the houses of dana point on the cliff bluff

27 Cutest Coastal Towns in California: Beach Towns to Visit!

California is often best-known for its beaches. While there is a lot of other fun activities to enjoy in the rest of the state, it seems like we just can’t seem to help ourselves from being drawn to the coastline!

And because California is such a large state with hundreds upon hundreds of miles of coast to enjoy, it is uniquely able to offer special beach town experiences in many, many locations.

If you are planning to go to California for a weekend getaway, or you want to visit every single well-known beach town on this list, you will never be disappointed in your time spent along the California coastline. There’s just something about the California coast that is special, moving, and memorable.

I try to make time to visit at least one California beach town each year because I find that there is just no comparison with the California coast anywhere else on earth!

Cute Coastal Towns in Southern California

Malibu

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the beaches of malibu california and fancy houses on the beach

Contrary to popular belief, Malibu is not just a single beach, it’s a city as well as a beach region in the state. You can visit 21 miles of beach when you visit the Malibu area, and each square foot is as delightful as the last!

The Malibu area is dotted with state beaches like Topanga State Beach and Pointe Dume Beach, but you can also visit the Malibu Pier and the Malibu Surfrider Beach.

If you visit sites like Surfrider, you can watch the surfers training and catching waves, or you can sit down in the sand and enjoy the weather. Smaller beach locations up and down the Malibu coastline offer a more quiet and serene experience, but one that is no less delightful.

You don’t need me to tell you that the shopping is amazing in Malibu and there is any kind of store you can imagine if you head back into town! The shopping in this cute coastal California town can only be beat by large cities like LA and San Francisco.

Insider Tip: Make some time to visit Escondido Falls if you are there in the cooler parts of the year or take a horseback ride through the Zuma Canyon.

Where to Stay: A stay in Malibu will not be cheap, but it will be amazing! One of the most luxurious places to stay is the Calamigos Guest Ranch & Beach Club. Located in the mountains on a 200-acre property, it also has its own private beach club for the best of both worlds. With several pools and a spa, it’ll be hard to tear yourself away!

For a more affordable stay, the M Malibu is an option. Honestly, it’s nothing special — and the price is still on the high side — but it’s the best option for the price.

Ventura

a fountain in front of the ventura mission in this cute California coast town

Located near Carpinteria and Oxnard, this famous beach town in Southern California is near a working harbor, a fishing marina, and a delightful shopping area with restaurants and waterfront activities.

You can jet ski, paddleboard, or enjoy a boat trip here — and best of all, your dog is welcome on the beach! This is one of the must-see locations along California’s coastal towns for a whole host of reasons.

Enjoy the surf and sand as you sunbathe near the water, or walk along the famous Ventura Pier and catch the views over the water at sunset. This is a truly phenomenal beach town that is famous for both its beauty and serenity.

Where to Stay: For a unique stay, book a night in the retro-chic Waypoint Ventura, where converted Airstream trailers have been given a modern facelift with gorgeous furnishings and private outdoor patio spaces.

For a more traditional stay, the Crowne Plaza is beachfront, complete with an outdoor terrace with a firepit and Pacific sunset views!

Montecito

palm trees at sunset in the southern California beach town of Montecito near Santa barbara

This delightful beach town has enjoyed new fame recently because it has been associated with Megan Markle and Prince Harry as they traveled down the Montecito Coast. But it’s no stranger to celebrities: Oprah has been living in Montecito for years.

These ex-royals have taken up residence near Butterfly Beach in Montecito near Santa Barbara, bringing new interest to this little gem of a beach town.

Where to Stay: There are a handful of hotels in Montecito itself, and more options in downtown Santa Barbara. In Montecito, check out charmers like the Montecito Inn or the Coast Village Inn. Both are pretty comparable in terms of rooms, amenities, and price.

Encinitas

the beach at swamis in encinitas

If you are in Encinitas, a charming surf town in California, you have to go see the sunset at Moonlight State Beach!

Visit the local shops and have dinner nearby, then wander down to the beach and enjoy the end of the day with some snacks from the snack bar. There are fire pits and volleyball courts here as well.

