Malibu: Planning Your Trip

Malibu Coastline

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The fantasy that people have of California being all about tanned surfers, warm sandy beaches, and Hollywood stars is mostly hyperbole—that is unless you're talking about Malibu. Just the mere mention of Malibu is enough to send most people's heads spinning, conjuring up images of pristine beaches and an exclusive hangout for celebrities. The good news is that Malibu isn't nearly as inaccessible as it seems, since it's just up the road from Los Angeles and home to some of Southern California's most sought-after beaches.

If you're planning a trip to the Los Angeles area, even driving through Malibu along scenic Highway 1 is worth a spot on your itinerary. But if you're looking to spend a day at one of California's most quintessential beaches—which you should be—then you'd be hard-pressed to find somewhere more scenic than Malibu.

Best Time to Visit

Southern California has the reputation for enjoying perfect weather all year round, which is only partly an exaggeration. Malibu isn't immune to rainy days or cold spells, but it is entirely possible to spend a day sitting out on the beach even in the middle of January. The weather in Malibu follows the same general patterns as nearby Los Angeles, but keep in mind that temperatures along the coast are often several degrees lower than they are inland.

Summer is of course the high season for visiting California beaches, but summer starts in July along the Pacific Coast. The infamous June Gloom refers to the foggy and overcast days that are typical of June, so keep that in mind before planning your summer break beach trip. Late summer and early fall generally have the warmest temperatures and clearest days that are ideal for hanging out at the beach, but this is also wildfire season in California and fires have affected Malibu in the past.

If you're going for surfing—which is one of the biggest draws to Malibu—then the ocean water is warmest and cleanest from September to November.

Travel Tips for Malibu

Malibu is one of the most desired beach destinations in the state, if not the country, and the multi-million dollar mansions that stand between the highway and the actual beach can make it feel like it's an exclusive getaway for the rich. Thankfully, that's not the case. California law stipulates that all land between the water and the average high tide line is open to all, which is easy to determine because it's where the sand is damp. Some of the beachfront homeowners may have signs up about entering private property, but as long as you're on wet sand, you're on public land.

Remember that as a general rule, you can't drink alcohol, smoke, bring pets, sunbathe nude, or use fireworks at any of the beaches in the Los Angeles area. However, a couple of the Malibu beaches make exceptions. For example, Paradise Cove Beach allows beachgoers to drink beer and wine and Leo Carrillo State Beach is one of the few that allows dogs.

Things to Do

Not surprisingly, the number one thing to do in Malibu is enjoy the beach. Malibu is famous for its 21 miles of pristine coastline with unbeatable views of the Pacific Ocean and nearby Catalina Island, but it's a lot more than just lounging out on the sand. This small beach town squeezes a lot into those 21 miles.

  • Hit the beach. There are nearly two dozen individually-named beaches in Malibu, and each one has its own personality and reason for visiting. Zuma Beach is one of the biggest with nearly 2 miles of beach and is popular with families and friends playing sand volleyball. As the name suggests, Surfrider Beach is one of the top spots for surfing in a city that is renowned for the sport. If you want something more intimate, El Matador is a "pocket beach" with scenic caves that can feel a world away from the metropolis of Los Angeles.
  • See classical art in the Getty Villa. Not to be confused with the Getty Museum which sits in the hills around Santa Monica, the Getty Villa in Malibu is the original museum founded by billionaire J. Paul Getty and his one time home. Today it houses his collection of antiquities from Ancient Rome and Greece and is free to visit. Even the building itself is meant to evoke ancient times as Getty modeled his home after Roman villas that were unearthed in Pompeii.
  • Go whale watching. If you're visiting Malibu in the winter, don't be upset if the weather isn't warm enough for being on the beach. From about December to March, gray whales are making their migration to the warmer waters of Mexico for their annual breeding. And the best part is you don't even need to pay to see them since they're visible right from the coastline. Point Dume State Beach is a particularly good place to see them since the coast juts out into the ocean.

What to Eat and Drink

Fresh seafood, organic California cuisine, and in-season produce are the major players in Malibu's restaurant scene. And since Malibu is the hometown for some of LA's most affluent residents, you may even rub shoulders with some of the glitterati of Hollywood, especially if you're dining in some of the most exclusive—and most expensive—restaurants, like Nobu or Geoffrey's.

Fortunately, you don't have to be an A-list movie star in order to eat good food in Malibu. Casual restaurants are scattered throughout the city serving all types of cuisine from fried freshly-caught fish to Thai. As a general rule, the restaurants that are closest to the Malibu Pier are the most touristy, meaning higher prices for lesser quality (but not always). The Paradise Cove Beach Cafe is the only eatery that's physically located on the beach, which is perfect for enjoying lunch or some drinks while sitting on the sand (it's also the only beach where alcohol is permitted).

Where to Stay

Since most of Malibu's coastline is taken up by lavish homes, there aren't many options of places to stay in Malibu proper. One of the most luxurious options is the Malibu Beach Inn, located on a stretch of sand unofficially known as "Billionaire's Beach" and with rooms overlooking the ocean. If Malibu is out of your budget, there are numerous hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, hostels, and homestays just around the corner in Los Angeles. If you want the beachfront Malibu experience without actually being in Malibu, look for hotels around Santa Monica which is just a few minutes away.

If you don't mind roughing it, then the best views of all come from camping on the beach. You can't just pitch a tent anywhere you want, so make sure you have a reserved campsite on an official campground. There are a few options in Malibu either on or near the beach, such as Malibu Creek State Park and Leo Carrillo State Beach.

Getting There

The town of Malibu is centered around Highway 1 and the vast majority of residents live within walking distance of the highway, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. The nearest airport is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which is about 25 minutes away without traffic. Downtown Los Angeles is about the same distance from Malibu as the airport, but keep in mind that rush hour traffic from anywhere in LA can significantly prolong your trip.

Money Saving Tips

  • Many—but not all—of the Malibu beaches have paid parking lots, which are affordably priced since they're state parks and beaches. However, free parking is available right along Highway 1. Parking on the side of the highway is allowed, but the spots closest to the beach entrances are taken up fast so make sure to get there early.
  • If you don't need to be in the action of Malibu or Los Angeles, you can save a lot of money on accommodations by looking for a place to stay north of Malibu in Ventura County. Oxnard is just as close to Malibu as LA and also along the coast, or you can head just a couple of miles inland to cities like Camarillo or Thousand Oaks.
  • Camping is one of the most affordable ways to spend the night in Malibu, but the LA campsites are always quick to book up. Take a look at campgrounds in Ventura County, which are arguably even better for camping since they're farther away from the noise, traffic, and light pollution of Los Angeles. During the day you have all of LA just a short drive away and at night you can sleep with just the sound of the surf and the light of the stars.