Things to do in San Clemente, California

Last updated on October 20, 2023

Casa Romantica, San Clemente

Two weeks before visiting San Clemente, I’d never heard of it. It isn’t a famous holiday destination like its neighbours, Laguna, Huntington and Newport – and for me that was part of the appeal. I wanted to experience the laid-back vibes of a small Orange County beach town, and I knew as soon as I read about San Clemente that, for me, that was the one. 

It’s nicknamed the ‘Spanish Village by the Sea’ and has charming Spanish colonial revival style architecture with red tile roofs and creamy stucco walls. Set way back from the busy PCH, it’s a quiet place, dotted by palms and with sweeping ocean views. The beach itself has a classic California-style pier and it’s a popular spot with surfers.

While San Clemente by no means has the same amount of attractions as its bigger Orange County neighbours, it’s well set up for tourists and makes for a beautiful, peaceful beachside vacation.

This post is all about the best things to do in San Clemente, California, including San Clemente attractions, restaurants, places to stay and how to get around. 

Also see our guides to Laguna Beach, San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Plus our full Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary. If you have even more time, make it a full California road trip, going north and inland too.

Why visit San Clemente?

San Clemente Pier on a cloudy day

If you’re visiting Orange County for a beach vacation, there are lots of vibes to choose from. Immerse yourself in the down-to-earth Surf City of Huntington Beach, or make it an art-filled trip in Laguna Beach. Newport Beach and Balboa Island are the fanciest of the options, and Dana Point is well known for its high-end resorts.

I’d choose San Clemente if you’re looking for more of a quiet, small town vibe. It has a cute high street, a huge stretch of beach, a picturesque pier and enough dining options to see you through a week. The San Clemente trolley connects you to Dana Point, which then connects to the other OC beach towns. And there’s also a bike path that goes all the way to Dana Point. 

The laid-back pace of the town is palpable and it’s a place where time seems to slow. 

One big bonus for us was that the town of San Clemente and the beach is well set back from the PCH, which is unusual for the Orange County beach towns. For example, the main beaches at Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach are right beside the road, so you can hear the sound of the traffic. 

On the downside, San Clemente’s beaches are right beside a railway track instead. This is, of course, noisy when the trains pass, but this happens far less frequently than the constant thrum of traffic. The beach next to the pier is also less beautiful than some of the other OC options (my favourite is Huntington Beach with its sweeping soft white sands). It’s still lovely but there are quite a lot of stones mixed in with the sand in places. That said, if you walk or drive just a short distance, you quickly hit gorgeous beaches (see below for other options). 

When to Visit San Clemente

Linda Lane, San Clemente

San Clemente shines in the summertime, but has a generally mild and sunny climate year-round. That said, we went during the famous ‘grey May’ time of year when sure enough, the skies were pretty gloomy. Apparently, June is fairly similar. 

Map of things to do in San Clemente

Things to do in San Clemente, California 

1. Hit the beach

The main draw of a San Clemente vacation is the beach, and it’s a perfect place to soak up those classic California beach vibes. These are some of the best and most popular San Clemente beaches.

  • T-Street Beach
Otis and Arlo running on T-Street beach in San Clemente

T-Street, just south of the pier, is one of the most popular San Clemente beaches. It’s a great place to surf and convenient for beachside restaurants and cafes. And there’s a swing set on the sand. The bit next to the pier (which I think is officially, or at least informally known as ‘San Clemente Pier Beach’ isn’t the most attractive bit as there are dark stones mixed with the sand. Head further south for more beautiful spots. You can park along the bluff. Or if it’s a busy day, use the car park next to the pier and walk from there (about an 8-minute walk).

  • San Clemente State Beach
Otis and Arlo at San Clemente beach

The San Clemente State Beach is one of the most scenic spots in the area. It’s a narrow stretch of sand, just south of T-Street, that sits alongside the railway track and beautiful sandstone bluffs. It’s beautiful but not the most accessible as parking is limited. The best options are the large carpark at Calafia or the San Clemente State Beach campground (where you can pay for day-use passes).

  • Trestles
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This is a popular spot for pro surfers in San Clemente with some of the most consistent waves in California. 

  • North Beach

North Beach is a convenient San Clemente Beach with restrooms and lots of parking and a small playground on the sand. But, like the area sleuth of the pier,  it also has lots of dark stones mixed with sand, so isn’t the most attractive 

  • San Onofre 

A short drive south of San Clemente lies San Onofre State Beach and a stretch known as Bluffs Beach, a renowned surfing destination and a sanctuary for nature lovers. There’s parking along the bluff above the beach and several trails leading down. Trail 6 is for a clothing-optional beach. There’s also camping along Bluffs Beach.

