Sun-kissed waves, long stretches of sand dotted with surfboards, and incredibly fresh seafood represent the culture in many California beach towns. This west coast state has some of the best coastal vibes in the country that people travel to from all over the world to witness for themselves.
Golden State beaches are often featured in movies, TV shows, and never-ending social media posts boasting its incredible beauty. Even though most people are familiar with the larger cities of San Diego and Los Angeles, hidden gem beach towns are scattered up the entire coast.
The best way to sample them all and experience different regions of the state is by taking a road trip on scenic Highway 101, aka the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). And arranging plenty of stops along the way. When you’re ready to indulge in a more relaxed pace of life, plan a trip to any one of these top California oceanfront towns.
Here’s a look at the top beach towns in California to live and visit, in no particular order:
Solana Beach, located north of San Diego, is beloved by tourists and residents for its pedestrian-friendly streets, fantastic surfing spots, countless scenic trails, and beautiful natural tide pools. There are also many delicious cafes in town and a broad selection of artsy, locally-owned businesses nearly a half-hour walk or less from Fletcher Cove, the primary beach.
Evidence suggests that the first people to live in Solana Beach’s cliffs and undulating hills did so about 9000 BC. They were camel and mastodon hunters and are today referred to as the San Dieguitos.
As of the 2020 census, this coastal city’s population was 12,941 residents and has seen steady growth since the 20th century. Residents and visitors love the down-to-Earth culture of the town, which is supported by the weekly Sunday farmers market and live music venue Belly Up.
Fletcher Cove Beach Park and Tide Beach Park are the city’s favorite beach spots, with plenty of surfing, swimming, and sunbathing opportunities. The wide sandy area is backed by a stunning blue section of the ocean.
About 35 miles north of San Diego, Carlsbad is famous for its oceanfront beaches, rich culinary options, and popular attractions like Legoland California and SEA LIFE Aquarium. Year-round tourists are drawn to the area by the seaside cliffs, expansive white-sand beaches, and warm climate.
For a long time, Carlsbad was home to the Luiseño people before European explorers stepped onto the land. In the late 19th century, a sailor named John A. Frazier discovered fresh spring water with high mineral content, adding to the growing town’s profile.
These days, the city has a population of about 114,746 (2020 census) and offers a lot of opportunities for outdoor adventures like surfing, boating, paddleboarding, and kayaking.
The top beaches in the city include Terramar Beach, Tamarack State Beach, South State Beach, and South Ponto Beach. North Carlsbad Beaches are another hotspot for shore lovers and provide spaces with fewer crowds, but there are also no lifeguards, showers, or restrooms.
The beautiful beach town of Encinitas is situated in San Diego County. Only 25 miles separate the city from San Diego and 95 miles from Los Angeles. The Pacific Ocean can be seen perfectly anywhere in this area, spread out across six miles of the illustrious and historic Highway 101.
The Kumeyaay were the earliest settlers of Encinitas. The town got its name, “little oaks” in Spanish, from its original foundation in the mid-19th century, the Rancho Las Encinitas.
Encinitas has a population of 59,518 (2020 census) and is situated between the San Elijo Lagoon to the south and Batiquitos Lagoon to the north. The heartbeat of this community is US Highway 101, which follows along its western border and is filled with eateries, cafes, and surfboard shops.
Moonlight State Beach is the most popular area and has good picnicking areas, grassy spaces, year-round lifeguards, and rentable surf gear with lessons. Swami’s Beach and Grandview Beach offer beautiful sandy shores that are perfect for beachcombing and sunbathing.
Visitors and residents that enjoy camping by the ocean should head to San Elijo State Beach with a developed campground and modern amenities.
Situated near Los Angeles, “Surf City, USA”, is the nickname given to Huntington Beach, a prominent surfing destination for enthusiasts of the sport. There are more than 10 miles of pristine beaches, along with several stores, eateries, and surfing championships like the US Open of Surfing.
The first pier in Huntington was constructed in 1904, and Beach Boulevard, the town’s major road, was initially used as a cattle path for the Rancho’s primary industry. Today the area has been commercially developed in many sections but still has vast space on the shore for recreation.
According to the 2020 census, 198,711 permanent residents in the seaside town enjoy proximity to Los Angeles without the busy city atmosphere. The main streets by the shore are very pedestrian friendly and have many restaurants to stop in for a snack or meal.
Huntington City Beach is the star of town and has excellent spaces for surfing, playing in the sand, boarding, and even jogging down by the water. Pet owners love going to Huntington Dog Beach, which has 1.5 miles of leash-optional sands for giving four-legged friends a little freedom to play.
De Marl is just a few miles from San Diego and is the perfect place to fill your itinerary with activities or spend several hours soaking up the sun on the sand. This town with a population of about 3,954 (2020 census) is well-known for its famed racetrack, fantastic climate, affluent housing, and stunning beaches.
Theodore M. Loop, a railroad executive, and his wife Ella established the first settlement in Del Mar at the beginning of the 1880s. The town was formally established in 1885 after an immigrant bought the area from a homesteader.
