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4 day trips to charming California beach towns

Oceanside Pier at sunset April 2022 Visitors stroll along Oceanside’s historic wooden pier. | Photo by Shelly Waldman

Southern Californians are blessed to be able to access world-class beaches in half a day’s drive or less. But of course, not all oceanside communities are created equal. Some are a surfer’s paradise, others host myriad festivals and farmers markets, and still others are for the dogs (and their blissed-out owners). These 4 SoCal beach towns offer something for just about everyone. 

1. Oxnard: Festivals, seaside strolls, and farmers markets

Oxnard Docks

Rental kayaks and fishing boats at Channel Islands Harbor. | Photo by Chuck Place

From concerts to chowder fests, Oxnard has a dedicated festival for just about anything. Other fun activities in Ventura County’s largest city (population: over 200,000) include strolling along the harbor or one of its celebrated beaches. So, yes, come for the festivals, but be sure to stay and explore this coastal community for the day.

Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut. Start the morning with a fully loaded, generously sized omelet at this local favorite in Channel Islands Harbor. 2800A S. Harbor Boulevard. (805) 985-9151.

Channel Islands Harbor

A sunny day at Oxnard's Channel Islands Harbor. | Photo by Chuck Place

Channel Islands Harbor. Herons, egrets, terns, and sea lions enliven a roughly 2-mile round-trip stroll along the west side of this picturesque harbor. Start at the promenade in front of the Maritime Museum and end at Channel Island Boulevard.

Channel Islands Farmer's Market

Channel Islands Harbor Sunday Farmers Market. | Photo by Visit Oxnard

Sunday Farmers Market. Explore this shopping mecca for fresh fruit, produce, and seafood. You’ll also find prepared food, crafts by local artisans, clothing, and jewelry. 10 a.m.–2 p.m. 3350 S. Harbor Boulevard. (818) 591-8161.

Channel Islands Maritime Museum

A whimsical statue greets visitors to the Channel Islands Maritime Museum. | Photo by Chuck Place

Channel Islands Maritime Museum. Mind-bogglingly detailed craftsmanship defines a world-class collection of tall-ship models at this museum. Seascape paintings by Dutch masters of the 17th century complement the experience. 3900 Bluefin Circle. (805) 984-6260.

Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar. Enjoy a craft cocktail or a glass of wine on the venue’s large outdoor patio overlooking the marina. The menu features new interpretations of California fare with a Mediterranean influence. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.) 3500 S. Harbor Boulevard. (805) 985-4677.

Studio Gallery. Shop for items made by local artists, such as shell art, pottery, greeting cards, wind chimes, pillows, jewelry, children’s puzzles, and clothing. Fine art paintings and photography are also showcased. Closed Mondays. 2741 S. Victoria Avenue, Suite H. (805) 985-1546.

Oxnard Beach Park. Follow the wheelchair-friendly path around and through the grassy dunes and you will be greeted by an expansive windswept beach and abundant benches perfect for a brief respite. 1601 S. Harbor Boulevard.

Levity Live; Copper Blues Rock Pub and Kitchen. Relax into the laughs at Levity Live (805-457-5550), a sleek, 400-seat comedy club where local and nationally known comedians hone their craft. Before or after the show, cross through the lobby to Copper Blues Rock Pub and Kitchen (805-457-5551) for sophisticated bar food and live music. 581 and 591 Collection Boulevard.

Free Ventura County Cities maps are available at your AAA branch.

2. Manhattan Beach: A place to people-watch

Manhattan Beach Pier

Sunset off Manhattan Beach, with its municipal pier at left. | Photo by David Ricks

Long notable for its photogenic pier, beach volleyball and surfing scenes, and direct access to a 22-mile oceanfront bicycle path, Manhattan Beach has in recent years seen a steady arrival of new boutiques and critically acclaimed restaurants. If the foot traffic along downtown Highland and Manhattan avenues is any indication, the nearly 4-square-mile South Bay neighborhood is more than a posh suburban enclave—it’s a bona fide SoCal destination.

GoodBoyBob. Grab an Americano at this coffee shop, which expanded from Santa Monica and Culver City to its newest location on Highland Avenue. Try the house avocado toast with beet cream, pickled carrots, and pistachios. 1300 Highland Avenue, Unit 109. (424) 581-7049.

Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. Located across the street from GoodBoyBob, this longtime café serves up sweet flapjacks with a side of ocean view. 1305 Highland Avenue. (310) 545-5177.

