California’s coastline has long held the world’s imagination captive, finding its way into literary masterpieces, hit songs, and countless movies. The following California beaches are considered the high mark of what the Golden State has to offer, and they are held in high esteem by travel experts and tourists alike.
1. Monterey Bay
Monterey County, Central Coast
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is frequently rated the best aquarium in the United States and its presence alone makes Monterey’s coast one of the jewels of California. Monterey Bay is a protective beach harbor with strong historical significance. Part of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, the nation’s largest marine sanctuary, the coastline holds an expansive kelp forest that encourages a large variety of wildlife to make the bay its home.
There is no other place in the world where you can visit a world class aquarium, see preserved historical locations described in vivid detail in famous John Steinbeck novels, and enjoy a nice walk or ride along the beach and bike trails while observing animals such as sea otters, seals, seabirds, butterflies, and even whales.
2. Big Sur
Part of the scenic byway of Hwy 1, Central Coast
Take a romantic horseback ride along the sandy shoreline or enjoy the beauty of the beachfront Redwoods; whichever your pleasure, Big Sur can provide it. The original home of literary icon Henry Miller, this rustic stretch of beaches has some of the most beautiful views in the nation.
Whale vistas, white sandy beaches, rock arches, the famous Bixby Bridge that has been seen in photos and movies, spectacular waves, and majestic trees all frame an ocean sparkling like jewels. Big Sur is always rated one of the nation’s top destinations.
3. Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk
Central California Coast, west of Silicon Valley
An authentic amusement park awaits you at Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk. Even if a thrill-ride on one of the best historic all-wood roller coasters, the 1924 Giant Dipper, isn’t enough to draw you in, then the mile-long stretch of a wide, sandy beach oasis offers a retreat from the daily grind. The boardwalk is alive with old time charm, offering many stairways down to the sand. The ocean is calm and perfect for swimming activities. It’s why Santa Cruz is one of the best.
4. Santa Monica
Due west of Los Angeles’ most posh neighborhoods
Santa Monica is one of southern California’s first beach resort communities, established in 1872. The now fully restored Santa Monica Pier juts out from the extremely long and wide sandy beach line. The area offers many facilities and entertainment options, from the historic amusement park to the ample supply of beachfront restrooms, playgrounds, picnic areas, and volleyball nets, all under the watchful eyes of paid lifeguards. A popular beach for surfers, it also incorporates an extensive bike trail for all types of wheels. It’s so legendary for its fun vibe it has been featured in major motion pictures.
5. Pismo Beach
Central California Coast, Along Highway 101 South of San Luis Obispo
Pismo Beach was where Bugs Bunny was always headed when he turned left at Albuquerque. It’s often recognized as one of the best beaches in California, especially for families. Its angle along the coast and the nearby cliffs make it especially notable for gorgeous sunsets. Right off the sand you will find great shops for all ages and one of the best clam chowder joints in the state.
6. Carpinteria Beach
City of Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara
Carpinteria City Beach has established a reputation as the world’s safest beach. Its south-facing coast and its position behind the Channel Islands form a natural protective barrier that makes the waves mellow and keeps riptides out of the swimming zones for most of the year. For this reason, it is one of the top beaches for swimming and splashing with your family. (Though always check local water conditions for any alerts.) Carpinteria’s quaint downtown, with a locally owned vintage-styled candy shop and great restaurants, leads right down to the sand and just adds to the charm.
7. Moonstone Beach
City of Cambria, south of Hearst Castle and Big Sur
Moonstone Beach, located along Moonstone Beach Drive in Cambria, has long been a favorite beach of Californians. It is known for its brown sand beach, charming little wood boardwalk, hiking trails along bluffs that are dotted with benches carved from drift wood, and its row of lovely, highly rated boutique hotels and cottages along Moonstone Beach Drive (so close to the beach you can hear the waves crashing out your window).
8. Hendry’s Beach, Santa Barbara
City of Santa Barbara
Rated one of the four spectacular beaches in California by Mercury News, Hendry’s Beach has been one of Santa Barbara’s favorite beaches for generations. While it doesn’t have the magnificent Stearn’s Wharf found at West Beach in Santa Barbara a few minutes south, Hendry’s is a tucked away gem perfect for lounging, running, group tai chi and yoga, and long walks beneath Santa Barbara’s gorgeous sea cliffs that line the beach.
9. Newport Beach
Newport Beach Municipal Beach, south of Los Angeles
Located on Newport’s famed Balboa Peninsula, Newport is another beach that is consistently chosen as one of the best in California. It has the largest recreational boat harbor on the West Coast, and the vast size of its 5-mile beach means there’s plenty of room for you and your family to stretch out and relax. Another high mark of Newport: the beach is absolutely pristine and well-kept. It’s no surprise that it is rated one of the cleanest beaches in California.
10. Venice Beach
Southern California Coastline, near the Los Angeles area
If the wildlife species you enjoy watching the most is Homo sapiens, then Venice is the beach for you. From fire eaters to tarot card readers, to the movie-portrayed Muscle Beach fitness equipment, it has something for all. Established as a beach resort in 1904, it is a wide and sandy beach with rows of shops, restaurants, playgrounds, restrooms, all only a stones throw away from the sand.
A wide paved bike path runs the length of the beach and beyond, providing beachfront access to strollers, bikes, skates, and wheelchairs. A world renowned tourist attraction, Venice is an easy pick for the best beaches in California, which is why it is consistently picked as a top destination.
11. Point Reyes
A National Seashore in Marin County, Northern Coast
The Point Reyes area, another top-rated beach in California, extends from the tip of the peninsula down around charming Bodega Bay with many things to see and do. An area famous for whale watching, it offers expansive wide-open vistas. Bodega Harbor provides ocean fishing and sandy beaches with multiple walks and hiking. The Point Reyes historic lighthouse is open to the public and provides outstanding views for photographers and whale watchers alike. As one of eleven National Seashores in the United States, it is largely undeveloped, providing the visitor a pristine, natural beach habitat.