Originally published in Perfect Days October 16, 2023
The California Central Coast is one of my favorite places to visit. It is a stunning stretch of coastline full of incredible sights and activities. From breathtaking beaches to scenic vineyards, there’s something special to find around every corner. Whether you plan to visit one town or take your time exploring them all along iconic Highway 1, this region will not disappoint.
Read on for 52 amazing things to do on a Central California Coast adventure!
The Four Regions of California’s Central Coast
The furthest north, Monterey Bay is known for its famous bay and marine life. Visitors enjoy outdoor activities like kayaking, whale watching, and hiking. As you move south, San Luis Obispo features rolling hills, vineyards, and charming towns. Santa Barbara boasts an upscale vibe and beautiful beaches perfect for sunbathing or surfing. And finally, Ventura features incredible scenery with plenty of opportunities for adventure.
Map of Central Coast CA
Incredible Things to Do on the Central California Coast
California is one of best places to visit in the United States. This is coming from someone who has spent a lot of time in California!
Best Things to Do in the Monterey Bay Region
- Take a ride on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Constructed in 1924, this classic wooden roller coaster offers a chance to ride on a National Historic Landmark. The coaster features exciting drops, twists, and turns with beautiful beach views to boot.
- Nature enthusiasts will love a peaceful kayak ride through the Elkhorn Slough where you can get up close to sea otters, herons, harbor seals, and more. The reserve is home to more than 100 species of fish and 135 species of birds, including six listed as threatened or endangered. If kayaking isn’t for you, take a peaceful ride on the Elkhorn Slough Safari to learn more about this special habitat.
Check reviews adn prices for the best Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Tours
- A whale-watching tour in Monterey is a must-do experience, with more than 30 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises living in or passing through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Monterey Bay is a critical feeding ground for these magnificent animals, and seasonal sightings of humpback whales, blue whales, and killer whales make it one of the best places in the world for whale watching.
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- A Central Coast highlight is the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is home to more than 35,000 animals representing over 550 species. Visitors enjoy immersive exhibits featuring sea otters, penguins, sharks, and jellyfish, and learn about ocean conservation efforts and research being conducted at the aquarium. The aquarium also offers special experiences such as behind-the-scenes tours making it a must-visit destination for all ages.
- The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a great place for diving. Thousands of people come from all over the world to dive here. The kelp forest and underwater canyon are beautiful and the clarity of the sanctuary’s healthy water makes it easy to see. There are beach dives for people of all levels, leading Scuba Diving Magazine to name Monterey as the best beach dive spot in America!
- Back on land, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming town with picturesque streets, storybook cottages, and world-class galleries and restaurants, making it a perfect destination for art and food lovers. The town also allows wine and champagne on its gorgeous white-sand beach, making it the perfect location for a sunset toast.
- The 17-mile Drive is a breathtaking destination due to its stunning coastal scenery with dramatic cliffs and beautiful blue waters. A popular stop is a visit to the iconic Lone Cypress tree, which has been standing on its rocky perch for over 250 years and has become a regional mascot.
The drive takes you through the exclusive gated community of Pebble Beach, where you can glimpse parts of some of the world’s most famous golf courses. End your tour by the fire pits outside the Inn at Spanish Bay’s Lobby Lounge, where you’ll hear the music of the famous bagpiper who plays here every evening at sunset.
Learn about the Coastal Pebble Beach 17 Mile Drive Guided E-bike Tour
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is considered to be the “Crown Jewel of California State Parks” due to its stunning natural beauty, diverse wildlife, and scenic hiking trails. Visitors can explore the reserve’s rugged cliffs, explore tide pools teeming with marine life, or hike through wild Monterey cypress groves covered in soft orange algae. Point Lobos is a must-visit destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
- South of Carmel, the magnificent 90 miles of mountainous coastline known as Big Sur begins. This stretch of Highway 1 has many parks with beautiful scenery, and Garrapata State Park is a favorite. It features two miles of stunning beachfront and easy hiking trails that offer amazing views.
Soberanes Point is one of the most popular spots on the park’s spectacular coastal headlands. During spring, explore Calla Lily Valley. Although it has easy access to the highway, finding this hidden destination feels like discovering a secret.
