San Clemente, CA is a coastal city located in South Orange County in Southern California that is known for its large public pier and excellent surfing. There are countless things to do in San Clemente like dining at one of their many incredible restaurants, shopping at the San Clemente Outlets, and taking a stroll down the San Clemente Pier. With it's great year round weather, it's no surprise that visitors flock to San Clemente to relax at the beach and take in all that this town has to offer. After 31 hours of research and our visit to San Clemente, CA, we determined that the following are the best places to eat, play and stay.
Bear Coast Coffee is a specialty coffee shop that sources its own beans and makes its syrups and almond milk in-house. Decked out in fancy blue and white tile, this coffee shop has a prime location, located directly across from the San Clemente Pier. You can relax at one of their indoor or outdoor seats, or you can enjoy your drink while strolling down the pier.
There are quite a few coffee shops in San Clemente, so we had our work cut out for us to determine which one is the best. We considered the online reviews and articles on San Clemente to narrow down our top 3 options and then visited each of those coffee shops in person to better inform our decision.
While there are several great coffee shops in San Clemente, none quite compare to the experience of Bear Coast Coffee. We received a quality latte and impressive service at each coffee shop we visited in San Clemente, but the location of Bear Coast was a significant factor that set it apart from the competition. When you are at Bear Coast Coffee, you are immersed in the heart of San Clemente and it really feels like you are getting the beach city experience. Furthermore, Bear Coast Coffee had our favorite tasting latte out of all the ones we tried in San Clemente.
Don’t expect to pass through this area quickly. We’d only recommend coming to Bear Coast Coffee if you will be spending time in the area. There is no street parking outside of the store, and the closest lot is paid and can get crowded depending on the time of year that you visit. However, if you are coming for at least a few hours, it’s worth spending the time to find parking.
There are several speciality coffee shops sprinkled throughout San Clemente that gave Bear Coast Coffee some strong competition. We had great service at Rapport Coffee and our latte was served out of a beautiful ceramic mug. High Tide Coffee was also great, and had the most creative latte options that we saw in San Clemente. We’d happily visit either of these coffee shops again, but Bear Coast Coffee’s experience and taste made it a clear winner for us.
Brussels Bistro is a Belgian restaurant located on Avenida Del Mar, one of San Clemente’s most popular streets. Your visit to Brussels Bistro will give you the full Belgian experience—including the food, drinks, and decor. The restaurant has a large window that opens up to the street, which allows you to have said Belgian experience while still feeling like you are in a beach city.
The research for the best restaurant in San Clemente was very challenging. There were many restaurants that were highly mentioned in our research, and even more with exceptionally high online reviews. We narrowed our choices down to restaurants were the overall experience was praised—not simply the food, ambiance, or service—but all of it combined.
We had an early lunch at Brussels Bistro and sat right by the large window. We received friendly and prompt service and even enjoyed fresh bread right out of the oven. Following our server’s recommendation, we ordered the Creamy Chicken and Mushrooms which was served over a puff pastry with fries on the side. Essentially, this was a deconstructed chicken pot pie. The presentation of our dish was beautiful and the taste was even better.
While we were able to be seated immediately, we were informed that the wait time can be around 2 hours on the weekends for dinner. If you plan ahead of time to visit Brussels Bistro, we highly recommend that you make a reservation to avoid a long wait. Or, you can visit during non-peak hours like we did.
While there are many highly rated restaurants in San Clemente, we found that while they had great food, several of the options lacked in ambiance or service. Nick’s San Clemente was also noteworthy—the sea bass we ordered was perfectly crispy on the outside and also fell apart at the touch of our fork. Even so, we felt that our experience at Brussels Bistro was more unique and memorable.
South Swell Hand Dipped Ice Cream is exactly what it sounds like. You choose from either a vanilla ice cream bar, a chocolate ice cream bar, or a frozen banana, which is then hand-dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with your choice of toppings. At South Swell, guests can be creative and mix up flavors that appeal to them.
Unlike the vast options for restaurant in San Clemente, the dessert options are more limited. South Swell has higher reviews than the few other dessert options, and was even voted “Best in San Clemente” twice in the San Clemente Times.
When we arrived, we were informed that we would need to choose our base first and toppings. We ordered what our server said was the most popular combination—oreos and peanut butter. Since South Swell is also on Avenida Del Mar, we sat outside and enjoyed the sunshine and people watching as we enjoyed our freshly dipped frozen banana.
If you have trouble deciding what toppings you want like we did, South Swell has a menu of pre-determined topping combinations that can be added to whichever base you choose.
There are only a few other dessert spots in San Clemente, but they were mostly basic ice cream shops or bakeries and simply didn’t have the same appeal as South Swell. Matcha Tea and Cream was another top contender due to it’s different flavors of soft serve and fish shaped cones, but the location, reviews, and overall product at South Swell Hand Dipped Ice Cream made it a clear winner.
