There’s nothing like living in a big city. The energy, the people…it’s electrifying. But as surfers, we often face a tradeoff with moving to an urban hub. Typically, big cities don’t exactly correlate with perfect waves and pumping surf. However, if you’re lucky enough to live in one of these top ten surf cities, you might just have the perfect balance between city-life and surf access.
Below I’ve ranked the top surf cities, and I’ve also scored them (1-10) in the categories of wave quality, crowds (a low ranking signifies the fact crowds are a problem), city culture, and nightlife. Note: To be considered as a “city” the regions compared had to exceed a population of 500,000.
1. The Gold Coast of Australia
Australia’s Gold Coast is home to the best urban surfing environment in the world. The warm, aquamarine waters lap at the edge of a surfer’s paradise, and skyscrapers line the sand. With 57 surf spots in the immediate area including Snapper Rocks, Duranbah, Kirra, and other world-class waves, the Gold Coast offers a concentrated stretch of high quality waves. The area sees plenty of visitors throughout the year, but it also has a large population of surfing residents. The Gold Coast is unique in that it combines world-class waves in addition to providing an urban city exuding both energy and culture. The urban area is home to over 500 restaurants, and the region reaps the benefits of Australia’s top-notch winemaking. The city offers cultural experiences such as theatre, art galleries, and shopping, but also hosts a vibrant nightlife scene.
2. Cape Town, South Africa
The second-most populous city in South Africa is home to nearly 4 million people and some of the best waves in the world. With stunning scenery including national landmark, Table Mountain, Cape Town’s natural beauty is overwhelming. As the southernmost tip on the African continent, the region enjoys a nearly 360 degree swell window, making the peninsula surfable nearly every day of the year. The peninsula is host to a number of top notch surf breaks (and a healthy population of great whites), but other legendary South African waves like Jeffery’s Bay, Eland’s Bay, Cape St. Francis, and Dungeons are a couple of hours drive away for those willing to make the trek. South Africa’s Mediterranean climate makes it a world hot spot for fine wines, and Cape Town’s selection does not disappoint. The city is also home to a vibrant art community, and it is considered the creative hub of South Africa. It hosts a number of jazz festivals, film festivals, and carnivals. With locals and travelers from around the world, Cape Town has a huge variety of clubs and bars to meet any and all of your nightlife needs.
Crowds: 6 (not crowded, but localized)
3. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil’s second largest city is home to over 6 million people, as well as some of the most beautiful urban scenery in the world. The tropical climate attracts visitors from around the world, and Rio’s beaches are simply stunning. There’s been no shortage of surfing talent coming out of the Brazil’s beach breaks for the last decade, and with Gabriel Medina’s world title, surfing is destined to become a national fixture. Aside from surfing, there is plenty to do in one of the world’s most electrifying cities. The main cultural hub of Brazil, Rio is home to Carnival, a massive New Year’s Eve celebration, the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival, dozens of museums, and the Biblioteca Nacional, one of the largest libraries in the world. Rio also serves as the capital of Brazilian nightlife with everything from modern clubs, to discos, to Samba halls, to live Bossa Nova shows.
4. Sydney, Australia
Yet another Australian city makes the top 10 list. Sydney is home to some of the country’s most cherished national monuments, like the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. One of the most multicultural cities in the world, Sydney is celebrated for its diversity and culture, as well as its live music. Aside from city life, Sydney is home to some of Australia’s most stunning beaches. With roughly 70 surf beaches, there’s no shortage of places to paddle out. The Sydney area has four beaches on Australia’s National Surfing Reserve Register: Manly, North Narrabeen, Cronulla, and Maroubra. Visitors and locals alike flock to the famous Bondi beach located just outside Sydney.
5. Honolulu, Hawaii
Located on the South Shore of Oahu, Hawaii’s largest city and capital is home to nearly 1 million people. With temperate weather year round, the city is a vacation hotspot and sees millions of visitors each year. The South Shore is host to a variety of waves, ranging from the gentle beginner waves at the beaches of Waikiki, to the steep, powerful waves of Ala Moana Bowl. Additionally, Honolulu is a mere half hour from the world famous breaks of Oahu’s North Shore like Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach. With such a massive influx of tourists each year, the city has no shortage of attractions. The area is teeming with restaurants and shopping centers, and the city is home to a variety of Hawaiian cultural landmarks including the Iolani Palace and the Polynesian Cultural Center just an hour from downtown. The region isn’t a slouch for nightlife either, and there’s always plenty to do after the sun sets.
