Few regions of the world have been idealized and mythologized as much as California – yet it seldom fails to live up to the hype. Among the finest jewels in the state's crown are its magnificent beaches. There's no better place to soak up the near-endless sun than along the coast, whether you're there for the surfing, nature or just pure relaxation. Here, we've picked 10 of the best beaches in California from north to south. If you’re looking for sun, sea, sand and scenery, read on.
Best beaches in northern California
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
Seven miles south of Crescent City, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park is worth visiting less for its redwood forests than its fantastic beach area and hiking trails, most of which are an easy two miles or so along the coastal ridge where the redwoods meet the sea. From May to July, wild rhododendrons and azaleas shoot up everywhere, laying a floral blanket across the park’s floor. Del Norte is the least visited of the Redwood national and state parks – pure bliss for anyone looking to get off the beaten track, though the seas can be rough so if you're after the best beaches to swim in California, carry on.
Where to stay: If you don't fancy camping on-site, there are plenty of options in Crescent City, from Anchor Beach Inn, a spick-and-span motel with a hot tub, to Redwood GIANTS, billed as an "anti-bnb" – actually a very chic and sustainably sourced cabin named Hennessy House, with a small collection of private suites.
What else to do in the area: While you're in redwood country, stop to baulk at some of the tallest trees on Earth. Hike among them in neighbouring Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek state parks.
Del Norte © Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Manchester Beach, Mendocino County
The coast of Mendocino County, 150 miles north of San Francisco, is a dramatic extension of the Sonoma coastline – the headlands a bit sharper, the surf a bit rougher. Sea stacks form a dotted line off the coast and there’s an abundance of tide pools, making the area a prime spot for exploring the secrets of the ocean, either on foot or in diving gear. This is one of the best beaches in California for surfing, and there are delightful sandy beaches to be found between Gualala and Albion, such as the largely deserted strand of Manchester Beach State Park.
Where to stay: There are several gorgeous oceanside accommodations to stow your surfboard and rest your sea-salt head after a day spent catching the waves. Point Arena Lighthouse has been transformed into a classy and atmospheric hotel, and a booking comes with free tours of the lighthouse and its museum. If you'd rather have a holiday home all to yourself, plump for Irish Beach Front 'Sea Haven' House – with three bedrooms, wood panelling, lovely furniture and a hot tub, the world's your oyster.
What else to do in the area: March brings out droves of people to watch migrating whales. Or – if you're a keen birdwatcher – head north up the coast to take a ride on the historic "skunk train" along Pudding Creek Estuary to spot ospreys, blue herons and egrets.
Manchester Beach © pikappa51/Shutterstock
Mavericks Beach, The Peninsula
San Francisco sits at the tip of a five-mile-wide neck of land commonly referred to as The Peninsula, home to old money, new technology, and some excellent beaches. Mavericks Beach is among the most splendid and boasts the largest waves in North America. It attracts some of the world’s best (and craziest) surfers when conditions are right; just watching them can be an exhilarating way to spend an hour or so and hundreds of people do just that every day.
Where to stay: As you'd expect, you'll be spoilt for choice when picking where to stay in San Francisco. From luxury chains such as the InterContinental and the Hyatt Regency to the chic apartments offered by Sonder – Hayes Valley, you'll find something to suit every traveller and budget.
More hotels: For a comprehensive selection of San Fran accommodation, broken down by area, read our guide to where to stay in San Francisco.
What else to do in the area: There's so much to see and do in San Francisco. Take a cruise round Golden Gate Bay, explore the city on an electric-bike tour, discover the streets of Chinatown by night, or – for those with deep pockets – see the Napa Valley from a whole new angle by taking to the skies in a hot-air balloon.
Mavericks Beach © bteimages/Shutterstock
Best beaches in central California
Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz
Seventy-five miles south of San Francisco, the edgy – and maddening – city of Santa Cruz is a difficult place to pin down. A classic California seaside promenade where carnival food, amusement arcades and a rickety old wooden rollercoaster all make for irresistible fun, but if you venture further west you'll be rewarded by Natural Bridges State Beach. It's famous not just for the four delicate wave-cut arches that once stood here but the annual gathering of monarch butterflies which arrive each winter. Kids will love the tidepools here; that, coupled with the attractions in Santa Cruz, make this one of the best beaches in California for families.
Where to stay: Families may want to hunker down in a holiday home all of their own. The 202 Pelton Ave Home in Santa Cruz has three bedrooms, a TV and a garden, with smart furnishings and a fully equipped kitchen. If you'd rather stay in a hotel, try Dream Inn, with its laid-back vibes, pool and surf boards lining the walls of reception.
What else to do in the area: There's no better way to entertain the entire family than learning to surf. A two-day beginners course in Santa Cruz will have you standing in no time.
Natural Bridges State Beach © Nagel Photography/Shutterstock
Carmel Beach, Monterey Peninsula
Set on gently rising headlands above a sculpted and largely untouched rocky shore, the village of Carmel fans out from a few neat rows of just-so shops along Ocean Avenue to reveal assorted posh mansions; think of it as the West Coast’s middle-aged answer to New York’s Hamptons. Inarguably its best feature is its largely untouched coastline, among the most beautiful in California. City-managed Carmel Beach, in particular, is a tranquil cove of emerald-blue water bordered by soft, blindingly white sand and cypress-covered cliffs.
Where to stay: Sleep in quaint lodgings at the Colonial Terrace, just paces from the beach. Or, if a three-bed holiday home with homely decor and a luxurious hot tub sounds just the ticket, make for Carmel's Enchanted Forest.
