California's Central Coast: The Complete Guide

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California’s famous central coast stretches from just north of Los Angeles in Ventura County to south of San Francisco in Santa Clara, encompassing the spectacular regions of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, and Monterey. Its 350 miles of beautiful coastline incorporates stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean from 400-foot sea cliffs and acres upon acres of vineyards and California farmland. This special division of the Golden State offers one of the most quintessential and underrated road trip routes in the country, along unparalleled Highway 1.

Spot playful sea otter and massive elephant seals at nature preserves near Hearst Castle or experience authentic California beach towns with unique microclimates in Cambria, Avila Beach, and Cayucos. Across the street from Hearst Castle at William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, a moderate trail known for its wildflowers and birdwatching leads you out to the tip of San Simeon Point.

Take a once-in-a-lifetime drive along Oceano Dunes Natural Preserve, one of the only beaches in California that allows driving. Go camping at Pismo Beach State Park or discover the black sand beaches and waterfalls at Ragged Point. Hike to mountainous Morro Rock at Morro Bay or check out the infamous Gum Wall in San Luis Obispo. Sightsee on the Bixby Creek Bridge, which is perhaps the most iconic landmark on California’s Central Coast, or take a ride on the coastal bike path between Ventura and Ojai. Pull over to take a photo at McWay Falls, the 80-foot-tall waterfall on the coast of Big Sur that flows year-round from McWay Creek directly into the Pacific Ocean.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Depending on what types of activities you’re looking for, it's hard to go wrong in California’s Central Coast (no matter what the season). Fall or winter are the best times for surfing, and springtime offers far less crowds for wine tasting and road-tripping. Summer offers slightly more crowds but much warmer weather.
  • Language: English
  • Currency: U.S. Dollars
  • Getting Around: Hands down the easiest way to get around California’s Central Coast is by car. If you want to save gas money or spend time enjoying the sights rather than driving, opt for a wine tour or the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.
  • Travel Tip: Although this coastal region sits right between bustling San Francisco and crowded Los Angeles, don’t expect to see any big cities here. This area is known for its small coastal surfing towns and quiet beaches, so get ready for a relaxing getaway full of good food, plenty of wineries, and scenic hiking trails.
Paso Robles Vineyard
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Things to Do

Famous destinations such as Hearst Castle and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to California’s Central Coast. While most visitors come to the area for the food, wine, and beaches, they shouldn’t discount the incredible hiking trails, museums, whale watching, and boutique surf shops either. To get a real feel of the seaside region, book a lighthouse tour, like the ones at Piernas Blancas and Point San Luis.

  • Beaches: The best reason to travel to the coast: beaches! California’s Central Coast is no exception, with some of the most peaceful and gorgeous stretches of sand in the state.
  • Camping: Camping is one of the greatest ways to experience the California Central Coast, especially for road trippers. You can find a great portion of California’s amazing acreage and campgrounds at Los Padres National Forest.
  • Wine Tasting: Two of the most recognized wine regions in the area can be found in Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, though there is certainly no shortage of fantastic wineries.

Explore more attractions with our full-length articles on Central California tourism, the best destinations on California’s Central Coast, and our guide to the entire coast of California.

What to Eat and Drink

Whether you're tasting local wine in Santa Barbara or slurping clam chowder in Pismo Beach, the Central Coast of California offers truly exceptional and diverse dining experiences. An abundance of rich, fertile soil and entire generations of specialty farmers, fishermen, and ranchers have gifted this region with wonderful farmer’s markets. Another important staple of coastal California, fruit stands, can also be found throughout the area. Casa de Fruta, between Hollister and Gilroy, has been serving the community for more than 100 years (if you see it, pull over!).

