San Clemente lies half-way between Los Angeles and San Diego. Calm and relaxed, this small city is a perfect stopping point for a few nights of off the beaten path travel for friends and families. Apart from major city festivals and national holidays, the beaches are tranquil and the restaurants and bars are filled with locals. Even in early spring, when much of the USA is wet with rain and snow, southern California already has blue sky shining down on the blue Pacific Ocean and green palm trees. I hope you enjoy these San Clemente itineraries!
- Option 1 – 2 nights; non-surfer; car optional; economy budget and above.
- Option 2 – 7 nights; all-inclusive surf camp; car not needed; economy budget and above.
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San Clemente Itineraries
Option 1: 2 Nights, Non-Surfer Itinerary, Car Rental Optional. Economy Budget and Above.
- Activities – Spend time outdoors hiking or at a surf lesson! Or, visit San Juan Capistrano for art galleries, history, and wine tasting.
- Food – Delicious! Mostly healthy and fresh, but of course some donuts and cupcakes, too.
- Lodging – A surf hotel that’s clean, affordable, and feels like tropical paradise.
- Transportation – bus, train, Uber, Lyft. A rental car might have been more convenient, but also more expensive.
- Budget – These itineraries are built for the middle-class economy traveler. A higher budget it easily available, and a lower budget could be had by staying at an Airbnb instead of a hotel. However, in that case a car would be nice to have, if you don’t get an Airbnb near the beach or a bus stop. Couchsurfing hosts were unavailable in San Clemente when I visited in March, 2016.
Arrival & Lunch
Arrive in San Clemente by car or Uber and train combination. Have lunch on the outdoor patio across the street from the beach at Pierside Kitchen + Bar. After lunch, walk across the street and relax on the beach or walk down the pier (public toilets are on the pier).
Drive or Uber/Lyft the mile uphill to Nomads Hotel and spend your two nights in the uniquely tropical surfer rooms. Take some time to settle in, but head out for a 2-block walk as soon as possible to pick up dessert before dinner, since the Sugar Blossom Bake Shop closes by 4 or 6pm, depending on the day. If you have time to look at their menu online, I would suggest calling in your order as early as possible, since selection runs low by mid-afternoon.
Once you’ve got dessert in hand, take your time browsing the surf shops and bookstore.
Despite all the great restaurants in the area, for your first dinner I suggest fully relaxing into the local surfer town vibe over dinner at Nomads Canteen. Eat indoors surrounded by Jeff’s (co-owner) vast personal surfboard collection or outside on the wood deck surrounded by palm trees. Try any of the dishes that you find appealing. I tried a variety of dishes, and they were all wonderful from the $6 rice and beans to the Belizean stewed chicken! The menu bursts with Latin American, Hawaiian, and Asian gastronomies typically found only at tropical surf spots around the world. You’ll find plenty of beer options, with 33 of them on tap. And there’s a $4 kids menu.
Morning Wake Up Call
Walk or jog the mile downhill to the beach and do your exercise routine in the soft sand while watching the morning surf session at T Street. Bring a towel to sit on, as the sand is still cold from the night.
Get Ready for the Day
Head back up to Nomads Hotel for a post-exercise shower and catch breakfast around the corner at The Grill. They have sweet donuts and savory breakfast burritos, with coffee either way.
Your Full-Day Activity – Your Options
Option 2: Hiking – Spend the day hiking the hills on the Christianitos North Trail or Christianitos South Trail.
Option 3: Art, History & Food – Head over to the town of San Juan Capistrano for a day of local history, art galleries, wine tasting, and food. Metro link trains run frequently on weekends from the pier and occasionally on weekdays from the main San Clemente station. 12 minutes by Metrolink. 13+ minutes by car, depending on traffic. See the Day Trip to San Juan Capistrano Itinerary. [Coming soon!]
Option 4: Catalina Island – Make your ferry reservation in advance. The island boasts the Wrigley Mansion (bubble gum anyone?), a casino with a highly recommended behind-the-scenes tour. The wrigley Mansion has a botanical garden.
Within 2 blocks of Nomads Hotel there are at least 8 restaurants, including ribs, pizza, Mediterranean, and American. Check Yelp.com, walk the streets and read menus for a relaxing stroll. Alternatively, head back to Nomads Canteen and try something you didn’t have the night before.
