Nothing says “California” quite like a beach. Surfing and swimming are quintessential elements of the lifestyle here. That’s because the region features some of the best beaches for families.
Each sandy stretch has its own flavor. Where the waves crash against the shore, watch experts ride the curl. At strands with mild swells, take surfing lessons with your kids. Where the seas are calm, try kayaking and stand up paddle boarding. Some beaches beckon shell collectors with low-tide finds and quiet stretches, perfect for sunning and sandcastle building. At other beaches, gaze at colonies of basking seals and sea lions.
Feel the California energy just by people-watching. At shoreside parks, see expert skateboarders fly across rails and bowls. In some areas, mime artists and jugglers gather boardwalk crowds, bodybuilders work out in the sand, and graffiti artists create eye-popping canvases on storefronts and walls.
Here are some of the best family beaches in California.
Venice Beach, Los Angeles
At Venice Beach in Los Angeles, one of the best California beaches for families, the sand is almost beside the point. Come here for the vibrant California street life that unspools along the two-plus miles of boardwalk and beach.
Watch street entertainers play to the crowds, bodybuilders pump iron at outdoor Muscle Beach Gym (Arnold Schwarzenegger worked out here), and spot thrashers doing tricks at the Skate Park.
Then there’s the art. The colorful Venice Art Walls, concrete slabs, and cones covered with graffiti and murals, pop with a cartoon-like intensity appealing to kids and teens. Find more flamboyant street art on the roll-up door fronts on the boardwalk shops between 17th Avenue and Market Street, and off the boardwalk along Abbot Kinney and Lincoln boulevards.
Savor the sea and the sand views by biking, roller skating, or skateboarding along the 22-mile paved, beachside path, the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail. Nearby vendors rent equipment.
With little kids, head to one of the two beachfront playgrounds. Since lifeguards patrol a portion of the beach, check with them about swimming conditions. Surfers catch waves near the Venice Pier, a good place for you and your kids to catch one of the best sunsets in the world.
Santa Monica State Beach, Santa Monica
The iconic Route 66 stops at the Santa Monica Pier. The Pier, a Southern California landmark, divides the three-mile-long Santa Monica State Beach, a broad, sandy stretch, into north and south sections.
The Pier is fun for families with young grade-schoolers who happily scream when riding the rollercoaster and the Ferris Wheel at Pacific Park on the Pier. Also, consider a visit to the Pier’s Aquarium. The small facility showcases some 100 species local to Southern California to create an appreciation for and an awareness of the need to clean the oceans and protect wildlife.
While Venice Beach’s on-the-sand gym garners more publicity, Santa Monica’s South Beach claims to be the Original Muscle Beach since its parallel bars, rings, and ropes were placed on the sand in the 1930s. For a fun workout, rent a bike and pedal part of the paved path, a.k.a the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail, that hugs the beach.
La Jolla Shores, San Diego
The seven-mile-long La Jolla coast is impressive: a mix of cliffs, stunning ocean views, and great beaches. La Jolla Coast Walk Trail, a short, easy path, connects La Jolla Shores beach to La Jolla Cove, one of the best snorkeling spots in California.
Among the best beaches in San Diego, one-mile-long La Jolla Shores attracts families who come for the soft sands, relatively gentle waves—great for novice surfing lessons– playground, picnic area, and year-round lifeguards. La Jolla Shores opens up to the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park, a 6,000-acre reserve, where snorkelers and divers swim among schools of fish.
La Jolla Cove, a smaller beach, rewards kids with tide pools filled with minnows and crabs, and often sunning seals and sea lions. It’s one of the best spots for kayaking in California, and kayakers can paddle to nearby sea caves.
At Children’s Pool, within walking distance from La Jolla Cove, a seawall was built to block the strong currents and waves to create a haven for families with kids. However, seals and sea lions love the sandy, calm strand so much that they’ve claimed it for their pups. Even though you can’t swim here, you and your kids will enjoy watching the blubbery pinnipeds waddle along the sand.
Windansea Beach, San Diego
Windansea, a small, narrow La Jolla beach, rolls with big waves. While this isn’t a swimming beach, do watch the expert surfers catch waves cresting up to eight feet high.
Originally called Neptune Beach, the patch became known as “Windansea” after the Windansea Hotel was built in the 1920s. Even after fire destroyed the lodging in 1943, the name stuck.
Perch on the sand or the flat rocks to watch the show or find some shade –if there’s room—under the raggedy palm frond roof of the Surf Shack. Ex-military men and surfers constructed the simple, open-air, four-poled structure in 1947.
Beloved by locals, the shack was designated a San Diego historical landmark in 1998 and rebuilt in 2015 after a huge wave destroyed it. Hungry? Nearby eateries sell salads, tacos, and sandwiches.
Read: One Day in San Diego
Mission Beach, San Diego
Mission Beach, the strand south of Pacific Beach Drive, rewards families with the classic seaside fun that California is famous for. The popular stretch of wide sands features a two-mile-long boardwalk to stroll or bike, and amusement rides at Belmont Park, whose star is the Giant Dipper, a classic wooden coaster.