  • Linda Lane
Slide at Linda Lane Playground in San Clemente

We loved Linda Lane, particularly for its fish-themed playground, which is just off the beach in a grassy park. There’s lots of parking available and, from here, it’s only a short 5-minute walk to the pier. It’s perfect for families.

2. Explore the San Clemente Pier

San Clemente Pier

A leisurely stroll down the iconic San Clemente Pier, built in 1928, provides sweeping ocean views, beautiful sunsets, and prime spots for fishing. We loved walking along to watch the surfers. There’s a popular restaurant, Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar, at the start of the pier, which has excellent ocean views and charming wooden decor. There’s a happy hour from 4-7 pm, Monday-Friday. 

3. Go boogie boarding

A photo of San Clemente beach and pier on a cloudy day

Boogie boarding is a fun way to get out on the ocean if you don’t feel ready to surf. It’s most popular at T-Street Beach.

4. Shop on Avenida Del Mar

Avenida del Mar, San Clemente

This main shopping street in San Clemente is a delightful mix of boutique stores, art galleries, and charming restaurants. Whether you’re hunting for a unique souvenir or simply window shopping, Avenida Del Mar is a great place to stroll and enjoy the small California beach town vibes.

A candy store in San Clemente, California

Our kids loved the old fashioned sweet shop, full of American candy. 

For more mainstream shopping, hit the mall at the Outlets at San Clemente.

5. Visit Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens

Gardens at Casa Romantica in San Clemente, California

The Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens is a historic house and its lush, landscaped gardens are a must for any San Clemente vacation. I could only pop in briefly as the kids didn’t have much patience for it, but I was blown away by the architecture and gardens. It’s a good place to learn about San Clemente’s history (it’s the former house of San Clemente’s founder Ole Hanson who also built the pier). They also host lots of events like exhibitions, cultural festivals and storytime for kids. Admission is $5 for adults.

6. Walk or bike the San Clemente Beach Trail

Otis and Arlo in San Clemente Beach Trail

This 2.3-mile trail runs along the city’s coastline and is a popular spot for walking, jogging, or cycling while taking in the beautiful Pacific Ocean views. It offers easy access to lots of San Clemente beaches, and the best way to get to it is from North Beach, Calafia State Beach and San Clemente Pier, all of which have parking lots.

7. Go cycling further afield

Exploring Dana Point, one of the best things to do in San Clemente, California

As well as the San Clemente Beach Trail, there are also other good cycle routes. For example, you can ride all the way to Dana Point down the Pacific Coast Highway on a scenic and safe beach trail that’s barricaded from traffic. You can access the trail from North Beach, going beyond the train station to the bike shop where the trail begins.

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8. Go whale watching

Whale watching in Puerto Madryn

The Orange County coast sees an annual migration of over 20,000 grey whales. The best place to see these near San Clemente is Dana Point where you can pick from a variety of whale watching tours.

9. Tee off at the San Clemente Municipal Golf Course

San Clemente golf course

If you’re a golf enthusiast, don’t miss out on a round at this beautiful 18-hole golf course. Offering sweeping views of the ocean, the course is challenging enough for seasoned players while still being approachable for novices.

10. Attend a show at The Cabrillo Playhouse

The Cabrillo Playhouse in San Clemente, California

Established in the 1950s, this intimate community theatre offers a variety of performances year-round, including plays, musicals, and more. If you’re in town when a show is on, it’s worth booking a ticket.

11. Watch the sunset

San Clemente sunset

We were blown away by the sunsets in San Clemente. Even after a grey day, the clouds often cleared in the late afternoon, making way for spectacular sunsets. To make it even more special, you could make a fire on the beach and watch it while making s’mores.

Where to eat in San Clemente

The San Clemente dining scene is small and doesn’t have the same depth as somewhere like Newport Beach, but there are still some great options to choose from. These are a few favourites.

Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar

Fisherman's Restaurant and Bar in San Clemente, California

For an authentic seafood experience with a great views, head to Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar at the end of the San Clemente pier. It’s fairly casual, with seafood chowders, fish and chips and burgers on offer. And there’s also an oyster bar opposite.