The El Cabrillo Playhouse is nearby and has a full schedule of live theater.
Live Music at The Cellar’s wine bar and cheese shop Tuesday through Sunday will keep you entertained until 11pm.
Now that you know town a little better, get some food the night before, or first thing in the morning, and take breakfast to the pier. Take some fun photos in the tunnel under the train tracks, and find out which fish are in season. Maybe a local will let you try fishing with their pole. Before heading back to the hotel to pack, relax on the beach for a while, and enjoy the palm trees and vast sky over the Pacific Ocean. If it’s summer, take a morning splash in the ocean.
San Clemente, California – 7 Night Surfing (or Wannabe Surfer) Itinerary. Car Not Needed.
Surf camp, which includes lodging, 3 meals daily, transportation to surf spots, and 1 free beginner lesson. Nomads Hotel offers full packages. If you want to do more surfing on your own, the Nomads website offers descriptions of many local surf breaks, including a map. [Links below]
For non-surfing days, see the 2-day itinerary above.
How To’s & Links
Getting to San Clemente, California
- John Wayne, Santa Ana (SNA), 28 miles. 15 minute drive from Santa Ana Metrolink train station.
- San Diego (SAN), 59 miles
- Ontario (ONT), 64 miles
- Los Angeles (LAX), 66 miles
Rent a car if you plan to visit neighboring sites, such as San Diego or Disneyland. If staying local, Uber and Lyft in combination are enough, if you don’t plan on moving a great distance after 5pm. I found that Uber and Lyft drivers were difficult to find after 5pm. Often, they come from another city down the interstate and traffic in that area can be very slow. San Clemente lies along Interstate 5 (I-5).
Amtrak and Metrolink use two stops, San Clemente (3 minutes south of San Clemente Pier by train or 10 minutes by car) and San Clemente Pier (across from Pierside Kitchen + Bar restaurant).
Food & Entertainment
Nomads Canteen Dishes are reasonably priced at $6-$18, considering the menu claims that no canned food and no fried food is served. Happy hours are Tuesday, Thursday and all day Sunday. Kids menu is $4.
Pierside Kitchen + Bar Dishes are $8-$27. Taco Tuesday. Happy hours are Monday-Friday. Stairs at front entrance.
Sugar Blossom Bake Shop Offers all kinds of baked goods, including cupcakes and cookies. Also, coffees. Stairs to access front door.
The Grill Breakfast menu includes breakfast burritos and donuts with plenty of coffee. Seating inside or on the outdoor patio.
The Cellar Coffee shop, wine bar and cheese shop all rolled up into one. Live music Tuesday through Sunday.
Cabrillo Playhouse San Clemente’s local theater offers a new show each month.
Nomads Hotel is a mile from the beach, and rooms are unique with a surfer / tropical vibe. Surrounded by restaurants, cafes, surf shops, a Thai massage salon and bookstore are within a 60-second stroll. Stairs – some rooms have stairs to the bathroom. Natural light and fresh air – some rooms have minimal natural light, while others have windows opening onto a quiet, but public, alley or the street.
Casa Tropicana Boutique Hotel shares its entrance with Pierside Kitchen + Bar, and is just across the street from the beach. Rooms start at $300. Stairs – Front entrance has stairs from the street.
Beachcomber Motel is a quintessential California room on the beach. Located on the beach-side of the street across from Pierside Kitchen + Bar, you could walk down a grassy hill and arrive on the beach if it weren’t for the fenced off train tracks. The train tracks run between your floor-to-ceiling glass window and the ocean, so bring earplugs if you’re a light sleeper. Rooms are for couples and families and start at $170.
Visit the nearby town of San Juan Capistrano for history, wine tasting, and art galleries. [Coming soon!]
Rancho Mission Viejo Reserve holds public events for people to enjoy nature.
San Clemente Hiking – City hiking trails website
Disneyland and other major tourist attractions in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas are 45-60 minutes drive.
Santa Catalina Island – itineraries, hotel packages, and more are available here.
- Off-road nature tour
- Zipline eco-tour
- Lunch at Mt. Ada Mansion
- Wrigley Mansion with botanical gardens
- Casino behind-the-scenes tour
Read More about San Clemente
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