In a state packed with natural beauty, iconic cities, and amazing things to do, it’s hard to find any fault with California. It boasts nine national parks, epic road trips, and some of the best quality of city living anywhere in the world. It’s no wonder California is the most visited state in the United States!
Yet another top attraction – the beaches in California! From epic stretches of sand in the cities of LA and San Diego to quiet secluded beaches along the stunning Big Sur seaside drive, California’s beaches will delight, surprise, and most likely take your breath away.
In this post, we’ll look at the best beaches in California. We’ll also show you some of the best places to stay nearby, whatever your budget and travel style. If all that doesn’t sound like enough, we’ve also picked out some of the best things to do and see nearby. So, let’s hit the sand, dude!
- When to Go to Beaches in California
- Most Popular Beach in California | Santa Monica Beach, Los Angeles
- Best Beach for Swimming in California | El Matador State Beach, Malibu
- Most Beautiful Beach in California | Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
- Best Beach for People Watching in California | Venice Beach, Los Angeles
- Quietest Beach in California | Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel by the Sea
- Family Friendly Beach in California | Coronado Beach, San Diego
- Best Beach for Surfers in California | Huntington Beach, Orange County
- California Packing List
When to Go to Beaches in California
The best time to visit California depends on what you want to do during your stay. The great thing about the state is that it’s a year-round destination. However, for visiting the beaches in California, it’s not recommended to come between November and April, even if you’re visiting the warmer climate of Southern California.
The best time to head to California for a beach vacation is from May to October. August and September are the warmest months, although July and August can be very crowded and expensive. If you visit in September, the crowds will have thinned, and you’ll be able to swim in tepid waters and sunbathe to your heart’s content, especially in the south of the state.
Since California is such a large state, there are some regional factors to take into consideration. San Diego can be very foggy during May and June, meaning that the beaches might be a bit colder than you like. It can get foggy in July and August in San Francisco, too.
Taking everything into consideration, the best month to travel to California is September. Visiting at any other time of the year won’t be too big of an issue, though – if you can’t go to the beach, there are plenty of other things to do on your backpacking trip to California!
Most Popular Beach in California | Santa Monica Beach, Los Angeles
- Who It’s For: Families who aren’t content with just chilling on the sand. There’s so much to do here!
- Don’t Miss: Pacific Park on Santa Monica Pier. This classic theme park is fun for everyone.
One of the most popular beaches in California, Santa Monica is not just a great base for beach holidays, but also for visiting LA. There’s no shortage of things to see and do in the area, places to eat, and hotels to stay in. The only criticism you could make is that this place gets a bit crowded. But if you can deal with that, then no worries! It is, after all, one of the best beaches in the United States.
Best Airbnb – Private room with parking included
This comfy private room is just 12 blocks from the beach – easy walking distance. If you want to cruise along the ocean front, you’ve also got somewhere to park your car for free!
Best Hostel – HI Los Angeles – Santa Monica
This hostel should be the first port of call for solo travellers in Santa Monica. There’s always something happening, and the friendly staff can help you organise tours of nearby attractions.
Best Hotel – Hampton Inn & Suites Santa Monica
Right on the beachfront, this affordable hotel is an excellent base for your Santa Monica beach break. You’re welcome to enjoy a free hot breakfast and a dip in the pool too!
Best Studio – Large premium studio by the beach
This cosy studio apartment boasts a fully equipped kitchen for those beach days when you’re wiped out and can’t even be bothered to head to one of the awesome local restaurants!
Heal the Bay Aquarium
Rusty’s Surf Ranch
Best Beach for Swimming in California | El Matador State Beach, Malibu
- Who It’s For: Those who want to get off the beaten track and fully appreciate California’s natural beauty.
- Don’t Miss: Tacos and Seafood at nearby Malibu Seafood.
This beautiful beach is made up of three small coves with stunning rock formations. Your first introduction will be from the rugged cliff tops. Want to swim? You’ll need to head down a steep dirt trail to do so, but it’s so worth it to get into that water. If you come here outside of summer, you might even have the whole beach to yourself. What more could you want?! This is an easy sell as one of the top beaches in California.
Best Airbnb – Fabulous Ocean Views
This gorgeous apartment allows you to make the most of the stunning ocean views. Perfect for a couple or a small group of friends/family.
