One day in Malibu: the best things to do, scenic ways to get there, great beaches to explore and kid-friendly spots.
California has been at the center of my travel dreams since I was a teenager, the name of many of its silver-screen famous places so evocative to me to rise to almost mythical proportions.
Malibu is one of these places.
I am not sure what show or movie first put it on my radar.
However, I know that any time that gorgeous stretch of California coastline comes on TV, it fills my heart with a desired to be there so strong to be almost painful.
Beauty does that to me and, as a fellow travel lover, I imagine you know the feeling way too well yourself!
Because of this positive mental association, anytime we spend the summer in Los Angeles, we spend one day in Malibu.
Sometimes we have driven through it as part of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, other times we have just gone to enjoy the sunset on Matador beach and other times we have spent a full day there, lounging between the shops, the pier and the beach.
This is my favourite way to spend one day in Malibu.
Where is Malibu & how to get there
Malibu sits along the California coastline, immediately to the North-West of LA.
There are several ways to get there and two we particularly love.
If you are along the coast, the best way to get to Malibu is following Highway 1.
This is a beautiful road.
It first streches along a flat coastline and then slowly turns into a more scenic drive with views over gorgeous seaside homes and cliffs.
This is the road you see in the movies, often through gorgeous aerial shots of its meandering length.
Another way to get to Malibu is coming through the hills from Thousands Oaks.
We discovered this road almost by chance, when we went for a drive in the Calabasas/ Thousands Oak area and this way to Malibu is gorgeous!
It is inland and for the first part does not offer sea views until you get over the last hill and wow!
The ocean opens up in front of you in all its splendour!
This second road is long-is and winding so if you are in Los Angeles with kids or suffer from motion sickness, you may want to consider carefully if it is the one for you.
It is however beautiful and doesn’t have the many traffic lights and start-and-stop moments you inevitably encounter on busy Highway 1.
Malibu is to the North of LA and how long or how little it will take to get there depends very much on where you are staying.
Since LA is so big and hard to cross, this day in Malibu is not overly long and stretches pretty much from mid morning to pre-dinner times.
This is how we usually visit Malibu, without forcing ourselves nor the kids to an early start or a very long drive back in the dark.
One day in Malibu: morning in Malibu Country Mart
Our first stop for our day in Malibu is the Malibu Country Mart.
I guess the main way to describe the Mart is a ‘shopping center’ but really, it looks more like an outlet or maybe a shopping village, with a distinctive Southern California feel.
It is the type of place where the word ‘lifestyle’ comes to mind.
While lovely and functional with all its shops and restaurants, it is very much a place you want to come and hang out at, a place that makes you feel like you stepped into one of the glossy TV shows with beautiful people with perfectly imperfect lives.
I personally really enjoy coming here!
Access to the shopping center is free.
You leave the car in the main car park and then you can stroll around the many boutique shops and restaurants in the village at your leisure.
Need to know: the car park is for clients of the center only and cannot be used to access the beach. There are several parking options (paid and free street side) along the main Malibu drive but at the weekend and high season, you need to be patient as finding a spot is not easy!
It is a wonderful place.
The shops have that quintessential lifestyle feel California does so well (shabby chick, airy, light-filled, perfect) and you have a good choice not just of shops but also cafes and restaurants.
There is even a very nice play area for the kids with sand and climbing frames!
In terms of shopping, the price of things reflects the fact that you are in one of the wealthiest areas of LA however, the experience is lovely even without breaking the bank.
Our favourite way to spend the morning here is to take a stroll and look at the shops, then get take out Italian from the restaurant in front of the playground and let the kids play as we tuck into our pasta (I go all LA-style with their carb-free salads: Malibu does that to you!)
The choice however is vast.
You have sit down restaurants, cafes and al fresco dining areas, so finding a place that matches your style and party is easy.
Afternoon in Malibu beach and Surfrider beach
After a leisurely morning, we like to go to Malibu Pier and Surfrider beach, just beside it.
