This guide to the best small beach towns in California covers where to stay in each town, the top things to see and more!
With over 800 miles of beautiful coastline, California has its fair share of quintessential sun-soaked beach towns. Having lived in California for all of my life, I’ve had the pleasure to travel up and down this magnificent coast, visiting many of these cute towns along the way.
Most California beach towns are similar in that they have warm, inviting spirits, with friendly locals and great ocean views, but they’re all different in things to do and general atmosphere. Here are the 12 best beach towns in The Golden State!
Best Beach Towns in California
Located in Orange County, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, Laguna Beach is seven miles of coves and beaches that lay claim to tide pools, boardwalks, and bluffs. The town itself is known as being an art haven, with plenty of galleries and boutiques to check out.
Aside from the beach, Laguna Beach is home to upwards of 20,000 acres of pristine wilderness, which you can check out via mountain biking and hiking trails.
Where to Stay in Laguna Beach
For a budget stay in Laguna Beach, check out The Tides. It’s just a 10-minute walk from the town center and has an outdoor saltwater pool for use.
For a great mid-range option, check out Laguna Brisas Hotel. This hotel is right down the street from the beach itself and offers an outdoor pool and views of Catalina Island.
If you’re looking for something a little more upscale, the Surf and Sand Resort is for you. This hotel overlooks the ocean, gives guests private beach access, and is located in central Laguna Beach.
Read more: The Best Photography Locations in California
Capitola is one of the oldest resort towns in California and is situated in Santa Cruz County on the coast of Monterey Bay. The town itself is incredibly picturesque with idyllic beaches and colorful buildings and is full of eclectic boutiques and restaurants.
I love visiting Capitola no matter the time of year – in the winter, it tends to be a relaxing and quiet escape, while in the summer it gets busy and has a classic California beach town vibe.
Where to Stay in Capitola
Quality Inn & Suites Capitola is a budget motel just 10 minutes from the beach. The property features free WiFi and a seasonal swimming pool
Fairfield Inn & Suites Santa Cruz – Capitola is a mid-range hotel that offers an outdoor pool and spacious suites.
Inn at Depot Hill is a beautiful 4-star B&B that’s walking distance from Capitola Beach and Wharf and features an evening wine reception and a full breakfast.
A community in San Luis Obispo County, Avila Beach is a great California getaway for the whole family. In the summer, the beach welcomes concerts of all sizes, farmers markets, wine tastings, and so much more. Meanwhile, on the San Luis Pier, Fishermen haul in their daily catch – giving you the freshest seafood experience in the local restaurants.
Not to mention, the waters themselves are perfect for watersports. Because of the calm conditions, renting a kayak or paddleboard for an afternoon is super easy to do. With your kayak, definitely make a point to head to the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse!
Where to Stay in Avila Beach
Avila Village Inn is an adults-only mid-range property that offers free bike use, an outdoor swimming pool, and a gym.
Avila La Fonda Hotel is a luxury property that is home to a spa bath, fireplaces in every room, and free WiFi.
Read more: How To Road Trip California On A Budget
Located on the central California Coast on the colorful Estero Bay, Cayucos is a resort town only 30 minutes away from Hearst Castle. The town is full of Americana, and makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the Wild West, but with a beach setting. Saloons and antique shops are aplenty!
Calm waters make Cayucos an ideal spot for water sports, including swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, and diving. If you’re into fishing, head over to Cass Wharf – a great public fishing pier.
Where to Stay in Cayucos
Dolphin Inn Cayucos is a great budget hotel less than a mile away from Cayucos State Beach.
Shoreline Inn is a mid-range property located right on the beach and offers a continental breakfast and an afternoon biscuit reception.
Pier View Suites is a boutique hotel adjacent to the beach. This is a great place to stay if you want a breezy, bungalow-style place to stay.
Carpinteria is a small city just east of Santa Barbara that lays claim to having the world’s safest beach – Carpinteria State Beach — and to being an all-around family-friendly destination. The waves at Carpinteria are small, so while it’s not great for catching a wave, they are great for splashing around in. That said, if you are looking for a great surfing spot, one of the state’s best surfing beaches, Rincon, is just three miles southeast.
The town itself is fairly easy-going, offering many casual dining options, mom-and-pop shops, and small bars.
Where to Stay in Carpinteria
Sandyland Reef Inn is a budget-friendly stay less than a ten-minute drive from Carpinteria State Beach.
Cliff House Inn is a mid-range property offering private beach access, on-site dining, and an outdoor pool.
Read more: The Best Places to Camp in California
Located on the northern Mendocino coast, Fort Bragg, California has lived many lives. Originally a military garrison and later a lumber town, Fort Bragg is now one of the top beach destinations in the state, and for good reason. Not only is the area home to a beach full of glistening sea glass, but it also has a striking, craggy, coastline that will sweep you off your feet.
The town itself is full of cool museums – logging, train history, tattoo culture, sea glass, and marine science, to name a few – as well as great farmers markets and boutique shops.
Where to Stay in Fort Bragg
Seabird Lodge is a trusted budget option that offers an indoor pool.
Emerald Dolphin Inn & Mini Golf is a great mid-range stay in Fort Bragg. The Inn features an 18-hole mini golf course, arcade, and it’s just 1 mile away from Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.
