With postcard coastlines and an “endless summer” climate, Southern California beach towns make great getaways 365 days of the year. Deciding when to go is easy; choosing where to go is the challenge. Whether you crave opulence, adventure, a laid-back surferville ambience, or an artsy boho vibe, the perfect strand of Southern California sand awaits. Here’s all the local knowledge you need to plan a killer SoCal escape.
Celebrity-studded and brimming with multimillion-dollar mansions built smack on the shoreline, LA’s Malibu packs plenty of star power. It’s normal to spot Hollywood types, and you won’t need a cheesy tour to do so. After all, this is the place where many live, work, and play.
Be sure to check out Malibu Country Mart, an eclectic collection of boutiques, outdoor dining spaces, and gardens. Discover hip, retro tees at Vintage Malibu and the latest high-end denim trends at 7 for all Mankind, then head to Nobu Malibu for sushi. The ocean-view patio is the place to be but don’t expect to see too many famous faces unless you choose a spot in the dining room.
Star sightings aside, Malibu boasts 27 miles of stunning shoreline. Some of it is notoriously tricky to access, but those in the know use the Our Malibu Beaches app. This online guide is perfect for sleuthing out secret stairways and hidden trails to some of the area’s most exclusive beaches.
Be sure to find your way to Matador Beach. Its rugged landscape of arches and caves begs to be Instagrammed. Feeling sneaky? There’s a secluded stretch of sand known as Pirate’s Cove just below Point Dume. If you’re brave enough for a little rock-scrambling, make your way down to sea level, hop the rocks on the shore, and you’re there.
Venice/Marina del Rey
Reggae, street performers, body builders, palm readers, artists, and all manner of costumed, colorful characters make this funky LA beach town the perfect place for people watching. While surf and sand create a lovely backdrop, it’s easily upstaged by the carnival-like vibe found on Ocean Front Walk. Grab some grub at The Sidewalk Café for front-row viewing or book a room at Venice Beach Suites & Hotel and you’ll be right in the thick of things.
When you’re ready for respite, stroll Venice’s serene canals and discover a friendly community of beautiful waterfront abodes. Neighbors chat with each other from perfectly manicured yards and are quick to offer insider tips to passersby. If you’re lucky enough to be here at Christmas time, be sure to catch the annual Venice Canals Holiday Boat Parade. Decorated bridges, boats, and homes are lusciously illuminated, and a celebratory atmosphere rules the night.
Everything from sport fishing and sailboat charters to sunset cruises are available in Marina del Rey.
The sand is grand in Laguna Beach but the best reason to visit this Orange County beach town is the art. Every summer from early July to late August this enclave of creatives hosts the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts. Juried art shows, gallery tours, demonstrations, and hands-on workshops are the bulk of the affair, but the main attraction is The Pageant of The Masters, when renowned paintings are brought to life during a 90-minute series of tableaux vivants in an outdoor amphitheater. A live orchestra, an original score, vocalists, and narrators provide the soundtrack as costumed cast members and elaborate sets perfectly replicate their masterpiece counterparts. It’s the ultimate performance art.
While in town be sure to hit The Rooftop Lounge for happy hour. The views are amazing but the mojitos are even more delightful. And be sure to stop in at Montage Laguna Beach. Better yet, stay there. This luxurious beach resort is the recipient of Forbes Travel Guide’s triple five-star award for its hotel, spa, and restaurant. Service here is topnotch—staff have a funny knack for anticipating needs you didn’t even know you had—and the spa is divine. Reserve enough time for the short walk to Treasure Island Park, where the landscaping is as sumptuous as the Pacific panoramas.
Beautiful people. Big sunglasses. Tiny dogs. Newport Beach is the OC playground for the affluent and ultra-chic. Shiny sports cars, spectacular yachts, towering palms, and all things luxury define Newport Beach. If designer labels make you swoon, make a beeline for Fashion Island (really, that’s the name). Upscale boutiques and high-end department stores line this elegant, open-air, ocean-view shopping plaza.
Then head to Newport Harbor and get out on the water. Boating is the main attraction here so take your pick from the numerous sunset sails, booze cruises, and whale watching tours offered and get in on the action. Or be your own captain and rent an oh-so-adorable Duffy Boat. Pack yourself a picnic (don’t forget the champagne and caviar) and motor around the harbor to mingle with yachties and enjoy up-close views of the multimillion-dollar homes lining the waterfront.
