15 Best Beaches in California

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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California, the Golden State, is known for its endless summers, so it is the perfect place for a beach holiday. With some of the best beaches in the world, it is easy to spend a whole break relaxing on soft sand and ignoring all of the top-class tourist attractions California has to offer.

But there are so many great beaches to choose from in California it can be hard to know where to start.

Here is our guide to 15 of the very best beaches people should plan to visit during a California holiday. Sun, sand, scenery – they’re all right here.

1. Huntington Beach

Huntington BeachSource: Ken Wolter / shutterstock
Huntington Beach

USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice contest for Best California Beach in 2016 was Huntington Beach and it is clear to see why this particular beach came out on top. The beach, which is known as Surf City USA due to its fantastic waves, is home to the International Surfing Museum.

The US Open of Surfing takes place at Huntington Beach every year, but even non-surfers will find plenty to love here.

The beach itself is nearly ten miles long and is very popular with families, while there is also a section designated as a special dog beach. This is a great spot for kite surfing too.

2. Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachSource: Lucky-photographer / shutterstock
Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach is one of the hottest spots in California and it is easy to compare it to Miami Beach in Florida as both are where the rich and famous come out to play.

The Manhattan Beach Pier is a fantastic place from which to enjoy a spectacular sunset, but sunbathing and people-watching are the two main activities in this corner of the Golden State.

Sometimes called the Pearl of the South Bay, Manhattan Beach has also been described by the Travel Channel as one of the sexiest beaches in America. Manhattan Beach is thought to be the birthplace of beach volleyball and the sport remains popular here to this day.

3. Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer BeachSource: Neil Lockhart / shutterstock
Pfeiffer Beach

Pfeiffer Beach is one of the most difficult to reach on our list of the best beaches in California, but it is definitely well worth the extra effort.

Tucked away in the Big Sur region of the state, the beach – part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park – is known for its absolutely amazing scenery. Just south of the Big Sur Ranger Station, the beach can be reached by turning west on Sycamore Canyon Road and driving down the narrow two-mile road to the beach, which has a $10 entry fee per car and has no camping.

Words cannot really do justice to the incredibly beautiful Pfeiffer Beach.

4. La Jolla Shores Beach

La Jolla Shores BeachSource: Dancestrokes / shutterstock
La Jolla Shores Beach

La Jolla Shores Beach is one of the best beaches in San Diego and this is another spot that is very popular with the surfing community.

The La Jolla Shores Beach has the chance to explore in a kayak and there is the opportunity to try out paddle boarding here too. Bodyboards are available for families who want to get in the water at La Jolla Shores Beach, which has a very relaxed feel about it, even for California.

Keep in mind when visiting La Jolla Shores Beach that beyond the pier there is another beach – known as South Black’s Beach – which is clothing optional.

5. Santa Monica State Beach

Santa Monica State BeachSource: Vadik Swenson / shutterstock
Santa Monica State Beach

Santa Monica State Beach is ideal for families due to the wide range of activities available, including volleyball and biking. The main attraction is of course the famous Santa Monica Pier, which is one of the best ocean-facing playgrounds in the whole world.

There is a huge choice of hotels and restaurants nearby, making Santa Monica a great base for a California beach break.

The pier is a fantastic spot from which to photograph Santa Monica’s amazing sunsets, while it is home to an array of bonkers and beautiful attractions such as an aquarium and a trapeze school.

6. San Gregorio State Beach

San Gregorio State BeachSource: VladCalifornia / shutterstock
San Gregorio State Beach

A short drive from Silicon Valley is one of the best beaches in California: San Gregorio State Beach. Unique rocks and fossils can be found in the cliffs, but it is the gorgeous sand that mostly attracts people here.

There is a large picnic area at San Gregorio State Beach and behind the beach itself there is also a lagoon and a creek to explore. North of the creek there are caves within the cliffs that are stunningly spectacular.

Be careful not to confuse the state beach with a nude beach that also goes by the name San Gregorio.

7. Baker Beach

Baker BeachSource: canadastock / shutterstock
Baker Beach

San Francisco may not be famous for its beaches, but the city is home to Baker Beach, which has some of the best views of any beach in California. With a superb vista of the Golden Gate Bridge, the beach is the perfect place to while away a quiet afternoon.

The beach is a mile long but is not suitable for swimming due to the choppy water, but it is ideal for sunbathing and barbecues. The northern section of Baker Beach, above the Hazardous Surf sign, is mostly used by clothing optional sunbathers.

Baker Beach is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

8. Carmel Beach

Carmel BeachSource: DiegoMariottini / shutterstock
Carmel Beach

The village of Carmel is California’s answer to New York’s The Hamptons, with its mansions making it a perfect millionaire’s playground. Despite this factor, the main beach at Carmel is run by the city and is largely untouched.

Carmel has a long list of famous residents but perhaps the best known of the lot is the actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood.

