The Best Beaches in California That Aren't Just for Surfers

From purple-sand beaches to crescent-shaped beauties, these are the Golden State's top strands.

best beaches
Getty Images is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for website owners to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites, as well as to other websites that may be affiliated with Amazon Service LLC Associates Program. Why trust us?

There's perhaps no other state that captures the essence of a carefree, sun-kissed lifestyle than California, and its beaches are a big part of the appeal. The Golden State has over 800 miles of coastline, so there are plenty of top strands to choose from. Whether it's a crescent-shaped beauty or a secluded cliffside stretch, here are the best beaches in California (keep in mind, SoCal beaches are a lot warmer and sunnier than the ones up north!).

1 Coronado Beach — San Diego
Getty Images

Best for Families

Located on Coronado Island, just over the bridge from San Diego, family-friendly Coronado Beach is a wide stretch with calm waters, making it one of the best beaches in California for kids. Be sure to stop into the famous red-roofed, Victorian-style Hotel del Coronado, affectionately known as the Del, for fish tacos at the Sun Deck Bar & Grill.

Where to Stay: Hotel del Coronado, Hotel Indigo San Diego Gaslamp Quarter

More: These Are the World's 50 Most Stunning Beaches

2 Carmel Beach — Carmel-by-the-Sea
Getty Images

Best for Sunsets

It makes sense that this postcard-perfect seaside village has one of the best beaches in California. Just off Ocean Avenue, this gorgeous crescent-shaped stretch is known for its soft, pure-white sand and views of the Pebble Beach golf course. Dogs are allowed off-leash, there's beach volleyball, and there are even wood-burning fire pits where you can have cheese and wine as you settle in to watch the sunset.

Where to Stay: L'Auberge Carmel, Hotel Carmel

3 Baker Beach — San Francisco
Getty Images

Best for Bridge Views

Baker Beach has take-your-breath-away views of San Francisco'sGolden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Due to strong riptides, swimming isn't recommended, but this mile-long stretch is perfect for an afternoon picnic and meandering stroll (watch for the occasional dolphin in the surf). Keep in mind that the beach's northern end is clothing-optional!

Where to Stay: Fairmont San Francisco, Hotel Zetta San Francisco

4 Mission Beach — San Diego
Getty Images

Best for Nostalgia

This beach has good swimming and a lively boardwalk scene, making it one of SoCal's best beaches, but one of Mission Beach's best aspects is historic Belmont Park, an historic amusement park. A ride on the Giant Dipper — a wooden roller coaster operating since 1925 — is a must, and there are also arcade games, mini golf, and classic eats like cotton candy and waffle cones.

Where to Stay: Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa & Marina, Andaz, San Diego

5 Huntington Beach — Huntington Beach
Getty Images

Best for Surfing

With a nickname like "Surf City USA," Huntington Beach is a no-brainer when it comes to hanging 10 (though Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane Beach and Malibu's Surfrider Beach are sweet surfing spots, too). If you just like to watch, there's no better vantage point then from on the 1,850-foot pier, with the famous '50s-style Ruby's Diner at the very tip.

Where to Stay: Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel, Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Beach Resort & Spa

6 Torrey Pines State Beach — San Diego
Getty Images

Best for Cliff Views

Sandstone cliffs more than 300-feet high provide a dramatic backdrop as you take a dip in the Pacific Ocean or a walk along the golden-colored sand while visiting Torrey Pines State Beach, north of the community of La Jolla in San Diego. There's also great birding along the shoreline — keep an eye out for osprey, brown pelicans, and royal terns.

Where to Stay: San Diego Marriott La Jolla, Inn by the Sea at La Jolla

7 Venice Beach — Venice
Getty Images

Best for People-Watching

If you're visiting Los Angeles, it's well worth heading out to Venice Beach for the day to take in the sea of humanity on this world-famous California beach known for its over-the-top — and some say plain old weird — boardwalk scene. Whether it's street performers, joggers, artists, skateboarders, or bronzed gods lifting weights, Venice Beach has it all.

Where to Stay: The Kinney Venice Beach, Hotel Erwin

8 Pfeiffer Beach — Big Sur
Getty Images

Best for Insta-Worthy Photos

Pfeiffer Beach, reached via unpaved road off Highway 1, is famous not only for its purple-hued sand (due to manganese garnet deposits), but also for its many rocky outcroppings — including the famous Pfeiffer keyhole rock, where the sun's rays filter through a natural archway, creating a tunnel of light that's absolutely mesmerizing.

Where to Stay: Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay, Ventana Big Sur

9 Crescent Beach — Calatina Island
Getty Images

Best Island Getaway

If you really want to get away from it all, hop aboard a ferry from Long Beach (and other locations) to idyllic Catalina Island. Avalon, the island's largest town, has a postcard-perfect harbor dotted with sailboats, and the main strand is Crescent Beach, which is comprised of three small beaches. While you won't find wide sandy stretches, the view of the harbor and surrounding cliffs more than makes up for it.

