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14 Best Beaches in Southern California

Written by Freddy Sherman
Dec 16, 2019

Southern California, which stretches roughly from Santa Barbara County to San Diego County, has hundreds of miles of beautiful beaches. These beaches range from raw, uninhabited stretches of sand to highly developed beaches, fronted with shops, luxury homes, hotels, and restaurants.

By law, all beaches in California are free to access, but the reality is that most require payment to park anywhere near them. Most city beaches are staffed by lifeguards (and have restroom and shower facilities) during daytime hours, as are county and state beaches. Check out our list of some of the best beaches in Southern California.

1. Santa Monica State Beach

Colored umbrellas on Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica, located between Malibu and Venice, offers a great range of wide beaches, as well as a variety of accommodations, dining, shopping, and attractions. Beach areas to the north of the Santa Monica Pier tend to be less crowded, with the biggest crowds right on either side of the pier.

The beach is fronted in most areas by a wide, cement boardwalk, as well as a bike path. The bike path goes continuously for more than 50 miles, starting in Santa Monica and stretching south all the way to the South Bay.

The area just south of Santa Monica Pier is where many of the city's luxury beachfront hotels are located, but if you're willing to go a few blocks from the beach, the prices drop dramatically.

2. Zuma Beach, Malibu

Zuma Beach

Moving north from Santa Monica, Malibu has a combination of incredible luxury homes and rugged beaches with no development, surrounded by high cliffs. There are a few public beach areas in Malibu, and the largest and best one to visit is Zuma Beach. The beach is just under two miles long, but it's wide with usually decent surf. There are 14 lifeguard towers along the beach, along with a few small snack stands and restroom areas.

The art-filled Malibu Beach Inn sits right on the sand on Carbon Beach, about a 20-minute drive away, with a full-service spa and oceanfront restaurant. You can't beat the location, steps from Malibu Pier. Nobu Malibu is also only a five-minute stroll away.

3. Venice Beach

Palm trees on Venice Beach

Southern California's most entertaining beach has to be Venice Beach, where it's as much fun to people watch as it is to enjoy the ocean. The wide, flat beach is fronted by the iconic Venice Beach Boardwalk, lined with artists and street performers on one side, and shops, restaurants, and cafés on the other. The Venice Beach area, aside from sunbathing, is great for sports as there are volleyball nets, basketball courts, tennis and handball courts, and other sports areas all free for public use.

The area's famous Muscle Beach, an iconic, beachfront, open-air weightlifting area, is a private gym, with memberships and day passes ($10 per day, $50 per week) available to the public.

The Venice Beach area is just starting to attract a few cool hotels. The Hotel Erwin is a block from the beach, with nicely designed, newly-renovated accommodations. The hotel also has a rooftop restaurant and curates art and music shows featuring local artists.

4. Mandalay Beach, Oxnard

Mandalay Beach

Oxnard is only about an hour north of Malibu and offers miles and miles of unspoiled, sometimes even uninhabited, beaches. Mandalay Beach is the beachfront area at the end of 5th Street. The wide beach is good for sunbathing and is also a popular place for surfers. The beach is next to the Mandalay County Park, almost 100 acres of raw, preserved dunes and wetlands. The beaches in Oxnard are wide and flat, with a row of low dunes separating them from the boardwalk or beachfront homes.

The Hampton Inn Channel Islands Harbor is a harbor-front hotel with some rooms and suites overlooking the water. There's an outdoor pool and miles of walking (and biking and jogging) paths and trails all around the harbor area.

5. Playa del Rey

Aerial view of Playa del Rey

This is a wide, sandy city beach with volleyball nets and paths for running and biking. The other benefit is its proximity to LAX. Aside from traffic, it's possible to go from the terminal to the sand at Playa del Rey in about 15 minutes. If you only have limited time in Los Angeles and want to spend it at the beach, this is a great option.

The Inn at Playa del Rey isn't cheap, but it is newly constructed and has beautifully designed rooms and suites. This luxury boutique hotel sits right on the border of the protected Ballona Creek wetlands area, with views all the way to the water. The beach is a short bike ride or walk away.

6. Junipero Beach, Long Beach

Junipero Beach in Long Beach

The public beaches in Long Beach are wide and flat and are also protected by a series of man-made reefs and islands, so the surf is quite gentle. The Junipero Beach area below the Long Beach Museum of Art is an excellent area to enjoy the soft sand and cool water.

Long Beach is a city about 45 minutes south of DTLA (downtown Los Angeles). Aside from wide, clean beaches, the city has plenty to offer visitors, especially in terms of sightseeing and attractions. There's the Queen Mary, the Long Beach Museum of Art, and the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Unless you like crowds or IndyCar racing, you should avoid the city around the second weekend in April, when it plays host to the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The Queen Mary, a retired cruise ship, is also a hotel and is a must-do experience, at least for one night. The cabins can be small and the design a bit outdated, but it offers the opportunity to explore the great ship at your leisure.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Hotels in Long Beach

7. Seal Beach

Seal Beach

This cool little beach city is the first beach in Orange County, just over the Los Angeles County line from Long Beach. Seal Beach has one main wide, flat beach, with plenty of lifeguard stations, as well as places to change and restrooms. The beach is fronted by a concrete boardwalk, which is lined with houses and apartments.

There is a very long wooden pier (in California, only Oceanside's pier is longer), which is great for fishing or just walking. The pier area is surrounded by a park and parking lots.

There are many shops and restaurants along Ocean Avenue, a block from the beach and running parallel to it. The Pacific Inn is about three blocks from the beach, with a large outdoor pool and spa in an open-air atrium.

