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SoCal beach cities

Dates: Various.


Route: Fly into San Diego and drive.


Southern California (SoCal) is full of small beach towns that offer chilled, weekend getaways or a great place to work. They are identical in that most have piers that jut into the ocean and that is the main attractions. While there are many small ones, we have listed our favorite ones. Most of our time in these places was spent on the weekends whilst living in San Diego during the terrible Seattle winters. Each make a getaway on their own but can easily be combined with a visit to San Diego or LA. The only item of note is that most restaurants close at 9 or 10pm so get there relatively early after sunset. We have ordered the below as one would find them driving north from San Diego.

(Click on the link below for our YouTube video on these cities)

Carlsbad and Oceanside

Carlsbad is the closest beach town to San Diego and, while nice enough, not really worth a visit. If you are pressed for time, go there and you can walk (~3.3 miles) to Oceanside. The beach walk is nice enough though there are a lot of houses along the beach and above it. Oceanside was our least favorite of all the beach towns and one not worth going to unless you couple it with Carlsbad due to time. It does has a very long pier and a waterfront area but it is too crowded and commercialized.

San Clemente

This is a nice beach town that has all the signature SoCal elements but is also clean and not as crowded. There are places for surfing and swimming and also just walking along the beach. The town itself is quaint and has a Spanish feel to it. We ate at The Cellar twice as it offers really good SoCal food, wine, and beer. There are many small shops along the main street, Avenida Del Mar, which also leads to the beach. Best way is to go spend the morning at the beach, have a late lunch and then head to Laguna Beach for sunset and dinner.

(Click on gallery images below for details)

Dana Point

A stop along the way to Laguna Beach from San Clemente, Dana Point is home to many retirement communities and multi-million-$ homes. There is a great ice cream place along the harbor which is just a short walk. We found the best views of Dana Point up high near the Blue Lantern Inn which looked like a lively place to stay. The nearby Dana Point Hilltop park offers stunning views of the harbor and the coast beyond. We took a nice drone video from here.

Laguna Beach

Our favorite beach town in all of SoCal, Laguna as quintessential European charm underneath its California, sun-kissed exterior. The beach welcomes you with the lifeguard tower and miles of trains and parks. We found the north end of the beach offers the best views for sunset and there are many large rocks to sit on and watch it. This town is an artist’s haven and it shows on every street. Art galleries about with our favorite one being Kush Fine Art, home of paintings from Vladimir Kush, a surrealist painter who’s work is like a bolt of lightning to your imagination. Just down from it is the Brussels Bistro which has a great selection of Belgian Beer and food. If Belgian is not for you, try the excellent Alessa which is two doors down and is a lively Italian restaurant. Laguna is a food lovers paradise and there are many other restaurants to choose from. There are also some bars and clubs if late night partying is your thing.

(Click on gallery images below for details)

Newport Beach

This is a large beach that is at one end of the Balboa Peninsula and is relatively less crowded. The main beach area has a few lively bars and beach shops. A trail runs along the beach to the southeast and leads to Balboa Pier where ferries leave for some of the coastal islands. Walking inland from the pier one can find an eclectic collection of rides and shops in the mini amusement part that is Balboa Fun Zone.

(Click on gallery images below for details)

Huntington Beach

This is probably our second favorite after Laguna Beach. The long pier is crowned by a red-roofed restaurant that makes it easily recognizable. The beach stretches endlessly to both sides of the pier while the main town starts at the Highway 1 side of the pier. There is a sand bank that runs along most of the north end of the beach and we spent most of our day just lazing in the sun and doing much of nothing. The north side is also filled with surfers and you can get some really good views from the pier. Huntington is all about surfing and tires to lay claim (along with Santa Cruz) to the title of “Surf City”. Most of the shops lining Main St. are all about surfing, everything from boards to all manner of clothing. There is also the International Surfing Museum which charges a nominal fee of $3 to learn all about the history of surfing. We spent an entire day here and had lunch at the excellent Coach’s Mediterranean Grill. We also found an amazing place to sample California wine and cheese at the Main Street Wine Company.

(Click on gallery images below for details)

Maibu and El Matador State Park

As part of our drive from San Diego to San Jose, we decided to explore Malibu. While the coastal drive to Malibu from LA was beautiful, traffic is bad and the drive is long because of it. While Malibu itself is nothing to get excited about, we did find a beautiful beach at El Matador which is about 6 miles west. There is little parking there, so we parked on the road like many others. The trail is short but steep and there are stairs at the end. Coming down, there are fantastic view of the sea stacks and the arch to the north. While the beach does get crowded later in the day, especially on weekends, a leisurely walk south-east along the beach is beautiful and you will get to see all the oceanfront houses that Malibu is known for. There are a lot of wedding pictures taken here so be prepared for that.

(Click on gallery images below for details)