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California Travel Guide

12 Beautiful California Coastal Towns You Must Visit

An escape to these California seaside villages feels like a voyage back in time and into another world.

These California coastal towns offer an abundance of fun activities to experience and explore. There’s no shortage of chances for visitors to feel as if they have been given the chance to relax and reconnect with nature—from hiking to beaching to shopping and dining in these quaint seaside spots. From Fort Bragg to Coronado Island and everywhere in between, here are 12 must-visit seaside villages across the coastline of California.

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Fort Bragg

Hike and bike, wine and dine, or kayak and explore this remote and wild California coastal town. Start the day with a hot brew at Headlands Coffee House paired with some sweets from Mendocino Chocolate Company. Fort Bragg is also home to the world-famous skunk train, sea cave tours, and horseback riding excursions along the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail. After an afternoon out, spend the evening at the Inn at Newport Ranch, a 2,100-acre private timber preserve and working cattle ranch hosting a luxury ten-unit inn along 1.5 miles of coastline. Each room on-site is different, and the food served to guests comes from the three separate gardens located right on-site. Visitors can leave their troubles behind (along with their cell service), and experience the openness of the natural land in every season.

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Mendocino Village

Mendocino Village is one of the best coastal towns in California and is ruggedly beautiful. Outdoorsy types can explore the Mendocino Headlands trail or Russian Gulch for stunning views, and those who would prefer to shop until they drop can walk around the downtown area and explore the cute selection of boutique shops and art galleries. Grab a snack at Frankie’s Mendocino for a classic treat—and, for those who seek a more “adult indulgence,” visit Pacific Star Winery which is directly on the water. For dinner, Trillium Cafe is a cute and cozy stop with outdoor tables right in the garden and signature picnic boxes to go. Then, spend the night at JD House—which is part of the local hospitality group, Blue Door Inns. This B&B is the epitome of cozy seaside charm and modeled after an architectural design resembling a captain’s quarters, with views of the ocean and emulating a feeling of authentic Mendocino history.

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Bodega Bay

Those who are feeling particularly adventurous can embark on a journey with Wine Country Trekking–but those who prefer to relax and remain in the village the entire visit can explore the bustling downtown area. Dive into a Dungeness crab sandwich and chowder at Spud Point Crab Company (don’t forget to ask for the oyster crackers and Tobasco) followed by a stroll along the Kortum Trail, which hugs the coastline for a flat walk up to nine miles of purely uninterrupted ocean views. Doran Beach is a family-friendly beach with a wide beach area that is great for pets, water sports, and barbecue activities. For sunset, head to Bodega Head, which has been fittingly nicknamed “Heaven on Earth” for its views, followed by dinner at Terrapin Creek which serves delicious California cuisine. Finally, retire to the Bodega Bay Inn for an evening of relaxation. It is located directly above Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and well within walking distance of the local assortment of restaurants and galleries.

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Those seeking a getaway to a beautiful and quiet, upscale community will revel in a trip to Montecito, which is nestled into California’s Central Coast just south of Santa Barbara. It’s one of the prettiest beach towns in California, boasting sunny weather and mild temperatures year-round. Explore a range of fun activities like ritzy shops and restaurants with five-star service along Coast Village Road. Visit Butterfly Beach, which has a unique geographical orientation allowing visitors to see both the sunrise and sunset along its soft sands. Spend the night at an appropriately posh hotel like Rosewood Miramar Beach, which just opened a new on-site restaurant, AMA Sushi, serving one of the finest sushi experiences around at this idyllic seaside retreat. It’s no surprise this upper-class enclave is the spot for celebs, Oprah has a second home in Montecito and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle currently reside here with their family.

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Capitola Village by the Sea is known as one of the oldest and most historic vacation retreats on the California Coast. Wake up to a peaceful beach-town atmosphere, and start the morning with a pastry from beloved Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, which has been pleasing locals and visitors. They’ve been creating amazingly fresh baked treats for more than 40 years. A day at the beach and an adventure to ogle at the extremely photogenic Capitola Venetian Hotel houses are a favorite pastime. Then, enjoy a happy hour cocktail or dinner at the romantic and historic Shadowbrook Restaurant, which has been open since 1947 and is best reached by using its unique hillside “Cable Car.” Retire for the evening at Capitola Hotel, a quaint 10-room boutique hotel located in the heart of the Capitola Village. Each room is uniquely decorated, and it’s the ideal location to explore any attraction in the village on foot.

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Carmel-by-the-Sea is an idyllic fairy-tale town and European-style village on the Central Coast and, shockingly, is only one square mile in size. Here, visitors will find more than 50 culinary options to choose from, which is more restaurants per capita than any other city in the U.S. The walkable cobblestone streets host more than 100 art galleries, boutiques, and studios. Visitors can explore each 41 of the secret passageways, courtyards, and gardens before ending the day watching the sun slip behind the water at the dog-friendly white sands of Carmel Beach. Then, retire to one of the 42 luxurious and cozy boutique inns. A special choice would be the La Playa Carmel. This romantic, sophisticated beach mansion-style retreat property was built back in 1905 by a member of the wealthy Ghirardelli family to give as a gift to his wife and it has endured the test of time ever since.