For a different experience, head up to Swami’s to watch surfers navigate the big waves. You can also head over to Sea Cliff and sit in the shade or at a picnic table and listen to the waves.

D Street is another great option for access to the water and you can sunbathe here. Be aware of possible sunbathers in their birthday suits at D Street beach, especially if you are traveling with children!

Where to Stay: For a luxe resort stay, the Alila Marea Beach Resort is an incredible option. The rooms are spacious with sweeping views of the Pacific, located right on a bluff overlooking the beach. It’s got all the 4-star amenities you can dream of: a heated infinity pool, a spa center, a fitness center, a restaurant, etc.

For a more budget-friendly option, the charming Cardiff by the Sea Lodge offers a more relaxed B&B style stay. The rooms each have their own style, and there is a rooftop garden with beautiful views of the ocean. 

La Jolla

the beautiful oceanfront town of la jolla california with palm trees and houses

The La Jolla area offers the extremes of rocky cliffs and delightful sandy beaches that you have probably come to expect from California.

You can visit Torrey Pines State Beach to see the 300-foot sea cliffs and rare eponymous Torrey pines (found only in a few places in the world, all of them along small stretch of the California coast) or head down to the long sandy beaches near Black’s Beach for some sunbathing.

La Jolla Cove offers access to seas coves and you can sea kayak here or check out the marine life with a snorkel or by diving.

La Jolla is the quintessential California beach town near San Diego, and the surfer vibe of the city puts one in mind of Hawaii. Downtown, or “The Village” to locals, is full of shops, museums, and other fun things to do. 

Enjoy the San Diego zoo or the Safari Park which is associated with it. There is also great hiking near here and you can see the coastline from nearly every hiking trail as you work your way up the hills near the coast.

Where to Stay: The beautiful Pantai Inn in La Jolla offers unique, Balinese-inspired rooms with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Each room comes equipped with a kitchenette and spacious seating area. Best of all, it’s just a 5-minute walk to La Jolla Cove!

Another option is the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, located right in the heart of one of the prettiest patches of San Diego coastline. It’s got all the 4-star amenities you’d expect from the Hilton name, like an outdoor pool, hot tub, restaurant, etc.

Seal Beach

View of the water and the wooden pier at sunset, with the tide flowing out

This gorgeous California coastal town is located in Orange County and it retains its small-town feeling despite being near one of the most populous and posh areas in the state!

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Visit the Seal Beach Wildlife Refuge or visit the Hyatt Regency for a meal in the delightful downtown area.

Head down to the water to see the second-largest wooden pier in California or pick out a place on the beach itself and sunbathe.

You can watch the surfers or head over to the shady grass park to eat your lunch and listen to the waves — there’s no shortage of things to do in Seal Beach!

Where to Stay: There aren’t too many accommodations in Seal Beach, but luckily, you won’t need much choice as the best is obvious: the Ayres Hotel! The lobby is really luxurious and classic, with beautiful library vibes, and the rooms are simple, modern, and spacious. Plus, a heated swimming pool is on-site! Best of all, the price is right!

If that gets booked up, there is always the Hampton Inn & Suites Seal Beach, but it’s nothing special to be honest, and the price is very similar to the Ayres Hotel, which is definitely the better value.

Newport Beach

the beach at newport beach with houses, palm trees and a mountain behind in the distance

Newport Beach is delightfully scenic coastal city in California with its cliffside views and some of the best surfing in the state. Take the ferry to Balboa Island and visit this beautiful little tourist trap for the day. You can even ride the Ferris Wheel or play in an arcade.

Get a frozen banana while you are on Balboa Island (Arrested Development, anyone?), and then head back to visit the shops at Fashion Island which are arranged in an open-air mall.

If you want to see surfers navigating impressive waves, head to The Wedge where waves get as high as 30 feet! If that is too wild for you, there is a whole host of delightful beach locations to take a towel and some sunscreen and catch some rays.

Where to Stay: Part of the exclusive Autograph Collection of hotels, the boutique Lido House is a beautiful historic place to stay in Newport Beach. Each room is decorated uniquely and full of individual character, with pops of color and tons of attention to detail. Amenities include an outdoor pool, hot tub, fitness center, restaurant, and sun terrace.

