This article will give you insight into the beloved piers on the Californian coast!
Turns out I am a pier lover. I am not sure how or when this fascination began. Maybe it is a facet of life that gets developed after living near Southern California beaches for a long time.
When suggesting a new place to visit, my husband often asks, “What do you want to see there?”
I have blurted more than a couple of times, “I want to check the pier.” My answer hasn’t been persuasive enough since I use to get a disbelief look with an underlying question associated with it, “Haven’t we been to about 100 piers already?”
And of course, the use of the word ‘pier’ has a profound connotation. Close to these landmarks you can get the feel of a city’s vibe. Piers are associated with beaches, boardwalks, food, surfers, festivals, interesting characters, and sunsets. The structure is the frame that binds together a lot of elements that define a particular city.
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Piers in California
Piers for recreational purposes are deeply ingrained in the California way of life. It is hard to find a comprehensive list but it looks like the majority of these structures in the United States are in California.
Not all piers had a start with public recreation in mind. A lot of them were designed as working structures or wharves (where boats dock). Many of them still have multiple purposes.
In addition, there are discrepancies on how to list or classify these structures. Factors taken into consideration can include length, building material (concrete, wood, rocky path), ownership (public, private), height (raised over pillars, close to water level), use (fishing, boat docking) and location.
As you see, this is not such a vanilla topic. It can get very interesting. That is why I decided to compile a list of the piers I have visited. To spice things up, I have added interesting facts here and there. I am sure this will come out as a fun, educational reference.
Without further ado, here is a list of some of California’s best-known icons.
Piers in Northern California
Everybody seems to have an opinion on what is considered Northern, Central and Southern California. I have divided this article into two major sections: Northern California and Southern California.
In here, Northern California is everything north of Santa Barbara County.
This is a city of many piers (in this case, wood structures almost at the water level). Around the Embarcadero area, there are 45 numbered piers. Past those, there are other famous landmarks like the Hyde Street Pier and the Municipal Pier.
Needless to say, I am confused about how many of these I have visited. I know I have been to Pier 1 (behind the Ferry Market Building), Pier 7 (popular for fishing), Pier 33 (from where ferries to Alcatraz depart), Pier 39 (famous for its resident sea lions) and Pier 45 (home of a submarine and ship).
The Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf is the longest wooden pier in California and the longest over the Pacific Ocean (but there are longer concrete piers in the San Francisco Bay).
The Wharf is lined with restaurants, gift shops, sea lions (be careful, they bite) and fishermen. Once in there, do not forget to check out the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Amusement Park.
Frederick A. Hihn, a German immigrant, acquired an area known as Soquel Landing and paid for the first wharf in 1857. The wharf was supposed to serve as an outlet for produce and lumber from the interior.
Today, the wharf is used for fishing, boat renting and other recreational activities. Remember to pay a visit to “The Venetians,” one of Capitola’s symbols.
Ok, this is where things get whacky. Don’t believe me? The Seacliff Pier located in the town of Aptos in Santa Cruz County has a concrete ship at the end. The ship was hauled, sank and turned into an amusement center in 1929. With time, the company operating the center went into bankruptcy.
Nowadays, the S.S. Palo Alto (that is the name of the ship) is in total disrepair and it is home to seabirds and marine mammals. This bizarre (and gross) sight is an interesting stop if you are driving along the coast in the area.
Seacliff State Beach and the S.S. Palo Alto
George Hearst, in partnership with whalers, built a wharf in the San Simeon Bay so sailing ships could tie up and load and unload goods.
The whaling industry started to die in the late 1800s. However, in the 1900s, the bay received shipments from all over the world to build and decorate Hearst’s Castle (the hilltop estate directly across the bay commissioned by William Randolph Hearst, George’s son).
Today, the bay and the pier (wharf) are part of the William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach (Hearst’s descendants donated the coastal property to the San Luis Obispo County).
I am guessing you have no idea where this town is located. Cayucos is located 5 miles north of Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County (roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco).
Don’t sub estimate the small size of this town. This place is home of the Brown Butter Cookie Company (where they bake sea salt cookies) and Ruddell’s Smokehouse (famous for its delicious fish dishes).
And yes, there is a pier from where you can appreciate the view of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Morro Rock not that far away (it looks tiny from this point even though it is huge). What else can we love about this place? Talkative locals, miles of beaches and free beachfront parking.
Avila Beach – Hartford Pier
This pier, located at the end of Avila Drive, is a working one. As a consequence, you are going to see several people working on their boats, cleaning fish, selling oysters, etc. Cars can drive over the pier, hence be careful when walking around.
There is another restaurant at the end of the pier (good clam chowder!). Certain platforms under the structure are filled with sea lions. Get a little closer to take a good look at them. Notice I said get a little close, not too close. These seemingly innocent creatures bite. So, be careful!
