy Go Abi

When you’re looking for beach towns in California to visit, one place you will definitely want to add to your list is Avila Beach. There are so many fun things to do in Avila Beach that make it the perfect place to enjoy a vacation!

This charming town offers up all the fun beach-related activities you could wish for—from swimming in the ocean, to kayaking, to building sandcastles. But beyond this, you’ll also find there are plenty of other activities to enjoy. 

Be sure to check out the small but fun aquarium near the main beach (they even have shark eggs that you can see—so cool!) as well as stopping by Avila Valley Barn to see all the animals and enjoy a delicious lunch or snack.

Avila Beach is also a favorite as you can explore some more secret/local spots, including finding the secret beach you can access via a rope. And once you’ve exhausted all that the beach scene has to offer, there are also plenty of wineries in the nearby vicinity to enjoy.

So if you’re looking for a beach vacation in California in a cute coastal town with plenty to offer, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Avila Beach. You’ll be surprised at all the fun things to do, the delicious food to enjoy, and more…and will definitely be ready to visit here again soon!

Hermosa Beach

Hermosa Beach Plaza

By Marta from Learning Escapes

Hermosa Beach calls itself ‘Best Little Beach City’ and indeed, it is hard to disagree with this assessment.

Located along scenic Highway 1, just south of Los Angeles, it has all you dream of when you think about the perfect Southern California town: a stunning sandy beach perfect for swimming and surfing, a long strand for rollerblading and a plethora of cafes and restaurants offering anything from farm to table food to international specialties.

The heart of the city is the beach and the lovely plaza in front of it, Pier Avenue. This is a large space with cafes and restaurants and the place that hosts the weekly farmer market, a favorite event for the locals. 

Here is also where you can get a first taste of the murals of Hermosa Beach: the town is proud of its street art and you can see many examples of it taking a short stroll around the compact town center.  

Away from the beach, the town has a relaxed and family-friendly vibe with some nice green spaces perfect for kids or runners and many yoga and pilates studios. 

Hermosa is perfect if you are looking for a relaxed beach city however it is a stone throw away from LA so it is also a great base if you want to tap into the attractions of the big city. 

Carmel in Monterey county

Carmel Town

By Noel from Travel Photo Discovery

One of the prettiest cities on the California coast to visit is Carmel in Monterey county. 

A very popular day trip destination from San Francisco or even an overnight stay, Carmel is scenic and old world in a European vibe with a lovely downtown area filled with European styled buildings with art galleries, boutique stores, bakeries and take out specialty food venues and a host of bars and restaurants to choose from. 

The typical way of exploring Carmel is to start at the top of town and walk downhill to the beach area. The gorgeous scenery at the ocean park front areas of Carmel are truly spectacular with stunning coastal views that are made for those perfect selfie moments on the waterfront area. 

Walking back uphill on the other side of the main drag includes more unique shopping and dining venues to choose from and a nice stop for a dessert or snack is always an easy thing to take away and enjoy some pleasant window watching. 

You’ll love visiting and exploring Carmel in Monterey on a weekend getaway to Carmel by the Sea, as there are tons of things to do here as well as the surrounding areas of Monterey County in Central California.

Cambria

Pacific beach overgrown with mosses and lichen near Cambria, California, United States, North America

By Stefania from Every Steph

Cambria is a quaint, charming coastal town, located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles (which makes it the perfect destination for a weekend away from either city).

This town on the California Central Coast offers a lot for being such a small town, starting with the raw, beautiful landscapes. Don’t expect the typical California beach town!

If you walk down the Coastal Bluff Trail, you’ll be able to admire the coastline, Moonstone Beach, pine trees, and a rugged landscape.

Other things to do in Cambria include going for seafood at Sea Chest Oyster Bar and wandering around the (small) downtown area, where you’ll find artsy and vintage shops.

And of course, most visitors use Cambria also as a starting point to visit the surroundings, in particular, to visit Hearst Castle that is just a few kilometers away. This castle is eccentric and opulent, and you’ll even see zebras roaming around!

You definitely can’t skip visiting this destination, and when you’re done, stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. If it’s the right season, you’ll be able to see hundreds or thousands of elephant seals on the beach! In short, there are many reasons to plan a trip to Cambria – in our opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful beach towns in the state.

Encinitas

Encinitas Moonlight Beach

By Gina from Evergreen and Salt

Encinitas is one of the stunning coastal cities in California, located right on the Pacific coast in North County San Diego. It is located less than 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, and just south of Carlsbad (home to Legoland California). 

