Tips for First-Time Visitors to Catalina Island

First-Timer's Guide to Catalina

Catalina entices over a million visitors annually with its rugged landscapes, crystal-clear waters, historic architecture, and abundant outdoor activities. If this is your first Catalina experience, use the tips outlined below to make the most of your island escape.

How to Get to the Island

Before relaxing into island time, you actually have to get yourself to Catalina first. Located smack in the middle of the San Pedro Channel, you can’t exactly drive there. To get to Catalina Island, you have several transportation options to choose between:

First-Timer's Guide to Catalina

The Catalina Express

The most popular method is taking the Catalina Express ferry service from ports in Long Beach, San Pedro, or Dana Point. Ferries depart daily on the hour (you’ll want to book weeks to months in advance in summer). The ride takes about an hour, depending on your departure port and dock right in the heart of Avalon.


Island Express helicopters zip passengers from ports between Long Beach and San Diego in just 15 minutes. At around $250 per person round trip, it’s not cheap, but the aerial island views are worth it.

Private Boat, Sailboat, or Yacht

If you really want to travel in style, rent or charter your own private vessel. Tour companies like Cruise Catalina Island will handle all the details so you can sit back and soak in your exclusive perspective of the island.

Where to Stay on Catalina Island

Catalina offers a range of accommodation options to suit different budgets and styles. Where you stay depends on your agenda—in the thick of it all or tucked away in your own secluded paradise. Most properties are located either along the shoreline or climbing up into Avalon’s hillsides.

Tips for First-Time Visitors to Catalina Island

Best Hotels

For luxurious stays and amenities right in Avalon, popular picks include the Pavilion Hotel with its 1920s Mediterranean ambiance and sterling views of the Casino and Avalon Harbor. The newly restored Aurora Hotel also channels vintage Hollywood and Catalina’s mid-century heyday.

Best Vacation Rentals

Rent an entire property like the Yellow Bird Bungalow to really spread out in island style. For groups and families, houses climb the Avalon Canyon and offer lots of room, privacy, and unmatched panoramas.

Best Camping

One of Catalina’s greatest assets is its rugged, untouched wildlands in the island’s interior. Pitch a tent at one of nine Avalon campgrounds or get fully off-the-grid at Little Harbor Campground. Just be prepared for basic amenities and book sites months ahead in peak season.

You Can do Catalina as a Day Trip or Overnight

One of the great aspects of visiting Catalina is its versatility – it can make for an easy day trip or a longer overnight vacation. Depending on how much time you have and the experience you are looking for, you can plan your island retreat accordingly.

Tips for First-Time Visitors to Catalina Island

As a Day Trip

If you have limited time, visiting Catalina for the day is better than not going at all. The Catalina Express even offers special round-trip day trip packages. By sticking to Avalon and the key sites like the Casino, Descanso Beach Club, and the Botanical Garden, you can see and do a fair amount in one day.

Staying Overnight

To really slow down and sink into island living, though, try to stay at least one night. All those iconic photos of Catalina you’ve probably seen with sailboats bobbing on glass-like harbors and palm trees silhouetted by the setting sun can’t typically be taken in just a few hours. Plus, the town takes on a different, lively energy once the last ferry leaves at nightfall. Give yourself a chance to experience Catalina after dark by booking a hotel room or rental.

Tours and Activities on Catalina Island

Catalina is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground with endless options for recreation on land and sea. But even if you just want to lounge beachside while someone else shows you around, tours make getting oriented easy. Here are the top ways to experience Catalina like an insider:

Tips for First-Time Visitors to Catalina Island

Island Tours

For fantastic overviews of the island, small group tours like the Discover Catalina A to Z Tour or Catalina Adventure Tours hit all the highlights. Friendly local guides really bring the history and character of the island to life. You’ll traverse from Avalon to Two Harbors and beyond in air-conditioned Mercedes Sprinters with 360-degree views.

Underwater Tours

Given that Catalina is located in a major migration corridor, it’s a hotspot for marine life like nowhere else in California. Book a tour with Catalina Snorkel & Scuba and choose between surface snorkeling and 30-foot visibility scuba diving. Guides select destinations daily based on conditions and sightings, so every trip is unique.

Eco Tours

Get out amongst Catalina’s abundant plant and animal life with companies like the Catalina Island Conservancy. Their customizable land and sea tours showcase the island’s flora, fauna, and wilder reaches, accessible only via a Conservancy permit. Expert naturalist guides decode the complex island ecosystems along the way.

