The 15 Most Charming Beach Towns in Southern California
Whether you’re in the market for a day trip or a weekend away, one of these charming seaside escapes is your new happy place. Here, the best beach towns in Southern California.
Editor’s note: Please remember to mask up and follow social distancing protocols while traveling and be sure to check up on the town’s health and safety guidelines before you go.
1. Butterfly Beach, Montecito
This strip of beach in Montecito came into the limelight when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (seen frolicking with son Archie) decided to trade in British Royal life and call the low-key, yet sophisticated area of Santa Barbara home. The expansive gardens of the Four Seasons Resort is nearby but walk or ride bikes with a sidecar rented from Mad Dogs & Englishmen up to charming, Spanish-style Coast Village Road where star sightings happen on the daily at Lucky’s steakhouse (this is also the hood where Oprah and Ellen live), and next door at Mediterranean hang-out Coast & Olive in the Montecito Inn.
Sandwiched in between Carpinteria and Oxnard, Ventura Harbor Village is a working harbor, fishing marina and quaint area with shops, galleries, restaurants and waterfront activities. Expect a carousel, stand-up paddle-board and jet skiing with sea lions, a beach cove and surfers, plus it’s dog friendly. This spot is also where you will find the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, aka “The American Galapagos,” with a viewing tower where you can spot up to 445 species of birds.
3. Venice Beach
As an artist enclave since the 1960s, you will still find the most colorful characters walking, biking, rollerblading and body painting on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, but don’t overlook the food mecca this area has become in just a few short blocks. International talents and fare include Aussie-owned Great White for breakfast burritos, OSPI for pasta and Michelin-starred chef David Myers Adrift (from Singapore and Japan) for elevated burgers and shakes. Head to the roof of the funky Hotel ERWIN for cocktails and the best views of the sunset and spectacle below.
One of the most famous stretches of sea in the world also has pockets of small-town charm in the one-mile area near Carbon and Surfrider beaches. Take a stroll out on the long wooden pier that juts out over the Pacific with a few nautical themed shops and organic food haven Malibu Farm. While you won’t see Baywatch lookalikes running down the shore, you might spot some of the Kardashian clan heading for the private room at Nobu next door to members only Little Beach House.
At the southern end of San Diego, Coronado island is home to the historic Victorian-style Hotel Del Coronado where Presidents, royals and A-list celebrities have passed though over the past 130 years. Now, families gather near the cabanas for sunset s'mores over the fire pits. New activities nearby include Italian wine tasting while floating through the canals with The Gondola Company, or work out any kinks perfecting your throwing aim with the Coronado Axe Company. You can also stick with the more traditional (and potentially safer) kayaking and paddleboard options at the Coronado Boathouse in Glorietta Bay.
Santa Barbara, just 12 miles northwest, is gorgeous, but nearby Carpinteria is gorgeous and empty. The small seaside village has a walkable main street called Linden Avenue and mom-and-pop establishments including little surf shops, antique stores and cafés. Mostly notably, Little Dom’s from L.A. has recently set up shop with a market-deli, bar and restaurant offering seafood, pasta and those famous meatballs. Keep it low-key with a stay at the Holiday Inn Express Carpinteria or splash out and drive down from Santa Barbara’s Hotel Californian.
7. San Clemente
This town was brought to national attention in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon hosted world leaders at his seaside home here. Today, surfers look up at the site while catching waves at Trestles. San Clemente is notable for its gorgeous Spanish architecture, so enjoy the red tile roofs and stucco as you’re shopping on Avenida Del Mar. Eat seafood down at the 1,296-foot wooden pier, where you can catch the killer sunset.
8. Manhattan Beach
There’s a charming 1950s feel to the small businesses in Manhattan Beach, where there’s the Roundhouse Aquarium at the end of the historic wooden pier and an outdoor fireplace in Mecox Plaza. Only ten minutes south of LAX, this is where your stressed-out out-of-towners should check in to the Shade Hotel, where you can meet them for the weekend so everyone can detox from whatever urban hassles are needling. For retail therapy and food-fuel after hitting the bike path, Manhattan Village is bursting with popular transplants from other parts of the city such as JOEY, BOA and Sushi Roku.
9. Huntington Beach
Not exactly a small town (it has around 200,000 residents), “Huntington,” as it’s called, nonetheless has a chill vibe with its 9.5 miles of sandy flat beach, slammin’ waves (thanks to the currents around Catalina) and healthy economy (thanks to a history of oil discovered nearby and the aerospace industry). Plus, how can you not love a town that is home to the International Surfing Museum and has the trademarked nickname “Surf City USA”? Stay at the Paséa Hotel & Spa right next to the pier and schedule an exfoliating body treatment with ginger oil at the Balinese spa there.
It’s regarded as the new Malibu by entertainment bigwigs who want beautiful wide beaches at prices that aren’t quite as hefty as the more well-known communities. This Ventura County spot is notable for what it doesn’t have: no high-priced restaurants, no chichi boutiques and no keeping-up-with-the-Joneses vibe. However, what it does have is a smattering of international food, a great stock of contemporary Airbnb homes bang on the beach and an emerging wine industry—it’s a great starting point for the Ventura County Wine Trail.
11. Laguna Beach
There’s a reason why plein air painters clustered around this seven-mile stretch of coastal cliffs and coves as far back as the turn of the 1800s: The area is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It also has 20,000 acres of protected natural land for biking and hiking, and a charming shopping district you can reach by renting an electric bike. Treat yourself to a room at the Montage Laguna Beach, where you can enjoy sundowner cocktails at the fire pit before having a fancy dinner at Studio. For something a little more intimate and low-key, the chic Mediterranean meets mid-century modern style of boutique Hotel Joaquin feels like your own pied-à-terre with a garden area pool.
12. Newport Beach
In The Great Gatsby, socialite Daisy Buchanan’s laugh is said to sound like money. That’s the way the air feels in Newport Beach, where the average home clocks in around $2.5 million. Still, you don’t need to be rolling in it to enjoy a weekend here, but you will want to use your savings to stay at the luxe Resort at Pelican Hill, with its Insta-worthy round pool and Italianate architecture. And take a trip to A’maree’s, a soaring modernist designer boutique right on the water that’s set up more like an heiress’s home than a store.
13. Long Beach
It’s no small town, and it’s located just 20 miles from downtown L.A., but the allure of Long Beach escapes most Angelenos anyway. (Excepting Lana Del Rey, who highlights the place in songs and videos featuring her love of Cali.) So listen up: There’s a case to be made for Long Beach as your new beachy getaway, with its ethnic diversity, active LGBTQ community, great food and walkable downtown area. Stay at the jazzy yet affordable Hotel Maya and be sure to visit the docked QE II or the reopened Aquarium of the Pacific. In the well-healed Belmont Shores section along Pacific Coast Highway, L.A. nightlife guru Brent Bolthouse and Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina have opened a stunning Bungalow Kitchen outpost designed by Studio Collective.
14. Dana Point
Dana Point is all about the sailing—there are slips for more than 2,500 boats as well as a romantic, craggy coast including Headlands, the signature promontory that overlooks Dana Point Harbor. Wide flat beaches are made for long walks, as well as parasailing, windsurfing and boogie boarding. Keep it casual by staying right across the street from the ocean at the Capistrano Surfside Inn and renting a bike for the weekend without ever once getting behind the wheel of your car.
15. Solana Beach
Your perfect dog vacation is here. At Del Mar Dog Beach, your canines can run off-leash and even swim with you. Stay at the Hotel Indigo with your four-legged friend and make a day of it, then stroll around, have lunch and browse at the nearby Cedros Design District.
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