San Clemente is the southern-most city in Orange County that is known for its iconic pier and popular surf breaks. Next to Dana Point, it can be a great add-on or a memorable separate day trip. It’s quieter (read less crowds) than its other coastal southern Orange County counterparts (Laguna and Newport), but equally as beautiful. Here are the best things to do in San Clemente that should be on your short list.
Top Things To Do In San Clemente
San Clemente Pier
Start your day at this historical pier, where you can get your bearings taking a leasurely stroll past locals fishing and surfers bobbing in the surf below waiting for the perfect wave. The Fisherman’s Restaurant located at the beginning of the pier is alright, but in my honest opinion it’s a typical tourist spot and you can find better seafood elsewhere (ahem Nick’s) but it can be a fun Happy Hour spot with a killer view.
On the off-season you can usually find metered parking ($1.50/per hour, 9-5pm) on the main street near the pier. During summer, there is a trolley that stops at the beach and connects to downtown San Clemente.
San Clemente Beach Trail
To continue getting some fresh air and take in those stunning beach views, head out on this beach trail that is 2.3 miles long (about 1.5 hours) and passes by some of San Clemente’s top beaches. There is easy access from parking lots at San Clemente Pier, North Beach, and Calafia State Park. If you want to start at the beginning, go to the North Beach train station and from there you can walk all the way to San Clemente State Beach along the trail. The path is open to bikers and is dog-friendly. Check out this post from California Through My Lens to get more details about the trail itself.
Avenida Del Mar
This charming main street is a fun place to walk around and check out boutiques, art galleries and surf shops. Stop by Beach Town Books to browse new and secondhand books. After working up an appetite, a deli sandwich from Billy’s never fails. For a fancier meal, Nick’s San Clemente serves up fresh seafood and juicy steaks. For desert, South Swell Hand Dipped Ice Cream is a must-stop for delicious creations in the form of decadent ice cream bars.
Outlets at San Clemente
Located a short drive from downtown, this center with an ocean view is where serious shopping takes place. There are plenty of discounted popular brands like H&M, lululemon, and Calvin Klein, as well as numerous counter-service and sit-down restaurants. There are seasonal events like the world tallest Christmas tree. The center is dog-friendly, where your pup can enjoy a puppuccino from Starbucks.
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens
This former residence of Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente, is now a museum/cultural center that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Wander around the interior and learn about the history of Los Angeles and Orange County. Explore the scenic grounds, take in views of the pier close by and understand why so many people choose to have their weddings here. There are also year-round performances, workshops, and exhibitions for the public to enjoy. Guests can either take a self-guided tour or join one of the docent-led daily tours.
Surf Heritage & Cultural Center
Immerse yourself in the rich local surfing history, starting with the largest collections of surfboards. Whether you are a hardcore surf fan or just someone who is curious about this populuar Southern California pastime (hand raised), it’s a stop worth an hour or two of your time. This non-profit organization boasts an impressive collection of surfing-related artifacts and memorabilia, including historical photographs and videos.
San Clemente Beaches
- T Street Beach – a popular surf spot that is just north of the pier. Fire and BBQ pits are available, as well as a snack hut.
- San Clemente State Beach – a more remote beach that offers miles of stunning coastline and campgrounds you can reserve in advance.
- North Beach – kid-friendly beach with a small playground and convenient parking for lugging beach gear.
- San Onofre State Beach – located technically over the border in San Diego County, this state beach includes Trestles surf spots that are popular with pro surfers. Campgrounds are available to reserve in advance as well.
Directions to San Clemente
San Clemente is located about 25 minutes from Laguna Beach. Trade Highway 5 for Highway 1 for a picturesque drive down the coast. Los Angeles and San Diego are about an hour away (on a good day without traffic). The closest airport is John Wayne in Santa Ana, which is about 30 minutes away if the roads are not congested.
Best time to visit San Clemente
During the summer, it can get quite hot, especially during September and October when the hot Santa Ana winds blast around Southern California. In May and June there is a local phenomenon called June Gloom (that can also start early as May Gray, and extend to No-Sky July and Fogust). This thick marine layer usually burns off by the afternoon. Wintertime it gets cooler with the occasional rain, but usually stays in the 60s-70s.