- Enjoy a meal with unforgettable views at Nepenthe. This iconic restaurant overlooks the coastline and offers panoramic views where the stunning Santa Lucia Mountains meet the sparkling sea. This renowned restaurant has been a popular destination for artists, writers, intellectuals, and Highway 1 road-trippers for over 70 years.
- Spend an afternoon browsing through the well-curated selection of books at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Bibliophiles will love picking books from the trees and browsing among sun-dappled tables. Events and performances like poetry readings and musical concerts make this a vibrant cultural hub in the heart of the breathtaking Big Sur wilderness.
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is home to California’s southernmost redwood groves. Visitors love playing along the river, taking a dip in the Big Sur River Gorge swimming hole, enjoying a hike to Pfeiffer Falls, and cooling off with some ice cream at the Lodge.
- Snap a photo of the iconic Keyhole Arch with your toes in purple sand at Pfeiffer Beach. A bucket list destination, the beach is a popular destination for photographers aiming to capture a photo of the setting sun framed by the beach’s large rock formation. Minerals seep into the sand from the surrounding hills creating the effect of purple-streaked sand. The small parking lot means fewer crowds than other popular Big Sur family friendly sites…if you can find a spot!
- Make a stop at McWay Falls, one of California’s two tidefalls. Though just a short and easy walk from the parking lot, the falls merit a visit due to their spectacular beauty. Water drops 80 feet from the surrounding cliffs onto a pristine white-sand beach. You can’t go down to the sand, but you can take in the breathtaking views of turquoise waters surrounded by lush vegetation from the viewpoint above.
Best Things to Do in the San Luis Obispo Region
- Smell the seals at Piedras Blancas. Elephant Seals love the California Coast, and Piedras Blancas is one of their favorite rookeries. Visitors can walk along a long boardwalk to see them bickering, courting, molting, and nurturing their young. Informational material about their behavior and breeding seasons is posted near the parking lot.
- Imagine yourself in a bygone era at Hearst Castle. Visiting Hearst Castle means stepping back in time to the opulent era of the early 20th century as a guest of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
The estate features lush gardens and stunning views of the surrounding hills and coastline, an enviable Roman-style Neptune Pool, and an indoor Roman pool decorated with intricate mosaics. A variety of guided tours offer a fascinating glimpse into the history and glamour of this iconic American landmark.
Take a Private Tour of Hearst Castle, Big Sur, Monterey & Carmel from San Francisco
- Take a stroll along Cambria’s Moonstone Beach. The beach’s name is derived from its smooth stones with intricate patterns that attract many rockhounds. The road along the beach has hotels and restaurants with impressive views, drawing tourists looking for a fun break on their Highway 1 road trips.
- At Covell Clydesdale Ranch, visitors enjoy a rare trail ride experience on a majestic Clydesdale horse. The family-run ranch has over 40 years of experience breeding Clydesdales and sharing them with the public. If a trail ride is not your cup of tea, opt for a vehicle-based tour of the ranch and its horses.
- Don’t leave Cambria without trying a slice of Linn’s Olallieberry Pie. Olallieberries are a blackberry-raspberry hybrid that thrives on the Central Coast. The Linns have been building a devoted following for their berry-featured baked goods for decades. To taste a sample, visit their farm store, Linn’s Restaurant on Main Street, or Linn’s Easy as Pie Shop & Cafe.
- A worthwhile detour from Highway 1 is just 30 minutes east of Cambria. Paso Robles is one of California’s latest wine hot spots. Some even compare this small agricultural town to Napa’s early days.
Expect a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere at the local wineries. Stay until dark to experience the immersive art installation, Light at Sensorio where you can walk through a 15-acre field filled with over 58,000 illuminated spheres.
- Further south along the coast, Harmony is a small but charming one-block town. It has a population of 18, which includes cows! In the past, it was famous for being a popular rest stop for the wealthy on their way to visit Hearst. Nowadays, people visit this unique and charming destination to taste Harmony Valley Creamery’s ice cream on weekends.
- Morro Bay’s claim to fame is Morro Rock, a 576-foot volcanic plug located by the ocean. But the protected Bay is also known for its calm waters, natural beauty, and wildlife, making it an ideal location for beginner kayakers. To see it all up close, join a beginner-friendly tour with Central Coast Outdoors.
