Laguna Beach, California Vacation Planning Guide

Looking for a relaxing seaside vacation in Southern California? Laguna Beach is the perfect destination, and in this planning guide we’ll offer tips for visiting, things to do, places to eat, and more that you need to know about Laguna Beach, California.

We love Laguna Beach. It’s our favorite of the beach cities, and one of our favorite spots in all of California. We think it’s far superior to more recognizable cities like Santa Monica and Huntington Beach (both of which are incredibly overrated, in our estimation), and it’s even better than Malibu and Newport Beach (which are not overrated, but still not as great as Laguna).

One great strength of Laguna Beach is its vibrant arts community established decades ago that endures even as the area has grown in affluence. Laguna Playhouse and Laguna Art Museum are local staples, as are the many public art installations. Summer arts festivals are another highlight, as is the world-renowned Pageant of the Masters (I won’t say it was “made famous by” Arrested Development, but that certainly didn’t hurt). There’s also exceptional boutique shopping, dining, and recreational opportunities, most of which do not involve the ocean. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to Laguna Beach than the beach. 

We often describe Laguna Beach as a sleepy coastal town, which is only partially true. The eponymously-named reality TV show in the aughts gave it a lot of name recognition, and it still makes regular appearances on programs I’d never admit to watching (or so I hear), which has raised its profile.

Likely due to this–and because it’s just a flat out gorgeous place–Laguna Beach can feel crowded during peak seasons. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, this relatively small city is bursting with tourists and can feel pretty busy. It can be frustrating to drive along Pacific Coast Highway because crosswalks slow traffic to a crawl, and sidewalks downtown around Main Beach are packed.

However, even if you’re getting ready for a visit during summer tourist season, you can still find the quiet side of Laguna Beach. Let’s start our Laguna Beach Vacation Guide with the first step of your trip planning: the best time of year to visit Laguna…

When to Visit

Although the weather in Southern California is typically regarded as perfect year-round, there are better and worse times to visit Laguna Beach. In terms of weather, the best time is summer. Other areas in SoCal can get hot during July and August, but the coastal breezes here tend to keep things comfortable–around 10º cooler than inland.

If you plan on swimming in the ocean, the summer months are ideal. Our perspective is that the Pacific ocean is for looking at, so this doesn’t really matter to us–but your mileage may vary. If you’re primarily concerned with sun-bathing and that sort of thing, weather is fine pretty much any time outside of November through March, when it might be a bit too chilly, even during the middle of the day.

On balance, we think the best times to visit are mid to late September or late February into early March. These times of year are the sweet spots for crowds, hotel rates, and weather. Be sure to pack a jacket and jeans in addition to the beach attire, as evenings do get chilly thanks to that coast breeze.

Where to Stay

In the interest of full disclosure, we’ve never stayed at any hotels in Laguna Beach. We’ve visited almost all of the nicer ones–some many times–for meals or to walk around at sunset, but we have never needed a hotel in Laguna Beach. Our opinions here are predicated upon common areas and amenities.

We assume what we glean from that can be extrapolated to what the guest rooms are like, but perhaps not. It’s certainly within the realm of possibilities that the $500/night 5-star beach resort actually has creepy motel rooms filled with mold, bedbugs, and various bed-dwelling monsters. Highly unlikely…but possible.

With that said, here’s a selection of our favorite Laguna Beach hotels, at a variety of price-points…

Montage Laguna Beach – This is where the high-rollers stay; it’s unquestionably the nicest hotel in Orange County. A beautiful Craftsman-style resort with a formidable art collection that’s perched on 30 acres of Southern California’s prettiest stretch of coastline. With multiple lawns and gorgeous gardens, the natural beauty here extends far beyond the picturesque beaches, too.

The downside of the Montage is that there’s about a 50/50 chance of finding us here on afternoons when there’s an epic sunset brewing. The public-access parks along the Montage’s coastline are our favorite place to watch the sunset. (Random side note: they also have beautiful, “fancy” rabbits on the grounds that I swear are domesticated.)

Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel – Situated pretty much where Laguna Niguel, Laguna Beach, and Dana Point meet, this is an exquisite hotel with all of the luxury amenities you’d expect from a Ritz-Carlton: spa, fine dining, superlative service, etc.

