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Soak up the sun at these top California beaches

A vacation at these stretches of scenic coastline will impress you with picture-postcard sands, invigorating views and sun-soaked memories of the Golden State. By Paul Oswell | July 9, 2021 (Updated March 10, 2023)

California’s famous beaches are among the world’s most scenic, and it's little wonder that it’s known as the Golden State. Spending time around idyllic sands, sparkling Pacific Ocean waters and clean air will leave you relaxed and revitalized. Whether you’re looking for pampered luxury or inspiring natural scenery, prepare to delight in memory-making activities like:

  • Sea to shining sand: Where else can you find a glittery gold beach that's perfect for sunbathing selfies?

  • Beach days, bonfire nights: Cuddle up as the sun goes down around a crackling beach bonfire.

  • Seeing stars: Spot a celebrity while people-watching over a beachside cocktail.

Surf's up

The gentle surf at Coronado Beach makes it a perfect spot for beginning and intermediate surfers.

Coronado Beach in San Diego

There’s more than a hint of retro glamour to San Diego, ‘The Crown City’, as it has starred as the backdrop to several Hollywood movies. Take in the glinting sands as you cross the 200-foot tall Coronado Bridge - the beach literally sparkles thanks to its special blend of minerals.

Almost two miles of coastline welcome visitors. The dog-friendly stretch of North Beach blends into Central beach, served by bustling Ocean Boulevard, with locals and visitors alike enjoying the casual seafood restaurants and bars. The gentle waves invite body surfing, swimming, and beach yoga, and the backdrop is reassuringly cinematic.

Beach cruising in Santa Barbara

Cabrillo Bike Path is one of the most popular bike paths in Santa Barbara. This easygoing 4.5-mile path runs from Leadbetter Beach to Butterfly Beach.

Beaches Abound in Santa Barbara

Known as ‘America’s Riviera’, Santa Barbara delights visitors with its ritzy reputation, European-style architecture and a wealth of beachside retreats. Butterfly Beach reflects that A-list allure and you may spot a film star hiding behind their sunglasses. For a more tranquil beauty spot, Hammond’s Beach is a serene hideaway—perfect for tide pools and beachcombing. If you’re looking for where the locals hang, residents love to keep Mesa Lane Beach something of a secret, and it’s a real haven for surfers and sunbathers.

East Beach is great for those wanting to revel in activity, with panoramic amenities such as picnic areas, a bathhouse, and rollerblading trails. It’s also one of the state’s best spots for beach volleyball, and you can spectate or even join in and make new friends if you’re feeling energetic.

Panoramic views in La Jolla

The town has a picturesque natural landscape, earning it the nickname, The Jewel of America's Finest City.

La Jolla in San Diego

This arty, beguiling seaside community enjoys some seven miles of coast, and boasts everything from dramatic, 300-foot cliffs to secluded coves. Nature lovers will be inspired by Torrey Pines State Beach, with its cliffside nature walks and memorably bracing views out over the Pacific Ocean.

Beautiful La Jolla Cove has intriguing sea caves and its gazebos are a wonderful spot for a picnic lunch, cooled by the salty breezes.

The charming, mile-long crescent of La Jolla Shores is a prime sandy spot and as it’s sheltered by the bay. Its gentle waters are ideal for kayaking and snorkelling. In the evening, join locals around the pier making nighttime campfires that create an evocatively whimsical ambience.

Oceanside adventures at Carlsbad Beach

Seek out a new adventure with a fishing charter or tour. This activity is great for groups of friends.

Carlsbad Beach in San Diego

With some seven miles of glorious coastline, Carlsbad has a beach experience for every taste. The North Beaches and Terra Mar are relatively wild and untamed, with popular surf spots and rocky backdrops.

Tamarack is the heart of the region, a lively beach replete with watersports and restaurants in the neighboring village. At sundown, people gather on the bluff to watch the sun melt into the Pacific Ocean.

The three miles of South State Beach are largely untouched, and it is generally held to be the town’s most idyllic beach. Bring everything you might need, as there are few amenities, the area instead just basking in its own natural beauty. Cliffs loom over the wide sandy stretches and tide pools, and the quality of the sand lends itself to romantic walks.

Pier perfect at Huntington Beach

With 8.5 miles of beautiful beach, this seaside city within Orange County is known for its consistent waves and mild climate.

Huntington Beach in Los Angeles

The 1,800 foot historic pier, ten miles of sands and legendary waves mean that ‘Surf City USA’ has a near-iconic status as a beach destination. Five characterful beaches welcome visitors year round. Huntington Beach is the place to catch professional surfers showing off their skills against the backdrop of the pier, a fixture here since 1902.

Arrive early to claim a spot at Huntington State Beach, its 120 acres and 200 fire rings attracting family cook-outs and a social crowd. Bolsa Chica Beach has a similarly lively ambience, while Sunset Beach has a vintage Los Angeles aesthetic and a slower pace. Huntington Dog Beach lives up to its name as a place for four-legged friends to run around freely.

Make your California beach memory

The natural beauty and elevated experiences that define California beaches make it easy to find inspiration and reconnect with your most relaxed self. A near-perfect climate, world-class sands and those irresistibly blue Pacific Ocean waters will leave you feeling recharged. Whichever destination you choose, you’ll leave with sun-tinged memories that will brighten your days long after you return to real life.

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Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer and has reported from all seven continents for dozens of internationally known publications. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small” and the editor of an online travel magazine.

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