Over the past few months, I’ve been getting to know the best Orange County beach towns to live in and to visit. My boyfriend, Dave, got a killer job opportunity in Southern California, and as a result decided to relocate to the Los Angeles/Orange County area. May and June so far have been whirlwind months trying to get him moved out there from Denver and settled, and then also starting the long-distance relationship thing since I’m still based in Denver.
At first I was not so happy about him being in Southern California, since that’s where I grew up (Thousand Oaks to be precise, which is in Ventura County). I had a lot of negative bias from my childhood about everything from Ventura to San Diego. I moved to the East Coast when I was 17 and never looked backed (and never wanted to go back, other than the obligatory holidays and family functions).
That all changed on our apartment hunting trip in early May, where we tried to find the best Orange County beach towns for Dave (and me part-time) to live in.
Prior to the trip, we had had several informational calls with friends of mine who had previously lived in SoCal beach towns. One friend, Jason, used to live in Redondo Beach while he was working at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Another friend, Tyler, currently lives in Aliso Viejo, which, although not a beach community, is about 15 minutes from Laguna Beach. Another friend, Jay, had a lot to say about the general area as well, and reminded us not to overlook Long Beach – although he was based in Ventura County, he had some good advise about the best Orange County beach towns as well. Finally, my friend Deb owns a rental property in the Santa Monica area, but lived extensively throughout Los Angeles and Orange County before relocating to Washington D.C. (incidentally, she was my landlord when I lived in Arlington, VA and worked for Deloitte…many moons ago).
They all converged on a few places for us, and listed the following as the best Orange County beach towns (some of which also included southern Los Angeles county beach towns). In no particular order:
- South Redondo Beach
- Long Beach (Naples and Belmont Shores)
- Seal Beach
- Huntington Beach
- Newport Beach
- Laguna Beach
- Dana Point
- San Clemente
With our preliminary research done on the best Orange County beach towns, we knew we had a wide swath of territory to cover in basically 4 days (Saturday through Tuesday).
In this 60 miles of territory, we had lined up appointments with rental realtors, Craigslist people, and apartment complexes, in an as organized manner as we possibly could. We decided to AirBnB it to learn even more about the prospective areas, and had arranged to stay in Huntington Beach Friday and Saturday nights because of the central location, and then Dana Point Sunday and Monday nights.
The one wild-card for us was where Dave was going to have to commute to. We didn’t know a lot. All his hiring manager was able to share with us was that they had customers sites in Torrance, Anaheim, and San Diego. Generally speaking, (from Redondo Beach to the North to Dana Point in the South), the further South you go the more expensive. Also, the commute to Orange County can be a real bear depending on where it is, but even if the location is more towards the coast, some good freeway access is necessary. If you look at the map (above) you can see some of the best Orange County beach towns that we listed are situated quite a bit away from the freeways.
We were advised by Deb to skip anything between Long Beach/Belmont Shore and Redondo Beach, so we did. She and Jason both loved Redondo Beach, but we actually never had a chance to visit in person because we had so many other opportunities south of that (and more central to Dave’s work radius). We also heard that Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach are nice as well, but they were really too far north for us so we eliminated them straight away.
For all of the best Orange County beach towns that we looked at, considered, or heard about, here’s a compiled list of the good, the bad, and the ugly, starting closest to LA and going south:
- Redondo Beach: The cost of Redondo Beach is is a little bit lower (but still California beach prices) because it’s further from the freeway, but that’s what we locals like about it! You want to stay in South Redondo, which is very different than North Redondo. Specifically, Riviera Village is the best place – stay west of Prospect, and south of Knob Hill, all the way down (south of Knob Hill) the beach to Malaga Cove. There is a piece of beach in here called Torrance Beach, but it really is just Redondo Beach and all the homes here have a Redondo Beach mailing address. And a tip (for all beach communities, but especially here too) – stay away from the first street by the beach. It’s usually very windy and you get lots of sand everywhere, and there’s also lots of traffic. A few blocks back from the beach would be much nicer all around and still a short walk to the beach. And, ironically, better views. She explained to us that Riviera Village is kind of like Shirlington Village (near where I used to live in Washington, D.C.), only bigger and on the beach! It is nestled just south west of the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Palos Verdes Blvd. She thinks it’s of the nicest spots to live, and there’s an access road that goes above Palos Verdes Blvd before it hits Pacific Coast Hwy. It is right across from the Village, a quick walk to the beach, but away from the crowds and you get a beautiful view from here. The beach itself has this beautiful view of the houses in Malaga Cove and kind of feels like a European Beach. It sounds like we would have loved Redondo, based on Jason and Deb’s recommendation, but we ended up not having time to visit.
- Hermosa Beach. Then Hermosa Beach is kind of funky but very, very crowded. The advantage of Manhattan Beach is that the North End is close to the freeway, but again, the closer to the freeway, the more expensive and the more crowded. We never even visited Hermosa, as it was too far north for us.
