20 Best California Beaches

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With over 800 miles of glorious coastline, California is a beach lover’s paradise. Starting from Imperial Beach, just north of the Tijuana border, and running all the way up to Pelican State Beach, near the state line of Oregon, the Golden State is home to around 420 beaches.
This means you can visit a different one every day for an entire year and still have enough in reserve to keep you busy for most of the following January and February! However, if you don’t have the luxury of time, it’s only natural to want to enjoy the very best surf and sand beaches ‘Cali’ has to offer. Well, allow me to point you in the right direction. Here’s my list of the 20 best beaches in California.

California Beaches

20 Best Beaches In California

When curating this list, we took several factors into account, including personal experiences, overall aesthetic appeal, the range of activities available and their level of cleanliness.

1- Crystal Cove Beach, Newport Beach

Crystal Cove Cottages At Sunset
Crystal Cove Beach at Newport Beach may not be one of the most famous beaches in California but it certainly is charming.

Crystal Cove is the kind of idyllic coastal enclave we’ve all dreamed of retiring to.

Radiating a distinctly ‘old world’ feel, this charming beach community comprises a delightful mix of pristine, unblemished coastline and quaint, vintage homes.

It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features over 3.2 miles of beach.

You could be forgiven for thinking locals spend all day gazing out to the Pacific Ocean and sunbathing.

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However, as the area is popular for hiking, mountain biking, whale watching and scuba diving, they are often busy elsewhere – which means you get more of the beach to yourself.

2- Pelican State Beach, Del Norte County

During the winter, it can get foggy and cold in Northern California, which goes some way towards explaining why its beaches don’t get the same level of plaudits its southern counterparts do.

However, Pelican State Beach is the exception.

Sitting right on the border with Oregon, about 21 miles north of Crescent City, this gorgeous, natural, undeveloped coastal landscape is surrounded by moody redwoods.

Backed by grassy dunes, it extends for five acres and is strewn with driftwood, which lends it a somewhat ethereal aura.

Notwithstanding, if you fancy a digital detox or just need to clear your head, it is a lovely place to spend a couple of hours.

3- Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica

Santa Monica Beach View From Pier
Santa Monica Beach is one of the best beaches in Southern California.

Santa Monica Beach is one of the most famous in California so, if you are in the area, you should definitely make the effort to go there.

Residing in the hip suburb of the same name, the beach here is always crowded and a great spot to mingle with an international crowd.

You can swim and surf here for hours.

There is an aquarium, amusement park, several food stalls, and plenty of shops along Main Street, away from the sand, to keep you entertained.

A great way to explore is on an ebike tour.

4- Glass Beach, Fort Bragg

Waves On Sandy Beach With Shiny Pieces Of Glass
Glass Beach, Fort Bragg nude beaches, California.

You kind of know what you are getting yourself in for when you plan to visit Glass Beach.

But that still does not prepare you for the sight of its smooth, glass-covered shoreline.

As a result of years of garbage being discarded in a coastal dump near Fort Bragg, the constantly crashing ocean has smoothed all of the broken glass into colourful pebbles that glisten in the sunlight.

Best visited during the middle of the day, walking along the beach and combing the glass is a unique experience you could easily spend a few hours doing.

5- Venice Beach, Los Angeles

Venice Beach South Of The Venice Pier
Venice Beach in Los Angeles is one of the coolest beaches in Southern California.

For many tourists, Venice Beach is the first beach they head to when they arrive in Los Angeles.

Its palm-tree-lined boardwalk is one of the city’s most iconic sights and is well known for its street performers, Bohemian ambience and incredibly artistic murals.

Aside from its mile-long strip of sand, which you’ll no doubt spend lots of time on, the famous Muscle Beach and the skate park are compelling attractions that are sure to keep you engaged and entertained.

6- Coronado Beach, San Diego

The Sun Set At The Coronado Beach In San Diego In June
Coronado Beach, San Diego, rates as one of the beautiful beaches in California.

Both Dr Beach and the Travel Channel regularly rank Coronado Beach as one of the finest in the USA.

