Laguna Beach Neighborhoods
Explore Laguna Beach’s various sections with a look at neighborhood history, real estate, where to shop, play and dine, and what locals love most about their special part of town. –By Laura Gosselin – Aerial Photos by Robert Hansen
Overcast mornings often canvas Laguna Beach, bringing the comforting, salty smell of the sea that locals have come to know and love. The sun eventually burns through the clouds and illuminates the downtown village and hills speckled with historical cottages and modern architectural mansions, revealing why this picturesque, seaside town proves time and again to be one of California’s most stunning coastal hamlets.
Famous for Old World, Tudor-style storefronts, art galleries and custom homes nestled in the dramatic topography of steep cliffs and canyons alongside the blue Pacific, Laguna Beach is loosely divided into four subsections—north Laguna, downtown, the canyon and south Laguna. North Laguna is home to art galleries and gated residential communities, while downtown is bustling with boutiques, oceanfront restaurants and local businesses that have made their homes in buildings constructed more than a century ago. The canyon is home to artists and families, as well as endless acres of preserved open space (with a thin river of traffic running through it). Meanwhile, south Laguna enjoys a quiet, laid-back beach-town reputation.
In 1875, George Fountain began the first homestead in Laguna, settling close to Robber’s Cave—known now as Dripping Cave. George homesteaded there with his wife, first building a dugout of mud, which eventually morphed into a little house. Notorious robbers settled nearby, riding their horses down the steep canyons to rob stagecoaches that passed through from Los Angeles to San Diego. When the robbers got wind of their neighbors, they began commanding that George’s wife begin baking them bread, and thus, the first known residents of Laguna Beach abandoned their home. This stretch of land along the coast that the robbers would roam would eventually become North Coast Highway.
Before North Coast Highway was an officially paved road linked to Corona del Mar, it functioned as a narrow lane of scattered beach homes. Known as “Laguna Cliffs,” Howard Heiseler, L.C. McKnight and the Thumb Brothers first developed North Laguna and in 1905, they laid out the only streets that run at straight angles to one another. Mary Pickford opened Coast Highway in 1926, with the area consisting of various homes, summer cottages and motels.
Now, this busy coastal road that winds itself through Laguna Beach to Corona del Mar, Newport Beach and beyond, allows for a scenic drive with panoramic ocean views coupled with the architectural charm of yesteryear. Today, beginning past Broadway and ending just north of Crescent Bay Point Park, north Laguna is dotted with shops, galleries, restaurants and an array of housing that ranges from older cottages and craftsman bungalows, to larger gated communities, including Emerald Bay, Irvine Cove and Smithcliffs. Although tourists delight in downtown Laguna’s Main Beach, the beaches that hug the cliffs along north Laguna have that “road less traveled” feel, with many sandy coves snuggled against the bluffs.
EAT: Las Brisas, formerly the Victor Hugo Inn, is a Laguna landmark with endless Pacific views. Located at 361 Cliff Dr. in north Laguna, Las Brisas serves authentic cuisine inspired by the Mexican Riviera for breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch seven days a week. Madison Square & Garden Cafe is a charming cottage that has been refurbished into a dining and shopping experience—featuring a quaint patio where guests can sip lattes and enjoy a classic breakfast outside with their dogs. Located at 320 N. Coast Hwy., the attached shop offers gifts for the home and garden, while the kitchen serves up a delicious breakfast and lunch menu on the garden patio.
DRINK: A historical landmark, north Laguna’s Royal Hawaiian at 331 N. Coast Hwy. has been a Laguna staple since 1947. With a distinct “hidden gem” vibe, enjoying a cocktail at Royal Hawaiian feels like you’ve jumped into the local hangout.
