12 Top-Rated Beaches in California
California offers an incredible array and variety of beaches - more than many countries. Beach-goers can choose from wide, well-developed beaches like Santa Monica or Santa Cruz, lined with places to eat and amusements, to vast deserted beaches like Centerville Beach, closer to Oregon than it is to San Francisco. California's beaches are also places to enjoy both the sand and the sea. Sea kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, wakeboarding, surfing, and bodyboarding are all popular water sports, while volleyball, basketball, running, hiking, and, of course, sunbathing are popular beach activities. Plan your seaside adventures with our list of the best beaches in California.
1 Zuma Beach, Malibu
Some of the state's most perfect beaches are found in the city of Malibu. It's about 10 miles north of Santa Monica and has a few different beach environments. Zuma Beach is a wide, flat, popular beach that goes on for a few miles. It has lifeguard stands every few hundred yards, along with multiple areas of facilities and snack stands. Paradise Cove, in the heart of Malibu, is another great beach, with privately operated parking and food outlets. The limited access means it's not too crowded, and cabanas and beach chairs can be rented (and reserved online in advance). There's a popular beachside cafe, and the area combines a beautiful, compact, sandy beach with a vibrant social scene. The cove geography means the waves are calm, so it's also great for children and families. Malibu Beach Inn offers beautiful sea views, as well as a full-service spa and oceanfront restaurant, about a 20-minute drive away from Zuma Beach.
2 Pacific Beach, San Diego
Just north of downtown San Diego, right after Mission Beach, Pacific Beach has a lot going for it. It's a wide, flat beach, stretching about five miles. There is some surf (enough for surf schools to operate on the beach), but mostly the waves are not too big for everyone to enjoy the water. The ocean is good for swimming and other watersports, and the beach and beachfront boardwalk, called Ocean Front Walk, are both used for all kinds of sports and outdoor activities. The beachfront boardwalk is lined with shops and places to eat, including some great sit-down restaurants. The Surfer Beach Hotel is in the center of Pacific Beach, right on the sand, with most of its rooms facing the ocean. There's a very popular snack stand and breakfast spot called Woody's right in front of the hotel.
3 Mandalay Beach, Oxnard
Oxnard is a beach city about 65 miles or 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. It offers five miles of wide, uncrowded, and even uninhabited sandy beaches (and a nice harbor, too). Mandalay Beach is a wide, flat beach at the northern end of Oxnard. There's a large nature reserve behind the beach (open to the public), and the beach has summer lifeguards and a few areas of outdoor showers and toilets. A big draw for visitors is that the area has inexpensive but very nice beachfront and harbor front hotels that charge a fraction of the price similarly located properties charge in Los Angeles. A great example of this is the Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach Resort. This beachfront resort hotel is right on Mandalay Beach, with multiple swimming pools and rooms facing out onto the sand.
4 Main Beach, Santa Cruz
Main Beach in Santa Cruz is a big, wide, straight beach with soft, golden sand and reasonably gentle surf. The beach is fronted by a classic mile-long wooden boardwalk, lined with shops, carnival games, and an amusement park (California's oldest surviving one). Aside from being popular with humans, the beach offers the chance to see dolphins, otters, sea lions, and whales swimming just offshore. It does cool down here, and the boardwalk and the amusement park (and many tourism businesses) have limited operation from November through February. The Comfort Inn Beach/Boardwalk Area isn't a new property, but it's reasonably priced, the rooms have been renovated, and it's only a few minutes' walk to the boardwalk.
5 La Jolla Shores, La Jolla
La Jolla Shores is in La Jolla, the next little city north of Pacific Beach. The well-protected, mile-long, gently curving beach has barely any surf, making it perfect for kids and families. There's even a naturally shallow, separated area fronted by an old seawall, called the Children's Pool. It has almost no waves at all and is really used as a kiddie play area. There are also many lifeguard stands, along with ample restrooms and outdoor showers. The beach is right next to a protected aquatic park, the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which is popular for divers and snorkelers. It also has extremely gentle waves. La Jolla is an upscale community (think Beverly Hills by the sea), and the small downtown area is filled with nice shops and restaurants. The Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa is a luxury hotel with excellent prices. It provides five-star accommodations for barely four-star prices.