Another great choice is the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, with spacious rooms (hello, king beds!), a great pool area, and lots of freebies like bikes, lounge chairs at the pool, beach umbrellas, and fire pits for public use.

Dana Point

the houses of dana point on the cliff bluff

Dana Point is well known by Californians as having some of the best beach locations to enjoy the sun and waves!

One of the best features of a visit to any of the beaches in Dana Point is that you can enjoy year-round whale watching during your visit! Take your small children to Baby Beach where the waves are gentle and the water is shallower or head up to Doheny State Beach for some surfing and swimming.

If you are visiting in the fall, make a stop at the Tall Ships Festival to see the old sailing ships that are moored there during the event. Round out your trip with a visit to Pirate’s Cave near the Ocean Institute and enjoy this amazing natural feature at low tide.

Where to Stay: New to the area is the Waldorf-Astoria Monarch Beach Resort. This resort sits on 175 acres near the beach, complete with 7 on-site restaurants, 3 swimming pools, a golf course, an on-site spa, and a private beach! Unique to this property is an outdoor fitness facility, where they offer over 40 fitness classes every week with a fresh ocean breeze.

Another nice place to stay is the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa. It’s a more reasonable price than some of the other more luxurious hotels in Dana Point, without skimping on excellent amenities like two heated swimming pools, a luxe spa center, and a fitness center.

Oceanside

the street in oceanside california with palm trees and ocean

Charming little Oceanside is a truly SoCal beach town and has a great laid-back vibe.

The beaches are phenomenal and make you think you are in Hawaii while the town, called O’side by locals, is home to the California Surf Museum.

Visit the historic pier or the Oceanside Harbor on your way to lounge in the sun at the beach itself.

Take a wine harbor cruise, or enjoy live music at Coomber Craft Wines. This is a young, hip town with a ton of fun activities to do at all times of the year.

The bike trails are well worth a visit, and there are many great natural areas to hike and enjoy scenic views of the entire stretch of beach.

Where to Stay: For a lovely boutique place to stay in Oceanside — which mostly has chain hotels — The Green Room is a wonderful option. Each room is a little standalone studio unit, with a private entrance and personal patio area. The decor is cute and modern, and you can walk to the beach!

For a trendy new place to stay, the Seabird Resort (a Hyatt property) is another good option in downtown Oceanside, right on Mission Ave. There’s a great pool area with lots of sun lounger, as well as a restaurant and fitness area. While not a beachfront property, some rooms have ocean views!

Carpinteria

the stairs leading down to the beach at carpinteria

The Santa Barbara area is one of the prettiest parts of California, and Carpinteria — a charming beach town — is located on the Southeast side of this iconic part of the state.

The beach at Carpinteria offers a gentle slope and soft swells for much of the beach’s length. This makes it perfect for sunbathing and strolling. The city is part of the coveted California Riviera that draws tourists each year for its Mediterranean climate.

The Spanish-style architecture of this city offers old-world charm and you can drop in to Teddy’s By The Sea for an ocean view meal. Stay at the local smaller hotels near the water and shop along Linden Avenue.

Pop over to the Seaside Gardens to check out art installations and beautiful natural scenery, or buy some cute beachwear at Seastrand.

Where to Stay: The oceanfront Cliff House Inn is definitely the best place to stay in Carpinteria! With private beach access, a pool facing the ocean (hello, sunsets from the pool!) and balconies in every. single. room. — this is a winner.

If that’s all booked up, the charming Casa del Sol is not a bad option, though it wouldn’t be my first pick!

Cute Beach Towns in Central California

Pismo Beach

the famous surfboard sign at pismo beach a cute surf town in california

Pismo Beach is one of the best-known beach towns in California, and it is located between San Francisco and Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway.

Stay along the seven miles of oceanfront in a resort like the Vespera on Ocean, or head just south of the town to visit one of the local wineries like Santa Rita Hills.

Stroll along the iconic Pismo Beach Pier, or walk along the long stretch of flat and soft beach sand. You can sunbathe here or you can head over to the Pismo State Beach and Oceano Dunes to see the monarch butterflies which migrate through the area each year.

