Perched just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California lies a Mediterranean-esque island paradise that feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland. Catalina Island is a charming escape brimming with oceanfront charm, wild buffalo, hiking trails, and plenty of things to do in Catalina island.
As a Los Angeles local who has visited Catalina more times than I can count, I’m sharing my insider tips to make the most of your Catalina Island getaway. Whether you’re looking to lounge on pristine beaches, discover the island’s unique wildlife, challenge yourself on rugged trails, or simply wander the island’s picturesque streets, this guide has you covered. Grab your sunscreen and let’s explore Catalina!
Getting There: Ferries and Helicopters
Before your Catalina adventures can begin, you’ll need to actually get yourself to the island! Unless you have your own boat or seaplane, there are two main transportation options:
Riding the Waves on the Catalina Express
The most popular (and budget-friendly) way to reach Catalina is via the Catalina Express ferry. Ferries depart from three different ports: Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. I prefer the Long Beach route since their boats are the largest and fastest, completing the journey in just an hour.
The open-air upper deck is ideal for enjoying ocean views and spotting dolphins. Arriving by ferry feels like you’re stepping off a cruise ship onto the island, adding to that vacation vibe. Don’t forget to lather on sunscreen!
Arriving in High Style by Helicopter
For unparalleled panoramic views on your journey to Catalina, book a helicopter transfer. Soaring above the Pacific Ocean with views stretching to the California coastline is an exhilarating experience and a fabulous photo opportunity.
Island Express helicopters depart from San Pedro, Santa Ana, and Long Beach airports. My first helicopter ride to Catalina was a 30th birthday gift I’ll never forget. It was worth every penny!
Exploring Avalon: Catalina’s Charming Main Town
The island’s main town Avalon feels like a quaint European village transplanted into the middle of the Pacific. Wander down narrow streets to uncover Art Deco architecture, boutique shops, cozy cafes, harborside restaurants, and more.
Take a Walking Tour of the Inside Scoop
Joining a guided walking tour is a terrific introduction to Avalon’s hidden histories and architectural wonders. I’d recommend the 90-minute Discover Avalon tour run by the Catalina Island Company. Expert guides share stories of Avalon’s founding, point out landmarks, and take you inside historic landmarks like the Catalina Casino.
Indulge Your Inner Shopaholic
With its proliferation of cute boutiques, art galleries, and souvenir shops, Avalon is a shopper’s paradise. I love wandering down Crescent Avenue and letting the window displays lure me inside. Some of my favorites include Lloyd’s of Avalon for stylish coastal fashions, Vista del Mar for unique gifts, and Ruschmeyer’s for pots, pans, and cheerful kitchenware.
Don’t miss The Original Catalina Perfume Shop, where they customize fragrances based on your personality. I now wear my signature Catalina scent daily!
Drink in the Harbor Views
Avalon Harbor is the gateway to Catalina, where all the ferries and private yachts dock. The bustling harbor walk is lined with seafood eateries and bars where you can soak up the maritime atmosphere.
For knockout harbor views, stop for a beverage on the open-air deck at Avalon Grille or splurge on dinner at The Lobster Trap. Watching the sunset over the harbor’s gentle waves and bobbing boats is one of my favorite Avalon pastimes.
Playing Outdoors: Beaches, Boating & Beyond
With its Mediterranean climate and plethora of outdoor recreation, Catalina is a playground for sunshine seekers and adrenaline junkies alike. Get your adventuring shoes (er… water shoes?) on!
Lounge at Crescent Beach
Avalon’s Crescent Beach is an idyllic, crescent-shaped stretch of soft golden sand set right in town. The calm, protected cove is perfect for swimming and snorkeling. After working up an appetite for swimming laps, refuel at the beachfront Catalina Beach Club.
I like packing a beach picnic of sandwiches, chips, and fruit and then spreading out my towel on Crescent Beach. Bliss!
Explore the Underwater World While Snorkeling
Some of California’s best snorkeling is found just off Catalina’s shores. Schools of garibaldi, opaleye fish, leopard sharks, and bat rays are just waiting to be discovered underwater.
Equip yourself with snorkel gear and head out on a guided snorkeling tour with companies like PowerSnorkel or Catalina Snorkel & Scuba. The guides know all the best spots and you’ll learn a ton about the incredible marine life.
