Which California Beach
Will You Fall in Love With?

There's a California beach to suit your every mood. Whether you're looking for an outdoor adventure, a family beach vacation, or a romantic getaway, you’ll find it here.

  • Beaches that are perfect for people watching
  • Beaches made for solitude
  • Beaches for playing and exploring
  • Beaches that will simply take your breath away

You can wallow in luxury at a posh resort, snuggle up in a cozy bed & breakfast inn, or rough it in your own little tent by the beach. Go hiking, or loll around in the sun. Go sightseeing, or just decompress.

Relaxing vista on the Mendocino Coast in Northern California

Mendocino Coast  © Arthur Preston | istockphoto.com

Beyond the glories of the coastal landscape, you can also enjoy all the sophistication of California’s great coastal cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Each has its own special attractions, and more things to do than you'll ever have time for.

If big cities aren’t your thing, plan a visit to one of California's many beach towns, quaint villages, or tiny burgs. With 1100 miles of coastline, California offers a dazzling array of choices.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll wind up with a long list of California beaches you love.

I lived in California for 25 years, until the lure of greener financial pastures drove me away. Now I write about the California coast with the wistfulness of a refugee longing for the homeland. I hope I can help you find those special places that create warm memories to last a lifetime.

So, what are you in the mood for?

Let’s take a road trip, and see if anything strikes your fancy as we head on down the coast!

Trinidad Beach in Northern California

Highway 1 in Big Sur   Photo © Photoquest | Dreamstime.com

Northern California Coast

The Northern California coast is heaven for nature lovers, adventurers, and the spiritually inclined. The sheer beauty and abundance of the place will feed your soul.

Trinidad Beach in Northern California

Trinidad, California  Photo © Oliverblum | Dreamstime.com

Things to Do: Camp among the beach dunes at Gold Bluffs Beach, and wake to a meadow full of grazing Roosevelt elk, or luxuriate in a scenic inn set on a bluff overlooking the Mendocino coast. Explore the quiet grandeur of the lush redwood forest, or take a tour through it on the historic Skunk Train.

Go Outdoors: This is the perfect place for an outdoor adventure. Go hiking, camping, fishing, whale watching, kayaking, horseback riding, tidepooling, and (if you’re still not tired) diving for abalone. For the truly adventurous, a hike along the wild California beaches of the Lost Coast is a unique experience.

Cultural Attractions: This area is wetter and wilder than the rest of the California coast, yet it also affords luxuries you may not expect. You'll find art and theater, marvelous Victorian architecture, romantic inns and resorts, numerous wineries, and more.

The coastline is dotted with small towns and tiny villages, like artsy Mendocino or the Victorian village of Ferndale. Some places, like tiny Elk, California, are little more than a scenic stretch of coast with some lovely inns and a few amenities.

Sound intriguing?

Explore Northern California vacation ideas, beaches and attractions.

San Francisco Bay Area

The urban delights of San Francisco are world famous. The City by the Bay boasts splendid scenery, fascinating museums, a vibrant night life, and tourist attractions as varied as Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Chinatown.

Take a walk across the elegant Golden Gate Bridge, hitch a ride on a cable car, explore the beauty of Golden Gate Park, and by all means enjoy some of the great food the city has to offer.

Cliff House on Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California

Cliff House at Ocean Beach in San Francisco 

San Francisco Travel Association photo by John Lund

Beaches and Parks: The Bay Area also boasts some of the most beautiful California beaches and parks. To the north of the city, you can explore the wild and lovely beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore, or take a walk through the hushed splendor of the redwood forest at Muir Woods National Monument. You'll feel like you're in the middle of nowhere, even though the City is just around the corner.

Even in San Francisco itself, there are miles and miles of beach to explore. You'll find places to hike, bicycle, kayak, horseback ride - and the list goes on.

South of San Francisco: Head south of San Francisco and life gets simpler and quieter in the small California beach communities along Highway 1. You'll find major surfing spots in tiny Pacifica, Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.

Looking for fun? Try the amusement park at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk or take a ride on the Roaring Camp Railroad in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Enjoy the wildlife (from whales to Monarch butterflies), the breathtaking scenery, and the numerous recreational activities.

Central California Coast

Next, we head down the Central Coast. Buckle your seat belt; it’s going to be spectacular.

