Visiting Southern California This Winter? Ditch the Car and Take the Train to the Beach

Headed for Southern California this winter? Smart. Wait – you're not going for fun? Hey, it happens – one of the world's largest economies doesn't run on hikes and trips to the farmers market. Someone's got to do the work. You can't work all the time, of course – just ask a local – it's always a good idea to take a break and head for the beach. Even if pressed for time, or if you have no access to a car or simply hate to drive, there are plenty of great beach days just an easy train ride away from much of the region. Here are five of the easiest (and best) quick getaways that'll have you back by dinnertime.

San Clemente

A whistle-stop train station at the foot of a classic, Southern California pier – where the Los Angeles suburban rail service and Amtrak regional trains both call – is the gateway to this idyllic, southern Orange County village, featuring miles of beachfront, most of it just far removed enough from the main drag to keep the Pacific Coast Highway marathoners from accidentally winding up here. (Yes, all this beautiful oceanfront can at certain times feel like a locals-only secret.)  

What to do: Stop in for a near-perfect espresso at Bear Coast Coffee, next to the station, then stroll the pier or head south along the beach and catch some rays before heading up the hill to Casa Romantica, the former residence of the town's founder (and one-time Seattle mayor), Ole Hansen. Of course his house – a Spanish Colonial Revival beauty, like so much of the architecture in town – has one of the best views you can get of the pier and coastline. Head inland along Avenida Del Mar and into the almost Carmel-cute downtown shopping area, packed with one-off shops and restaurants. Sticking around a while longer? How about surfing lessons?

How to get here: Both Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner and the Metrolink regional rail service can bring you here from LA's Union Station in about 90 minutes – some trains serve the pier, others serve the town's main station, further up the beach. Either way, the ocean is right there when you arrive and the rest is within easy walking distance (amtrak.com, metrolinktrains.com).

Santa Monica

A lot of pretty crazy things happened in 2016, but Southern Californians will tell you that among the craziest was the completion (finally!) of a honest-to-goodness rail link between Downtown Los Angeles and the local beaches – the first to operate in roughly half a century. Once famous for the amount of traffic you had to endure to get there and back, visitors can now experience Santa Monica for the mellow, easy-breezy place it really is. Just pay your $1.75, hop the light rail at 7th Street (or wherever you are along the growing Metro rail network, transferring as needed) and relax as you cross the city, traffic-free, winding up almost at the foot of Santa Monica's world-famous pier.

What to do: How much time do you have? From the bluff-top beauty of Palisades Park and its epic views to the old-timey amusements of the pier to those wide, world-class beaches themselves, there are all sorts of ways to engage with the ocean. Then there's the actual city – most visitors head straight for the well-organized downtown retail district, but consider walking south from the station instead, past the deco magnificence of City Hall (and the intriguing Tongva Park, recently completed, just across the street), into the more relaxed Main Street neighborhood, an unbroken stretch of interesting shopping and dining on a more village-like scale. Eventually, you'll notice you've arrived in Venice – at Rose Avenue, hanging a right will land you smack in the middle of the Boardwalk's legendary craziness. (From there, the coastal path will bring you back to the pier and train station.) Still hungry? Try the Santa Monica Walking Food Tour.

How to get here: Ride Metro's Expo Line to downtown Santa Monica – the trip takes approximately 35 minutes from DTLA (metro.net).

Long Beach

Not really a beach person? That's cool, because Long Beach isn't actually all that beachy. It's got one a beach, absolutely, with a pleasant waterfront walkway that winds along a miles-long stretch of sand. But the location of the city in a sheltered harbor (one of the largest ports in the world is right here for a reason) and its classic, blue collar, big town energy make this feel more like a city gone missing from someplace a lot less, well, Southern California-y. There's a ton to see here (and a good restaurant and bar scene), making this a great day by the ocean for people who bore easily.

What to do: The very good Recreational Coffee is just about the first thing you'll see when you hop off the train at 1st Street – take that as a sign and stop on in, then take a long walk along the shoreline, heading up the bluff for a quick stop at the modestly-sized, memorable Long Beach Museum of Art. From here, you can keep heading east into the Belmont Shores neighborhood, with its restaurant and bar-packed 2nd Street strip (stop in for a martini at Nick's, if it's already that time) or you could head back toward downtown along Broadway, a social hub of the LGBTQ stronghold that is the vintage-y Alamitos Beach neighborhood. Downtown is big enough to have a few different personalities – not all are created equal. Right now, it's mostly about The Promenade, a pedestrianized strip just a block west of where you got off the train – there are many ways to settle in here, but start out at the boisterous Congregation Ale House, home to one of the better rotating tap lists in the region. (They do a good burger, too.) You'll find more Long Beach activities listed here.

How to get here: Ride Metro's Blue Line train to 1st Street Long Beach (approximately 1 hour from downtown Los Angeles).

Oceanside

Famous for its big old pier and favored status with serious surfers (not to mention scores of R&R-having Marines from immediately-adjacent Camp Pendleton), the downtown and beaches in this boisterous burg of nearly 200,000 comprise what is easily one of the most unique destinations along the Southern California coastline right now. Mostly eschewing the pretense and plasticity that have overwhelmed other once-authentic beach towns in the region, Oceanside is charging into the future while essentially remaining itself – a quirky blend of cultures, classes and generations, meaning you'll run into everybody from energetic teenage surfers and skaters on up to the chilled-out retirees who fish the pier, day after day, evening after evening. Whether the city's low-key charm can survive all the current changes is anyone's guess – new housing, new hotels, new microbreweries, new coffee shops, new everything, it's all happening now – but for now, there's enough of the old and new combined to create a rare energy, one well worth tapping into.

What to do: Head directly for the pier, a block or so from the train station, then stop by the small but worthy California Surf Museum or the Oceanside Museum of Art. If you're in town on Thursday, stick around for the bustling night market – on any evening, don't leave without a stop at Stone Brewery's intimate, excellent beer garden, tucked away on a downtown side street.

How to get here: Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink regional rail services offer a convenient schedule of stops here for those coming from Los Angeles – if you're coming from San Diego, besides the Amtrak option, there's the cheap but efficient regional Coaster train service, a beautiful ride up the beach from the city's historic Santa Fe depot for just $5.50 a go (amtrak.com, metrolinktrains.com, gonctd.com).

For more great ways to experience Los Angeles, check out these local tours and activities.

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