Best Beaches in Southern California

Looking for the best beaches in California? Here are the best SoCal beaches, from Malibu to San Diego.

Whether you travel to California for chances to spot celebrities, attend a wedding, hike for a view of the Hollywood sign, pursue a dream acting career or simply because you want to live a West Coast life, there's something you must do before leaving: hit up the beaches.

Southern California is famous for its year-round sunny weather that go in conjunction with miles and miles of incredible beaches. Come for the sun-soaking weather, but stay for the awe-inspiring, dream-worthy sunsets. From Malibu to San Diego, here are the best beaches in Southern California.

Santa Monica

Best Beaches in California: Santa Monica
Santa MonicaShutterstock

All of Southern California’s beaches are fun, but Santa Monica and its three-and-a-half miles of soft, sandy perfect 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 and giant ferris wheel (quite possibly the best place to take in a sunset in all of SoCal), it’s impossible not to be entertained in Santa Monica, making it one of the best beaches in California.

La Jolla Cove

Best Beaches in California: La Jolla Cove
La Jolla CoveShutterstock

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

Best Beaches in California: Mission Beach in San Diego
Mission Beach in San DiegoShutterstock

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 two-mile-long beach. Like most Southern California beaches, this one gets crowded, so get there early to snag a prime parking spot.

El Matador State Beach in Malibu

Best Beaches in California: El Matador State Beach in Malibu
El Matador State Beach in MalibuShutterstock

It’s a trek to get there, but the effort is well worth it. El Matador is the nicest beach in California. 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.

Huntington Beach

Best Beaches in California: Huntington Beach
Huntington BeachShutterstock

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

Best Beaches in California: San Clemente State Beach
San Clemente State BeachShutterstock

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 train rumbling by every 30 minutes or so).

Spend the day building sandcastles 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

Best Beaches in California: Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach
Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna BeachShutterstock

Not all SoCal beaches are kid-friendly: The waves can become overwhelmingly 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 three 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 Beach

Best Beaches in California: Venice Beach
Venice BeachShutterstock

Venice Beach is among the most famous beaches in California, and it has a reputation for being a little eccentric. And, yes, you will probably see an eclectic variety of street performers, bodybuilders, sand sculptors, fortune tellers and breakdancers along the two-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.