My love affair with Malibu began when I first visited in my early twenties—my brother had just moved to LA, and I couldn’t believe the beautiful beaches and incredible hiking trails that were just a stone’s throw from the city. In the years since, I’ve gotten to spend time there producing stories for the site, from our beach picnic with Gjelina owner Shelley Armistead, to the backyard dinner party hosted by chef Helena Henderson.
Seeing Malibu through the eyes of these locals introduced me to the incredible creativity of its community, not to mention the beaches where they surf, and the farm stands where they buy their produce (swoon.) Now that I’m a bit of a local myself, I’ve been getting lots of questions from readers and friends about my favorite things to do in Malibu, so I knew it was time to share my insider tips on where to eat, stay, hike, shop, and surf when you plan your next visit.
What to know about Malibu
Before we dive into my list of things to do in Malibu, let’s cover a few FAQ’s.
Why is Malibu famous?
Malibu is actually a much smaller town than most people realize—the official city population is only 12,000 residents! However, it’s known by almost everyone for its iconic 21-mile stretch of beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway, and yes, its famous residents.
In the sixties and seventies, Malibu transformed from sleepy surf town to hip Hollywood haven thanks to the arrival of Gidget and residents like Barbara Streisand, Joan Didion, and countless musicians. Over the next few decades, thanks to pop culture moments like Baywatch (shot at Zuma Beach) and Malibu Barbie, Malibu developed a reputation as a city drenched in equal parts sunshine and glamour.
Today, Malibu is home to countless media moguls and tech giants, but the ‘Bu I love is far from glitzy—drive past the Pier and Pepperdine, and your view from the PCH becomes one of cliffs and canyons, rough terrain and stunning sunsets. Its rustic natural beauty is the real draw for me, but it does take a little insider knowledge to peel back the layers and fully discover its spiritual side. When you take time to settle into its rhythms, Malibu invites you to connect with the natural world and align your pace to the rising and falling of the tides. As Joan Didion wrote in The White Album:
“Malibu tends to astonish and disappoint those who have never seen it, and yet its very name remains, in the imagination of people all over the world, a kind of shorthand for the easy life.”
Where exactly is Malibu?
Malibu is its own city in Los Angeles County, located in the Santa Monica mountains about 30 miles west of downtown LA. It also happens to be just about 60 miles from Santa Barbara and 55 miles from Ojai, making Malibu a fantastic home base to explore other great parts of Southern California.
Where to Stay: The Best Malibu Hotels
There are quite a few hotels in Malibu, but in my opinion, there are really only two that you need to know:
Surfrider Hotel. This beautiful, highly-Instagrammable boutique hotel is my splurgier pick for a weekend in Malibu. From its whitewashed interiors to its lush, tropical plant-filled common areas to the incredible rooftop restaurant—Surfrider Hotel is pretty much perfect. Prepare to snap endless photos for your own at-home interior design inspo (or maybe that’s just me), then grab a smoothie and a board, and hit the waves at Surfrider Beach.
Hotel June. This brand new hotel is a few miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway, and I absolutely love it, both for its simple, chic design and affordable luxury. Rooms are comfy, the pool is gorgeous, and you feel like you’re staying at your hip Malibu friend’s casita. Hotel June also earns a 10 out of 10 for location: it sits at the base of Point Dume next to gorgeous Westward Beach.
The Most Delicious Things To Do In Malibu:
As mentioned above, Malibu is a surprisingly small town. So while there are a handful of great restaurants, it’s helpful to go in with a little know-how so you don’t end up eating at overpriced tourist traps with mediocre food. These are, in my opinion, the absolute best restaurants in Malibu. Here’s what I order and when I recommend going.
Have Lunch on the Pier at Malibu Farm
You may not realize it, but you’ve likely spotted Malibu Farm in the b-roll of any reality show that takes place in Los Angeles. It’s charming shiplap exterior and spot at the end of Malibu Pier have made it an institution. The ocean views are epic, and the food lives up to the hype. I love to order the watermelon greek salad for lunch, with either a mint lemonade or spicy margarita, depending on my mood.
Insider tip: If the restaurant at the top of the Pier is too crowded, mosey down to the end of the Pier where you can grab an outdoor table and order from the counter-service cafe.
Eat the Fresh Catch of the Day at Malibu Seafood
Malibu Seafood is the perfect lunch or early dinner spot when you’re coming off the beach. Lines tend to get long on weekends, so I try to go at non-peak hours on weekdays. It’s BYOB, so make sure to pack your cooler with a bottle of chilled rosé, and park it at one of the picnic tables on the patio. Adam swears by the fish and chips, I usually order the fresh catch of the day, simply grilled with lemon and a baked potato.
Insider tip: Malibu Seafood also has an incredible market where you can buy fresh fish and shellfish to cook at home. Skip the line and head straight to the market window to order.