The interesting thing about the Avila Beach Pier is that there are stairs that take you underneath the structure. It is the first time I see something like this. When we visited the town, the temperature was in the 90s. Now, none of that was felt under the pier.
From this pier, you will get views of the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly SLO) Pier, part of the university’s marine research program and not publicly accessible.
Pismo is one of my favorite towns along the California Coast. I love the pier, and the views you get from it, but I also love the clam chowder shacks and the delicious cinnamon rolls sold at Old West. I try to visit at least once a year.
Piers in Southern California
This section tells you all about the piers located in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
Gaviota State Beach
A pier, surrounded by scenic vistas, can be seen at Gaviota Beach (part of the Gaviota State Park). This is an area full of cliffs and rock formations. If you are into exploration mode, I suggest you stop by.
Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County
This 1,500-foot structure is located in the Goleta Beach Park. Boats can be launched from the pier on weekends and holidays.
The Sterns Wharf (it is named after its builder) is Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark. As a working wharf, it has seen its share of natural and economic disasters (fires, earthquakes).
Today, the pier also houses a Sea Center, restaurants, ice cream shops, a water taxi station and a cruise company. This is the place to have fun near the water.
This is one of the oldest and longest piers in California. It has an odd opening at the tip from where sea creatures can be observed (I saw starfish stuck to the pillars).
We were visiting friends in Oxnard and went to the pier for a walk after lunch. If it weren’t for friends, I am not sure if I would have found this place. The area is nice and there are good facilities. Our friends mentioned there are good biking opportunities around. I have to go back with an exploration mindset.
Paradise Cove Pier
This pier, located in Malibu, has been surrounded by controversy many times.
The owners of Paradise Cove Cafe (and the surrounding property) have been caught charging $40 to park and $20 to walk-in. Well, according to law, all of the state’s coastline is public. Therefore, private entities cannot restrict access to the coast.
After the intervention of authorities, a path allows the public to the water. You will still get charged if you park at the property. But, if you park at the Pacific Coast Highway and walk, you will be able to walk without getting charged. This is a really beautiful area and I recommend paying it a visit if you can.
The setting of this pier is breathtaking. From here, you can have an uninterrupted view of the Santa Monica Mountains. It is always fun to watch the many surfers riding the breaks of Surfrider Beach.
And let not forget about the many birds (it can be hundreds) congregating at the mouth of the Malibu Creek a few meters away. This is everything you expect about California’s beach towns and much more.
This is the mammoth of Los Angeles County. It has restaurants, souvenir shops, an aquarium, a parking lot and an entire amusement park. Even Cirque du Soleil shows are presented here.
What else can I say? This is a destination in itself. It is world famous. It has been declared the end of renowned Route 66. It is a 100-year-old landmark and has been featured in countless movies, TV programs, and videos. You cannot leave Los Angeles without checking it out.
If you feel like you have had enough of the pier, walk a couple of blocks and explore Tongva Park, Santa Monica Place, and the Third Street Promenade.
Fact: Santa Monica’s Ferris wheel is the only solar-powered on the planet.
I don’t know how to say this but this is not the most polished pier you are going to find. But this is Venice Beach. The dirtiest (and smelliest), the better. Everything has to fit with the character of this neighborhood.
This is not my favorite place in Los Angeles but visit if you want to have an encounter with some of the wackiest personalities in the city.
Venice Beach Graffiti, Murals and Street Art
Many consider this pier the prettiest in Los Angeles County (even Sunset magazine says so in this issue). I believe this is the first pier I set foot on and it is still one of my favorites.
The main attraction here is the two-story Roundhouse which houses a café and aquarium.
Fact: Manhattan Beach has hosted the Manhattan Beach Open for more than 50 years. The tournament has defined the beach volleyball sport. Winners of the tournament are memorialized with bronze volleyball-shaped plaques in the “Volleyball Walk of Fame” which spans the length of the pier.
I am not a particular fan of this pier. However, I visit often since my husband and I do the pier to pier walk (Manhattan Beach to Hermosa Beach) several times a month.
The interesting thing is that this city hosts a lot of events in the area surrounding the pier (the biggest of them being Fiesta Hermosa). During those times, the most popular thing to do is to browse the vendor booths, grab something to eat and head to the beach. This is also a good point to watch the sailboats coming from the Redondo Beach marinas.
This is my home city’s pier! This is the only pier in California shaped like a horseshoe. It also has sail-like ornaments that seem to take flight during dawn or sunset hours.
The pier is frequented by a group of pelicans eager to catch or steal a piece of fish from the families gathering to throw some rods into the ocean. They do not seem to be afraid of humans and stand still even when surrounded by crowds.
Redondo Beach Pier: What to Do, See and Eat
San Pedro – Cabrillo Beach
I assume not a lot of people know about this spot. This pier is protected by the Port of Los Angeles seawall and it is the best point (from land) to take a look at the famous Angel Gate Lighthouse, which has been directing ships to the port for more than 100 years.