- When visiting Morro Bay, don’t miss the Estuary Preserve in Morro Bay State Park. This 800-acre wetland is home to many animals. A highlight is the Heron Rookery, where you can see and hear double-crested cormorants, great egrets, and great blue herons nesting in trees from February to June. If you want to capture the area’s beauty, bring a proper camera lens because phone photos and videos don’t do it justice.
- For those seeking breathtaking natural vistas, Montaña de Oro State Park is a must-visit destination, featuring over 8,000 acres of rugged coastal terrain, including pristine beaches, jagged cliffs, and rolling hillsides teeming with native flora and fauna.
This hidden gem of the Central Coast offers countless opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, tide pooling, and even horseback riding, making it an ideal spot for outdoor enthusiasts of all ages and interests.
- Don’t miss the Thursday night Farmers Market in San Luis Obispo, an essential way to experience this popular Central Coast college town. Farmers is not your average farmers market. Students, locals, and tourists alike crowd the town’s main streets, which are closed to cars. The lively atmosphere with food, entertainment, and people-watching is unmatched in the region. Perhaps even the state.
- Opulent and kitschy, Madonna Inn is a one-of-a-kind California road trip stop. It’s always an experience, whether you’re stopping for a meal or spending the night. Whatever you do, don’t pass up an opportunity to taste a slice of their famously fluffy pink champagne cake. And check out the lower-level men’s restroom before you hit the road again.
- Avila Beach is a hidden gem located between the college town of San Luis Obispo and the beach resort town of Pismo Beach. In addition to the namesake beach, visitors enjoy feeding animals and indulging in treats from the Sweet Shoppe at Avila Barn. The shop is also a great place to pick up a road trip souvenir.
- If you’re looking for an exciting Central Coast boating experience, SLO Tours has a variety of small-craft zodiac tours to choose from. These tours depart from the quaint seaside town of Avila Beach and include options like a 45-minute adventure tour through sea caves and Pirates Cove or a 2-hour whale-watching tour. The fast boat tour accommodates up to 6 passengers, making for an exciting way to see the sea.
- Pismo Beach has much to offer, starting with its beautiful beach. But don’t leave town without trying some of the area’s tastiest treats. Old West Cinnamon Rolls is a popular spot that is not to be missed if you’re a fan of cinnamon rolls. They make them huge and seriously delicious!
And if you enjoy clam chowder, you must try Splash Cafe in Pismo. It is known for serving the best clam chowder on the Central Coast and is especially tasty when served in a sourdough bread bowl with a seafood topper. But beware, it may just ruin other clam chowders for you!
- For an epic road trip memory, take a drive on the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area. This is the only beach in California where you can drive on the sand. Just be sure to bring a 4WD, as you want to avoid getting stuck. You can access the beach for a $5 fee from Grand Ave or Pier Ave. If you’d rather not risk your vehicle, there are rentals available for ATVs, dirt bikes, and dune buggies nearby.
- About 18 miles south of Pismo, the Oceano-Nipomo Dunes are the largest coastal dune ecosystems on Earth! Some are over 500 feet tall. Explore the Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes further south for a quieter experience. At the Dunes Center, you’ll find help planning your route or you can join a naturalist tour.
Best Things to Do in the Santa Barbara Region
- Head to Ostrichland USA in Buellton where you can feed the resident birds and watch them run. Family photo ops abound, and the gift shop offers unique ostrich-themed souvenirs.
- Solvang, the “Danish Capital of America,” was founded in 1911 by Danish Americans who wanted to escape the cold midwestern winter for the California sun. Their efforts to recreate a traditional Danish village have evolved into a charming, slightly kitschy, village with delicious bakeries that attract thousands of tourists each year.
- Lovely Los Olivos is an ideal place to stroll and taste in Santa Ynez Valley. With over 30 wineries in this small town, you can spend the day tasting various vintages while taking in the beautiful scenery of rolling vineyards and rustic buildings. Notable wineries in the area include Fess Parker, Carhartt Vineyard, and Epiphany Cellars.
- Carrizo Plain National Monument is a hidden gem in California where visitors can immerse themselves in nature without crowds. Some visitors claim the area is so quiet you hear the silence. You’ll find many different types of plant and animal life, including rare and endangered species. The one time you might experience some crowds around here is during a wildflower bloom, as this is one of the most spectacular sites for wildflowers in the state.