McWay Falls in Big Sur, California

McWay Falls in Big Sur  Photo © Photoquest | Dreamstime.com

Monterey Bay: First, we hit the Monterey Bay area, where the coastline is scenic and the living is easy. Go golfing in Pebble Beach, take in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, stroll around in the quaint village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, or explore some of Monterey’s many historic sites.

If you love the outdoors, this is the place for you. Hop into a kayak to explore the calm waters of Monterey Bay or Elkhorn Slough, and maybe encounter some seals, sea otters, pelicans, or rays. Take a whale watching tour, or go fishing, hiking, sailing or horseback riding. And when you’re done playing, just relax on the gorgeous white sandy beach in Carmel.

Big Sur: Head south of Monterey, and you’ll encounter one of the wonders of the world -- Big Sur, where the mountains meet the sea. Take your time traveling along scenic Highway 1; it’s a very twisting road, with numerous turnouts. You’ll want to stop frequently to enjoy the fantastic views. The Big Sur coast is sparsely populated, but there are some outstanding inns and resorts, plus great camping spots.

At the southern end of Big Sur, we hit San Simeon, where you can stroll along a lovely stretch of beach, or take a tour of the opulent Hearst Castle.

San Luis Obispo Coast: Then on to the beach communities of San Luis Obispo County. Morro Bay, Avila Beach and Pismo Beach are great places to enjoy a laid back California beach vacation. You’ll find the most extensive coastal dunes in California here, and one of the few places where you can ride an ATV -- on the beach and among the dunes. You’ll also find wineries, a beautiful coastal park at Montana de Oro, and great seafood.

Santa Barbara: A short drive south brings you to Santa Barbara. With its red-tiled roofs and Spanish Colonial architecture, you’ll think you’re vacationing on the sunny Mediterranean. Santa Barbara has it all -- beauty, charm and culture. There are historic sites, like Mission Santa Barbara, museums and art galleries, entertainment and nightlife, restaurants and shopping. Go whale watching or take a trip to the Channel Islands, visit Santa Barbara’s wine country or luxuriate at a spa.

Ventura: Last stop on our tour of the Central Coast is Ventura, where you can enjoy a classic California beach experience minus the crowds. Stroll around the historic downtown area, check out the arts scene, and enjoy some of the great restaurants. There’s plenty of surf and sand, and a lovely harbor where you can rent boats of all sorts, or catch a cruise to the Channel Islands.

Southern California Coast

Southern California is the place for fun. You’ll find all the great family attractions here: Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World San Diego, and so many more. And with the warm, sunny climate there’s plenty to do in the great outdoors. Go hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and enjoy some fantastic views. Go boogie boarding, surfing or kayaking. Take a whale watching cruise, or go deep sea fishing.

Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, Southern California

Pacific Park at the Santa Monica Pier  Photo © Bryan Mullennix | Dreamstime.com

Let’s take a quick trip down the Southern California coast and see what’s what.

Los Angeles: The coast here is the place to be. Go just a few miles inland, and the heat and smog make summer miserable, but at Los Angeles beaches, things are cool in every sense of the word. You can enjoy the scenic beaches of Malibu, or head to Santa Monica to play at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier. Do some people watching at Venice Beach, or scoot on down to Long Beach for the warmest stretch of sandy Southern California beach, and while you’re there be sure to check out the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Orange County: For family fun, head to Huntington Beach, where you’ll find lots of easily accessible sandy beach, and Disneyland is only a half hours drive away. Artsy types will love Laguna Beach, with its many galleries, summer art festival, and scenic coves. If you want to head out to sea, Newport Beach and Dana Point are ready with charters, whale watching cruises, boat rentals and more.

San Diego: North San Diego County is a great place for a classic California beach vacation. Hit the surf in Oceanside, visit Legoland in Carlsbad, or go to the races in Del Mar. There’s plenty of broad sandy beach along this stretch of coast. Things get really interesting when you reach La Jolla’s rocky coast. Explore the sea caves in a kayak, check out the tidepools, watch the paragliders at Torrey Pines, or just enjoy the scenery.

San Diego is the second largest city in California, and it boasts all the amenities and attractions of the big city -- and then some. Stroll around Balboa Park and admire the unique Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, beautiful gardens, museums and galleries. Relax on Coronado’s white sandy beaches, visit Sea World or the San Diego Zoo, or explore the city’s many unique neighborhoods and cultural offerings. The weather in San Diego is darn near perfect, so whatever outdoor activity is your cup of tea, you’re likely to find it here.