- Long Beach. Belmont Shore (and Naples Island) were a favorite of Deb, and of mine! The area was “affordable” and seemed to offer everything – the beach, shops, restaurants, boating, etc. all within close reach. The main street in Belmont Shore is kind of like Old Town Alexandria near Washington, D.C. (only instead of 30 blocks it is maybe 10 blocks) and is very fun. It was eclectic, wild, a little trashy, and LGBT friendly. I liked it much more than Dave. It was also very crowded, and reminded me a little of what Atlantic City must have been like. The advice we got was to stay south of Livingston, which we did when we visited for dinner. I would have kept it on the list, but Dave ruled it out as being too trashy, crowded, not-authentic, and too large. I was happy to let it go 🙂
- Seal Beach. Seal Beach was the cutest “small beach community” that we ended up seeing in our travels. It was hipster, friendly, had a mixed demographic, and was accessible to the freeway. We spent a good amount of time there because there were some apartments available, close to the beach, in our price range (but nothing perfect). We had some great sandwiches as a sandwich shack called Pierside Press, and everybody we talked to, including the rental agent, was friendly. This was a great places for us, but it just didn’t work out. Ironically, a few weeks later, there was a huge fire on the pier, down near where we were walking, in an old, abandoned restaurant. When we saw the news we were like “Hey, we were there!” What we didn’t love was the oil refinery – while safe, it makes a bleak backdrop. On the plus side, it wasn’t directly blocking the view to the ocean and was really just ominously looming in the periphery. As you are driving up and down the coast there are actually a lot of refineries. We saw the most in the Huntington Beach area.
- Huntington Beach. Huntington Beach is kind of desolate and does not have a real “beach community”. It does have a pier and shops by that, but no real apartments/homes close by there, as it’s more of a drive to/destination type beach. We noticed that first hand as we walked around the residential area close to the main drag, which was very hit or miss in terms of how nice each street was. Huntington Beach seemed like a great for tourists, and gets very crowded in the summer as much of the LA trash descends on the town. Similarly, it has a youngish club/raver scene that can be hard to deal with as an old(er) adult. However, if you want surf culture, it certainly has that – nicknames Surf City, USA, it’s home to a huge surfing competition in July. Our ArBnB host was about a mile from the beach in an upscale but more affordable community, and did really like the area and her location. She has a 10 year old daughter as well, and they would ride their bikes to the beach once a week. It seemed to work for them, but we didn’t think it would really work for us. We wanted to be closer to the beach, and in a smaller community oriented place. We decided to pass.
- Newport Beach. Newport Beach is really more about Balboa Island, which is fantastic. It’s also a pretty short hop to the Freeway going up the back way through Costa Mesa, and also has easy airport access (SNA, which you can read about for #layovertips here), but it does get very crowded. It’s a gorgeous, upper class, beach vacation rental type community with everything within walking distance on Balboa Island. We were also priced out of this region, except for Corona Del Mar, which was located a few miles southeast of Newport Beach proper. We did look at some gorgeous places in Corona, but nothing that met all of our criteria.
- Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach has a more bohemian/campy feel, but has a lot of hills and narrow roads and makes it hard to navigate and hard to just walk around to the shops/beaches, etc. The cliffs also make it hard to just walk out of your place to the beach. That said, it was an artist’s community and it shows in the chic, now upscale vibe – art galleries and hipster restaurants are everywhere, and it makes a great day trip. That said, we were basically priced out, and were unable to find any good options close to the beach for less than $3000/month.
- Dana Point. Dana Point has more of a resort/boating community type feel and is beautiful, sitting on cliffs in many parts. The beaches are really on both sides of Dana Point and not next to the town directly. Doheny Beach is a great place for a beginning surfer (and Dave did want to learn how to surf), but there’s a sewage pipe that spills right in to that area so a wet-suit is recommended. There’s a charming marina and easy access to boats that can take you whale watching, or to Catalina.
The night life is improving as the city is in the process of redeveloping the Lantern District on Del Prado Street. There are already quite a few neat places to go, and it’s only growing. Everyone we met in town was nice, not-pretentious, helpful, and fairly normal – it definitely had a sleepy, laid-back beach vibe, but with the anticipation of a burgeoning town. We especially enjoyed the scene at a little beach bar and grill called The Shwack.
- San Clemente. This was the last place we visited and we actually had already settled on a place prior to checking out SC. Here’s a picture of the SC pier, which is breath-taking. We had brunch at a cute restaurant on the pier called The Fisherman’s Restaurant, and went for a long walk from the water all the way onto the main drag, 6 blocks uphill and inland. While fun, and good for a day trip, we didn’t love San Clemente like we expected to. It seemed slightly run down, and honestly didn’t have as many options on the main drag as we thought it would. But, the flip side is that, like Long Beach, it was more “affordable”. We actually liked San Juan Capistrano way more, even though it was inland and did not meet our “within a mile from the beach” criteria.
Side note: weeks later we went back to San Clemente on a Friday and hit the “posh” side of town. It was hopping, impossible to find a seat at the bar, and 2 hours to get a table (at 730 PM). People were very nice and we had a great time. So maybe SC is cooler than we originally thought!
Best Orange County Beach Towns – the winner!
You must be dying to know where we ended up, am I right?
Maybe you deduced it from my descriptions above, but for us, all things considered Dana Point was the winner of the best Orange County beach towns competition for us. We found a great place (albeit at a higher price point than we wanted) 5 blocks from the water and 2 blocks from the main drag, Del Prado Street. Here’s Dave in our gorgeous backyard.
Our landlord, Dee (Deborah), is fantastic, and treats her tenants like they are real people and I daresay, even friends (this is the same way I try to treat my tenants). The place is a charming beach bungalow with a killer yard and it honestly is just so peaceful, you don’t even want to leave.
And check out the kitchen!
I like Dana Point and the place we chose so much, that I have even set aside my previous biases and am starting to “like” the OC. Whether I will want to relocate from Denver remains to be seen, but for now, every time I visit, it’s paradise.