If you love ATVs and off-roading fun, this is the perfect dunes location to have a blast!

Where to Stay: The charming Cottage Inn on the Sea offers stunning views over Pismo Beach from a bluff above it, with a fire pit and chairs to watch dreamy views of the sunset. Score! It also has beautiful rooms (some with fireplaces and ocean views) as well as a pool and hot tub.

For a brand new, luxury hotel experience, Vespera Resort on the beach offers spacious and beautifully designed rooms on a gorgeous property with 4-star amenities (fitness center, giant pool, etc.).

Cayucos

the craggy ocean shore of cayucos beach town

The white sands of Cayucos State Beach are one of the biggest attractions in the cute coastal town of Cayucos.

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Cayucos has a well-known pier that dates back to 1872 from the days of this town’s past when it was an important commercial port for ships sailing from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

This is a small beach town with a ton of character and lots of delightful shopping and dining.

Cayucos has preserved its Salinan and Chumash history, and visitors can learn more about the land’s original inhabitants by visiting Cass House Cayucos.

Learn about the original ranching and shipping families who created the little town before heading out of town to see the impressive Estero Bluffs State Park.

Where to Stay: For a charming B&B in Cayucos, look no further than the Cayucos Sunset Inn. It has patios with sunset views just a short walk from Main Street and great touches like fireplaces and en-suite baths.

Another great option that’s a little more affordable is Cayucos Beach Inn, which is a lovely no-frills inn just one block from the scenic Cayucos State Beach. Rooms are clean, cozy, bright, and airy!

Morro Bay

kayaks in the harbor at morro bay

Nearby Morro Bay has a lot to offer from kayaking in the harbor, to biking along the beach, to checking out the daily catch that is locally caught and served in the town’s excellent restaurants.

This town is near San Luis Obispo, one of the most beautiful areas in the state.

In Morro Bay, you can visit the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History to learn about the local history and the Chumash people who lived here first.

Take a bay cruise to catch the sunset, or take a stroll along the Embarcadero which is full of activity every day.

Check out the art at the Seven Sister gallery, or get some saltwater taffy at Carousel Taffy. This is a great place to go birding or to see sea life like otters, whales and sea lions as well.

And of course, make sure to set aside some time to see the famous Morro Rock at Morro Strand State Beach, the most significant landmark of this cute California beach town.

Where to Stay: The stunning Inn at Rose’s Landing has the best views in town! It’s right on the Embarcadero, with a front-and-center view of Morro Rock. The rooms are spacious with a modern flair, and the terrace has great views of the bay and the famous rock!

For a more budget-friendly option, the cheap and cheerful Pleasant Inn has that renovated vintage motel vibe with updated rooms, great prices, and a solid location.

Cambria

houses on the beach at cambria on california's central coast

Cambria is more correctly classified as a village and comes complete with local charm and seaside activities and hotels.

The beach is large and smooth, making it perfect for a stroll or for laying out on a sunny day, and you can enjoy views of the beach from almost every downtown café that might invite you in for lunch or dinner.

Moonstone Beach and the Moonstone Boardwalk are a mile long and are a great place to walk if you want to see dolphins and whales.

If you come during the right season, you should head to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal rookery to see elephant seal pups and their parents.

Hearst Castle is just ten miles from Cambria and is well worth the visit to see the art collection as well as the house itself. Consider staying at Cambria Pines Lodge or the picturesque Fogcatcher Inn.

Where to Stay: The charming Cambria Beach Lodge is located just across from Moonstone Beach, offering a beautiful sun terrace with a sunset view. Rooms are large with lovely beachy decor, with a seating area and en-suite bath. Best of all, sunny yellow bikes are available for free to guests!

Another great option is Creekside Inn in downtown Cambria located right on Main Street, a 5-minute walk from downtown. Rooms are spacious and clean and the prices are really affordable. Plus, there’s a hot tub on site for guest use!

Carmel-by-the-Sea

the charming fairytale houses of carmel by the sea

This California beach town was well-known before Clint Eastwood served as its mayor — but that certainly helped!

