Wave Hello to the Best Beaches in California, from San Francisco to San Diego

A person walking barefoot along the shoreline with the ocean in the background.

Often referred to as the Golden State, California is famous for its long, stunning coastline that rivals other coastal states. From the iconic shores of San Francisco to the sandy havens of the south, here are some of the best beaches in California, each offering its own unique beach experience.

There’s something about the ocean that mesmerizes me. Maybe it’s my Pisces blood. Or maybe it’s living in the most landlocked state in the country, about an equal distance from the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, after spending a few years in California. Either way, whenever I get the chance to return, I dash for the beach. It doesn’t really matter which part — whether it’s the moody, misty, wild beaches of Northern California or the endless, sunny stretches down south, a few minutes along the shore are all it takes to help me unplug, unwind, and feel completely renewed.

So let me share my favorite California beaches with you! Whether you’re looking for a serene spot to relax and reflect or a vibrant place to play in the sun, these beaches are sure to capture your heart just as they have stolen mine.

Highlighting the best beaches in california with scenic views and iconic landmarks.

    

What’s Your Favorite California Beach?

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The golden gate bridge viewed from a sandy beach with gentle waves approaching the shore.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.

Baker Beach in San Francisco

In the shadow of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach is a rugged beauty that captivates both locals and visitors. The golden sand stretches along the rugged cliffs of Marin County, providing a serene escape from the bustling city life. With the famous bridge as a backdrop, the beach offers prime sunset views, making it a favorite spot for photographers and romantics. Despite its proximity to downtown San Francisco, Baker Beach maintains a tranquil atmosphere, inviting beachgoers to unwind at this Northern California gem.

Surfer riding a large wave.
Photo Credit: Pixabay.

Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz

Located about two hours south of Baker Beach, Santa Cruz is one of the northernmost California beaches with water warm enough for me to enter. Known as Surf City, Santa Cruz is home to Steamer Lane, a legendary surf spot that attracts wave riders from near and far. From the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Steamer Lane offers panoramic views of surfers mastering the challenging waves below. And, with its proximity to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, visitors can seamlessly transition from the thrill of the waves to exploring the vibrant boardwalk and amusement park.

Sunlight filtering through cloudy skies over a rocky coastline.
Photo Credit: Pixabay.

Carmel Beach in Carmel-By-The-Sea

At the end of Ocean Avenue in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Beach is a picture-perfect paradise. Bask in the sunshine on the white sand and admire the breathtaking views stretching from Pebble Beach to Point Lobos. Renowned for being one of the most dog-friendly beaches in California, it’s a place where pets roam freely, adding to the relaxed atmosphere. Surfers and visitors enjoy the cool waters, while beach fires at sunset provide a cozy ambiance for evening gatherings. Additionally, the beach is a prime spot for wildlife enthusiasts, often offering glimpses of marine life, such as sea otters and dolphins frolicking in the nearby waves.

Rocky beach at sunset with light shining through a natural arch in the rock formation.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.

Pfeiffer Beach on the Central Coast

Venture off Big Sur’s beaten paths and discover Pfeiffer Beach, a hidden gem on the Central Coast. This paradise boasts unique rock formations and a sense of untouched beauty that will enchant you. The purple-hued sands, the result of manganese garnet deposits, add a surreal touch to the landscape. Pfeiffer Beach is a retreat for those seeking tranquility amidst the rugged cliffs and crashing waves.

Nature enthusiasts can explore the nearby trails while photographers capture the magic of this coastal haven. With limited signage and a sense of seclusion, this Pacific beach is a hidden haven, offering an authentic and awe-inspiring experience for those who visit.

A person riding a bicycle along the shoreline on a sunny beach day.
Photo Credit: Pixabay.

Pismo Beach in Central California

Along California’s Central Coast, Pismo Beach is a laid-back coastal paradise that attracts visitors who seek relaxation and simplicity. Stretch out on the vast sandy shores and let the calming sound of the waves wash over you, because this laid-back beach is the perfect place to unwind and soak up the California sunshine. Pismo Beach is a popular spot for leisurely strolls, beach picnics, and watching the sun slip below the horizon at the end of the day. The beachside shops and local seafood joints add to the charm of this California beach town. Whether exploring the sand dunes or enjoying the gentle coastal breeze, Pismo Beach offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

“Both Northern and Southern California beaches have their unique beauty. I love the tranquil atmosphere of Northern California beaches with its cool, foggy weather and rugged cliffs. There's plenty of hiking along the coast and seeing an abundance of wildlife. Meanwhile, Southern California has its long sandy beaches, and it's warm and sunny, which promotes a fun beach culture of surfing and parties.” 

