Seal Beach (pop.24,157) is the girl-next-door of California beach towns – friendly and endearing with a laid-back, no-makeup charm. It’s the sort of place where the locals will use just about any special occasion as an excuse to haul out the little leaguers, Brownies, marching bands, and strays from the animal shelter to stage a Main Street parade while the rest of the town cheers from the sidewalks.

Tucked away between Long Beach and Huntington Beach, Seal Beach is a seemingly timeless throwback to the glory days of California beach towns. Coffee houses, antique stores, boutiques, and surf and skate shops, as well as some very good restaurants, line an unpretentious Main Street. Original California cottages still mingle with multi-million dollar remodels here and Rainbows (a sturdy cousin of the flip flop) are the footwear of choice around town, welcome everywhere. People like to walk in Seal Beach. Locals and visitors alike stroll the city’s wooden pier, mile-long beach, and folksy Old Town. Seal Beach is easy to overlook as motorists race along Pacific Coast Highway bound for tonier beach towns to the north and south. But this seaside gem is always worth a stopover – even for just a few hours — to escape the L.A. grind.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes describes Seal Beach as “The Last Little Beach Town” in the best-selling anthology, My California: Journeys by Great Writers. You can read an adaption of his essay here. (Read more about the My California Project here).

Orientation

Seal Beach straddles the Los Angeles-Orange County line but its natural barriers have kept the town happily isolated from both metropolitan areas. The city is bordered to the south by the Pacific Ocean, to the west by the jetty of the San Gabriel River, and to the east by the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, a 920-acre salt marsh inside the U.S. government’s Naval Weapons Station. The San Diego Freeway (405) runs along the city’s northern flank, and that’s the most direct way to reach Seal Beach, a 45-minute drive from Los Angeles International Airport. Visitors should exit the freeway at Seal Beach Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, and head toward the beach. Driving past the Naval Weapons Station, you’ll soon run into Pacific Coast Highway. Make a right on PCH and continue to Main Street, which is on the left. Main Street is the heart of Old Town, the commercial district and neighborhood that hugs the beach, and runs straight to the Seal Beach Pier. Old Town is the best place to start your exploration.

Immediately south on PCH are the beach communities of Surfside, Huntington Harbour and the surfing capital of Huntington Beach.

Driving north on Coast Highway from Seal Beach you’ll find the Long Beach neighborhoods of Naples and Belmont Shores.

Head alway from the beach, back along Seal Beach Boulevard past the Naval Weapons Station, and you’ll roll past Boeing, the city’s biggest business, and then Leisure World, a sprawling gated senior community. Farther along, past the 405 freeway extrance, you’ll reach Rosmoor and Los Alamitos, Seal Beach’s suburban neighbours. The Seal Beach and Los Alamitos areas come together to make up the top-ranked Los Alamitos Unified School District and the two communities are closely linked in many other ways, too.

History

Visitors today might find it hard to believe, but Seal Beach once had a reputation as Southern California’s Sin City, luring Hollywood stars of the silent film era and other members of the glitterati to swim, sunbathe, dance and gamble. In 1904 Southern California’s spanking new Red Car Line brought the first wave of revelers to town, and civic leaders worked hard to keep them coming. They rebuilt the city’s landmark pier and the swanky Jewel Café sprouted in the sand, along with a bathhouse and dance pavilion that swung all night. Giant beacons atop the pier lit up the surf for night swimming. A wooden roller coaster two blocks long towered over all, beckoning visitors to “the Coney Island of the Pacific.” Cecil B. DeMille came here for his first filming (the silent version) of The Ten Commandments. Celebrities popped into town on private planes and caroused at the Seal Beach Airport’s twenty-four hour casino. But the prohibition era stifled the party scene; the masses eventually abandoned Seal Beach with the 1950s demise of the local Red Car Line in favor of freeway travel. As other Orange County cities exploded with strip malls and cookie-cutter tracts, Seal Beach has become more slow-growth and family-oriented over time. (In November 2008, city voters overwhelmingly voted to reduce the height limit in Old Town from three stories to two stories.) The Seal Beach Pier and beach remain the city’s key attraction. But the dance pavilion, bathhouse, and roller coaster are long gone. In their place, at the foot of the pier, sits a well-used beach playground where toddlers come to swing and dig in the sand, and a fifties-style Ruby’s diner at the far end of the boards.