- Clairmont Farms opens its fields of vibrant purple lavender to a curious public. Smell the scent of lavender wafting through the air, and pick from an abundance of lavender-based products. This working farm is known for high-quality lavender which is harvested on-site to create essential oils and other products.
- Explore the charming town of Santa Ynez, known for its cowboy culture and rustic buildings that pay homage to the area’s rich Western history. You’re still in Santa Barbara County, so the tiny town still offers plenty of opportunities to indulge in wine tasting and great restaurants, of course!
Read reviews and check prices for the best Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tours
- Once in Santa Barbara proper, you’ll likely be pulled to the water. Get to know this gorgeous city with a guided kayak tour of the harbor or a quick spin on the charming Lil’ Toot water taxi for a scenic trip around the waterfront. Both offer opportunities to spot sea lions, dolphins, marine birds, and the well-known yachts of the rich and famous.
- For a quintessential Santa Barbara lunch, head to Stearns Wharf for fish and chips or, for the more adventurous palate, a taste of fresh sea urchin. With panoramic views of the ocean and mountains, as well as a variety of shops and attractions, the historic wharf is a must-visit destination for both locals and tourists alike.
This is the oldest working wharf in California, with a rich history dating back to 1872. Today, it offers visitors the chance to stroll along the wooden planks, take in some sea air, and savor the flavors of the coast.
- State Street in Santa Barbara is a bustling outdoor shopping promenade that is home to hundreds of shops, boutiques, restaurants, and cafes, making it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. From high-end designer stores to unique local boutiques, there is something for everyone on this vibrant street. Take a break and relax in one of the many cafes or grab a bite to eat at one of the trendy restaurants that line the street.
- One of Santa Barbara’s main attractions is the Santa Barbara Zoo, home to more than 500 animals across its 30 acres of beautiful gardens and exhibits.
Visitors can get up close with the animals, including feeding a giraffe, riding a train through the zoo, and taking a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about the zoo’s conservation efforts. The zoo offers educational programs for all ages, from summer camps to overnight stays, and is a fun-filled activity for the whole family.
- Milpas Ave in Santa Barbara is the go-to destination for taco lovers, with authentic Mexican eateries serving up mouth-watering tacos filled with everything from juicy carne asada to succulent shrimp, all accompanied by homemade salsas and refreshing aguas frescas. Take your tacos to go and enjoy a picnic in the rose garden in front of the Santa Barbara Mission nearby.
- A visit to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone offers a unique and eclectic experience, with a variety of tasting rooms, art galleries, and boutique shops showcasing the area’s vibrant cultural scene.
This trendy neighborhood is home to over 20 wineries and breweries, each with a distinct character and flavor. With its vibrant atmosphere and creative energy, a trip to Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is a one-of-a-kind experience you don’t want to miss.
- One of the best ways to enjoy the stunning coastline of Santa Barbara is by taking a beachfront bike ride. As you pedal along the palm tree-lined path, enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, with opportunities to watch surfers carve the waves and spot pods of dolphins dancing in the surf.
With several bike rental vendors located nearby, it’s easy to spend a leisurely afternoon exploring all of the beachfront attractions, from Stearns Wharf to Santa Barbara Harbor.
Check prices for the best Electric Bike Rental in Santa Barbara
- A truly unforgettable experience near Santa Barbara is a horseback ride along the beach. Los Padres Outfitters offers tours for individuals, groups, and families. Sunset, sunrise, and picnic adventures can be arranged any time of year and for any number of people. This is truly a bucket-list activity for those seeking a remarkable and unique adventure in Santa Barbara.
- For the perfect beach day, head to Carpinteria which boasts the “world’s safest beach.” This wide stretch of soft sand is a must-visit with its calm waters and playful seals and dolphins that can be spotted from the shore. This family-friendly beach offers amenities such as picnic areas, playgrounds, and a nature trail, making it an ideal destination for a day of sun, fun, and relaxation.
- If you happen to be visiting Santa Barbara in early October, stop by the Carpinteria Avocado Festival, an annual event celebrating California’s favorite fruit and the local agricultural industry.
