Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
When you picture California, you probably think about its gorgeous coastal towns, but which are the best to visit? These top destinations are spots that everyone should experience at least once.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
Look out for our newsletters in your inbox soon.
Possibly the most charming town on the California coast, and the only one designated as a historical landmark, Mendocino was founded in the 1850s and boasts grand Victorian buildings that sit alongside saltbox cottages. This artist colony set atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific was also the setting for the popular TV series, “Murder, She Wrote,” doubling as Cabot Cove, Maine due to its New England flavor. Amid the jaw-dropping landscape and beautiful homes are numerous eateries, B&Bs, a museum, book store, toy shop and unique boutiques. Nearby, you can hike through the redwoods, enjoy wine tasting and visit one of the world’s most stunning botanical gardens.
Bodega Bay is a picturesque fishing village that served as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, “The Birds,” in which murderous birds attack local villagers. If you’re a fan, you may want to stop by the 150-year-old Potter School behind St. Theresa’s Church, located about five miles south of town. It was used for several scenes, though today it’s a private residence, occasionally open for tours.
Santa Cruz is one of the most popular spots on the California coast, offering outdoor enthusiasts plenty of things to do. You’ll find lots of exciting action, including heart-pounding thrill rides like the Giant Dipper, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the nation, running since 1924. This is also a great place to enjoy live music while soaking up the sun and the sand, to head out on the water with a stand-up paddleboard among the otters and sea lions or enjoy a romantic sunset sailboat ride.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, a former artists’ colony on Monterey Bay, is one of the ultimate towns on the coast for romance. Enjoy the blissful sounds of the waves crashing into the rocks, snuggling up with your loved one by a bonfire along the shore and indulging in one of the many wine tasting venues downtown. There are a wealth of romantic eateries serving up gourmet cuisine and ocean views as well as high-end shops and jewelry stores like Tiffany & Co. too. The chateau-style L’Auberge Carmel and Mission Ranch, an old dairy farm saved from developers by the city’s most famous former mayor, Clint Eastwood, offer two of the most unforgettable places to stay.
The southernmost town in the Santa Barbara area may not be well known, but it boasts those quintessential Southern California beaches, a relaxed pace, year-round mild weather and a wide sandy beach with beginner-size waves that are ideal for learning to body board. While mornings in Carpinteria can be foggy, that’s a perfect time to enjoy the pleasures in town, likee Linden Avenue, shaded by palm trees and lined with cafes, galleries and clothing stores.
Avalon, Catalina Island
This town on Catalina Island that can be reached via by a short ferry ride from the Southern California coast, has a rich history and is often compared to the Mediterranean with its strikingly blue, clear waters, lush vegetation and hillside homes. In Avalon you can enjoy some of the best snorkeling and diving in the continental U.S. along with a host of other outdoor activities, as well as shopping, browsing art galleries and dining on delicious dishes at eateries with gorgeous water views.
Coronado, San Diego
Coronado offers an island getaway that’s just a stone’s throw from the city. A tranquil enclave that boasts picture-perfect beaches with soft sands and the famous Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association, where docents share fascinating information on its remarkable history, as well as its famous guest list, which includes the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Rent a bike from Holland’s Bicycles and enjoy pedaling past grand oceanfront mansions or visit Orange Avenue, with its many shops, restaurants, galleries, and theaters.
World-famous Venice Beach is a mecca for the eccentric, with its wide swath of soft sands backed by a walkway that’s filled with joggers, skaters and cyclists all year round. Watching the muscle builders that pump iron under the sizzling rays of the sun and the wide range of performers, from glass walkers and mimes to jugglers and break dancers. You’ll also find plenty of edgy boutiques, outstanding food trucks and a whole lot more.
The legendary beach town of Malibu is well-known as the setting for a host of movies, television shows and music videos, including “Bay Watch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Two and a Half Men” and countless others. It also serves as the home to numerous celebrities, magnificent stretches of sand, outstanding eateries and lots of fun shopping opportunities. If you’d like to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood star pretending they don’t want to be seen, head to Malibu Country Mart. Malibu Lagoon State Beach, formerly known as Surfrider Beach, is a good place to go for a swim in the summer and enjoy some great people watching.
Santa Monica hosts the Santa Monica Pier, a 100-year-old landmark featuring restaurants, shops, an arcade, aquarium and amusement park. Taking a ride on the iconic Ferris wheel, known as the Pacific Wheel, particularly at night is practically a must. It’s the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel and offers a panoramic view of the coastline from more than 130 feet above the pier. After dark, when it’s all lit up with over 160,000 lights, it’s truly a sight to see.