A scenic beachfront with palm trees, mountains in the background, and a few people by the water's edge.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.

Haskell’s Beach in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s beaches are known for their sophisticated charm, and Haskell’s Beach is no exception. Nestled between the majestic Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, this beach beckons with pristine shores, gentle breezes, and swaying palm trees. Add a Mediterranean-style downtown, and it’s easy to see how this coastal city earned its “American Riviera” nickname. 

Haskell’s Beach is a pristine stretch of shoreline, lined with palm trees and kissed by the gentle Pacific breeze, that invites beachgoers to soak up the sun in style. But it’s not just a sunbather’s paradise — it also offers water sports and relaxation opportunities. With the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop, visitors can enjoy a perfect blend of serene landscapes and upscale coastal living. 

Santa Monica Pier at twilight, viewed from Santa Monica Beach.
Photo Credit: YayImages.

Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica Beach has been a shining example of the California beach experience since the first road trippers reached the end of Route 66 nearly a century ago. Located off what is now the Pacific Coast Highway, modern-day travelers can enjoy everything from the bustling Santa Monica Pier — with its iconic Ferris wheel and history-steeped carousel — to wide, sandy shores perfect for sunbathing and ocean dips. You’ll find surfers and paddle boarders navigating the waves while sunbathers relax on the vast beach.

As the sun dips below the horizon, the sky explodes in a riot of colors, creating a truly unforgettable scene. Additionally, the beach’s proximity to a variety of shops and eateries along the boardwalk allows visitors to seamlessly transition from beach relaxation to exploring local flavors and crafts, ensuring that a day at Santa Monica Beach is full of diverse experiences.

Bustling beachfront walkway with colorful storefronts and palm trees under a partly cloudy sky.
Photo Credit: Depositphotos.

Venice Beach in Los Angeles

Continuing south along California’s coast, Venice Beach is a vibrant fusion of eclectic energy and coastal charm. Beyond its iconic boardwalk and sandy shores, this beach is a melting pot of diverse cultures and artistic expression. Street performers entertain passersby as they stroll along the bustling promenade, while the famous Muscle Beach showcases the strength and agility of fitness enthusiasts. The beachfront bike path and basketball courts add to the lively atmosphere, making Venice Beach a dynamic and unforgettable destination. 

Aerial view of a pier with a red-roofed structure extending into the ocean, with a beach and coastal town in the background.
Photo Credit: YayImages.

Huntington Beach in Orange County

Huntington Beach is another haven for both surfers and beach enthusiasts. Known as Surf City, this vibrant coastal community along the Pacific Coast Highway exudes the laid-back California lifestyle. With a sprawling, sandy coastline, Huntington Beach provides the perfect conditions for surfing, attracting both beginners and seasoned wave riders. Beyond the waves, the beach boasts a lively atmosphere, featuring beach volleyball courts, a bustling Main Street, and the iconic Huntington Beach Pier.

Person standing atop a sea arch off Newport Beach at sunset.
Photo Credit: Pixabay.

Newport Beach in Orange County

In the heart of Orange County, Newport Beach stands as a symbol of coastal elegance. This upscale destination along the Southern California coastline offers the perfect combination of luxury and natural beauty. The expansive sandy beaches provide a picturesque setting for sunbathing and water activities, while the nearby piers and waterfront restaurants add a touch of sophistication. Newport Beach is not just a beach — it’s a lifestyle. Visitors can indulge in upscale shopping, savor gourmet dining, or embark on harbor cruises to explore the coastal beauty.

Coastal homes overlooking Laguna Beach under a starry night sky.
Photo Credit: YayImages.