It’s nestled into a quiet stretch of coastline near Salt Creek Beach, which is either a strength or weakness depending upon your perspective. If you want to be away from the crowds, it’s great. If you want to be closer to downtown Laguna Beach, it’s not the ideal location.

Casa Laguna Hotel & Spa – Our pick for a mid-tier hotel. Like several 3-4 star hotels in the city, Casa Laguna elevates what would otherwise be somewhat modest accommodations with charming interior design and atmospheric landscaping. The Spanish Colonial Revival exterior gives it California flair,

Laguna Beach Lodge (Formerly Travelodge Laguna Beach) – Despite the exterior, this is a surprisingly solid motel. By far the biggest strengths are its location directly across the street from the Montage and its inexpensive price point. If you’re not a high-roller, stay here and simply walk across the street to enjoy the public-access amenities of the Montage.

If you have questions about other hotels, let us know in the comments. All of the hotels in town are along Pacific Coast Highway, and we’re at least familiar with them all. We can offer thoughts on location and how they look from the outside, if not on the quality of the rooms directly.

Things to Do

Obviously, the primary thing to do in Laguna Beach is go to the beach. In terms of overall quality and variety of beaches, including quiet coves, vibrant parks, and intimate pocket beaches, Laguna is second to none. The sheer number of great beaches in the city is unparalleled, and even other places we like–Newport and Malibu–can’t touch Laguna in terms of the quantity of strong beaches.

We’re not going to list every single beach we like here, and that’s primarily because we’ve already ranked our favorite beaches in our 10 Best Beaches in Laguna Beach, California post. We’ve also done a handful of standalone posts about the beaches in our Laguna Beach category of posts.

However, what we will do is recommend the two beaches you should avoid: Main Beach and Crystal Cove State Park. Not because there’s anything necessarily wrong with these two locations, but because they are only “fine” and (more importantly) they are like magnets for tourists.

This is actually great news so long as you avoid these beaches, because it means the lesser-known coves and parks in Laguna Beach are proportionately less-crowded. This is often true even during the heart of summer tourist season, when some hidden gem beaches still feel like it’s the off-season.

Given its small size and prominence of its beaches, you might not expect to find much else to do in Laguna Beach. Here are some of our other favorites…

Laguna Art Museum – Founded by local artists in 1918, Laguna Art Museum exhibits works of art by California artists depicting the life and history of the state across all periods and styles, nineteenth-century to present-day. The museum is a bit small with only a limited number of items on display at a time, which might make the admission cost seem steep, especially with so many free artist-owned galleries around time to explore, but we think it’s worth a visit.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center – As an organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine mammals, their primary purpose is conservation. You can stop in and possibly observe the feeding of a sea lion pup (that’s mostly what this non-profit helps), or you can learn about sea life in California. It’s more “real” than an aquarium, but also significantly smaller. The releases are fun to watch and heartwarming, but it’s almost impossible to plan around one of those.

Whale Watching – We recommend going to nearby Dana Point for the best whale watching excursions, but you can see whales off the coast of Laguna Beach, too. Heck, if you rent a paddleboard or kayak, you might just see dolphins, too!

Hiking – The most popular hike in Laguna Beach is West Ridge Trail, Lynx, and Cholla Trails Loop, which starts from Top of the World. Personally, I prefer Valido Trail to Aliso Summit Trail, which is far less popular. Both hikes offer breathtaking panoramic views of the coast and canyon.

Pageant of the Masters – An annual arts festival in Laguna that is most famous for where a muscular George Michael Bluth, posed in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. For those unfamiliar with Arrested Development (shame on you!), this features tableaux vivants (living pictures), which are incredibly faithful re­creations of classical and contemporary works of art, with real people posing to imitate their counterparts in the original pieces.

Photography – In my opinion, Laguna Beach is the most photogenic city in Southern California. I’ve photographed countless sunrises and sunsets from many different coves, bluffs, and beaches, and feel like I’ve still just scratched the surface. It’s not just the coast that’s gorgeous–you could spend hours per day just doing photowalks through town, too.

Sawdust – Known primarily for their arts & crafts festival in July and August where over 200 local artists exhibit and sell their artwork. Even if you’re not interested in purchasing anything, it’s fun to go just to peruse the exhibits and chat with local artists, most of whom are very enthusiastic about their craft, and love sharing with visitors. If you want something hands-on, Sawdust also offers year-round art classes in a variety of medias from ceramics to glass to jewelry, and more.