Radrunner E Bikes

Manhattan Beach E-Bike Rental. | Photo by David Ricks

Manhattan Beach E-Bike Rental. Cruise along the beach path on your own 2-wheeler or with a rented electric bike ($50 for 1 hour; $100 for a half day; $150 for a full day). 3616 Highland Avenue. (213) 986-7635.

One Wave Surf. Take a surf lesson from One Wave Surf, which runs 90-minute private and group classes at El Porto beach. Individual lesson, $138. (323) 521-9283.

Tacolicious. For lunch, dig into made-to-order guacamole, mushroom tacos, and albondigas at this indoor-outdoor eatery, which debuted during the pandemic. Foodies will appreciate that the restaurant uses La Finca masa for its tortillas and Rancho Gordo beans. 1129 Manhattan Avenue. (415) 649-6077.

Sweet Lady Jane. Craving dessert? Visit this Manhattan Beach outpost for a slice of its legendary triple berry cake. 451 Manhattan Beach Boulevard. (424) 275-9050.

Pages. Support some of the neighborhood’s indie shops. This locals’ fave bookstore hosts engaging author events. 904 Manhattan Avenue. (310) 318-0900.

Go Gently Nation. Browse a gorgeous selection of made-in-L.A. children’s and women’s wear, as well as home goods by Fog Linen. Founder Kristin Coia opened up shop after she gave birth to her son and saw a need for more eco-minded kids’ wear. 1201 Manhattan Avenue. (310) 545-7883.

Culture Brewing Company

Culture Brewing Company, Manhattan Beach's first taproom. | Photo by David Ricks

Culture Brewing Company. Kick back at the sunny patio of Manhattan Beach’s first taproom. Sample the Manhattan Beach Hazy IPA or Seven Berry Sour, among other brews. 327 Manhattan Beach Boulevard. (310) 504-0082.

Slay Italian Kitchen. Wrap up the day with rustic Italian fare by chef David Slay. Try the lemon tagliolini or the funghi-and-roasted-fennel pizza. The restaurant features wines from Slay’s vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. 1001 Manhattan Avenue. (424) 257-8301.

Free Long Beach–Torrance–South Bay city maps are available at your AAA branch.

3. Huntington Beach: A dog-friendly outing

Good Kharma Surf

Good Kharma Surf. | Photo by David Ricks

World-famous surf town Huntington Beach is also a world-class destination for dog lovers. Orange County’s most populous beach city is home to the Surf City Surf Dog competition, Corgi Beach Day, and the Old World Village Wiener Dog Races, as well as a plethora of pet-friendly restaurants, parks, and attractions. Both dogs and dog owners can have their day in Surf City USA.

Park Bench Café. The umbrella-shaded tables at this family-owned eatery in Huntington Central Park are a pet-family favorite. Dogs can sprawl out on the grass and devour Canine Cuisine favorites such as the Hot Diggity Dog and the Rover Easy Scrambled Eggs. 17732 Goldenwest Street. (714) 842-0775.

Huntington Central Park. Keep your eyes peeled for squirrels as you stroll the trails at this 356-acre park. Don’t miss the Secret Garden, a showcase of drought-tolerant plants that’s been lovingly restored in recent years by Huntington Beach Tree Society volunteers. 18002 Goldenwest Street. (714) 536-5486.

Pacific Hideaway

A meal fit for a pup at Pacific Hideaway restaurant. | Photo by Jen Warren

Pacific Hideaway. Grab one of the high tables on the patio overlooking Huntington Beach Pier at this upstairs restaurant in the dog-friendly Kimpton Shorebreak Resort. The menu evokes surf cultures from Latin America to Southeast Asia. 500 Pacific Coast Highway. (714) 965-4448.

Good Kharma Surf

A furry first-timer's lesson with Good Kharma Surf. | Photo by David Ricks

Huntington Dog Beach. This 1.5-mile stretch of sand just might be the happiest place in the world. For a true Surf City experience, book a surfing lesson for your water-loving canine with Good Kharma Surf ($75 for 1 hour). Perhaps you’ll discover the next Surf Dog champion. Pacific Coast Highway between Goldenwest and Seapoint streets. (714) 841-8644.

The Doggie Spa. Your sandy companion will appreciate this spa’s all-natural shampoos and reliably warm water. No appointment is necessary to use the elevated, self-service bathtubs. 19365 Main Street, Suite 103. (714) 374-8777.