This beautiful seaside town offers a blend of galleries, boutiques, hotels, and shops, and the styling of the whole area is full of whimsy and romantic architecture, like something out of a fairytale.

Contrasting with the beautiful architecture, the coastline offers up rugged cliffs as well as soft, sandy beaches. Truly, there are not many places on earth that are this beautiful.

Visit Point Lobos State Reserve which is famous for being one of the most stunning protected lands in California, or head to the Carmel River State Beach for ocean swimming, kayaking, surfing, or just enjoying the sun and the waves.

Monterey County is one of the prettiest places anywhere in the US, and Carmel-By-The-Sea is one of the jewels in its crown.

Capitola

the rainbow colored beach houses of capitola

Although not one of the better-known beaches along the California coast, this bustling and fun city offers visitors the lovely Capitola beach, its colorful rows of beach houses, and the Esplanade park that is located nearby.

This is the location of a bandstand that comes to life during the hotter parts of the year and there are free movie screenings during summer nights right by the beach.

Shop at the cute little shops in town or dine at famous Zelda’s on the Beach to enjoy live music and a great torch-lit patio that overlooks the beach.

Snag a room at the colorful and picturesque Capitola Venetian Hotel right on the beach and walk out onto the sand each day, or into town for your breakfast and coffee each morning.

Best Coastal Towns in Northern California

Davenport

the sands on the beach of davenport california

Located near Half Moon Bay, this delightful little town is sometimes referred to as part of the “slow coast” of California. This is a historic area with a ton of charm and the city dates back to 1867, making it a good place to stop if you love to visit museums and learn about local history.

Visit the famous “Davenport Crack” in the surrounding hills near Davenport Beach or go see the unique rock formations like Shark Fin Cove.

If you want to visit some more rugged coastal areas, head over to walk Bonny Doon Beach and visit the cliffs and rock shelves near this scenic stretch of beach.

Half Moon Bay

the ocean waters of half moon bay on the california coast near san francisco

Half Moon Bay is one of the best-known places towns on the California Coast and for good reason!

This is a much larger city than some of the others on this list and it boasts the Pillar Point Harbor area as well as the unincorporated Princeton-by-the-Sea.

This a great place to visit any kind of beach that you want to see, from Half Moon Bay State Beach with its cliffs and sea rocks, to Dunes Beach and Miramar Beach which offer up rugged sections of cost with large waves.

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This beach town is close enough to San Francisco to get daily fog during certain parts of the year and those who have visited the Oregon Coast will feel right at home here.

The town is full of cute bed-and-breakfasts (and some ritzy options, including the literal Ritz Carlton) as well as yummy dining and quaint shops, as it’s a favorite beach getaway from San Francisco.

Pacifica

mori point at pacifica a cute beach town on the california coast

Another beautiful beach town near San Francisco, Pacifica is well-loved by locals for good reason. There are great hiking trails here (Mori Point is a real stunner) and the beach allows dogs.

This also is a great place to learn to surf, and the University of Surfing will help you learn to catch a wave.

Stay at the Pacifica Beach Hotel or the Lighthouse Hotel and head to the Moonraker for a delightful meal, or walk into town for some snacks and take them down onto the beach. This is a casual and friendly beach town that makes for a fun getaway, whether you are planning a day trip or a longer stay.

Sea Ranch

Old barn on trail with sea in background and dry grass

This town is best known for its distinctive back-to-nature architecture and its scenic golf course, but it is also a great location for whale watching and hiking on the public access trails near Gualala Point Regional Park.

Make time to stop and see the Sea Ranch Chapel, or to visit the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

This is a great jumping-off point to head into Sonoma for some wine tasting or to stay and hang out for a weekend!

Gualala

View from mountain of twists of Gualala river emptying into the Pacific Ocean with sunset tones of blue and orange

This little town is nestled into the bluffs along the Gualala River in the “banana belt” of the California coast. This area has a unique micro-climate, and you might experience foggy beach days along with sunny days.

This is the perfect place to go if you love hiking, whale watching, and sport fishing. You can golf, head out to see the Kruse Rhododendron State Natural Reserve, or buy some art at one of the galleries in town.

