Fantastic Things to Do on the Central Coast, California: A Local’s Guide

Things to do on the Central Coast California: A Local's Guide

I grew up in an area of California known as the Central Coast. There are no big cities there – nothing like a Los Angeles or a San Francisco, although the area sits exactly in between the two. Instead of bustling cities, what you’ll find is much quieter: about 200 miles of scenic coastline – including well-known Central Coast destination Big Sur – plus hundreds of wineries, thousands of  hiking trails and picturesque campsites, dozens of charming towns, a smattering of natural hot springs, and enough great food and beer to keep you occupied for months. It’s an incredible place to visit, particularly if you enjoy scenic road trips, and a gorgeous area to explore. The Central Coast is one of the best weekend trips from the Bay Area, and we visit often – even I’ve discovered hidden gems that I’d never heard of growing up! The Central Coast offers everything from scenic vistas and stunning outdoor beauty, to foodie finds, a booze traveler’s dream destination, and adorable marine wildlife critters (like adorable otters, harbor seals, and sea lions). In this post you’ll learn about the best things to do in the Central Coast, California!

Sadly, this part of California is relatively unknown outside of the state. As such, Lia (who is from Kentucky) and I have this conversation a lot:

“No, honey. It’s halfway between San Francisco and LA.”

“So…SoCal.”

“No, it’s the Central Coast.”

“That’s not a thing. There’s NorCal and SoCal. I just Googled it. Wikipedia says it’s SoCal.”

*Quietly fuming*

Let the record stand: the Central Coast is NOT in Southern California: you won’t find palm trees or warm, sunny beaches. Nor is it in Northern California, though it shares the foggy, coastal weather and wineries that Northern California is famous for.  The Central Coast in California is it’s own thing, and should be explored and treated as such.

Jeremy & Lia overlooking California's Central Coast
One benefit to being a local is knowing all the sweet photo spots. But I won’t keep this view secret! It’s on the 46 in between Cambria and Paso Robles. Go check it out!

What You’ll Find in the Local’s Guide to the Central Coast, California

     The Central Coast in California is actually made up of six distinct counties –  Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz – and would take a series of blog posts to fully explore (well now, isn’t that a grand idea), so we’ll be focused on the most centralized one, which is also the county I grew up in: San Luis Obispo County.

     In this post, we’ll cover our favorite destinations in San Luis Obispo county, plus where to eat, drink, and what to do in each Central Coast spot. Here’s what you’ll find in this post:

  • Paso Robles: Central Coast Wine Country
    • What to do in Paso Robles
    • Where to eat, drink, & get coffee in Paso Robles
  • San Luis Obispo: the Central Coast’s College Town
    • What to do in San Luis Obispo
    • Where to eat, drink, & get coffee in San Luis Obispo
  • Morro Bay: the Central Coast’s Marine Wildlife Refuge
    • What to do in Morro Bay
    • Where to eat & drink in Morro Bay
  • Pismo Beach: the Central Coast Beach Getaway
    • What to do in Pismo Beach
    • Where to eat in Pismo Beach
  • Cambria & San Simeon: Essential Highway 1 Stops in the Central Coast
    • What to do in Cambria & San Simeon
    • Where to eat & drink in Cambria
  • Cayucos: The Central Coast’s Quiet Beach Town
    • What to do in Cayucos
  • Los Osos: A Sleepy Hidden Gem in the Central Coast
    • What to do in Los Osos
    • Where to eat & drink in Los Osos

It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? This is definitely a beast of a post, make no mistake. (I feel like that about a LOT of our posts, actually …) But hopefully you’ll find this an extremely useful reference for planning what to do on the Central Coast, California! We think it’s an incredible – and underrated – part of California, and we know you’ll love it as much as we do!


Wine tasting at Zenaida Cellars in Paso Robles, California.
Paso Robles is the Central Coast’s wine country. Picture tree-lined roads winding through rolling vineyards. This particular vineyard is Zenaida Cellars!

Paso Robles: Central Coast Wine Country

     Situated between the Salinas River and the Santa Lucia Coastal Range, Paso Robles (known locally as simply “Paso”) is one of the world’s leading wine regions. It’s been described to us (many times, mostly by locals) as “what Napa was like 30 years ago.” We weren’t alive, but we’re pretty sure that means it’s still got that charming, small-town vibe, as well as world-class vineyards and wineries. Visitors to Paso Robles can expect warm and dry weather, as well as drinking straight up buckets of wine. That’s just an estimate though. Don’t expect to be provided a bucket. If buckets are your thing, bring your own bucket.