Rainbow Harbor – Long Beach
There are several small piers located in the Rainbow Harbor area.
Long Beach – Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier
This pier is located in an area of Long Beach known as Belmont Heights. In the early 1900s, the residents of the neighborhood asked the city to build a pier on its shores. The city refused. Therefore, the residents decided to form their own city (taxes also had to do with the decision).
Eventually, the area rejoined Long Beach and a pier was built. In 2001, the pier was renamed Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier to honor Long Beach area veterans. It is interesting to notice that this pier is a stop in Long Beach’s water taxi system (Aqua-Link).
Not a lot of people have visited this treasure located only 22 miles south-west of Los Angeles. When you arrive at the island, the boat docks at Avalon’s Green Pier (the buildings are painted green).
From here, you can enjoy the views of Avalon Bay, the famous casino and the mountain range that forms the backbone of the island. I recommend a visit (not only because of the pier). This is a place too beautiful to describe.
Seal Beach is located in the northernmost part of Orange County (adjacent to Long Beach). You may wonder about the attractions in this small town. To be honest, there are not a lot of attractions here. This town is all about relaxing and getting a taste of Old California.
However, that doesn’t cancel the fact that this is one of the prettiest and coziest towns in the California coastline. Come here to explore the unique stores and enjoy the seafood.
The pier is the icing on the cake. The ‘it’ thing in here is to stroll the wooden structure during sunset. Ohh, and don’t forget to be alert for a possible encounter with the creatures who give the town its name.
This pier is in the blood of ‘Surf City USA.’ This is the place where beach culture reaches its apogee in Southern California.
This pier is quite long. The Beach Headquarters tower and a rounded structure housing Ruby’s Dinner (great burgers and shakes) gives the structure its unmistakable silhouette. The pier gets a lot of attention during Surf City Nights (held every Tuesday) and the U.S. Surf Open.
Fact: There is a discrepancy on what city in California has more piers (structures raised over pillars). Some say Avila Beach wins with three. However, the city of San Diego has more if we include its neighborhood of La Jolla (the ones here tend to be counted separately).
If we want to talk about quintessential Californian beach towns, it is almost impossible not to include Newport Beach in the conversation. This notorious city is famous for its million dollar houses, charming islands, and posh resorts. If you visit the pier area, don’t forget to eat clam chowder at The Crab Cooker (it is within walking distance of the pier).
Surprise! Surprise! There is a second pier in Newport Beach.
This one is located almost at the end of the Balboa Peninsula and it is particularly famous for being the site where the first Ruby’s Diner (famous California eatery) was opened. The area around this pier is where most of the action concentrates. For a fun day, play in the Balboa Fun zone, walk or bike the Boardwalk, take the ferry to Balboa Island, eat a Balboa Bar (ice cream) and watch the sunset from the pier.
This is a city not to miss. The pier has indoor/outdoor restaurant dining with affordable prices by pier standards and views that are among the best on the coast (you can see the Dana Point Headlands from here).
There is an Amtrak station at the beginning of the pier. That means you can hop to other beautiful coastal towns (preferably in Northern San Diego County) on a whim.
This city received me with gray skies and rough seas. At least, I was able to take a look at the pier which by the way it is pretty charming. I plan to visit again during a northern San Diego beach towns hopping tour.
Pacific Beach – Crystal Pier
Did you know you can sleep on one California pier? The Crystal Pier in San Diego features vacation cottages. They are to get so if you are interested in the experience, book far in advance.
You can take a look (and dream) even if you are not staying. Visitors walk through the cottages to access the pier.
Ocean Beach is to San Diego what Venice Beach is to Los Angeles. This is the place to go for people watching and observing all sorts of wild behavior.
If you stop, for one thing, do it for the pier, the longest concrete structure on the West Coast. You are guaranteed to leave the place with plenty of impressive pictures!
Coronado is home to the famous Hotel del Coronado.
I still need to visit the famous hotel but I have felt the thrill of driving the Coronado Bridge and taking a good look at San Diego’s skyline from the city beaches.
The area known as Ferry Landing has a pier from where ferries depart/arrive to/from Downtown San Diego. The area also has a collection of shops, art galleries, fine restaurants and casual eateries.
Wow, this ended up being quite a list! At this point, I am pretty sure you are convinced of my love for piers in California.
Add these to your bucket list and start exploring the beautiful beaches in the state!
More of Southern California
Find out how to spend one fun-filled day in Los Angeles
Get inspiration by reading my Los Angeles Ultimate Bucket List
20 Reasons to Love Los Angeles
Ultimate San Diego Bucket List
150+ Places to Go in Orange County
Orange County Beach Towns
What piers in California have you visited? Which other ones should I visit?
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