With a chill, laid-back vibe, and nearly perfect weather year-round, San Clemente is one of the best beach towns in Southern California. It might have a bit of a small-town feel, but there are plenty of things to do in San Clemente.
It’s got something for everyone, whether you are looking for beautiful white-sand beaches, world-class surfing, historic gems, hip boutiques, or delicious food and drink.
San Clemente is home to my boyfriend’s favorite surf spot (Trestles) so I’ve become a bit familiar with it over the last few years and have fallen in love with the chill beach vibe. It really offers some of the best that Orange County has to offer.
Recently though, I had the opportunity to explore it even more thoroughly while taking a day trip there with my friends at Metrolink and fell in love with it even deeper.
Known as the “Spanish Village of the Sea,” San Clemente offers some of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California (to rival those in Laguna Beach), gorgeous Spanish architecture (similar to San Juan Capistrano), a vibrant downtown area, and a super laid-back feel.
It’s also consistently ranked one of the best surf towns in the WORLD (much like Nosara in Costa Rica).
There’s plenty to explore on a day trip, or even a relaxing weekend excursion. And, it’s super easy and stress-free when hopping on a Metrolink train from many different spots in Southern California.
Keep on reading for all of the best things to do in San Clemente and how to plan an enjoyable trip with Metrolink!
**Note: this post was written in partnership with Metrolink. As always, opinions are all my own**
Location and Getting to San Clemente
San Clemente is the southernmost city in Orange County. It is located along the 5 freeway and is about 61 miles from Los Angeles (roughly an hour and 19 minutes without traffic), and 36 miles (about 45 minutes) from Anaheim.
There are public lots and street parking available around town (close to the best things to do in San Clemente), however, parking can be very hard to find on the weekends.
If you want to avoid traffic (which is always a giant pain in Southern California) and the headache of finding parking, I highly recommend taking the train to San Clemente.
San Clemente is served by Metrolink, which connects it to many other destinations in Southern California in Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside County, Antelope County, Ventura County, and North San Diego County.
There are two stops in town: San Clemente (just north of North Beach), and San Clemente Pier (on the weekends), which is within walking distance to many of the top things to do in San Clemente.
We took the Metrolink Orange County line, and it was such a breeze! The trains are clean, comfortable, and have some amazing views of the ocean. It was also so nice to not have to sit in traffic (we saw the traffic on the freeway as our train just cruised along) or fight for a parking spot!
On weekends, Metrolink offers a $10 all you can ride day pass, which makes it an inexpensive option to plan a San Clemente day trip.
It is such an easy option when planning a day trip to San Clemente or to other destinations in Southern California!
See here for route information and schedules.
Getting Around in San Clemente
As I mentioned earlier, many of the top San Clemente attractions are within walking distance of the San Clemente Pier Metrolink Station, so we mostly walked around during our day in town.
If you get tired of walking (there are a bunch of hills), or want to venture a bit further (i.e. the outlet mall) the city also offers a free trolley service during the summer months. The San Clemente Trolley runs from Memorial Day weekend through the last weekend in September.
There are two lines: one that serves the main downtown area, as well as another that heads to the northern end of the city. Trolleys run approximately every 15 minutes and are absolutely free! You can see a live map of the routes, as well as see a live tracker here.
Other ways of getting around include taking the Metrolink between the San Clemente and San Clemente Pier stations, or calling an Uber/Lyft.
How much time to spend in San Clemente?
The great thing about San Clemente is that you can spend as little or as much time there as you want.
It can easily be explored as a day trip, but there are plenty of things to do in San Clemente to extend your time there into a chill, laid-back weekend getaway. The choice is up to you!
Weather and when to visit San Clemente
As with most destinations in Southern California, there is no bad time to visit San Clemente. The region enjoys mild temperatures year-round, so any time is a great time to visit.
One thing to keep in mind is that San Clemente is right on the coast, so temperatures tend to be a bit cooler than they are inland. Because of this, bring a jacket or cardigan with you as it can get kind of breezy and overcast sometimes.
Do note that May Gray and June Gloom are a thing in Southern California, so you may experience overcast weather during those months. Usually, the clouds burn off in the afternoon though, so you sun-worshipers can plan your visit accordingly.
Things to Do in San Clemente
Start your day with brunch on Avenida Victoria
Just across the street from the San Clemente Pier Metrolink station is Avenida Victoria, where you will find a number of eateries and cafes. This is the perfect place to grab some brunch.
This charming spot also has patio seating with a perfect oceanfront views, friendly service, and the food is delicious! (Side note: one of the earliest dates for me and my boyfriend was at La Galette so it was fun to reminisce.)
I ordered the bacon, egg and cheddar crepe and my boyfriend got the pork and eggs. Both were super tasty, and it was the perfect way to start our day in San Clemente!
If you need some caffeine to fuel you up for all of the fun things to do in San Clemente, be sure to also check out Bear Coast Coffee. This artisanal coffee shop has a selection of espresso drinks and specialty drinks perfect for any coffee fiend.