Nowadays, the vibrant village with an area of just 1.8 square miles boasts an outstanding farmer’s market, delicious restaurants with fresh seafood, and services like hot hair balloon rides or surf lessons. Another notable trait of the city is its Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve, one of two homes to the rarest pine tree in the country.
Del Mar’s two miles of fine sand and picturesque beaches are ideal for strolling, sunbathing, or enjoying a peaceful picnic. One of the most well-known areas of it is the northern section between the River Mouth and 15th Street, where great swimming and surfing opportunities are.
The sole incorporated city in Del Norte County is called Crescent City after the lovely crescent-shaped Pacific Coast coastline that gives the town its name. This community, located along Highway 101 close to the California/Oregon border, is surrounded by coastal redwoods, the ocean, and stunning landscapes.
Even though the region was initially explored by ships in the early 1800s by European explorers, people from that continent didn’t settle there until the 1850s. In 1854 Crescent City officially became a city, and in 1855, a lighthouse was erected at “the battery point,” which now operates as a historical site.
In the modern day, the quiet seaside town has a very charming ambiance, and there are only about 6,673 (2020 census). Due to its location by the Redwood Highway, Crescent City is a favored rest station along this must-drive picturesque route.
There are a few public amenities, free parking, and a lot of open sand at Crescent Beach. As long as they are on short leashes, dogs are welcome there. The vast beach, managed by the National Park Service as a section of Redwood National Park, is a well-liked seasonal location for swimming, beachcombing, beach walking, and surfing.
Fort Bragg, situated along the picturesque California Highway 1, is well-known for its Glass Beach, a shore sprinkled with colorful, circular pieces of glass. This beach town is a must-visit location for outdoor enthusiasts and environment lovers because of its stunning parks along the beach, exceptional possibilities to see wildlife, and nearby redwood trails.
As a site for artillery practice, Camp Bragg—later called Fort Bragg—was founded in 1918. For decades, the town had heavy influence and a role in US Army operations going back to World War I. At its peak during war times, the city had a population of around 159,000, but today only has approximately 6,983 residents (2020 census).
Tourists come to town for Mendocino coastal views, visit the historic Skunk Train, fresh seafood cuisine, and of course, time at the beach.
Round fragments of colorful glass can be found on the three Fort Bragg beaches. The glass stones glisten in the sun among the other pebbles on the shores, and they formed over decades by the water beating and grinding abandoned bottles and trash. Most of the glass has been removed, but what is left is primarily clear, with a few brown, green, red, or blue pieces.
One of the top vacation destinations on the Californian Central Coast is Monterey, situated along the southern edge of the magnificent Monterey Bay. Explore the famed Fisherman’s Wharf, the nearby world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links, and the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The beach town was established on June 3, 1770, and served as the administrative center for Alta California under Spain and Mexico. Monterey held California’s first constitutional convention in 1849, a year after Mexico surrendered the state to the United States after the Mexican-American War.
The city’s population today is about 30,218, according to the 2020 census. If you’re craving some time outdoors, consider booking a whale-watching tour, exploring historical sites, viewing luxurious cottages in Caramel-By-The-Sea, or heading out to the beaches.
Monterey’s best beaches are Del Monte Beach, San Carlos Beach, McAbee Beach, and Monterey State Beach. Swimming, kayaking, scuba diving, and canoeing. Some nearby businesses rent gear for these watersports, so even travelers have a chance to do them.
For the ultimate Californian beach treat, escape to the town of Avalon, the only established one on Catalina Island and the southernmost city in Los Angeles County. Visitors may take advantage of the many hotels, beaches, eateries, spa treatments, land and ocean adventures, and other leisure activities that Avalon offers like a scenic golf course.
Before the modern era, Avalon Bay was inhabited by tribal people who had either died or were forced to leave by the 1830s. The city was incorporated in 1913 and a few years later was purchased, managed, and owned by chewing gum businessman William Wrigley Jr, who worked hard to preserve and conserve the natural environment.
In 1975, Wrigley’s son deeded their family shares of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, who now own most of it. Avalon Bay has the oldest golf course west of the Mississippi and offers tourists plenty to discover on land and sea.
Avalon has a large number of shores to get your beach fix. Step Beach, Hamilton Beach, Middle Beach, and South Beach are the best places to play on the sand and splash in the waves.
Yachters, mariners, surfers, fishermen, and everyone seeking a laid-back vacation in the sun frequent Newport Beach. Based an hour away from LA, this beach town is a lovely area to come and vacation and is particularly noted for its opulent yet laid-back lifestyle.
Before European settlers arrived in the 19th century and upended the Tongva people’s long-established, prosperous community, they had lived there for many generations. Compared to today’s population of 85,239 (2020 census), Newport Beach had just 206 inhabitants when it became a city in 1906.
