For a city of 65,000, San Clemente, California feels less like a busy midway point between two major cities and more like a charming seaside getaway.
I’m sitting in Bear Coast Coffee in San Clemente – about 30 miles from Chapman. While enjoying my croissant and cappuccino, I look across the street at the ocean, as waves of people filter into the shop, all greeted like old friends by the people working there.
“San Clemente is one of the beach towns that isn’t really hit by the big tourists,” said Cassidy Walker, a barista at Bear Coast Coffee. “The people who live here notice and appreciate that, and they like to create that sense of community.”
This is how I envision the ideal Southern Californian location – a winding street that faces the ocean, a town in which everyone knows each other, and a destination that is also easily accessible from Chapman. There’s not much more I could ask for.
Walk the San Clemente Beachfront Trail, a 2.3-mile trail that parallels the train tracks and the beach. When you reach the San Clemente Pier, get off the trail and grab a cup at coffee. Bear Coast Coffee, right across the street from the beach, whips up the “best coffee in town,” according to San Clemente resident Connor Halberg.
Walk out to the pier and soak in the sea breeze from the surf below you. If you want (and if you brought a swimsuit or rash guard), there is a surfboard rental spot across the street.
After exploring the pier, (don’t worry, you’ll be back later) begin to walk up Avenida Del Mar. Be sure to look behind you frequently to catch an ever-changing vista of the ocean and pier. When you hit Avenida Granada, turn left and find the sign for Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. The Casa, as the volunteers who work there call it, was built in 1927 for Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente. Historical photos adorn the walls, showcasing San Clemente’s early history and buildings you’ll see later in town. The architecture, history and views over the city’s beachfront area make the $5 entrance fee worth it. Be sure to check out the rotating art exhibits on display there, too.
Stop in for lunch at Cafe Mimosa, a cute cafe that offers – surprise – mimosas, along with a nice menu of classic brunch items, salmon and paprika eggs Benedict.
After lunch, walk farther into town for dessert. South Swell Ice Cream offers a rotating menu of ice cream bars and floats, each customizable with a seemingly limitless number of toppings.
Walk down the main street of Avenida Del Mar, which also serves as the main shopping street for the city.
The shops lining the streets of San Clemente aren’t like others in Southern California. It may be the historic, Spanish-style store fronts or the boutique items sold such as vintage clothing, quirky house decor and funky plants, but there is something unique about this shopping district.
Katie Wilson, a worker at The Abode, a boutique shop in a 1928 house, told me about the distinct shopping experience in San Clemente.
“There’s a lot of little boutique different shops, and it’s really cute to just go around shopping and see everyone you know in this community,” Wilson said.
After shopping, or just strolling down through the streets of houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Spain, make your way back down to the pier for sunset.
As the sun sets and shadows grow, go underneath the pier for some incredible views and shadow play on the sand as the sun drops below the horizon. Walk back up to the pier for dinner at The Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar. Being right on the pier, you can chow down on some delicious seafood as waves crash below you and pink clouds slowly turn darker.
Once the sun has set and dinner is finished, walk back into town to finish your night at The Cellar – a wine bar serving up great drinks and stellar cheese plates.
How to get to San Clemente (without a car):
On weekends, take the Metrolink from Orange to San Clemente Pier. On weekdays, take the Metrolink to the San Clemente Station and walk along the San Clemente Beach Trail to the pier.
What you need:
Metrolink ticket (they have a mobile phone app), bathing suit, sunscreen
What to do:
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens
San Clemente Pier
Architecture walk on Avenida Del Mar
Relax at the beach
Surf, swim, boogie board
Where to eat:
- Bear Coast Coffee – 618 Avenida Victoria
- Ellie’s Table at North Beach – 120 Avenida Pico
- Cafe Mimosa – 243 Avenida Del Mar
- Nick’s San Clemente – 213 Avenida Del Mar
- The Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar – 611 Avenida Victoria (but it’s on the pier)
- The Cellar – 156 Avenida Del Mar (also an excellent bar and serves great wine and cheese)
Where to stay:
San Clemente makes for an easy day trip from Chapman, but if you’re looking to stay the night and not break the bank, check out House of Trestles Hostel for dorm-style rooms starting at $29 a night.