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The 15 Best Beaches in California for Some Serious Fun in the Sun, According to Locals

With 840 miles of gorgeous coastline, it can be difficult to narrow down the best beaches in California. That’s why we went straight to the experts to find the Golden State’s true gems.

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Santa Monica beach, aerial view, Los Angeles, California
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California beaches to put on your must-visit list

It’s hard to find a bad beach in the state that popularized surfing culture, the Beach Boys and beach volleyball. But to find the very best beaches in California—those with fewer tourists, better snorkeling or surfing, or just jaw-dropping views—it’s best to ask a local. And luckily, you’ve got a California travel writer and 25-year coastal road-tripper here, and I’m about to help you nail down the best beaches to visit.

With more than 420 beaches in the state, California truly has a beach for every type of person, whether you’re seeking fun in the sun, a foggy stroll in seclusion or a place to plunk down your beach towel and gaze at scenic cliffs or dolphins frolicking in the waves. However, most of us have a handful of favorites that we go back to time and time again, for affordable family vacations, weekend getaways or afternoon escapes.

How we chose the best California beaches

Many of my personal favorites show up on this list, from the best beaches in San Diego to San Francisco and beyond. But to ensure I didn’t miss anything, I also consulted travel experts, online forums, visitor reviews and locals to get their best picks up and down the coast. I eliminated destinations with closures or other issues that might affect your beachy pleasure and solicited more recommendations for what to do and where to stay near each beach, with plenty of affordable beachfront hotels for you to choose from.

Here, running south to north, are the 15 best beaches in California for 2023. Bookmark this list to hit all these top spots when you can, or use it to plan out an iconic California road trip!

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Coronado Beach
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Coronado Beach, San Diego

Best for: Families, dog owners, cyclists and, really, anyone

When choosing the best beaches in California, there’s very little debate about this wide, tidy beach on a land-tied island 15 minutes west of downtown San Diego. Mild weather, powdery white sand, blue water, a dog-designated area and more than 15 miles of dedicated bike paths make this a favorite for California road trips and one of Dr. Beach’s 10 best beaches of 2023. Even better, it’s framed by the famous Hotel Del Coronado, a red-roofed Victorian resort built in 1888 and frequented by presidents, movie stars and authors. You’ll do some serious people-watching here and also feel like you’re in the center of it all.

What to do: Peer into Coronado’s easily accessible tide pools, or throw Fido a ball on the beach at the north end. And at the end of the day, make sure to grab a drink and some food overlooking the sand at the Hotel Del, as it’s called. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun set.

Where to stay: Of course, the place you’ll want to stay is the place in the center of it all and the place with the most history, the Hotel Del Coronado. You can partake in beach yoga, surfing, a bonfire on the beach and all the fabulous spa treatments your heart desires (or your budget allows). And here’s a fun fact: The Hotel Del served as the backdrop for the Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like It Hot.

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Sea Lions On Beach
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La Jolla Cove, La Jolla

Best for: Families, snorkelers and wildlife lovers

Farther north in San Diego County, you’ll find another unique beach that’s just as popular with tourists as it is with seals and sea lions. Although the beach in this little cove can get crowded in the summer—both with people and seals—it’s a great place to swim and snorkel, as hundreds of little orange Garibaldi fish swim underneath you. If you can’t snag a spot in the cove, the nearby Children’s Pool, with its protected barrier, is another calm swimming beach for families, and it’s also popular with mama seals and their pups.

What to do: When you’re done swimming, be sure to check out the Cave Store, which has a bootlegger’s tunnel that provides the only access to a popular sea cave for wildlife spotting. It just may be the coolest secret attraction in southern California. Another option: Drive over to the nearby Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography to gaze at seahorses. Or stroll downtown La Jolla, taking in its art galleries and restaurants.

Where to stay: One of the most popular hotels near the Cove is the La Valencia Hotel, a historic beauty known as “the Pink Lady” that sits on the bluffs overlooking the beach. It not only has the best view but also one of the best locations to access the cove and La Jolla’s shopping and restaurants.

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Treasure Island, Laguna Beach, California.
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Treasure Island Beach, Laguna Beach

Best for: Swimmers, tide-poolers and snorkelers

If you’ve never been to the town of Laguna Beach, you might think it contained just one beach. Wrong! This destination has beautiful beaches for every kind of person, including skimboarders and surfers, as well as pocket beaches that will make you feel like you’re in the Mediterranean. While Main Beach, right next to the shops and restaurants of downtown, is lively and convenient, many Californians prefer Treasure Beach. It’s the city’s southernmost beach, with its bluffs that protect swimmers from strong currents and keep the water calmer and clearer.

