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21 miles of Southern California coast make up the seaside city of Malibu, and it is a place of juxtapositions. On one hand, you’ve got beautiful rocky peaks, rough-hewn beaches, and laid-back surf culture — watching small figures bob in the Pacific, waiting for that just-right wave off of Surfrider Beach, never fails to lull me into a dreamy daze. On the other hand, this is also where you’ll find a string of oceanfront homes known as “Billionaire’s Beach,” plus wildly pricey hillside estates where some of L.A.’s wealthiest names seek luxurious seclusion.
As a local, I can attest that it’s relatively easy — and honestly preferable — to enjoy Malibu without spending much money. I often bring my kids to walk the length of the historic pier, toss rocks and shells back into the ocean, or have a meal while watching the sunset. If you’re new to Malibu, here are a few ways to experience the enclave through its scenery, seafood, and style.
Related: 17 Best Beaches in Southern California
Best Things to Do in Malibu
Stroll the Malibu Pier.
Originally built in 1905 and adorned with an awesome neon sign at its entry, this landmark is a great place for a walk, both along its length and on the shore below. Malibu Farm operates both dining choices on the pier — the one at the far end is a walk-up-and-order spot, but you can still sit right on the pier with your crab cake sandwich or Bloody Mary. Back near the pier’s entry, there’s a staircase down to the sand — walk north briefly and you’re on Surfrider Beach, and just past that is Malibu Lagoon, great for bird watching and shallow water play for kids.
Explore Malibu Creek State Park.
Not all of Malibu is right on the water. Malibu Creek State Park protects more than 8,000 acres of coastal peaks and trails tucked just slightly inland, and with clearly marked dirt parking lots and trailheads, it’s a good place to break in your hiking shoes. Recommended hikes here include Malibu Lake Trail, Rock Pool and Century Lakes Trail, and Saddle Peak.
People-watch at Malibu Country Mart.
With high-end retailers like Ron Herman, Oliver Peoples, and Paige, there’s nothing country about this country mart anymore. But it’s buzzy and energetic on weekends especially, making it a great place for people-watching or an al fresco lunch or latte.
Hike Escondido Falls.
California isn’t exactly known for its waterfalls, so after a long, wet winter or a rainy week, Escondido Falls is a rallying point for nature-loving locals. Arrive at the Pacific Coast Highway trailhead parking lot early to get a spot, and give yourself about two hours to complete the out-and-back hike.
Hike Solstice Canyon Loop.
This 3-mile loop trail is a popular choice in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, of which Malibu is a part. The preserve is home to 500 miles of trails, plus biodiversity that includes mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and more. It gives you the chance to explore rugged nature – and that’s part of the Malibu experience, too.
Best Malibu Restaurants
The Reel Inn
Like with local NBA teams or Los Angeles universities, most Angelenos pledge their allegiance to one seafood shack on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, and for me, that’s Reel Inn Malibu. The interior decor here consists of fish tanks, old-school Christmas lights, faux sea creatures, and a hanging life-saver or two – it’s kitschy and endearing, and I love it so. You order at the register, picking a fresh fish of your choice and how it’s prepared (grilled, sauteed, or blackened), plus two sides. Then snag a picnic table outside and enjoy the convivial atmosphere.
Cholada Thai Beach Cuisine
Adjacent to Reel Inn, the kitchen in this blue house cooks up Thai food I find hard to resist if I’m nearby. The tom kha soup arrives bubbling in a traditional hot pot, and I always order Cholada’s “golden bags” — fried wontons shaped like Friar Tuck’s miniature coin purses. Round out your meal with a curry, rice, and a noodle dish — you can always take the leftovers home.
Broad Street Oyster
This relative newcomer serves delicious lobster rolls, oysters, and more in Malibu Country Mart. It’s more of a casual, order-at-the-counter affair, but that can be nice if you’re sticky with salt and sand after a morning at the beach. Order in advance online if you don’t feel like waiting, or if you want to take your goodies elsewhere for a picnic. Note that there’s a downtown L.A. location, too, and one on Santa Barbara’s State Street.
The Old Place
The Old Place isn’t in Malibu proper, but its history is closely tied to the place, and since it’s located right off of Kanan Road (which connects Highway 101 to the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu), many travelers heading in that direction can easily add it to their itinerary. Saloon vibes fill the air, large groups of motorcyclists — the screeching seagulls of the road — vroom by on weekends, and if you’re nostalgic at all, it’s just pleasant to eat a steak sandwich and some gargantuan, nut-filled cinnamon rolls in a trapped-in-time corner of Southern California.
Best Hotels and Resorts in Malibu
This hotel has become a hot spot for locals seeking an easy escape, and that is no wonder — the historic property, originally built in 1953, got a facelift in 2017, and its new and hip aesthetic makes you feel young again. The beach-house-like property offers 20 rooms, plus views of the hotel’s iconic, namesake surfing hub and a wildly good rooftop deck and bar we never want to leave. If you’re looking for barefoot luxury, this is the place.
Malibu Beach Inn
With 47 rooms on the ocean side of the Pacific Coast Highway and a staircase for easy access to a quiet beach, Malibu Beach Inn really knows how to highlight (and take advantage of) its location. Guests can see the water from most corners of their accommodation, the pier’s within walking distance, and onsite dining is available at Carbon Beach Club Restaurant – they’ll even provide cozy blankets on the oceanfront terrace if it gets chilly.
Hotel June Malibu
Local lore has it that Bob Dylan jotted down the lyrics to “Blood on the Water” while staying in one of these bungalows, and that tracks, as the property inspires with its scenic isolation. Hotel June is located at Malibu’s Point Dume, a destination in its own right with a great beach and the fantastic Point Dume Cove Trail. The hotel closed after the 2018 Woolsey Fire, then reopened last year as Hotel June Malibu. New amenities include a chic, umbrella-clad pool deck and eats brought in daily from beloved Venice restaurant Gjusta. If you’re exploring off property, don’t miss nearby Zuma Beach and El Matador State Beach.
Nobu Ryokan Malibu opened in mid-2017 and to this day offers unparalleled luxury in the area. The property’s 16 rooms, some oceanfront, some with sea or garden views, beautifully evoke Japanese minimalism, while feeling decadent at the same time thanks to the teak soaking tubs and indoor/outdoor fireplaces in select accommodations. And just steps from your Italian linen-clad bed is Nobu Malibu, where you’ll dine on Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s renowned sushi, ocean waves dancing below you.
Related: 3 Malibu Hotels That Make for the Perfect California Escape
The Best Time to Visit Malibu
Californians joke around about the “Sunshine Tax” – the higher cost of living we willingly bear in exchange for our enviable year-round climate. There’s accuracy in the snark – come to Malibu any time of year and you’ll be happy you did. (I brought three generations to the pier and Surfider Beach on Christmas Eve last year, and we’ve got the sunshine-filled family photos to prove it.) That said, keep in mind that the ocean waters here aren’t particularly warm, even in the dead of summer – even so, Malibu truly has no off-season.
How to Get Here
Again, Malibu’s relative isolation is part of what makes it lovely – and it’s isolated enough that having a car is highly recommended, both to get here and to explore the area after your arrival. Malibu is about 30 miles from LAX, but given how L.A. roadways are and the curves of PCH, that could easily be a 90-minute drive – use a rideshare service only if desperate. If you’re coming from Highway 101, you might take great roads like Decker Canyon or Kanan Dume through the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu — short but incredible routes that deliver you dramatically to the sea.