Where to Stay: Portofino Hotel, Hotel Metropole

10 Zuma Beach — Malibu
Getty Images

Best for Celebrity Spotting

You never know who you might spot while catching some rays on Zuma Beach in Malibu, the exclusive enclave that many celebrities call home. This gorgeous strand is approximately 2 miles long, so there's plenty of space for everyone to find their own patch of sand. There are also lifeguard stations, beach volleyball courts, and picnic areas.

Where to Stay: Nobu Ryokan Malibu, Malibu Country Inn

11 Santa Monica Beach — Santa Monica
Getty Images

Best Pier

Santa Monica Beach is one of LA County's most beautiful strands, and its iconic pier is known throughout the state. Kids will love the amusement park, with its famous Ferris wheel, and other rides and arcade games. You'll also find the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, a trapeze school, a historic carousel, and eateries for everything from funnel cake to Dungeness crab.

Where to Stay: Wyndham Santa Monica at the Pier, Shutters on the Beach

12 Salt Creek Beach — Dana Point
Getty Images

Best Luxury Resort Beach

Salt Creek Beach, one of Orange County's most beautiful beaches, is a wide, sandy stretch fronting rocky cliffs, particularly on its southern end, where the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel resort is located. If you're staying at the resort, shuttles can drop you off at the beach. Otherwise, you might want to stop into the hotel for a sunset cocktail.

Where to Stay: Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa, Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel

13 Fiesta Island Park Beach — San Diego
Getty Images

Best Beach for Dogs

Located in Mission Bay, Fiesta Island is just 15 minutes from downtown San Diego. The entirety of the island is a park, and much of it is leash-free for dogs. Your four-legged friends will love this large crescent-shaped beach, where they can run on the sand and small dunes, and cool off with a dip in the shallow bay waters.

Where to Stay: Hotel Indigo San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, Sofia Hotel

14 James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve — Moss Beach
James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

Best for Tidepooling

The California coast is known for its fabulous tide pools, and the beach at James V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, 40 minutes south of San Francisco, is known to have some of the best. At low tide, some of the sea critters you might spot include mussels, snails, urchins, and sea stars (collecting isn't permitted).

Where to Stay: Oceano Hotel & Spa, Seal Cove Inn

15 San Clemente State Beach — San Clemente
Getty Images

Best Beach Campground

California has quite a few beaches with campgrounds — sites where you can park your RV and within a few minutes' walk be right on the sand. One of the largest campsites is San Clemente State Park, a mile-long stretch approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Be sure to make a reservation, as the campsites go quickly, especially in summer.

Where to Stay: San Clemente State Beach Campground

16 Thousand Steps Beach — Laguna Beach
Getty Images

Best for Caves

The Laguna Beach area is filled with numerous stunning strands, but one of the most unique is Thousand Steps, which is home to a sea cave. The beach itself is hard to find, and it does have more than 200 (though not a thousand!) steps to get down to the sand, but it's worth the effort. The cave is on the beach's southern end, and during low tide, you can walk into it and explore.

Where to Stay: Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa, Montage Laguna Beach

17 Summerland Beach — Santa Barbara
Getty Images

Best for Horseback Rides

Not only is Summerland Beach one of Santa Barbara's most beautiful stretches, but it's also very friendly to your four-legged friends — and we're not just talking about dogs, but horses as well! For a magical experience, especially at sunset, book a 90-minute ride with Santa Barbara Beach Horseback Rides, which takes you right along the edge of the water.

Where to Stay: Brisas Del Mar, Inn at the Beach, Hotel Milo

18 Stinson Beach — Marin County
Getty Images

Best for Hiking

Stinson, a crescent-shaped, wide beach located within the Golden Gate Recreation Area, has a little something for everyone. It's a popular spot for picnicking and barbecuing, water sports, such as boogie boarding and surfing, and, as an added bonus, there are numerous hiking trails nearby, many of which that lead into Mount Tamalpais State Park.

Where to Stay: Sandpiper Lodging

19 Main Beach — Santa Cruz
Getty Images

Best Boardwalk Scene

There's always something going on at Main Beach, the prime stretch of sand in Santa Cruz. Often called Boardwalk Beach, this is where you can take a spin on the rollercoaster in the amusement park, play some arcade games, or simply sit on a boardwalk bench and take in the ocean views while enjoying a soft serve ice cream.

Where to Stay: Edgewater Beach Inn & Suites, The Dream Inn

20 Alamitos Beach — Long Beach
Getty Images

Best for Beach Volleyball

This super wide beach (not to be confused with nearby Alamitos Bay Beach) is a scenic spot to catch to some rays, but if you're feeling active, you can also play some beach volleyball. Long Beach is one of SoCal's top beach volleyball spots (Olympic gold medal-winning player Misty May-Treanor is a longtime resident).

Where to Stay: The Westin Long Beach, Hilton Long Beach

21 Pin It for Later!
Getty Images
More From Travel