Carmel Beach is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and as such it is a fabulous spot to look out for humpback whales and dolphins. Small beach fires are permitted at the southern end of the beach.

9. Venice Beach

Venice BeachSource: lulejt / shutterstock
Venice Beach

Venice Beach is probably the most famous beach in the Golden State and it is a brilliant place for people-watching. The world famous Ocean Front Walk is a wonderful journey, while local characters to look out for include Harry Perry, a guitar player on roller blades who wears a turban.

Chainsaw jugglers, palm readers and bodybuilders all jostle for space on one of the most fascinating beaches on the planet.

It is well worth taking some time out of your schedule to check out the street art at Venice Graffiti Walls during your beach break in California.

10. Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State BeachSource: Nagel Photography / shutterstock
Natural Bridges State Beach

Santa Cruz is perhaps the most quintessential city in California, with its mix of fun and relaxation making it a highly popular place to enjoy a beach break.

The city itself is home to a very entertaining classic California seaside promenade, but of all the beaches in the area Natural Bridges State Beach might well be the best of the lot. Large numbers of monarch butterflies can often be spotted from October through early February at this beach, which is quiet and composed.

Surfing, swimming and hiking can all be enjoyed at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz.

11. Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach, Dog BeachSource: Trevor Fairbank / shutterstock
Ocean Beach, Dog Beach

There are a few different sandy shores that go by the name of Ocean Beach in California, but the Ocean Beach that makes it on to our list of the best beaches in the state can be found in San Diego.

There is a dog beach here, so it is the ideal spot for animal lovers to bring their pooch for a relaxing walk. Ocean Beach is known for its very laidback vibe and the fact Ocean Beach Pier allows visitors to fish without needing a valid California fishing license.

Sunset Cliffs is one of the best places in the Golden State to watch the waves and sit quietly as the sun goes down.

12. Malibu Surfrider Beach

Malibu Surfrider BeachSource: Benny Marty / shutterstock
Malibu Surfrider Beach

Malibu has a wide range of beaches to choose from and many of them are fantastic options, but perhaps the best of the lot is Malibu Surfrider Beach.

Found between the Malibu Pier and the Malibu Lagoon, Malibu Surfrider Beach is aptly named due to the fact that it has a super long right hand break, making it one of the top spots in the Golden State for surfing. The Malibu Sport Fishing Pier has superb views and is a great place to hang out for a while.

Other terrific beaches in Malibu include Zuma Beach, Topanga Beach, Point Dume Beach and Dan Blocker Beach.

13. Gold Bluffs Beach

Gold Bluffs BeachSource: Kaitlind Fasburg / shutterstock
Gold Bluffs Beach

Found in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is the brilliant Gold Bluffs Beach, which is without a doubt one of the best beaches in California. Herds of elk can often be seen around the beach in the morning.

The beach was home to a short-lived gold rush back in the 1850s but over 150 years later there is little sign of this. Gold Bluffs Beach was used for the filming of Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World but this has not led to an influx of tourists and the beach is often almost deserted.

For a secluded sandy stretch, there are few better spots in the whole state than Gold Bluffs Beach.

14. Laguna Beach

Laguna BeachSource: Gabriele Maltinti / shutterstock
Laguna Beach

Laguna Beach is one of the most romantic beaches in all of the state of California, with its quiet nightlife making it the ideal place to go for a late stroll across the sandy shore.

There are dozens of restaurants to choose from and Laguna Beach is also famous for its cultural scene, with many artists based in the surrounding area. As such, Laguna Beach is a great place to go for anyone who wants to explore their artistic side.

Of course, Laguna Beach was also the setting for the MTV television series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Laguna’s Thousand Steps Beach is also reached by a little over 200 steps, but is still a hearty walk.

15. Newport Beach

Newport BeachSource: Jon Bilous / shutterstock
Newport Beach

Water sports enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy at Newport Beach, which has the biggest recreational harbour on America’s West Coast. Newport Beach boasts five-star, A-grade sand and the Balboa Fun Zone’s Ferris Wheel is the perfect ride for a loved-up couple.

Nightlife is great at Newport Beach, which is located in one of California’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Stretching over ten miles of beautiful coastline, Newport Beach is a popular spot for surfers due to its strong, high waves.

The annual Christmas Boat Parade is one of the top events in Newport Beach, while the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum is also well worth a visit.

15 Best Beaches in California:

  • Huntington Beach
  • Manhattan Beach
  • Pfeiffer Beach
  • La Jolla Shores Beach
  • Santa Monica State Beach
  • San Gregorio State Beach
  • Baker Beach
  • Carmel Beach
  • Venice Beach
  • Natural Bridges State Beach
  • Ocean Beach
  • Malibu Surfrider Beach
  • Gold Bluffs Beach
  • Laguna Beach
  • Newport Beach