Planning a quiet getaway near San Francisco? Check out these hidden Bay Area beaches where you won’t find crowds!
California beach vacation tips
Why should you head out on a California beach vacation for your next break? Well, we can tell you thousands of reasons but let’s start with just the best ones! Sunbathing, fishing, strolling boardwalks, golfing, surfing, or experiencing world-famous amusement and theme parks surfing are just a few activities that you and your family can enjoy on a California holiday. In the unlikely event that you happen to get bored with the breath-taking views that California beaches can offer, the surrounding attractions are sure to keep you busy. This Golden State has something exciting to offer for every type of traveler!
California quick info guide
Capital city: Sacramento
Visa: For non-US residents, visa or visa waiver is required to enter the United States depending on the citizenship. Citizens of countries that participate in the VWP Program can apply for an ESTA that allows staying maximum of 90 days as a tourist. Those who are eligible for this should apply for a normal visa in order to visit California.
Safety: Although California’s crime rate is a little higher than the national average, the major Californian cities and their surroundings (tourist-visited areas) are safe to travel.
There are crimes such as pick-pocketing and tourist scams in any tourist areas, so use common sense and don’t leave your valuables unattended on the beach, close your hotel room all the time, do not carry a lot of cash or expensive jewelry, don’t walk alone when it’s dark. When going for a road trip, plan the route in advance and research what areas are recommended-to-avoid after sunset.
If it comes to visiting California beaches, it is also important to pay attention to the beach signs. High winds and riptides can occur anytime and dangerous sea creatures might be around, therefore always follow the instructions on the spot.
Why is California perfect for a beach vacation?
If you have never experienced personally a vacation in California, then you have not yet completed an essential item for everyone’s bucket list. California’s terrain includes redwood forest, beaches lined by cliff backdrops, the haunting Sierra Nevada Mountains, verdant farms in the Central Valley, and the stark Mojave Desert, and of course stunning beaches.
This geographically diverse state has a very long, 840 miles (1350 km) coastline that is divided into the North Coast, Central Coast and South Coast that all feature interesting towns to visit, plenty of things-to-do and various attractions to see. In Los Angeles you have one of the great cultural attractions of the world in the Hollywood world movie-making center, while in San Francisco there is the Golden Gate Bridge, unique cable cars, and the infamous and historic prison of Alcatraz Island.
It is indisputable that the Pacific Ocean has chillier waters, but despite the lower temperatures, the list of beach activities is endless too. The northern coastline beaches are excellent for sunbathing, surfing and taking long walks, while those who love to snorkel and dive find superb conditions in the summer in the south. California certainly has something to offer for all types of vacationers!
California's best 5 beaches
The truth is that it is almost impossible to pick out only a few of the top California beaches. Nearly all of them have wonderful and worthwhile attractions to take in and personally experience. Keeping this disclaimer in mind, let’s start just with five of the best beaches in California.
It is hard to select a winner of the controversial award for California’s best beach, but Huntington Beach is certainly a leading contender in Southern California, moreover among the very best-known beaches in the state. The sandy stretch here is iconic for its legendary surfing culture with good reason. The beach is even nicknamed “Surf City.”
The pier is also famous, even if it is a bit cliché to stroll out to the end of it and see its appeal personally. You can relive the opening moments of Baywatch episodes here, learn how to surf, or just take in the spectacular sunsets. Without a doubt, Huntington Beach is certainly a must-visit on a California beach vacation.
Santa Monica Beach
Another great example of the best beaches in California is Santa Monica Beach. This incredibly famous stretch of sand pulls in literally millions of visitors every year. It owes its wild popularity to the pretty beach itself, the iconic pier, and the incomparable sunsets every evening.
After a relaxing day of taking in the sun’s rays, you should not miss a stroll on the pier or a go at the Santa Monica roller coaster. You can even rent a luxurious bungalow on the beach to keep the party going long after dark.
If you are looking for a unique place for your next vacation in California, then head to small coastal city of Laguna Beach that features a variety of jaw-dropping beaches. The most beautiful one is certainly the long white sandy strip of Victoria Beach on the south of Victoria Drive which is an ideal place for sunbathing, exploring aqua pools and also for surfing.
After a day spent at the beach, head to the town of Laguna Beach that has more to offer you. This attractive spot in Orange County boasts a wide range of restaurants, shops, and boutiques. Art enthusiasts are also in seventh heaven here thanks to the many summer festivals and art galleries galore dotting the beach town. It is hard to find a better all-around California beach vacation destination than this one!
San Francisco also boasts major contenders for the title of best beach in California. Our favorite here is Baker Beach. This one-mile-long expanse of sand fronts rugged cliffs lying to the west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The waves here are big and come with severe rip currents and a strong undertow so the beach is not the best choice for swimming, but the views are to die for here and include Marin Headlands, Lands End and of course the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
Fishing is also good here as is exploring the shore life found along the rocky shores. The beach offers good facilities including picnic tables and restrooms. Bear in mind that the northern end of this place has become a de facto naturist beach in case you are traveling with children.
La Jolla Beach
La Jolla Beach in San Diego is a beloved part of this famed stretch of the coastline and known as the “jewel” of San Diego. The mile-long expanse of fabulous sandy beach is popular with active beach visitors of all types.
The Scripps Institute of Oceanography pier here is crowded by family swimmers as well as surfers. The beaches boast a backdrop of sea cliffs, secluded coves, rocky reefs, and wide sandy beaches. Whitewater washes over the rocky outcrops as sea lions and seals alike play in the protected cove.
Beach activities in California
The state’s long coastline features a diversity of beaches where various types of land and water activities can be practiced. Let’s see now what to do on a California beach vacation!
