Driving north up Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll know you’ve left Los Angeles behind when you spot the sign that says 'Welcome to Malibu, 21 miles of scenic beauty.'
It's those dramatic coastline views, along with the blissful beaches and glamorous hotspots, that make Malibu a must-visit destination.
Malibu is broadly divided into three large sections along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) – Western, Central and Eastern. Much of it is residential, full of multi-million dollar beach homes and the occasional shopping center on the 'landside' (anything not on the beach). For visitors, there are four Malibu neighborhoods worth pulling into for the day, or longer.
Carbon Beach (Eastern Malibu)
If you only have a few hours to spend in Malibu, Carbon Beach in Eastern Malibu is the place to go. For starters, it’s the closest to Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and it’s where most of the fun-in-the-sun action happens.
The Carbon Beach area is where you’ll find the Instagrammable Malibu Pier and its popular Malibu Farm café. You can also rent stand-up paddleboards next to the Pier or if you’re an advanced surfer, catch a few waves at Surfrider Beach next door. For a less crowded beach day, find one of two coastal access gates amongst the expensive houses along PCH and set up on the sand amongst the residents of the so-called Billionaire’s Beach.
Malibu Country Mart, the unofficial city center, is situated in Eastern Malibu as well. With its trendy stores and celeb-frequented restaurants, it can be a bit of a tourist trap, especially on weekends in the summer. But locals come here too, many to visit beloved sandwich shop John’s Garden. Despite the flashiness, the unofficial dress code is jeans and flip-flops, or Uggs when the cooler weather hits.
Up the road is Malibu Colony, one of the richest –and very private – neighborhoods in Malibu and Pepperdine University, which extends inland slightly into Malibu Canyon. For visitors, the best place to head in the area is Malibu Bluffs Park opposite Pepperdine, an ideal spot for picnicking and playing against a vast Pacific Ocean backdrop.
Spending the night in Malibu? You’ll find the best hotels are in Eastern Malibu near the Pier — The Surfrider (popular amongst surfers), Malibu Beach Inn (great for families), and the ultra-exclusive Nobu Ryokan from chef Nobu Matsuhisa and actor Robert DeNiro, where making a reservation is as difficult as finding free parking along PCH.
Point Dume (Central Malibu)
Exploring Malibu’s natural wonders is best done from the Point Dume area. You can start the day hiking the Point Dume Nature Preserve, a moderate, wide-open trail with ocean views at every turn, which will also take you down to the beach. But if you’re just looking for a relaxing beach day, you can BYO beach gear to Westward Beach and get grub from The Sunset Restaurant, or opt for a full-service beach club experience at Paradise Cove Beach Café.
Since Point Dume is mostly a residential area filled with families, it's not Malibu's prime spot for nightlife. But south of the point is Geoffrey’s, an elegant oceanside restaurant with panoramic views from its outdoor terrace. Go for brunch when you can soak up the sun and ocean breeze, or at sunset when the restaurant’s fire pits turn on and there's a cozy, romantic atmosphere.
Airbnb and other home rental sites frequently have listings in the Point Dume area, almost all with ocean views and Hotel June, a remodeled roadside motel, has recently reopened along PCH. Part of the boutique hotel chain Proper Hotels, Hotel June has 13 petite, artsy bungalows outfitted with mod cons and private patios, making it an ideal spot to stay for one or two nights.
Zuma (Western Malibu)
There’s no better place to go for a beach day in Malibu than Zuma Beach in Western Malibu. With nearly two miles of sand, surf, beach volleyball, picnic tables, and food stands, you won’t have to go home until after the sun sets. Just bring an umbrella for shade during the day and a sweatshirt for warmth at night.
If you seek a little more solitude, you can walk down the bluffs off PCH to El Matador Beach. The beach itself is small compared to others in Malibu but there are little pockets of sand to spread out on. If you get there early, you might be able to nab one of the perches in the bluffs that overlook the giant rock formations near the ocean’s edge.
Like Point Dume, there’s not much nightlife in Zuma although the Trancas Country Market has a handful of dining options along with clothing boutiques and small goods shops. It’s also where you can pick up groceries and everyday essentials.
For some cinematic history with a side of fish and chips, ride up PCH to Neptune’s Net, located near the county line (On the other side lies Ventura County.) The seafood restaurant and some-time biker bar first opened in 1956 and featured in the movies Point Break and The Fast and the Furious.
There aren’t many proper hotels on this end of Malibu which is why home rentals are usually a logical choice for overnight stays here. But the Malibu Country Inn is one good choice, located just inland from Zuma Beach and featuring an outdoor pool.
Malibu Wine Country
Deep in the Santa Monica Mountains, about 20-30 minutes from PCH, is Malibu Wine Country, an unofficial term for the handful of wine-growing operations that surround the border of Malibu and Agoura Hills. Much of the area was burned in the Wolsey Fire of 2018, but businesses are starting to reopen again, and it's a great way to see a side of Malibu beyond its beaches.
Getting to The Barn at Cielo Winery way up in the mountains isn’t easy but once you’re there you might question if you’re even in California anymore. The 30-acre estate was designed to look like a house in Tuscany and has panoramic views of the Malibu Hills. The Barn is the vineyard’s outdoor wine-tasting 'room' where guests can indulge in wine-tasting flights, charcuterie, and pizzas. Occasionally, the vineyard hosts other experiences such as yoga and sound healing. Children are not allowed.
If you’ve got a group of friends with you, head over to The Malibu Café at Calamigos Ranch where casual dishes and modern cocktails are served outdoors alongside lawn games like giant chess and cornhole. With all the photo ops and perfectly-dressed people, you might feel as if you’re in a live stream of Instagram posts – it’s good fun and family-friendly too.
Calamigos Ranch is also a small resort with 51 rooms ranging from small private cottages to larger suites, all with private patios. Guests who stay up at the ranch have access to the Calamigos Beach Club down at the bottom of Solstice Canyon Road at PCH.
You might also like:
The best beaches in Malibu are a California dream
The best Malibu parks for fun in the sun
There's never a bad time to visit Malibu