For those who enjoy exploring cities, Newport Beach has a variety of shops, restaurants, and picturesque hiking trails. There are ten miles of fantastic surfing, fishing, swimming, and water sports opportunities and the biggest recreational port on the west coast.
When you’re ready to break out the sunscreen at hit the sand, head over to the town’s best beaches. Newport’s gems include Balboa Beach, Newport Beach Municipal Beach, Little Treasure Cove, and North Star Beach. Water activities include swimming, kayaking, sailing, whale watching, and surfing.
Santa Barbara is a charming seaside community well-known for its beautiful beaches, family-friendly activities, dining options, and picturesque vistas of the Pacific Ocean. This coastal town is the perfect destination for a weekend escape or year-round permanent home thanks to its unique architecture, idyllic beaches, and nearby wine areas.
Humans have inhabited the region since at least 13,000 BC, and Spanish explorers traveled through the area in the 16th and 17th centuries. Intense historical occurrences like the Mexican-American War and the 1812 earthquake were both endured by Santa Barbara.
These days, the thriving shoreside town has about 88,665 (2020 census) permanent residents who enjoy warm summers and mild winters. Some key points of interest in the city include Mission Santa Barbara, guided tours of the region, and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
The best shores in town are Leadbetter Beach, East Beach, West Beach, and Arroyo Burro Beach County Park. SUP boards, swimming, kayaking, and surfing are some of the most common water activities. Visitors can also take advantage of paved bike pathways, play volleyball on the sand, or go hiking in the coastline area.
The “Spanish Village by the Sea”, San Clemente, is an hour south of Los Angeles and famed for its deep surfing culture, Spanish colonial-style architecture, and many sunny days. This relaxed city is a popular tourist attraction and place to live, never failing to astound worldwide visitors.
Like many southern Californian towns, San Clemente was primarily populated by indigenous people and frequently by European settlers. The San Clemente Pier is among San Clemente’s most recognizable features, being 1,200-foot-long and first completed in 1928. There are excellent fishing sites and seafood eateries on the pier where you can enjoy fish, oysters, and other mouthwatering fresh seafood.
San Clemente Beach is a coastal gem with beautiful cliffs, picnic benches, clean bathrooms, and plenty of space to use the ocean and sand. Campsites are also located at this beach, which are attractive options for staying outdoors.
Set in San Diego County, Oceanside is a modest beach town with a population of about 176,000 (2020 census). It offers a fantastic climate, plenty of sandy shores, and a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. The town has drawn travelers since the turn of the 20th century because of its six miles of white sand beach, 1888 wooden pier, and colorful, eccentric port hamlet.
The first Europeans to arrive in Oceanside came in the 1700s, before the Mexican era, and eventually became a part of the USA with the rest of California. Since 1970, the coastal city has been a hotspot for vacation homes and has developed quite a bit over the decades. Some of the top attractions in town are Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside Harbor Village, and the California Surf Museum.
Residents and visitors to Oceanside love spending time by the water to sunbathe, swim, surf, and boat. The best beaches in town include Strand Beach, Oceanside City Beach, and Oceanside Harbor Beach.
San Luis Obispo County’s Pismo Beach is a historic seaside community that has beautiful ocean vistas and a homey feel. The 1,200-foot-long historic Pismo Beach Pier is adjacent to the downtown area, which is pleasantly perfumed with the aroma of regional seafood delicacies.
Pismo was established in 1946, but the Chumash tribal people lived along these shores for centuries. The town’s name comes from the indigenous word “pismu” which means “tar” in English, as the substance was discovered in a nearby canyon.
Today, the coastal village has a total population of 8,072 (2020 census) and is famed for being the “Clam Capital of the World”. In addition to the annual Clam Festival in October, the town is also popular for having the oldest surf shop on the Central Coast, Pismo Beach Surf Shop.
Dinosaur Caves Park is one of the top-rated beaches in town, thanks to its safe shores for kids and beautiful waves. Eldwayen Ocean Park, Elmer Ross Beach, and Pier Beach have some of the best swimming opportunities and tide pools to explore.
San Diego is a fantastic destination for thrill seekers and sun worshippers looking for a laid-back escape due to its location along the Pacific Ocean. Despite being a large metropolis, this beach city is known for its many unique beaches, each of which has its own personality and pastimes.
In 1850 California was granted statehood, which was the same year that San Diego was founded as a city and named the county seat of the freshly created San Diego County. At the base of Presidio Hill, in what is now Old Settlement San Diego State Historic Park, was where the ancient town of San Diego formerly stood.
The city had a population of a whopping 1,386,932 people during the 2020 census and is home to many world-famous tourist attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, and the USS Midway Museum. To explore the region by water, try booking a guarded boat tour, book a charter excursion, or rent a kayak for individual exploration.
The most popular beaches in San Diego are Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. Visitors and locals enjoy surfing, swimming in the sea, running on the beach, and building sandcastles after sunbathing at these extensive beaches. The most crowded times are during the summertime and spring break.
When you’re ready to explore the California coast and do a little hopping between beach towns, this list will surely steer you in the right direction.