There are a ton of other things to do in Laguna Beach, but either they’re beyond the scope of my expertise (boutique shopping), things we haven’t done for some reason or another, or variations of the same general ideas listed above. If you’re looking for other things to do, this 100 Things to Do List by Visit Laguna is a great jumping off point.

Where to Eat

In our experience, Laguna Beach restaurants either offer an incredible view or great food. There are very few restaurants that do both well, and overall we have to admit that the dining scene in Laguna is not nearly what you’ll find in Los Angeles, San Diego, or even inland parts of Orange County.

For the most part, you’ll find a lot of straightforward American cuisine. You’ll find good meals at a lot of restaurants, but few that are inventive or really push the envelope. Be weary of glowing reviews of oceanfront restaurants–it’s easy to overlook a mediocre meal when it’s accompanied by a million-dollar view.

With that said, here are a few of our favorite restaurants in Laguna Beach…

Nick’s Laguna Beach – Serving traditional American cuisine in a relaxed environment downtown, this is my favorite restaurant in Laguna Beach. The Bacon Deviled Eggs, Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Baby Back Pork Ribs, and Blackened Fish Sandwich are all recommended.

Selanne Steak Tavern – Owned by the Finnish Flash (former Anaheim Ducks star Teemu Selanne), this is one of the swankiest restaurants in Laguna Beach. Prices can be intimidating, especially the $130 Lord Stanley’s Cut, and reviews of that cut (we’ve never tried it) are decidedly mixed. Skip the wagyu and go for a safer steak choice. We’re eager to try the newly-added brunch menu, which they just started serving earlier this year.

The Deck on Laguna Beach – The Deck definitely makes this list because of its excellent beachfront location, with open-air outdoor seating. Food is pretty good, and prices aren’t too bad, either. If you’re visiting from out of town, you’ll presumably want to do at least one meal with along the beach. This should be it.

Mozambique – This is where we dine most frequently in Laguna Beach. I wouldn’t say it’s even in the top 5 in terms of quality, but they have very reasonable happy hour food and drink specials that are solid. (We recommend the Mozambique Mule, Pork Chop, and Burger.) Just as important, it’s a rooftop venue with excellent sunset views, making it a perfect place to take visitors from out of town.

Urth Caffé – We waiver on this one. Urth is the “it” cafe in Laguna Beach, a chic location that draws crowds thanks to non-stop photos of it on social media. The coffee is just okay and the sandwiches are hit-or-miss, but the lattes are very good, and some of the breakfast options are excellent (they’re famous for the Avocado Toast). The atmosphere is also lovely.

If it’s a weekend, Urth will have a long line, so skip it in favor of Madison Square & Garden Cafe next door. Other good options include Zeytoon Cafe, Zinc Cafe, or Laguna Coffee Company, all of which are in the same general area.

Taco Loco – Many locals are fans of Papa’s Tacos in South Laguna, but I prefer Taco Loco for a cheap (well, by Laguna standards place for Mexican food). The menu is huge and can be intimidating…I almost always get some variety of swordfish (taco or nachos) plus whatever’s the special. The food won’t blow you away–especially once you try good Mexican food in LA or San Diego–but it’s great before or after a day at the beach.

There are still a number of restaurants we’ve yet to try in Laguna Beach, most of them in the higher-end hotels in town. To be honest, it’s tough to justify dining in Laguna; when we want to do a nice meal out, most of the time we’d rather go inland for better value for money or to Los Angeles for truly exceptional cuisine.

Maybe someday we’ll make a concerted effort to eat at the nice restaurants here and put together a more comprehensive Laguna Beach dining guide.

Transportation

Centrally located in Southern California, Laguna Beach is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego (much closer to Los Angeles distance-wise, but time-wise the two are about equidistance). The closest airport is John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange County, and that’s the one we recommend using. LAX and any of the other Los Angeles or San Diego-area airports are also options, but they’re much bigger hassles.

Laguna Beach is a staple of any California coast road trips down Pacific Coast Highway, which meanders along the ocean and goes directly through the heart of Laguna Beach. In fact, we consider it the perfect stopping point on a CA Highway 1 road trip when traveling between San Diego and LA.