Laguna Beach in Orange County

Nestled along the picturesque coastline of Orange County, Laguna Beach stands as a haven of art and nature. Renowned for its artistic community, this beach destination offers more than just sandy shores. Visitors can explore hidden coves, tide pools teeming with marine life, and intricate rock formations that add to the coastal charm. The town is dotted with art galleries and boutique shops, creating a seamless blend of creative expression and natural beauty. Laguna Beach is a seaside gem where visitors can escape into the embrace of artistic inspiration and the tranquility of the Pacific waves.

Historic Hotel del Coronado under a clear blue sky.
Photo Credit: Pixabay.

Coronado Beach in San Diego

A short drive from downtown San Diego, Coronado Beach beckons with its iconic views and timeless allure. The pristine stretch of white sand unfolds against the backdrop of the historic Hotel del Coronado, creating a postcard-worthy scene. The beach offers a perfect place to unwind, whether you’re basking in the sun, taking a leisurely walk along the shoreline, or marveling at the architectural beauty of the hotel. Coronado Beach provides easy access to the vibrant Coronado Island, where visitors can explore charming shops, dine in seaside restaurants, and experience the area’s rich history. 

Sunset at a beach with silhouette of a lifeguard station and people enjoying the evening.
Photo Credit: YayImages.

Frequently Asked Questions About California Beaches

These frequently asked questions about the Golden State’s beaches will help you choose the best spot along California’s expansive coastline for your travels — whether you’re chasing the perfect wave, seeking family-friendly sands, or dreaming of pristine white beaches.

Does California have white sand beaches?

There are several white sand beaches in California. A few of the most popular include Carmel City Beach in Carmel-By-The-Sea, Elmar Beach in Half Moon Bay, and Huntington Beach in Southern California.

What is the prettiest beach in California?

It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is certainly true when it comes to naming the prettiest beach in California. Some that are regularly cited as the Golden State’s most impressive beaches are Seacliff State Beach on the Central Coast, Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, El Matador State Beach in Malibu, and Tourmaline Beach in La Jolla.

What is the cleanest beach in California?

To find the cleanest California beach, I recommend visiting Beach Report Card. This simple, easy-to-use, free online tool will help you find water quality and other information for beaches near you.

What beach has the best waves in California?

If you’re looking for the best surfing spots in California, these beaches are known for their impressive waves:

  • Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz
  • Newport Beach in Orange County
  • Asilomar State Beach in Monterey County
  • Windansea Beach in San Diego

What is the best beach in California for families?

A family-friendly beach typically offers gentle waves, ample space for play, and convenient access to amenities such as restrooms and food concessions. For families visiting California, the options are plentiful and diverse, catering to the young and the young at heart with safe swimming areas, engaging beach activities, and picturesque settings for memorable days under the sun.

Some of the best family-friendly beaches in California include:

  • La Jolla Shores in San Diego
  • Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach
  • Harbor Cove Beach in Ventura
  • Pismo Downtown Beach in Pismo Beach
  • Main Beach in Santa Cruz
  • Heart’s Desire Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore

Where is Glass Beach in California?

Glass Beach is in Fort Bragg, Northern California, next to MacKerricher State Park. It’s a unique California beach, unlike the others listed above. Renowned for its abundant sea glass, it is the result of people dumping garbage onto this section of the coast. Over time, the ocean turned the trash — especially the glass — into smooth, colorful pebbles covering the beach. It’s a fascinating example of how nature can turn our mistakes into something beautiful. 

Sage Advice: If you visit Glass Beach in California, please remember that you cannot take the glass. Instead, leave it for everyone to enjoy.

What’s Your Favorite California Beach?

What’s one California beach that’s captured a piece of your heart? What made it so memorable — the sunset, the perfect wave, a hidden tide pool teeming with sea life? Share your experiences and any tips for visiting your favorite beach in California in the comments section below.

Portions of this article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

A view of the rugged California coast

  

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2 thoughts on “Wave Hello to the Best Beaches in California, from San Francisco to San Diego”

  1. Wow, Sage! This is such a comprehensive guide to California beaches! I’m bookmarking this for my next California trip. Those pictures are stunning too – especially the one of Pfeiffer Beach with the purple sand. Looks like something out of a dream!

    1. Isn’t it gorgeous?!? Then again, I’d much rather be exploring an interesting, moody beach like that than sunning myself in the sand.

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