8. Mother's Beach, Marina del Rey

Mother's Beach, Marina del Rey

Known mainly as the nation's largest man-made recreational harbor, the Marina del Rey area also has a few small beaches. Mother's Beach is a small crescent of sand with a lifeguard on duty and water as gentle as a kiddie pool. The swimming area is roped off, as this is also an area for launching SUPs (stand up paddleboards) and kayaks.

Just beyond the beach is a part of the vast boat harbor, filled with all kinds of pleasure boats. There's also a playground and picnic area next to the beach.

The Marina del Rey Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel right in the heart of the Marina del Rey harbor, surrounded almost completely by the water and boat docks. The hotel's luxurious rooms and suites have wonderful views of the harbor, as does their restaurant with a great outdoor dining area.

9. Main Beach, Laguna Beach

Main Beach, Laguna Beach

Home to a thriving art scene, Laguna Beach hosts its annual Pageant of the Masters and Festival of the Arts each July. The city's large public beach, called Main Beach, is right where Laguna Canyon meets PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway). It's a wide beach, with surf that can be rough.

It's also filled with birds that are quick to steal any food you might leave behind. There are also volleyball courts, beachfront basketball courts, and miles of beachfront bike paths.

The Pacific Edge Hotel on Laguna Beach is aptly named, as it's right on the sand. Go for an ocean-facing room—they are truly oceanfront, with nothing between you and the pounding surf. The beach in front of the hotel is a bit thin, but quickly widens out as you move north towards Main Beach Park.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Hotels in Laguna Beach

10. Huntington City Beach, Huntington Beach

Huntington City Beach

One of Southern California's first beach resort cities, Huntington Beach is named for Henry Huntington, the man who owned the streetcar line that connected it with Los Angeles. The city has developed into a true destination resort, with extremely wide, clean beaches; expensive luxury homes; a thriving restaurant and music scene; and plenty of hotel options.

The city's main beach, Huntington City Beach is a 3.5-mile-long stretch of wide, flat beach. It's easy to get to; just follow Beach Boulevard until it dead-ends at Pacific Coast Highway.

Although the weather is great year-round, the city's population swells during the summer, especially during the annual US Open of Surfing, which happens the first week of August.

The new Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel is right across the street from the beach and is perfect for both families or solo travelers. In case you didn't know, Kimpton is a boutique hotel brand, now part of InterContinental.

11. Crystal Cove State Beach, Newport Beach

Crystal Cove State Beach

This wealthy seaside city has a harbor filled with yachts and a main thoroughfare lined with exotic car dealerships. Aside from the glitz and glam, there's still some old-school charm in a few neighborhoods, like on tiny Balboa Island. The beach has two piers, Balboa Pier and Newport Beach Pier, and even a beachside amusement park, the Balboa Fun Zone.

The city beaches can be crowded, but Crystal Cove State Beach is a more natural area, surrounded by high cliffs. It's a 20-minute drive from the main Newport Beach pier area. The area was formerly a tiny enclave of resort cottages, but now it's a state park.

Aside from the beach there are a few little cafés and even some shopping in the tiny beachfront community. The Newport Beach Marriott Bayview is on Newport Bay with bay views, close to the area's great shopping. The beach is a short drive or bike ride away. It's also close to SNA, John Wayne Airport.

12. Hermosa Beach

Aerial view of Hermosa Beach

Another beach city in the South Bay, next to Redondo Beach, is Hermosa Beach. Of all the south-facing beaches, it and Manhattan Beach combine the best of wide-open beaches, a year-round residential population, an excellent selection of local restaurants and shops, along with a few reasonably priced hotels.

Like the other South Bay beach cities, Hermosa Beach is easily accessible by the freeway and within an hour, even with traffic, of LAX airport. The city is on The Strand, part of that continuous, paved bike path starting 20 miles north in Santa Monica. The city is fronted by several miles of flat, well-appointed beaches.

The Hotel Hermosa is a good mid-range option, about a 15-minute walk from the beach. It's well-maintained, has a heated outdoor pool, and offers free Wi-Fi.

13. Coronado Beach

Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Beach

This San Diego beach constantly ranks among the top ten beaches in the country. It's because Coronado Beach delivers so many of the elements for a classic beach experience. It's wide and flat, almost two miles long, and has good lifeguard protection. There's an abundance of facilities, bathrooms, and outdoor showers, along with nearby businesses for snacks, meals, and beach supplies.

It's also quite beautiful and photogenic; there's a lot of mica in the sand and it reflects the sunlight. Coronado Beach is the home of the legendary Hotel del Coronado, which, in addition to the rooms and suites in its iconic Victorian main building, offers luxurious beach villa accommodations, private little mansions right on the sand.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Diego: Best Areas & Hotels

14. Leadbetter Beach

Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara

This Santa Barbara city park has a wide, curving beach with a grassy lawn area. The park is easily accessible, it's between the harbor and Shoreline Park, right across from Santa Barbara City College.

The surf is gentle but adequate for beginning surfers, and the area is also windy enough for windsurfing. There are areas for barbecuing and several groups of restroom and shower facilities along the beach.

It's a long beach, and although there can be a lot of people here, especially on weekends and holidays, it's always possible to find your own space. And if you want to socialize, the beach is popular with the students from the college across the street (and those from UCSB, about 15 minutes away).

The Santa Barbara Inn is a Spanish-style hotel, about a 10-minute drive along the shoreline. Luxury touches, like heated tile floors in the rooms, raise it above your average mid-range hotel.

Accommodation: Best Beach Resorts in Santa Barbara

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