In this article, we explore the best (and most fun) Orange County’s Beach Towns!
Orange County is blessed with 42 miles of coastline. That number may not sound impressive but, let me assure you, those 42 miles can keep you busy for days (if not for months).
Theme parks (Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm), extensive shopping opportunities (South Coast Plaza, Fashion Island), and history (Nixon’s Presidential Library in Yorba Linda) seem to obscure the county’s beaches. In some way, this is understandable due to its location between Southern California’s giants (Los Angeles and San Diego).
However, at close inspection, the county beaches are impregnated with a cheerful vibe that can help you understand the love affair between Californians and the sea. The wide array of activities and events keep people visiting the coast all year long.
Orange County’s Beach Towns
In this article, I intend to give you an idea of the best Orange County’s Beach Towns have to offer.
Let’s go from North to South.
Seal Beach hasn’t been overtaken by commercialism and crowds. This is a place to walk, visit some fun stores, have a good meal, and spend a couple of hours at the beach. People are not going to be bumping into you and you are going to feel like you have the entire place to yourself.
Get close to the action: Main Street in Old Town is the place where most businesses are located. The pier is located at the terminus of the street.
Ideas for a fun day: You can start the day browsing the attention-grabbing shops in town. You will find gardens, the California Shell Company, and several galleries. Food lovers would like to stop by the Temecula Olive Oil Company for free samples. End the day on the town’s main beach.
Get away from the crowd: Seal Beach is not as popular as other towns in the area. Stopping here gets you away from the crowds.
Where to Eat: For excellent seafood, head to Walt’s Wharf. Other places to check out include Seal Beach Grill, Catrina Cafe, and Mahe.
Read More: Things to Do in Seal Beach
Huntington Beach is known as ‘Surf City USA’ (for years the city has disputed the nickname with archrival Santa Cruz). This is probably the city in Southern California where the pull towards a beach culture is most heavily noticed. Most stores specializing in surfboards, wet suits, and beach apparel have a big presence in town.
Get close to the action: The best vibe in the city is felt around Main Street which culminates in a long pier famous for having a lifeguard tower at one end and a turquoise / red roundhouse (home of Ruby’s Diner) at the other.
Ideas for a fun day: Take a surfing or windsurfing class, have one of Ruby’s shakes, pedal to Newport Beach, try to find a bargain at the Main Street shops, eat fish tacos, watch the sunset from the pier, and light a bonfire at night.
Get away from the crowds: For those preferring solitude, visit Sunset or Bolsa Chica beaches (north of Downtown Huntington Beach).
Tip: Visit on a Tuesday evening to enjoy the ‘open-air market’ known as Surf City Nights. Little Saigon is only a few miles away. That presents visitors with the perfect excuse to try some really good Vietnamese food.
Also, stopping by Pacific City’s surfing complex is fun. There is great food (including a food hall), shops and views.
Where to Eat: For breakfast, brunch, and lunch, you should not miss Mama’s on 39. For lobster rolls, go to Slapfish. For dining with a pier view, Duke’s is a good option.
Read More: Huntington Beach: Surf City USA
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.
Get close to the action: To make the most of the day, go to the Balboa area located in the peninsula of the same name (specifically around the Balboa Pavilion and pier).
Ideas 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 bar), eat clam chowder at The Crab Cooker, and watch the sunset from one of the piers (there are two!).
Get away from the crowds: If you prefer less crowded places, hike or kayak around the Back Bay. You can also visit the more secluded (and more picturesque) beaches located in the Corona del Mar neighborhood.
Where to Eat: Newport has a lot of different neighborhoods. Therefore, it is proper to say that the eating options are huge. In Balboa Island, I like The Village Inn. Of course, while on the island, you need to visit Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop. In the Balboa Pier area, Newport Landing Restaurant, Cruiser’s Pizza Bar Grill and Okidoki.
