Travel

California’s Best Beaches to Visit This Summer

The California coastline is 840 miles long, and has more than 420 public beaches. This means there are sandy beaches and rocky beaches, sunny beaches and foggy beaches, crowded beaches and secluded beaches. Buzzy beaches near LA, San Diego, and San Francisco, and mellow beaches far from the urban cacophony. Beaches where you can swim in an itsy-bitsy bikini, and beaches where you can swim in nothing at all.

With so many beaches to choose from, it’s hard to narrow down our favorite spots. That said, we thought long and hard about all of the things we look for in a beach, and how those things are often totally contradictory, and went from there. Whether you’re looking for a sweet surf spot, spectacular views, a place you can safely swim, or quality people-watching, there’s a beach here for you. We’ve also highlighted some of the best nearby places to grab a meal or a drink, along with some helpful tips you might not think of before showing up, like whether you can bring alcohol and your four-legged friends.

The result: 15 perfect beaches up and down the California coast, and only one Beach Boys reference. Fun, fun, fun! (OK, make that two).

Baker Beach

San Francisco
One of SF’s most popular beaches thanks to out-of-this-world views of the bridge

You’ll want to wear lots of layers if you go to Baker Beach -- unless, of course, you want to wear nothing at all, in which case you're headed to the North end where nudity is allowed. What makes this dune-covered beach so special isn’t actually the water (in fact, swimming can be dangerous thanks to the currents) but the stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, as well as the fact that it’s home to Battery Chamberlin, which holds the last "disappearing gun" of its type on the west coast.

Know before you go: On a sunny day, it can actually be warm enough to sunbathe, but you definitely won’t be the only person with that idea, so expect a very crowded parking lot and lots and lots of dogs. Get there early if you want to snag one of the picnic tables with grills “hidden” in the cypress grove at the east end of the parking lot.

Where to eat/drink: There’s not much around Baker Beach in terms of bars and restaurants, but if you want to take advantage of the fact that you’re close to the Outer Richmond for once in your life, we recommend stopping by Tommy’s for the best margaritas in town, and Pizzetta 221 or Fiorella for some of the best pizza in town. If you’re not too sandy and windblown, Violet’s is also a great place for oysters and a beer; or, if it’s the weekend, stop there en route to the beach for a brunch that will make you happy you won’t be getting into your bathing suit later.

Bolinas Beach

Bolinas
A quiet, dog-friendly beach with conditions well-suited to beginner surfers

The people in the small, unincorporated town of Bolinas would prefer their beach (also called “Brighton Beach”) not make this list. In fact, they voted to not have any signs point to their community, so you’ll have to find it via unmarked roads. However, thanks to the beginner-friendly waves and laws that permit dogs to roam off-leash, this secluded spot is great for a laid-back afternoon. Just an FYI: great white sharks also agree, and while nearby Stinson Beach shuts down at the first sight of a fin, Bolinas pretty much always stays open. Keep your eyes peeled.

Know before you go: If you want to paddle out for the first time, the friendly folks at 2 Mile Surf Shop will hook you up with everything you need, including a wetsuit, board, and lessons. It’s nice to walk along the beach and the channel during low tide, but at high tide the ocean submerges and cuts off certain sections, so make sure you don’t get stuck. Also, parking can be tough, especially on the weekends, so be prepared to have to wait for a spot. Don’t park illegally or block someone’s driveway unless you enjoy getting parking tickets. The restrooms are by the tennis courts on Brighton Avenue (the main access road to the beach).

Where to eat/drink: Bolinas is a small town without a lot of dining and drinking options, but be sure to stop by Smiley’s Schooner Saloon for a beer; it’s been around for over 160 years, making it one of the oldest bars in California. If you’re hungry, Eleven, a Neapolitan-style pizza spot and natural wine bar inside of a renovated 1890s farmhouse, is the place to go. Be sure to start with a dozen of the Hog Island oysters.