     Wineries aren’t the only claim to fame in Paso Robles: there’s also a blossoming distillery and craft brewery scene. We think Paso Robles is a booze traveller’s dream destination. If you’re a foodie and you love drinking (um, us) you’ll want to spend at least 2-3 days exploring Paso Robles.

Local craft spirit distillery Re:Find in Paso Robles, California.
There’s more to drink in Paso Robles than wine! Re:Find is an awesome craft distillery that concocts delicious grape-based vodka, which is in turn magicked into creations like limoncello, kumquat liquor, and cucumber vodka. Oh, and sometimes barrel aged, too. You’ve never tasted spirits like these!

Where to Drink in Paso Robles

Wine tasting, spirit distilleries, and craft beer: Paso Robles has it all for the booze traveler. There’s a lot of places to drink in Paso Robles, but here are the highlights.

  • Wine Tasting in Paso Robles: Finding good wine in Paso Robles is probably the easiest task you’ll ever have. There are 300+ wineries in choose from! Here are my top 5 best wineries in Paso Robles, all with incredible wine: 1. Zenaida Cellars for the wine 2. Calcareous for the view 3. Eberle for the complimentary cave tour 4. Grey Wolf for the food 5. Tablas Creek for the alpacas.
    • Travel Tip: Book a hop on hop off wine tasting tour with The Wine Line to enjoy a comfortable shuttle to 4 wineries of your choice – including pickup and dropoff – for an extremely reasonable price of $60 each! It sure beats fighting over who’s DD… or paying for taxis to take you and your drunk friends across town. Plus, The Wine Line can help you create a wine tasting day that fits your preferences even if you have no idea what wineries you want to visit. We had a great time on The Wine Line and highly recommend it as a budget-friendly transportation option for wine tasting in Paso Robles!
  • Craft Breweries in Paso Robles: In addition to Paso Robles’ national pride, Firestone Walker, make sure to visit Silva Brewing and BarrelHouse Brewing. Both brewers are stepping away from the California classic IPA and moving into barrel aging, sours, and more complex flavors. That said, Barrelhouse has a phenomenal Mango IPA you have to try.
  • Craft Distilleries in Paso Robles: Paso Robles has an entire Distillery Trail to explore. Our favorites: KroBar serves up grape-based gin and brandy, and even dabbles in rye whiskey and bourbon! If you’re looking for some more unique spirits, RE:Find serves up fresh flavors like grape-based cucumber vodka, limoncello, and kumquat liqueur. And at Red Soles Stillhouse you’ll find Cinnamon Hooch and Absinthe – made from grapes, of course.
Downtown Paso Robles, California
Downtown Paso Robles, California is charming and quaint and adorable and there’s a lovely little square with a lovely little park and if you like you can stroll around in it whilst wearing a jaunty hat, like my lovely wife here.

What to Do in Paso Robles

   Wine tasting and beer sampling might take over your entire time here, but if you still have time there’s more to see.

  • Head to the nearby dragon shaped Lake Nacimiento and rent a boat or jet ski.
  • Take a cooking class at Refugio and learn how to incorporate the flavors of the Central Coast into your meals (obviously, one of those flavors is wine. I mean, duh).
  • If you’re lucky enough (and frankly, brave enough…it’s hot in Paso) to visit in the end of July, check out The California Mid State Fair!
  • Need to cool off? Head to the Ravine Water Park and splash around on slides and in pools until you’ve officially turned into a kid again.
  • Looking for a nice shvitz after a day of drinking? Paso is famous for its thermal baths! The best options are Franklin Hot Springs (cheap and public), River Oaks Hot Springs (somewhat cheap and not as popular), and Paso Robles Inn (private baths, most expensive).
Bourbon and molasses braised pork belly with cheese grits and grilled peaches at The Hatch in Paso Robles, California. Trust us, you do not want to miss this foodie dream spot.
Bourbon and molasses braised pork belly with creamy cheese grits and grilled peaches at The Hatch in Paso Robles, California. Trust us, you do not want to miss this foodie dream spot.