Set Sail on a Boat Tour
View Catalina’s rugged coastline from the vantage point of a boat on an island cruise. Tours include opportunities to snorkel, spot dolphins, and land on remote beaches only accessible by boat.
I’d highly recommend the glass-bottom boat tour for effortless underwater viewing through the vessel’s transparent bottom. The semi-submersible submarine tour takes underwater adventuring a step further by partially submerging so passengers are at eye level with the fish and kelp forests.
Tee Off on Catalina’s Golf Course
Calling all golf fans – pack your clubs and prepare to play the Catalina Country Club Golf Course! This scenic 18-hole course offers outstanding ocean vistas on its front 9 holes.
Built-in 1892, it’s the oldest golf course in Southern California. The sporty President Eisenhower even played here in 1955. Come experience a bit of golf history for yourself!
Hiking Catalina’s Wild Interior
While most visitors stay in the confines of Avalon, I’d strongly encourage getting out into Catalina’s wild interior. The island has over 200 miles of unspoiled hiking trails that allow you to fully experience the island’s enchanting landscapes.
Nature Lovers, Ho! Hike to the Botanical Garden
One of my favorite inland excursions is hiking from Avalon to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Garden. Opened in 1935 by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., the garden contains over 800 plant species from around the world.
The 2.5-mile hike along the Garden to Skyline trail rewards you with panoramic island views. Don’t miss seeing the iconic Catalina Casino rounding Cabrillo Mole on your return hike.
Two Harbors: Catalina’s Secluded Village Getaway
For a rustic overnight escape, hike the Hermit Gulch Trail or take a 15-minute helicopter ride to the quaint village of Two Harbors. This remote outpost has campgrounds, cottages, dining, and curfew-free bison meandering the streets!
Backpackers flock to do the Trans-Catalina Trail between Avalon and Two Harbors. The epic 38-mile trek traverses beaches, ridges, and canyons of Catalina’s wild backcountry.
Go on Safari for Catalina’s Buffalo
Catalina’s shaggy American bison herd numbers around 150 and are the descendants of bison brought to Catalina for a Western movie in 1924. I’d highly recommend booking a jeep safari to observe these formidable 2,000-pound creatures in their native habitat.
The 3-hour Wildlands Express adventure gets you right amongst the herd as knowledgeable guides share bison facts and stories. You’ll drive through rugged interior landscapes before returning to town dust-covered and delighted.
After Dark: Evening Adventures
Don’t let Catalina’s sleepy island vibes fool you – there’s plenty going on after the sun goes down! Make the most of your evenings on Catalina with these ideas:
Catch a Show at the Historic Casino
Looming above Avalon is the circular Catalina Casino, Avalon’s most famous landmark. While the “Casino” name stems from its Italian meaning of “gathering place”, no gambling goes on here!
Instead, the elegant Casino hosts concerts, movies, balls, and stage performances in its exquisite art deco auditorium. Attending an evening show here is a quintessential Catalina experience.
Try Your Luck at the Avalon Casino Arcade
Adjacent to the main Casino is the newly renovated Casino Arcade. Lit up in flashy neon, this family fun zone has classic arcade games, mini-golf, bowling, billiards, skeeball, and impressive 360° panoramic views.
I recently held my 40th birthday party here and felt like a big kid again bounding between air hockey, Skee-Ball, and redemption games with my friends.
Sip and Socialize on a Twilight Sail
One of the best ways to toast the end of a glorious Catalina day is onboard a sunset sail. Relax on deck with a glass of champagne and watch the fading light transform Avalon’s harbor into a golden spectacle.
Many skippered charters like the Heidi Joy and Brilliant depart nightly from Avalon Harbor. Just sit back and let the captain and crew take care of you as you sail off into the starry summer night.
Where to Eat and Drink in Avalon
For an island home to just over 3,000 locals, Avalon boasts an impressive dining scene spanning casual eateries to upscale cuisine with ocean views. Here are my picks for the best places to eat, drink, and savor Catalina’s flavors:
Indulge in Island Comfort Food at The Lobster Trap
Since my teenage years, I’ve dreamed of feasting at The Lobster Trap, a legendary Avalon restaurant overlooking the harbor. This is the place for big celebrations and romance with white tablecloths, champagne buckets, and impressive seafood like lobster, oysters, and crab cakes.