RECREATION & BEACHES
Located off the 600 block of Cliff Drive, Fisherman’s Cove and Diver’s Cove are two small coves that beach-goers delight in for swimming, diving and body surfing. Diver’s Cove is especially popular with families. Nearby at the end of Fairview Street, Shaw’s cove has it all: tidepools, diving, swimming, rock fishing, boogie boarding and diving. Heisler Park is located right behind Pacific Coast Highway near Las Brisas and behind Royal Hawaiian. The park meanders along the cliff with a boardwalk, edged by a lawn area. Walk cliff-side and drink in the Catalina views. Crescent Bay Beach: Perfectly picturesque, this small, secluded area is one of the most beautiful spots in Orange County. Accessible from a stairway off Cliff Drive and from a steep ramp off Barranca Street, Crescent Bay Point Park boasts magnificent coastal views and an excellent vista point, where you can pause for a moment to observe the deep blue waters of the Pacific.
SHOP: The first Thursday of every month, the art galleries of Laguna Beach participate in the monthly art walk. Dubbed, First Thursdays Art Walk, many Laguna galleries open their doors to serve wine and cheese, while allowing visitors to meet the local artists and view their beautiful originals. North Laguna is home to 12 fine art galleries, known as Laguna’s historic Gallery Row.
PROFILE: NORTH LAGUNA RESIDENT JESSICA KAIN
Jessica Kain has been a resident of Laguna Beach for just one year and is a recent Cal State Long Beach graduate.
“I never would have thought that at age 23, I would be living in such a beautiful place. I moved to north Laguna Beach on a whim, for no real reason, and really had no idea what I was going to do when I got there. I have found it to be the most interesting place simply because there is always something to be discovered. One of the most exciting adventures I’ve been on was hiking up to the aqueduct that overlooks the coves of north Laguna. I also heard from someone that there are goats to be seen up in the hills … they will be my next quest! On a typical day, I find myself wandering around Main Beach, perusing the shops or running along PCH to beautiful Crescent Bay. With a Starbucks, Whole Foods and the beach within walking distance, there is not much more a girl could ask for! My favorite breakfast place is The Cottage, where I often end up when I’m too lazy to fry up my own eggs. Living in north Laguna is something that I think people could end up taking for granted, but I hope to only keep exploring everything this beautiful town has to offer.”
Due to the Timber Culture Act of 1871, migration was encouraged and thus families began to arrive in Laguna Beach, staking out 160-acre plots, which also required the planting of 10 acres of trees; in Laguna, those trees were usually the Australian eucalyptus. Brothers William and Nathaniel Brooks arrived and settled in 1876. Both are referred to as the “Fathers of Laguna” since they were Laguna Beach’s first pioneers to stay longer than one summer in a tent.
Now, downtown Laguna is a vibrant mix of art galleries, hotels, restaurants, boutique shops and residential neighborhoods. The walkable seaside downtown maintains a distinct “village” character in spite of growth and tourism. Known for its extensive artist community, pristine beaches and seaside village vibe, downtown Laguna Beach has a Mediterranean ambiance that gives residents the feeling that they’re on permanent vacation.
Equipped with a local trolley service that takes visitors and locals to all the summer art festivals, downtown Laguna Beach is the destination du jour on a typical Southern California sunny day. Lounging in the warm sand, visitors of downtown Laguna can take advantage of many amazing beaches, including of course, Main Beach, as well as Cleo Street Beach, St. Ann’s Beach, Thalia Street Beach and more.
EAT: Three Seventy Common: Located at 370 Glenneyre St., the decor and energy of this open-style restaurant is a perfect setting to enjoy their fabulous skirt steak with chimichurri sauce. Take advantage of the Sunday night social, when guests can dine on old-fashioned supper classics, family style. If you’re looking for a spot to read the paper with your morning coffee, head a little further up Coast Highway toward south Laguna. Anastasia Cafe at 460 Ocean Ave. has been a Laguna Beach staple for years and is the perfect place for a morning cappuccino accompanied by bagel and lox or a delicious omelet. The popular Zinc Café at 350 Ocean Ave. is another favorite for meeting friends for coffee and food on the patio. Taco Loco, at 640 S. Coast Hwy., gives fast food a good name, including dishes like Cajun-spiced seafood tacos, blackened lobster tacos and mushroom-and-tofu burgers. Open until 2 a.m. on weekends.
RECREATION & BEACHES: Main Beach is the top tourist attraction and ceremonial gateway of Laguna, trademarked by the old-fashioned lifeguard tower and boardwalk. This crescent-shaped beach has something for everyone—including lawns, picnic benches, a kid’s playground and tidepools.
