So, you’ve landed at LAX, ready to hit the beach for some of Southern California’s famous sun and fun, but there’s one problem — which beach is the perfect one for you? We’ve taken the guesswork out of choosing, so check out our choices here, then jump into your rental car (preferably a convertible, of course) and hit the Pacific Coast Highway to find your personal paradise, California style.
The following beaches are listed from north to south, with LAX located between Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey and Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey. Note that dogs are not allowed on most SoCal beaches in Los Angeles, so plan to leave Fido at your hotel if he is along for the trip.
Point Mugu State Park
Located at the northernmost point of Malibu, Point Mugu is one of the wilder beaches in Southern California, with five miles of shoreline. Campsites for tents and RVs are found just across from the beach at Sycamore Canyon Campground, but you’ll need reservations well ahead of your visit. Swimming, body surfing and surf fishing are popular pastimes at Point Mugu.
El Matador State Beach
If photography is your passion, then El Matador is the Malibu spot for you. Breathtaking rock formations dot this stretch of beach with steep stairs leading down to the arches and caves that make this lesser-known beach such a photogenic and special spot.
One of Malibu’s widest beaches, Zuma attracts all sorts of beachgoers, from volleyball players to sunbathers, surfers and even a few hardy souls trying to catch a fish or two. With plenty of parking and space galore, Zuma Beach is a local favorite on the Malibu scene.
Point Dume State Beach
Beautiful Point Dume, with its bluffs, trails and legendary surf breaks, is a spot that is worth the long drive — just ask Barbra Streisand, whose mansion is visible up on the promontory bluff that marks the point. Scuba divers like the protection of the cove here as a spot to walk into the surf, while nature lovers adore hanging out on the bluffs during whale-watching season (December to April), when humpbacks and grey whales move majestically past. There are often dolphins frolicking in the waves here, too, all year round.
Malibu Pier and Surfrider Beach
There’s nothing quite like riding a wave at Surfrider Beach, right next to the Malibu Pier, where surfers can catch a wave that can carry them over 300 yards. But the recently restored pier (it was originally built in 1905) is more than simply a place to hang ten; it’s also a historic spot that boasts delicious restaurants serving world-class seafood.
Topanga Beach is another well-known surfing beach in Malibu with a key difference. It is a south-facing beach, rather than a west-facing one, that comes to a point, giving it a special break that goes for a long way. Be sure to stop in for a bite at the Reel Inn, a casual seafood shack right across PCH from the beach, where fresh-caught delights have been served since the 1970s.
Will Rogers State Beach Santa Monica
With wide swathes of sand and plenty of beach volleyball courts, Will Rogers State Beach is one of Santa Monica’s most popular spots for sports. Easy parking (usually $8 during peak summer season) allows visitors to step right from their car onto the sand, at spots where some of the coastline’s best swimming is to be had. Rent bicycles here and take a ride to the south along the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, also known as “The Strand,” which begins here at State Beach and meanders for 22 miles all the way to Redondo Beach. Ride as much or as little as your mood strikes, perhaps with a stop at a beachfront eatery along the way.
Santa Monica Pier and Beach
There’s plenty to do at the Santa Monica Pier that has nothing to do with the beach volleyball that’s always played nearby or with the surfers, swimmers and stand-up paddleboarders who take to the water there every day. The 108-year-old pier features restaurants, a famous carousel, an aquarium, a trapeze school and Pacific Park, the amusement park with its iconic Ferris wheel and other exciting rides. There’s even an old-fashioned Playland Arcade with games like Skeeball, Air Hockey and much more.
Venice Beach and Boardwalk
For sheer, people-watching fun, there is nothing quite like Venice Beach for a crazy spectacle. One of the only places in SoCal where you’ll see shops right along the beachfront, Venice is always packed with tourists, street performers, bikini-clad rollerbladers and cyclists, homeless denizens, shoppers and hustlers. It’s a wild scene that’s always in motion, so take it in from the safety of a sidewalk café like On the Waterfront, where ice-cold beer and Swiss specialties have kept locals coming back for more than 20 years. Get a good table early and your perfect sunset view is guaranteed.
