Our visit to Catalina Island was hosted by Catalina Island Company. All opinions remain our own.
Just a short boat ride from the shores of Southern California, Catalina is an island paradise. If you’re looking to get away from it all and experience a slower pace of life, then book your ferry tickets and set sail for the island’s largest city, Avalon.
Catalina Island offers you the chance to soak in the sun, get out on the water, and explore its wild side, or simply stroll the waterfront, check out the shops, and dine with an ocean view. The tough part will be squeezing in all you want to do before the ferry returns home.
Enjoy The Scenic Waterfront
With clear, blue water on one side and colorful shops on the other, Avalon’s waterfront is one of its best attractions. It’s worth setting aside some time just to stroll this part of town -- or grab a seat and watch the waves roll in.
Start with a walk on the Green Pleasure Pier, home to the island’s private fishing charters and glass-bottom boat tours. If you have questions or need a map, pop in to the Catalina Island Visitor Center located at the base of the pier. The pier is also a great spot to take photos.
Continue along the waterfront toward the Catalina Island Casino, the large, round building visible from most any place in Avalon. Along the way, you’ll pass a few historic buildings, including the Tuna Club of Avalon and the Catalina Yacht Club.
If you have more time, keep walking, and you’ll end up at the Descanso Beach Club. If relaxation is your main goal, feel free to spend the rest of the day here. Chaise lounges and cabanas are available for rent, and there’s a restaurant on the premises for when you get hungry.
Tour The Catalina Casino
No building on the island is as well known as the Catalina Island Casino -- but don’t expect to gamble here. Its name is the Italian word for “gathering place.” William Wrigley built the casino to be a social center in 1929, and to this day, the casino hosts movies and events throughout the year.
A highlight of any visit to Catalina Island is a tour of the casino, and there are three to choose from: Discover the Casino, Behind the Scenes Casino, and Twilight at the Casino. Whichever tour you choose, you’ll get to see the movie theater (with its 50-foot domed ceiling) and the fully restored ballroom. Your local guide will share the history of the building and some facts about the island. Tours can be booked online in advance or at the casino ticket office on the day of your visit.
Explore The Island’s Wild Side
After enjoying the charming town of Avalon, go in search of the island’s wild side. About 88 percent of the island is a nature preserve managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Here you’ll spot bison, bald eagles, and island foxes. You will definitely see some beautiful scenery.
Taking an organized tour is the best way to explore the area, and one of the most popular options is the 2-hour Bison Expedition in a biofuel Hummer. You’ll rock and roll along dirt roads in search of the herd of bison that was originally brought here for a movie in 1924.
You could also take a ride in a vintage bus along Skyline Drive to see the island’s protected areas. This tour also offers a chance to see the Catalina Nature Center and the Airport in the Sky.
It’s possible to hike through the conservancy as long as you obtain a permit first. Catalina boasts 165 miles of trails of varying lengths and difficulty levels, so there’s something for everyone. If you’re really up for a challenge, consider hiking the 38.5-mile Trans-Catalina Trail that begins in Avalon and ends in Two Harbors.
Learn About The Island’s History
Catalina has a rich history that dates back 8,000 years, and there’s no better place to learn about that history than at the Catalina Island Museum. Start with the exhibit The History of Catalina Island, which covers Wrigley’s purchase of the island, the Chicago Cubs’ 30 years of spring training there, and the rise of Avalon as a popular vacation spot for Hollywood stars.
Then explore the museum’s special exhibits like Esther Williams: The Swimming Queen of the Silver Screen. Upcoming exhibits include Catalina Paintings: Night and Day and Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray.
Stroll Through The Botanic Garden
The Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden is a lovely place to learn about the island’s native plants while also getting a great view of Avalon. This 37-acre garden was the idea of Wrigley’s wife, Ada, who worked with horticulturist Albert Conrad to install the original desert plant collection.
While here, spend some time at the Wrigley Memorial, built between 1933 and 1934 to honor the life and legacy of the man responsible for both the development and protection of the island.
To get to the garden, you can walk, rent a golf cart, or take the city bus.
Get Out On The Water
It would be a shame to only experience the deep blue waters of Catalina on land. The waters around the island are teeming with marine life and should be seen up close. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this depending on your time, budget, and interests.
With one of the healthiest marine environments in the world, Catalina is a diver’s and snorkeler’s paradise. If you’re looking to rent gear, contact Diving Catalina or Catalina Divers Supply. These two companies can also assist with a guided experience.
If you’d prefer to see the water from above, then kayaking or paddleboarding might be for you. Descanso Beach Ocean Sports rents equipment and offers guided tours.
For something really unique, take an Undersea Expedition on a semi-submersible vessel. You’ll cruise 5 feet below the water and come face-to-face with a variety of marine life.
Eating On Catalina Island
All this activity will make you hungry, and fortunately, there are plenty of great dining options on Catalina Island.
If you want to dine while listening to the waves, then head to Bluewater Avalon and take a seat on the deck. The menu features fresh fish and other seafood along with sandwiches and salads.
Another option for dining with a view is the Descanso Beach Club. This casual spot requires a longer walk, but you’ll be rewarded with classics like burgers and hot dogs. Since you’re on vacation, don’t forget to order one of the original cocktails.
If you’re looking for a snack and have a sweet tooth, be sure to try the homemade ice cream at Scoops. There are the typical flavors like chocolate and vanilla, but there are also unique options, including cinnamon rice pudding and toasted almond coconut.
And don’t miss Lloyd’s of Avalon, a classic candy shop selling saltwater taffy, caramel apples, peanut brittle, and fudge. This place has been in business for 75 years, and it feels like you’re stepping back in time when you enter the shop.
Shopping On Catalina Island
Avalon may be a small town, but it’s loaded with places to purchase that perfect gift or souvenir. Many of the shops are along the waterfront or in the nearby Metropole Market Place.
The island has long been known for its Catalina pottery, originally made from locally sourced red clay. If this sounds like the perfect souvenir for you, head to Catalina Pottery Bath & Body or Silver Canyon Pottery.
If you’re in the market for a really unique Hawaiian shirt, then check out Latitude 33. Their shirts are specially designed to feature all the iconic Catalina sights, including the casino, Green Pier, and the waterfront.
The little ones in your party will enjoy Catalina Seashell Co., which sells a wide selection of natural shells, seahorses, and sand dollars.
Where To Stay
You’ll soon realize that one day on Catalina is not enough. So consider spending the night at one of the island’s hotels, and you’ll have more time to explore Catalina's attractions.
The historic Hotel Atwater was opened in 1920 but underwent an extensive renovation in 2019. Today, the stylish hotel offers its guests well-appointed rooms, an evening wine reception, breakfast at the Avalon Grille, and even a tour of the casino.
If you don’t want to walk too far, the Pavilion Hotel is just steps from the beach. This beautifully landscaped property offers plenty of indoor and outdoor seating areas. Like Hotel Atwater, the Pavilion includes an evening wine reception, breakfast, and a casino tour.
Getting To Catalina Island
Most people get to Catalina by ferry. You can select the Catalina Express, which departs from San Pedro, Long Beach, and Dana Point, or the Catalina Flyer, which is available in Newport Beach. Schedules vary at each location and according to the season, so be sure to consult the websites. Ferry rides last between an hour and an hour and a half. During the summer and on weekends, reservations are recommended.