Top 10 coastal towns in California
If you've got plans to head to the coast with the most then coastal self-driving in California is definitely the way to go. All the way from Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel just below San Fran in the north, to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Santa Catalina Island in LA County down south, there's nothing like a road trip on Highway 101 to pick up on those oh so good vibrations. From surfer hang outs and ancient amusement parks to fine-dining seafood restaurants and designer boutiques, the coastal towns in California are as star-studded as they're slacker-friendly and if you're looking to combine barking sealions, lone cypress trees and some of the best clam chowder this side of the Pacific then right here is where you find out just where to start with our guide to the top 10 coastal towns in California.
Where: Situated along the crescent of San Diego Bay just across from San Diego's downtown district in the southwest of California in San Diego County.
What: This seaside resort city is like an island although it's still connected to the rest of California via a sandy causeway known as the Silver Strand that stretches for around seven miles. Coronado Beach has always been known as one of the best on the west coast with numerous festivals, restaurants and attractions, particularly along Orange Avenue, offering a great deal of choice after a good day spent skimming sand dollars or braving the surf.
Highlights: Coronado is extremely welcoming to families visiting California and provides an island ambience even though you're still connected to the mainland. Bike hire gives visitors an ideal means of getting around with water taxis and regular ferries offering excellent alternatives if getting on or off Coronado, especially when compared to the often busy bridge from San Diego. There's loads of artisan workshops and galleries down by Ferry Landing with the Hotel Del Coronado and the Babcock and Story Inn offering a fine array of craft beer and old school charm along with those scintillating views over the Pacific.
Further reading: Coronado beach holidays
Where: Neatly nestled between part of the Transverse Ranges, the Santa Yneza Mountains, and the white and blue hues of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is the capital of Santa Barbara County and the self-acclaimed Riviera of America.
What: Santa Barb's coastline is the longest south facing beach on the West Coast with Highway 101 connecting the city all the way from LA to San Fran. Aside from the sophisticated beach lifestyles of the rich and famous, Santa Barbara is also the home of Los Padres National Forest which features several thousand acres of mountain and valley wilderness areas from where condors, coyotes and black bears are known to wander freely, just as nature intended.
Highlights: This is an absolute A-Lister haven and if you're wondering what a typical star-studded sandy beach looks like in California then look no further than Santa Barbara's waterfront. Beach boutiques, watersports outlets and more leafy and sand dusted boulevards than you can wave a brush over, this is without doubt a glimpse at the good life so believe the hype and come on over to the American Riviera while there's still plenty of space.
Where: The Orange County setting highlights San Clemente's enviable reputation with the location between LA and San Diego certainly not diminishing expectation levels in the slightest.
What: Also known as the Spanish City by the Sea, San Clemente contains both a pleasant Mediterranean climate as well as Spanish colonial style properties all set against a hilly, mountainous backdrop leading down to the high rollers of the Pacific.
Highlights: The surfing in San Clemente is legendary with all year round swells providing pros and tourists with all manner of reasons to get excited, not least of all the range of t-shirt shops that you'll find side by side to the skate and surfboard stores. It's the classic old style charm that most visitors attribute to San Clemente as a highlight and if you're looking for laid back and local combined with LA style and a fare share of Mexican diners and Italian delis then this is without a doubt one of the best nooks on the west coast.
Where: A coastal neighbourhood located on the western side of Los Angeles. It was once an independent city until it merged with Los Angeles in 1926.
What: Venice Beach is a global tourist destination, and for good reason. Vibrant, lively, fun – this awesome coastal town certainly won’t leave you bored. The home to artists, creatives, and of course, the roller-blading sun-seekers you see in the media, Venice Beach truly epitomises the greatness of a fun-filled beach destination. There’s plenty to see and do during your visit - how about an adrenaline rush? Kinney Pier is perfect; it’s host to the Venice Scenic Railway, the fascinating aquarium, and a plethora of thrilling amusement rides. Don’t forget a trip to Muscle Beach to see the health nuts weightlifting in the sun, or simply walk around the streets in search for huge, colourful murals that spread across the building’s walls.
Highlights: The Ocean Front Walk is an iconic promenade, and one you won’t want to miss. A truly bizarre experience - walk along the two and a half mile boardwalk and you’ll be met with a myriad of different performances, people and sights. Duck in between busy souvenir shops and restaurants on the east side, before venturing west to wander past tarot card readers, performance artists, and much more – there’s even people who walk on glass or juggle with chainsaws, so you’ll be sure to have a fun yet unique experience.
Where: Based within San Diego's northern most suburbs, this respectable and let's face it, well off, community occupies a sublime hillside setting overlooking a seven mile stretch of Pacific coastline.
What: Bordered by bluffs and beaches from three sides, La Jolla is an upmarket beach town filled with high end stores, designer boutiques and fine-dining restaurants. The locals are into their golf, check out the course at Torrey Pines, and their nudity, Black's Beach is the place for bare bums, but if you're into modern art, country clubs and old school Spanish colonial grandeur then you should fit in just fine.
Highlights: If you're hoping to splash some cash then the boutiques on Girard Avenue are sure to turn more than a few heads with the Museum of Contemporary Art and the local Playhouse providing just a couple of alternatives to days spent at the beach. Caroline's Café at the top of the bluff is an ideal setting for brunch or an early morning pancake whilst watching the surfers however, the Marine Room and the Estancia Hotel are equally enviable options when a fine day in La Jolla is finally drawing to a close.
