Orange County does not have a shortage of beautiful coastal beach towns, but Laguna Beach has quickly become one of my favorite local destinations. It has a thriving art community and the downtown is nestled among rolling hills that remind me of Marin back in the Bay Area. The center is walkable, where you can easily go from the beach to shops and restaurants sans car. This idyllic beach town is great for a quick escape from Los Angeles, where you can enjoy the warm weather year-round. Here’s how to create the perfect Laguna Beach itinerary for a day or two.
One Day Laguna Beach Itinerary
Start your Laguna Beach itinerary with a leisurely brunch at the Zinc Cafe & Market, which is located downtown. This mostly outdoor cafe specializes in healthy options including avocado toast and matcha lattes. For something a bit heartier, their breakfast burritos, scrambled egg plates, and healthy bowls do not disappoint. Stop by their market next door to pick up a post-meal treat in the form of an indulgent brownie or a slice of cake.
For a fancier alternative, try Nick’s Laguna Beach, which offers decadent choices like California omelets, short ribs benedict, and fried chicken and waffles.
After having a healthy-ish California brunch, walk through the quaint downtown Laguna area, with its boutique shops, art galleries and upscale Italian restaurants. Here’s a few places worth stopping by:
- Kush Fine Art – a one-of-a-kind art gallery that features the metaphorical art of Vladimir Kush
- Laguna Drug – a pharmacy that also sells unique home goods, gifts, and beach gear
- AREO – another great gift store featuring home decor and memorable gifts
- Toes on the Nose – a cute surf shop where you can pick up beach gear and apparel
- Jasmine of Anatolia – a gift shop with beautiful handcrafted Turkish items, including colorful hanging lamps.
Head a few blocks over to Main Beach, which is ideal for people-watching, dipping your toes in the water, and sunbathing. Travel tip: if it’s super crowded when you arrive, try heading over to the left side of the beach (pass the bathrooms), where there tends to be more room to spread out.
Drive up the coast and spend the late afternoon at Crystal Cove State Park, a scenic stretch of coastline that is located between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway. Wander through the Historic District where you can see 46 vintage cottages from the 1930s-40s. Get up close and personal with sea life at one of the many tide pools on the beaches (check out this map for the best spots). For something a bit more adrenaline-inducing, take advantage of one of the many hiking trails in the area. Stop by the Ranger Station at the trailhead to get directions/trail conditions.
A beach alternative is the Thousand Steps Beach, where you will get in your daily steps (though there’s more like 200 steps instead of 1000). Because of its limited access, this beach provides a quiet retreat away from the beach crowds that frequent Main Beach.
Head back to town, and grab dinner at Driftwood Kitchen, a former private home-turned restaurant, where the only thing that rivals the food is the views. Make sure to reserve a spot out on the deck, for a front row seat to the sunset. The dinner menu features fresh seafood, like grilled Spanish octopus, steamed Carlsbad mussels, and lobster spaghetti carbonara. For those who are craving meat, there’s some solid steak options.
For dessert, walk over to Gelato Paradiso, a local favorite, which is hidden in an alleyway right off the main sidewalk along the Pacific Highway. Don’t be deterred by the long line, this gelato is worth the wait. Get one of their homemade waffle cones, that you can smell all the way from the street. For those who are dairy-free, plentiful sorbetto options are available.
Laguna Beach Itinerary For An Additional Day
If you are planning on staying another 24 hours, here’s what to see from art galleries to white sand beaches.
Start the morning hiking at the Top of the World (officially called Alta Laguna Park), where there are trails ranging from easy to very difficult (made the mistake of underestimating a trail last time I was there). The morning is an ideal time to hike, especially in the summer when the heat is still minimal due to the presence of a cooling marine layer. The views are unparalleled and you can see all the way to the ocean on a clear day. I’ve usually found parking in the residential area surrounding the park, but there’s also a free parking lot in the park as well.
