California can be an incredible place to vacation, but it always seems to find itself on the wrong end of the headlines.

You know…more taxes, ridiculous gas prices, and let’s not even get started on real estate!

Typically, travelers decide between going East or West for their summertime beach fix, unless you plan to put your passport to good use.

While Florida is always enticing with much more affordable prices across the board, well, let’s just say Florida is always gonna Florida!

You never know what headlines this state will find itself in, either. I mean, have you seen the viral mugshots?

Any way you slice it, summer is here, and there’s no better time for a beach trip.

Your typical vacation may usually be anchored by a lavish resort for prime sun and sand, but why not go for something different?

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner route is undoubtedly among the most scenic in America, offering stunning coastal scenery, worthwhile stops in historic towns…and, of course, air conditioning.

It’s perfect for domestic travelers looking for a fun alternative to the traditional beach getaway!

First Stop: America’s Finest City

San Diego skyline

San Diego holds a handful of monikers. “America’s Finest City”, “Sunny San Diego”, “A Whale’s…” well, never mind. You get the point.

For me, I just call it home.

Say what you want about California, and believe me, there’s a ton of subject matter both good and bad, but there’s arguably no prettier city in the country, making it absolutely perfect for this type of travel.

Okay, okay, yes, downtown still has intermittent zombie lands since the relatively new ‘No Camping’ law hasn’t changed diddly squat to alleviate the eyesores of California’s notorious homeless encampments.

Good news is this part of town won’t interrupt the stunning ocean views of the Pacific Surfliner, even as the route begins at Santa Fe Station in the Marina District downtown just outside one of the most underrated cultural neighborhoods in the States – San Diego’s Little Italy.

You can fuel up for your trip at my favorite donut shop, Devil’s Dozen (check out their menu here 😋), or perhaps Mona Lisa for a classic Italian lunch before setting north for Southern California’s most epic views.

Classic SoCal: Just Like The Movies

If you begin your journey in San Diego, you’ll have no choice but to go north. This is the fun part…

San Diego is widely considered just a beach town, but it’s actually one of the biggest cities in the nation.

Exploring Balboa Park, Seaport Village, and partying your pants off in the Gaslamp is a blast and all, but my favorite places to go are the small beach towns away from the action.

2 surfers in Encinitas

San Diego’s very own Mission Beach is commonly referred to as “the tourist beach” and becomes insanely packed in summer.

Not to say the small coastal towns north of San Diego don’t have their fair share of crowds, but it’s a lot easier to find a private spot on a gorgeous beach than weaving your way through Arizonians who think they own the place.

You will hit these 5 scenic beach towns along your route as a stopping point:

Del Mar – home to luxe beachfront hotels, Del Mar Fairgrounds, and wide range of fine dining
Solana Beach – laid back with local boutiques and pub ‘n grubs along the main strip
Encinitas – chill surfer vibes with surprisingly upscale restaurants and frequent celebrity sightings
Carlsbad – popular for shopping and LEGOLAND theme park
Oceanside – cheapest beach town in San Diego County

Train tracks along California coast

Between Solana and Encinitas is my personal favorite hidden gem, Cardiff, a sun-kissed surfer hangout with all the SoCal vibes you can muster from the movies, but there is no train stop here.

Last Stop: Historic San Luis Obispo

The Pacific Surfliner offers passengers elevated cliffside views along stunning coastal towns, so definitely grab a window seat!

From San Diego to the final stop, San Luis Obispo, it doesn’t matter if you’re in San Diego County or Orange County, it’s worth the price of admission, which is are as low as $61 one-way in July. (Book your tickets on their official site here)

Downtown Historic District sign in San Luis Obispo

Riders can disembark in just as scenic beach towns in Orange County all the way up to Santa Barbara, and it may be a good idea since 2024 hasn’t been the greatest for San Diego beaches.

Ultimately, if you choose to complete the full trek to Central California, San Luis Obispo adds centuries-old intriguing history into the mix of laid-back beach towns on your itinerary.

A must-visit is the captivating Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, a Spanish church dating back to the 1700s.

If, for some odd reason, that doesn’t tickle your fancy, surely the plethora of surrounding vineyards will be in this underrated wine getaway.

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