Where: It's not that far but where is it not that far from? Situated in Santa Cruz County just to the north of Monterey Bay and around 30 miles south of San Jose, Santa Cruz is all about the surf and keeping things as far from real as possible.
What: Known as Surf City and also featuring the Beach Boardwalk amusement park, that has been continuously opened for over a century, Santa Cruz is a laid back hippy, skater, surfer, slacker seaside hang out and just as valued for its hazy ambience as it is for its protected state parks and sandy beaches. Watersports is definitely big business in these parts with boards and wetsuits all proudly sporting the city logo before being shipped off to a wide eyed international audience. Thanks to the surfer vibe you'll find plenty of old school heritage hang outs alongside several national historic landmarks however, for me, it's the sites that featured within the cult 80's vampire flick the Lost Boys that never fail to catch the eye, especially around sunset.
Highlights: If it's not the sand, the sunshine and the sealions then Santa Cruz's laid back and weird vibe is the stand out highlight amongst the rest of California's more respectable coastal settings. Surf shops, diners, cafés and pool bars fill the sea front with annual cultural events and festivals, such as: the Pride carnival along Pacific Avenue Mall, the O'Neill Cold Water Classic on Steamer Lane and the Farmers' Market that's held year round on a Wednesday in the downtown area, helping to keep Santa Cruz just the way the locals like it: wonderfully weird.
Where: The LA County setting gives you a slight inclining as to what it means to be a permanent Malibu resident with the proximity to the Pacific Coast Highway aka Route 1, meaning the city is the beach retreat for A-list celebs, pro athletes and movie stars all the way from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
What: Expect to find over 20 miles of gorgeous beaches, including Surfrider, Topanga and Dan Blockers, as well as several state parks featuring bluffs, creeks, canyons and wooded hillsides. Alongside being a highly affluent area, Malibu is a haven for surfers with steady swells and long waves providing ample excuses to get in the water when not undertaking onshore activities like hiking, mountain biking and shopping down at the Malibu Civic Center.
Highlights: The multicoloured sunsets disappearing into the Malibu horizon are simply stunning and it's no surprise that some of the best spots to ease into the evening are occupied by the properties of the rich and famous. Star home spotting is almost as much fun as the surfing with the Country Mart, Lumber Yard and Malibu Pier providing just a few of the places to be seen away from days spent at Zuma Beach or searching for waterfalls via the hiking trails of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Where: Good old Carmel-by-the-sea can be found on the Monterey Peninsula roughly, very roughly, in between LA to the south and San Fran to the north.
What: This former Spanish mission settlement became known as one of California's foremost retreats for musicians, artists and writers with several early city council members helping to swell the ranks of nature loving bohemian types way beyond the realms of your typical seaside settlers.
Highlights: Carmel is blessed with some superb shaded walking trails that can be found close to the wild and windswept beaches, with the Mission Trail Nature Reserve and Point Lobos State Reserve both providing an enviable array of fields, bluffs and tangled trees. A perfect hang out after a good day spent exploring Carmel's sandy beaches and inland valleys is the city's 'village' district that provides the perfect safe haven for those hoping to hunker down in candle-lit gastro-inns or browse in an eclectic choice of galleries and artisan workshops.
Where: Located on the Westside of LA within close proximity to Brentwood, Malibu, Topanga and Santa Monica; basically, just follow Sunset Boulevard and you'll get there soon enough.
What: This is one of California's most affluent beach towns with numerous hiking and biking trails and green and pleasant park lands giving the locals plenty of options once they're done working.
Highlights: Each of Pacific Palisades seven neighbourhoods promises something a little bit different and a touch more special than the others with a lack of beachfront properties helping to maintain the beach in all of its wild and untouched natural beauty. Watching dolphins playing just off Will Rogers State Beach, checking out the oysters or chowder at the Hungry Cat or Gladstones, or heading to the Palisades recreation park or the Rustic Canyon for some outdoor fun and games, if you're looking for highlights under 30 minutes from Hollywood then Pacific Palisades is pretty hard to beat.
Santa Catalina Island
Where: Set just over 20 miles southwest of LA, in the California Channel Islands, Santa Catalina can be reached in an hour by express ferry or, if you're feeling frisky, about 15 minutes by chopper.
What: Geographically speaking Santa Cat is 22 miles in length and eight miles wide with the capital and main community, Avalon, located on the island's southeast coast.
Highlights: Aside from Avalon, one of the main draws of Santa Catalina Island is the fact that you can't hire a car over there so the twisty, windy, roads tend to be fairly empty other than the tiny cars, trucks and pick-ups driven by the locals. This is a really romantic retreat to get away from it all, just ask Marilyn Monroe who did just that during her heyday. Seafood suppers overlooking the harbour in Avalon, loads of watersports for all the family, and guided Jeep tours to help you discover the rest of the island's pebbly and rocky shoreline; this is one of California's hidden secrets so don't you go telling now, ya hear!
Enjoy a holiday in California's coastal sunshine with these recommended tours & stays
Shutters on the Beach, Santa Monica
The Inn at Laguna Beach, Los Angeles
Marriott Newport Beach Hotel & Spa
Rancho Bernado Inn Golf Resort & Spa, San Diego
Hotel del Coronado
Encounter Los Angeles & San Diego Self-Drive (7 nights)
Explore California & The Pacific Coast Self-Drive (11 nights)
Self-Drive Golden California (11 nights)
California Travel Guides
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- Top 10 national parks in California
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