This is a beach town that is best enjoyed when you rent a beach house and stay for a few days.

Elk

houses in elk california on the beach

Elk is a tiny town and not well-known, but it is well worth a visit. This is a secluded stretch of beach near the Navarro River and the coastline is surrounded by hilly pasture and redwood forest on one side and the shoreline on the other.

This is a great place for a quiet seaside lunch as well as a great place to buy some local art. From Queenie’s Roadhouse Café to the Elk Store, local charm is everywhere in this little town.

Well-known by Californians for being an artistic community, locals come here often to buy art and enjoy the unique community feeling of this little town.

San Francisco residents view this as a local getaway, but the town was originally a logging settlement and there are plenty of opportunities to learn about the late 19th century and California’s logging history.

This tiny California coastal town with its two-hundred-fifty residents is always a great place to choose for your beach trip in California if you want to get a bit artsy and off-the-beaten-path.

Mendocino

A picturesque cabin house in Mendocino with birds of paradise orange flowers overlooking a cliff with blue ocean beneath it

Famous for its unspoiled scenery and local charm, this area is adjacent to the famous Redwood trees and known for its oceanfront botanical gardens and stunning wines.

The town is also well-known for being connected to a cluster of charming Victorian villages!

You can go wine tasting here or ride the Skunk Train through the redwoods. There is a whale festival that is held locally each year in March and a series of wine and food-related events are put on throughout the year.

Having to travel Highway 1 on the way to Mendocino can be a bit tedious owing to the twists and turns in the road, but the views are phenomenal.

This little town was made famous when it was used for filming “Murder She Wrote” and the homes in the town still demonstrate the old-world charm that was made famous during the run of the TV show.

Fort Bragg

The pebbles of the Glass Beach at Fort Bragg, low angle with glass detail and water coming in as tide

Fort Bragg offers some truly charming and comfortable beach hotels like the Shoreline Cottages, and the tiny beach town is full of beautiful beach areas connected to downtown.

Visit Glass Beach and admire pieces of colorful sea glass (though don’t take any home!), or go scuba diving and snorkeling to see the beautiful glass beneath the waves.

Look for whales from the headlands, or head into town to see the historic downtown with its vibrant murals and to learn history related to the 1906 earthquake which destroyed San Francisco.

Kayak the Noyo River and look for sea lions, otters, or sea birds. It is also well worth heading up to Ten Mile beach to see the Cypress Tree Tunnel on California Highway 1.

Shelter Cove

the beach at shelter cove with black sand

This is a great remote area that offers access to hike the Lost Coast or to visit the King Range Conservation Area. You can enjoy fishing or visit the tidepools and Black Sands Beach.

There are some local B&B options for your stay that should not be missed out on!

The town feels like a time capsule by intention, and you can see how the history of this little city was impacted when it was cut off from the major highway system when the Pacific Coast Highway was diverted further inland.

Crescent City

Pink wildflowers on the hill around the white and red Battery Point lighthouse in Crescent City on a sunny spring day

Crescent City is a beautiful place to visit on the Redwoods Coast. The town is full of great stretches of beach to go beachcombing and it is also a perfect place to look at tidepools. Kellogg Beach is a hidden gem near town and nestled right by Tolowa Dunes Park. This is a great place for sand camping as well.

Go to Castle Rock Wildlife Refuge for a safari experience blended with a sanctuary trip. Take a sea kayaking tour with Redwood Rides, or head into town and enjoy some fresh-caught seafood at Elk Valley Casino.

It is also well worth making time to head to Rumiano’s Cheese Factory to try the offerings that are crafted by this family-run business. There is no shortage of outdoorsy and indoorsy adventures here in Crescent City.

***

California beach towns are some of the most picturesque and fantastic places to take a day trip or to go for an extended stay.

The California coast blends all the rugged splendor of the coastline to the north with the sunny weather of SoCal with its almost tropical-feeling locations.

There is no wrong way to spend a day at a California beach town and you will be so glad that you decided to travel to California’s coast from the moment that you step out onto the warm sands!

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