Southern California is famous for its year-round sunny weather, celeb-spotting ops, and, of course, miles and miles of incredible beaches. From Malibu to San Diego, here are the best California beaches to soak up the sun, splash in the waves and make all your California dreamin’ come true.
All of Southern California’s beaches are fun, but Santa Monica takes entertainment to the next level with its Pacific Park amusement park right there on the pier. From the 55-foot-tall West Coaster roller coaster to the carnival games to the giant Ferris wheel (quite possibly the best place to take in a sunset in all of Southern California), it’s impossible not to be entertained in Santa Monica. Oh, and did we mention that the beach is 3½ miles of soft, sandy perfection? Yeah, there’s that too.
La Jolla Cove
Southern California isn’t exactly known for its snorkeling — the strong waves usually make it tough to see much of anything — but La Jolla Cove, just north of San Diego, is an exception. The area is ringed by tall cliffs that protect the cove from big waves, allowing curious snorkelers to explore its underwater scene. Be on the lookout for leopard sharks, sea lions and dolphins.
Mission Beach in San Diego
For sheer entertainment value, San Diego’s Mission Beach is hard to beat. Ride The Giant Dipper, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the U.S., at Belmont Park; rent a bike and cruise the boardwalk; grab a drink at the iconic local bar, The Beachcomber; or just get some vitamin D relaxing on the nearly 2-mile-long beach. Like most all of Southern California’s beaches, this one gets crowded, so get there early to snag a prime parking spot.
El Matador State Beach in Malibu
It’s a trek to get there, but the effort is well worth it: El Matador is the most stunning beach in SoCal. Pull off the Pacific Coast Highway between Point Dume and Leo Carrillo and carefully take the steep trail down to the beach. There you’ll find an absolutely beautiful stretch of coastline full of caves, rock arches and sparkling sand. Feeling ultra-romantic? Pack a picnic, go at sunset and let the sparks fly.
When the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Jan Berry (of the duo Jan and Dean) wrote the song “Surf City” back in 1963, Orange County’s Huntington Beach was the spot they were singing about. So it makes sense that the original Surf City is the perfect place to learn to hang ten. No experience on a board? Banzai Surf School will have beginners riding waves in no time. Already know what you’re doing? Rent a board from Huntington Beach Surfboard and Bike Rentals (located up 5th Street) and tear up Surf City.
San Clemente State Beach
There’s something different about San Clemente. Depending on the time of day, it can get as crowded as other area beaches and the waves are still hefty, but it has a unique, small-town vibe. It probably helps that, when looking behind you, instead of seeing the usual beach houses, hotels, bars and restaurants, you see nothing but small, rocky cliffs. (Or the Metrolink train rumbling by every 30 minutes or so; the tracks are perched above the cliffs.) Spend the day building sand castles and boogie boarding — at San Clemente there’s not much more to do than hang out and enjoy the beach.
Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach
Not all SoCal beaches are kid-friendly — the waves can get huge and sometimes an interesting cast of characters can invade the sand. But Laguna’s Crystal Cove State Park beach, with its usually gentle surf, tide pools, secret coves and over 3 miles of exploration-worthy coastline, is perfect for kids. Bonus: you won’t find a better spot to pitch a tent than its Moro campground on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. (RV hookup sites are available as well.)
Venice has a reputation for being a little, well, eccentric. And yes, you will probably see an eclectic variety of street performers, body builders, sand sculptors, fortune tellers and break dancers along the 2-mile Ocean Front Walk (said to be the second most-visited destination in Southern California), but it’s also a really nice beach. So when you tire of the people watching, head down to the sand for the quintessential California beach experience.