San Clemente is the southern-most city in Orange County that is known for its iconic pier, popular surf breaks and Spanish-style architecture. 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. Whether you prefer to spend the day on the beach or wandering around the picturesque downtown, 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 (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, downtown and the San Clemente Outlets. The trolley also conveniently connects to the Dana Point and Laguna Beach trolley routes.
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. If you are craving a ice cold brew, Lost Winds Brewing specializes in Belgian and American style ales, Left Coast Brewing Company for a wide range of beers and Artiflex for IPAs. 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 Mediterranean-style open-air mall with a view of the Pacific Ocean is a shopping haven. There are plenty of discounted popular brands like H&M, lululemon, and Vans, Converse as well as numerous counter-service and sit-down restaurants like Blaze Pizza with decent vegan, vegetarian, and gf options. There are seasonal events like the world tallest Christmas tree. The center is dog-friendly, where your pup can enjoy a puppuccino from Starbucks.
A bonus is the immaculate bathrooms that are a great alternative to the public restrooms at the beaches.
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 popular 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.
General admission is $5. The center is opened Tuesday-Sunday from 11-5 pm and is closed on Mondays.
San Clemente Beaches
San Clemente has a variety of excellent beaches, whether you want to surf or just soak in some Vitamin D. Most beaches have paid parking lots or nearby street parking.
T Street Beach (Esplanade Beach)
A popular local surf spot that is just south of the pier and is a quick 10-minute walk along the San Clemente Beach Trail. This white sand beach is less crowded than its northern counterpart and is well-maintained with lifeguards during the warmer, busier months. BBQ pits and picnic tables are available, as well as a concession stand open during the busy season. There is a small parking lot next to the overpass that leads to the beach, as well as plentiful street parking in the surrounding area.
San Clemente State Beach
A beautiful remote southern beach that offers miles of stunning coastline and campgrounds or RV spots on the cliffs above the beach which you can reserve in advance for up to six months from the current date. Each campsite has a fire pit, BBQ grill and semi-covered picnic table. The beach itself is well-maintained, including the restrooms. There are lifeguards guards constantly patrolling the area during the daytime. For guests who are just visiting for the day, you can buy a daily parking pass for $15.
This northern family-friendly beach is another local favorite, with a small adjacent playground and less crowds than the main beach. The San Clemente Metrolink Station is an easy 2-minute walk from the beach if you prefer to take public transportation and shares a convenient paid parking lot ($1 per hour) with North Beach. There is a seasonal snack bar as well as a nearby 7-11 for snacks and beverages. If you come at night, there are plenty of bonfire pits with benches to warm up at.
San Onofre State Beach
Located technically over the border in San Diego County, this scenic state beach is known for its Waikiki-vibes where the surf is ideal for beginner surfers and there is a welcoming atmosphere in the water. Regulars in their VW vans dot the coast and it feels like you have time-traveled back in time to the 1970s. Campgrounds are available to reserve in advance. Parking can be tricky, especially during the summertime, since they limit the number of cars in the lot at one time. A day pass is $15.
The northernmost part of San Onofre State Beach, this popular surf area is divided into three different sections: Uppers, Lowers, Middles, The Church, Cottons and Old Man’s (The Point and Dog are popular surf areas within this section). The Lowers is most popular area with surfers due to its consistently excellent waves. For more details about the different surf areas, check out this post.
Getting to Trestles is half the fun, since it’s quite a trek either option that you choose. Either you can park at San Onofre State Beach, and make the longer, but scenic route that goes past The Church or you can park around Cristianitos Road (there’s a paid public lot at Carl’s Jr. as well as street parking) and hike down to the beach.
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. A car is recommended, but if you prefer public transportation the Metrolink and Amtrak stop at San Clemente Pier station steps from the beach, as well as an additional San Clemente Metrolink station stop located next to North Beach.
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.
What are your favorite activities to do in San Clemente?