Let’s face it: We’d all be exponentially happier if we quit our jobs and moved to a beach town somewhere along the western coast, where the sea breeze eases tensions and the weather begs to be enjoyed. Yet most of us will have to be satisfied with a visit. So for that coastal vacay, here are a slew of wonderful California beach towns worth the trip, each with their own sense of charm and intrigue. To avoid showing favoritism (how could you even pick a favorite?!), they’re in alphabetical order.
Avalon is the only incorporated city on Santa Catalina Island, and it deserves the distinction (it’s also the only island town on our list). Houses climb up the hillside and overlook the boats floating on picturesque Avalon Bay. Much of the rest of the island is preserved and waiting to be explored by foot, bicycle, kayak or whatever else you can dream up. With one exception: Full-sized vehicles are not allowed on the island, so you’ll have to traverse great distances via golf cart. Hit Crescent Avenue for shopping and dining, and check out the bison—directors of a 1920s Western film introduced them to the island as extras, and they’re still hanging around.
This fishing village off the Pacific Coast Highway is about a 90-minute drive north of San Francisco. The sleepy town remains the quaint string of shops and restaurants that it was when it set the scene for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Which is a big part of what makes it so charming (minus the terrifying bird swarms, of course). But back to the point: Bodega Bay is pure relaxation. The salmon and crab fished straight from the bay are known far and wide, so make sure you try some, and the rocky bluffs and hiking trails at nearby Bodega Head are not to be missed.
Capitola channels its inner Amalfi Coast with the rows of brightly painted cottages lining its beach. Surfers pass by the Mediterranean-style bungalows that inhabit the place, and seaside coffee shops draw those that linger to read, relax and watch the waves. The town often draws day-trippers from Silicon Valley, and many folks from all over who want to hit the surf. Capitola’s waves may very well be the reason wetsuit manufacturer O’Neill built its headquarters nearby, making this perhaps the beachiest of our California beach towns.
Eclectic and mild Carpinteria takes its name from the Spanish word for carpenter’s shop. They say Spanish explorers dubbed the town with the name because Chumash Indians used to split Redwoods to make canoes there. Today, the community is comprised of seriously welcoming small business owners, who will happily greet you from their indie shops, small cafes and antiques stores.The seemingly endless sunshine likely plays a role in all of their sunny dispositions, and we bet this helps too: Not far from the main street are some stunning beaches, and on the other side of it are green foothills and mountains hatched with ranches and avocado orchards. How’s that for California dreamin’?
For those worried that tourism and other factors are destroying California’s picturesque and quaint beach towns, Cayucos will assuage your fears. Warm breezes blow through the old buildings that give the town some of its historical charm, and residents actually make time to drink in the warmth and contemplate the beauty. This is the kind of place to take leisurely strolls and coast through warm afternoons eating and drinking with the locals. There’s a gorgeous enclave overlooking Estero Bay, a long pier jutting out from the beach’s white sand, and plenty of delicious seafood spots.
Of all the California beach towns on this list, this one’s got the greatest claim to fame: It’s home to Swamis Beach, the surf spot Beach Boys sang about in “Surfin’ USA.” And although Encinitas has been getting a little pricier, it’s still totally worth the splurge to visit. If surfing isn’t your style and you’d prefer a view from above, check out the beach from the gorgeousmeditation garden that sits on the bluff above. From there you can see the cacti framing the sea, an unmistakable reminder of the beauties of Southern California. After exploring the botanical gardens, ecological reserve and beach parks, head to downtown Encinitas. Here, you’ll find wineries and farmers markets, specialty shops, bars and more.
In love with a little Cali beach town that didn’t make the list? Let us know!