What to do: Take a swim, explore the tide pools during low tide and snorkel at the cove on the north end with its clear, turquoise water.

Where to stay: For amazing beach access and a taste of luxury, stay at the five-star Montage at Laguna Beach, which has a ramp next to it leading right down to the beach. For a slightly more affordable option, try the Casa Laguna.

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Crystal Cove State Beach
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Crystal Cove State Beach, Newport Beach

Best for: Beach bums, families and nature lovers

Just over an hour north of San Diego sits Crystal Cove State Beach. This marvelously uncrowded and pristine sandy beach is surrounded by wildflower-dotted bluffs and capped by caves, tide pools and picturesque rock formations. Newport Beach’s fun zone and Corona del Mar’s beaches to the north get bigger crowds, leaving this gem of a beach far less crowded.

What to do: Check the tide charts, and hit the beach at low tide to explore the tide pools, plunk down on a towel and enjoy an amazing coastline view. Or walk down to the Crystal Cove Shake Shack, a local favorite for decades, for its delicious burgers and ice cream.

Where to stay: The VEA Hotel Newport Beach provides close access to the beach and the shopping and restaurants in nearby Fashion Island. Plus, you’ll get to enjoy fabulous restaurants, a golf course and plenty of spa services at this newly renovated Marriott property.

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Manhattan Beach California Pier as seen from the Pacific Ocean
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Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County

Best for: Families, cyclists and couples looking for a weekend getaway

Santa Monica has its Ferris wheel, and Venice has its infamous boardwalk and Muscle Beach. But if you just want a nice clean beach with powdery fine sand, a biking trail, a pier and better places to eat within walking distance, Manhattan Beach is the one for you. Why else is it on our list of the beaches in California? It’s only an hour south of Los Angeles, but a trip here will still make you feel like you’re getting away from it all. In addition to the beach, you’ll find a low-key, paved boardwalk and bike path, swanky restaurants and cute boutiques.

What to do: Walk to the Roundhouse Aquarium at the end of the pier, rent bikes to ride the 22-mile Strand bike path, and take a surf lesson near the pier’s gentle swells. When you can tear yourself away from the beach, hit the city’s unique shops and excellent seafood restaurants, such as Fishing with Dynamite, which is a great place to go for oysters.

Where to stay: The Sea View Inn at the Beach is the closest to the beach—just two blocks away. And it’s one of the most beloved by visitors for not just its location but also its relative affordability.

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Venice Beach Aerial Skatepark
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Venice Beach, Los Angeles County

Best for: Couples, nightlife and people-watching

Most people have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting at Venice Beach, thanks to its starring role in film and television (think: Baywatch and White Men Can’t Jump). And truly, what you have seen is what you’ll get in Venice, located 20 minutes north of Los Angeles International Airport. Soft powdery beaches, palm trees, a boardwalk full of artists, “colorful characters,” street performers and skater culture. There’s nothing else quite like it in Southern California, and for that reason alone, it’s one of the best beaches in Los Angeles and definitely worth a stop.  Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Main Street a few blocks up from the beach, however, are where most locals go to do their eating, drinking and shopping on a cute stretch away from the throngs of tourists.

What to do: Peep at the bodybuilders working out at the Muscle Beach outdoor gym, strap on some skates and glide up the beach path to the Santa Monica Ferris wheel, and walk the Venice canals off Venice Boulevard, the remains of an old neighborhood designed to mimic the Italian city.

Where to stay: For a hip hotel right in the middle of the action with views of the sand, try the Hotel Erwin. Make sure to grab a drink at the Erwin’s rooftop bar, where you’ll get great boardwalk views and DJs spinning tunes day and night.

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Malibu Sunrise Over La Piedra State Beach
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El Matador State Beach, Malibu

Best for: Couples, photographers and nature lovers

When it comes to the best beaches in Malibu, Zuma Beach gets all the attention for its long stretch of flat beach. But for those looking for more dramatic scenery, there’s El Matador. It’s not the easiest beach to get to, and you’re not going to be able to carry a lot of gear while traversing its long, steep set of stairs that goes from the bluff to the sand. However, once you’re there, the views are incredible, and you’ll also find amazing caves and photogenic rock formations.

What to do: Pack a picnic lunch. Or better yet, come for a sunset dinner on the sand and get some of the best photos from your Southern California vacation.

Where to stay: Hotels in Malibu aren’t inexpensive, but locals recommend the Surfrider Inn for a stellar stay. This tiny boutique hotel offers just 20 plush rooms for guests, plus a second-floor library and a rooftop bar. It also boasts an incredibly convenient location right near the Malibu Pier and its restaurants.

