The Central Coast of California has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most fascinating places in the world. A drive along Highway 1 is an absolute must. Laying between North of Los Angeles County and South of San Francisco, the region offers approximately 350 miles of natural beauty, rugged coastline, hills and mesmerizing valleys, some of the most idyllic coastal towns and charming hamlets, and rolling wine country.
The region includes 6 major counties: Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz, and a long list of places to see. Here are our 9 top places to explore along California’s Central Coast.
A short drive south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz is unforgettable fun for the whole family. Downtown has delightful clothing stores, cafés, and galleries, but the major attraction is the legendary Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a seaside amusement park that has been thrilling visitors of all ages for over one hundred years. Nothing beats a stroll down the long wharf that stretches into Monterey Bay while enjoying novelty shops, carnival snacks, and arcade games.
Two vintage rides highlight your boardwalk experience. Since 1911, the Looff Carousel, featuring real horsehair and a 342-pipe organ, has delighted riders; and for those who fancy a good scream, dare to ride the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster with a 70-foot drop. On a sunny summer day, the main beach that surrounds the Boardwalk creates a lively beach atmosphere. The expansive soft sand beaches and relatively warm waters make this a hot spot for beachgoers from all over the Bay Area. With some of the world’s best shore breaks, Santa Cruz boasts a renowned surf community and culture. This iconic coastal community is all about FUN.
Located about two hours south of San Francisco, Monterey has everything for nature lovers, history buffs, food fanatics, and shopaholics. There are also lots of lodging options, for those who want to spend a few good days in this magical place. Plan a trip on Cannery Row, one of the most popular vacation destinations on the central coast. This fabled street was once the center of the sardine packing industry and is now home to gift shops, seafood restaurants, bars, and other fun activities.
The highlight of Cannery Row is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey Bay has one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium celebrates these underwater treasures, focusing regionally on the marine inhabitants of the bay. This is the only aquarium in the world to successfully display a white shark, and the whole family will love the two-story sea otter exhibit. The aquarium is known for its marine life exhibits — over 200 — so give yourself about 3-4 hours to fully enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Monterey and Carmel share one of the most scenic drives in the world, the famous 17 Mile Drive! Contouring the Monterey Peninsula, from Monterey’s Pebble Beach to Carmel’s Pacific Grove, this stretch of land abounds in some of the most dramatic coastal views, white beaches, and mystical forests. You’ll see reindeer walking freely around some of the most beautiful mansions, world-class golf courses, and incredible restaurants.
Carmel is the ultimate coastal getaway and probably the most romantic destination in California. At just one square mile in area, this idyllic beach town has a distinct European hamlet vibe, and the lovely cottages in this village give off the illusion you are lost in a fairy-tale. You will absolutely love wandering the cobblestone streets while browsing trendy boutique shops, jewelry stores, and many other upscale stores downtown, so give yourself time to experience this little piece of heaven.
Carmel boasts some of the most luxurious hotels, spas, and B&Bs on the California coast, including the 5-star Inn at Spanish Bay. But, for an unforgettable romantic experience, check out the Candlelight Inn near downtown. You will never forget your time spent in Carmel and will forever want to return. Downtown has top-notch restaurants, cafés, wine tasting, and world-class art galleries. There is a lot to see and do in the Carmel area, but don’t miss Carmel Beach, one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. This crescent-shaped white sand beach is a great place to enjoy a breathtaking California sunset.
Again, don’t forget to take the iconic 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach for jaw-dropping ocean views. Check out the world-class coastal golf courses while you’re at it, highlighted by the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill Golf Course.
A great day trip heading south about three hours from San Francisco, this breathtaking scenic drive is the epitome of Central Coast wild beauty. Drive slowly and be ready to pull off to get some gorgeous ocean views, but keep in mind some of the best viewpoints in the Big Sur area aren’t official attractions or well-known places to stop. Get an early start when there are fewer cars on the highway and the competition for parking spots is less demanding. Be sure to stock up on snacks and gas in San Francisco or Monterey first because any food stops near Big Sur are very expensive. And there are only two gas stations in the entire region, so the gas prices are very high most of the time.
Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most popular attractions at Big Sur. The vast arch in the lower half of the bridge is an incredible sight to behold. Visit Pfeiffer State Park to take in out-of-this-world ocean views and the unmatched raw beauty of the iconic McWay Falls — a waterfall that cascades 80 feet down onto the beach and then flows into the sea.
The narrow two-lane stretch of rugged highway around Big Sur captures the essence of the lovely California coast in all its glory. Big Sur offers some of the most spectacular coastal views and memorable experiences. It’s a place everyone should see at least once in their lives.
Paso Robles is a charming small town that offers a lot. You can go wine tasting, relax in mineral hot springs, and check out local shops and restaurants. Mission San Miguel Arcángel is a quick stop on Highway 101 eight miles north of Paso Robles and Templeton in the Central California Coastal region.
Morro Bay is one of those places you don’t want to miss on your trip to California’s Central Coast. There is plenty to do in this quaint fishing village, especially if you love wildlife, outdoor activities, and great food. Morro Bay is less crowded than nearby Pismo Beach. The waterfront Embarcadero is great for shopping, browsing art galleries, exploring antique shops, and enjoying fine dining with beautiful views.
Morro Bay is defined by Morro Rock, the region’s most famous feature, a 581-foot volcanic protrusion located at the Morro Bay State Park that can be seen long before you enter the town. This state park is also a wildlife haven, and it’s perfect for birders. If you head north on Highway 1, plan to visit the charming coastal villages of Cayucos, Harmony, and Cambria.
Make sure to also check out the Morro Bay Maritime Museum to learn about the maritime history of California, and beyond.
This popular beach destination has a nice variety of hotels, cafés, and surf shops to enjoy. The sunny climate and sandy beach that surround the Pismo Beach Pier have a distinct laid-back SoCal oceanfront vibe.
You’ll want to make time for a forty-minute scenic drive north to San Simeon to take a tour of Hearst Castle, the world-famous estate created by renowned architect Julia Morgan for media baron William Randolph Hearst. The Castle finally reopened in May, after being closed for more than two years due to the pandemic. Tour reservations are strongly recommended, so plan accordingly. Make sure to check their website for additional information.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo lies halfway along the coastal drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles but has a unique small-town appeal all its own. This central coast college town takes pride in being called the “Happiest City in America.”
Downtown San Luis Obispo stands out with its boutique shops, charming restaurants, and beautiful Spanish-style architecture. Tour the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772 and one of California’s loveliest missions. Crowds swarm from all over the coast to attend the town’s famous Thursday night farmer’s market, known as one of California’s best. Locals come for the fresh produce and visitors enjoy the delicious street food.
Known as the “American Riviera, Santa Barbara is the quintessential Californian beach city. Offering breathtaking ocean views contoured by tall skinny palm trees, and the Santa Ynez mountains creating a dramatic backdrop, Santa Barbara is not only one of the most beautiful places in California, but for sure in the world. Perfectly located in the southern part of California’s Central Coast, nestled between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara sits at the intersection of classic and modern, which makes it such a desirable place for any generation, satisfying even the pickiest traveler.