Last Updated on December 12, 2022 by Janine
Wondering what to do in Malibu, California? From beaches and hiking to museums and shopping spots, check out some of the best things to do in Malibu.
Malibu, California, famous for its surfing beaches and for being a retreat for Hollywood’s elite, sits just 10 miles north of the city of Santa Monica, on the edge of LA County. Malibu sprawls for 27 miles along the famous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH, to locals).
While it’s not uncommon to hear Malibu referenced as a playground for the rich and famous, it has a lot more to offer than mansions and exclusive beach clubs.
I was fortunate enough to live in Malibu for five years, and despite not visiting a single beach club, I loved my time there. In my opinion, it’s one of the best cities to visit in the USA— possibly, the WORLD! 😉
The beaches may be the biggest draw in Malibu, but the surrounding canyons and hills are just as scenic, so don’t overlook them! This beach bum spent a surprising majority of her time exploring hiking trails in the Santa Monica mountains, parallel to Malibu’s coastline.
If you find yourself in the LA area, I highly recommend spending a day or two in Malibu. It has a laid-back charm and incredible scenery, which will offer a different perspective to your trip than if you stay within the city of Los Angeles the whole time.
Whether you want to soak up nature, learn to surf, admire the beautiful homes, (or all of the above), you’ll have no problem filling your Malibu itinerary.
What to Pack for Malibu
Precisely what you bring to Malibu will depend on what you have planned for your trip. Remember, Malibu is a peaceful beach community. Even celebs tend to sport athleisure wear most of the time. If you want to dress up, you can, but the dress code is typically pretty understated throughout town.
Here are a few of the items I suggest packing for Malibu:
- Running shoes – Malibu’s hiking trails are incredibly scenic, and you shouldn’t miss them. The majority of the trails consist of packed dirt and sand paths, and while you could do them in flip-flops, snakes and ticks are a concern. Comfortable, breathable running shoes are your best bet.
- Sunscreen – There’s a reason surfers always wear a thick layer of white sunscreen on their noses — the water amplifies the glare, and thus your chances of burning. Take precautions so your vacation isn’t tainted with memories of a painful burn. I’m a fan of Australian Gold sunscreen because you can buy tinted lotion to match your skin tone! For additional suggestions, check out my favorite biodegradable sunscreen brands.
- Water bottle – Be sure to stay hydrated to avoid heatstroke. The Hyrdoflask is my go-to water bottle. It keeps water cold but doesn’t give it a metal after taste. If you prefer an option with a filter, pick up a LifeStraw bottle.
- Polarized sunglasses – The glare from the ocean can make driving on the Pacific Coast Highway straining for your eyes. Polarized sunnies will cut the glare exponentially and help you stay alert and focused on the road.
- Daypack – When hiking in Malibu, you should always carry a bottle of water and any valuables you have, since leaving them in the car isn’t advisable. The Osprey Daylite Backpack is compact and comfortable while having just enough room for the essentials.
Best Things to Do in Malibu
1. Get cultured at the Getty Villa
Located just on Malibu’s eastern border, the Getty Villa compliments the incredible J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood. The villa holds over 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities from as early as 6,500 BC. While these cultural relics draw history enthusiasts from all over the world, the villa’s architecture is an attraction in its own right.
Ancient sites inspired the villa’s architectural design—Roman-style gardens featuring Mediterranean plants flank the building.
Browse the exhibits and enjoy the gardens while simultaneously soaking up the incredible views of the pacific ocean!
If you’re an art and history fanatic, allow yourself at least 4 hours to browse the exhibits. If your interest is more casual, 2 hours should be sufficient.
Reservations are required to visit The Getty Villa. Admission is free, but you must pay for parking, which is $15 per car. If you’re planning to visit the Getty Center on the same day, you can use the same parking pass at both locations.
Often same-day reservations are fine, but during busy times, such as holidays and weekends, you’re better off planning at least one day ahead.
You can reserve your ticket on their website.
2. Eat lunch on the pier
The Malibu pier is an iconic destination offering lovely views of the Malibu coastline. You’ve probably seen the pier featured in many films, television shows, and music videos. So while there’s not much to explore, other than a couple of souvenir shops, it’s a great spot to snap photos!
It’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat while enjoying the fabulous view. The Malibu Farm Cafe offers two dining options on the pier.
The cafe sits at the end of the pier and offers counter service. You can order your meal and then enjoy it on the nearby benches. This option is perfect for casual diners who want to eat on the go.
Or, if you prefer a restaurant experience, the restaurant and bar at the entrance to the pier provides full service, tables and all! While the view isn’t quite as expansive, the atmosphere is pleasant, and they serve cocktails! What more do you need?!
Both restaurants serve locally sourced, organic food, and everything on the menu is delicious! I always go for the fish tacos, but I’m pretty sure you can’t go wrong with any of the items.
3. Learn about Malibu’s history at the Adamson House Museum
This beautiful historic home was built in a Mediterranean style and features impressive tile work, including numerous gorgeous mosaics. On top of that, it sits on one of the most beautiful estates in Malibu, overlooking the famous Surfrider Beach.