The specialty drinks are excellent here – try the horchata latte!
Walk through the grounds of Casa Romantica
After brunch and coffee, head up the hill on Avenida Del Mar towards Casa Romantica (look for the sign on the left). The beautiful estate and gardens were once the residence of Ole Hansen, the founder of San Clemente.
Hansen was an ambitious and enterprising man who came from humble beginnings in Wisconsin to eventually became a lawyer, land developer, and the mayor of Seattle. In 1923, he was recruited by financier Hamilton Cotton to transform 2,000 acres of land into a “Spanish village by the sea,” which would eventually become San Clemente.
Casa Romantica sits on top of a bluff and boasts stunning views of the ocean, pier, and the city of San Clemente. I had been hearing about Casa Romantica as one of the best things to do in San Clemente and I was excited to finally check it out!
Casa Romantica is a registered historical landmark and is also a popular event space used for many weddings. They also host concerts and educational events during the spring and summer months.
The estate stands on five acres and is built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture. Much of the original house stands exactly as it did back in the 1920s (they converted the kitchen into restrooms).
You’ll find lots of tiled details, gorgeous archways, and many cacti and succulent plants, as well as bougainvillea flowers (the official flower of San Clemente) while walking along the grounds.
I loved walking through Casa Romantica, checking out its beauty, and learning more about Hansen and the history of San Clemente. It is an absolutely gorgeous estate and checking it out is definitely one of the best things to do in San Clemente!
Be aware that the hours are a bit limited at Casa Romantica, so keep them in mind as you plan your day – they are open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Tuesdays-Thursdays, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Fridays-Sundays (closed Mondays). A minimum $5 donation is also required for entry (pssst…you can save $1 if you show your Metrolink ticket).
Check out the Farmers Market
After checking out Casa Romantica, continue walking up Avenida Del Mar to go to the San Clemente Farmers Market. Lately, I’ve enjoyed spending weekend mornings at various farmers markets, so I was excited to check this one out (Is this what happens as we get older?! Asking for a friend).
The San Clemente Farmers Market takes place every Sunday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. It is a bit of a smaller market and is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. If you are walking up Avenida Del Mar from Casa Romantica, look for it on the left, just past the library. It takes place in two lots there.
You’ll find a variety of farmers and vendors selling everything from produce, plants, honey, tamales, and much more. My favorite find here was heirloom tomatoes going for $4 a pound – they had so many varieties of tomatoes in beautiful colors and I really wish I was able to take more home (guess I will have to return another time).
Browse the shops and restaurants on Avenida Del Mar
After visiting the Farmers Market, continue walking up Avenida Del Mar. The street is filled with tons of cute shops, restaurants, cafes and bars and you can easily spend the rest of your afternoon exploring all the businesses here.
I loved browsing all of the boutiques here. One of my favorites was Melrose in the OC, which had a bit of a California coastal energy to it. There are also plenty of shops with a surf vibe here, which were also fun to check out.
There are also lots of surf shops (I loved all the bold and colorful surfboards and clothing at Catch Surf), eclectic home decor and gift shops (check out the Abode), and plenty more to satisfy your inner shopaholic.
If you are in the mood for some bites and sips, you’ll find that there are plenty of options on Avenida Del Mar! We stopped at the Cellar, which came highly recommended by a good friend. They have an excellent selection of wine and the cheese plates are the best!
If you are craving something sweet, grab some ice cream or sorbet at Paradis. Originally from Denmark, Paradis serves fresh handmade ice cream created using the finest ingredients. There is a rotating selection of flavors here, including some unique ones such as avocado and lime, raspberry rosemary rosé, spiced hazelnut cake, and more.
Another spot that came highly recommended was Cafe Mimosa, although we did not have a chance to stop and check it out. Next time!
Stroll Across the San Clemente Pier
After strolling down Avenida Del Mar, come back down the hill towards the beach to check out the pier. There is no shortage of awesome piers in Orange County, but the San Clemente Pier is one of the best.
The historic pier stretches 1296 feet and has stood on the beach since 1926. The original pier was much shorter, but has been rebuilt twice after it was damaged.
Be sure to walk the entirety of the pier to appreciate it. You’ll find plenty of stunning views of the coastline as well, making this one of the best things to do in San Clemente.
It’s also a great spot for people watching, as well as observing the local fishermen and their catches for the day.
There are also a few restaurants along the pier should you wish to stop for a bite or drink.
Walk Along the San Clemente Beach Trail
The 2.3 mile long San Clemente Beach Trail hugs the shoreline and is one of the best ways to see the coast. The picturesque trail is relatively flat throughout and is one of the best outdoor activities in San Clemente.
You can start the trail from the Main Beach near the pier, and head south towards Calafia State Beach or north towards North Beach. You can walk along as little or as much of the trail as you want.
It’s such an awesome walk with beautiful coastal views throughout. It’s also one of the best things to do in San Clemente for joggers and cyclists. The dirt trail is paved and relatively paved throughout, making it ideal for all ability levels.