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One of the most classic activities to enjoy in the Central Coast’s Cambria village is a stroll along the idyllic MoonstoneBeach boardwalk before hunting for real moonstones on the shores, of course. Those who are feeling even more adventurous can embark on a trail ride through a beautiful forest on a Clydesdale horse, or hike at the nearby Fiscalini Preserve. Taste wine at Stolo Vineyard in a beautiful meadow setting amongst the vines before enjoying dinner at Robin’s, which features a selection of handcrafted comfort cuisine dishes made with locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients. Finish off the evening with dessert at Linn’s for a slice of their famous olallieberry pie, and spend an evening at White Water. This property is this coastal town’s newest and most trendy, beachy bohemian-themed inn. It’s located just steps from the sands of Moonstone Beach and well within walking distance from the downtown village area.

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North County San Diego’s hidden gem of a city, Oceanside, is an affordable, relaxed, and fun spot to spend time on California’s coast. Stop into a local coffee shop like Camp Coffee Company and take it to the Oceanside Pier to watch the surfers catch a wave. Check out one of the dozen breweries in a town like Craft Coast Brewing which is just steps from the beach, or step into the California Surf Museum to learn about the history of this fascinating sport and gaze at an impressive collection of historic memorabilia. There are multiple new upscale hotels in town, like The Mission Pacific Hotel and The Seabird Resort across from the beach—as well as recently renovated favorites like The Green Room. This California coastal town boasts a major public transit hub that traditionally serves both Amtrak and Metrolink train options for those who’d rather ride the rails into town.

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Oxnard is an under-the-radar gem that’s more affordable and quieter than a beach town than its more exclusive neighbor of Malibu—and boasts a range of fun activities for visitors to enjoy. Foodies can rejoice on an adventure through the Oxnard Taco Trail, featuring 15 locations to dive into a near-unmatched selection of tasty taco choices. Be sure to check out the new, 40-foot wide, vintage postcard aesthetic mural at the Oxnard Transit Hub, which pays homage to the little details that make Oxnard special within its intricate design. Stroll through Downtown Oxnard, a convenient, walkable, area boasting a range of specialty shops, including more than 40 international restaurants—with a wealth of historical landmarks and beautiful sights to explore. Spend the night at California’s only all-suite oceanfront resort Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach, the epitome of barefoot luxury accommodations sitting on the sugary sands of Oxnard.  

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San Clemente

Start the day with a coffee from local favorite Bear Roast Coffee before a walk on the 0.25-mile San Clemente Pier, which has been rebuilt twice since storms damaged its structural integrity after its original construction in 1928. Today’s modern-day pier is a perfect place for surfing and sunset viewing. Next, walk to the eclectic boutique shops along Avenida Del Mar, which is the main downtown shopping village district of San Clemente. Grab a bite to eat at Cafe Calypso, which is hidden within a sunny Spanish-style courtyard that was formerly home to the San Clemente Hotel, serving up healthy and light California fare. Spend the night at Casa Tropicana Boutique Beachfront Hotel which offers views of the ocean and the pier and is within walking distance from San Clemente’s most beloved sightseeing spots.

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La Jolla

The name “La Jolla” has been traced back to loosely translated “the jewel,” which is certainly true of this sparklingly beautiful seaside city just north of San Diego. From kayaking the sea caves, visiting the seals, or exploring the beaches and trails at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve–it’s an outdoorsy atmosphere all around. Even the restaurants play into making the most of the natural beauty of this SoCal destination’s sunny environment–George’s at the Cove is a classic outdoor stop for brunch, lunch, or cocktails with an iconic view offering multiple levels of dining space. Wind down with a relaxing night at Pantai Inn, a Balinese-inspired boutique resort where more than half the 29 rooms feature seaside views and a laid-back beachy but luxe vibe. The hotel’s pedestrian walkway connects the property straight into the village, perfect for setting as a home base.

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Coronado Island

Just off the coast of Southern California’s San Diego is Coronado Island, bursting with timeless charm and history. Stroll downtown along the boutiques of Orange Avenue for unparalleled window-shopping and people-watching opportunities. Next, embark on a private, romantic gondola ride through the magical canals of Coronado with The Gondola Company to feel transported abroad. End the evening with a trip to the iconic beach at Hotel del Coronado to indulge in a personalized gourmet beach bonfire session with ROAST–a cozy, family-friendly gourmet s’mores-making experience. Finally, retire for the evening to one of the local luxury hospitality properties, such as the upscale Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa, famous for its living and breathing bright pink resort resident flamingos. The island is extremely bikeable, there are endless opportunities for seaside adventures on this quaint island paradise.

Roustabout November 2, 2022

I've been to all 12. You missed Laguna Beach, my favorite.