Carmel Beach

Carmel-by-the-Sea
Well-manicured white sand beach where dogs can roam off-leash

Carmel Beach is known for its gorgeous sunsets, majestic cypress trees, and fine white sand, not to mention intense surf and dog-friendly rules. Swimming isn’t recommended because of the vicious riptides (though surfing and scuba diving are okay), but you can at least wade near the surf line. Or, better still, play some volleyball or stroll the Scenic Bluff Path that runs above the sand. When the sun starts to go down, spread out a blanket, crack a beer (alcohol is allowed), and take it all in.

Know before you go: On crowded days, walk north or south from the main access area to find a spot that’s less crowded. Beach fires in the wood burning fire pits or self-supplied propane fire devices are allowed in the Beach Fire Zone (south of 10th Avenue) from 4pm to 10pm daily.

Where to eat/drink: Carmel Beach is within walking distance of downtown Carmel, so there are a ton of eating and drinking options. Yeast of Eden is a mixed fermentation brewery with a street food-inspired menu, plenty of seating, and an outdoor patio. If you’re heading to the beach early, stop by Lafayette Bakery and Cafe for French pastries and breads, as well as sandwiches to-go. La Bicyclette is a quaint spot that serves European Country cuisine and wood-fired pizzas and is open for lunch and dinner.

Cayucos State Beach

Cayucos
A sandy beach best known for its old wooden fishing pier built in 1875

Cayucos is often called “the last of the California beach towns” thanks to its laid-back vibe, untouched terrain, and miles of spotless sand. It’s a must-hit if you're into taking long contemplative walks, exploring tidal pools, beachcombing, kiteboarding, kayaking, surfing, and fishing.

Know before you go: If you want to try your luck at catching some halibut, head to the pier: you don’t need a fishing license to fish off of it, and it’s lit for night fishing. Also, if you decide to get in the water, you can rinse off in the outdoor showers afterwards.

Where to eat/drink: You want to go to this beach hungry because the fish tacos from Ruddell’s Smokehouse, a tiny smokehouse shack on the beach, are not to be missed. Ocean Front Pizza is also a good spot to stop for a slice and some beer (with water views), or keep your fingers crossed that there will be a seat on the balcony at Beach Bums where you can get wine, beer, and paninis.

Coronado Beach

San Diego
Iconic beach where the sand literally sparkles

Home to the iconic Hotel del Coronado (whose turrets likely inspired the castle in Wizard of Oz, as L. Frank Baum lived right around the corner), Coronado Beach is magical -- and not just because of the whole Oz thing. It also boasts white sand beaches that sparkle like gold thanks to an abundance of mica, a mineral that’s rarely found in beach sand. There’s also warm water for swimming, a flat beach for skimboarding, (attractive) seasonal lifeguards, restrooms, showers, volleyball, fire rings, an area for off-leash dogs, and did we mention the hot lifeguards? Well, whatever. They’re worth mentioning twice.

Know before you go: The volleyball courts and fire rings are first-come, first-served. There is free parking, but it can be challenging, so be patient. If you have your pup, head to the north end where there’s a dog-friendly beach, and if you want to surf between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you’ll have to try to catch waves in the designated “Surfing Only” zones at the north and south ends.

Where to eat/drink: “The Del” has seven dining options. If you’re coming from the beach, you’ll likely want to stay casual and opt for the taco shack, the pizza spot, or the beachfront sun deck. If you’d prefer to skip the famous hotel altogether, downtown Coronado is about a five minute walk away. Check out the High Tide Bottle Shop & Kitchen for fresh salads, pizza, and local craft beers, or the Coronado Brewpub for pizzas, burgers, tacos, and 25 beers on tap. Whatever you do, definitely go to the MooTime Creamery for a scoop or three and a photo with the Elvis statue outside.

Cowell Beach

Santa Cruz
Popular for surfing, sunbathing, and volleyball

Thanks to 15 volleyball courts, beginner-friendly waves (with local surfers who aren’t overly possessive of them), and its proximity to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and despite the fact that it is sadly one of California’s most polluted beaches, “Cowells" is a popular spot for both newbie surfers and lazy beach-goers. So popular, in fact, that parking is impossible on sunny summer days. Really, it can be a nightmare. Still, if you’re looking to learn to surf, this is the place to bring your longboard. Just don’t drop in on anyone, brah.

