Stretching south from Ventura County, north to Monterey County, and covering much of the land between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California's Central Coast is truly one-of-a-kind. Not only does it boast a wonderfully warm climate, fabulous beaches, hundreds of wineries, and iconic attractions, it's also home to Highway 1's most legendary coastal stretch and some of California's most alluring small cities and towns. Add to this amazing wildlife, delicious eats, and incredible California history, and you've got yourself one heck of a destination. Ready to explore? Here are 12 spots to get you started:
Built as a home for publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan (who also designed Mills College in Oakland and Hearst's cattle rancho and retreat in Chihuahua, Mexico), the enormous Hearst Castle took more than 30 years to build and attracted a variety of Hollywood luminaries such as Cary Grant and Jean Harlow. This Mediterranean Revival-style mansion, perched upon a hilltop above Highway 1 north of Cambria, is best known for its extreme opulence, which is on full display in the mansion's Neptune Pool, its private library, and the wealth of international antiquities that Hearst acquired largely through Sotheby's auction house. At one time Hearst Castle was even home to the world's largest private zoo. Today the property is part of the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, and castle visitors have a bevy of tours to choose from, such as the “Art of San Simeon” and “Designing the Dream.” The larger San Simeon monument includes some of Central California's most alluring beaches, as well as the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery—where you can view the unique mammals from free-to-access observation platforms—and the Piedras Blancas Light Station.
Rugged, mysterious, and incredibly eye-catching, Big Sur is one of Central California's most impressive coastal regions, a 90-mile stretch between San Simeon to the south and Carmel to the north that straddles the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other. The area is home to plenty of campsites, towering redwood trees, hidden beaches surrounded by cliffs, and ample hiking trails in parks like Pfeiffer Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns. Highway 1 provides some of Big Sur's most outstanding views, as does the landmark Nepenthe Restaurant. From 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. nightly, you can also soak in the healing hot springs of Big Sur's Esalen Institute, a perk that's typically reserved for guests of the long-running New Agey retreat.
Often referred to as the “Wild West of America's wine regions,” Paso Robles is an inland city on the southern edge of California's Salinas Valley that's also home to diverse restaurants, olive groves, and a trio of hot springs that are ripe for relaxing. Drury James, the uncle of famed outlaw Jesse James, was one of the city's three founders, and to this day Paso Robles retains a bit of an edge.
The Pioneer Museum highlights the bygone days of the 19th and 20th centuries and the city's rich agricultural history with everything from a one-room prairie schoolhouse to one of the world's largest collections of antique barbed wire. The Estrella Warbird Museum has dozens of military aircraft on full display. Greater Paso Robes houses hundreds of wineries, scenic vineyards, and plenty of olive oil tasting facilities to boot.
San Luis Obispo
Situated in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, San Luis Obispo, or “SLO” for short, is known for its sunny days and laid-back vibe. This university town (home to Cal Poly) is also the center of Central California's Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande viticultural areas, meaning you'll find wine tasting opportunities at every turn. The city's Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa—one of the most accessible buildings along California's Mission Trail—is located right in the center of town, and smack in the middle of some incredible restaurants and cultural attractions that include Bubblegum Alley and the must-see Madonna Inn.
The Central Coast's Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is one of California's largest dune stretches. and, in places, a jaw-dropping sight. It's a 22,000-acre spread of rolling dunes that is a playground for off-road vehicles and a burial ground for Hollywood's 1923 epic drama, "The Ten Commandments." You can camp here, horseback ride, or go hiking, birding, and whale watching. A community of freethinkers known as “Dunites” even made their home in these sandy hills during the 20th century.
With its white-washed Spanish-style architecture and the Santa Ynez Mountains as its backdrop, the city of Santa Barbara is a sight to behold. Its coastal perch attracts endless surfers drawn by its strong winter swells, and the palm-lined State Street is where you'll find boutique shopping and incredible eats. Hop on a beach cruiser to take in this “American Riviera” on two wheels, or watch the sunset from Stearns Wharf. The Mission Santa Barbara, on a hilltop overlooking the city, offers tours of its on-site museum, as well as its lush fruit-filled garden and historic cemetery—burial spot for the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, the last surviving member of California's Native American Nicoleño tribe.
Standing on the southern edge of Monterey Bay, Monterey is a hub of marine mammal life and was once the heart of the sardine packing industry. Tourists still travel in droves to the city's Cannery Row (immortalized in a Steinbeck novel of the same name) for seafood and to visit the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. Historic sites, including adobes, still dot the town, including California's oldest church, the San Carlos Cathedral, and the former home of "Treasure Island" author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Known for its many art galleries, pristine beach, and storybook cottages, Carmel-by-the-Sea is the stuff of fairy tales. It's one of California's most iconic spots, and for good reason: dogs can roam freely on its coastal sands, beach bonfires are encouraged, and the sunsets are extraordinary. Spend a night or two in this seaside village to really get a feel for its enchanting offerings, which include boutique shopping along Ocean Avenue, wine tasting, and spots like Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, with its hidden coves and migrating whales. The nearby 17-Mile Drive is one of the most scenic driving routes on the planet.
Encompassing five of the eight California Channel Islands and their surrounding waters, Channel Islands National Park is a perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts, and nature lovers. Whether it's camping a night on the rugged Anacapa Island, diving among Santa Cruz Island's kelp beds or kayaking among its sea caves, or embarking on a hike on San Miguel Island, there's plenty to keep you busy. Sea lions, California moray eels, and migrating whales make good use of the marine park, and seabirds, including bald eagles and western gulls, use the islands for breeding.
Immortalized in the words of Bugs Bunny, Pismo Beach was once known as the world's “clam capital” and remains a legendary surfing locale. This classic California beach town boasts a 1,200-feet-long ocean pier and neighboring oceanfront promenade that serve as its central hub, attracting strollers, kite-flyers, and fishers who come to catch lingcod and red snapper from the cool local waters. The city's 11-acre Dinosaur Caves Park provides spectacular ocean views. From late October through February, the town's eucalyptus trees house thousands of migrating monarch butterflies who bed down in the branches for a long winter's rest.
Danish-Americans founded the city of Solvang in 1911, and today it retains that same Danish heritage and then some! Solvang is like a slice of Copenhagen dropped along California's central coast, complete with Danish-style architecture, replicated windmills, and even a statue of "The Little Mermaid" perched right in the city center. Stroll among half-timbered houses, dine on Danish kringle and cinnamon crisp pastries, or peruse Solvang's Elverhøj Museum of History & Art to learn more about Danish history, both its local roots and abroad (think topics like Scandinavian Vikings and American's Danish migration).
A chill Ventura Country spot along California's southern Central Coast, Ojai is a wonderful spot for a calming weekend getaway. This small scenic town is filled with artisan galleries and New Age shops. It' an ideal place to indulge in spa services, set out on a horseback ride, or take in a festival: annuals events here run the gamut from June's Ojai Wine Festival to November's Ojai Film Festival. The surrounding Ojai Valley offers supreme hiking opportunities and phenomenal mountain views.