It’s no wonder, then, that the beach is such a magnet for those seeking somewhere that radiates old-school California vibes.

With the majestic Hotel del Coronado creating an impressive backdrop, the beach is a popular spot for surfing and sunbathing.

It’s also a very family-friendly destination for swimming and well set up for your four-legged friend to enjoy some coastal action as well.

7- Zuma Beach, Malibu

Lifeguard Stand Silhouette At Zuma Beach
Zuma Beach, Malibu, is one of the best beaches in Southern California.

Don’t be surprised if you experience a bit of déjà-vu when you visit Zuma Beach for the first time.

This gorgeous 2-mile stretch of beach in Malibu has been used as a filming location in ‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Planet of the Apes’ and several other blockbuster Hollywood films.

Although Malibu is home to the stars, you are not likely to see Caesar lording it over the sand or Cameron Diaz, for that matter. Darn it!

However, the water conditions are renowned for being very clean here, making it one of the best beaches in California to swim.

8- Stinson Beach, Marin County

For the good people of San Francisco, Stinson Beach has been a popular beachside getaway for many years.

Getting there involves crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and taking in those superb views of the bay and Alcatraz Island.

Both of these should set you in the mood nicely to enjoy the huge expanse of gently curving sand that defines this fabulous coastal location.

The beach is a popular spot for swimming, surfing, and volleyball, especially in the summer.

However, parking is limited, so you might want to catch a bus, Uber, or cycle there instead.

9- Descanso Beach, Catalina Island

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At most beaches in California, it is illegal to enjoy a cocktail on the sand.

However, at the Descanso Beach Club on Catalina Island, it is not prohibited, which is reason enough to head there.

To do this, you’ll have to get a boat transfer from the mainland or take a helicopter ride.

Once you are there, you’ll be able to swim in the crystal clear waters, relax under a cabana, or get pampered at any of the luxury resorts that operate there.

The beach is also a terrific place to see the sunset.

10- Laguna Beach, Orange County

Aerial View Of Laguna Beach Coastline
Laguna Beach, Orange County, is one on the California beaches map.

If you want to stay somewhere that directly overlooks the beach, then the small coastal city of Laguna Beach in Orange County is your best bet.

It is home to more beachfront lodgings than anywhere else in California.

Hence, it is the perfect place to find a balcony where you can sit and enjoy the ocean views all day.

Should you want to venture onto the sand, you’ll find plenty of space to walk on or lay down a towel.

The patrolled beach also offers terrific opportunities for those who want to swim or body surf. You can also go on a kayak tour to see sea lions.

For more California ideas, see:

11- Baker Beach, San Francisco

Baker Beach Of San Francisco At Sunset
Baker Beach, San Francisco, is one of the nice beaches in California.

I am not going to lie, the water at Baker Beach in San Francisco is cold.

But from a vantage on the western shoreline of Presidio, beneath the rugged cliffs, you’ll be treated to arguably the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you don’t fancy seeing it while in the South Bay, the mile-long expanse of sand provides plenty of space to lay down a towel and marvel at the magnificent structure.

Bring a picnic, a book and your favourite playlist to make the most of your time here.

12- Huntington Beach, Orange County

Aerial View Of Huntington Beach And Coastline
Huntington Beach, Orange County, is one of the best beaches in California for families.

For those who enjoy surfing, Huntington Beach is a must-visit destination.

You’ll find the city’s surf culture evident on every street corner in the form of regular surf competitions, bonfires along the coastline and numerous surf-themed bars.

There are several surf beaches in the area you can head to, depending on the wave conditions.

However, if you make your way to Huntington City Beach, you can also stroll along its iconic pier and check out the famous International Surfing Museum which exhibits longboards and various other memorabilia.

13- Natural Bridges, Santa Cruz

Natural Bridges
Natural Bridges, Santa Cruz, is one of the best beaches in California for photographers.

As its name implies, the main highlight of Natural Bridges State Beach is the incredible rock bridge, which was formed over tens of thousands of years by wind, rain, and waves.

You can take awesome Instaworthy photos from the shoreline of this wild and rugged beach.

However, you should also look out for migrating whales, seals, otters, and a myriad of different shorebird species that regularly frequent the area.