Coastal California is a mecca for fresh fruits, produce, and, of course, seafood, so it’s no surprise that much of the state’s most talented chefs and restaurateurs chose the central coast to congregate. There is a great mixture of warm, budget-friendly local hangouts that have gained a following but remained humble, and pricey award-winning restaurants with vibrant cocktails and lengthy wine lists. Splash Cafe in Pismo Beach is one of the area’s oldest and most popular seafood joints. Restaurants, nightlife, and shops along Cannery Row in Monterey Bay are designed for families, couples, and solo travelers alike. Make sure you hit up one of the bakeries (and pay your respect to Hans Christian Andersen) in Solvang, a historic Danish village in the Santa Ynez Valley.

The greatest part about having so many wineries around is that there is something for everyone, whether you’re a casual wine drinker or an expert. Great wineries are easy to come by in California’s Central Coast, but you’ll find the biggest concentration in Santa Barbara and Paso Robles.

Explore more of California’s food and beverage scene with articles on California’s best food travel experiences, the best ocean view restaurants, and the best restaurants near Monterey

Where to Stay

Score a quaint hotel along the coast, especially near iconic beaches like Moonstone Beach in sleepy Cambria; Not to mention, you’ll get first dibs on some spectacularly epic sunsets. For a truly unique experience, check in to the world-famous Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Known for its 110 completely distinctly themed and totally whimsical suites, guests can take their pick from rooms such as the Jungle Rock with a stone waterfall shower to the Austrian Suite with an outdoor spiral staircase. (Tip: Madonna Inn is equally famous for its bakery, so don’t leave without getting your hands on a pastry or slice of pie).

Explore the best places to stay in the area with our guide to charming bed-and-breakfasts along the California Coast, the best hotels in Santa Barbara, and campgrounds around Monterey and Carmel.

Getting There

A car is the best way to travel in California’s Central Coast, but if you don’t want to drive the entire way, grab a seat on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner for the portion of the road between Ventura and San Luis Obispo with Santa Barabara in between. Tickets will cost under $40, and the high-quality trains are equipped with Wi-Fi and onboard power so you can charge your devices while enjoying the scenery. You can also look into wine tours that will not only take you to the most incredible wine tasting spots along the coast, but also provide you with a guide and professional driver. Take scenic Highway 1 to drive nearest to the ocean (highly recommended) or Highway 101 to stay more inland. Some of the airports nearby include Monterey Regional Airport, San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, and Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, but you can even take the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train ($23 per person) to the Ventura train station from LAX.

Money Saving Tips

  • Try camping or vacation rentals instead of hotels. It gives you a real feel of the natural environment without breaking the bank with fancy hotel rooms. Plus, you’ll likely get access to amenities such as electricity, Wi-Fi, fresh water, restrooms, showers, laundry room, and maybe even a swimming pool. 
  • If you do choose to stay at a hotel for all or part of the trip, book accommodations in advance so that you can get the lowest price.
  • Don’t miss out on the lovely hiking trails along the California Central Coast. The best part of the scenery is that it's free!
  • Santa Barbara County’s affordable Santa Maria Wine Trolley runs from late May through mid-October and costs about $10 per person.
  • In San Luis Obispo, the SLO Railroad Museum and the SLO Children’s Museum both offer exhibits and activities for kids 10 and under for about $10 per person. There is free admission at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and the History Center of San Luis Obispo County, as well.
  • Start your day with a visit to one of the region’s many visitor centers, such as the Santa Cruz County Visitor Center for a map of free walking tours.
  • Admission-free museums include the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center.
  • It's no secret that eating out is a costly component of vacation, and California prices can cause serious sticker shock to first-time visitors. Save money by making a portion of your meals in your hotel or rental home rather than going out to restaurants. That way, you’ll save money while spending more quality time cooking with your travel companions.
  • Chances are, you’ll be road-tripping most if not all of the way along the coast, so opt for a car with better gas mileage and fuel-efficiency. An electric car is even better, especially since California is very electric car-friendly with charging stations easier to come by than other states. Use a GPS to steer clear of tolls and make sure to inspect the car before hitting the road to avoid breakdowns and tickets.
Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Central Coast California. "Welcome to California's Central Coast." July 9, 2020.

  2. Visit California. "Central Coast Wine Country." July 9, 2020.

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