The Adamson House was built as a vacation home for the Adamson-Rindge family, who used to own “Rindge Ranch,” now the city of Malibu. In the 1920s, the family created a tilework business near the Malibu pier and hired local artisans to create the decorative tiles featured throughout the property. The property is now part of the California State Parks system and is designated a National Historic Site.
A trip to the museum will take about 2 hours, more if you choose to linger in the garden and take photos. Admission includes a docent-led tour, which explains the history of the Adamson-Rindge family and the architecture and tilework within the home.
Admission to the museum costs $7, and the property is open Wednesday – Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm.
4. Enjoy nature while hiking the hills
While Malibu’s beaches are often the first thing that comes to mind for visitors, locals know that hiking is one of the best things to do in Malibu.
The hills offer a different perspective on the area. Malibu is a peaceful, natural sanctuary where you can escape from the chaos of Los Angeles.
You can catch incredible views of the coastline while exploring the natural area. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot deer, coyotes, and rabbits. And, if you’re unlucky… rattlesnakes.
A few trails are exceptionally popular, namely Solstice Canyon, Charmlee Wilderness Park, and any of the trails in Topanga State Park. If you’re planning to hike on the weekend, arrive early (like, 7 am early), otherwise it will be impossible to park.
One of my favorite hiking trails in Malibu is The Nicholas Flat trail in Decker Canyon. I’ve never experienced crowds there. Try it out!
5. Visit iconic Surfrider Beach
Surfrider Beach is one of Malibu’s most famous locations and one of the top things to do when you visit.
Even if you’ve never been there, you’re sure to recognize it from the countless shows and films that feature it as a backdrop.
Long adored by surfers for its long, tubular waves, it has been a happening beach for decades. Though the shape of the beach has changed over time, due to development along the coastline, it still remains a premier surfing destination, especially for the local crowd.
It’s not uncommon to spot celebs like Halle Berry, Adam Sandler, or surfing legend Kelly Slater on the sand or out in the lineup.
Even if you’re not a fan of surfing, this is an excellent spot for a beach day. The surf is usually pretty low, and the beach has a gentle slope, both of which make it great for swimming! Yes, the water is pretty cold, but it can be refreshing on a hot California day!
The beach crowd is usually composed of surfers, families, students from the nearby Pepperdine University, and tourists. This makes for an interesting crowd, and a good opportunity to do some people watching!
If you get bored of lounging in the sand, take a walk up the beach and admire the beautiful homes of the Malibu Colony — one of the most prestigious gated communities on the coast.
There is a paid parking lot overlooking the beach next to the Adamson house entrance, and I highly recommend this access point. You can snag parking spots along the highway, but I don’t recommend it during busy times, having witnessed countless accidents in these spots. Better to pay a couple of dollars and keep your vehicle (and yourself) intact.
6. Explore Leo Carrillo State Park
Leo Carrillo is one of the most beautiful beaches in Malibu and one of the best for families. You can spend the day tide-pooling, lounging in the sand, or enjoying the scenic rock formations.
You might even recognize the rock formations from celebrity photoshoots or the infamous beach scene in the movie Grease!
Across the highway, there is a network of over 70 miles of hiking trails still within the park. Needless to say, you won’t run out of areas to explore!
Because Leo Carillo is a state park, the area is equipped with bathrooms, and it has a parking lot off the highway. There’s even a campsite if you want to stay overnight!
You do have to pay an access fee to the park, but it’s well worth it, in my opinion. The fee is $3 per hour, per car, up to a maximum of $12.
It’s also important to note that dogs are allowed only on one portion of the beach and are not permitted on the hiking trails.
7. Unwind at Malibu Wines
Malibu Wines is located in Malibu’s hills, off of the Mulholland Highway. While you won’t have an ocean view from this location, you will have a beautiful vineyard setting. You’ll likely find that you don’t miss the ocean at all! However, due to the lack of ocean breeze, it can be sweltering here, so dress accordingly.
On weekends the winery features live music to enjoy as you sip your wine, but the location can also be much more crowded during these times.
If you’re cool with picnicking in the grass, bring a blanket and plan to lounge. However, if you prefer a more civilized setup, you may want to consider reserving a table ahead of time. A table for 4 runs $85 for 3 hours.
Alternatively, arrive early and snag a table for free before the tasting room fills up!
Malibu Wines doesn’t offer food service, and though they often have food trucks, it’s best to pack a picnic just in case.
To get to Malibu Wines, you will have to park in their designated lot, at 32111 Mulholland Hwy, and take their free shuttle (which runs every 5 minutes) up the road to the tasting room.
Because of the remote-by-LA-standards location, arranging an Uber/Lyft dropoff/pickup can be pricey. You can expect to pay between $40 and $60 each way for an Uber from West LA to Malibu Wines. It’s best to come with a group to share expenses or come with a designated driver.
