Just the name Malibu can bring to mind images of endless beaches, deep blue ocean waves, sunny weather and beautiful people.

The original Chumash Indian name for the 21 miles of gorgeous coastline west of Los Angeles is Humaliwo (the Hu is silent) which roughly translates to “the surf sounds loudly.” Although there are canyons and hiking trails inland to explore, Malibu is defined by its beaches. 

While you could pull off the Pacific Coast Highway nearly anywhere and glimpse the sand and sea, here are the stand-out beaches that make Malibu one of Southern California’s most popular destinations.

A surfer runs to catch some Malibu wavesLPI-13779-150.jpg
Ride a wave at one of Malibu's famous beaches © Ray Laskowitz / Lonely Planet

Zuma Beach: best beach for families

Zuma looks like the quintessential Southern California beach with an impossibly long stretch of sand, nearly two miles long, dotted with volleyball nets, beach umbrellas and LA’s iconic light blue lifeguard stands. Point Dume, a rocky bluff a little south of the beach, offers a dramatic backdrop to a fun-filled day.

With so much to do in a single stop, Zuma is a convenient choice in Malibu for families. The parking is plentiful (over 2,000 spots in the lot), there are food stands at either end of the beach, picnic tables, restrooms and showers, and even surfboard rentals too. Across the street from the beach is the Trancas Country Market, home to Village Grocers and several shops, most notably the candy haven that is SweetBu Candy Co. 

Zuma Beach is also a great place for a beginner surf lesson, a top quintessential Miami experience.

El Matador: best quiet beach

El Matador is one of three pocket beaches that make up the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach at the northern end of Malibu. The other two are El Pescador and La Piedra. However, El Matador has the most stunning scenery with giant rock formations jutting out from the shoreline and sea caves buried in the cliffs. You’ll go for the coastline photo ops but you’ll end up staying for the tidepools and the bird-watching. 

Getting down to the sand at El Matador requires a short hike down several staircases built into the cliffside. The drop is not for the faint of heart or for those who like to bring a ton of things with them to the beach. Parking is available off PCH but it’s limited and fills up quickly on hot days. There are a few port-a-potties in the lot, but the beauty of Matador beach is its relative simplicity—just you, the sand, and the waves. 

If you want to explore some more popular beaches without the crowds, fall might be the best time to visit Malibu.

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Head to a dog-friendly beach in Malibu
Head to dog-friendly Staircase Beach in Malibu © Andrea Obzerova / 500px

Staircase Beach: best dog beach

Most beaches in Malibu do not allow dogs, but at Staircase Beach on the northern end of Leo Carillo State Park, there’s a small section where dogs can frolic and play, so long as they are on a leash. The parking lot for the dog beach is hard to see from PCH but once you’re in, you can wind down a short trail from the bluffs right onto the sand. Much like El Matador, this almost feels like a secret or private beach, absent of tourists but full of gorgeous scenery. It’s also a favorite spot for in-the-know surfers so bringing a board is a good idea—so long as someone can watch the dog while you surf.

Surfrider Beach: best surfing beach

The historic Malibu Pier draws the most crowds in all of Malibu, namely because it’s become a popular Instagram spot anchored by trendy shops and the delicious Malibu Farm restaurant. But the pier is also adjacent to Surfrider Beach, a legendary surf spot (some say it’s where the genesis of modern surfing began) that’s a part of the larger Malibu Lagoon State Park. When the waves are pumping, surfers will crowd this small beach for hours until the waves die out. 

Read more: How to get around in Malibu

Advanced surfers who understand surfing etiquette can paddle out to Surfrider’s first point and await their chance on one of the smoothest breaking waves in the world. But if you’re still learning to surf, it’s best to skip a session at Surfrider beach and head to a less-crowded spot where beginners are free to make their mistakes without dropping in on a pro. 

On calmer days, the beach is a picturesque spot for sun-bathing and exploring. The Adamson House Museum at the edge of the lagoon was the former home to an original Malibu land owner and gives a look at what life in Malibu was like in the early 1900s. Parking is free on PCH but on weekends and big surf days, spaces can be hard to find meaning the pay-for-lots are your best options.

Carbon Beach: best beach for spotting celebrities

On PCH, about a mile south of the Malibu Pier, is a very small and subtle sign for Coastal Access. (You can see the full list of public beach access points in Malibu here.) The white gate that leads out to the beach appears to be part of a private residence but is actually the public path out to Carbon Beach, a once private enclave nicknamed “Billionaire’s Beach” because its residents counted multiple billionaires among them. After a lengthy fight, the residents ceded the public access to a picture-perfect beach. 

Aside from sunning and swimming, there’s not much to do at Carbon Beach other than stroll this stretch of coastline ogling the multi-million dollar houses but it is a rare glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. If you have only a day in Malibu, this is also the best neighborhood to explore.

People walking on Malibu Pier
Malibu beaches are picturesque spots for sun-bathing and exploring © Maciej Bledowski / Shutterstock

Paradise Cove: the best beach club vibes

Paradise Cove offers a full-service experience at a secluded beach along a rocky promontory that’s ideal for swimming or surfing or fishing from the small pier. There’s also a café and bar, chaise lounges for rent, towel service and bathrooms with showers, but these come at a steep price. Parking is $50 on the weekends and $35 during the week. You’ll save a little bit on that if you eat at the café but there’s a minimum order of $30. 

If you aren’t keen to “rough it” at the regular beaches, Paradise Cove is the happy medium. If you’d rather skip the entrance fee, you can still walk down to Paradise Cove from PCH and park your stuff on the sand without having to pay. 

Read more: How to enjoy Malibu for free

Point Dume State Beach: best beach for exploring

Point Dume is a long bluff that marks the northern point of the Santa Monica Bay and you can see it jutting out from the coast as you drive north up PCH. The views from the top of the bluff are astounding and ideal for whale-watching in the winter months. You can access an easy hiking trail (with a staircase) from the beach below which will lead you into the Point Dume Nature Preserve. Or you can wander around the beach, heading north into the small Westward Beach next to Zuma or south into Paradise Cove. Getting to Point Dume is easy but parking is a little tricky. There is free parking at Westward Beach and at the top of Point Dume but spaces are limited. A pay parking lot is currently closed.

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This article was first published Oct 20, 2021 and updated Dec 24, 2021.

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