6 Stinson Beach, Marin County
Stinson Beach may be Northern California's best-kept secret beach, and it's only a 35-minute drive from San Francisco. The area and the town of Stinson Beach retain a rugged, vintage vibe, protected from extensive commercial development and beachfront mega mansions. The result is a cool, small-town feel with a white, powder-soft beach, great for sunbathing or playing. The waves here are quite gentle, with the occasional big swell accompanying some storms. The beach of Stinson Beach (also the town name) is a protected part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
7 The Great Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore
Also known as Point Reyes Beach, The Great Beach is part of the vast Point Reyes National Seashore, and it's only an hour from San Francisco. The Great Beach lives up to its name with 11 miles of raw, rugged beach - no houses, no restaurants, nothing but beach. It's great for exploring, walking, and hiking but not for watersports or swimming. The waves here are big, and the water is very cold. If you want to stay nearby, The Lodge at Point Reyes sits on three tranquil acres adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore and offers 22 rooms and two cottages surrounded by lush lawns and gardens.
8 Coronado, San Diego
This San Diego Beach is on an island in San Diego Bay, and it's one beach that's as much fun to look at as it is to experience. The bright, white, powder-soft sand has a high mica content, which makes it more reflective than sand at other beaches. The brightness of the soft sand is enhanced by this effect, making it great for selfies. The effect was one of the reasons the beach was used as the setting and for some of the filming of the movie Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe. The best place to stay in Coronado is the historic Hotel del Coronado, also a part of the film. The luxury resort sits right on the beach and has been a popular beach destination for more than 100 years.
9 Santa Monica State Beach, Santa Monica
Santa Monica is another archetypical example of a California beach city. There are 26 miles of beaches along Santa Monica Bay, including those in Malibu, Santa Monica, and Playa del Rey. The city of Santa Monica has 3.5 miles of beautiful, wide, flat beach, fronted by a bike path. There's an old school wooden pier, topped with an amusement park. The cement boardwalk and bike path continues to Venice Beach next door. The water is cold, but the waves are usually calm. There are many lifeguard stands and multiple areas of bathrooms and showers. There are also a few snack stands along the beach. Originally an apartment building, the Huntley Santa Monica Beach is a high-rise (for Santa Monica) luxury boutique hotel a few blocks from the beach. The rooms are large, and the design is modern and luxurious. Try for a room on a higher floor for the best views, and don't miss the rooftop restaurant.
10 Centerville Beach, Ferndale
Closer to Oregon than it is to San Francisco, Centerville Beach is part of what's called California's Lost Coast. Its long stretches of unspoiled coastline start north of San Francisco, reaching nearly to the Oregon border. Centerville Beach is nine miles long and surrounded by high cliffs. It's very animal-friendly, with both dogs and horses allowed on the beach. The water is cold, the waves big, and the current strong, so any water sports are for experts only, and wetsuits are a necessity. There are hiking trails around the beach. The quaint town of Ferndale is about 15 minutes from the beach. The Gingerbread Mansion Inn is a bed-and-breakfast in a Victorian mansion, right in the heart of Ferndale's historic downtown area.
11 Main Beach, Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach is in Orange County, about an hour south of Los Angeles. The main beach area is aptly named Main Beach Park, and it has a few miles of wide, gently sloping beach on either side. To the north are beachfront homes and a few hotels, right on the sand. The main beach area has plenty of sports facilities, including volleyball courts; basketball courts; and of course, a long, winding beachfront bike path. The sand is a light tan color, and parts of the beach are bordered by rocky sections designed to break up the energy of the waves at high tide. The Ranch at Laguna Beach is a newly-opened luxury resort right across Pacific Coast Highway from the ocean. It doesn't have ocean views but sits in a rustic canyon with its own golf course.
12 Huntington City Beach, Huntington Beach
One of Southern California's first beach resort cities, the city is now an international destination resort, with a focus on surfing and beach life. Just over the border from LA County in Orange County, it has two miles of wide, well-maintained beaches. The sand is soft and the waves can be big, but it's normally a good area for wading and swimming. There's a pier that's good for walking, fishing, and sightseeing and a thriving restaurant scene near the beach, providing a nice range of dining options. The newly constructed and newly-opened Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel is right across the street from the beach and is an excellent place to stay because of its stylish accommodations, amenities, and perfect location.