I love driving to Laguna Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway with the sunroof open and music blaring on the radio. As the road curves back and forth, I am awed--once again--by this remarkable view of the Pacific Ocean.
This is probably my favorite spot in all of Southern California. To enter Laguna Beach in this manner puts me in the right frame of mind to enjoy this historic and lovely California beach town.
Jason and I have been to this city countless times, but the opportunity to write about it made me appreciate it so much more. Sometimes we take the places closest to us for granted, and need to look at them with fresh eyes. I’ll share some of my long-standing favorite things to do in Laguna Beach along with a few new discoveries.
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Laguna Beach for Ocean Lovers
Ocean lovers will love Laguna and the first thing they should do is hit the beach. With seven miles of coastline, there is plenty of beach to explore and many people opt for Main Beach. This is a good place to start since it offers volleyball and basketball courts, restrooms, showers, and a children’s playground.
But I’d encourage visitors to also head North or South of Main Beach to explore the many small coves along this section of coast. There are several places along the coast to explore tide pools and the small creatures that live inside them like starfish, sea cucumbers, and hermit crabs. Just remember not to remove anything from these protected areas.
Visiting in the summer? Read Things To Do In Laguna Beach--Summer Festival Edition.
Up for a challenge? Then head to 1000 Steps Beach. This scenic stretch of beach has a very long set of narrow stairs to climb down and then back up. But the exercise is worth the view. And fortunately, there aren't really 1000 steps--whoever named this beach was prone to exaggeration. This can be a tricky place to find, so here's what I recommend; start in the center of town, near Main Beach, head south on Pacific Coast Highway to 9th Street. You'll need to park along PCH, so just be careful getting out of your car since this is a very busy route.
I can’t get enough of an ocean view, but I don’t necessarily want to lay out on the sand. So for me, I prefer Heisler Park, a one mile long oceanfront park offering walkways, observation points, picnic tables, public artwork and more. During my recent walk in Heisler Park, I enjoyed the smell of both the ocean saltwater and the flowering star jasmine planted along the walkways. At sunset couples and families gather here for picnic dinners. Here’s a self-guided tour of this park starting at Main Beach.
Be completely prepared for your romantic, sunset picnic with a deluxe picnic backpack.
Water sports are obviously an important part of life in Laguna Beach. Surfing, paddleboarding, snorkeling, kayaking, and diving are all common sites here. And since this is a marine protected area, the opportunities to view marine life are excellent. For visitors wanting to participate in one of these sports, there are many vendors in the area that rent equiepment.
Travel Tip: Both Viator and Get Your Guide offer several tours including kayaking and sea lion viewing, surf lessons, paddleboarding lessons, and even a food tour. We've booked with Viator and Get Your Guide many times and find their tours to be affordable and enjoyable.
Bring your own snorkel gear and be ready to get in the water at a moment's notice.
Laguna Beach Hiking
Hiking in Laguna Beach is another outdoor activity and there are hundreds of miles of trails in and around the city. I’ve explored many of these trails, but my favorite Laguna Beach hikes can be found in Crystal Cove State Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.
Crystal Cove State Park offers 2,400 acres of wilderness that include trails ranging in difficulty from mild to strenuous. Anyone looking for a great leg workout without a machine should try the trail named "The Elevator." You'll feel this hike the next day, but you'll also earn bragging rights. At the higher elevations you'll be rewarded with ocean views. For some of the steeper hikes in this area hiking poles are very helpful.
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park offers forty miles of trails through a well-preserved coastal canyon. Most of these trails begin with steep inclines, but the views make all the effort worthwhile. Jason and I recently tackled the Willow Canyon Trail and loved it! This area is popular with moutain bikers as well, so just stay attentive to what's going on both in front and behind you on the trail.
Laguna Beach For Animal Lovers
After 30 years of living in Orange County--very close to Laguna Beach--I finally visited the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. I should have done this much sooner! This place rescues, rehabilitates and returns marine mammals to the ocean. A small staff and an army of volunteers nurse seals and sea lions back to health. On the day I was there, a dozen elephant seal pups that had been abandoned by their moms were barking loudly and frequently as they prepared for their dinner.
Did I mention that the Pacific Marine Mammal Center is free to visit? Its open everyday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. I recommend arriving around 3 p.m. as the mammals are being fed. Not only are the seals and sea lions quite noisy and active at this time, but its also fascinating to watch how the staff move them one at a time into small pools so that each receives the proper amount of fish. A tremendous amount of work is required to prepare these animals for their eventual return to the ocean.
Laguna Beach for Art Lovers
In the early 1900’s the Laguna Beach Artists Association was founded as a way for the local artists to organize shows and promote their work. This group eventually secured space for their ongoing shows and over time this space evolved into the Laguna Art Museum.
In addition to the permanent collection, there are currently two special exhibits; one is a book written and illustrated by the famous Shakespearean actress, Helena Modjeska, and the other prints from Self-Help Graphics.
Do you enjoy museums?