Know before you go: As we mentioned, Cowells is known for its poor water quality, but Save the Waves has been on the case and the water has improved a lot in recent years. Still, it’s worth checking with a lifeguard before you dive in.

Where to eat/drink: If you love hot dogs on a stick, corn dogs, and funnel cake, walk a few minutes to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk where you can indulge all of your fair food fantasies. Splash, near the end of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, is 100% a tourist destination and also 100% the place to go if you want to enjoy your cocktail while sitting at a rotating bar so that your view of the water is constantly changing. Right behind the beach is the Dream Inn, which is home to a restaurant named after surfing icon Jack O’Neill who lived in Santa Cruz from 1959 until he died in 2017. Hang out in the lounge or snag a seat by the window in the main restaurant and enjoy a sunset with your seafood.

Del Mar City Beach

Del Mar
2-plus miles of beach perfect for sunbathing and picnicking

“You’d catch ‘em surfin’ at Del Mar...” The Beach Boys knew what was up. 15th St Beach, which is lined with multi-million dollar oceanfront homes, is the place to be with good swimming, intermediate surf, two parks with picnic areas, and easy access every two blocks. If you want to enjoy a picnic without sand in your sandwich, Powerhouse Park is the place to go; it’s a picnic area on the grass with tables and benches overlooking the beach, so you’ll have the best of both worlds. If your dog wants to come with you (he does), head north to “Dog Beach” where the river meets the sea. Dogs are allowed to be off leash and there are shallow sandbars, so they can play in the water and you don’t have to worry about rogue waves. Head south to enjoy a more secluded part of the beach that’s less about swimming and surfing and more about taking in the scenery and the towering, jagged cliffs.

Know before you go: The only downside of Del Mar City Beach is that parking can be brutal. There are some nearby parking lots, but a lot of them are reserved for people who are going to specific shops or restaurants, so keep an eye out for signs. If you go a block or two south to the residential areas, you may get lucky and find street parking. Also, even though it’s called Dog Beach by the locals, dogs can only be off-leash from Labor Day to June 15. You’ll find bathrooms and showers near the main lifeguard tower on 17th Street.

Where to eat/drink: For a quick bite on the beach, walk to the Del Mar Snack Shack where you can get affordable hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and ice cream cones. If you don’t want to give up the ocean views, but you’re willing to put on a shirt and shoes, Poseidon on the Beach is a good (if slightly pricey) option. Board & Brew is a favorite with locals craving satisfying sandwiches and craft beer -- everything is made from scratch in-house.

East Beach

Santa Barbara
The perfect spot if you like your beach day with a side of activity

We love a beach that still has tons of sand, even at high tide -- and that's East Beach. It has so much more going for it, though: volleyball courts, a bike path, generous (albeit scattered) parking, palm trees, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and boogie boarding (rent your gear from East Beach Rentals), and Stearns Wharf, which was built in 1972 and is home to tons of restaurants, art galleries, and shops. Plus, it’s super clean.

Know before you go: Be on the lookout for tarballs: they're prevalent in the summer as a result of oil released from natural offshore seeps, and you’ll need baby wipes or baby oil to get them off of your feet if you don't tread carefully. Still… totally worth it.

Where to eat/drink: Walk a block from the beach for tacos from East Beach Tacos, a little spot next to the batting cages with beer and wine. Or, if you don’t mind spending a little money, the Santa Barbara FisHouse is a cute seafood spot on the water. Stearns Wharf also has a bunch of restaurants with water views, including a burger joint, a casual bar and grill, and a crab shack.

Hermosa Beach

Los Angeles
Great waves, beautiful people, and a perpetual summer vibe

Hermosa Beach is all about die-hard volleyball players, surfing, and really, really attractive people. Like, "really, really, ridiculously good-looking" people. But even if you’re more of a lounger than a Zoolander model or "let’s play paddleball" kind of person, this spot can still be your jam thanks to the mile-and-a-half of clean white sand and comfortably warm water. If you do get inspired to exercise, The Strand, a 22-mile paved path for bikers, hikers, joggers, and rollerbladers (yes, they still exist) runs right along the beach.

