The 9 Best Beach Towns in California from Sunrise to Sunset

By  Danny Newman

To make Wealthtender free for readers, we earn money from advertisers, including financial professionals and firms that pay to be featured. This creates a conflict of interest when we favor their promotion over others. Learn more. Wealthtender is not a client of these financial services providers.
➡️ Find a Local Advisor | 🎯 Find a Specialist Advisor

Looking for a top beach town in California where you can live, vacation, or retire? Discover the best West Coast destinations to visit this year.

California is one of the most popular places in the country. Hundreds of millions of visitors flock here every year, eager to experience the beautiful weather, stunning landscapes, easy-going culture, and unique attractions like Disneyland and Hollywood for themselves.

Of course, people travel all over the Golden State – from San Diego in the south to the magnificent Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in the north. Yet California’s incredible coastline is definitely one of its greatest attractions. With sun, surf, and sand around every corner, a beach day is every day in this part of the world!

In fact, the trickiest part of any visit here is choosing which coastal destination to visit first. Today, we’re going to highlight the nine best beach towns in California to help narrow down your options. In no particular order, let’s dive in.

1. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is an ultra-laidback beach town in California that’s synonymous with surfing. Offering some of the best off-shore breaks in the world, it’s one of the best places to be if you want to hire a board and hit the waves.

There’s much more to Santa Cruz than just surf culture, though. Thanks to its proximity to San Francisco and San Jose, it’s also a great weekend escape from the city. The surrounding area offers outrageous natural beauty, too, with sequoia groves, ancient Redwood forests, and fairy-tale waterfalls a short drive away.

As for the town itself, expect an eclectic mixture of people and activities. Downtown’s packed with college students, hipster vibes, and lovely places to eat. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk offers old-school arcade games and rickety wooden rollercoasters. And there are beaches galore, with Main Beach (AKA Boardwalk Beach), Capitola Beach, and Manresa State Beach being a few of our favorites.

2. Santa Barbara

Without Santa Barbara, no list of the best beach towns in California would be complete. A small place renowned for its broad, sandy beaches, it’s a paradisiacal destination where you can surf, swim, shop, watch the sunset, explore nature, and eat and drink until your heart’s content.

Located approximately 100 miles north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is another great place to live, with easy access to the city. Yet that’s far from its only allure!

It’ll dazzle you with its natural beauty and distinctive Mediterranean feel. Family-friendly beaches, world-class surfing opportunities, and cultural activities (don’t miss the Santa Barbara Historical Museum!) all add to the appeal and explain why it’s such a popular retirement destination in California.

3. Trinidad

Just south of the Oregon border and a stone’s throw from the Redwood National and State Parks, you’ll find the coastal hamlet of Trinidad. With a little over 300 residents, it’s absolutely tiny! But a) that’s part of Trinidad’s charm, and b) what it lacks in stature, it more than makes up for in rugged natural beauty.

Trinidad’s the epitome of picturesque. Perched on a strip of headland that juts into the Pacific, it feels raw and untouched. The ocean stretches out before you, jagged offshore rocks rise up from the water, and verdant forests surround the town.

There’s a surprising amount to do here as well. You can hike up Trinidad Head, soak up the atmosphere on Trinidad Pier, go crabbing at Trinidad Harbor, and arrange a tour of the Trinidad Head Memorial Lighthouse. There’s surfing to do at Trinidad State Beach as well, and Moonstone Beach is a must if you fancy a lazy afternoon spent strolling and sunbathing along glorious golden sand.

4. Malibu

Drive 30 minutes west of Los Angeles, and you will arrive at the legendary town of Malibu. A favorite vacation destination for pro athletes and Hollywood A-listers, this magical place has an air of exclusivity to it. Fancy restaurants, luxury resorts, and huge beachfront homes go with the territory.

Don’t worry, though. There’s something for everyone in Malibu – especially when it comes to surfing. The waves are near-perfect here and attract avid surfers from across the globe! The aptly named Surfrider Beach and nearby Zuma Beach are 2 great places to see them for yourself.

El Matador State Beach has some cool rock formations to explore too. And, if you love wildlife, don’t miss Point Dume. Located at the northern end of Malibu, it’s an amazing place to see migrating gray whales in winter. There are also cultural activities to enjoy, such as The Getty Villa’s display of ancient Greek and Roman art.

5. Santa Monica

Santa Monica is Southern California at its finest. It’s surrounded by mountains, has almost 4 miles of wonderful beaches, and boasts a bustling urban life with all the amenities of a modern city – without being too overwhelming!

Here’s a brief rundown of its main attractions:

  • The all-popular Santa Monica Pier
  • The 3rd Street Promenade, with its shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants
  • Palisades Park, with its views over the town’s eponymous mountain range
  • Tongva Park, with its playground, paths, waterfalls, and ocean views
  • The original muscle beach workout playground
  • The sprawling state beach

Trust us, you’ll never be bored in Santa Monica, and – despite its reputation – it can be surprisingly affordable too. You can stay entertained for hours just by looking for the local celebs that live here! Exploring on foot is fun, too – walking around town, soaking up the lively atmosphere, and watching the street performers earn a living.

happy romantic couple at santa monica during sunset on the beach, celebrating their time in one of the best beach towns in California.
Image Credit: Depositphotos.