Where to Eat in Paso Robles

Along with world-class wine, spirits, and craft beer, Paso Robles has a booming food scene. Here are the best restaurants in Paso Robles.

  • The Hatch calls itself calls itself “A Simple Rotisserie and Bar,” but with menu items like bone marrow, burrata on toast, and grilled octopus, it seems to be anything but simple. Be sure to order the special of the day, and don’t forget to pair it with a craft cocktail or local beer.
  • Thomas Hill Organics is a great foodie spot in a quieter setting. As the name suggests, they take great care with ingredients, believing a good meal starts at the source. Their sandwiches for lunch are surprisingly gourmet, and went well with a fantastic fresh beet salad.
  • For a superb breakfast spot, venture to the neighboring town of Templeton and drop into Kitchenette for fancy spins on brunch classics. We recommend the beer braised corned beef hash and the almond croissant french toast.
  • La Cosecha features the best South American food we’ve had outside of South America, served up by a Honduran chef alongside incredible craft cocktails. We recommend the Honduran empanadas, the fresh ceviche, flavorful grilled octopus, and the Clover Club South cocktail, which reminded us of a raspberry Pisco Sour.
Spearhead Coffee is a third wave specialty coffee shop in Paso Robles, California
Spearhead Coffee is a third wave specialty coffee shop in Paso Robles, California serving up excellent coffee – up to our super-snobby coffee standards.

The Best Coffee in Paso Robles

Spearhead Coffee  is (forgive me for this) spearheading the third wave specialty coffee movement in Paso Robles and SLO County. Make sure to stop by and try one of their carefully roasted craft coffees.


Shop in downtown San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast.
Downtown San Luis Obispo is full of adorable little shops, like this one. This is where I found my husband! (Get it? The joke is that he’s a blonde from California. Get it?!)  Original photo credit: “blonde_store” (CC BY 2.0) by xpcfan

San Luis Obispo: the Central Coast’s College Town

Oprah once called San Luis Obispo the happiest town in America. Gee shucks! Known by locals and tourists alike as SLO – as in “livin’ the SLO life” which you’ll see on myriad bumper stickers around town – our county capital is the closest thing to a “city” that you’ll find on the Central Coast. It also doubles as a college town for Cal Poly, so don’t be surprised if you walk into a bar and find it filled with frat boys holding red solo cups yelling “SAKE BOMB!” That said, there’s plenty to do and see in San Luis Obispo. It’s right in the center of our favorite spots in SLO county, so we think it’s the best place to stay during a trip to the Central Coast!

Bishop's Peak, towering over San Luis Obispo in California's stunning central coast.
Bishop’s Peak, towering over San Luis Obispo in California’s stunning central coast.

What to Do in San Luis Obispo

We think San Luis Obispo makes a great place to stay during a visit to the Central Coast, so most of what we recommend doing while you’re here is going on day trips to the surrounding towns! That said, there’s plenty to do within SLO itself. Here are our top recommendations.

  • For a great day hike, check out Bishop’s Peak. It’s a four mile out and back moderate hike. It only takes a couple hours and the views are phenomenal!
  • San Luis Obispo has plenty of nightlife. On Higuera Street in downtown SLO, you’ll find loads of bars – it’s hoppin’ on a weekend night!  Looking to dance? Check out some of the (smallish) nightclubs like The Library and Mother’s Tavern.

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  • While you’re strolling through the nightlife on Higuera, you’ll notice an extremely popular alley. You’ll be like, “why are all these people selfie-ing in this creepy alley?” It’s because this alley happens to be one of SLO’s claims to fame: the famous BubbleGum Alley! Everyone seems to have their own strong opinions on it – which range from “Seattle’s is better” to “this is disgusting” – but you’ll have to visit yourself. After all, you can’t go to SLO and NOT go to Bubblegum Alley. That’s just like, the rule.
  • On Thursday nights, Higuera Street turns into a huge Farmer’s Market, with musicians, performers, food stalls, and local produce farmers. The Bike Happening is every first Thursday, where a huge crowd of costumed bikers make their way through the farmer’s market. Be sure to head downtown on Thursday!
  • Feel like seeing a movie? How about pretending it’s the 1950’s and you’re living a scene straight out of Grease? Check out the Sunset Drive-In, an old school drive-in movie theater that plays a double feature for crazy cheap.
Tri tip sandwich in San Luis Obispo, on California's Central Coast.
Tri-tip is a regional specialty – you have to try it while you’re on the Central Coast! This is a yummy tri-tip sandwich from Firestone Grill in San Luis Obispo. Original Photo Credit: “Tri-Tip Sandwich” (CC BY 2.0) by Sandra Foyt

Where to Eat in San Luis Obispo

San Louis Obispo has a whole bunch of food to choose from, so I’ll try to be brief.