Beach photography: probably there is no other shoreline in the states which is more diverse than the California coast! Besides the always-changing ocean and majestic cliff formations, probably the famous California lighthouses are the most photographed icons here. Don’t miss out capturing some of them when on a beach vacation in California!
Snorkeling: it is a fact that the Pacific Ocean has chilly waters and there is no tropical marine life here, but those who enjoy exploring sea creatures shouldn’t be disappointed since there are some decent snorkeling beaches especially in the southern regions of the state. Various fish species, crabs, octopus, rays, small sharks and seals can be spotted in the kelp forests and between the large boulders.
Surfing: this water sport has a long history in California and it was voted as the state’s official sport in 2018 bringing along a new holiday, the California Surfing Day that is celebrated on the 20th of September every year. The coastline offers ideal conditions for every type of surfer. Both Northern and Southern California has superb surf spots to catch a wave, but keep in mind that except the southern areas in the summer, wearing a thick wetsuit is a must year-round!
Sand sculpting: building sand castles is not only for kids! When visiting California beaches, you will certainly notice that some artists are taking sand sculpting to really high levels! Here are some beaches that use to host sand festivals where amateurs and professionals are both welcome: San Clemente Pier Beach, Imperial Beach, Corona Del Mar State Beach, Carmel City Beach, Capitola Beach, Doran Beach, Drakes Beach.
Whale watching: going for a whale-watching trip is something you shouldn’t miss out if visiting California in the whale migrating season. These massive marine mammals migrate from the Arctic to the south (Baja Peninsula) during fall and winter. If you are lucky, you might be able to see them from some viewpoints too so you don’t even need to take a watching cruise. The viewpoints at Dana Point Headlands, Fletcher Cove Park, South Ponto Beach, Blacks Beach at La Jolla and in the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park are good spots to watch them!
Best time for a California beach vacation
If you dream about a California beach vacation that includes swimming, surfing and sunbathing, then it’s understandable to ask ‘what is the best time to visit California beaches?’. Although the climate here is a little chillier than in the most popular beach states in the US, but this doesn’t mean it is impossible to find good conditions for beach activities, you just need to choose your holiday destination wisely.
Since California is a massive state with a long coastline, there is a big difference climate-wise in the northern and southern regions. Although the weather can be pleasantly sunny in the north and central regions too from July, those who seek out real summer should head to the south.
Keep in mind that when the weather starts to heat up from end of April, the warming temperatures bring along foggy days, especially in the San Francisco area. This is the ‘May Gray’ and ‘June Gloom’ phenomena that refers to a marine cloud layer causing fog from early June and July (sometimes also in August) along California’s coastline, mostly in the San Francisco area. If you wish to enjoy sunny and warm weather, then it is recommended to schedule your California beach vacation for the back half of the summer and head to the South.
If it comes to ocean temperatures, also the late summer-early autumn period is the best time when the water warms up nicely (68-70F) in the south. New Port Beach and Santa Catalina Island have the warmest ocean temperatures in the month of August.
To check the current water temperatures, visit seatemperature.org.
Average sea temperature:
June to October
November to March
California beach vacation costs
The question “is California expensive to visit” is easy to answer. California is not a budget holiday destination no matter where you choose to go, it has a reputation for being more costly than most US states.
But this doesn’t mean you cannot plan a California beach vacation if you are on a budget. With a little flexibility, like booking only a room on AirBnb instead of a hotel room, choosing free outdoor activities (that are plenty available) and cooking your own meal, you can easily keep your spending under control. With families of three to four people, you catch a little discount (on the additional children) as hotel rooms can be shared and the children’s attraction tickets come with a price break typically.
See below a rough guide on the daily budget per person (including accommodation and meals but excluding flights and transportation):
Places to stay in California
Accommodations in California beach towns cover the full spectrum of choices. If you are a fan of any big hotel chains, you will certainly find your favorite one, but if you want to experience the local, real California then it’s easy to find more authentic choices. These include boutique smaller hotels, home shares and vacation rentals, family-owned oceanside resorts, and even glamping.
By losing the mega-resorts that honestly cost more anyway, you will both save money and experience quiet California beach town vibes while enjoying a more unique and memorable stay.
Average accommodation prices per night in California:
Campsite or simple hotel: 25-40 USD
Average hotel: 100-170 USD
5-star resort/luxury vacation rental: 350-700 USD
To book your accommodation, choose a reliable booking website with 24/7 customer support that you can contact if needed! (We have good experience with Booking.com)
Beach etiquette in California
Acceptable beachwear in California is like in most places across the U.S. So long as you are not topless away from the beach, you will be fine walking around the streets. Cover-ups for bikinis are not a bad idea (a must) in restaurants, art galleries, and shops.
Regarding nudity on California beaches, this is not a straightforward question. There is no state-wide law prohibiting nudity in fact. Instead, the acceptability of this practice depends on the towns and cities as well as the owner and operator of the beach in question. Some towns and cities have their own restrictions. If you want to try out the naturist beach scene while in the Golden State, you will be able to come up with one prospect for a topless or full nude beach in nearly every county along California’s enormous coastline.
There are almost 50 beaches that permit or tolerate either full nudity or topless sunbathing here. Specifically, Marin County claims more nudist beaches than any competing county in the state. The most renowned of them is also the oldest one in Blacks’ Beach at San Gregorio. This is the first nudist beach in all of the United States and the most heavily visited one in America today as well. Tourists and locals alike have been topless here since the year 1966.
Regarding bringing your four-legged friends with you on your California beach vacation, there are many dog-friendly beaches here. Certain cities will permit them to be on the beach if they are continuously leashed and not brought along during the prime beach-going hours of the day. Other cities will not allow dogs on any beach at any time. Several beaches in the state will go so far as to allow dogs to run free on the beach, though you should look into this and not assume it when you come.
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