When people think of traveling to California in the United States there are often three cities that come to mind: San Diego, Los Angles, and San Francisco. But to really see the true beauty of California you need to get out of the big city limits and take a road trip to California’s central coast. From Los Angeles to San Francisco there are some beautiful drives that will take you to some of the best places and activities that California has to offer. Here are our top recommendations for the best things to do in central California.
The California central coast is wine country. And one of the top things that I enjoy doing is going wine tasting. Paso Robles is about 40 minutes north of San Luis Obispo and has many top rated vineyards with great tasting rooms.
Our favorite vineyard in the area is Austin Hope. You can reserve an outdoor cabana here and enjoy 90 minutes of tasting their top varieties. I especially love their Cabernet Sauvignon which ranked as the #7th best wine in the world on the “Wine Enthusiasts” list of 2020. There are also countless other vineyards in these wine regions so do some research and get ready to spend some time amongst the beautiful rolling hills of central California while enjoying some of the world’s best wine.
Halfway between Los Angles and San Francisco is Pismo Beach. This seaside town has the classic California vibe. It is frequented by surfers and tourists and is a great place for a family vacation. Nestled right on the Pacific Ocean with plenty of sandy beaches, Pismo Beach has a lot going for it. My family and I have visited Pismo many times.
There are several cliffside resorts with panoramic ocean views. Our favorite is Pismo Lighthouse suites. As a family of 5, we get a two bedroom suite that gives us plenty of room to spread out. This resort also has an activities deck with badminton, ping pong and a large play area so there is plenty to keep the kids entertained. There is a heated pool and a hot tub so everyone is sure to have a great time. There is an ocean side path that will lead you right down to the beach, pier and town. It is a beautiful walk and you will be immersed in the stunning view of the ocean along the way. This is just one example of the great resorts in the Pismo area. In order to best meet the needs of your family, check out this link.
The downtown area of Pismo Beach has plenty of options for some great food. Splash Cafe is well known for their award winning clam chowder in delectable bread bowls. Pismo Beach was once the clam capital of the world. But in the past several decades they have all but disappeared so the clams used in the chowder is sadly not local. This article explains that in recent years the clams have been back on the rise so there is hope that some day the clams will return to their full glory in Pismo Beach.
We are also big fans of Old West Cinnamon Rolls which are honestly the best cinnamon rolls I have ever eaten. With the soft dough and gooey cream cheese frosting, these rolls are a great way to start the morning. I could make a whole blog post on the great food options at Pismo but for now, check out this link to see all they have to offer.
There are plenty of activities to keep you busy in Pismo Beach. It is best to start by walking the pier and visiting the visitor center. While there, you can watch the surfers and fishermen/women till your heart is content. A little further down coast is the Oceano Dunes. These are the most extensive ocean side sand dunes anywhere in California and the only place you can actually drive a car directly on the beach. The dunes are perfect for recreation. You can go horseback riding, ATVing, or camping here. It is easy to see why Pismo Beach is one of my favorite places to visit in central California.
Another one of my favorite cities to visit on the central coast of California is Santa Barbara. Nestled beautifully between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific, Santa Barbara is one of the most unique places to visit. This beautiful area is is dotted with beautiful homes and buildings in the Spanish colonial style. The climate is described as Mediterranean and the weather stays very consistently pleasant year round.
When in Santa Barbara, many people head to the beach and Stearn’s Wharf where there are restaurants and specialty shops. There are also many museums and shopping areas in Santa Barbara.
To see the local history of Santa Barbara, you should head to the Santa Barbara Mission. Known as the “Queen of the missions”, it is the only mission still under the control of the Franciscans. The Mission itself is stunning as is the surrounding countryside.
A perfect place to visit that is simply a short drive from Santa Barbara is the Danish town of Solvang. Solvang is a lovely town to visit in the Santa Ynez Valley. It is often referred to as the “Danish Capital of America”. The town is filled with specialty shops and wine tasting rooms. With it’s charming Danish Architecture, Solvang makes a wonderful day trip from Santa Barbara.
The Pacific Coast Highway
The best drive in central California is The Pacific Coast Highway or PCH between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. This drive features stunning natural wonders like rolling hills, dramatic cliffs and incredible Ocean views. At the start of the drive is Morro Bay with its beautiful view of “The Rock”. You can stop here and let the kids have fun in the rock garden. You are also likely to catch some glimpses of sea otters that live in the area.
Next, as the highway meanders north is San Simeon. This area is home to the famous Hearst Castle built by the Newspaper giant, William Randolph Hearst. This estate is stunning to see in person. The central feature of the home is the Neptune Pool which is worth the cost of admission to see. It is important to check availability of tours during the pandemic while everything is in flux. If tours are unavailable, it is still worth the drive to see it from the road.
Slightly further north on the PCH is Piedras Blancas Rookery, an elephant seal viewing site. You are likely to see a lot of marine life if you stop at frequent points along the highway. But this rookery is the only site in the world with free viewing of elephant seals that is so easily accessible to the public. There is plenty of parking and no need to make reservations. Please remember that approaching the seals is illegal. Make sure to stay off the beach and behind the barriers so as to leave the seals undisturbed.
The PCH really gets interesting as it heads north from the elephant seal lookout. For the next hour and a half, the highway becomes winding a lot as it moves north. There are stunning cliffside coastal views along this stretch. Be careful if you are prone to carsickness! The highway is 2 way during this stretch and is often closed because of rock slides so check the road conditions before trying to commit to this drive. The highlight of this stretch is Big Sur which is filled with camping, hiking, wildlife, and beautiful coastal views.
North of Big Sur is Carmel by the Sea and Monterey. Both are beautiful coastal cities with specialty shops and beautiful views. Monterey is especially known for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Open since 1984, the aquarium has won numerous awards for its displays of marine life as well as its architecture.
Carmel -by -the- Sea is a picturesque village nestled on the coast. It is known for its quaint downtown filled with charming boutiques and restaurants.
The Monterey peninsula is worth a day or two when visiting the central California coast.
When finding the best things to do in central California you will find plenty of outdoor activities. There are lots of state parks where outdoor enthusiasts can camp, hike, and find many fun things to do.
One of the most popular places for outdoor lovers that is a few hours away from the coast is Yosemite National Park. Here you can see (or climb) the giant monoliths that the Yosemite valley is known for like Half Dome and El Capitan. You will also have the best time visiting the nearby Sequoia National Park. There are a couple of sequoia groves where you can see the giant beauties in all their splendor. For more information on Yosemite, check out our blog post here.
If you are in Monterey then it is not too hard to get to one of the most popular destinations in California: The city of San Francisco. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge, or go wine tasting in Napa Valley.
One of the best places to visit in the Golden State is the central California coast. With beautiful beaches, rolling hills, and plenty to do, it is not hard to find the best things to do in Central California.
Have you been to the central California coast? Which of our recommendations have you done? Which of our recommendations are you going to try? Do you disagree with any of our suggestions? What are we missing? Join the conversation and share any tips, questions or additional thoughts in the comments!
For more travel ideas be sure to check out our other posts!
So many great and fun ideas! Pismo beach is calling my name 🙂
Great post – The central coast of California is an awesome place to visit!