Back on land, be sure to visit the vintage side of this swanky town. Explore Balboa Peninsula’s old-school boardwalk and get some Dick and Jane-era kicks at the Fun Zone. Carnival games, kiddie rides, and a Ferris wheel with spectacular views will amuse your inner child. Grab yourself a Balboa bar and head east to see The Wedge. This legendary, one-of-a-kind wave can reach heights of 30 feet and crashes directly onto the sand. Watch surfers and bodyboarders get the ride of their lives, but don’t attempt to join them unless your skills are seriously up to snuff. This wave packs a punch.
This classic, chilled-out OC surf town is reminiscent of days when Gidget and The Beach Boys ruled. Flip-flops and T-shirts are the prevailing fashion, and life here is all about the beach. An example of the locals’ laid-back routine can be found during the San Clemente Ocean Festival. Known as “the greatest show on surf,” this free, two-day summertime event brings the best of surf culture to the San Clemente Pier. Classic woodie cars are proudly displayed as surfers compete for titles and lifeguards serve up pancake breakfasts. There’s also a sand sculpture contest, family beach party, free concert, and tons of booths and exhibits to peruse.
If you want to hang ten with some serious soul-surfers, head to neighboring Dana Point and catch a wave at Doheney State Beach. Known as “Doho” by natives, this is the break where longboarders of all ages, genders, and skill levels ride the surf in perfect harmony.
Everything in this San Diego coastal community seems centered around the famed, seaside Del Mar Racetrack, home of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. Horse racing season kicks off in July and runs through early September. Get here in time for opening day festivities and you can bet your dapper duds that you’ll track a great time. This party is less about thoroughbreds and more about stylish threads. Ladies, get thee to the haberdashery then don your showiest chapeau to compete in the Opening Day Hat Contest. Zany headwear is the name of the game and cash prizes are awarded to entrants with the most creativity and style.
As for the playa across the way, let’s just say it’s gone to the dogs. Home of The Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon, this is the place where canines compete for title of Top Surf Dog. Watching Fido find his stoke provides plenty of YouTube worthy moments, and the proceeds from this festive fundraiser support a local shelter benefitting man’s best friend.
Hungry? Be in town near the first day of summer to sample sips and nibbles from nearly every Del Mar restaurant at the annual Summer Solstice seaside soirée. For more local cuisine, visit the weekly Del Mar Farmer’s Market in the village or cruise to native favorite Jake’s Del Mar. Nosh on seared scallops and lobster tails as you take in stunning ocean views. Jake’s is a great place to watch the sun go down, but for an even better vantage point, book a sunset hot air balloon ride high above the coastline.
Outdoor adventure dominates in this San Diego seaside jewel. La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove are prime locations for getting in or on the water. Scuba divers and snorkelers commune with bright orange Garibaldis and bewhiskered pinnipeds year round. During the months of June through September, thousands of leopard sharks migrate to these waters for mating season and can be seen up close and (ahem) personal. For watersports above the surface, the best quests involve kayaking. Join a guided tour or go solo and explore La Jolla’s seven sea caves.
Hang gliding is another popular pastime, and a visit to the Torrey Pines Gliderport is a must. Grab a cold drink and a sandwich at the snack bar then sit back and watch as rainbow-colored gliders soar above Blacks Beach. If you’re feeling courageous, get your own adrenaline pumping with a tandem ride cliff-side. The views are so amazing that you just might forget you’re strapped to a stranger 340 feet up in the air.
Celebrate your newfound backbone with a one-of-a-kind dining experience at The Marine Room, built directly on the beach where the water is literally just outside your window. During the restaurant’s High Tide Dinners, the view gets even better, with waves crashing so close you’d be soaking wet if not for the glass just barely separating
Looking for family fun? Bring your brood to the quintessential coastal town of Coronado. With gentle waves and 28 miles of golden sand, it boasts terrific terrain for teens and tots to dig safely into the San Diego beach scene. Swimming, surfing, sailing, and stand-up paddleboarding are just some of the activities to keep your crew active and happy. Keep your eyes peeled for The Sandcastle Man. Known for his whimsical—and often towering—3D sand sculptures, Bill Pavlacka is frequently found creating his masterpieces on the stretch of sand that fronts the iconic red-roofed Hotel Del Coronado.
Of course, no trip to Coronado would be complete without a stay, or at least a visit, to the Hotel Del. Wee ones are genuinely welcomed here and will love the lively atmosphere and sugary snacks found at Spreckels Sweets & Treats and MooTime Creamery. If you’re there on the weekend, spoil mom with the lavish Sunday Brunch in the Crown Room. Wear your stretchy pants, people, because this feast is fit for royalty! Burn off those calories with a walk along Orange Avenue for shopping or stroll the bungalow-lined neighborhoods. Better yet, rent a bike or slap on your sneakers and hit Coronado’s 24 miles of paved trails along the sea.
Image Credits: Photo by Kan Khampany/SHUTTERSTOCK.