A First Timer’s Guide to Malibu, California

A sandy beach leads to a rugged cliff at Paradise Cove in Malibu, California
The beach at Paradise Cove in Malibu (Photo by California News Press)

Malibu, a city hugging 21 miles of coastline in Los Angeles County, has a magical appeal that’s far greater than that of its most famous attributes. The millionaires’ homes, legendary surf scene, oceanfront restaurants and the Pacific Coast Highway – these are not the sources of Malibu’s magic. Rather, they exist because of it, in service of a desire to capture and claim just a little of Malibu’s sensory enchantment. Visitors seek to do that as well, flocking to the coast and eager to discover why Malibu is one of the best places to go in California.

About Malibu

Zoom out from a virtual map of Malibu and the city’s boundaries contract to a thin pencil line along the edge of the continent. Road signs say “21 miles of scenic beauty,” dimensions narrowly confined by the Pacific Ocean and the ragged edges of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

“Malibu” comes from the name of a pre-colonial Chumash village, “Humaliwo,” meaning “the surf sounds loudly”

Almost all of Malibu is within half a mile of PCH, the storied Highway 1 that runs parallel to the coast with the ocean almost always visible to drivers in both directions. Due to its position on the upper curve of the Santa Monica Bay, the cardinal directions feel askew: The ocean sits to the south of Malibu and the mountains to the north, with the highway running east to west. 

Rivaling the eye-catching awe of the open ocean horizon, the mountain-side scenery of PCH is characterized by tall cliffs broken up by canyons, all brushy under chaparral. Depending on recent weather, the hillsides could be lush and green, dotted with wildflowers, highlighter-yellow mustard and showy succulents, or a crumbly, ruddy tinderbox. There are some sweeping plateaus as well, allowing for urban additions to the natural landscape. 

A row of beachfront homes facing the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, California
Beachfront homes in Malibu (Image by Monica Volpin from Pixabay)

Malibu is famous for its celebrity residents and their lavish homes, but unlike in Hollywood, this doesn’t translate to a major tourist draw. You might spy some impressive mansions set on bluffs or gates blocking access to exclusive oceanfront communities. More common to see are the plain backsides of beachfront homes, squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder along the more buildable sections of PCH. 

Malibu prizes the rugged and rustic beauty of nature over man-made glamor. The city’s more mundane sights like fast food outlets, gas stations, nail spas and marijuana dispensaries are as nondescript as you’ll see in any suburban strip mall – but they do have an ocean view! Further, while local residents are invariably uber-rich, the best things to do in Malibu are mostly inexpensive or free. Anyone may access the beaches, watch the sunset, stroll the pier or hike a trail and enjoy Malibu like a local. 

The greater Los Angeles area is famously car-centric, a feature typically regarded negatively. In Malibu, driving up or down PCH is instead a celebrated experience. No matter what tourist attraction in Malibu you’re heading to, driving along the coastal highway to get there promises to be just as memorable. Non-drivers aren’t totally out of luck: Metro’s 134 bus connects Malibu and Santa Monica.

Malibu Landmarks

Malibu is a big-picture destination where visitors come to soak up the whole scene. But, there are some amazing landmark destinations to discover as well. 

Pacific Coast Highway

Connecting all the local landmarks is the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), or State Route 1, which launches off the I-5 freeway in Santa Monica and runs through Pacific Palisades into Malibu. The highway hugs the coast for all 21 miles of Malibu, leaving the city behind at the Ventura County line. Ocean views and access to all of Malibu’s attractions make a driving PCH an all-but-essential delight. 

Scenic Canyon Roads

Visitors who genuinely enjoy driving might also like to conquer some of the winding canyon roads that connect to the highway. Among them are Topanga Canyon Road, Malibu Canyon Road, Kanan-Dume Road, Encinal Canyon Road and Mulholland Highway, all cutting through dramatic mountain scenery. 

The Malibu Pier seen from the shore on a foggy day
Malibu Pier (Photo by Felipe Dornellas on Unsplash)

Malibu Pier

Malibu Pier is an iconic landmark as well as a historic one, dating to 1905 and open to the public since 1934. Take a stroll to the end of the pier for fantastic views of surfers, pier fishing and potential dolphin sightings. The pier is currently owned and operated by California State Parks and is open to the public every day, as are its Malibu Farm and Malibu Farm Cafe restaurants. Ranch at the Pier offers souvenirs with ranch and surfing themes along with bait and tackle and rod rentals. The Tower at the Pier – twin buildings at the end of the structure – presents some stunning examples of original Malibu tile.

Adamson House

Adamson House, part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, is a 10-room house and gardens built in 1929 for Merritt Huntley Adamson and Rhoda Rindge Adamson. The Rindge family were the last owners of the Rancho Malibu Spanish land grant, under which they owned 17,000 acres and 20 miles of coastline. Visitors can learn about this early Malibu history and see the remnants of its ranching heritage during a tour of the Adamson House. Public tours are available first-come, first-served on Wednesdays through Saturdays. 

