San Clemente lies about 65 miles south of Los Angeles and 60 miles north of San Diego. To reach San Clemente's downtown district, exit I-5 at Avenida Presidio, turn right on El Camino Real, then left at Avenida Del Mar.
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Another option is Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner (from $14 one way from L.A. or San Diego; www.amtrak.com or 800/872-7245), which stops twice daily at the San Clemente Pier, a short walk from downtown.
Antoine's Café. Locals' favorite gathering place for breakfast or lunch. Simple dishes―burgers, salads, and quiche―in a friendly, surfer-oriented environment. $$; breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Thu-Sat. 218 S. El Camino Real; 949/492-1763.
BeachFire. The restaurant that brought new life to the downtown area still draws big crowds, particularly on weekends. It's more about the vibe than the food, but do save room for the s'mores. $$$; lunch and dinner daily. 204 Avenida Del Mar; 949/366-3232.
Cafe Calypso. Coffees and sandwiches in a pretty patio setting. $; breakfast and lunch daily. 114 Avenida Del Mar; 949/366-9386.
Del Mar Ranch Market. Try the fresh tamales. 156 Avenida Del Mar; 949/492-3663.
Gordon James Grill & Bar. An unpretentious steakhouse somewhere between Chart House casual and Morton's chic. Good selection of specialty martinis. $$; lunch Tue-Fri, dinner daily. 110 N. El Camino Real; 949/498-9100.
La Galette Crêperie. Its pierside location makes it a great place to people-watch over a latte and a fresh berry and cream crêpe. $; breakfast and lunch daily. 612 Avenida Victoria; 949/498-5335.
Ole's Tavern. Home to the Blue Bikini drink and a giant fish tank. 127 S. El Camino Real; 949/498-9400.
Angel Wings. A fun apparel and accessory shop. Owner Laurie Wodiske also owns Variant Jewelry and Clothing (165-B Avenida Del Mar; 949/366-6264), across the street. 204-C Avenida Del Mar; 949/218-5258.
Antiques & Decorative Art Center. Vintage European furniture as well as Early American and midcentury Baker furniture. 106 Avenida Del Mar; 949/366-6290.
Icons of Surf. The icons of this meaty surf shop are classic board shapers such as Robert August and Hap Jacobs. 217 S. El Camino Real; 949/429-7133.
A Matter of Taste. Stylish furniture, linens, and gifts. 101 Avenida Del Mar; 949/361-4648.
Casa Tropicana Inn & Spa. Stylish, recently renovated B&B with eight beach-inspired rooms directly across from the pier. From $245. 610 Avenida Victoria; www.casatropicana.com or 800/492-1245.
Villa Del Mar Inn. Astounding views of the glistening Pacific from the balcony of every room. Eight suites with full kitchens from $295. 612 Avenida Victoria; www.villasanclemente.com or 949/498-5080.
Even with a newly vibrant downtown, San Clemente's big summer draws are the surf and sand. Follow Avenida Del Mar down toward the water to the metered public parking at Parque Del Mar. From here, it's an easy walk to the San Clemente Pier, where you can hang over the railing and watch the surfers shoot the pilings below you. There are almost always surfers on the north side of the pier; the south side typically sees more swimmers and bodyboarders.
About 1⁄4 mile south of the pier is T-Street, one of the most popular surf beaches in San Clemente. During the summer, surfing here is allowed only during the morning and evening hours. A little farther south is the family-oriented Calafia Beach, at San Clemente State Park; there's metered parking in a beachfront lot.
For more information, contact the City of San Clemente Beaches, Parks & Recreation Department (949/361-8264).