6. Auckland, New Zealand
New Zealand’s capital city is also the nation’s largest, and it houses over 30% of the nation’s entire population. The Auckland harbor offers cruises, dolphin and whale watching tours, and more. The Sky tower stands out from the rest of the Auckland skyline, and visitors can witness spectacular views from the top, or do a Sky walk or Sky jump. One of the premier wine tasting places in the world, the Auckland area is composed of four distinct wine districts: Matakana, Kumeu, Waiheke Island, and Clevedon Hills. Altogether, these districts result in 100 total wine producers in the Auckland area, which translates into a marvelous selection of local wines. Just outside the city, the mountains with subtropical rainforests offer dozens gorgeous hikes to lookout spots and waterfalls. In terms of surf, the Auckland area offers two coasts to surf on. The west coast hosts powerful waves and black sand beaches like Auckland’s most famous surf beach, Piha, while the east coast offers more gentle surf that is favorable for beginner surfers. Both coasts are less than a 30-minute drive from central Auckland, making New Zealand’s largest city incredibly surf-friendly.
7. Los Angeles, California
The largest city in Southern California, Los Angeles is home to roughly 3.8 million people. In addition to downtown, the Los Angeles area features incredibly unique and distinct cities like Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Venice. Each city hosts its own variety of restaurants, bars, and shops, and there is truly something for everyone in LA. Just a hop down the 10 brings you to the beaches of Santa Monica. From there you can head north to Malibu’s Surfrider Beach or Zuma Beach. Or you can head south to the beach breaks of the South Bay like El Porto. While LA doesn’t always offer high quality waves, it’s consistently surfable, and a couple of days per year it absolutely lights up.
8. Casablanca, Morocco
Morocco’s largest city is known as the Paris of North Africa. With a wide variety of European influences, the city has a rich heritage, and it is believed to have been settled as early as the seventh century BC. Casablanca has a temperate Mediterranean climate, and it attracts tourists year round especially because it is a mere hour or two away from many of Europe’s capitals. The city is known for its fantastic Moroccan food, particularly lamb, couscous, lentil, and exotic spices. Additionally, Casablanca is the most cosmopolitan of Moroccan cities, and it has a high end contemporary art scene and sophisticated cafe culture. Located right on the coast, Casablanca offers several surf spots in the city area of somewhat average to beginner quality. However, a quick drive up or down the coasts takes travelers to some of the best right hand point breaks on the planet. Fall through spring, the North Atlantic delivers long trains of swell right to the Moroccan coast, and with a new point break around every corner, it’s relatively easy to score perfect waves with little to no crowd. That being said, look out for thieves, as petty crime is a serious issue in the region.
9. Barcelona, Spain
Spain’s coastal city of Barcelona in the Catalan region is one of the country’s most popular destinations. The most cosmopolitan of Spain’s cities, Barcelona is a melting pot of European influence. Bursting with culture, the city is home to art galleries of the city’s most famous artists such as Pablo Picasso. The city is also known for its architectural landmarks, many of which were designed by Antoni Gaudi. The nightlife is unmatched in Barcelona, and the clubs stay open until the wee hours of the morning. Located right on the Mediterranean, the port city also has a handful of surfing beaches within the city limits. Spots like Barceloneta Beach, El Masnou, and Sitges are easily accessible to city-goers by public transportation or on foot. Early fall through spring, surfers can find waves most days, and a couple days per year see epic conditions. While there’s no doubt Barcelona may be lacking in wave quality, the combination of culture and beach access is phenomenal.
10. New York City
Ah, the Big Apple. Despite intimidating locals and daunting traffic, New York has long been known as one of the world’s great cities. With tourist hot spots like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, the city attracts tourists from around the world. But the city isn’t all tourist traps. From coffee shops, to bars, to clubs, the city that never sleeps has hidden gems cherished by locals. From Brooklyn to Manhattan, New Yorkers declare NYC the best city in the world. While often overlooked, NYC also has a dedicated surf scene. Rockaway Beach is the most easily accessed surf spot from the city. New Jersey also hosts a variety of beach breaks, and up the coast, Montauk offers quality waves as well. Much like Barcelona, New York does not offer world-class waves, but in one of the world’s most prominent cities, it’s incredible to find a thriving surf scene.