Long before the Beach Boys sang the praises of California and its girls, Southern California was an American dream destination for one reason: the beach. With miles of wide, sandy beaches hemmed by ragged, towering bluffs, and gentle, rolling surf that serves beginners but can get big enough to charge up even old sea dogs, LA remains an epic coastal mecca.

Here are our picks for the 13 best beaches in and around the city of Angels.

With tide pools and caves and nature walks, Leo Carillo is a perfect family beach © Antar Gallo Images / Getty Images

1. Leo Carillo

Located in the near-Mythical Malibu, families love Leo Carillo, the summer-camp-style beach with enough stimulating tide pools, cliff caves, nature trails and great swimming and surfing to tire out even the most hyperactive kids. 

Parking can be tough, but you might find a free spot on the Pacific Coast Hwy. Midday lots vary by day and season but cost somewhere between $6 and $15. 

At Leo Carillo there is a small campground. Offshore kelp beds, caves, tide pools, plus the wilderness of the Santa Monica Mountains create a natural playground. There are 140 flat, tree-shaded sites, flush toilets and coin-operated hot showers. Bookings for summer weekends should be made months in advance.

Rock Formations At El Matador Beach Against Sky On Sunny Day
El Matador is one of the most stunning of Malibu’s beaches © Joseph Bautista/EyeEm/Getty Images

2. El Matador

Another of Malibu’s famed beaches, El Matador is probably the most stunning. Park on the bluffs and stroll down a trail to sandstone rock towers that rise from emerald coves. Sunbathers stroll through the tides and dolphins breech the surface beyond the waves. 

Malibu residence want you to believe that the beaches here are private, but that’s not the case. The 27 miles of coastal mountains, pristine coves, wide sweeps of golden sand and epic waves are available to all as long as you stay below the high-tide line. That means you can walk, swim and beachcomb on Carbon Beach, Broad Beach, Little Dume and wherever the famous like to frolic.

You may get nasty looks from security guards, but there’s nothing they can legally do to stop you from being there. Driving along Pacific Coast Hwy, keep an eye out for the brown ‘Coastal Access’ signs. Locals have been known to take them down and put up ‘Private Beach’ or ‘No Trespassing’ signs; don’t be deterred. For the full scoop and ‘secret’ access points, get the free Our Malibu Beaches app for your smartphone.

Shore Break
Zuma is a perennial Malibu favorite © Karol Franks / Getty Images

3. Zuma

While picking a favorite beach in Malibu is like picking a favorite child, Zuma is a classic. It’s easy to find, thanks to the wide sweep of blonde sand that has been attracting valley kids to the shore since the 1970s. It’s popular for swimming and body surfing despite occasionally rough surf, and in winter you can spot migrating gray whales. 

Lodging in Malibu can get pricey, but there are few darling inns and snazzy home shares to make you feel like you’re one of the stars.

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Families love all the fun at Santa Monica Beach ©oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

4. Santa Monica

Kids, out-of-towners and those who love them flock to Santa Monica’s wide beaches and the pier, where the landmark Ferris wheel and roller coaster welcome one and all.

While there are endless ways to enjoy this 3.5-mile stretch of sand, sunbathing and swimming are obvious options, the pier is the main attraction. It’s dominated by Pacific Park amusement park with arcades, carnival games, and roller coaster. Nearby is a vintage carousel and an aquarium. The pier is most photogenic when framed by California sunsets and when it comes alive with free concerts and outdoor movies in the summertime.

South of the pier is the Original Muscle Beach, where the Southern California exercise craze began in the mid-20th century. New equipment now draws a fresh generation of fitness fanatics.

Following the South Bay Bicycle Trail, a paved bike and walking path, south for about 1.5 miles takes you straight to Venice Beach (or about 20 miles all the way to LA’s South Bay beaches). Bikes or in-line skates are available to rent on the pier and at beachside kiosks.

Venice Beach Skateboard Girl
From skate parks to surf shops Venice keeps the wacky alive ©Layland Masuda/Getty Images

5. Venice Beach

Life in Venice moves to a different rhythm and nowhere more so than on the famous Venice Boardwalk, officially known as Ocean Front Walk. It’s a freak show, a human zoo and a wacky carnival alive with Hula-Hoop magicians, old-timey jazz combos, solo distorted garage rockers and artists (good and bad) – as far as LA experiences go, it’s a must.

Prepare for sensory overload on Venice’s Boardwalk, a one-of-a-kind experience. Buff bodybuilders brush elbows with street performers and sellers of sunglasses, string bikinis, Mexican ponchos and cannabis, while cyclists and rollerbladers whiz by on the bike path, and skateboarders and graffiti artists get their own domains

At South Venice Beach, the throng dissipates and the golden sands unfurl in a more pristine manner. Waves roll in consistently and are ideal for boydsurfing. Vollyball games erupt at a moments notice. Parking is an issue, which makes it a mostly local scene. Just bike there.