Know before you go: Don’t worry about bringing your bike, skates, boogie board, or even your umbrella or beach chair; you can rent everything you need for a fun day at the beach at Hermosa Cyclery. And you’ll find showers and restrooms next to the pier and at 24th Street.

Where to eat/drink:Good Stuff, a beachside restaurant with super tasty Baja fish tacos and a decent selection of craft beers, and even has special dishes just for four-legged friends. You’ll also find a ton of places to eat and drink along Pier Plaza; hit up Palmilla Cocina Y Tequila for upscale Mexican or Tower 12 for casual fare, like burgers, wood-fired pizzas, handcrafted cocktails, and 30 local beers on tap, all with ocean views.

Huntington Beach

Huntington Beach
World-class surfing and classic SoCal beach culture

Surfers may say that Santa Cruz is the real "Surf City, USA," but the moniker officially belongs to Huntington Beach, which is known for its sweet swells, surf culture, and long stretch of sand. Don't surf? Don't worry: Huntington also boasts 20 volleyball courts, an 8.5-mile bike path, dolphins (!!), fire pits, an area for dogs (fittingly named Dog Beach), and one of the longest piers on the West Coast (at 1,850ft.). It also hosts tons of events that NBC usually airs on Saturday afternoons (because it doesn't have the rights to more popular sports), like the US Open of Surfing and AVP Pro Beach Volleyball.

Know before you go: The beach has over 200 fire rings that are first-come, first-served unless you reserve a picnic area. Parking is $15 a day.

Where to eat/drink: Head to the Treehouse Lounge in the Paséa Hotel for sunset cocktails with a view, or to Duke’s (named after Duke Kahanamoku, the “father of surfing”) for Hawaiian seafood and beach views.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach
A low-key, affluent beach community

When you think “Southern California beach,” you’re probably envisioning Manhattan Beach. This chill town is replete with surfers, toned volley players, bikini-clad sunbathers, people jogging on a walkway lined by ridiculous million-dollar homes, and a gorgeous pier for scenic photos that’s the oldest on the West coast, and is also home to a free aquarium and a cafe where you can get a legitimately good cup of coffee. The Downtown area, with its shops and restaurants, is also within close walking distance, so you’ll only have to park once -- which you’ll be very, very thankful for.

Know before you go: Manhattan Beach is a zoo on the weekend and the meter maids are out in full force, so unless you want to keep running back and forth to feed the meter, you’re better off parking in a lot.

Where to eat/drink: Manhattan Beach has a ton of excellent dining options, which you can read all about in our dedicated restaurant guide. If you want to stay close to the beach, The Strand is a date-worthy spot with sweeping views of the ocean, Rock ‘N Fish is a fun seafood spot at the foot of the pier, and Love & Salt serves up satisfying, Italian-inspired Southern Californian fare and classic cocktails.  

Moonstone Beach

Cambria
Tidepools, gorgeous views, and a beach boardwalk that begs to be strolled

Moonstone is where you go when you want to get away -- and not because something awkward happened like in one of those Southwest Airlines commercials. The beach here is never crowded, and there are tons of cute little inns and a quaint Main St on which to enjoy tasty food and fine wine. As far as the actual beach goes: stroll the one-mile boardwalk or down along the water, and you might see whales, dolphins, and sea otters. Oh, and those rocks along the beach? Look closely... they might just be moonstones.

Know before you go: If you want to walk the boardwalk from start to finish (about 2.5 miles round trip), park in the lot on Moonstone Beach Drive. You’ll see the start of the boardwalk on the right.

Where to eat/drink: The Sea Chest Oyster Bar & Restaurant, which feels like a quaint seaside cottage, is just steps from the beach, and is a great place to mingle with locals (order the cioppino). Moonstone Beach Bar & Grill is a fine dining restaurant that serves seafood and steak -- go when the sun is out so you can take in the ocean views.