While certainly a splurge, the food and views over the moonlit harbor are worth every penny. Just come hungry!
Sip Local Wine at Winnett’s Cellars
Sample wines produced right here on Catalina – who knew that was even possible?! Winnett’s Cellars tasting room on Crescent St pours Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, and dessert wines all grown and made on the island.
The owners Jim and Paula Winnett will even grab their guitars and mandolins and play live music during tastings. It’s the friendliest and most fun wine-tasting experience in town.
Dine with an Ocean Breeze at Bluewater Avalon
For California coastal cuisine and the best outdoor dining patio in Avalon, look no further than Bluewater Avalon. Their signature fish tacos, burgers, and chowder hit the spot after a day of island adventuring.
Watch evening ferries come and go across the harbor as you dine under string lights on their pier-side patio. During live music nights, just sit back and sway along to the music over the sea.
Grab Island Coffee (and Breakfast Burritos) at Yellow Brick Road
This sunny cafe tucked down Metropole Street is my go-to morning fuel stop. Their Catalina Island Roast coffee served up in a cheery yellow mug pairs perfectly with a chorizo-egg breakfast burrito or acai bowl.
The outdoor garden patio is ideal for an unhurried Catalina caffeine fix to start your day.
Where to Stay: Avalon Hotels & Getaways
Accommodation options abound on Catalina, whether you’re looking for a quaint island inn, romantic hideaway, family-friendly hotel, or private vacation rental. Here are my top picks for places to stay:
Bask in Luxury at the Inn on Mt Ada
For the ultimate indulgence, book an overnight stay at the historic Inn on Mt Ada. Take a golf cart up to this former Wrigley family mansion built in 1921, where you’ll be spoiled with breathtaking harbor views, complimentary champagne, evening hors d’oeuvres, and an expansive breakfast.
With just 6 rooms, this Relais & Châteaux property feels like your own private Catalina estate. Pure paradise!
Stay at the Historic Hotel Atwater
I adore The Hotel Atwater, Avalon’s elegant historic hotel built in 1920. Ask for a room with a fireplace and jetted tub then unwind with complimentary wine and cheese evenings.
You’re right in the heart of downtown Avalon and can even arrive by yacht or seaplane via the hotel’s private dock. Talk about island style!
Pitch a Tent at Two Harbors Campground
Rough it in style by pitching a tent at Two Harbors Campground, located over on the remote west end of Catalina. Wake up to epic island panoramas, take a dip in the ocean, then hike to the nearby Bison Paddock to observe the herd.
The campgrounds book up months in advance, so reserve your campsite well ahead of time.
How did the bison get to Catalina?
In 1924, a herd of bison was brought to Catalina for the filming of a Western movie. A few buffalo remained after filming and proceeded to reproduce, resulting in a herd that still roams the island today.
Why is the Casino circular?
William Wrigley Jr. designed the Casino in a circular shape with no corners to symbolize his vision of Catalina as a continuous destination with no end. The Casino was never used for gambling – its name means “social gathering place” in Italian.
Does Catalina allow cars?
To preserve its pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, Avalon prohibits most private vehicles. Transportation around town is primarily via golf carts which you can rent. Jeeps, buses, and taxis service other parts of the island.
What is Catalina’s climate?
Catalina Island enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate year-round, with average temperatures in the mid-70s F. Summers are sunny and dry while winters are mild with some rainfall.
Why does Catalina have such clear water?
Being an island far from the mainland means Catalina’s waters aren’t affected by river runoff and pollution. This allows for exceptionally clear ocean viewing up to 100 feet deep!
Start Planning Your Catalina Escape!
I hope this insider’s guide on things to do in Catalina Island gets you excited to plan your own adventure on charming Catalina Island! With its picturesque harbor town, sweeping ocean vistas, and endless opportunities for outdoor play, this SoCal island escape truly has it all.
Whether you’re seeking a weekend of R&R in Avalon or an active immersion into Catalina’s wild backcountry, there are experiences here to delight every traveler. Just 22 miles off the coast, yet a world away, Catalina Island is California’s island playground.