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A guide to the top beach towns in California

A guide to the top beach towns in California

At 1,350 km long, you don’t need to leave the California coastline to experience some of the most distinct beach towns in the world. From the luxurious Santa Barbara to the slightly off-beat Santa Cruz, ‘the Golden State’ offers a beach town that will give every visitor what they’re looking for—and probably a bit more. Here is a diverse selection of six of the best beach towns, each offering something a little bit different than the rest, for those wanting to experience California beach culture at its most authentic.

1. Ventura

Located just north of Los Angeles, Ventura is best known for being a major destination for surfers from all over; this lovely little beach town however has a lot more to offer than just waves. To stay here costs half the price of nearby beaches, but the scenery is just a beautiful and there are just as many exciting things to do. Do as the locals do and take a bike ride or stroll along the coast, or just spend the day watching surfers skim the waves at Surfer's Point. Taking a day trip by boat to visit the nearby Sea Caves of Channel Islands National Park is a fun journey and experience. Whatever fashion the day is spent, make sure it finishes with fresh fish tacos and a spectacular sunset on the 500m long Ventura Pier. 

2. Santa Barbara

World-famous for its white-sand beaches, Spanish style architecture, and fabulous (and expensive) shopping and eating opportunities, Santa Barbara has become well known as one of the favorite vacation and living spots for California’s richest and most beautiful. But don’t get too hung up on that image; your Santa Barbara tour guide will inform you that this beachtown actually has a ton to offer for every style of traveller. For outdoor activities, try some of the fantastic hiking trails in the nearby Santa Ynez mountains, the best of which are the hike to Inspiration Point and the 3 Pools Beyond 7 Falls hike. For the best food, shopping, and people watching, roam around State Street for an afternoon.  Santa Barbara is also a great place for animal lovers, who can visit the excellent Santa Barbara zoo, or go whale watching in the nearby Santa Barbara channel. Don’t leave without indulging in some Mexican food, as it doesn’t get fresher or more delicious than here. 

3. Pismo

Situated just north of Santa Barbara, Pismo is a classic California beach town known for its wide, quiet, family friendly beaches and rugged sand dunes. One of the most popular activities in Pismo is cruising the dunes in a rented ATV or taking a hummer tour of the dunes with a Pismo tour guide. Many visitors come to Pismo to simply spend time in the sun and enjoy the beach; it’s perfectly possible to spend a week here doing nothing but working on a tan, building sand castles, or digging for clams. For those who want to take a break from the sun, take a day tour to explore the local vineyards and wineries, pay a visit to the aquarium at nearby Avila beach, or spend the morning chowing down on the gooey local sweet of choice: cinnamon rolls.

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 4. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is one of Northern California’s surfing capitals, exemplified by the local museum devoted to the sport, and the fact that the is beach visited by surfers from all over the world. It’s also known for its boardwalk—an antique amusement park—where you can bump and lurch around on rides that are over 100 years old and sample American boardwalk foods such as funnel cake and corn dogs. If sometimes crowded Santa Cruz becomes too much to bear, take a break and drive out to Henry Cowell State Park with a Santa Cruz tour guide to see the towering and ancient redwood trees, or, head north to Ano Nuevo State Park to visit the elephant seals, both of which can only be found along the West Coast of North America. Or just stay put, people watch, visit the famous ‘mystery spot’ where the laws of gravity don’t apply, and absorb the local wackiness that never seems to disappear from this Northern California coastal town.

 5. Avalon, Catalina Island

An hour-long ferry ride from the coast sits Avalon, Southern California’s own Mediterranean-style beach town. Part of rocky Catalina Island, Avalon is pretty tiny, but still has enough dining, shopping, and sightseeing activities to keep visitors occupied. The town of Avalon can be explored on foot, by bike, or most popularly, by golf cart, as full-sized vehicles are restricted on the island. While you’re there, hike or bike through the beautiful landscape of Catalina Island, or water-lovers can snorkel, kayak, parasail and scuba dive off the coast. To survey the island at even higher speeds, adrenaline junkies should consider the two-hour Catalina zip-line tour, which allows you to take in the island’s scenery at 500m above sea level.

6. Santa Monica Beach

With its wide, white, palm-tree-lined beaches, stunning sunsets and endless shopping, vibrant Santa Monica delivers the picture perfect Southern California experience. A clean, eco-conscious, urban and diverse town, Santa Monica attracts all kinds of people, from artists to young professionals, celebrities to surfers. Spend the morning here soaking up the sun, swimming, doing yoga or playing volleyball on the beach, and when afternoon rolls around, move inland for what really draws the crowds to Santa Monica: people watching. For the liveliest experience, spend some time strolling down Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Pier, which are known for their unique street performances, shops, and restaurants. As they’re also known for their crowds, try Montana Avenue and Main Street for more relaxed low-key shopping experiences. For dinner, make sure to try some of the local restaurants here, which are known for their fresh flavors. Beyond what Santa Monica itself has to offer, staying here also makes a convenient base from where your Los Angeles tour guide can arrange sight-seeing in the area.


Image Details and Licenses: (Carsten Schertzer, CC BY 2.0), (Michael Theis, CC BY-ND 2.0), (Michael PatrickCC BY NC-ND-2.0),, CC BY-SA 2.0), (J R, CC BY 2.0), (Colin Zhu, CC BY-SA 2.0)

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