Score a Table at Nobu Malibu—The Views Alone are Worth It
If, when you hear the word “Malibu,” you think of celebrities, flashy cars, and papparazzi, you’re probably thinking of Nobu Malibu. This is the only place in town where I’d actually wear heels, and reservations are tough to come by. And yes, you really are likely to see a celebrity. That said, this is one of the most visually stunning restaurants you’ll ever lay eyes on. Sitting right at the water’s edge, it’s all modern Japanese architecture, warm wood, and firelight. And the sushi is world class.
Insider tip: When you call the reservation line, you are likely to hear the words, “I’m sorry, but we’re fully committed.” However, if you go before 6pm on a weeknight, you can likely score a table, or at least a couple seats at the bar.
Eat a Lobster Roll at Broad Street Oyster
Tucked away at Malibu Country Mart, Broad Street Oyster Company is a surprising standout for great food in Malibu. It’s funky, it’s fun, it’s all about the oysters and lobster rolls. Make a beeline there to cap-off a day at the beach, or pull off the PCH if you’re road-tripping from LA to Santa Barbara.
Insider tip: Especially on sunny days, Broad Street Oyster Co gets insanely crowded. But thankfully, if you plan ahead, you can pre-book your order and pick it up at the window at your allotted time.
Order Pad Thai To-Go at Cholada Thai Cuisine
My favorite Thai food on the planet happens to be located in an unassuming beach shack right on the highway as you enter Malibu city limits. It’s become a tradition that when I head into town, I call in a to-go order at Cholada and swing by to pick it up on my way to the house. Prices are good, portions are massive, and it’s exactly the satisfying meal you crave after traveling (or surfing.)
Insider tip: The Tom Kha Soup is a comforting bowl of heaven.
Devour the Best Breakfast Burrito in Town at Lily’s
When you go to Lily’s Malibu, you’re probably going to say, “Um, really Camille?!” It’s an unassuming dive in a strip mall at Point Dume. However, the breakfast burritos are legendary for a reason, and doing your best to devour a whole one after a Saturday morning spent surfing or swimming is practically a Malibu rite of passage. They’re really good, and when you’re tired and sun-baked, nothing tastes better.
Insider tip: I usually put in an online order at least 45 minutes before I’m ready to pickup—it’s a popular spot.
Eat a Nourish Bowl at Surfrider Hotel
Not only is Surfrider Hotel one of the best places to stay in Malibu—it also happens to have one of Malibu’s best restaurants. The rooftop patio is a gorgeous, airy space with teak wood furniture and a big open air bar, and the menu is full of fresh, seasonal salads, tacos, and ceviches. Bonus points that it overlooks Surfrider Beach, where there’s always a great surf show to watch as you dine.
Insider tip: The only issue with Surfrider is that you have to be a hotel guest in order to access the restaurant, however it’s such a vibe, it might just be worth booking a room for the night to soak up the full experience.
The Best Beaches in Malibu
Malibu’s 21-mile stretch of stunning beaches is what brings the Los Angelenos here in droves. Thankfully, many of them (like Zuma) are large enough to make room for everyone, so don’t let the crowds deter you. The pristine beauty of this part of the Pacific never fails to leave me speechless, and thankfully, Malibu’s got a beach to satisfy every mood.
Swim and Surf at Zuma Beach
We’re lucky enough to call Zuma Beach our neighborhood beach, as it happens to be one of my favorite places in the world to spend a day lounging in the sand, playing in the surf, and attempting to beat Phoebe at sand volleyball (she smears me.) And it’s the best beach in Malibu for a long beach walk.
Insider tip: If you go south, you’ll connect to stunning Westward beach, home of the best sunsets. Walk north, and you’ll hit locals favorite Broad Beach.
Pack a Picnic and head to Leo Carillo Beach
My brother lived in Santa Monica for several years, and loved to surf and hang out at Leo Carillo beach. So, when we were getting the lay of the land in Malibu, we packed a picnic and headed up the PCH to spend an overcast Saturday at Leo Carillo State Beach, and it did not disappoint. You can park in the paid lot across the street and access the beach via the underground tunnel. Then grab a perch and prepare to be wow’d by the incredible beauty of this rocky beach that looks completely different than others in the area. Kids will love climbing up the rock formations, and there’s a “secret” beach right on the other side.
Insider tip: The photos I take here are always my favorite of any other beach—even on overcast days, there’s something about the light at Leo Carillo that’s just magical.
Watch the Sunrise at El Matador Beach
I know, I already said that Zuma and Leo Carillo are my favorite beaches in Malibu, but I couldn’t leave off El Matador! The rocky bluffs make it so stunning, this is the favorite beach for photographers shooting fashion spreads or engagement photos alike. The best time to visit El Matador beach is early in the morning, when the sunrise casts a magical glow over everything (and before the small parking lot fills up!) This isn’t a great beach for surfing, so come prepared to picnic, lounge, or go for a stroll.
Insider tip: Wear sneakers, since you have to hike a ways down the bluff from the parking lot up top.