DRINK: If you want to enjoy a great bourbon in an Old West atmosphere, The Saloon at 446 S. Coast Hwy. is a hidden gem where you can sidle up to the bar with a handful of your favorite friends. A small, intimate spot with limited seating, The Saloon features just the basics: double doors for entry, a bar, a few chairs and an eager bartender to pour your drinks. Really, what else do you need? The Sandpiper, a hole-in-the-wall dive bar nicknamed “The Dirty Bird” by locals, is an experience most people have after midnight—when they’ve enjoyed a cocktail or two and suddenly feel the urge to dance or play darts. With live local reggae bands, the place is usually packed with energetic patrons ready to let loose on the dance floor. Not for the faint of heart or “fancy pants” crowd.
PROFILE: LAGUNA VILLAGE RESIDENT AMANDA BROWN
A Laguna Beach resident for 2.5 years, Amanda Brown is a stay-at-home mom, website content writer and artist/owner of B’s and Honey Jewelry, a line of beaded necklaces.
“ I absolutely love everything about living in downtown Laguna. Our community is extremely close-knit and not a day goes by without a visit from friends or neighbors, especially when my 3-year-old is at our gate greeting all who walk by on their way to the beach. The Oak Street skateboarders meet every day reminding me that there are communities where kids can safely have fun outside. And best of all, the beach is only a few blocks from our house, a daily reminder that we live in the most amazing area in Southern California.
Shops and restaurants are within walking distance of our house. I love walking through Tuvalu, while the kids think we go there all the time to visit Tutti Frutti and Bubbles, the resident birds my kids have lovingly renamed. Gina’s Pizza and Wahoo’s are also favorites for easy family dinners straight down Oak Street. Date nights are local, visiting one of the many restaurants on Forest Avenue. And a night out with friends will usually end at the Sandpiper for a drink and a dance before we walk up the street back home.
I could go on and on about the many reasons why I love living in downtown Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach is heaven on Earth, and we are so lucky to live right in the center of it all.”
If leaving (or coming to) Laguna Beach, the main thoroughfare used is likely Laguna Canyon Road. Snaking its way through eight miles of dramatic hills and valleys from Irvine to Laguna Beach, Laguna Canyon Road, also known as State Route 133, was constructed as a county road back in the 1910s.
In the late 1980s, Laguna Canyon was slated to become a massive housing development, tentatively entitled “Laguna Laurel,” which proposed 3,200 housing units as well as a businesses. In 1989, 8,000 nearby residents descended upon the canyon in protest, delaying the project. The development was canceled in the 1990s after a bond measure allowed the City of Laguna Beach to begin purchasing parcels of the land for preservation. Subsequently, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park was opened and dedicated in 1993.
Today, the canyon is one of the last remaining wild areas in Orange County with preserves along the San Joaquin Hills now under the protection of several organizations, most notably, the Laguna Canyon Foundation. Heading towards Laguna Beach, houses and businesses are scattered up in the hills as well as alongside Highway 133 itself, giving the canyon community a rustic country feel.
LEARN: The Canyon is also home to world-renowned institutes including the Laguna College of Art & Design, which has grown since 1967 to include five undergraduate majors and a graduate department. Try your hand at cooking at 870 Laguna Canyon Rd., where you can learn gourmet-cooking techniques for chefs at all levels at Laguna Culinary Arts. For those who would rather consume than create, a gourmet cheese and wine shop is located on the property.
HIKE: Dog lovers will delight in the dog park, while hikers can take a stroll through trailheads like Canyon Acres. Hike in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, where you’ll pass wild flowers, fossils, oak and sycamore woodlands and see lots of native plants. The park extends across 7,000 acres of land with popular hiking and mountain biking trails. Most trails gain 300 to 800 feet in elevation, and several lead to downtown Laguna Beach.