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Offshore wind blowing spray back from waves with Channel Islands on horizon, Oxnard, California, USA
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Oxnard Beach Park, Oxnard

Best for: Sunbathers, beachcombers and families

Malibu and Santa Monica are lively, but Angelenos who want to get away from the crowds hit Oxnard’s beaches, an hour north. This long, uncrowded beach capped by dunes makes visitors feel like they’re on a semi-private beach. And while it has been under-the-radar for a long time, it was recently voted the best beach on the West Coast in USA Today’s 10Best Reader’s Choice Awards. Translation: Visit now before the (other) tourists descend!

What to do: Kayak from the beach to the harbor, walk along the path by the dunes or play a game of beach volleyball. If you can tear yourself away from the beach, check out the local Mullin Museum, with its world-class collection of Art Deco–era automobiles nestled in a nearby business park.

Where to stay: Find a beach-house rental, or stay at the newly renovated oceanfront Zachari Dunes Resort on Mandalay Beach. It’s one of the few resorts in the area, and unique in that all of its rooms are suites, delivering the luxury of more space without the ultra-posh price tag.

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Carpinteria Coast Stairs
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Carpinteria State Beach, Santa Barbara County

Best for: Families, campers and dog owners

Located 15 minutes south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria is a sleepy beach town that families return to year after year for its quaint downtown and dog-friendly beach. Proclaimed the “world’s safest beach” in 1912, in what was more of a marketing claim than a scientific finding, the southern-facing beach with a gradual slope is protected from strong currents, which makes it perfect for swimming and boogie boarding. The whole 2.6-mile town can be accessed on foot or by bike, and parents of teenagers feel comfortable letting them roam freely in this safe downtown with quaint shops and restaurants.

What to do: Ride the bike trail heading south past the beach campground, spread out a beach blanket on the south end of the beach and peer into tide pools. Grab a beer on the patio at the Island Brewery between rounds of beach volleyball. Or just enjoy the balmy weather as you check out the antique stores and ice cream shops lining Linden Avenue, Carpinteria’s main street.

Where to stay: There aren’t any all-inclusive resorts or even many fancy hotels in Carpinteria, and to be honest, that’s part of its charm. The Holiday Inn Express & Suites is a solid hotel located downtown and within walking distance of the beach.

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Santa Barbara from Stern's Wharf
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East and West Beaches, Santa Barbara

Best for: Couples, sunbathers, volleyball players and kayakers

These two beaches, separated by Stearns Wharf and ringed by palm trees and the Santa Ynez mountains, are always counted among the best beaches in California. Why? The top reasons include their pretty views from the water, Santa Barbara’s mild climate and a paved bike trail that leads you right to State Street, Santa Barbara’s busy main drag. These beaches are a frequent destination for couple getaways, and I love this area because the shopping and restaurants are as enjoyable as the beach.

What to do: Throw down a towel and relax after an hour on your bike. Then grab some fish and chips at Brophy Bros. out on the pier. Check out Santa Barbara’s trendy Funk Zone of shops, galleries and tasting rooms in converted warehouses near the Amtrak station. Or just window-shop the quaint red-tile-roofed downtown.

Where to stay: There’s no shortage of deluxe hotels in the area, but visitors like the Harbor View Inn, located right on the beach and close to shopping and restaurants.

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After Sunset at the South End of Avila Beach
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Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County

Best for: Families, swimmers, wine lovers and cyclists

This quaint beach town located 3.5 hours north of Los Angeles is a must-stop destination for road trippers along Pacific Coast Highway 1. Avila’s weather is a bit warmer than surrounding areas and sheltered from northerly winds, making it ideal for sunbathing in the sand, family swimming and boogie boarding. But what surrounds this idyllic beach is also special—vineyards, hot springs and beautiful places to ride your bike.

What to do: Have dinner and watch the sunset at one of the beachfront restaurants, such as Blue Moon Over Avila. For a unique Central Coast wine-tasting experience, have oysters on the half-shell paired with local wines on Sinor-LaVallee’s funky outdoor patio, steps from the sand. Ride the 2.84-mile-long Bob Jones bike trail inland from the beach, winding through the valley dotted with oaks, apple trees and vineyards.

Where to stay: Travelers looking for real relaxation should book a suite at the oldie-but-goodie Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, soak in its hillside hot tubs and have a massage after a long day at the beach. It’s also within walking distance of Avila Valley Barn, a cute farmers market inside a barn with a tasty BBQ shack outside and chickens, goats and cows for kids to feed.

