The Cutest Beach Towns in California

See recent posts by Lara Grant

With an 840-mile-long coastline, California is packed with beautiful beaches. And while we love big metropolises like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, we have a soft spot for charming, smaller towns. If you're looking for the most adorable destinations to get your California beach fix, look no further. Here are the nine cutest beach towns in California.

1. Carmel-by-the-Sea

With a population of around 4,000, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming beach town located about an hour north of Big Sur by car. Top attractions here include a dog-friendly beach that sits just south of the famous Pebble Beach golf course, the 18th-century Carmel Mission Basilica Museum, and the nearly 100 art galleries spread across the city. In addition to being a hub for artists, Carmel is a great spot for outdoorsy pursuits, including hiking, surfing, and sailing. A handful of wine tasting rooms and ample delicious eateries add to its appeal.

Our Carmel Hotel Pick: L’Auberge Carmel

2. Mendocino

The gorgeous Mendocino is a cute, under-1,000-person coastal town about a three-hour drive north of San Francisco. Mendocino Headlands State Park sits along the rugged coastline, providing visitors with an opportunity for great hiking and stellar vistas – particularly at sunset. There are some tasty cafes and interesting museums within town, plus in the general area are hot springs, beaches, and the picturesque Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Since 1986, the city has also hosted the Mendocino Music Festival, with performances of blues, jazz, contemporary, and more.

Our Mendocino Hotel Pick: Sea Rock Inn

3. Sausalito

On the opposite end of the Golden Gate Bridge as San Francisco is Sausalito, a 7,000-person beach town abutting a huge national park. A popular way to spend the day here is walking along the Sausalito Boardwalk, by the yacht harbor, where various shops, art galleries, and well-liked restaurants are located. The adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area houses tons of hiking and biking opportunities, old military posts, stretches of sand, and stellar bridge views.

Our Sausalito Hotel Pick: The Inn Above Tide

4. Monterey

North of Pebble Beach is Monterey, a stunning 29,000-person area that has recently been on display in HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” As with many beach towns in California, Monterey has a gorgeous stretch of sand called Del Monte Beach with a boardwalk and dunes. Other outdoor-related attractions include Jacks Peak County Park, which has hiking trails and stellar views over the city; the waterfront Old Fisherman’s Wharf, a charming spot with dining and shopping; and multiple ocean-view parks. A trip to this place isn’t complete without a visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium, a huge waterfront aquarium with tons of marine life.

Our Monterey Hotel Pick: Monterey Tides

5. Pismo Beach

A three-hour drive north of Los Angeles is Pismo Beach, a town of just around 8,000 people. In addition to its beautiful beach, Pismo is well-known for its Monarch Butterfly Grove, a pleasant nature preserve of fragrant eucalyptus trees that are filled with thousands of monarch butteries from late October through February. Fishermen and sunset-enthusiasts should head to Pismo Pier, and all types of travelers will likely enjoy Dinosaur Caves Park, which sits atop a cliff and has a playground, grassy lawn, and picnic tables.

Our Pismo Beach Hotel Pick: Sandcastle Hotel on the Beach

6. Santa Monica

Due west of Los Angeles is Santa Monica, the postcard-worthy town with a lovely beach, a pier with amusement park rides, and a boulevard with shops and eateries. Next to the pier is famous Muscle Beach, an outdoor gym that has been there since the 1930s. This family-friendly destination also has an aquarium, nearby hiking, and a 22-mile paved bike trail. Ample restaurants, bars, and hotels provide something for every price point.

Our Santa Monica Hotel Pick: Shutters on the Beach

7. Hermosa Beach

Forty-five minutes south of Santa Monica is Hermosa Beach, a town with a population of around 20,000. This laid-back area is stellar for outdoor activities, including surfing, paddleboarding, and cycling. Located about halfway down the pretty stretch of sand is Hermosa Beach Pier, as well as spots to grab a burger, beer, and burrito. Lots of smaller shops sell goods in the area, and the longtime Comedy & Magic Club attracts big-name acts such as Jay Leno.

Our Hermosa Beach Hotel Pick: Beach House Hotel Hermosa Beach

8. Laguna Beach

Perhaps most well-known for the MTV show of the same name, Laguna Beach is a gorgeous town of 23,000, located a 45-minute drive south of Long Beach. It offers visitors beautiful beaches, scenic cliffs, and ample activities for couples and families on vacation. The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park: Big Bend provides opportunities for hiking, camping, and horseback riding, while secluded Shaws Cove is a popular spot for scuba diving. Laguna Beach has a prominent artist community, and many galleries are spread across town.

Our Laguna Beach Hotel Pick: Montage Laguna Beach

9. La Jolla

La Jolla

La Jolla; Oyster

A 25-minute drive north of San Diego, La Jolla is an affluent area home to the ocean-view Torrey Pines Golf Course. The scenic attractions are numerous, from the public La Jolla Tide Pools, to the La Jolla Cove, which is known for snorkeling, scuba diving, and sea lions. Adrenaline seekers can head to the Torrey Pines Gliderport, which is set next to the 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, for picturesque hang-gliding. Fantastic restaurants, interesting museums, and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography add further allure to La Jolla.

Our La Jolla Hotel Pick: Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines


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