Vine Restaurant & Bar

Head to Vine Restaurant & Bar for upscale California cuisine and a great selection of wine by the glass. It’s ideal for a date night. We couldn’t go as it’s not really ideal for kids.

South of Nick’s

South of Nick’s is a California-style Mexican restaurant and one of the most popular spots in town. They waive the corkage on your first bottle of wine. Be sure to make a reservation.

Nick’s

Nick's San Clemente

Confusingly, another top San Clemente restaurant also has the name Nick in the title! This one is known for its American comfort food and also waives corkage on your first bottle of wine. Again, book to avoid disappointment. We loved the open-air window seating.

Cafe Mimosa

Cafe Mimose, San Clemente

Café Mimosa on Avenida Del Mar is known as the best place for breakfast in San Clemente. The charming bistro-style café serves breakfast and lunch with a gourmet twist. Their menu has locally-sourced ingredients, and the café itself is nestled in a beautifully renovated historic home.

Avila’s El Ranchito

Avila’s El Ranchito is a family-owned Mexican restaurant and known as the best palace in town for a perfect margarita. 

Active Culture Natural Foods Café & Yogurt

A salad with avocado at Active Culture Natural Foods Cafe San Clemente

This healthy food restaurant and frozen yoghurt bar at the top of Avenida del Mar was ideal for a family meal, offering some healthy options that both I and the kids enjoyed. 

Pierside Kitchen and Bar

Veggie taco with asparagus

We stayed within walking distance of Pierside Kitchen and Bar and had a great Taco Tuesday, where they went off-menu and made me a fantastic seasonal veggie taco with asparagus. It’s perfect for casual dining and sunset views.

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Bear Coast Coffee and Sur Coffee

High Tide Coffee
Sur Coffee

Bear Coast Coffee was my favourite spot for coffee in San Clemente. Locally owned and operated, it’s right next to the beach so perfect for grabbing a beachside brew.

I also loved Sur Coffee, a hipster cafe and roastery on El Camino Real at the top of Avenida del Mar.

Sugar Blossom Bake Shop

Cookies at Sugar Blossom Bake Shop

Mmmmm, the cakes and cookies at Sugar Blossom Bake Shop are definitely A+ and the perfect spot for a pick-me-up treat. 

Ruby’s Diner

Eating mac and cheese at Rubys Diner

Ruby’s Diner is a California chain that celebrates the classic diner style. While it lacks the charm of original diners, it’s still a fun place to eat and is really popular with families. Our boys loved it.

San Clemente Farmers Market 

The San Clemente Farmers Market is on every Sunday on Avenida del Mar and features all sorts of delicious local goodies.

How to Get Around San Clemente

San Clemente Trolley

While San Clemente is a walkable city with a charming downtown, the local trolley service provides a free, convenient way to travel between popular attractions during the summer months. Check the trolley schedule to see when it’s running and the routes it takes. The trolley was a massive bonus for me as I was travelling without a car, so it was invaluable to be able to get around like this.

Otis and Arlo on the San Clemente trolley

For wider explorations, consider renting a car or bike to navigate the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. 

Where to stay in San Clemente

There are plenty of places to stay in San Clemente, from large hotels to cuter boutique options and amazingly well-equipped Airbnbs. 

Staying with Friends Airbnb

We stayed in this amazing Airbnb, which is part of a larger building, broken down into a few apartment rentals. We had fantastic views of the sea and sunset from the living room and balcony.

And one of the biggest bonuses of all was the amount of free amenities. They have a big selection of bikes and beach equipment (including umbrellas, seats, blankets, toys, carts and more) available for all the guests to enjoy. Plus lots of snacks and drinks you can help yourself to.

It’s just a few minutes walk to the beach, pier and some restaurants/cafes, so ideal if you don’t have a car. We loved everything about it. You can book directly with the owners here.

The Beachcomber Inn

The Beachcomber Inn is right on the oceanfront. It’s a cute, boutique-style inn and is believed to be the oldest continuously running business in town. I love its Spanish Colonial Revival style.

Check the latest deals and book now

Nomads Hotel

Nomads Hotel is a characterful place to stay in San Clemente with a self-declared laidback “island style”. There are seven individually styled rooms.

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The Volare

The Volare, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, is a central hotel in the historic downtown area in walking distance to the pier. There’s an outdoor pool and some rooms have a hot tub and balcony.

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San Clemente State Beach Campgrounds

If you want to be closer to nature and save a few dollars, there are camping options on some of the San Clemente beaches, including the San Clemente State Beach campground.

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