Visitor Basic Information

Business and Visitor Info:
The Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce. Tiny office with limited hours. Best bet is to check the website for information and events. 201 8th Street, Suite 120, Seal Beach. 562-799-0179. sealbeachchamber.org

Medical Emergency
Seal Beach Family Medical Group. Urgent care clinic is open seven days a week. 1198 Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach. 562-598-2904.

Money
Close to the beach, you’ll find two banks with ATMs at Main Street: Bank of America at 208 Main St. and Washington Mutual at 801 Pacific Coast Hwy. Several other banks are in shopping centers on Seal Beach Boulevard.

Post Offices
Mariner Station at 221 Main St. is an Old Town outpost, and the Main Post Office at 2929 Westminster Ave., Seal Beach. 562-598-6915.

Activities

Water Sports
The Seal Beach Pier is the best place to scope out the beach scene and gaze out to Catalina Island on clear days. The shore on the right side of the pier has the gentler waves; families and out of town visitors come here to play in the surf and noodle around on boogie boards and skim boards. On summer weekends the pier and beach get crowded, though it’s nothing like the hordes that overrun Santa Monica. Seal Beach is at its most delightful in the weeks after Labor Day, when the city’s wide, silvery shore is practically deserted and Indian summer days s bring warm afternoon breezes.

Seal Beach is popular with local surfers and beginners who prefer to skip the more aggressive, big-wave scenes elsewhere. Many surfers like the waves near the Seal Beach River Jetty (at Ocean Boulevard and First Street, nine blocks from the pier.) First Street usually is less crowded than the pier area. All-day parking is $5. There’s a launch spot for windsurfers and a no-frills beach shack restaurant, River’s End, that serves up huevos rancheros, burgers and salads right on the sand. One caution: Avoid swimming near the jetty after a heavy rain because of run-off from the river.

Don’t know how to shred?
Seal Beach has two well-regarded surf schools: Chas Wickwire’s Surf School (714-898-2799) and M & M Surfing School (714-846-7873). Both furnish boards.

Fishing
Big Fish and Tackle. Big Fish caters to surf and boat fishermen, and offers half-day excursions. 1780 Pacific Coast Hwy., Seal Beach. 562-431-0723.

Nature
Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge Bird lovers will enjoy early-morning walking tours, offered the last Saturday of each month. The light-footed clapper rail and California least tern are among the notable endangered species thriving here. Bring binoculars and a photo ID, but leave your camera at home. The refuge sits inside an active military base and the folks at the Naval Weapons station get cranky if you try to snap pictures. The 8:30 a.m. tour is free; reservations required. 800 Seal Beach Boulevard, Seal Beach. 562-598-1024.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve Just a five-minute drive from Seal Beach down PCH, the wetlands are a bird watcher’s paradide, More three hundred of Orange County’s 420 bird species have been sighted here in the past decade. Bolsa Chica is open daily from dawn to dusk. Check out the live webcam here. 3842 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach. 714-846-1114. bolsachica.org

Festivals and Events
Seal Beach hosts the Rough Water Swim in July and Seal Beach Classic Car Show in April. Both events draw crowds and competitors from across Southern California. Check the Chamber of Commerce website for the calendar of events great and small. sealbeachchamber.com

Accommodations

The Pacific Inn. Tucked along a side street off Pacific Coast Highway, this three-story former Radission offers basic, fairly recently renovated guest rooms. Extras include a heated pool, hot tub, WiFi access, and continental breakfast. The hotel’s location is its greatest asset: The Pacific Inn is a short walk to the beach, shops, and restaurants. It also is across the street from Seal Beach’s public library with its distinctive landmark, one of the last remaining Pacific Red Cars, now a permanently parked mini-museum. Pets (under 35 pounds) are welcome the Pacific Inn. 600 Marina Drive, Seal Beach. 562-493-7501. pacificinn-sb.com