  • Check out Sidecar for brunch. They have some delicious plays on classic brunch food. Be sure to get their Carnivore Bloody Mary!
  • For lunch, you can’t go wrong with local favorite, Firestone Grill. Their burgers always hit the spot, but the real treats are their Tri-tip Sandwich – tri-tip is a local Central Coast specialty – and the Pig Sandwich (pulled pork).
  • For a casual and incredible filling meal, look no further than Mo’s BBQ. Get extra napkins, and don’t worry – there’s no shame in eating spoonfuls of the 4 different typs of BBQ sauce (they’re that good).
  • NOVO serves up global cuisine using fresh and local ingredients in a beautiful setting. It’s a great date spot.
  • There are a lot of fresh sushi options around (you’re on the coast, after all) but Goshi Japanese Restaurant is the spot. It’s more expensive, but hey, do you really want bargain raw fish?
  • A necessary stop is the famous Madonna Inn. It serves up old school steakhouse dishes, but that’s not why you should stop here. The hotel is a giant gaudy mansion that answers the age old question: “What if Dolly Parton designed a Barbie Dreamhouse?” The cakes are delicious, albeit ridiculously rich. I recommend the Pink Champagne Cake.
Third wave coffee in San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast
There are a few great specialty coffee shops in San Luis Obipso, although this little cortado with its shortbread heart is from Spearhead Coffee in Paso Robles.

Where to Get Coffee in San Luis Obispo

There are a few good places to get coffee in San Luis Obispo, which makes it the most third wave coffee-friendly town in the entire Central Coast! But seriously, these coffee shops are bomb.

  • Scout Coffee Company is a relatively new third wave specialty coffee shop. The family-owned shop (with 2 locations) take great care with the beans and really love what they do, and it shows. The Nitro cold brew is especially good, as are the unique in-house made syrups like Wilderness, made with doug fir and citrus, or raw sugar & whiskey syrup.
  • Libertine Coffee Bar is actually an offshoot of Libertine Brewing Company, but we totally get the intersection of craft beer and craft coffee. Grab a locally made donut from SLO Donut Company and sip a bulletproof coffee or a barrel-aged kombucha. Or, try their cold-brewed coffee, which is aged in bourbon and wine barrels and spiced with local ingredients foraged from the surrounding hills. Damn, that’s local AF.
  • Black Horse Coffee is an older SLO coffee house that’s just beginning to join the third wave specialty coffee movement. Try any espresso drink.
Barrelhouse Brewing Company is a fantastic local craft beer brewery in San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast.
Barrelhouse Brewing Company is a fantastic local craft beer brewery in San Luis Obispo.

Where to Drink in San Luis Obispo

Once downtown, you can pretty much throw a rock and hit a bar. San Luis Obispo is a great town to do a bar crawl in, because everything is walking distance. For those of you who don’t want to just wander, here are our picks.

  • Located in the basement of a barber shop (but like, in a cool, secret kind of way) Barrel House Speakeasy is a nice place to grab a quiet beer. Their tap list is impressive, and their in-house local craft brews are delicious. Not sure where to start? Just ask one of the knowledgeable bartenders.
  • For a great local bar experience, check out Black Sheep. Sit out on their patio, watch the college students locals, and order a fried Mac & Cheese.
  • If you’re into live music, SLO Brew – a major local music venue – is usually a good stop. Check before you go to see if there’s a show.

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  • Across the street is Frog and Peach Pub. Don’t let the Irish aesthetic fool you: the last 6 times I’ve been, there was a reggae band playing. They’ve got cheap drinks and a big patio as well!
  • McCarthy’s Irish Pub is a local favorite which – according to local legend – has the largest whiskey selection this side of the Mississippi.