Top Dog Barkery, Bath, and Boutique

Teddy the maltipoo's "after" pic at Top Dog Barkery. | Photo by Jen Warren

Top Dog Barkery, Bath, and Boutique. In addition to offering full grooming by appointment and a Doggie Self Wash for walk-ins, Top Dog stocks house-made baked goods, bandannas, T-shirts, toys, and anything else you need to throw a party for your pooch. 180 Fifth Street, Suite 110. (714) 960-3647.

Simmzy’s. Cap your day by watching the sunset at this indoor-outdoor gastropub in the Pacific City mall. Gorge on the Billionaire Burger, made with Wagyu beef, aged cheddar, and candied bacon. If you can’t finish it, well, that’s what best friends are for. 21028 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite E-100. (714) 831-1240.

Free Orange County Central city maps are available at your AAA branch.

4. Oceanside: Surf culture, a California mission, and nature walks

Sun, sea, and other fresh-air pursuits reign in this breezy community that’s home to a museum dedicated entirely to surfing. Keeping safety protocols in mind and calling ahead for business hours, visitors can explore an evolving food-and-drink scene along the coast. Farther inland and equally enthralling is Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, California’s “King of the Missions.”

Camp Coffee Company. Enjoy a s’mores-inspired mocha (complete with a toasted marshmallow) or other caffeinated drinks, plus pastries like blueberry cornmeal scones (Sundays only) and zucchini walnut muffins to start the day off right. 101 N. Cleveland Street. (442) 266-2504.

Carte Blanche

Open-air dining at Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar. | Photo courtesy Visit Oceanside Conference & Visitors Bureau

Carte Blanche Bistro & Bar. French and Mexican cuisines meld (think duck mole tacos) at this stylish eatery. For dinner, seek a table on the inviting patio. 339 N. Cleveland Street. (760) 231-5370.

Waverider Helicopter Tours. Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city and the coast on a 40-minute, round-trip flight down to La Jolla Cove, or head north along the dramatic coastline to Laguna Beach and back. All flights are private and depart from Oceanside Airport. Prices vary. (760) 691-9144.

The Plot Chicken Waffle

The Plot's weekend brunch menu includes chicken and waffles. | Photo by Sam Wells Photography

The Plot. Dig into crunchy rolls or a lentil-and-wild-rice loaf with a beet demi-glace at this plant-based, zero-waste restaurant. Leave room for the dark-chocolate torte. 1733 S. Coast Highway. (442) 266-8200.

Buena Vista Lagoon Ecological Reserve. You can spot brown pelicans, barn owls, red-shouldered hawks, and other feathered wildlife at this roughly 200-acre freshwater wetland located between Carlsbad and Oceanside. The Buena Vista Audubon Society offers monthly bird-watching walks. 2202 S. Coast Highway. (760) 439-2473.

The Rising Store

Artists' cooperative The Rising Company's spacious retail area. | Photo by Shelly Waldman

The Rising Company. Browse for mementos such as ethically sourced turquoise jewelry, South African handwoven baskets, and lavender-scented candles at this spacious artists’ cooperative. 332 S. Coast Highway.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. Learn about early-California history while strolling the state’s largest former Spanish mission, built in 1798. Explore the museum, Spanish Colonial–style church, recently restored courtyard, and former open-air laundry area. Docents lead 75-minute tours on weekends. Adults, $8; Behind-the-Scenes tour, $12. 4050 Mission Avenue. (760) 757-3651.

California Surf Museum. Check out the surfboards and colorful historical displays at this 5,600-square-foot museum. View permanent artifacts and rotating exhibits, such as the story of courageous surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm to a tiger shark in 2003 while surfing off Kaua‘i. Adults, $7. 312 Pier View Way. (760) 721-6876.

Pacific Coast Spirits

Pacific Coast Spirits in Oceanside. | Photo by Pacific Coast Spirits

Take a brewery walk. Explore the city’s adult-beverage scene with a stop at Northern Pine Brewing (760-754-1434) for an IPA, at Breakwater Brewing Company (760-433-6064) for its award-winning rye, or at newcomer Pacific Coast Spirits (760-453-7150; paccoastspirits.com) distillery for its bourbon made from 100% California-grown corn. All 3 are within a short walk of each other.

Free Oceanside–Escondido city maps are available at your AAA branch.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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