Pickup Supplies for a Beach Day at Vintage Grocers
Vintage Grocers is the most dangerous grocery store for me—when I set foot in its produce section lined with plump, juice fruits and veggies from nearby farms, I lose all self-control. Not to mention, there are delicious smoothies, local cheeses, and a delicious selection of treats made by their in-house bakers. For a beach picnic, order a panini to-go with a bag of fresh cherries and a hunk of cheese. You’re set!
Insider tip: Gjusta, the legendary bakery in Venice Beach, delivers fresh sourdough bread to Vintage Grocers daily. It’s my weakness!
Where to Shop in Malibu
Malibu’s not exactly a shopping mecca, but there are some real gems in the mix if you know where to look. And yes, heirloom tomato shopping definitely counts.
Hit the Farm Stand at Thorne Family Farm
Every Saturday, Thorne Family Farm transforms from a real working farm into a neighborhood party. Live bluegrass musicians, local vendors selling wares, and of course, the most beautiful flowers and fresh seasonal produce, most of it grown right at the farm. One of our favorite parts of our weekly farm excursion is grabbing pastries and cookies from Varsity Bakers, an LA bakery that pulls up their truck to the farm each Saturday, loaded with freshly baked goods. We take our breakfast and find a picnic table to listen to music and catch-up with neighbors.
Insider tip: Bring a cloth bag and cash for purchasing your produce—and be sure to check the website in advance since the farm stand closes for a couple months each winter.
Discover some treasures for your home at Abierto
Abierto is my favorite shop in Malibu—it’s an unassuming facade in a strip mall in Point Dume (albeit one where you might spot Chris Martin waiting in line for his coffee), but once you enter its doors you’re bound to discover your new favorite candle / cookbook / fragrance / (insert your favorite thing here.) Owner and shopkeeper, Amanda, displays her incredible taste through a curated selection of small batch wellness items, artisan-made ceramics, the best cookbook assortment I’ve ever laid eyes on, and so much more. If you need a gift for anyone in your life, this is your spot.
Insider tip: Don’t miss the incredible assortment of stationery and greeting cards. I always stock up on several to take back in my suitcase to Austin.
Get Your Shopping Fix at Malibu Country Mart
Yes, it can get a bit touristy, but Malibu Country Mart is a very well-curated outdoor mall that comes in extremely handy when you need to actually buy some new clothes or cosmetics while you’re in Malibu. From Faherty to Sunroom to Vuori, the assortment is good, and you can stock up on essentials at Sephora. It’s a fun way to wile away an afternoon when you need a break from the beach.
Insider tip: There are tons of options, but IMHO these are the best restaurants at Malibu Country Mart: Broad Street Oyster (see reco above!), John’s Garden for a healthy lunch, and Alfred Coffee for your beverage break.
My Favorite Active Things to Do in Malibu
Something about being in Malibu just begs you to get outside and move—from hiking to surfing to mountain biking to yoga, it’s almost impossible not to be active when you’re here (especially since it’s usually a perfect 72 degrees. Here are some of my favorite ways to mix up my workout when I’m in Malibu.)
Book a Surf Instructor at Drill Surf & Skate
Drill is also my favorite surf shop, and they have a roster of great surf coaches who will take you out on either Zuma or Broad Beach, depending on the day’s conditions. Call or walk-in, and the owner, Craig will hook you up with the best instructor for your level.
Insider tip: Next door to Drill is Vintage Grocers, my aforementioned favorite grocery store ever. Pop in for an after-surf breakfast from their hot bar, or grab an açai bowl from the smoothie counter. Now you’re a real Malibuer.
Hike the Cliffs at Point Dume and Whale Watch
I’ll never forget the day that we closed on Zuma Beach House, we went for a walk at Point Dume State Beach and I was near-speechless when realizing that this stunning location was in our new neighborhood. It’s truly one of the most beautiful hikes in Malibu, and (quite possibly) the world. It’s a 30-minute trail that’s great for beginners, and you’ll be treated to stunning vistas of flowers, tribes of sea lions, and ocean views as far as the eye can see. Park at the tiny lot at the trailhead, or if it’s full (as it usually is), drive down and park in the Westward Beach lot at the base of the cliffs, then hike up the staircase.
Insider tip: Every season at Point Dume State Beach has it’s own beauty: In March, the cliffs are covered in vibrant yellow flowers. December through April is the season for grey whale watching at Point Dume.
See the Waterfalls at Solstice Canyon
Solstice Canyon is a beloved hiking trail in the Santa Monica Mountains for a reason. This beautiful path winds through a shaded forest that boasts such treasures as a beautiful waterfall and an old burned-down mansion you can explore. Located just off the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll follow a winding road to a parking lot with picnic areas and bathrooms. From there, you can take the Solstice Canyon Trail for an easy, kid-friendly hike, or climb the staircase for the more challenging and secluded Rising Sun Trail.
Insider tip: Since it’s a little further south, this trail gets packed with LA hikers. Go early to grab a parking spot and beat the crowds.
Did I miss any of your favorite things to do in Malibu? Drop a comment and let me know.