Morro Bay, California is home to the extremely iconic Morro Rock. It's also home to tons of adorable marine critters like otters and harbor seals, and is probably one of the best places to watch the sunset in the world.
Morro Bay, California is home to the extremely iconic Morro Rock. It’s also home to tons of adorable marine critters like otters and harbor seals, and is probably one of the best places to watch the sunset in the world.

Morro Bay: the Central Coast’s Marine Wildlife Refuge

Morro Bay is fixed on a natural harbor, making it a fantastic place to see marine wildlife, as well as an adorable little coastal town. Morro Bay can be easily identified by its two major landmarks: an old power plant whose three large smoke stacks can be seen from anywhere in town, and Morro Rock, a giant volcanic behemoth located directly on the beach. Jokingly referred to as “Three Stacks and a Rock,” Morro Bay is home to great restaurants, friendly locals (like me! Morro Bay is my hometown), and a ton of wildlife. It is a natural refuge for animals like harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, snowy plovers, peregrine falcons, and more. You may have heard of it as the setting of “Finding Dory,” however, there is no Marine Life Institute and no one calls it “The jewel of Morro Bay, California.” In fact, we’re pretty sure Finding Dory was actually set in Monterey, but someone just switched up the names. Sorry to burst your bubbles, kids. Also there’s no Santa. And Captain America has been a Hydra double agent the whole time. Too far?

Stand up paddleboarding in the harbor at Morro Bay, California.
This dude is my hero. Livin’ the SLO life on a stand-up paddleboard in Morro Bay with his dog. Like, can I be you? Paddleboarding or kayaking in the harbor is a great way to get up close and personal with otters, sea lions, and harbor seals, all of whom call Morro Bay home!

What to Do in Morro Bay

While you’re getting over your disappointment about Finding Dory (by the way, definitely don’t go to the aquarium in Morro Bay, it’s beyond depressing) here are some wonderful ways to appreciate all that Morro Bay has to offer.

  • No trip to Morro Bay is complete without getting on the water! For the braver souls, check out Wavelengths Surf Shop and rent a wetsuit and board. The beach is next to Morro Rock (yes, that giant rock you see from everywhere) and you’ll see dozens of surfers out there on most days. Don’t be surprised to find yourself surfing past otters, sea lions, and even dolphins (there were dolphins the first time I ever went surfing, because as Lia likes to remind me, my life on the Central Coast was a series of stereotypical movies about teenagers living in California).The one person you’ll never see out surfing is Lia: read about her miserable Morro Bay surfing experience.
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  • For a more mellow day of water fun, swing by Kayak Horizons and go kayaking in the harbor. You’ll be treated to up close views of harbor seals, otters, and more!
  • Trying to stay dry? Walk the Embarcadero to see wildlife from land. Speaking of, otters love our harbor! Reports are out of seeing up to 60 otters at a time in the Morro Bay harbor! We saw 32 when one afternoon – all snuggling with tiny otter babies!!! We nearly died of cuteness.
  • If you can pull yourself away from the otters (Lia couldn’t), make sure to pop into Morro Bay’s myriad charming restaurants and shops, including Carousel for some famous Salt Water Taffy.
A French Dip sandwich from Hofbrau on Morro Bay's Embarcadero.
A French Dip sandwich from Hofbrau on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero. The meat is all made in-house! Don’t forget to grab a bowl of clam chowder and some fish & chips while you’re in town, too.

Where to Eat in Morro Bay

You won’t find any of the pomp and circumstance of the foodie scene in Paso Robles or SLO here. Morro Bay is all about good, fresh food – with very few frills. That said, there are loads of places to get a fantastic meal. I think there’s a town ordinance somewhere that says if you grow up in Morro Bay, you have to work in a restaurant on the waterfront at some point: everyone I know has. There are dozens of restaurants within the small waterfront, all serving up delicious fresh seafood dinners. The local specialties in Morro Bay are clam chowder, fish & chips, and BBQ oysters – fresh caught in the harbor! Here are our favorite restaurants in Morro Bay, for seafood and beyond.