Malibu's Adamson House, a white Mediterranean style mansion fronted by mossy pavers
The Adamson House (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024)

A National Historic Site and registered California Landmark, the oceanfront Adamson House is noted for its stunning views and architecture blending Spanish Colonial Revival and Moorish Revival styles. The house is adorned with decorative tile from Malibu Potteries, a company founded by Rhoda Rindge Adamson’s mother, the “Queen of Malibu.” You’ll also see hand-painted frescoes, hand-carved doors, leaded glass and original furnishings, all representing the finest craftsmanship of the era.  

Next door to the Adamson House, learn more about Malibu’s history at the Malibu Lagoon Museum. See artifacts and exhibits spanning from Malibu’s pre-colonial days as a Chumash regional capital, through the rise and fall of the ranching era, to the emergence of the local surf culture. 

Pepperdine University 

Pepperdine University’s main campus covers some of Malibu’s most desirable real estate – 830 acres of manicured grassy slopes that end at the ocean. The private Christian university has a rarefied air that invites the general public to admire, rather than visit. However, you are welcome to peruse the modern and contemporary art with a focus on California at the on-campus Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art.

Malibu’s Shopping and Dining Landmarks

Malibu is home to a number of landmark restaurants that are enduringly popular for their stunning oceanside venues as much as their menus. Some of the best-known restaurants in Malibu include:

  • Paradise Cove Beach Cafe for on-the-sand dining, showstopper brunches and unrivaled access to a beautiful beach.
  • Duke’s Malibu with its kitschy Hawaii and surf themes to go with casual fare, tropical cocktails and the famous Hula Pie.
  • Neptune’s Net, a unique biker bar meets seafood restaurant at the northwestern tip of Malibu. It’s been a local staple since 1956.
  • Malibu Seafood, opposite Dan Blocker Beach, combining a fresh fish market and patio cafe.
  • Moonshadows, upscale and romantic with contemporary cuisine and an outdoor lounge set right on the beach.
  • Nobu Malibu, a serious contender for the most spectacular location of all the globe-spanning restaurants launched by legendary Chef Nobu Matsuhisa.

One of the top shopping destinations in Malibu is the Malibu Country Mart, located in the Malibu Civic Center. It features upscale boutiques, restaurants, day spas, galleries, and ice cream spots. Next door is the Malibu Lumber Yard, another high-end outdoor retail and dining complex. Shoppers can also browse more than a dozen boutiques, cafes, an indie bookstore and surf outlets at Malibu Village

A crescent of headlands over beaches at Point Dume State Beach in Malibu, California
Point Dume State Beach (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024)

Malibu’s Beaches

Malibu’s many beaches are all places of outstanding natural beauty, prime for outdoor recreation. Each has its own distinct scenery and vibe, with some spots renowned for surfing, others for tidepools, bluff-top trails or exceptional serenity. All the beaches in Malibu (and California) are technically open to the public, but with varying levels of accessibility. 

Malibu’s beaches are rightfully renowned as some of the best in California, but be aware that the coastal climate is fickle in its delivery of sun-drenched perfection. Overcast skies are common, even well into summer, with temperatures always quite a bit cooler than they are inland. On the hottest late-summer days when LA is sweltering, this makes a beach day in Malibu all the more appealing.The ocean waters can be shockingly cold and sometimes unsafe for swimming, so take caution. Visiting Malibu beaches in winter can sometimes come with a bonus of whale-watching, especially if you’re up high on a headland. 

The most visitor-friendly public beaches in Malibu are operated by Los Angeles County and California State Parks, whose rules include no dogs, alcohol, smoking or nudity. An exception is Leo Carillo, where leashed dogs are allowed in designated areas. 

Zuma Beach

Zuma Beach is the largest beach in Malibu and one of its most popular destinations, beloved for its broad, miles-long stretch of golden sand and excellent surf. Visitors enjoy swimming and body surfing at Zuma Beach, when conditions allow. The beach has plenty of parking in paid lots, its own Metro bus stop, food stands, restrooms, showers, volleyball nets and beach wheelchair availability. 

An S-shaped boardwalk where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean at Malibu Lagoon State Beach in California
Scenery at Malibu Lagoon State Beach (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024)

Malibu Lagoon State Beach

Malibu Lagoon State Beach is just west of Malibu Pier and encompasses the rich ecosystem where Malibu Creek meets the ocean. Along with the Adamson House and Malibu Lagoon Museum, the state beach is home to Surfrider Beach, the first-ever World Surfing Reserve. Surfrider is recognized for its key role in the development of modern surf culture along with its outstanding waves. 

Malibu Lagoon comprises 22 acres of wetlands and gardens along with the sandy beach. The protected tidal wetlands support over 200 species of birds, making the beach a top destination for bird watching. The day use area includes nature trails and picnic areas, with parking and restrooms provided as well. 