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens is a historical landmark located on 2.5 acres of land overlooking the ocean. Originally the home of Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente, Casa Romantica has been preserved for the community to enjoy. When it’s not being used for free community events, the grounds of Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens are open to visitors for only $5 per person. Some of the rooms in the Spanish Colonial Style house contain artifacts from the original owners, while some are used for other purposes like an art gallery or gift shop. There are several different gardens throughout the property like the cactus and succulent garden, a butterfly garden, a Native American garden, an herb garden, and many more—all overlooking the beautiful San Clemente pier.
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens was one of the most mentioned things to do in articles about San Clemente. Upon further research, it was evident that Casa Romantica is not only an important piece of history for San Clemente, but also a very picturesque place to visit. Tickets cost only $5 per person, but are free for children under 12, active military, and Casa Romantica Members*.
We were very impressed during our visit to Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, and we wanted to stay there all day to relax and take pictures. When we were buying our tickets, we learned that Casa Romantica is run by volunteers, and everyone we interacted with was very friendly and seemed passionate about the work we were doing. We were stunned by the beauty and history that we found throughout our visit to Casa Romantica. The grounds were well maintained and the history and style were preserved.
If you want to get some good pictures here, we’d recommend getting here right when they open to avoid the crowds. Also, Casa Romantica is not open all day, so make sure you check their houses before your visit (Closed Monday, Tuesday-Thursday 11-4, Friday-Sunday 10-2)*.
There are numerous paid activities in San Clemente that we discovered in our research, like surf lessons, whale watching, and even shopping. While these other paid activities are enjoyable options, there are not unique to San Clemente and can be found at most other beach towns. Due to its historic importance to San Clemente, its stunning beauty, and overall charm, Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens was a clear choice.
*Price and times at time of publication.
Sea Summit Trail is located right across from the ocean, and the most popular trailhead is located in Pico Park. This trail branches out into a variety of different smaller dirt trails within it that range in difficulty and length—allowing the visitor to choose the level they desire. If you take one of the trails that goes uphill, you will reach a plateau with a beautiful ocean view. There are parts of the trails that have stairs that some visitors incorporate into their workout. Different parts of Sea Summit Trail are wheelchair accessible, but these sections were fairly short.
There are only two major trails in San Clemente, so our research required us to compare the two trails directly. We tried to determine which trail would be best for most people visiting San Clemente, and Sea Summit Trail instantly stood out due to having many trails with different lengths and rigor. The ocean view at the top of the hill was the cherry on top.
We started the Sea Summit Trail from the trailhead in Pico Park. There were not a lot of parking spots here, but we arrived in the morning so we easily found parking. The beginning of the trailhead had a map which showed us how to get to the viewpoint, which was our chosen destination. We crossed a beautiful bridge, and after hiking uphill, made it to a plateau where there were benches to enjoy the beautiful view.
Do this hike early in the day to ensure getting a parking spot, and to avoid the heat in the summer months.
The other trail that rivals Sea Summit Trail is the San Clemente Beach Trail, which runs along the beach next to the trail tracks from North Beach to San Clemente State Beach (2.6 miles each way). This trail is mostly flat and follows right along the water almost exclusively. While this trail is certainly a staple of San Clemente, we found that the Sea Summit trail was more dynamic and interesting due to its significant elevation changes and different trail options.
The Pier Bowl refers to the pier and the area surrounding it. When visitors come to spend a day in San Clemente, the Pier Bowl is typically where they will spend most of their time. In addition to spending time on the beach, visitors will walk down the pier, watch the surfers, and walk around the coastal streets. If you come on the right day, you might experience one of the many events that happen at The Pier Bowl, ranging from surfing competitions to pop-up art shops. The Pier Bowl is quintessential San Clemente.
The Pier Bowl and it’s different components were all scattered throughout articles of San Clemente. As we did more research, it became evident that several places and activities mentioned made up the experience of The Pier Bowl, which is why we determined that they all need to stay under that umbrella.
While there were no special events going on during our visit to The Pier Bowl, it was still lively and exciting as we walked around. We walked down the pier and watched the surfers for awhile, which was more entertaining that I anticipated! After walking along the beach for awhile, we walked around the neighborhood to check out some of the homes and hotels. We truly felt immersed in the culture of San Clemente while visiting The Pier Bowl.
In the busier months, try to get here early to get a free parking spot in the neighborhood to keep this free activity truly free. However, it can be difficult to even find a parking spot in the paid lot during the busier months. If you have trouble finding parking in the Summer, we’d recommend parking on or off of Avenida Del Mar and taking the free shuttle that runs in the Summer. Finally, if you do feel like spending money at The Pier Bowl, our pick for best coffee, Bear Coast Coffee, is located there.
