Southern California Beaches

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Malibu is the “brand name” beach community of LA County, world-famous for:

  • Gidget and Elvis beach movies of the 50’s and 60’s as well as home to the fictitious address in the popular, current TV series “Two and a Half Men”
  • As a surfing destination
  • As a location of celebrity beach homes
  • As the name of a Chevy car
  • And, as a word found on T-shirts sold around the world.

Malibu has a single bus line along Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) which connects to Santa Monica and to a bus transfer center in mid-Los Angeles at Fairfax Ave. & Washington Blvd. The bus to Malibu runs less frequently than most of the buses to Santa Monica or Venice. Malibu is a very elongated community with beaches, stores, and restaurants strung out along the road. Thus the bus to Malibu works acceptably for going to a single beach, but not so well for going to more than one part of the community.

It is north (and west) of Santa Monica, beyond the sleepy, narrow beaches of Pacific Palisades, and is on the outer edge of the major urban area of LA.

If you are imagining a gorgeous French-Riviera-like Eden with celebs visible everywhere, or by contrast, a tranquil seaside retreat, you may be in for a disappointment on both counts. Most of Malibu’s coastline is a narrow stretch of beach (some of it, private, with no public access and, in many cases, not visible to the public), running parallel to the multi-lane, high-traffic Pacific Coast Highway, affectionately referred to as the PCH, a 4 lane highway through the area. Because it is only major east/west road in the city, it can be very crowded during certain times of the day. The beaches are beautiful, windswept, boulder strewn, and natural. On the inland side of PCH (away from the beach) are the Santa Monica mountains, where there are many hiking trails of all levels, some residential neighborhoods, cliffs, canyons and mountain views of the Pacific Ocean.

As you head west, the cliffs soften to hills (also covered in houses) and you approach Malibu Canyon Road, with Pepperdine University visible above. This area is the town center of Malibu, on Cross Creek Road, in a few tiny shopping centers on the inland side of the PCH. If you are of the star-struck persuasion, this is a good place to park, walk, grab a latte, and look for those stars and celebs. You’re as likely to be lucky here as anywhere, as many stars do have homes in Malibu, and these are the local places to shop and eat. The homes get bigger, with gated estates, as you go west in Malibu. For the most part, you still can’t see the beach– though now at least you can imagine Barbra Streisand, etc, behind those lavish gates.

Heading much farther west in Malibu, views of the ocean increase, and there are some great beaches with excellent public access, at Zuma and Leo Carillo. It’s a good long drive to get there though– Malibu goes on for 28 miles.

There are few hotels/motels in Malibu. Malibu has little in the way of tourist infrastructure; there are vast stretches of PCH with no restaurants nor shops. Malibu as a day trip using a car from Santa Monica and Los Angeles is excellent, bring a picnic to enjoy at one of the state parks (Leo Carillo or Pt. Mugu are remote and beautiful).

Before you arrive in Santa Monica, you might note The Getty Villa sign. The villa is a beautiful venue to see some of the Getty treasures, but a reservation is required, so refer to their website for details.

Santa Monica

Santa Monica is one of LA’s most famous beach communities. It is a separate city of more than 80,000 on the far northwestern edge of Los Angeles. During summer weekends, the population can swell to one million people enjoying the seaside city. Santa Monica is an upscale city with a vibrant, urban character, and is the home of some of the most sophisticated restaurants, hotels and shopping in the LA area. There’s always something to see or do in Santa Monica, but you’ll be disappointed here if you were looking for a secluded seaside retreat. Santa Monica has some of the area’s most deluxe oceanfront hotels, but like almost all hotels in Santa Monica, they’re not cheap. As with most cities these days, there are homeless individuals in the downtown area. The core of the beach area here is a wide stretch of sand surrounding a pleasure pier with an historic, turn-of-the-century carousel, a small amusement park, arcade, small aquarium beneath the pier, and some restaurants, mostly seafood. The pier is fun, busy, with a diverse crowd.

A new addition to the downtown Santa Monica area is Tongva Park and the refurbished City Hall gardens and fountains. A fine place to stroll, excellent Pacific Ocean views, this park has a nice area for children that includes a fine water feature, so have the kids wear bathing suits.

There’s a bike path that runs along the edge of the beach, beginning at Will Rogers State Beach to Torrance, 22 miles long. The name is the Marvin Braude Bike Path for those who wish to research further online. Bike rentals are available at many places along the beach and renting a bike here is a great way to spend the day and see many of the beach communities. Santa Monica beach has many visitor amenities including the Annenberg Beach House – a public beach house with a pool, the original muscle beach near the pier, the original Hot Dog on a Stick, chair rentals, cafes with decent food and smoothies in nice seating areas with umbrellas. Restroom facilities are constantly being upgraded. Playgrounds dot all the beaches. Surfing lessons and yoga classes can be found at some places along the beach. Venice is just to the south of Santa Monica; parking in the South Santa Monica beach parking lots makes for an easy walk to Venice Beach.

Santa Monica is pedestrian friendly. There are several gathering places of note. Main Street has unique shops, some chain stores, and many bars and restaurants. There is a festive farmers market at Ocean Park and Main each Sunday morning with good prepared foods. Montana Avenue is upscale with shops and restaurants. One is more apt to spot a celebrity getting coffee or running errands here than anywhere else in town. 3rd Street Promenade and the Santa Monica mall in the downtown core have many shops of all price points on a festive street where no cars can drive. Although it isn’t “central” for visiting LA, it is as central as any beach area gets. And it is very close to both Getty Museums (the Villa and the Center). If you have a car for visiting the rest of LA, it is a great place to stay.

