Rent that convertible, put the top down, and head north from San Diego to Santa Barbara on the Pacific Coast Highway. Along the three- to four-day trip, enjoy stops at these choice beach towns, each with its own distinct vibe.
Begin your trip in this sunny waterfront city. Downtown, shop the many independent boutiques throughout the historic Gaslamp Quarter, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, such as Little Italy, North Park, South Park and East Village. These pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene and craft-beer boom. Work off lunch by heading down to San Diego’s sparkling Mission Bay to rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks. Finish with dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter. Splurge on a night at one of California’s iconic lodgings, the Hotel del Coronado, on idyllic Coronado Island, connected to the city by an arcing bridge.
Laguna Beach is a coastal paradise at the edge of a sparkling blue sea, with romantic hideaways and rooftop restaurants ideal for toasting the sunset. The coastline is dotted with protected crescents of sand—some attracting the local surfer crowd, some family favorites and some perfect for a peaceful escape. First settled as an artist’s colony, the town is filled with quality galleries. Painters often perch their easels along the bluffs and create a seascape before your eyes. Dip into the Laguna Art Museum, with its excellent collection of contemporary works by California artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and David Gilhooly.
Crystal Cove State Park
8471 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
In 1912, a Laguna Beach artist described finding a rugged coastline “with cove after cove and headland after headland, golden cliffs and deep blue and purple ocean and clear emerald pools, lazy sea and pounding surf.” More than 100 years later, that’s the world you can still experience at this 2,400-acre coastal parkland. Explore winding trails leading into the foothills by foot or mountain bike. Walk along the park’s three miles of coastline to find your own perfect sandy crescent with family-friendly waves. (Insider tip: At Crystal Cove State Park Historic District you can order an ahi tuna burger at The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove, or pick up a creamy shake from Ruby’s Shake Shack to take back to your beach blanket.)
Plan at least a day to hang out and get the surf vibe in this classic beach town, where the main drag heads straight to the ocean. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball and, of course, surf. Surfing sets the tone here, even if you never grab a board. There’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great views of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Pier. From the pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s stylish boutiques and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks. Discover more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or bird watching and trail exploring in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetland and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
With beaches and marinas along its waterfront and a busy dining and shopping scene on downtown’s Pine Avenue, Long Beach blends big-city sophistication with resort-town fun. Tour the legendary, permanently docked ocean liner Queen Mary, then relax with a drink in the ship’s Observation Bar—you can even stay overnight in one of the cabins. Special exhibits are on display throughout the giant ship and wandering through the levels feels like a journey through time. Also along the waterfront, Aquarium of the Pacific features huge tanks and displays showcasing coral reefs, Magellanic penguins and ocean habitats. Nearby, the East Village, home of the Museum of Latin American Art, has an edgy, hipster vibe.
This idyllic oceanfront city, bounded by a 3.5-mile-long beach, feels more like a weekend getaway spot than a city just a few minutes west of downtown Los Angeles. Hang out on the city’s broad beach or lively Santa Monica Pier (complete with its own amusement park). Or rent cruiser bikes to follow the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, a.k.a. “the Strand.” The paved, multiuse path follows the water for roughly 22 miles, from Santa Monica south to Torrance. Santa Monica is also a place for serious shopping. Pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade is lined with big-name brands, galleries, movie theaters and comedy venues, including the open-air Santa Monica Place. Or visit one of Santa Monica’s outstanding farmers markets, which pop up weekly on city streets.
Roughly 65 miles north of Los Angeles, Ventura is a magnet for antique hounds. Now a new generation has started to discover the town’s microbreweries, smart eateries, cool clothing boutiques and live music scene. The good news is that the revival of downtown Ventura has buffed things up while preserving the town’s sun-and-surf charm, where family-run cafés with two-table balconies serve espresso with an ocean breeze. Down by the water, stroll the historic Ventura Pier.
“The American Riviera” enjoys a dreamy Mediterranean climate, with plenty of sunny days and mild winters. Add a wine country producing award-winning vintages, outdoor adventures on land and sea, and big-city arts and entertainment, and you have a city that’s a poster child for the California good life. Stroll State Street for excellent shops and dining, launch a kayak from East Beach to paddle under Stearns Wharf, visit the classic Old Mission Santa Barbara, and tour the 1782 Presidio for a look at original adobes like El Cuartel, the second-oldest building in the state. Then explore the city’s forward-looking neighborhood—the rehabbed warehouses of the Funk Zone, now home to urban wine-tasting rooms, artists’ studios and cool boutiques.