Best Hostel – Freehand Los Angeles
Since El Matador is on the Pacific Highway, it’s tricky to find somewhere to stay nearby. However, the Freehand is one of the best hostels in Los Angeles, so why not stay there?!
Best Hotel – Residence Inn Los Angeles Westlake Village
In nearby Westlake Village, you can make use of a hot tub and indoor and outdoor pool if swimming at the beach isn’t quite enough for you!
Best Villa – Six Acre estate with infinity pool
Meet the “if money were no object” Malibu mansion! If there are any Hollywood A-lister’s or premier league footballers reading this, you know where to stay!
Malibu Wine Safaris
Head a little inland to try some of the fine wines grown in the area and meet some wild animals!
When it comes to fresh fish, you won’t find anywhere better than this. BYOB and settle down with your favourite seafood dish.
Charmlee Wilderness Park
Set on a bluff above the coast, Charmlee is the perfect spot for a picnic with views over some of the best beaches in California. There are more than eight miles of hiking trails too.
Visit an Animal Sanctuary
Alpacas and goats are just some of the cast that you’ll meet at one of the best-loved animal sanctuaries in California.
Go Hiking and Surfing
This will be a tiring but rewarding day for your legs as you combine surfing and hiking. It’s okay though; there’s wine at the end!
Want to get a taste of Malibu before you visit? Why not make cheese with the help of a mama goat in the comfort of your own home!
Most Beautiful Beach in California | Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
- Who It’s For: Anyone looking to see one of the most awe-inspiring sights in California. Don’t forget your camera!
- Don’t Miss: Keyhole Rock – the main focus of the beach. It’s an enormous natural arch that looks especially spectacular at sunset!
Hidden away in the Big Sur State Park, chances are you’ll need your own transport to get to this epic beach in California. But this spot is well worth the hassle of renting a car on your travels! You could be forgiven for thinking that the purple sand found here has transported you to the Mediterranean. And those rock formations with the waves crashing against them are just something else. Pfeiffer Beach is sure to boost your popularity on the Gram!
Best Airbnb – Goat farm with Ocean Views
Want to stay on a working farm and wake up to the sounds of cows lowing and roosters crowing? This friendly farm welcomes guests, who leave as friends!
Best Hostel – America’s Best Value Presidents Inn
While there aren’t any hostels in Big Sur, this budget hotel is a superb alternative. Although it’s inexpensive, it boasts an outdoor pool!
Best Hotel – Big Sur Lodge
Get into Big Sur’s state park and stay in a lodge of the same name. You have a restaurant, pool, and bar on-site! This is one of the best places to stay in Big Sur.
Best Cabin – Ocean view Sanctuary
For somewhere to completely escape and disconnect from day to day life, you won’t do much better than this cabin. Ideal for a couple who want to create everlasting memories!
The Village Big Sur
Big Sur Tap House
If you’re driving to Pfeiffer Beach, you may as well explore what else Big Sur has to offer. Redwood Deck is where you can view the tallest trees in the world!
A car isn’t the only method of getting along Big Sur’s coastal road. Why not try it on a phat bike instead?
Watch How Honeybees Work
Meet honeybees at nearby Carmel By The Sea. You’ll be able to taste their honey too!
Explore The Marine Life
Nearby Carmel is a great place to go wildlife watching. See what’s in the tidepools near town.
Best Beach for People Watching in California | Venice Beach, Los Angeles
- Who It’s For: Looking for a boho vibe where anything goes? Venice Beach in California is the one for you!
- Don’t Miss: Take some time away from the beach to stroll along Venice’s canals, which give the neighbourhood its name.
Just a hop, skip, and a jump from the earlier mentioned Santa Monica Beach in LA, Venice is another of California’s most popular beaches. It’s also one of the most famous in the world! Check out the street art or just watch the locals running and biking along the promenade. It’s mad how quickly the time passes when you’re doing this! You’ll see crazy sights like rollerblading guitarists and chainsaw jugglers – to name a few.
Best Airbnb – Venice Beach Walkstreet Getaway
Within walking distance of the bars of Venice Beach, this cool suite is everything you need for a short break away. If you fancy a night in, there’s a comfy sofa, TV, and books for guests to use.
Best Hostel – Samesun Venice Beach
Right on the boardwalk with views of the Pacific Ocean, can you think of a better hostel in Venice Beach than this? If the location doesn’t sell it, the hospitality of the staff will!