What else to do in the area: Combine a trip to Carmel with a visit to Monterrey: you can see both on a tour from San Francisco, or take in the stunning strip of coast on a bike ride along 17-Mile Drive.
Carmel Beach © Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
Boasting a strikingly rugged coastline and some of the state’s most stunning waterfalls, the sparsely populated region of Big Sur continues to retain its wild character. Its finest strand is Pfeiffer Beach, a sometimes windy stretch that’s part of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, known for its purple sand, and dominated by a charismatic hump of rock whose colour varies from brown to red to orange in the changing light. The area makes for the perfect California beach vacation if you want to get off the beaten path.
Where to stay: As you'd expect from somewhere so off-grid, accommodation options are somewhat limited. Choose from Big Sur River Inn and Big Sur Lodge, both a short drive from the beach. Both are comfortable options with on-site restaurants, while the Lodge has a pool to boot.
What else to do in the area: The pleasures around Pfeiffer are simple: strolling the beach, breathing in the scenery and discovering coves and charming rock formations. But it pays to explore by car, too. Big Sur is big in the popular imagination, home to one of the most dramatic coastal roads on Earth. Book onto a Big Sur tour to spend a leisurely day on the open road, exploring all its highlights.
Pfeiffer Beach © Jennifer Hubbard/Shutterstock
Best beaches in southern California
Refugio State Beach, Santa Barbara County
If you drive west of Santa Barbara along US-101 before it veers north, several prime beaches beckon. Along this part of the Central Coast, the beaches face due south, making the surf lively and causing the sun to both rise and set over the Pacific in winter. Among the best is Refugio State Beach, one of the prettiest in California. Palm trees dot the sands next to a small creek, lending the beach a tropical feel. Life guard towers are staffed during the summer months, making this a safe swimming option for families.
Where to stay: The Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara is classy and luxurious in equal measure; nearer the beach itself, Circle Bar B Guest Ranch – just inland – offers cottages and cabins with mountain views and plenty of facilities to keep children entertained, from table tennis to an outdoor pool.
What else to do in the area: If you're staying in Santa Barbara, what better way to reach Refugio State Beach than by kayak, taking in all the glorious coastal scenery en-route – and children will love the ride, too. There's excellent fishing in the coastal waters at Refugio, and if you love your food and drink, you'll want to explore the area's wineries, too. Book onto a wine-tasting tour and let it go to your head.
Refugio State Beach © Gerry Matthews/Shutterstock
Malibu Lagoon State Beach, Malibu
Modern surf culture really went mainstream in Malibu in the late 1950s, and the beaches have been immortalized in surfing movies ever since. Malibu Lagoon State Beach is the major surfing nexus and includes the celebrated Surfrider Beach, one of the first to be mastered by Southern Californian pioneers. The waves are best in late summer, when storms off Mexico cause them to reach upwards of eight feet – not huge for serious pros, but big enough for amateurs.
Where to stay: Surfers of all persuasions will want to stay in The Surfrider Malibu. Decked out in trendy whites and wood, this sublime hotel offers complimentary surf boards and SUPs, as well as a free morning coffee to get your head in gear. This being Malibu, there's no shortage of luxury beachfront apartments and villas, either.
What else to do in the area: There's plenty to do in the Malibu area beyond hitting the surf: soak up celebrity culture with a Homes of the Stars tour; book a vintage VW trip with wine-tasting included; or get spiritual with some yoga (don't worry, wine and cheese are included, too!).
Malibu Lagoon State Beach © Andrew Zarivny/Shutterstock
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
No list of the best beaches in California would be complete without mentioning Venice Beach. Nowhere else does LA parade itself quite so openly, colourfully and aggressively. Trawling the promenade between Santa Monica and Venice is an LA tradition, taking in the surfers, sand, muscle-men, skaters and assorted eccentrics. Everyone should visit Venice Beach at least once.
Where to stay: Venice Breeze Suites has an excellent location right on the boardwalk, with a sensational roof deck and loft-like services apartments equipped with full kitchens (some with ocean views) and free Wi-Fi.
More hotels: If you want to stay in another part of the city, check out our guide on where to stay in LA.
What else to do in the area: You could spend weeks in LA and still have places to explore. From world-class galleries to ethnic enclaves with tantalizing street food, Art Deco gems and Disneyland, there's something for everyone in the city of the stars. Children will go mad for Universal Studios Hollywood, which brings Harry Potter to life; alternatively, spot whales from Newport Beach or take a flight over Hollywood.
Venice Beach © one.degree.photography/Shutterstock
Mission Beach, San Diego
The most free-spirited of San Diego’s surfing beaches, Mission Beach scenery extends to acres of bronzed flesh and bikini babes, chaotic bars and even carnival rides. It’s one of the most popular and entertaining of San Diego’s city beaches, with throngs of sun-seekers enjoying surfing, cycling and rollerblading down Ocean Front Walk, the concrete boardwalk running the length of the beach. For thrill seekers, there's plenty in the way of watersports, too.
Where to stay: Chic by name, chic by nature: for a glitzy, glassy apartment just yards from Mission Beach, plump for Vanitie Coastal Chic Getaway. If you'd rather bed down in a hotel, try the Blue Sea Beach Hotel – don't miss the hot tub.
What else to do in the area: Make the most of San Diego by taking to the water. Boats come in all shapes and sizes here, and you can ride in them all: jet boat, speed boat or kayak. Alternatively, take a relaxing harbour cruise. Nature lovers will relish the opportunity to spot whales from December to April.
Mission Beach © Dmitri Kotchetov/Shutterstock
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Top image: Carmel beach © Zhiqin Zhu/Shutterstock