California beach at sunny day
Manhattan Beach is always picture perfect © Lucky-Photographer / Getty Images

6. Manhattan Beach

If the impossibly perfect Manhattan Beach had its own magazine, it would surely be called Gorgeous Living. A bastion of surf music and the birthplace of beach volleyball, it might have gone chic, but that salty-dog heart still beats. The beachside action in this trendy town is filled with bikinis, kind waves and smiles as oversized as those sunglasses.

Ditch your shoes for the wide sweep of golden sand that is Manhattan Beach. You’ll find pick-up volleyball courts, a pier with breathtaking sea views and consistent sandy bottom surf.

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With pretty nature walks, South Bay Beaches have some stunning coastlines © Adam Lorber / Shutterstock

7. Abalone Cove Shoreline Park

A little gem amongst the trendy South Bay Beaches, Abalone Cove Shoreline Park is the best place to hunt for starfish, anemones and other tide-pool critters. This rock-strewn eco-preserve is a fragile place, so tread lightly. The walk down to the beach gets pretty steep in some sections, so watch your footing. 

Scenic View Of Beach Against Sky
Hermosa Beach is indeed muy hermosa © Sabine Rieg / EyeEm / Getty Images/EyeEm

8. Hermosa Beach

Hermosa’s beach is indeed muy hermosa (Spanish for beautiful) – long, flat and dotted with permanent volleyball nets. Go to 16th St to see local bros bump, set and spike in preparation for the AVP Hermosa Open held every August. This is the funkiest of South Bay’s beach towns where you can still find an epic dive bar a cool, casual distance from the fracas near the Pier.

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Malaga Cove is a gorgeous place to spend a day © RipeWhiskeey / Shutterstock

9. Malaga Cove

The Palos Verdes Peninsula is the South Bay’s highest-end community, topographically and financially. It also offers awesome eyefuls of stunning shoreline. You could take a scenic drive or bicycle ride to see it all, but you can also make your way to Malaga Cove. This crescent-shaped, cliff-backed shoreline is the only sandy Palos Verdes beach that is easily accessible to the hoi polloi. It blends into rocky tide pools and serves up decent rolling waves for surfers. Note: there are no lifeguards.

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Crystal Cove State Beach makes you forget you’re in the middle of a major metropolitan area ©LagunaticPhoto/Shutterstock

10. Crystal Cove State Beach

In southern Newport Beach, Crystal Cove pairs 3.2 miles of natural seashore with 2400 acres of woodlands. A 12.3-acre coastal section of the park is the federally recognized historic district with dozens of 1930s to 50’s vintage cottages well preserved and many open to overnight guests. This slice of Orange County lets you forget you’re in the middle of a crowded metropolitan area.

Crystal Cove is also an underwater park. Scuba enthusiasts can check out two historic anchors dating from the 1800s, as well as the crash site of a Navy plane that went down in the 1940s. Alternatively you can go tide pooling, fishing, kayaking and surfing on the undeveloped shoreline. 

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Its called Surf City USA for a reason  ©holbox/Shutterstock

11. Huntington City Beach

In a town that goes by the trademarked nickname ‘Surf City USA,’ the beaches have to be fantastic. Head to Huntington City Beach, one of SoCal’s best beaches, the sand surrounding the pier at the foot of Main St gets packed on summer weekends with surfers, volleyball players, swimmers and families. Bathrooms and showers are located north of the pier at the back of the snack-bar complex. In the evening volleyball games give way to beach bonfires.

If you want to build a bonfire or have a barbecue, stake out one of the 1000 cement fire rings early in the day, especially on holiday weekends, when you should plan to arrive when the beach opens. To indicate that it’s taken, surround the ring with your gear. You can buy firewood from concessionaires on the beach.

Seal Beach, CA
Seal Beach is a wonderful little beach town in Southern California © Bluehill75 / Getty Images

12. Seal Beach

The OC’s first beach town driving south from LA County, Seal is one of the last great California beach towns and a refreshing alternative to the more crowded coast further south. Its 1.5 miles of pristine beach sparkle like a crown, and that’s without mentioning three-block Main St, a stoplight-free zone with mom-and-pop restaurants and indie shops that are low on ‘tude and high on charm.

Side view of male surfer having drink outside mini van on San Onofre State Beach
Learn to surf or watch the experts at Trestles © Cavan Images/Getty Images

13. San Onofre State Beach

Surfers won’t want to miss world-renowned Trestles, in protected San Onofre State Beach, just southeast of San Clemente. This beach is famous for its natural surf break that consistently churns out perfect waves, even in summer. There are also rugged bluff-top walking trails and swimming beaches.

There are two campgrounds here. The more popular San Mateo Campground is a developed inland site with electrical hookups, flush toilets, indoor hot showers, picnic tables and fire pits. It’s about a 1.5 mile nature walk to Trestles Beach. The primitive bluff sites sit on an ocean-view cliff above Trestles along old Hwy 101 – no hot water or flush toilets.

Trestles is also a great success story for environmentalists and surfers, who for over a decade fought the extension of a nearby toll road. 

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