The festival features food, beverage, and craft vendors, live music, and events such as the Best Guacamole Contest. Don’t skip special treats like avocado ice cream! With attendance reaching upwards of 100,000 people over the weekend, it’s a fun-filled event that truly captures the spirit of this charming coastal community.
Best Things to Do in the Ventura Region
- Book lovers will find a visit to Bart’s Books in Ojai well worth the inland detour. Bart’s is the largest outdoor bookstore in the world with over 100,000 books available for purchase, ranging from vintage classics to contemporary bestsellers, all arranged in an open-air maze of bookshelves that provide a unique and charming ambiance for browsing and reading.
- Ventura is known for its excellent surf conditions, so it’s no surprise that several surf schools offer lessons for beginners and advanced surfers alike. You can learn from experienced instructors who teach the proper techniques for catching waves at popular surf spots like Mondos Beach, and experience the thrill of riding the waves in one of the best surf destinations on the West Coast.
Ventura is a must-visit destination for surf enthusiasts looking for a true California experience.
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- Ventura is home to Patagonia’s headquarters. Yvon Chouinard chose this location in 1973 due to its proximity to the ocean and stunning natural scenery, offering easy access to both mountains and water adventures. Pay a visit to Patagonia’s original store, the Great Pacific Iron Works, and purchase a long-lasting souvenir.
- Another must-do activity in the Ventura region is a ferry ride to the Channel Islands. One of the state’s least-visited National Parks due to its remote location, the Channel Islands are a group of five beautiful pristine islands located off the coast.
Visitors can hike, snorkel and dive in the crystal-clear waters, or simply relax and enjoy the stunning natural beauty of the islands. With daily departures from Ventura and Oxnard, a day trip or overnight camping adventure to the Channel Islands is well worth your while.
- For an exhilarating adventure, explore the Channel Island Sea Caves by kayak. These cave systems offer a unique and magical experience as you paddle through the twisting passages, surrounded by soaring cliffs and turquoise waters. Keep an eye out for the abundance of marine life, such as sea lions, seals, and dolphins that call these caves home. With guided kayak tours available, this is a can’t-miss highlight of any trip to the Ventura region.
Best Central California Bike Tour
Embark on a six-day cycling expedition with Escape Adventures, journeying along California’s Central Coast, meandering from Santa Barbara to the enchanting Big Sur.
This trip includes the legendary Highway 1, the Piedras Blancas Light Station, the Monarch Butterfly Grove, the Harmony Headlands State Park, McWay Falls, Point Lobos, Carmel-by-the-Sea, a visit to the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, and a ride through the renowned 17-Mile Drive. Your comfort is ensured with inclusive lodging, delectable meals, snacks, and a treasure trove of experiences throughout this epic adventure.
Best Central Coast Towns for an Overnight
Carmel makes an ideal home base for the Monterey Bay Region, with hotel options that range from quaint and budget friendly to bucket-list luxury. Book a hotel on Ocean Avenue such as Hotel Carmel that offers easy access to shops, restaurants, and the beach.
The San Luis Obispo Region is filled with small charming towns, each of which make a great home base for exploring the region. One of our favorite options are the hotels along Moonstone Beach in Cambria. The Sea Otter Inn is pet-friendly and their breakfast options include breakfast burritos that you can take across the street to enjoy on the beach in the morning.
Santa Barbara offers a great home base for exploring the best of the region. The Santa Barbara Inn is a lovely boutique hotel across the street from the beach and within easy walking distance to the Funk Zone.
In the Ventura Region, look for fun and funky options like Waypoint Ventura. This unique glamping option features restored vintage travel trailers from the 1940’s to the early 1970’s, situated within walking distance of the beach and downtown Ventura.
Best Time to Visit the Central Coast
Though California has much to offer year-round, the best seasons to visit the Central Coast are fall and spring. Fall has the most consistent sunshine, but it’s also become known as fire season. Be sure to stay informed about events across the state because a fire in one location can affect air quality for miles around.
Spring might have cooler weather and some rainy days, but that rain brings the state’s natural beauty to life. You might find hills carpeted with gorgeous emerald green, and with luck, bright gold, orange, and purple wildflowers.
No matter when you visit, expect fog and cool weather in the mornings and evenings. Always pack layers for a Central Coast visit, even in the height of summer.