Best Hotel – The Kinney – Venice Beach
One of the coolest hotels on Venice Beach, the three-star Kinney is covered in street art. There’s also a fire pit, ping pong tables, and a heated pool where you can meet fellow travellers.
Best Tiny House – Hip Venice Experience
Modelled on an Airstream caravan, this tiny house has a garden and a private entrance. An unusual but romantic Venice Beach Airbnb.
Take care of yourself with the help of Moon Juice’s alchemists. They do some awesome cold-pressed juices!
Small World Books
Venice Skate Park
Watch the locals pull off some incredible moves on their skateboards. If you consider yourself a pro, why not have a go yourself?!
Learn to surf with the help of a professional instructor on one of the most iconic beaches in California!
Do a Scavenger Hunt
Stuck for ideas for your bachelorette party? Leave it in the hands of the professionals with a scavenger hunt!
Arrive in Style
Feel like a superstar by taking a limo ride to some of the coolest clubs in Hollywood!
Quietest Beach in California | Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel by the Sea
- Who It’s For: Those who want several options for their beach break in terms of activities.
- Don’t Miss: Taking a hike along the coast and spotting all the seals.
Point Lobos State Reserve’s waters are quite cool and can be rough depending on the season, so it’s not ideal for swimming. However, for everything else, it gets a big tick! Hiking in the national park and watching wildlife are incomparable, and outdoor enthusiasts will love using this beach as the base for a day trip.
Best Airbnb – Cozy Carmel Cabin
This cute and cosy cabin makes for a heavenly base for couples. It’s just off highway one and is within walking distance of restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Best Hostel – HI Monterey
This popular hostel in nearby Monterey is ideal for visiting Point Lobos State Park. It’s just five minutes from all the attractions in town, too!
Best Hotel – Candle Light Inn
This downtown Carmel hotel is within ten minutes of Point Lobos State Reserve. It’s an excellent option for digital nomads, as there’s a work desk and a small fridge.
Best Cottage – Cathedral Redwood Studio with Loft
This cottage is ideal if you want privacy. It’s on the edge of the state park at the end of a lane off Highway One. The views from the floor to ceiling windows are to die for!
Once the whaling station in the 19th century, this building has a whole lot of history, which you can learn about with a visit.
South Shore Trail
One of the many hiking trails in the state reserve, this one takes you along to the gorgeous Hidden Beach in California. [source: Serj Malomuzh (Shutterstock)]
Bird Island Lookout
Family Friendly Beach in California | Coronado Beach, San Diego
- Who It’s For: Families looking to spend time paddling in the waves and having lots of space on the sand will be delighted with Coronado Beach.
- Don’t Miss: Hotel del Coronado. The historic beachfront hotel is part of a very special group: it’s one of the only surviving examples of the American Victorian beach resort-style architecture.
Coronado Beach is one of the best beaches in San Diego, California, and sits in the shadow of the second-largest wooden structure in the US – the Hotel Coronado. The supposedly haunted hotel has to have a spot on your San Diego itinerary! The beach is wider than most in California, and at 1.5 miles long, you’ll never have trouble finding a spot on the sand. If that’s not enough, there are a plethora of activities on offer here, including boogie boarding, volleyball, and tide-pooling!
Best Airbnb – Private room with garden entrance
Solo travellers looking for a homestay near Coronado Beach will not be disappointed with this private room. Enter through the garden into a 20s style Spanish home.
Best Hostel – HI San Diego – Downtown
Right in the heart of downtown San Diego, there are regularly free or cheap tours and activities on offer here. There’s also a games room where you can make the most of arcade games and a pool table!
Best Hotel – El Cordova
This Spanish village-style resort has four restaurants on-site, as well as gardens and boutique shops. Couples love this place!
Best Beach Cottage – Beautiful Beach Cottage in Coronado
This beautiful green cottage is the ideal base for a relaxing stay at Coronado Beach. The traditional Spanish architecture is a nice touch!
Glorietta Bay Park Promenade
Take a walk along this promenade and see more of the San Diego Bay.
Coronado Ferry Center
This market gives you the chance to sample some delicious local seafood before shopping to your heart’s content.
Take a Bike Tour
Want to cover the whole of Coronado Island in a day? A bike is the best way to do so!
Explore on an Electric Trike
If you want a different kind of workout and some more stability, choose an electric trike tour instead!
Take a Crime Tour
Learn about the grisly goings-on of the nearby Gaslamp Quarter on a true crime tour.
