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5 day trips to lively 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 5 SoCal beach towns, listed north to south, offer something for just about everyone.

1. Ventura: California’s oldest pier, a botanical garden, and a historic mission

People walking at an outside market in downtown Ventura.

Sunset casts a warm glow over downtown Ventura. Photo by Jon Osumi/Alamy Stock Photo

About 70 miles up the coast from downtown Los Angeles and easily accessible by car or train, Ventura is home to spectacular sunsets, great surfing and hiking, vintage and trendy shops, casual dining, and a vibrant arts and music scene.

The ways to savor this laid-back beach town—including its downtown Main Street that’s closed to car traffic through 2024—are plentiful and year-round. The city also has the oldest pier in the state and is a jumping-off point to access the Channel Islands.

Wheel Fun Rentals

Rent a bike from Wheel Fun Rentals next to the pier (or bring your own) and set out on the Ventura Promenade. Take this flat, paved beachside path west about half a mile to Surfers Point, or head east for a 2.5-mile round-trip excursion to San Buenaventura State Beach.

Beach House Tacos

Stop for an authentic Mexican lunch at this eatery on the Ventura Pier. Dig into a Marilu taco, Baja taco, or street taco while gazing out at the expansive Pacific Ocean. Kids can burn off energy at the adjacent Ventura Promenade Beach Playground.

Ventura Botanical Gardens

Stroll along the 3½ miles of walkways (some steep) that wind through 5 Mediterranean climates at this botanical garden. You’ll pass by a 130-tree olive grove, old-growth eucalyptus trees, and rare and endangered plants, as well as several art sculptures. Take in views of the Channel Islands, the coastline, and, on a clear day, Topatopa Peak in Ojai. Adults, $7.

Exterior of Mission Basilica San Buenaventura.

Photo by csKyc / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

Mission Basilica San Buenaventura

Learn about the area’s rich history by taking a self-guided tour of the mission, which was founded in 1782 by Junípero Serra. The grounds include a museum (featuring displays of Chumash artifacts and Mission-era items), a garden and grotto, the Mission Basilica Church, and a Vatican-licensed marble cast of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Adults, $5.

Bellringer Brew Co./Model Citizen

Wander over to Bellringer Brew Co. for locally sourced comfort food and award-winning beers made in town. Around the corner is Model Citizen, downtown’s newest dining addition. Although the decor is minimalistic, the menu is not: You’ll find twists on classic cocktails and coastal dishes made with regional ingredients.

Rocks & Drams/Strange Beast

Head to Rocks & Drams downtown for a swanky happy hour. The crystal chandeliers, velvet couches, and brass accents are the perfect setting for sipping one of the bar’s captivating cocktails. A block west, you’ll find the contemporary, neon-lit Strange Beast, which serves Japanese tapas, cocktails, and sake.

Ventura Music Hall/Ruff House BBQ

Catch acts ranging from Henry Rollins to Parliament-Funkadelic at the new Ventura Music Hall. Dine on barbecue at the on-site restaurant, Ruff House BBQ, and grab a drink at one of several bars located throughout the venue.

Soar Over Ventura

This recently opened zip-line attraction in nearby Santa Paula, about 25 miles inland, has 2 tracks to choose from, one of which has a ropes course through the tree canopy. The fee also covers 4-hour access to other activities at the Ventura Ranch KOA (where the zip lines are located), such as a 2,000-square-foot jumping pillow (an on-ground trampoline). Zip-line fee, $59.

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

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

Kayaks piled on a dock in Oxnard, with fishing boats in the background.

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

From concerts to chowder, Oxnard has a dedicated festival for almost everything. Other fun activities in Ventura County’s largest city (pop.: 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.

Aerial view of 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.

Couple carrying mini potted succulents at a farmers 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.

Statue of a fisherman in a yellow coat holding a large catch.

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. Adults, $10.

Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar

Enjoy a craft cocktail or glass of wine on this venue’s large outdoor patio overlooking the marina. The menu features new interpretations of California fare with a Mediterranean influence.

Oxnard Beach Park

Follow the accessible path around and through the grassy dunes and you’ll be greeted by an expansive windswept beach and abundant benches perfect for a brief respite.

Levity Live/Copper Blues Rock Pub and Kitchen

Get your laugh on at Levity Live, 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 for sophisticated bar food and live music.

You might like: 10 fun things to do on a day trip to Ojai

3. Manhattan Beach: People-watching, bicycling, and surfing lessons

A skimboarder in the water at Manhattan Beach during sunset.

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.


Grab an Americano at this coffee shop, which expanded from Santa Monica and Culver City to its newest location on Highland Avenue. Try the avocado tartine with chipotle cashew crème, pickled shallots, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and pepitas.

Uncle Bill’s Pancake House

Located across the street from GoodBoyBob, this longtime café serves up sweet flapjacks with ocean views on the side.

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.


Dig into made-to-order guacamole at this indoor-outdoor eatery. Foodies will appreciate that the tortillas are made in-house daily using fresh organic masa and Rancho Gordo beans.

Sweet Lady Jane

Craving dessert? Visit this Manhattan Beach outpost for a slice of its legendary triple berry cake.


Support some of the neighborhood’s indie shops such as Pages, a bookstore that hosts engaging author events.

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.

Three glasses of beer at 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, the Baltic Porter, or any of the other beers on tap.

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.

You might like: 10 fun things to do in Manhattan Beach

4. Huntington Beach: Dog-friendly spots, a sizable park, and shops and restaurants

Trainer crouching beside a dog on a surfboard.

Water-loving canines can get surfing lessons at 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 Corgi Beach Day (October 28) and the Old World Village Wiener Dog Races (October 15), as well as a plethora of pet-friendly restaurants, parks, and attractions. Both dogs and owners can have their day in Surf City USA.

Park Bench Café

The umbrella-shaded tables at this family-owned eatery in Central Park are a pet-family favorite. Dogs can sprawl out on the grass and devour favorites such as the Hot Diggity Dog and the Rover Easy scrambled eggs.

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.

Dog chowing down on its meal at 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 the 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.

Trainer following in the water behind a dog learning to 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 a pup’s 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.

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.

White dog seated inside Top Dog Barkery.

Teddy the maltipoo after being pampered 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 pamper your pooch.


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.

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

5. 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. 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

Start the day off right with a s’mores-inspired mocha (complete with a toasted marshmallow) or another caffeinated drink, plus pastries like blackberry banana nut muffins and vegan blueberry lemon scones.

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 Municipal Airport. Prices vary.

Syrup being poured onto fried chicken served over a waffle.

The Plot's weekend brunch menu includes vegan 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.

Buena Vista Lagoon Ecological Reserve

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.

Inside 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.

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.

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.

Inside 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 for an IPA, at Breakwater Brewing Company for its award-winning rye, or at newcomer Pacific Coast Spirits distillery for its bourbon made with mostly California-grown corn. All 3 are within a short walk of one another.

Free San Diego North city maps are available at your AAA branch.

Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol. Confirm hours and availability of businesses, attractions, and events before you visit.

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