North Cliff Hotel is more of an upscale stay that offers a hot breakfast buffet and great views of the ocean and Noyo Bay.
Whether you have just a couple days or a week to spend in a California beach town, Cambria and its many attractions will be sure to keep you occupied. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cambria is home to Moonstone Beach, wineries, the incredible Hearst Castle, a cute downtown area, coastal bluff trails, and elephant seals.
So many of these places are incredibly photogenic too, so be sure to bring your camera!
Where to Stay in Cambria
Cambria Palms Motel is a budget stay in Cambria that is less than a 10-minute walk from downtown Cambria and offers BBQ facilities.
El Colibri Hotel & Spa is a central mid-range property that is walking distance to Moonstone Beach and offers a full-service spa and wine bar.
A little more upscale, Pelican Inn & Suites features a seasonal outdoor pool and unique room décor.
Nicknamed “the jewel” of San Diego, La Jolla is everything from luxury hotels and upscale shopping to casual beach vibes and gorgeous scenery. The town itself is filled with one-of-a-kind shops, fine dining restaurants, and great museums, while the beach gives way to dramatic coastline and hiking trails up to the cliffs.
La Jolla is one of the most popular beach destinations in the world and is a must on any trip to San Diego.
Where to Stay in La Jolla
The Shoal Hotel La Jolla Beach is a budget stay that features an outdoor pool and is only an 8-minute walk from Windansea Beach.
Empress Hotel is a mid-range boutique hotel that is just a 10-minute walk to the beach and is home to an Italian restaurant.
La Valencia Hotel is a luxury property that is close to the beach and provides modern rooms with an old-charm feel.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a picturesque little town that looks as though it popped straight out of a fairy tale. Located on the Monterey Peninsula, the town is one-square-mile big and is full of charming restaurants, boutiques, and cafes – there are no fast food chain restaurants here.
While in Carmel, head down to Carmel Beach and stroll the scenic road, go wine tasting (the village has almost 20 wine tasting rooms!), pay a visit to the Carmel Mission, and catch some live music at Sunset Center.
Fun fact, Clint Eastwood was once the mayor and now has a restaurant here!
Where to Stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Carmel Oaks is a budget stay in Carmel that has free continental breakfast delivery, and is close to many shops and sites.
Hotel Carmel is a mid-range hotel right in the heart of Carmel. The hotel serves a daily continental breakfast and features a hot tub.
The Vagabond’s House Boutique Inn & Spa Studio is a 4-star property just 1-mile from Carmel Beach City Park. The hotel features a stone courtyard and unique décor in every room.
A town of roughly 1,000 people in Sonoma County, Bodega Bay is home to fishermen, shopkeepers, and creative types of all kinds. Within and surrounding the town, you’ll find fresh seafood eateries, spas, and wineries, as well as great hiking, fishing, and whale-watching spots.
Bodega Bay tends to be rather quiet and is the perfect place to go if you want to unplug and relax.
Where to Stay in Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay Inn is a mid-budget property less than a 5-minute walk to Bodega Bay and offers free WiFi.
Bodega Bay Lodge is a 4-star hotel with beautiful views of Doran Regional Park and the ocean.
Also known as “the Gibraltar of the Pacific”, Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County is home to an extinct volcanic peak (that juts out 567 feet above the ocean), over six miles of sandy beaches, and an eclectic array of photogenic shops and restaurants.
Morro Bay has all the elements that make a beach town spectacular, but what makes it even more so is that it tends to be much more affordable than many of the surrounding towns. It’s easy on the eyes and on the wallet!
Where to Stay in Morro Bay
Harbor House Inn is just two blocks from the waterfront and is a great budget stay in Morro.
Masterpiece Hotel is a mid-range stay just 5 minutes away from Morro Rock. This Andalusian-style motel features an indoor hot tub and a daily wine reception.
Read more: Big Sur Camping Guide: Best Places to Camp
A Humboldt County hamlet, Shelter Cove is known as being the gateway to California’s Lost Coast. From Shelter Cove, you can visit Black Sands Beach, stroll the Lost Coast Hiking Trail, visit the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, whale watch, go diving, or fish.
Of course, while there are many activities to do, rest and relaxation should also be on the menu for things to do in Shelter Cove. The town and surrounding area are so peaceful, it’s an ideal situation to unplug and be present.
Where to Stay in Shelter Cove
The Oceanfront Inn is a mid-range property offering a private beach area.
Inn of the Lost Coast is another mid-range stay located right on the beachfront and offers a hot tub and karaoke nights.
FAQs: Best Coastal Towns in California
Mendocino, renowned for its breathtaking coastal scenery and artsy small town vibe, stands out as the most beautiful beach town in California. Known as the ‘Victorian Village by the Sea’, many visitors are drawn here because of the many picturesque coastal cottages.
Carpinteria, located just 10 miles east of Santa Barbara, has gained recognition as California’s safest beach town. It stands out as an ideal destination for families seeking a safe coastal vacation.
Capitola Beach in Santa Cruz is home to two rows of colorful houses known as “The Venetians.” These privately owned condos are all painted in vibrant pastel colors and look like homes you would find in seaside villages in Europe.