Here are Six Orange County Museums To Visit
or the Best Museums in Los Angeles
Laguna Beach continues to offer the world so many options when it comes to art--The Pageant of the Masters, the Sawdust Art Festival, a museum, 75 pieces of public art, and more than a hundred art galleries--which explains, in part, why 3 million visitors come to this beach town each year.
For those not familiar with Laguna Beach, let me explain that the Pageant of the Masters is a show where famous artworks are recreated in exquisite detail using actors. For the few minutes that the “artwork” is displayed, actors must remain completely still. Each year there is a different theme, so the artworks selected are always different. This show is only offered in July and August, but if you are here during this timeframe it’s definitely a show worth seeing.
Across the street is the summer long, outdoor Sawdust Art Festival which offers a selection of arts and crafts, as well as live entertainment.
The First Thursdays Art Walk takes place the first Thursday of each month from 6-9 p.m. Many of the galleries stay open late and offer refreshments. I’ve participated in this a few times and it’s a great time to see hundreds of people strolling the streets of Laguna Beach socializing and appreciating art.
If you want to know more about the art in this town from a local expert, then sign-up for the Laguna Beach art tour. This four hour adventure includes stops at galleries, street art and cafes.
Laguna Beach Restaurants
Whether you enjoy the outdoors or art, or both, you are going to need to eat, and Laguna Beach is the perfect place. There are dozens of excellent restaurants to be found throughout this city.
Laguna Beach restaurants with a view are plentiful, so why not take advantage of this while visiting. We enjoy patio dining at Las Brisas, which is conveniently located next to Main Beach and along the walkway of Heisler Park. Meals in the main dining room are very pricey here, so we usually opt for the patio where a more affordable menu is offered.
But if you are looking for Laguna Beach restaurants on the water, my top recommendation is Driftwood Kitchen. This place is seriously good! The food and service is excellent, but the view is what won me over. The entire dining room hangs above the beach and is surrounded in glass so everyone can enjoy an ocean view. Reservations are essential, and I recommend making one about an hour before sunset so you'll appreciate the view during daylight and then watch as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean.
Further South along Pacific Coast Highway is the Laguna Village which offers some small arts and craft shops along with the open air restaurant, The Cliff. This place is a bit hard to find, but when you do, you'll be rewarded with great views in a more casual setting.
Laguna Beach offers several rooftop ocean view bars and restaurants, so if you’re looking for a scenic happy hour in Laguna Beach consider either Skyloft or Rooftop Lounge.
If you are visiting Laguna Beach and want to experience several restaurants at one time then I highly recommend a food tour with a local guide.
The most famous restaurant in the area is a very casual option, the Crystal Cove Shake Shack (not related to the hamburger chain, Shake Shack). This bright yellow, wooden building that opened in 1946, sits adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway, and overlooks the state beach. In addition to some seriously delicious and thick milkshakes, they also serve typical diner food. This is a popular place with visitors and locals alike, so the parking lot fills up quickly and often a line of cars forms waiting for space.
Best Time To Visit Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach weather is temperate all year long, so there really isn't a bad time to visit. Peak day time temperatures in summer rarely exceed 80 degrees, and in the winter are typically about 60 degrees. So deciding when to visit really depends on your interests.
Art and theater lovers should definitely plan a trip to Laguna in the summer to take advantage of the Pageant of the Masters and all the festivals. Just be sure to book your accommodations far in advance to get the best pricing. Summer is also optimal for beach lovers. The only activity that's not great in the summer is hiking. The surrounding hills turn brown making the views less appealing.
However, if you are not coming for the shows and festivals, then consider coming any other time of the year. Hiking is especially enjoyable in the spring as the hills turn green and wildflowers bloom. Art galleries, museums, shopping and dining can be enjoyed all year, and typically with less crowds than the summer.
Laguna Beach Hotels
Laguna Beach is home to several excellent oceanview and oceanfront hotels and resorts.
The Inn at Laguna Beach is centrally located in town, overlooking both Main Beach and Heisler Park. This is a great location for parking once and walking to many top Laguna Beach restaurants and sites.
Further south on Coast Highway, the Surf and Sand Resort also boasts an ocean front location, but it’s right on the sand. Guests can choose to relax around the pool or on the beach. There’s an award winning restaurant on site called Splashes that I definitely recommend.
The downside of most Laguna Beach hotels is the price. If you don’t need an oceanview, or are willing to stay just outside of the city, I’d recommend hotels in the Irvine Spectrum area. Most of these properties are a fifteen minute drive into Laguna.
Finally, consider AirBnB in Laguna Beach. These rentals may give you more space as well as a full kitchen for preparing meals.
Laguna Beach For Locals And Visitors
Laguna Beach has much to offer both locals and out of town visitors. If you’re like me, and live nearby, you can pop in for a romantic ocean view dinner and evening walk, or if you’re coming from a distance there is plenty to see and do for a few days. Laguna is filled with beautiful art, matched only by the spectacular ocean views.