Heading up to Encinitas from San Diego is worth the drive for visitors to explore this hip coastal suburb. No car? Make more of an adventure out of the journey and take the San Diego Coaster up to Encinitas where you’ll be dropped off right in its lively downtown area. 

The downtown area in Encinitas has a chill, surfer vibe with lots of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and boutiques lining the Coast Highway, which goes right through the middle of downtown Encinitas. It’s fun to walk around the area and pop into stores to browse California-style clothing or to get a drink on an outdoor patio and enjoy the SoCal sunshine. 

From the Coast Highway, it’s just a few blocks to the beach and you’ll walk past quaint cottages and other beach housing, including a couple houses shaped like boats. 

Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas is popular for families and friend groups thanks to onsite restrooms and showers, a playground, and bonfire pits — plus miles of gorgeous sand.

If you love gardens, head away from the coast to the San Diego Botanic Garden, a beautiful garden to walk around that is located just east of the 5 freeway in Encinitas.

Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz California Coastal cities
Santa Cruz

By Noel from This Hawaii Life

One of the most typical and iconic California Beach towns that you should visit is Santa Cruz in the Central California coastal area. With a youthful demographic, university town and fun places to visit, Santa Cruz really echo’s that total beach town vibe especially along the waterfront with it’s boardwalk area and playground. 

You’ll find this entertainment zone packed with fun rides, amusement games and junk food, boardwalk strolls and even a nice wharf area to explore. 

The downtown district is also cool with some quirky and fun shops, outdoor dining areas on the main drag, art galleries and other touristy driven shops to explore. 

If you’re into nature then a nice coastal drive along scenic Hwy 1 will get you out to the beautiful and rugged coastal areas and hidden beaches real fast and you can have your pick of cool and sunny spots to lounge and enjoy the water and sandy beaches around Santa Cruz. 

If you’re into gardens, then the well established botanical garden next to the university is a mediterranean garden lovers nature garden to enjoy and walk through. 

You will love all the outdoor adventures that happen around the city from surfing, wind sailing, boogie boarding, sailing, hiking, biking to so many other extreme adventure sports that draws a very active crowd to the area. 

Whatever your interest, Santa Cruz and the surrounding communities are really fun to explore and be a part of an active beach town vibe in Central California.

Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach - Stunning beaches in California
Pismo Beach

By Chantae from The Salt Siren

Pismo Beach, a beach named after its resident Pismo clams, is one of the most underrated beaches in California. On the northern end of this 13-mile stretch of sand you’ll find the quirky town of Pismo Beach. Venture south for spectacular sand dunes, butterfly gardens, and campsites.

Pismo Beach is ideal for swimming and surfing even in the dead of winter, and kitesurfers often take over the water when the wind blows. At low tide, it’s worth exploring the tide pools home to shell-encrusted anemones, crabs, fish, and other forms of marine life. 

No visit to Pismo Beach is complete without walking along the Pismo Beach Pier. Cafes and restaurants are easily found in town whenever hunger strikes.

While there are plenty of accommodation options in town, consider camping in between the sand dunes at Pismo Beach. Those with a penchant for adventure can grab an old skateboard or snowboard deck and attempt to sandboard down some of the steeper dunes.

Come sunset, admire the sky turn to its hazy orange before tucking into bed beneath the stars. The southern end of Pismo Beach tends to be less crowded, allowing you to find a patch of sand to yourself

Venice Beach

Venice Beach Canals
Venice Beach Canals

By Ale from Sea Salt & Fog

Venice Beach is an artsy beach town in the Southern California coast known for its beach boardwalk, canals, and funky, bohemian vibe.

One of my favorite things to do in Venice Beach is to walk alongside the Venice canals. Gorgeous homes and cottages sit alongside several miles of canals, and are connected by white bridges.

Walking through the canals, you’ll see canoes, ducks, and locals paddleboarding in the water. It’s absolutely stunning, and you’ll feel like you’re in a European village the entire time.

From the canals, you can make the easy walk to the Venice boardwalk. You’ll see people juggling, riding bikes, playing music, roller skating, and hanging out. This is where the artsy spirit of Venice shines. The boardwalk is the perfect place for people-watching, or join in on the fun yourself!

Packing for this California adventure is super easy, so long as you don’t forget to pack your favorite swimsuit! You’ll definitely want to take a dip in the cool Pacific Ocean just a few steps away.  

For a different side of this beachy town, head on over to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where you’ll find super trendy local shops and restaurants. Walk down the mile-long district and pop into the various shops, you won’t be disappointed. 

We hope you enjoyed this list of handpicked beaches and coastal cities in California. Happy planning!

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There are some quick tips for preparing for your trip to coastal towns in California.

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