During the Southern California real estate boom of the 1880s, south Laguna was a separate community—in fact, in 1890, residents voted for a new name. Although “South Laguna” was not one of the choices on the ballot, the name won by write-in vote. George Wesley Wilson settled in Laguna Beach in 1920 and as a master carpenter, he built many of the homes throughout Laguna Beach, In 1922, Wilson built and opened a small grocery store, The Aliso View Grocery along the single-lane, dirt Pacific Coast Highway. The store was located on the site of the present-day Montage Laguna Beach. To commemorate his influence on Laguna, nearby Wesley Drive is named after him along with Wilson Street, where he had built his residence.
Today, south Laguna is a vibrant yet quieter neighbor of downtown, beginning just south of Cardinal Drive on Pacific Coast Highway and ending at the Dana Point city limits. South Laguna contains the private gated communities of Three Arch Bay and Lagunita, and is also home to private beaches with ocean and coastline views, as well as the famous Montage Laguna Beach, which sits on 30 acres of spectacular oceanfront land. South Laguna is known for Aliso Beach Park, which features sandy beaches that wind their way down from the Laguna foothills and empty into the sea.
EAT: Capturing the feeling of eating in the elegant dining room of a friend, at 2892 S. Coast Hwy., Tabu Grill is an intimate, charming restaurant with all the dimly lit romance of an intimate, yet upscale restaurant. Thinking Mexican? At 31621 S. Coast Hwy., Coyote Grill specializes in Baja-style Mexican cuisine and has been a Laguna favorite for years. The family-run restaurant features a patio with ocean and Catalina views, as well as a big, welcoming fireplace. For authentic Caribbean fare that’s been passed on from generation to generation, try Eva’s caribbean kitchen at 31732 S. Coast Hwy.
DRINK: Starfish offers Asian coastal cuisine in a hip yet cozy indoor/outdoor venue. Enjoy a Charbay’s Zen Tea Cocktail at sunset. Or, drink in the magnificent ocean views as well as a glass of pinot noir at Montage Laguna Beach oceanfront resort, where the signature restaurant, Studio, features a 2,500-bottle wine cellar.
SHOP: Dive into a treasure trove of the latest men’s and women’s trends and eco-friendly collections at G. marie Boutique, located at 31639 S. Coast Hwy. The shop even boasts a hip vintage collection, with pieces that date back to the 1920s. Tucked inside the Aliso Beach Shopping Center across from Montage Laguna Beach, Yogaworks carries all the best yoga-inspired collections of clothing, jewelry and accessories, like water bottles and books.
PROFILE: SOUTH LAGUNA RESIDENTS JOE AND INA COVER
Ina has lived in South Laguna for six years, and Joe moved in when they got married in 2009. Joe is a CPA, while Ina works as a studio manager and certified personal trainer at The Perfect Workout.
“When we think about the best part of living in south Laguna, the first thing that comes to mind is unbelievable beauty minus the crowds. No matter where in the world we have been, we can’t wait to get home to Laguna Beach. My wife and I enjoy mornings at South Swell, where we get donuts or a breakfast sandwich and a hot drink. Once the food has settled, you will probably find us joining the locals for a game of volleyball at Victoria Beach, scavenging the tidepools near the Montage sea arch or hiking through the caves on the south side of Thousand Steps Beach. About an hour before dusk, we pick up a bottle of wine and our favorite cheese and head down to the Montage bluffs. There, we find a table with a view that can’t be beat and enjoy our refreshments while watching the sun sink behind Catalina Island. As we return home, we are likely to cross paths with our adopted pets known as the beach deer, which have come up from the canyon to forage. The soft rhythm of the crashing waves provides the ideal back tones to end our perfect south Laguna day. Being able to call this place our home is something we will never take for granted.” LBM
BEACHES: Descend the stairs to Thousand Steps Beach and you’ll pass panting locals who use the stairs for a workout. Once there, you’ll find an open, yet secluded beach. Rarely crowded, the beach boasts great tidepools and rocky areas for kids to explore and find starfish. At Victoria Beach, across from Dizz’s by Nyes Place, walk under a tunnel down to Victoria Drive, which leads down a steep hill to the aqua blue water of Victoria Beach, which is where skimboarding originated. For those wanting to experience this secluded, stunning beach, be prepared to parallel park on PCH and wear your walking shoes for the hills and stairs (but any effort put in is definitely worth it).