Spend an hour or two at the Laguna Art Museum, where you can view an impressive collection of art solely from California artists ranging from the 19th century to present day. This art museum has a strong sense of community and you can learn about the early history of this beach town through artwork by artists like Edgar Payne, who lived in Laguna Beach in the early 20th century. Admission is $7 for adults/$5 for students (18+). First Thursdays of the month from 5-9pm are free.
Afterward, head to Urth Caffe, for a late lunch. This is one of my favorite locations of this Southern Californian cafe chain, because it’s located in a former beach house and you feel like you are dining in someone’s summer home. There is a spacious patio that is a must for warm lazy afternoons. The food is good, but in my opinion is a bit overpriced, but you’re paying mostly for the atmosphere.
At sunset, head to the nearby walkway along the cliffs at Heisler Park to enjoy aerial views of the beach and the ocean. Stop at Rockpile Beach, where you can access the beach down a stone staircase. Walk past popular wedding sights including Gazebo and Monument Point. There are barbecues pits and picnic tables as well if you want to create an impromptu picnic.
For dinner, keep things casual and go to Adonis Mediterranean Grill, which has freshly-made gyros and chicken wraps that are the size of your forearm.
Additional Things For A Laguna Beach Itinerary
- Pageant of the Masters – a popular visual arts performance every summer where famous life-sized paintings are reenacted. Runs from early July through the end of August.
- Sawdust Art Festival – a casual art festival featuring over 200+ artists, as well as live entertainment and art activities. During the wintertime, there’s a Sawdust Art Festival Winter Fantasy on the weekends from mid-November to mid-December.
- Pacific Marine Mammal Center – learn about rehabilitating local sea mammals, including adorable harbor seals. Visit the current patients by taking a tour of the facilities led by a volunteer. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Open 10am-4pm every day, except major winter holidays.
- Aliso Beach Park – a popular skim-boarding spot and one of the only beaches with first-come fire pits. There is cheap parking, and is less crowded than the city’s main beach.
- Victoria Beach one of the most photographed beaches, with white sand, an iconic Pirate Tower and a man-made pool, as well as views of million-dollar mansions in the background. Parking is difficult, and your best bet is along the PCH, including metered parking near the Montage Resort.
Related post: The Best Beaches In Orange County
When is the best time to visit Laguna Beach?
The most popular time to visit is during the summer, but Laguna Beach in early fall is one of my favorite times of year. The summer crowds have gone home, and California is having its second summer with mild balmy days. Visiting during September-October also means avoiding crowded beaches and long lines at restaurants. Although if you are planning a trip specifically around the Festival of the Arts (including the Pageant of the Masters) then it’s worth braving the summer crowds for that.
Parking is not cheap in downtown Laguna (learned that the hard way), and it’s better to avoid the overpriced parking lots altogether. Instead, park up in the hilly residential neighborhoods right above downtown for free and then use the Jahraus Park staircase to make your way into downtown.
Another parking alternative is to park in one of the lots on the outskirts of town, and then take the free trolley into downtown. Download the Visit Laguna Beach app with the Trolley Tracker here.
Where To Stay In Laguna Beach
If you want to extend your day trip into a weekend getaway, you can definitely splurge on stunning beach-side resorts, but if you’re looking for something a bit more affordable, here are three great options.
This spotless motel has all the creature comforts without being pretentious or emptying your wallet. Hotel amenities include a pool with a fire pit, BBQ facilities, kitchenettes and free parking. Best of all it’s a block away from the beach and an easy walk to downtown.
This affordable option is a quick drive to downtown, but removed far enough from the action to create a peaceful retreat. The hotel is located right across the street from the scenic Woods Cove Beach, where sunset strolls are a must. Amenities include a complementary breakfast.
To truly immerse yourself into Southern California chic, this boutique hotel will immediately make you feel right at home with its airy surfer-centric, beach cottage design. It’s a short walk away from the beach and the center of town, and offers complementary coffee to jump start your day.