6. San Clemente

Perched on the California coast between LA and San Diego, you’ll find a slice of Orange County paradise called San Clemente. With 4 miles of coastline and a fun-loving surfer vibe, it’s another lovely beach town that’s both laidback and lively.

There are shopping and dining opportunities aplenty downtown. But life in San Clemente undoubtedly revolves around the ocean. Get ready for watersports and whale watching, the popular 2.3-mile Beach Trail that provides outstanding views over the area, and top-notch surf breaks at San Onofre and San Clemente beaches. The San Clemente Pier’s a hive of activity, too – especially if you’re into fishing.

Looking for a spot of culture? The Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens have you covered. And don’t forget to visit the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center! The rare collection of surfboards that line its walls is well worth seeing.

7. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Words don’t do justice to this quaint seaside village. A short drive south of San Jose, Carmel-by-the-Sea (often called Carmel for simplicity) squeezes around 3,100 residents into a little over 1 square mile landmass. Its tiny, charming, and downright pristine qualities make it one of the best beach towns in California.

Given its size, there are a surprising number of things to keep you entertained in Carmel. Strolling through this fairytale destination is nothing short of delightful. But there are also wineries, art galleries, state parks, and nature reserves in the area.

There’s an 18th Century Spanish mission site here as well. And, with its soft white sand and untouched atmosphere, Carmel Beach is just as heavenly (although the dangerous riptides make it unsuitable for swimming).

8. Morro Bay

Morro Bay is one of the most unique coastal destinations in California. Why? Partly because of its small-town, fishing-village feel that’s a world away from the hubbub of places like Santa Monica and Malibu. But also because of the 576-foot-tall Morro Rock – an ancient volcanic mound that rises prominently from the flat earth around it.

You’ll find this eye-catching landmark within another main attraction here: the Morro Bay State Park. With lagoons, hiking trails, and amazing wildlife experiences courtesy of its saltwater marsh, it’s a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.

If that wasn’t enough to tempt you, then maybe the kayaking, canoeing, and paddle-boarding tours might. Or how about the expansive Morro Strand State beach? Or the cute little shops, galleries, and craft beer and wine-tasting experiences in town? Honestly, with so many fun and family-friendly things, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Morro.

9. Santa Catalina Island

Usually referred to just as Catalina Island (or Catalina, for short), this gem of a destination’s located 22 miles off the coast of Southern California.

Accessible by ferry boat from San Pedro, Long Beach, Newport Beach, or Dana Point, it takes roughly an hour to get to this island paradise – unless you go by helicopter, in which case it’s only 15 minutes away!

Whatever mode of transport you take, you’ll be greeted by friendly locals, swaying palm trees, white-sand beaches, and a surprising amount to see and do. You can go scuba diving, fishing, and kayaking, see bison in the wild, enjoy a boat tour, or visit Catalina’s various shops, museums, and spas. 

We like that there’s a wide range of accommodation options as well. From luxury resorts and bed & breakfasts to vacation rentals and back-to-basics campgrounds, Catalina has something for everyone, regardless of your budget.

Enjoy the Best Beach Towns in California

California’s magnetic appeal draws countless visitors to its shores every year. For good reason, too! There’s a breathtaking selection of natural attractions here, alongside a climate and culture that are both hard to resist.

If you’re on your way to the Golden State, we hope this article about the best beach towns in California has given you some ideas on where to stay. Whether you’re coming for a weekend getaway, a summer vacation, or to find a great place for a second home, these beautiful coastal destinations should be ideal.

Would you love to move somewhere on the Californian coast and want to get your finances in order to help you do it? Let us help.

Click here to find a first-rate financial advisor near you.

Of course, California is also a great place to retire! If you’re researching beach towns as a potential retirement destination, you might also enjoy these tips on enjoying life after retirement.

Find Retirement Financial Advisors on Wealthtender

📍 Click on a pin in the map view below for a preview of financial advisors who can help you reach your money goals and enjoy a comfortable retirement so you can visit your favorite California beach towns more often. Or choose the grid view to search our directory of financial advisors with additional filtering options.


📍Double-click or pinch pins to view more.

Are you ready to enjoy life more with less money stress?

Sign up to receive weekly insights from Wealthtender with useful money tips and fresh ideas to help you achieve your financial goals.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

About the Author

Danny Newman

I’m a digital nomad from England who loves traveling and has a passion for writing.

To make Wealthtender free for readers, we earn money from advertisers, including financial professionals and firms that pay to be featured. This creates a conflict of interest when we favor their promotion over others. Learn more. Wealthtender is not a client of these financial services providers.
➡️ Find a Local Advisor | 🎯 Find a Specialist Advisor