Don’t miss trying this one if you’ve never experienced a wooden coaster—it comes with considerably more noise and wobble. As the 75-foot-high Giant Dipper hurls you at speeds up to 48 mph, the clacking of the wheels amplifies the gut-twisting thrills.
For more screaming fun, get dropped from Zero Gravity’s tower and get tossed on Beach Blaster, a gondola-like swing ride. Little ones can giggle through spins on a carousel and a train. For a calm break, enjoy a picnic on the grassy lawns at the quieter south end of Mission Beach or join in a game of volleyball on the sand.
Mission Beach, one of the best beaches in San Diego, has lifeguards year-round and gentle waves are typical, making the best a good place to swim.
Coronado Beach, San Diego
Coronado Beach literally sparkles due to the sand’s tiny mica particles. Situated on a peninsula across the bay from San Diego, the one-and-a-half mile-long beach, reached by ferry or by the Coronado Bridge from mainland San Diego, has to be one of the best family beaches in California.
The flat, wide strand draws families. Kids skimboard along the shore and at low tide, collect shells, especially sand dollars, and search for sea anemones, hermit crabs, and tiny fish in the tidepools.
At Coronado Dog Beach, north of the central section, watch joyous pups frolic off-leash in the surf. For lunch, choose seafood, BBQ, sushi, or sandwiches. Locals swear by California chain Burger Lounge’s patties made from grass-fed cattle.
Active families could pedal the six-mile bike loop for scenic ocean and bay views or fish from a section of the Coronado Ferry Landing Pier (no license required) for halibut and bass.
Moonstone Beach, Catalina Island
Catalina’s hills rise behind Moonstone Beach, a brown swath of sand dotted with driftwood. Operated as a private facility with moorings by the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, the beach provides a base for boaters to explore inland and offshore Catalina Island, including nearby Lover’s Cove State Marine Conservation Area.
You and your kids can view the underwater kelp forest and look for garibaldi, the bright orange striped state fish, aboard a glass-bottom boat, or by snorkeling or diving. Unlike most protected areas, Lover’s Cove allows visitors to attract fish by feeding them, especially fun for young kids.
Baker Beach, San Francisco
Spanning a mile along the Presidio’s western shoreline, backed by serpentine cliffs, Baker Beach is one of the best beaches in San Francisco and offers sweeping views of the vermillion Golden Gate Bridge and the rugged Marin Hills across the water.
Kick off your shoes and keep a lookout for harbor porpoises, dolphins, and sea lions in the water as you stroll along the sandy shore. Kids will have fun spotting sea stars at low tide, when grey-green serpentine rocks revealed by the receding waves gleam in the sunshine.
Baker Beach isn’t so much a swimming beach as the water is cold and often choppy, but it’s a wonderful place to walk, sunbathe, or picnic under the cypress trees at one of the picnic tables. Locals flock here in summer months but there’s space for everybody.
There are other attractions at this San Francisco beach, too. At the north end of the parking lot, at Battery Chamberlin, you can visit the “disappearing gun”, the last of its kind on the West Coast. The gun, a 97,000 pound cannon, was part of a string of defenses of the coast developed in 1904 to protect the minefields inland.
This particular specimen was acquired in 1977 by the National Park Service and is kept in a hidden emplacement, with a small exhibit of the history of defending the California coastline.
Read: One Day in San Francisco
East Beach, Santa Barbara
Nestled on the coast between the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, 90 miles north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara lures families with spectacular scenery and stunning beaches.
A bit quieter than West Beach, East Beach is one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara for families. Little ones can romp in the sand, widest at the east end, and you and your older kids can play volleyball at one of the courts or watch the locals. Kayaking and stand up paddle board rentals are available, a grassy palm-tree-lined park with picnic tables edges the sand, and a playground is nearby.
One of the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids is to rent bikes or a surrey (for two to four people) to cycle along the Cabrillo Bike Path across the street. The four-and-a-half-mile bike path connects East Beach with Leadbetter Beach to the west and Butterfly Beach to the east.
Pedal to Chase Palm Park. Here, kids and teens can challenge themselves on 14,600-square feet of rails, ledges, and quarterpipes or watch experts at Skater’s Point Skate Park, and little ones can romp at the park’s playground.
Zuma Beach, Malibu
Zuma Beach gains fame for its clean sands, its location in upscale Malibu, and ample waves that attract surfers. The strong waves and the intermittent riptides make this wide stretch of beach a better bet for strolling along the water’s edge with your toes in the surf than for swimming, especially with children. It’s fun to watch experts ride the surf and, in winter, Zuma Beach is an excellent place to spot migrating grey whales.
Before plopping your beach blanket on the sand, browse the nearby Trancas Market Shopping Center for sandwiches, chips, fruit, and other picnic items. After your day of sun and sand, consider visiting Point Dume Nature Reserve nearby. Hiking the uphill trail rewards you and your family with panoramic views of Santa Monica Bay, the north Malibu Coast, and Catalina Island in the distance.
Discover the best family beaches in California on a cruise along the West Coast. Browse our California cruises and book your next family vacation.