You’ll also get to see the Metrolink and Amtrak trains go by, as the track is directly adjacent to the trail. This can be a bit of an annoyance if you’re looking for some peace and quiet, but personally I thought it was kind of cool. Watching the trains here is one of the most fun things to do in San Clemente with kids.
Hang out at Calafia Beach
While you can turn back after a short time on the Beach Trail, I recommend going all the way south to Calafia Beach.
This is one of my favorite spots in San Clemente. You’ll find white sand and super blue waters here (especially on a nice, sunny day). It is also much less crowded than the Main Beach.
It’s one of the best spots to hang out and have a beach day, but even spending a little bit of time here is worthwhile.
There’s also a cafe here if you want some refreshments.
It’s only about a 30-minute walk (one hour round trip) from the pier, making it a super nice walk and excursion on your San Clemente itinerary.
Even More Things to Do in San Clemente
If you have extra time, or you are looking for additional options for things to do in San Clemente, consider adding some of the below onto your itinerary:
Shop til you drop at the Outlets at San Clemente
Visiting the Outlets at San Clemente is one of the best things to do in San Clemente for shopaholics. It is home to 60+ outlet stores in an open-air setting with an ocean view. You’ll find an array of name-brand outlet shops here, including Columbia, Guess, Nike, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Vans, and more.
One of the best times to come to the Outlets at San Clemente is during the holiday season, when they have a giant Christmas tree on display in the center of the mall (last year it was known to be the largest in the world and it was pretty impressive!). You’ll also find plenty of deals for your holiday shopping.
You can easily get to the Outlets at San Clemente by taking the trolley from the downtown area.
Experience the Surfing Culture
San Clemente is home to some of the most popular surf breaks in Orange County, so watching the surfers in the water is a favorite activity.
One of the most well-known surf breaks in San Clemente (and even the world) is Trestles, known as the “Yosemite of surfing.” Even world-class pro surfers ride the waves at Trestles – my boyfriend has met some of them in the water while surfing there himself. The World Surfing League even hosts an annual contest here.
It is a bit of a trek and requires a hike from the main road, but watching the surfers there is super fun! (You might even see me there – this is my boyfriend’s favorite place to surf and I often accompany him to hang out at the beach).
If you are looking to observe the surfers closer to the downtown area, head down to T-Street Beach. T-Street is located just a short distance south from the pier, at the west end of Esplanade Street (it is sometimes referred to as Esplanade Beach for this reason). It is also an awesome place to photograph the pier.
And if you feel up to catching some waves yourself, there are several surfboard rental shops and surf schools that line the area around the beach (after all, surfing is known as one of the top things to do in San Clemente). Try San Clemente Surfboard Rentals, located near T-Street Beach (bonus: you get 5% off your surfboard and wetsuit rental if you show your Metrolink ticket!).
Sip on some local beers at Artifex Brewing Company
Making a stop at Artifex Brewing is one of the top things to do in San Clemente for craft beer enthusiasts. Known as one of the top breweries in Orange County (you can find their award-winning beers on the menu of many local restaurants and bars), Artifex offers 17 beers on tap. The Mexican lager is one of my favorites.
The beers are all produced at their main brewery and tasting room on Calle Amanecer, however, they also have a new tasting room downtown on Avenida Del Mar.
Try some locally-made spirits at Drift Distillery
Just across from Artifex’s main location is Drift Distillery. Here, you will find premium, small batch spirits that are made on site, as well as a tasting room and restaurant.
Try the single-barrel wheat whiskey (distilled using wheat grown by the owner’s parents in Kansas) – it’s won several awards. They also have some awesome cocktails!
Check out the view from Parque Del Mar
Just up the hill from the beach on Avenida del Mar is Parque Del Mar, a small park with a beautiful view of the waterfront. There is a small grassy area, as well as a few picnic tables here. It is a perfect spot to pack up some snacks for a little picnic!
If you happen to be around in the area around sunset time, it is also one of the best spots to watch the sunset in San Clemente – we stumbled upon this spot while meeting up with some friends and ended up watching the most breathtaking sunset here.
Grab a burrito at Sancho’s Tacos
I discovered Sancho’s Tacos recently at the recommendation of a friend, and boy – they have some of the best burritos in the area!
The CaliGuey burrito is a must-try here – it’s their take on a California burrito (aka with French fries) and it is absolutely delicious. Also do not miss out on the salsas that come with your burrito, they are amazing!
Have you ever been to San Clemente? What are some of your favorite things to do in San Clemente?
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Caroline is a Southern California based traveler, writer, and photographer. She travels all around California, the US, and the world in search of the most colorful places, the most delicious food, and bucket-list adventures. Her aim is to inspire other travelers discover how to add more adventure and joy to their lives. On Pictures & Words, you’ll find detailed guides + itineraries, along with vibrant photos to help you plan the the most epic trips. When she’s not traveling, Caroline also runs half marathons.