While there are many beaches in San Clemente, none immerse you in the beachy culture like The Pier Bowl does. Also, the state beaches (San Clemente State Beach and San Onofre State Beach) have entrance fees which automatically disqualify them from this category.
C-VU Motel is a family run motel that offers affordable rooms a few miles from the different San Clemente beaches without having to splurge for a beachfront property. This retro style motel has been in San Clemente before the 5 freeway was built and is still owned and run by the same family. Reservations for C-VU Motel are only done through the hotel itself, AirBnb, or Hotels.com. With rooms starting at $75*, C-VU Motel will provide you with a clean and thoughtfully decorated room, along with free wifi, free parking, and a turf covered backyard area.
San Clemente is a pricy place to lodge, and there are frankly not many hotels in the value price range to compete with it. C-VU Motel had the best reviews for San Clemente hotels under $100 and its retro charm was attractive as well.
While we didn’t stay in C-VU Motel, we did have the opportunity to chat with the General Manager and look at one of the rooms. The rooms have unique decor, and while small, had all the expected and necessary amenities of a motel. We particularly appreciated the special touches on the grounds including the beautiful plants and the backyard area.
Since there are only 6 rooms available at C-VU Motel, they may fill up faster than expected. However, the General Manager said that people typically book one month in advance, so booking may only be an issue for last minute trips.
Because San Clemente is such an expensive place to stay, there are not many other budget options that may be considered competition to C-VU Motel. However, House of Tressels has hostel style rooms for as low as $33 per night*. While shared rooms might be an ideal way to save money for some travelers, it’s probably not best for most visitors.
*Prices at time of publication.
Beachcomber Inn is a boutique hotel located on a hill directly above the beach in San Clemente. Each room in this Spanish-style hotel has its own private deck overlooking the ocean and pier. Equipped with a full kitchen, the rooms at Beachcomber Inn have everything you need to enjoy your vacation, including the incredible view. With rooms starting at $195*, a stay a Beachcomber Inn is definitely more on the luxury side, but the quality of the stay will reflect that price.
After looking at prices, amenities, photos, reviews, and locations of all hotels in San Clemente, it was evident that Beachcomber Inn is the best overall lodging in San Clemente. The view at Beachcomber Inn has no competition, the style and amenities of the hotel are high quality, and while pricey, guests appear to be getting what they pay for.
Since Beachcomber Inn is a smaller, luxury level hotel, the grounds are fairly private to respect the guests, so we weren’t able to do a walking tour of the hotel. However, we could see their notorious balconies from the beach which looked serene and decadent. The staff was very helpful in answering any pending questions we had about Beachcomber Inn, and we look forward to staying there one day to bring you more information.
This hotel is very popular and is usually fully booked every night. If you are coming to San Clemente and want to stay here, be sure to book as far in advance as you can.
Sea Horse Resort does rival our top pick with it’s breathtaking views, but the rooms don’t seem as nice or well-decorated as Beachcomber Inn. Also, the price hike during the weekend it significantly more at Sea Horse Resort. The Holiday Inn Express is also highly rated, and unlike Beachcomber Inn and Sea House Resort, offers free breakfast to its guests. However, Holiday Inn Express is about 2 miles from the pier and lacks the character and charm that Beachcomber Inn is known for.
*Price at time of publication.
Located on a hill overlooking the ocean, the campground at San Clemente State Beach offers beach dwellers with both single and group campsites. Because this campground is run by the California State Parks, it’s a bit pricier here than a typical campsite, starting at $40*, but this price is reflected in the quality of the grounds. For the ease of campers and day use visitors, there is a trail and tunnel that lead directly from the campground down to the beach.
Since there are only two campgrounds in San Clemente, we were able to directly compare our two options in different categories. Not only did San Clemente State Beach had slightly better reviews across platforms, but our experience here was also much better than the competition.
Even though the campground was fully booked while we were there, it was very peaceful and did not feel overcrowded. The sites were not uncomfortably close to each other, and the sound of the ocean in the distance created an especially tranquil environment.
Even though this campground is located on a hill, only a few lucky campers get an ocean view from their site. If you want a great view, we’d recommend sites 82, 83, 85, 88, or 89—which are all labeled as “premium tent campsites” and come with $5 price hike. The ranger we spoke to confirmed that these are the most sought after sites and recommended booking far in advance if you want to book them.
The only other place to camp in San Clemente is San Onofre State Beach. While the campsites here are much closer to the water, it felt a lot more crowded since the campers were integrated with the beach visitors. As a beach visitor, it almost felt like you were invading campers’ personal space while walking down the beach, which was uncomfortable. Also, San Onofre State Beach is 6 miles south downtown San Clemente, so it feels disconnected if you want to experience the city overall.
*Prices at the time of publication.