California's Best Beach Towns

Pismo Beach, California, USA
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It's no myth that California is home to some of the best (and maybe even the most) beautiful beaches on the West Coast, and the beach towns they're found in set the bar equally high. I've traveled from beach town to beach town along the Pacific coast throughout the golden state, yet it's still hard to decide which "little city" stands out the most. So I asked my readers what they prefer and they rated these California beach towns the best in the state.

San Diego

We'd call it a city, not a town, but they do have some great beaches - and the warmest water, too. Whether you want an oceanfront stroll or plan on riding some waves, San Diego is truly a "beach city". With options for walkers and surfers alike, San Diego offers various options for you to kick up your feet and soak in the laid-back atmosphere of local coffee shops, farm-to-table eats, and the like.

Mission Beach is a great destination for walkers, but if you have your four-legged friend, Ocean Beach is perhaps the most pet-friendly beach in the area. Find out which of the diverse cultures of this city speak to you with my guide to San Diego beaches.

Malibu

Probably the richest beach town on the list, with some great beaches and lots of luxury homes to gawk at. This beach destination is not just popular among tourists, but directors prefer the location for many of their movies, such as Iron Man. This beach town has everything from mom and pop restaurants (literally across the street from the ocean) and designer stores to a cove where all you do is drink and relax. If relaxation with the option to shop and enjoy some good food is your definition of a beach town, then start planning with my guide to your Malibu getaway.

 

Pismo

Some people call Pismo the quintessential California beach town, so cute it could make you swoon. If you want a romantic long walk on the beach with a small-town feel, head to Pismo. This town is perfect for those seeking a somber getaway. It's a quiet destination complete with wide sandy beaches. It also lives up to its small size by hosting such fun and local opportunities such as car shows and clam festivals. Just a three-hour drive from Los Angeles, Pismo has delightful restaurants and scenic beaches that'll quickly pull you away from your inbox.

La Jolla

Upscale La Jolla is one of my favorite California beach towns, for its gorgeous coastal scenery and lots of places to walk and eat. La Jolla means, "the jewel" in Spanish and as beautiful as it is, it's no wonder why. Everyone from shoppers to outdoor enthusiasts and thrill-seekers find their happiness here. Home to the Birch Aquarium and the La Jolla Waterfront, La Jolla truly embodies what it is to be a beach town. The shores here have an inviting spirit with scenery that'll have you soak away the worries of the day and sink into the sand.

Head to La Jolla Cove, La Jolla Shores, or any of the other beaches to truly get that "beachy feel" in the area when planning your trip to San Diego.

Santa Barbara

A south-facing coastline gives Santa Barbara its "banana belt" climate and the red-tile-roofed architecture lends a Mediterranean feel. From the Spanish-style architecture to some of the best Mexican food in the area, Santa Barbara will transport you south of the border. At the cornerstone of upscale and relaxed, Santa Barbara is unlike other beach towns in Southern California. In fact, many escape the "hub-bub" of Los Angeles for the relaxing, almost spa-like atmosphere Santa Barbara has to offer.

Don't let the tranquility fool you--there's so much to do in this small city. You'll find everything from high-end stores to breweries serving local beer. Plan your trip with this Santa Barbara guide.

Santa Cruz

With one of the few remaining seaside amusement parks in California and a nickname of "Surf City," it's got plenty to brag about in the beach town department. When it comes to beach towns, Santa Cruz has a lot going for it. People of all ages and interests find more than enough things to do outside of the beach scene as well. The "hippie" culture often associated with the surf and sand here is alive and well with local art galleries, amusement ​parks and the boardwalk. Find local events that will make your family getaway one to remember.

There is even a 1911 hand-carved carousel that beckons you to step back in time and get a taste of the old California that attracted many to the sunshine state. Here is your guide to your Santa Cruz trip.

What is the best beach town in California?

I polled more than 1,200 of my readers to find out which California beach town they like best. Pismo Beach won by a large margin with 30% of the vote. After that, Santa Cruz got 10%. The Los Angeles South Bay beaches, La Jolla and Santa Monica got 8% each, followed by Oxnard and Santa Barbara at 7%. Go to one or try them all to find out which one you prefer with my guides below.