15 Most Charming Seaside Towns in California

The Golden State has so much more to offer than its star-studded cities.
Updated May 8, 2024
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California is best known for the stars of Hollywood, the glitz and glamor of Rodeo Drive, the sunny beaches of San Diego, and the tech hub in San Francisco.

But the Golden State has so much more to offer.

Want to see what California dreaming is really all about? Step up your travel game and check out these 15 charming seaside towns where you can escape the buzz of the city and relax in the warm, sun-kissed air.

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LeePhotos/Adobe Camel by the Sea Beach California

Carmel-by-the-Sea looks like a charming storybook village, and it offers something that most California cities can’t even dream of — walkability.

Spend the day strolling through this lovely European-inspired town, pop into shops and restaurants, and walk down to the beach just in time to catch the sunset.

Coronado Island

Stacie/Adobe buildings and hotels besides coronado dunes

If you want proximity to San Diego in a place with a more intimate, historic feel, head over to Coronado Island, which is just off the coast.

There is a vibrant downtown with boutique shopping, canals perfect for gondola rides, and the iconic Hotel del Coronado.


Lynn Yeh/Adobe Cannery Row in Monterey California

Monterey is just over 10 minutes up the road from Carmel-by-the-Sea, and it combines coastal charm with a lively beachfront atmosphere.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium draws many tourists to the area, but there is also shopping, dining, and wineries.

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Tomasz Zajda/Adobe Encinitas Beach in California

California is known for surfing, and it’s a place where old-school surf culture still thrives.

You will feel as if you have stepped back in time with the laid-back surf hippies of the 1960s.

San Clemente

Markus Mainka/Adobe pier and beach San Clemente California

San Clemente is a sparkling So-Cal town filled with Spanish Colonial-style architecture.

But there is also an emphasis on skating and surfing, and this is the place to take a lesson if you have ever wanted to learn. Make sure you check out the famed San Clemente Pier.


Lux Blue/Adobe residential neighborhood in Capitola california

Just outside of Santa Cruz is Capitola, a town known for its colorful buildings and lively beaches that invite live music, movies, and art.

This is the perfect place when you want a day trip out of the city with a lot of activities to keep you busy.

Morro Bay

Reagan/Adobe ships in Morro Bay

For an experience that combines the impressive force of nature with a small-town feel, head to Morro Bay.

Named for Morro Rock — a now-extinct volcanic peak — Morro Bay has shops, restaurants, and beaches all set against the backdrop of this looming volcano.

Fort Bragg

pikappa51/Adobe rocky beach Fort Bragg California

Fort Bragg is one of the best seaside town destinations for those who enjoy the outdoors.

The Fort Bragg Coastal Trail is an incredible way to see the area, but you can also go horseback riding, take a sea cave tour, or go kayaking.

When you need to chill out for a bit, visit the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.


Michal/Adobe Shark Fin Cove Santa Cruz County

Davenport is a quaint town, but it’s popular with those who come to stand in awe of its natural beauty.

The beaches have an astounding amount of sea glass, and wildflowers cover the rock formations high above the Pacific Ocean.

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Mendocino Village

rebecca/Adobe Mendocino during day time

The rugged, hilly cliffs of Mendocino Village contrast with historic Victorian architecture, and this seaside town is beloved for its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

The charming downtown is filled with boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries.


Naya Na/Adobe Samoa Bridge over Arcata Bay California

Arcata is a former logging town that became a favorite of hippies in the 1960s, and it still maintains its peaceful, environmentally friendly focus.

One of the most popular attractions in the area is Mad River Beach County Park, where the river meets the ocean and outdoor lovers convene.


Wayn/Adobe Boardwalk in Cambria California

Moonstone Beach is a name that tells you a place is going to be magical, and this spot in Cambria lives up to that promise. It is filled with gemstones that people come from all over to collect.

Enjoy the elephant seals that hang out at Piedras Blancas and the zebras that roam through the hills surrounding the Hearst Castle.


gnagel/Adobe Channel Islands Harbor Oxnard California

Located between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Oxnard is popular with those looking to escape the bright lights of the big city without giving up the vibrant culture.

You will find the same level of entertainment in music and theater as in a bigger place but on a smaller scale. And it all comes with the backdrop of a stunning natural landscape and the ideal access point for visiting the Channel Islands National Park.


nigelfrench/Adobe Carpinteria California with sandy dunes

Escape the hubbub of Los Angeles to find the charming seaside town of Carpinteria. This quiet beach town brings surfers to its well-known Rincon Beach, while Linden Avenue is where you can find shops and cafes.

The area is perhaps best known for its natural oddity, Tar Pit Park. At this beach, sludge emerges from the earth and hardens into asphalt.


Michaelah Malmen/Wirestock Creators/Adobe pier Cayucos California usa

Combine the allure of the Old West with the beauty of the ocean, and you get the charming seaside town of Cayucos.

There are just as many antique shops as there are surf shops, and this town is a favorite of anglers, surfers, and art enthusiasts alike.

Bottom line

Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Adobe couple walking Baker beach San Francisco

If you want to hit multiple small California seaside towns in one trip, consider a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. It takes you on a scenic route all the way up the coast, and you can stop off at small towns along the way.

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Heather Bien Heather Bien is a writer covering personal finance and budgeting and how those relate to life, travel, entertaining, and more. With bylines that include The Spruce, Apartment Therapy, and mindbodygreen, she's covered everything from tax tips for freelancers to budgeting hacks to how to get the highest ROI out of your home renovations.

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