Best Beach for Surfers in California | Huntington Beach, Orange County
- Who It’s For: Surfers will be delighted with the challenging waves and the gorgeous evening sunsets.
- Don’t Miss: The International Surfing Museum – it’s one of the coolest places to go on a rainy day.
In a state packed with great surfing spots, it’s hard to pick a favourite beach in California. However, since it’s also known as Surf City USA, we guess it will have to go to Huntington in Orange County. It’s where the US Open for surfing takes place annually, and it’s home to the International Surfing Museum. There’s more to the beach than surfing, though. It’s also a wonderful place to watch the sunset or bring the family – since there are lots of other activities on offer too!
Best Airbnb – Surf City Studio
Looking for privacy just a block from the beach? This studio boasts a sun deck, patio and entrance – all of which no-one else has access to.
Best Hostel – Sea Rock Inn – Long Beach
This motel doesn’t quite fit into the hostel category. However, it’s cheap, and there’s plenty of space to park your VW Camper. (Other vehicles to transport surfboards are available).
Best Hotel – Huntington Surf Inn
You’ve got the surf beach, the surfing museum, and now the surfing hotel. Rooms come with a private bathroom and extra-large beds. Great for couples!
Best Cottage – Private Cottage Downtown
Originally an early 20th-century carriage house, this comfortable California Airbnb has been repurposed with you in mind. There are two beach cruiser bikes at your disposal should you want to cover more distance in the neighbourhood.
Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum
Huntington Beach Pier
Looking for somewhere to eat or drink after a day of surfing? You have plenty of options on the pier!
Huntington Beach Symphony Orchestra
Musicians will be bowled over by the sheer amount of genres this orchestra performs. Check out a gig when you’re in town!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance for California
Shoutout from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker: Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do think about getting insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before: you may well need it.
I have been using World Nomads for some time now and made a few claims over the years. They’re easy to use, professional and relatively affordable.
If there’s one insurance company I trust, it’s World Nomads. To find out why I use World Nomads, check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple – just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you’re on your way!
California Packing List
1. Backpacking stove: If you want to cook your own food, either because you’re sick of takeout or want to save money, then you’ll need a cooking stove. Some campgrounds have fire pits with grills but I find these very inefficient. Campfires also may be outright banned as well if the fire season has been particularly bad that year, in which case you’ll definitely need your own stove.
I like the MSR Pocketrocket because it’s affordable, reliable, and very convenient.
2. Sleeping Pad: I really cannot sleep without some sort of camping pad. I’ve slept in some pretty rough campgrounds, full of rocks and roots, and my sleeping pad saved my life many times. The self-inflating sleeping mats, like the Thermarest Prolite, are my favorite, though people often settle for the foam ones.
3 . Hammock: Taking a tent and pad on a road trip are not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy, and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colorful and tough.
4. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel, mainly to clean up but also for those impromptu swims. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
5. Headtorch: I would never travel without a headtorch. Even if you only end up using it once, a decent head torch could save your life. If you want to cook at night or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl LED headlamp with red light (which insects can’t see).
6. Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. The Grayl geopress is a true behemoth amongst water bottles acting as a purifier AND temperature regulator – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are.
7 . Toiletry Bag: I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Well worth having, whether you are hanging it from a tree whilst camping, or a hook in a wall, it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
Final Thoughts on the Best Beaches in California
Now that you’ve seen the best beaches in California, you’ll probably have a better idea of how to plan your trip. Whether you want to catch some waves on Huntington, enjoy Santa Monica with the family, or just soak up the coolness of Venice, there’s a California beach for you.
Make sure you set some time aside in California to visit more than just the beaches, though. Cross San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge on your bike, see the wonders of Yosemite National Park, and be sure to take a drive along the coastline – perhaps you’ll stop off at some deserted beaches, too!
However you choose to spend your trip to California, we hope you have an amazing time. And remember to keep this post bookmarked so that you can find the best places to stay and things to do near your chosen California beach!
Find out how YOU can support the site.
We work hard to put out the best backpacker resources on the web for free! It’s all about helping out our tribe of awesome backpacker readers (that’s you!). Please visit the link to find out how you can help keep the site going 🙂
For the sake of transparency, some of the links in our content are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a piece of gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We only link to stuff that members of the Broke Backpacker team has actually used and never endorse products or services that are not up to scratch. Thanks for your support!