Santa Monica has good regional transit access and is served by multiple bus lines, including a bus from LAX and an express bus from Downtown Los Angeles. The city’s bus line is called the Big Blue Bus. There are HOHO buses that start from Santa Monica, run by Starline Tours. Being 7 miles from LAX means taxi fare is reasonable. Light Rail will be completed by 2016, which will connect Santa Monica with downtown LA.


Venice is the beach just to the south of Santa Monica, famous as funky beach area on Oceanfront Walk full of, ah, ” characters” and stalls of knock-off sunglasses, T-shirt, henna tattoos and other sundry items. The beach is bordered on by a 2 mile (3.2 km) walkway that serves pedestrians, bicyclists and skaters and skate boarders. The walk from central Santa Monica to central Venice takes about 40 minutes.

The two beaches blend together; there is no special spot that separates the two. Off the beach, Venice has a distinct edgy character, and unlike some areas marketed as “artists’ colonies” , Venice, doesn’t really advertise this fact, but has long been home to many world-famous contemporary artists who open their studios to tours once a year. Abbot Kinney Blvd. has some of LA’s trendiest restaurants. The Venice canals are lovely to stroll, hand in hand. Venice is an interesting place to visit, and has a very distinct personality, but is not the best base for a family vacation.

Venice has a number of regional bus lines serving it, including buses to Santa Monica and Westwood, Downtown LA and Culver City.

Marina del Rey

Marina del Rey has a relatively unknown beach called “Mother’s Beach” aka Basin D. It’s at the corner of Admiralty Way and Via Marina. The beach is a cove with two hotels (Foghorn Harbor Inn & the Jamaica Bay Inn) and 2 restaurants (the Cheesecake Factory & The Vu). The cove is off the inland waterway so there is little to no wave movement, here. The swimming area constitutes about 1/2 of the cove. The other half of the cove is enjoyed by windsurfers (sailboarders). Just beyond the swimming area is the start of the Marina so there will be hundreds of boats visible from the cove. Guests from the two adjacent hotels have balconies overlooking the beach and the restaurants have outdoor patio dining. There is a parking area at the corner of Admiralty Way & Via Marina for visitors to the cove. It’s a 1/2 mile .8 km) walk from Basin D to the ocean beach at Venice. Simply walk one block north on Via Marina to Washington Blvd, turn left and walk to the end of the road. There is also a number of dining options (in all price ranges) along the way. For visitors with a rental car who are looking for more budget accommodations near the beach, Marina del Rey is a fair option.

Playa del Rey

Immediately south of Marina del Rey is the isolated little beach village of Playa del Rey. Quiet, serene, with wide, white sand beaches, the little residential community is reminiscent of mid-century beach towns. A scattering of local dives, some pretty good restaurants, and a quiet beach front gives the area its slow paced flavor. It is surrounded by the newly restored Ballona Wetlands, which are a treasure of coastal wildlife on the Westside.

South Bay and Long Beach

The South Bay is generally recognized as beginning at Los Angeles International Airport, and moving south from there, including the south beach towns of Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Palos Verdes and Long Beach. Right out of a postcard of Southern California, they offer sand that stretches out of sight, clean water, beach volleyball, and beachfront paths for rollerblading, cycling and walking.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach is an affluent, independent city just south of LAX airport. The Downtown area of MB is a mix of trendy restaurants, family friendly dining, shops and is topped off by the MB Pier where you can watch volleyball and the surfers. There are mid-range luxury hotels and more budget friendly hotels on Pacific Coast Highway (also called Highway 1 & Sepulveda Blvd) near the two shopping centers, Manhattan Village and Manhattan Gateway. It is a quieter alternative from Santa Monica for families and couples, but on a smaller scale and not as easily walkable.

Hermosa Beach

Hermosa Beach is the beach community due south of and adjacent to Manhattan Beach. It can be hard to tell where one stops and the next starts. A beachfront sidewalk connects the cities and you can walk or rollerblade from the MB Pier to the HB Pier. Downtown HB is an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars and some shops, but hotels are limited in HB.

Redondo Beach

Redondo Beach is the next city down and features the King’s Harbor small craft harbor with a variety of restaurants, hotels and shops. One of Redondo’s biggest charms is also one of its biggest drawbacks, it doesn’t have easy, direct access to freeways, you have to drive 15-20 minutes for the nearest freeway. On the plus side, it is close to the giant Del Amo Fashion Center, one of California’s largest shopping malls.

Long Beach

Long Beach is an independent city — not part of the city of Los Angeles. It features the Queen Mary, the Carnival Cruise Lines docks, an aquarium, a city beach and an airport (where discount flights like Jet Blue arrive)

San Pedro / Wilmington

The official Port of Los Angeles where the commercial freight arrives for this region of the country. It is also the port for all pleasure cruises, except Carnival Cruise Lines, and whale-watching cruises. Cabrillo Marine Museum is here. There is a water-side shopping center of shops and restaurants.

Orange County Beaches

Further south are the beach communities of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and others