The California Beach Towns That Will Make You Swoon

By Rachael Medina September 16, 2019

California is home to numerous coastal towns with a lot to offer. From world-class seafood restaurants to incredible surf spots, there is something for everyone along the twists and turns of California’s coastline. But there are a few places that truly stand out for their impeccable charm, stunning scenery, and laid-back vibes. Check out our favorite beach towns in the Golden State, and hit the road to experience them firsthand. 

San Diego Beach Towns

No trip to Coronado is complete without a beach day, so make sure to grab swimwear and a surfboard before hitting the road.

Coronado 

Location: 15 minutes from San Diego

Home to miles of pristine beaches, plenty of unique shops, and the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, this island has earned itself a reputation as one of the best beachside destinations in California. Whether your ideal vacation involves taking a ferry to San Diego to check out the Gaslamp District; trying out your skills with various water sports; or lounging on the sand for endless hours, Coronado has it all.

Coastal Towns Near Los Angeles 

With its iconic pier, beachside amusement park, stunning scenery, and relaxed ambience, Santa Monica is a top destination for those seeking a beach getaway. 

Santa Monica

Location: 1 hour from Los Angeles

Santa Monica will give you all the good vibes. From the famed, ride-filled pier to the cement pathway that welcomes you to skate over to Venice Beach, Santa Monica is without a doubt one of California’s top coastal towns. Spend the day soaking up the SoCal sun, and take a bike ride around town before you head home.

Laguna Beach has long been a coveted destination, attracting droves with its spectacular environs, temperate weather, and renowned art galleries. 

Laguna Beach

Location: 1 hour, 20 minutes from Los Angeles

Known for its mild weather, plethora of art galleries, and waterfront perch, Laguna Beach is much more than a Hollywood film location. This coastal city is likely one of the most famous in the entire state—and for good reason. Head to the gorgeous beaches and picture-perfect coves, check out the works of local artists, pick up some local swimwear, and grab a bite to eat. You’ll surely feel like a reality TV star in no time.

Seaside Cities Near Santa Barbara

Perched along the Central Coast, roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is a popular spot for visitors but maintains its small-town charm.

San Luis Obispo

Location: 30 minutes from Santa Barbara

Tucked along the coast, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, this idyllic beach town offers something for everyone. With temperate weather, a mixture of urban and natural staples, and enough activities to keep college students busy year-round, San Luis Obispo is the ideal Central Coast getaway. 

Famous for its pristine swaths of sand, sun-soaked landscape, and luxurious beachfront homes, Malibu makes for an idyllic and tranquil escape. 

Malibu

Location: 1 hour, 20 minutes from Santa Barbara

The stunning town of Malibu has a more remote location than other beachside cities in the greater Los Angeles area, so you can enjoy yourself without having to deal with nearly as many tourists. Whether rock climbing, surfing, eating farm-to-table cuisine, or simply relaxing are on your to-do list, this vacation destination does not disappoint. 

Coastal Cities Near San Francisco

Situated on the other side of San Francisco's famed Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito is an otherworldly destination known for its floating homes, vibrant art scene, and picture-perfect coastal views. 

Sausalito

Location: 30 minutes from San Francisco

Sausalito draws plenty of tourists during the summer months, but it largely remains under the radar for the rest of the year (which is exactly why we like it). Whether you are looking to get away from the city or are scouring the state for the best seafood restaurants, this small coastal town serves up whatever you desire—with a view. Check out the houseboats, go for a hike, and enjoy the comforts of its small-town charm. You just might want to stay forever.

Santa Cruz is not only a surfer's haven, but also a relaxing retreat for travelers craving beachside fun and outdoor adventure. 

Santa Cruz

Location: 1 hour, 30 minutes from San Francisco

The iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, stunning state parks, and incredible sunsets draw thousands of annual visitors to this coastal city across the bay from Monterey. Compared to the surrounding towns, Santa Cruz has a vibrant yet low-key vibe that makes it one of the best coastal destinations in California for twentysomethings. Try the local ice cream, take a bite out of the delicious burgers, and walk along the river to see for yourself why this town is so special.

Nestled along the Pacific Coast Highway, Carmel-by-the-Sea is an enchanting coastal escape known for its European-style downtown, revered art scene, and world-class eateries. 

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Location: 2 hours, 30 minutes from San Francisco

After spending a day walking along the cobblestone streets of Carmel-by-the-Sea, it is hard not to fall in love. Though the magical town is only a short drive away from the Bay Area, its cobalt waters, quaint boutiques, and endless eateries will make you want to stay more than one day. Watch the sun go down while sitting on the sandy shores, marvel at the beauty surrounding you, and take home a piece of artwork to commemorate the trip.

McWay Falls is an internationally recognized attraction in the Big Sur region, where visitors can witness rushing water cascade down granite cliffs and flow out into the open ocean. 

Big Sur

Location: 2 hours, 45 minutes from San Francisco

Famous for its incredibly scenic location among the redwoods, Big Sur is one of the most picturesque beach towns in California. Whether you pop in during a trip to Carmel or stay for the entire weekend, it is bound to become one of your new favorite places. Cruise down Highway 1 and savor the unparalleled views as you make your way to Big Sur. Visit the local eateries and go on a hike or two before your trip is over, and if you’re enjoying a staycation,  book a room at one of the eco-lodges (or rough it in the wilderness). 

A short drive away from San Francisco, Mendocino is a ruggedly beautiful region featuring fragrant forests, jagged coastline, and abundant wildlife. 

Mendocino

Location: 3 hours, 20 minutes from San Francisco

If you are seeking the quintessential Northern California beach town, look no further than Mendocino. With a rugged appeal, this laid-back region is the perfect place to go glamping, camping, and hiking—though it does have plenty of upscale options (including Michelin-starred restaurants, eco-resorts, and nearby hot springs) for those desiring a more elegant escape.

Tucked away in the northernmost part of the state, Arcata is where travelers head to reconnect with nature and escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. 

Arcata

Location: 5 hours from San Francisco

While it is known for being home to Humboldt State University, Arcata is also one of the most affordable beach towns in California. With fairly close proximity to the state’s northern border, this city experiences a cooler climate and much more rain than most other areas of California. Venture through the redwoods at the local parks; grab a scoop or two of the local, organic, handcrafted ice cream; and head out on the dirt roads that wind past farmlands before meandering toward the beach.