8. Browse the local shops
Malibu may be a small town, but it has quite a shopping scene. From surf shops and boutiques selling beach-inspired curios to high-end fashion, jewelry, and decor brands, there’s a lot to take in. Malibu’s open-air malls are the main areas to shop. They may have deceptive names, but they each host a collection of chains, boutiques, and eateries:
- Malibu Lumber Yard: Located just across from Malibu State Beach, the Lumber Yard is home to a collection of shops and eateries, including James Perse, Maxfield, and Café Habana (which is frequented by celebs like Harry Styles, just sayin’ 😉 ).
- Malibu Country Mart: The Malibu Country Mart sits just behind the Malibu Lumber Yard and offers shops such as Rubin&Chapelle and Nomad Malibu, among many other clothing and lifestyle boutiques. You’ll also find delicious restaurants such as John’s Garden, which serves tasty homemade sandwiches, and Taverna Tony which specializes in Greek cuisine.
- Trancas Country Market: Located across from Broad Beach, in West Malibu, Trancas Country Mart is home to Vintage Grocers, the perfect place to pick up snacks before heading to the beach. You’ll also find a Starbucks and many shops, including lifestyle boutiques Hiptique and NATI, along with many others.
9. Learn to surf with Malibu Makos
California is known for its surf culture and Malibu happens to be home to one of the world’s most iconic surf breaks. If you’re keen to give the sport a try, where better to paddle out?
Malibu Makos is a surf company founded by a former lifeguard and school PE teacher. Their lessons have an emphasis on ocean safety, which I think is essential in helping new surfers build confidence in the water. They offer both private and group lessons for kids and adults.
If you’re just looking to rent surf gear, Zuma Jays, located across from the pier, is Malibu’s oldest surf shop. They’ll be happy to outfit you with anything you need.
10. Gawk at mansions along Billionaire’s Beach
Malibu’s Carbon Beach has been renamed Billionaire’s Beach due to the wealthy homeowners who snatched up the prime real estate along this sandy stretch. I would say residents, but many of these houses are simply vacation homes.
Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, is said to own over 2 dozen properties in Malibu, 10 of them along Carbon Beach. His neighbors include Leonardo DiCaprio, Courtney Cox, and many other high-profile property owners.
To access Carbon Beach, park along PCH and enter through one of the public access points between the swanky mansions. Once you’re on the sand you walk leisurely in either direction, admiring the impressive architecture as you go.
The fanciest of the beach houses are at the north end of Carbon Beach, toward the Malibu pier. As you walk south, the houses get older and a bit smaller. Honestly, all of them are pretty cool though.
Carbon Beach is best on a low tide, as there isn’t much sand left when the tide is all the way in, so Google the tides before you head out.
Malibu Travel Tips
- Traffic is heavy on weekends: While Malibu is a peaceful retreat from the chaos of Los Angeles, it’s also a popular weekend destination for locals, especially in the summer. This means your weekend visit to Malibu is liable to feel more like a visit to a parking lot than a serene natural escape. Try to plan your Malibu visit for a weekday if possible. If you’re fated to visit on the weekend, go early to avoid traffic.
- Driving is the best way to see Malibu: While buses and Uber will get you out to Malibu, the best way to explore this beachside town is with your own car. There aren’t many Uber drivers in Malibu, so it can take a long time for a car to arrive. Uber will get you in or out of town, but for getting around within Malibu, driving is the easiest and most efficient option. I use Discover Cars to find the best rates on car rentals.
- Cell reception is spotty in Malibu: Because of the plethora of hills and canyons, cell reception in Malibu can be unreliable. If you’re headed somewhere off the main highway, plot it on your map before you lose service. You wouldn’t be the first person who’s been forced to drive back out of a canyon to cell range in order to map a destination (speaking from experience here)!
- Beaches are public: You may spot signs saying otherwise, but Malibu’s beaches are public and you are free to walk on them.
Where to Stay in Malibu
While Malibu is an easy day trip from almost anywhere in the LA area, spending a night or two in this beach town will enable you to explore at a more leisurely pace.
Malibu is also a convenient base for attractions in the San Fernando Valley, like Warner Brothers Studios, as it’s easy to reach Studio City through Topango Canyon or Malibu Canyon!
Here are a few great accommodation options for Malibu:
- Carbon Beach VRBO: This beachfront rental is located just south of the Malibu Pier, in the heart of Malibu. It has one bedroom, a full kitchen, and a beachfront balcony that offers incredible sunset and sunrise views.
- The Surfrider Malibu: This stunning hotel is adjacent to Malibu’s surfrider beach. It holds 20 beautifully appointed rooms featuring pillowtop mattresses, luxury bedding, and rainfall showers. The property also has an onsite restaurant, bar, and rooftop terrace. Parking is available for a fee.
- Beachfront VRBO on Malibu Road: This charming beachfront rental offers incredible views of Malibu Beach. The unit comes with complimentary sea kayaks, boogie boards, and bicycles to help you make the most of your time at the beach. The apartment offers one bedroom with a king bed, as well as a full kitchen and living area with a flatscreen television.
- Leo Carillo State Park Campground: Where better to camp than one of Malibu’s best beaches? This state campground is popular, so you’ll have to book well in advance to score a spot! The campground has hookups and can accommodate campers/trailers up to 31 feet.