Ayres Hotel. The 112-room Ayres is nicely appointed — dark wood furnishings, pillow top mattresses, and rich burgundy and cream upholstery – for a hotel parked next to a freeway exit. This newish hotel (built in 2002) caters to weekday business travelers; guest rooms come with refrigerators, microwaves, marble countertops, and high-speed Internet access. Rates include a full breakfast and there’s a heated pool and spa. Prices dip on the weekends when the business crowd clears out. Bonus: There’s two choice restaurants – Spaghettini Italian Grill and Jazz Club (562-596-2199) and Kobe Japanese Steakhouse (562-596-9969) — across the street. 12850 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach. 562-596-8330. ayreshotels.com

Oakwood Long Beach Marina. The Oakwood offers furnished studios for nightly and extended stays and has a steady clientele of corporate types. This is a sprawling complex with 549 units, part of the Oakwood chain, but the place manages a welcoming resort feel with its large pool, hot tub, sand volleyball court, tennis courts, and movie nights for guests. The Oakwood is an easy walk down First Street straight to the beach. 333 First St., Seal Beach. 562 493-9700. oakwood.com.

Eating

Choice spots include:

Nick’s Deli. The tables are slightly chipped, the menu is handwritten, and drinks are self-served from a stand up refrigerator. But this unassuming deli is a local favorite. On weekend mornings a line of surfers and other patrons stretches out the front door. They jostle and don’t mind waiting for Nick’s enormous breakfast burritos, served all day long by customer demand. The sandwiches are tasty, too. Open for breakfast and lunch. 223 Main St., Seal Beach. 562-598-5072. 

Angelos. This authentic Italian deli and market is one of the tastiest spots in town. The hero sandwiches are enormous and arrive slathered with Angelo’s secret garlic spread, which is so delicious you’ll want to take home a container and enjoy it with a loaf of the deli’s fresh-based Italian bread. 133 1/3 Main St., Seal Beach. 562-431-1113. 

Café Lafayette. This pleasing café covers all the bases and does it well, serving California-French entrees, sandwiches on fresh-baked baguettes, and fresh salads. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; closed Sunday for dinner. 330-F Main St, Seal Beach. 562-598-9566. 

Walt’s Wharf. In the heart of Main Street, Walt’s is a Seal Beach institution that serves up oak-grilled seafood, organic veggies, homemade pastas, icy margaritas, wines from the owner’s Central California vineyards, and one of the best beer selections in town. Don’t miss the grilled artichoke appetizers, served with an aioli dipping sauce. Walt’s doesn’t accept reservations so be prepared to wait on weekends. It’s worth it. Open for lunch and dinner. 201 Main Street, Seal Beach. 562-598-4433. 

Mahé Restaurant. In sleepy Seal Beach, Mahé is one joint that always jumping. The food is an eclectic, upscale mix of seafood, steaks and delectable sushi creations (the house the Mahé Roll is outstanding!) On weekends, grab a lemon-drop martini and check out the live band in the bar while you wait for a table, or just belly up to the sushi bar and sample your way through the evening’specials. Mahalo! Open for dinner only; closed on Monday. 1400 Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach. 562-431-3022. 

Entertainment

Bay Theatre This old-time movie house shows new and classic films. The theater has a vintage Wurlitzer pipe organ and occasionally screens silent movies with live organ music accompaniment. 340 Main St., Seal Beach. 562-431-9988. baytheatre.com

Spaghettini Italian Grill and Jazz Club. This fine eatery has a lively happy hour and live jazz from excellent regional bands. 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. 562-596-2199. 

Getting Around

The easiest way to get to Seal Beach is by car or shuttle service. Super Shuttle (800-258-3826) provides transportation to the Seal Beach area from all three nearby airports: Long Beach Airport, Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, and LAX. Shuttle rates vary.

Bus
The Orange County Transportation Authority offers bus service in Seal Beach and nearby areas. The faire is $1.25 or $3 for a day pass. Use OCTA’s online trip planner. 714-560-6282, octa.net

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