Mother’s Beach, Marina del Rey
The protected cove of Mother’s Beach makes for a terrific spot for families to enjoy a bit of sand and sun without the worry of the open ocean. Head into the marina to find this happy spot where little kids frolic in a sand playground complete with slides and monkey bars, and barbecue grills and covered picnic tables draw large gatherings of friends and families. There is almost always a friendly volleyball game happening in the sand, too. You’ll find Mother’s Beach right behind The Cheesecake Factory restaurant off Admiralty Way in D Basin. But we suggest a trip to Killer Shrimp nearby, where the delicious food and welcoming atmosphere combine into a delightful time spent in the marina.
Dockweiler Beach, Playa del Rey
Located literally under the flight path out of LAX, Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey is the closest beach to the airport. Simply get on Imperial Highway and head west and the road will dead end at the parking lot for Dockweiler. It’s an extremely popular spot in the summer months, being the only place in Los Angeles where visitors can light campfires in the sand. There are numerous permanent fire pits on the beach, for cooking and/or just enjoying the warmth after sundown. You’ll find hang-gliding classes on offer here and an RV park right at the edge of the sand.
One of Southern California’s most beautiful coastal communities, Manhattan Beach is also the acknowledged birthplace of beach volleyball. That’s why the Volleyball Walk of Fame is located on the pier in that famed city; and why virtually every day there are row after row of nets set up along the beach there. Surfers get their share of glory, too, as the pier breaks are also well known to those who prefer getting wet to having sand between their toes. Take in the sunset from The Strand House, just steps up the hill from the pier, where incredible ocean views pair with craft cocktails. Try “The Layover,” especially if you’re spending your LAX layover at this beautiful beach.
A funkier, more laid-back beach than Manhattan, its neighbor to the north, Hermosa Beach is a relaxed hangout for beach lovers without a care in the world. With sunny weather just about all year round, plenty of terrific restaurants right on the pier’s walk-only promenade and a lively sports scene that encompasses surfing, skating, biking, boogie boarding and beach volleyball, Hermosa is a perfect place to while away a day at the beach. When evening comes, check out the famed Comedy & Magic Club just off the pier, where top Hollywood comedians are often found trying out their latest routines.
Redondo Beach is a place where there’s much more than sand and sun. King Harbor, found right in the heart of Redondo Beach, has numerous ways to get out onto the water, ranging from renting small sailboats or stand-up paddleboards to taking a cruise on a glass-bottom boat (watch for seals and sea lions, they are everywhere in Redondo Beach) or heading out on a whale-watching boat. The Redondo Pier is a cornucopia of culinary delights, from Tony’s on the Pier, the venerable joint known for its Bloody Mary cocktails to Captain Kidd’s Fish Market and Restaurant nearby with their mind-bogglingly good chowders — and many more delicious options to try, too.
Long Beach is the home of the massive Port of Los Angeles, which isn’t exactly gorgeous. But there’s also plenty of sand, sun and enjoyment to be had in this welcoming community. There are often music festivals happening in the huge Rainbow Lagoon Park just steps from the sand along Shoreline Drive and the annual FIVB World Series of Beach Volleyball (usually held in July) brings out huge crowds to the sand. On quieter days, the beach is usually the refuge of SUP paddlers, kayakers and joggers, who love the flat, hard-packed sand found here.
There’s a reason that Huntington Beach is nicknamed “Surf City USA” and it isn’t only because the Beach Boys dubbed it that in the 1960s. With its 10-mile coast and five distinct beaches, each sporting a different surf break, Huntington Beach has just the right wave for any surfer’s skill level. Sure, there’s also whale-watching boats to enjoy, a bike path to cycle and even spots to let your dog run free (the no-dog laws are more lenient now that you are in Orange County), but this really is a surfing town. After all, it is the home of the US Open of Surfing every summer and the International Surfing Museum.
Newport Beach is one of Southern California’s top beach addresses, the playground of celebrities (think everyone from John Wayne to Emma Stone, Tiger Woods to Dennis Rodman) and those who simply love a beautiful beach setting. There are famous surf breaks (The Wedge is not to be missed), yacht clubs, shopping areas and restaurants, as well as Balboa Island, the quaint little place that will make you feel as if you’ve stepped back into a long-forgotten time of childhood memory.
Once a sleepy little artist’s community by the sea, Laguna Beach today is one of the West Coast’s most exciting art enclaves, a gorgeous seaside city filled with fascinating galleries and breathtaking architecture. Naturally, it also has all the best qualities of a SoCal beach town — beautiful sand, protected coves just perfect for safe swimming, hiking trails — and fine dining, stylish boutiques and a peaceful vibe that truly sets it apart from all others.
By Jenny Peters