Visiting Malibu Pier
Malibu Pier is a lovely destination in itself and one I highly recommend for your day in this area.
The Pier is long and stretches beautifully into the ocean and has both lovely views on the Pacific and the LA skyline in the distance, as well as wonderful dining opportunities.
Need to know: paid parking is available at the Pier entrance, rates at the time of writing were 15/10$ a day depending on the time of arrival. On street parking is also available but tends to fill up quickly. Careful if parking along the road as there is no pavement for walking.
The style here is chick and instagram-ready (there is even an airstream and a swing, need I say more?).
Every shop, every bench, every detail is curated to perfection with that deceivingly effortlessly beautiful look that can only be achieved with mastery and work.
I personally love it: while too manicured for many, it is the type of place you can truly relax in and take endless photos letting the blue of the ocean sooth your soul.
We don’t usually eat here but you have the famous Farm restaurant and cafe right on the pier which looks absolutely gorgeous and always get amazing reviews.
It is a place on my list for the next time we are in town!
The pier also has small, pretty shops with gifts, bait, crystals, all presented in the most beautiful and endearing way you can ever imagine.
The best way to enjoy the pier for us was just to take a walk along it.
From here, the views are gorgeous and it is a real pleasure to putter around the shops and take photos.
Good to know: facilities and restrooms are available both at the end of the Pier and near the car park. The ones at the end of the pier are the handiest with kids.
Surfrider beach, Malibu
After the Pier, I recommend you take the short steps down to Surfrider beach just beside it and spend the day sunbathing and body boarding.
Our kids have a blast with their bodyboards (careful, the water here can get very cold even in summer, I highly recommend a wetsuit for them) and I usually take it easy watching the surfers.
Surfrider beach is special in the sense that it gets a very specific type of long waves that follow the curve of the coast and allows surfers to gently ride on top of them for ages.
As you see the pros go, the seem to glide forever atop the beautiful long waves and they are so graceful, you really appreciate how fit and skilled they must be – surfing is all but effortless or easy, as my aching arms usually remind my any time I try!
See the sunset at El Matador beach
Malibu has several wonderful beaches from where to enjoy glorious sunsets but our favourite of all is El Matador.
This is a pretty busy beach (one of those Instagram put on the map as very ‘instagrammable’) and you may have to wait a little to find a parking spot however, it truly is beautiful.
From Malibu Pier, you reach with a short drive North (about 15 minutes).
It is pretty easy to miss, especially since you are on the wrong side of the road coming from the South however, is is indicated and if you go slowly, you will see the access and relevant parking area.
Need to know: El Matador beach is served by a small parking area above the beach. The parking here is pay and display: the machine dispensing tickets is close to the stairway down.
You reach the beach with a short walk down towards the ocean break and what you find is lovely: El Matador is a sandy beach with huge rock formations shooting from the water towards the sky.
Pacific ocean perfection!
El Matador is a a famous beach and attracts many people who, like us, want to take in its beauty.
The crowds do make it a little intense (we found very many wedding photographs being taken here, couples in their wedding attire waiting for their turn!) however, you can still very much enjoy it.
Our kids love putting their feet in the water here and run away from the strong waves and we found the view of the rocks hit by the orange and pink tones of the setting sun unforgettable.
Need to know: because of the rocks and waves, this is not a surfing beach but more the type of place to catch a sunset and a beautiful view, which is why I recommend it as an evening stop.
Catching the sunset in Malibu is likely to mean a long drive in the dark back home, especially if you have your base in the South of LA like we did last time in Hermosa Beach.
However, if you take it slowly and embrace LA driving distances, I am sure the drive will be worth it and you visit to Malibu will stay as one of the highlights of you trip to California – it is that special!
From a morning shopping to an evening taking in the beauty of the California coastline, this is my ideal day in Malibu!
I hope you enjoyed this guide and gave you ideas for your on day out on the coast. Safe travels!