Tidepools at dusk at Leo Carrillo State Beach in Malibu, California
Tidepools at Leo Carrillo State Park in Malibu (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024)

Leo Carrillo State Park

Leo Carrillo State Park at the northern end of Malibu offers day-use and camping areas alongside the undeveloped and peaceful Leo Carrillo State Beach. It also offers hiking trails. The beach spans 1.5 miles of sand with rocky coves, sea caves and dramatic rock formations. There are also tidepools inhabited by fascinating marine creatures. 

Point Dume State Beach

The dramatic promontory of Point Dume marks the northern end of Santa Monica Bay as well as the site of Point Dume State Beach. The beach is known for its natural beauty, with dramatic headlands, rocky coves and a long bluff connected to the sand via a staircase. It also encompasses Point Dume Nature Preserve, where a public trail leads to the top of a towering dune with a viewing platform. On a clear day, you can take in views of the entire coast down to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and across the ocean to Santa Catalina Island.

Pelicans perched on rock formations at sunset at Robert H. Meyer State Beach in Malibu, California
Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach in Malibu (Courtesy of California State Parks, 2024)

El Matador, La Piedra and El Pescador Beaches

Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach comprises three “pocket” beaches: El Matador, La Piedra and El Pescador, all sitting at the bases of cliffs and strewn with photogenic rock formations. Visitors can park on the bluff overlooking these narrow beaches and take stairs down to the sandy coves. 

Malibu Bluffs Recreation Area

Malibu Bluffs Recreation Area, 84 acres of open space opposite Pepperdine University, sits 100 feet above the scenic Amarillo and Puerco beaches. Hike the trails that wind along the bluffs and boast sweeping coastal views, or head down one of five sets of public stairways to the sandy shoreline. Adjacent to the recreation area is Malibu Bluffs Community Park with sports facilities and public restrooms.

More Malibu Beaches

Some additional beaches in Malibu to check out include the sandy and narrow Dan Blocker Beach, popular with surfers; Westward Beach, aka “Free Zuma”; and the rarely crowded Nicholas Canyon Beach just south of Leo Carillo. 

Malibu’s Mountain Trails

The section of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area flanking Malibu features some of the most popular hiking trails in Southern California. Many multi-use trails are also open for horseback riding and mountain biking. The recreation area – the largest urban national park in the world – protects a coastal Mediterranean habitat teeming with life. Seasonal streams, rocky outcrops and deep canyons strewn with coastal sage scrub, chaparral and oak woodlands make all 500 miles of its trail system especially scenic. Look out for inhabitants like mule deer, California quail, red-tailed hawks, Pacific rattlesnakes and so many lizards. 

The massive size of the SMMNRA means only a handful of its trailheads are close to Malibu and readily accessed via PCH, whereas most are accessible from the inland Conejo Valley side (around Agoura Hills and Calabasas). Avid hikers should check out trails throughout the entire recreation area, including sections of the signature 67-mile Backbone Trail system that runs east to west across the entire range. Malibu day-trippers might prefer to stick to trails that start near PCH. These include: 

  • Solstice Canyon with several trail options of varied difficulty levels, including the moderately challenging Solstice Canyon Loop. The trail is mostly shady with lush foliage and leads to a 30-foot waterfall as well as the ruins of an old stone mansion. The trailhead is just 0.25 miles inland from PCH.
  • Escondido Falls in Escondido Canyon Park is the highest waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains, although it’s only present following recent rains. There’s trailhead parking along PCH for the 3.5-mile out-and-back Edward Albert Trail, which features several crossings of a seasonal creek on the way to the falls. 
Aerial view of the long central pool at the Getty Villa museum in Pacific Palisades, California
The Getty Villa Museum in Pacific Palisades (Image by Image by Jctwin2 from Pixabay)

Pacific Palisades

Sandwiched between Santa Monica and Malibu, Pacific Palisades is a mostly residential community with a couple of notable tourist attractions. Top among them is the Getty Villa Museum, a remarkable cultural institution dedicated to the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria. Exhibitions drawn from its collection of some 44,000 antiquities are on display inside a hillside villa modeled after the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Its Roman-style gardens and sweeping ocean views are as appealing as the priceless statues, portraits, jewelry, vessels and other works of art on display. 

Pacific Palisades is also home to Will Rogers State Historic Park. The park’s centerpiece is the  31-room ranch house, stables and grounds once owned by the entertainer Will Rogers (1875-1935). Tours of the house are available and visitors have access to hiking trails, a visitor center and equestrian school offering guided horseback rides. 

Topanga Canyon

Head inland on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, which meets PCH between Malibu and Pacific Palisades, and you’ll soon reach the quirky community of Topanga. It features a handful of boutiques, independent restaurants and wine bars, most with outdoor spaces where you can enjoy the natural beauty of the canyon. 

For outdoor recreation in the canyon, explore Topanga State Park. Take a look at the live theater and concert schedule for the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor venue and local landmark with an intriguing history. Topanga also hosts a variety of long-running festivals.

Planning a trip to LA? Read our in-depth guides to downtown Los Angeles, Griffith Park and the Miracle Mile.

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