Where to Eat on Catalina

Between fancy digs and casual joints, Catalina serves up fresh seafood and elevated pub fare, drawing on Southern California influences with plenty of Mexican dishes worked in. Here are some top spots to dine and drink:

Tips for First-Time Visitors to Catalina Island

Best Fine Dining

For special occasions or just because make reservations at Avalon Grille. Their seasonal menu highlights the island’s Mediterranean vibe with dishes like sea bass in lemon caper broth, filet mignon with black truffle sauce, and extensive wine pairings. Floor-to-ceiling windows reveal panoramic harbor views.

Best Casual Food & Drinks

Perched right above the ferry landing, Island Spice Catalina puts a tropical twist on familiar dishes like shrimp tacos, ahi poke nachos, and mango chicken salads. Even better are the killer harbor views, making it great for kicking back with a cocktail or local beer after a long day of island adventuring.

Best Waterfront Dining

On the opposite end of the island sits Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant. Part of the historic Doug’s Dive Shop Scuba School has the usual seafood suspects plus Mediterranean accents, all served up steps from the underwater kelp forest teeming with Garibaldi damselfish, sharks, and more.

Transportation Options on Catalina Island

The best part about Catalina transportation is that there are no cars. This keeps Avalon’s streets quiet, safe, and walkable while reducing pollution. You still have a few options for getting around, though:

First-Timer's Guide to Catalina

Golf Carts

You’ll immediately notice golf carts zipping about—they’re the island’s main vehicles. Several companies provide self-guided rentals for tooling around town. These vehicles typically seat 4-6 people and come loaded with extras like Bluetooth speakers to turn up the island vibes.


Look for Taxi Golf Carts lined up to shuttle you wherever you need to go. Drivers are knowledgeable about routes and schedules and can provide impromptu island tips and recommendations along the way.

Public Mini Buses

The city runs regular public buses that continuously loop Avalon’s landmarks and main streets. At just $2 per ride, they’re affordable, reliable, and eco-friendly.

Final Tips

After all that, here are a few last tips to know before your maiden voyage across the sea to Catalina to help you make the most of your escape:

  • Pack light layers as the weather shifts quickly, with coastal fog rolling through
  • Give yourself ample buffer time when returning, as afternoon ferry lines get long
  • Bring cash – some businesses still only accept physical money
  • Keep eyes peeled around every corner – its bison herd roams freely throughout
  • Buy tickets for Catalina Museum tours, special events, etc. early as they sell out
  • Consider splurging on at least one nicer sit-down dining experience
  • Wander up and downhill off Avalon’s main drag to uncover hidden stairways, shops, and restaurants behind the scenes

Still have questions? Find answers to some of the most common questions asked about visiting Catalina.

How much money should you bring to Catalina Island?

Budget $100-200 per person per day minimum. Transportation, food, drinks, and activities add up fast. Bring cash to cover the taxi ferry fee, interior bus rides, and businesses that don’t accept credit cards.

How much time do I need on Catalina Island?

Most first-timers prefer 2-4 days. That gives enough time to see Avalon, Blue Cavern, Casino, Two Harbors, and the interior. But even just a single overnight allows more time than the day trip ferry scramble.

What is the dress code for Catalina Island?

When choosing what to wear in Catalina, be casual, it’s a vacation! But evenings, outdoor restaurants and clubs may require a bit nicer attire and shoes. Temps also drop quickly at night, so have layers and pants.

What is needed to go to Catalina Island?

Book in advance for ferry/helicopter, hotel, tours, and restaurant reservations. For boat rides, bring a hat, sunscreen, light jacket, medication, cash, and motion sickness medicine. Mass transit is reliable, so you can skip bringing a car.

What month is good for Catalina Island?

July-October boasts sunny, warmer days in the 70s/80s without intense heat and smaller crowds. Winter brings gray skies and chillier 50-60-degree temperatures. Summer draws the most tourists, making it crowded and expensive.

What day of the week is best to visit Catalina Island?

Mid-week! Weekends attract the most tourists. Tuesday-Thursday ferry passenger counts drop up to 40%, allowing more breathing room. Hotels and restaurants are also less busy.

How do you spend a day in Catalina?

Start with Discover Catalina and Catalina Island Museum. Grab lunch beachside, then explore downtown shops. Afternoon kayaking or hiking tour before dinner with a view, evening at the Casino, and enjoy the Catalina Island nightlife with drinks at the bars.

How walkable is Catalina Island?

The city of Avalon is only 1 sq. mile, so it is very walkable. At a normal pace, the maximum walking distance from side-to-side or up-down canyon is about 15 minutes. Getting into the island’s wild interior obviously requires transportation.

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