Pfeiffer Beach

Big Sur
Spectacular sunsets and purple sand

Pfeiffer Beach is hard to find if you don’t know where to look, which makes it that much more special. However, you should know going in that this isn’t your typical beach. The rugged coastline juxtaposes a wide, secluded beach that's famous for purple (yes, PURPLE) sand. If you thought that was crazy, you’d be right, except that Pfeiffer Beach also has a keyhole rock which provides the backdrop for some amazing setting-sun photos during the winter. All that said, don't be surprised if you find yourself wearing jeans and a puffy jacket in the middle of July.

Know before you go: Pfeiffer Beach is south of Big Sur Station on Highway 1 down the unsigned Sycamore Canyon Road. Head to the north end of the beach to find the purple sand that comes from manganese garnet rocks in the beach.

Where to eat/drink: The appeal of Big Sur is that there’s not much around there other than natural beauty, but you can still find few good spots to eat and drink. Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn is known for its views, innovative world class cuisine, and high prices. If you don’t want to drop $100 on lunch, but still want sweet views and good food, head to Nepenthe’s terrace where you’ll get both for a lot less money.

Santa Monica State Beach

Santa Monica
The beach is great, but the pier’s the star here

Though Santa Monica State Beach is three and a half miles long with 245 acres of sand, gorgeous views of the mountains, beach volleyball courts, surf classes, fancy beachfront cafes, and a super-popular bike path, it’s really the Santa Monica Pier that makes this such an iconic destination, with its food, shopping, and rides. If you love roller coasters, Ferris wheels, arcade games, and churros, ignore the rest of the places we’ve recommended thus far and just come here.

Know before you go: The roads are very busy during the summer, so if you can get there another way, that’s your best bet. If you do drive, there are eight parking lots along the length of the beach, and parking can range from $6 to $15 a day. If you plan on staying past sunset you’ll need to park in Lot 1N which is open from 6am to 2am, or the upper Pier deck lot which is open 24 hours per day.

Where to eat/drink: Santa Monica is a bustling town with lots of fantastic dining options -- and we’ve got a whole restaurant guide dedicated to exactly that. If you want to stay on the pier, check out The Albright, a family-run seafood restaurant that’s the longest running restaurant on the pier, or the rooftop bar at Seaside on the Pier, where you can get burgers, seafood, and pizza. Right by the pier is The Lobster, a great spot for… wait for it... lobster, and a few blocks away is Shutters on the Beach, which has a few dining options; our favorite is the casual beachfront cafe.

Venice Beach

Venice
Your iconic, go-to beach for people watching

Probably the most recognizable stretch of sand in the history of movies, Venice Beach is more of a circus than an actual beach -- albeit a circus with sand and an ocean. It's a global tourist destination thanks to the bodybuilders at Muscle Beach, the guys playing intense streetball (we're looking at you, Billy Hoyle), the performers who juggle, sing, tell jokes, and charm snakes, and the endless tourist shops that line the boardwalk. While you’ll mostly go to people-watch from the grassy patches along the bike path, Venice Beach does also rock an actual beach with some solid surfing/sunbathing opportunities. And really, isn’t that what going to the beach is all about?

Know before you go: Bring cash (specifically dollar bills) so you can tip the performers.

Where to eat/drink: For a quick bite, hit up any of the food trucks that have pulled up, grab hand-cut fries or fish and chips from The Wee Chippy, a gyro or falafel from Malaka Brothers, or a poke bowl from Poke-Poke. Hinano Cafe, a beloved dive bar known for being Jim Morrison’s favorite place to hang out in Venice, is a few steps away from the beach and has burgers that consistently hit the spot -- especially when paired with a cold beer. Check out our Venice Beach restaurant guide for even more dining/drinking options. 

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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who once took her enormous Saint Bernard to Bolinas. He proceeded to drink all of the ocean water, pee on someone’s bag, and then throw up for hours after. She still counts it as one of her favorite places on Earth. Follow her on Twitter: @daisy.