The vast majority of people visiting SoCal will want to rent cars, but once you arrive in Laguna Beach, we’d recommend getting around town sans vehicle. While there’s an abundance of free parking along Pacific Coast Highway to the south and north of town, the downtown area is entirely metered. On top of that, parking downtown can be scarce during the summer months, and it’s pain to deal with finding a spot.

If you’re staying downtown, you’ll find that the heart of Laguna Beach is very walkable, and you probably won’t even need a car during most of your visit. If you’re staying to the south or north, we recommend taking advantage of the free weekend trolley that runs Friday evenings and pretty much all day on Saturdays and Sundays. Uber and Lyft are good options if you want something faster or on weekdays.

If you won’t have a car in Laguna Beach for some reason, don’t plan to be reliant on public transportation beyond the trolley. While the OCTA bus is one option for the area, and Metrolink and Amtrak are other options, none of them are very good. For such a populous area, Southern California public transit is severely lacking.

If you’re planning a trip to Laguna Beach and still have unanswered questions or want personalized planning advice, your best option is leaving a question in the comments below. While I cannot promise to have advice on everything (see the hotels section above), I’ll do my best. Likewise, if you’re an Orange County local who can add additional tips, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. We’d also note that for a small town, Laguna Beach has a wealth of planning resources online, including the exceptional Visit Laguna Beach site, which is operated by the city’s official visitor center.

Ultimately, our Laguna Beach Vacation Planning Guide might read somewhat tepid about the restaurants and things to do, so we really want to underscore our belief that Laguna Beach is mostly a place to be. We don’t mean that in a hippy-dippy sort of way, more that Laguna Beach is an excellent city to spend time walking around outdoors, relaxing on the beach, hiking through the canyons, playing a pick-up game of volleyball, doing a late night walk along Pacific Coast Highway, and so on.

Beyond that, everything is in Laguna Beach is gravy. It’s a great city with artistic heritage and quirky character, all of which elevates it beyond being a “regular” seaside town. Laguna Beach has a tremendous amount of character, and is a place that’s easy to fall in love with. We consider it a great home-base during a relaxing SoCal beach vacation; we think Laguna Beach the highlight of Orange County.

If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Laguna Beach? If so, what did you do? Where did you stay? Any recommended beaches or things to do? Restaurants you thought offered a great view, good drinks, or above-average cuisine? Any additional tips to add that we didn’t cover? Any questions about planning a visit to Laguna Beach? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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10 replies
  1. Nickie
    Nickie says:

    Thousand Steps! It’s my favorite spot in Laguna. Not sure that I’d want it included in a guidebook to broadcast to the whole world, but it might be a fun excursion for you and Sarah. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Shanna Schmiesing
    Shanna Schmiesing says:

    Tom-any thoughts on The Tides Inn? My family is hoping to visit Laguna next August and we are deciding between the Tides Inn and the Laguna Beach Lodge. Price is roughly a $50 per night premium on Tides, but the location seems more central.

    Thanks for the great resource!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      My perspective on this is based upon location only, as we’re local and haven’t stayed at either…

      It really depends upon whether you’ll have a car, or feel the need to be centrally-located. Personally, I far prefer the South Laguna area where Laguna Beach Lodge is located, as it’s quieter and has less traffic (both human and cars). However, the Main Beach area has more dining and shopping, and it’s more walkable.

      If it were me, I’d book Laguna Beach Lodge, but I absolutely love the Treasure Island area and don’t like the crowds of Main Beach. Your mileage may vary on that, though!

      Reply
  3. Renee
    Renee says:

    Wow, you really got me excited to visit Laguna Beach! I will definitly be putting it on our itinerary 🙂
    In what month did you take the second picture with the beautiful red and purple flowers? We are still deciding when to book our flights (from The Netherlands). I’ll go and read your other California posts now 🙂

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That photo was shot in the spring, but the Montage Resort always has beautiful flowers in the park there. That and Heisler Park are stunning and flower-filled year round!

      Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That’s one of several places I didn’t include in the interest of (relative) brevity. I really need to do a full food post (or even a series!). If for no better reason than to give us an excuse to eat at some of the swanky hotel restaurants at the Montage and Ritz.

      Reply

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