14- Carmel Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel, California Beach
Carmel Beach, Carmel-by-the-Sea, is one of the famous beaches in California.

Carmel Beach should be on every beach lover’s bucket list.

Boasting Clint Eastwood as its former mayor and numerous recommendations as one of ‘American’s Top Beach Towns’, this perfect mile-long stretch of beach is an instant mood-lifter.

The white sand is as pristine as anything in the state, and it is also one of the most dog-friendly beaches.

Many people come here to enjoy volleyball, walking and sunbathing.

However, half the fun of visiting is the chance to spot celebrities.

Brad Pitt, Gigi Hadid, Bradley Cooper, and Taylor Swift have all been seen on its cypress-lined shore.

15- Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Pfeiffer Beach
It’s easy to see why Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, is one of the best beaches, California.

There is a good chance Pfeiffer Beach has appeared as your computer screensaver at some point over the last decade because it is home to Keyhole Rock, which is one of the most photographed beach landmarks in the world.

Located within California’s Big Sur region this stunning beach is hidden between the area’s rugged cliff faces.

What sets this beach apart from others in the state is its incredible purple sand (yes you heard that right), which often looks like someone has spilled beetroot over it.

As it is a popular spot with Instagrammers, photographers and dog-walkers, try to get there early in the morning to gain most enjoyment from this stunning locale.

16- Pismo State Beach, San Luis Obispo County

Pismo Beach Sunset On Highway 1
Pismo State Beach, San Luis Obispo County, is one of the impressive beaches in California.

San Luis Obispo is about 190 miles north of Los Angeles and is home to about 17 miles of coastline.

It accommodates some charming towns including Pismo Beach, Grover Beach and the wonderfully named Oceano, and features an incredible set of sand dunes which you can explore either by foot or in a 4WD.

The beach is also a noted destination for clam digging, which is a local delicacy in Pismo and wine tours are very popular.

17- Doheny State Beach, Dana Point

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Doheny State Beach is famous for being the first state beach in California, which is no mean achievement, considering there are 420 beaches in it overall.

If you visit here you won’t be alone, more than a million people come here every year to enjoy surfing, volleyball, picnicking and a range of other beach activities.

There is even a family-friendly aquarium here, which is worth checking out when the Californian sun gets too unbearable.

18- Moonstone Beach, Cambria

Sun Setting Behind Fog At Moonstone Beach
Moonstone Beach, Cambria, is a one of the California beaches with a stunning coastline.

Named after the gleaming moonstones that are scattered along the shoreline, Moonstone Beach boasts one of the most dramatic coastlines in California.

It is a popular destination with couples and families who come to stroll along its charming wooden boardwalk and spend some quality time exploring the many tide pools that form on the beach.

19- Newport Beach, Orange County

Newport Beach Harbor
Newport Beach, Orange County, is one of the beaches in California for yachties.

If you are looking to visit an upscale beach destination, then Newport Beach in Southern Orange County is the place to go.

Known for its massive, yacht-filled harbour, this stunning stretch of beach boasts two piers and houses some exclusive restaurants and boutique stores.

It is also where you’ll be able to visit the Balboa Fun Zone, an old-time fun park complete with a Ferris wheel that showcases outstanding ocean views.

20- El Matador State Beach, Malibu

El Matador State Beach California
El Matador State Beach, Malibu, easily makes the list of Southern California beaches.

When the frenzy of Los Angeles gets too much, head to El Matador Beach.

This stoic retreat, about a 50-minute drive from downtown, features stunning rock formations, mysterious sea caves and a vast expanse of sand to walk or relax on.

Try to come here during the week when there are far fewer people on its golden shores.

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Spencer Samaroo
Spencer is a freelance travel writer with over 20 years experience producing written content for tourism-related businesses. A thalassophile who was afflicted with wanderlust from a young age, he has visited over 40 countries in the world. An ex-pat Brit who now lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, he cites Miami Beach in the USA and Palm Cove in Australia as his favourite travel destinations. Specialising in writing about beach destinations around the world, he would probably bleed sand if you cut his arm open