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Moonstone Beach Looking North
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Moonstone Beach, Cambria

Best for: Beachcombers, sunset watchers and photographers

Less than an hour north of Avila Beach and just under a four-hour drive south of San Francisco, you’ll find a different type of coastline—one that’s a bit more rugged and better suited to beachcombing than beach bumming. Moonstone Beach’s smooth rocks, driftwood and beach glass scattered across the sand, plus its huge banks of wildflowers near the wooden boardwalk, make for more dramatic photography and better treasure-hunting than other area beaches.

What to do: Start out on the one-mile stroller- and wheelchair-friendly wooden boardwalk that starts from the north end of Moonstone Beach. You’ll pass plenty of front-street hotel balconies and patios full of guests sipping crisp whites—don’t forget, it’s wine country!—and watching the sun set over the waves.

Where to stay: The newly renovated Cambria Beach Lodge provides a cute, casual perch to enjoy one of California’s best sunsets from right across the beach. The lodge also offers bikes for you to check out for free to explore the area.

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Carmel River State Beach on a sunny day, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey Peninsula, California
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Carmel River State Beach, Carmel

Best for: Couples, walkers and nature lovers

Just north of Big Sur, Carmel shares its rugged beauty, tree-lined coasts and cool temperatures. This beach is where the river meets the sea. It’s not a good swimming beach, with its hazardous surf, but the views from its white sandy shores are mesmerizing, and it’s a great place to picnic and splash around while basking in the sun. If you’re in the area, it’s a must-do.

What to do: Hike around Point Lobos Nature Preserve to try and spot whales or sea lions. (Just make sure to get there early to get a parking spot, or book a tour to easily access the area.) Home to sculpted Monterey Cypress trees and underwater kelp forests, it is also popular with scuba divers and kayakers for its rich underwater wildlife. When you’re done with the great outdoors, check out the cute shops, tasting rooms and restaurants along Ocean Avenue in the charming town of Carmel.

Where to stay: Nestled in the pines, the Carmel River Inn and its cottages provide a quiet, dog-friendly escape from the beach. It’s also a great value for the area, with rooms as low as $200 in the summer.

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View of the Californian coast. Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County, CA. Summer 2015.
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Half Moon Bay, San Mateo County

Best for: Views, picnicking, long walks and beach camping

It’s all about that Big Little Liars NorCal coastline views at this well-maintained beach east of San José and south of San Francisco. A four-mile-long sandy beach allows walkers to take in the views of wildflowers and rugged cliffs as they get some exercise. There are four different beach areas here, with a lot going on at each. Outdoorsy folks will love both Miramar Beach and Francis Beach, and there’s also a campsite close to the beach. Just be aware that campsites here book up many months in advance, so plan ahead!

What to do: Walk your dog, jog or bike the easy three-mile Coastside Trail, which runs along the eastern boundary of the four beaches providing breathtaking views. Grab some oysters at Sam’s Chowder House overlooking the water.

Where to stay: Get the B&B touch at the quaint 18-room Cypress Inn overlooking Miramar Beach. Get cozy in front of the fireplaces, and enjoy a full breakfast each morning and wine and hors d’oeuvres in the afternoon.

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Lester Beach
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South Lake Tahoe, Placer County

Best for: Kayakers, sunbathers and Instagrammers

You can’t forget this prime spot when thinking about the best beaches in California. Lake Tahoe is a startling blue lake straddling the California–Nevada border, not a sea coast. However, the beaches and crystal-clear waters of this mountain lake get 300 days of sun a year and are not to be missed. Sure, the water from the nearby Sierra Nevadas is a little chilly, but there are also hiking trails ringing the lake, as well as sandy beaches like Pope, Kiva and Baldwin if you just feel like relaxing and taking in views of towering pines, rock formations and boulders. One important note: Parking is limited near the lake, so you might have to hike a bit to get to a popular beach, or make advance reservations for one of the lots.

What to do: For a unique experience, book a two-hour clear kayaking tour from Clearly Tahoe at Zephyr Cove and enjoy the visibility that runs up to 30 feet straight down from your extra-wide clear kayak. Bonus: Your guide will make sure you get pictures your friends will swoon over on Instagram, and the shuttle from the company’s parking lot means you don’t need to drive up and down looking for beach parking. Or hike the Rubicon Trail for amazing views along glacier-carved Emerald Bay.

Where to stay: The Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe is a visitor favorite, providing access to a dog-friendly beach at a price more affordable than some locations north. It also has its own marina and plenty of options for year-round stays.

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Melinda Fulmer
Melinda Fulmer is a lifestyle writer and editor with travel, food, health and wellness bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, AAA Westways, MSN, Yahoo and other major media channels. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @melindafulmer.