Read More: A Fun Day in Coastal Newport Beach,
Laguna Beach has attained notoriety because of its stylish resorts and large art events (including the Pageant of the Masters, Festival of the Arts, Sawdust Festival, and Art-A-Fair). The town appeals to people with different tastes. And, did I mention it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the area?
Get close to the action: From Main Beach, you can visit several spots on the coast or walk around Downtown.
Ideas for a fun day: Hop around the tide pools in Main Beach, watch the coastline from Heisler Park, visit some of the galleries in Downtown or in the HIP district, enroll in a food tour, visit an artist studio and hike along the coast.
Get away from the crowds: For magnificent views, go to the Alta Vista Park. To learn about California’s marine mammals, visit the Pacific Mammal Rescue Center. For uncrowded beaches, you have to move to South Laguna. I recommend the beaches below Treasure Island Park and Aliso Creek Beach.
Tip: If you visit during summer, do not miss the art festivals. The Sawdust Festival is my favorite.
Where to Eat: Some outstanding eating options in Laguna include Nick’s, The Cliff, and Driftwood Kitchen.
Read More: Laguna Beach: Beauty from All Angles
Dana Point is famous for many things (its harbor, glitzy resorts) but do you know this is where the famous CA-1 (also known as Pacific Coast Highway) starts (or finishes, depending on how you look at it)? Also, this is where the Argentinean pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard anchored to raid the San Juan Capistrano Mission.
Get close to the action: The harbor is home to a marina, shops, and restaurants. Dana Cove is popular for those interested in aquatic sports.
Ideas for a fun day: In California, it is not so easy to find a beach with camping facilities (at least in heavily populated areas). But, guess what? Doheny State Beach has camping and picnic facilities. Families go there to spend the day and the night.
Get away from the crowds: For solitude, you may want to do the short hike around the Dana Point Headlands. Bay Lantern Park has an expansive green area and great views.
Where to Eat: My favorite restaurant in Dana Point is Lupe’s. You need to try their octopus and surf & turf tacos. You should also consider Salt Creek Grille and The Shwack Beach Grill.
Read More: Things to Do in Dana Point
San Clemente is very popular in surfing circles. As a matter of fact, the headquarters of Surfing Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal, and Longboard Magazine are located within city limits. The city’s slogan is “Spanish Village by the Sea” and the official flower is the bougainvillea.
Get close to the action: El Camino Real and Avenida del Mar are full of shops and restaurants. The part of the beach close to the pier is where crowds congregate.
Ideas for a fun day: Start by biking or walking the San Clemente Beach Trail, take some surfing classes, and enjoy a meal at Nick’s, Selma Chicago Pizzeria, or South of Nick’s.
Get away from the crowds: For quieter beach time, go to the boundaries of the San Clemente State Beach (North Beach or Calafia). Or, pay a visit to Casa Romantica, a Spanish Revival cultural center overlooking the ocean.
Read More: Things to Do in San Clemente
How to Reach Orange County’s Beach Towns
Orange County’s beach towns can be accessed by air from the John Wayne International Airport, San Diego International Airport, or Los Angeles International Airport.
Most visitors arrive at the cities by car from different points in California (or beyond). Because of their location, the cities are good day trip options from Los Angeles or San Diego. Of course, I believe spending an entire weekend in the area will allow you to explore in a deeper fashion.
When to Visit
Due to the mild Southern California climate, the cities presented in this article can be visited all-year-round.
Winter high temperatures reach the mid 60 degrees Fahrenheit. On the same note, summer high temperatures can reach the high 80s or low 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Overall, most of the activities discussed in this article are suitable for all seasons. Activities involving direct water contact are the exception (unless you wear a wetsuit). Keep in mind that during the low season some businesses operate during limited hours (since the days are shorter).
During the winter, long pants paired with a sweatshirt, sweater, or jacket should suffice. Do not forget to pack an extra layer or two. This will help you to conquer chilly mornings and nights. This advice applies to summer too.
During summer, you want to pack as much sun protection as possible. It is a good idea to plan indoor activities for the hottest hours of the day.
More of Southern California
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