travel guide: laguna beach, ca

Every summer since I can remember, I have spent a week with my family in scenic Laguna Beach, California.  Some of my most treasured family memories — diving under waves with my brother, buying (too many) teeny bikinis with my mom, making late-night runs for gelato with my dad, barbecuing on a deck overlooking the Pacific with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends — are from those sunny weeks in this cozy beach community.

Laguna volleyball

Laguna Beach was a popular, if low-key, destination in Orange County long before MTV rolled into town.  It’s a long-standing artistic community; you’ll find dozens of galleries squeezed in between Laguna’s chic restaurants, bars, and boutiques.  And lucky for all of us, the show didn’t change Laguna one bit.  It probably never could.

So next time you’re in between Los Angeles and San Diego, hop on PCH (that’s the Pacific Coast Highway, for my East Coast friends) and take a pit stop in this well-preserved enclave of California love.

where to stay
Admittedly, my family always stays in my grandparents’ timeshare, right on the beach.  (I know.)  However, Laguna has many options if you’re looking to spend the night (or six).
Laguna sunset

  • splurge: Montage Laguna Beach or the Surf & Sand resort would suit the tastes of any Orange County housewife.  The Inn at Laguna Beach is my favorite — luxurious but not extravagant, with a location that is simply unbeatable.
  • save: There are many budget hotels within steps of the beach, including the well-kept Holiday Inn and the highly rated Tides Inn. 
  • crash: Get together with a group and rent a beach bungalow for a week.  Or see what’s available on airbnb.  Laguna’s lush, hilly neighborhoods pose countless options for an adorable and affordable home stay — you might even land an ocean view.

where to eat
Laguna is bursting at the seams with delicious restaurants, from trendy lounges and bistros to long-standing family establishments.  I could never do justice to them all, so here are some of my old favorites:

fish tacos

  • Taco Loco: Two words: fish tacos. Okay, so Taco Loco serves more types of tacos than that, but that’s all you really need to know. (Unless you also want me to add that they serve shrimp tacos. Dear Lord, Shrimp Tacos!) This no-frills sidewalk taqueria serves up delicious, fresh-grilled, SoCal style tacos and ice cold beer. Consume these items in the hot sunshine and forget that you ever have to go back to work.
  • Madison Square Garden & Café: This charming restaurant, housed in an old craftsman bungalow, brings art and food together for a whimsical breakfast or lunchtime experience. Check out locally crafted garden décor while you munch on your juicy Great Burger, heavenly California Omelet, or sweet-tart German Apple Pancakes.
  • The Penguin Café: This hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon is a breakfast favorite of locals and tourists alike, and for good reason: their family recipes made with fresh ingredients don’t disappoint. They don’t take reservations, so I’d say “get there early”…but this place is so good, there’s always a line.  It’s worth the wait.
  • Zinc: This hip café and market is meat free, but its casual California fare will satisfy veggies and omnivores alike.  Live like a local and park on the patio with your mushroom asparagus frittata, matcha green tea latte, and latest find from the OC Public Library.
  • Salerno: Formally known as “Polina’s Salerno,” this delightful restaurant has been a Laguna institution for forty years. The inviting décor, including a ceiling dancing with strips of wood painted red, white, and green, tells Salerno’s guests exactly what they’re in for: a simple, homey, delicious Italian meal.
  • Gelato Paradiso: This tiny gelateria is nestled near the end of Peppertree Lane, a twinkle-lit arcade right off PCH.  Once you find it, I promise you’ll return again and again for their sumptuous flavors. (For me: one scoop nocciola, one scoop fragola!)

where to shop
When I shop in Laguna, I shop for three things, and three things only.
1. Bikinis.
2. Flimsy things to wear over bikinis.
3. Artsy jewelry. (Probably also to wear with aforementioned bikinis.)rings

The best shopping is along PCH and the narrow streets of downtown, especially Forest Avenue.  HobieQuicksilver, and  Diane’s Beachwear are beach bum staples, but don’t miss Laguna’s smaller boutiques for swimwear and street wear — Merrilee’s Swimwear is one of my favorites.  Jewelry can be found in countless boutiques and galleries around town.  Grab toe rings for your exposed piggies (and check out the ocean views!) at Shelby’s.

what to do
Other than the obvious — hint: it involves sun, sand, and surf — Laguna offers a couple of other cool activities, especially in summer.Laguna trolley

  • Galleries: Before MTV came to town, Laguna Beach was perhaps best known for its art.  You can’t miss the galleries when you visit — they’re everywhere!  Wyland is famous, but he is just one of many artists who’ve brought their talents to Laguna.
  • The Festival of Arts: This fantastic outdoor festival features many talented artists, but don’t miss the large (and breathtaking!) exhibit of local children’s art.
  • Pageant of the Masters: Every night during summer, the Festival of Arts presents “a ninety-minute stage show of ‘living pictures’ – incredibly faithful art re-creations of classical and contemporary works with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces.”  This is a special, unique event — it’s even been parodied by Arrested Development — and should be on everyone’s Orange County bucket list.
  • Sawdust Festival: My family and I go to this arts and crafts festival every year.  We started going almost as a joke, but turns out we actually really love it.  This place is a safe bet for unique jewelry, great live music, and fun craft demos — absolutely do not miss the live glass blowing demonstration!  Skip the parking headache and get there on Laguna’s free trolley.

in conclusion
I love Laguna Beach.  I know you will, too.  Go pack your sunscreen!
Laguna waves


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