  • Having been to just about every restaurant on the Embarcadero, I can safely say the two best seafood places for dinner are the Dutchman’s Seafood House – order fish & chips – and, if you want to get slightly fancy, Tognazzini’s Dockside – order the oysters.
  • The best breakfast in town, surprisingly, comes from a vegan restaurant: Shine Cafe. Locals (meat eaters included) flock to this place for their amazing tempeh tacos and other fresh items. Breakfast is only served on weekends.
  • For lunch, if you need your meat fix, check out Hofbrau on the water and order their unbelievable roast beef french dip.
  • If you’re feeling like something more Mexican inspired, Taco Temple serves up the most filling plates you’ve ever had. Get the Alaskan Cod Tacos, of course!
Street art in Morro Bay, California.
Our advice? Get coffee in SLO or Paso Robles and bring it to Morro Bay, where you can sit outside and watch otters play in the harbor (or watch for whales and dolphins out at sea) while you sip your coffee.

Where to Get Coffee in Morro Bay

Honestly? Don’t.

An otter and its pup in Morro Bay, California
It’s tempting to put a picture of delicious locally brewed craft beer here, but instead, here’s an otter with its tiny baby otter pup (!!!!) snoozing along with 30+ of its otter friends, all of whom live and breed right in Morro Bay’s harbor. Like, we legit died of cuteness.

Where to Drink in Morro Bay

How do you feel about sipping a foamy beer while watching the waves roll into the harbor? Just don’t imagine any swaying palm trees or warm breezes – Morro Bay is freezing cold at night. Here’s where to warm up.

  • The Libertine is a fantastic local spot to grab a drink. The brewpub is located directly on the water and houses nearly 60 beers on tap across THREE bars. Yes, the building has three bars. Don’t forget to try some of the local craft beer by the The Libertine Brewing Company, which uses local wild yeast to create their one of a kind beers – including one that’s made with salt water directly from Morro Bay’s harbor (um, we actually don’t recommend it) and some delicious sour beers (which we definitely do recommend).
  • The Siren is a new bar that used to be a crusty pirate dive. Now, it has received a modernized facelift, but still holds onto its approachable down home bar vibe. You’ll probably still meet a local fisherman or 3 here, though.
  • Fan of Karaoke? Check out Otter Rock on Wednesdays! We freaking love karaoke, so don’t be surprised if you catch us in here warbling classic Nsync hits…

Shell Beach in Pismo Beach on California's Central Coast
Pismo Beach is home to multiple smaller beaches, some of which are more rugged than others. This is Shell Beach, which is techincally a “neighborhood” of Pismo Beach. Shell Beach is perched on a cliff overlooking a gorgeous coves and rocky outcroppings. Original photo credit: “Coastal Storm” (CC BY 2.0) by puliarf

Pismo Beach: the Central Coast Beach Getaway

You may have noticed that none of our suggestions thus far have included “go to the beach.” That wasn’t unintentional. Although the Central Coast is, technically, coastal, it’s not beachy coastal. So while you’ll spot otters and sea lions and smell salt air in Morro Bay and catch fantastic waves in Cayucos, if you try to spend a day on the beach you’re likely to get frostbite … or lose your wallet in the fog. Enter the Five Cities: the Central Coast’s answer to a tropical beach. Well, maybe not tropical, but there ARE a few palm trees. Located just south of SLO lies the Five Cities: Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Shell Beach, and Oceano, so named because all of their borders are adjacent. Each has their own flavor, but Pismo Beach is definitely the most popular (and, in our opinion, the best spot to visit).  This is where Central Coast (and Central Valley) folks head for a day at the beach or a relaxing resort vacation. If you’re looking to soak up the surf and sun while wearing flip-flops and shorts, Pismo Beach is the town to do it in!

Sunset at Pismo Beach in California's Central Coast
The sunsets in beachy, laid-back resort town Pismo Beach are absolutely stunning! Photo credit: “Pismo Beach” (CC BY 2.0) by amitp

What to Do in Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is the quintessential relaxing beach town, so the best thing to do in Pismo Beach is relaxing at the beach. But here are a couple of activities to spice thing up.

  • A must do in Pismo is renting a beach cruiser and cruising down the coast. Wheel Fun Rentals is located right in the heart of Pismo and rent all types of bikes and water gear.
  • If renting a beach cruiser is slightly too tame for you, how about a dune buggy for a crazy sand dune adventure? Rent an ATV made to careen gracelessly over the sand dunes at Sun Buggy and prepare to hold on for dear life. Dune buggying is basically like being on a roller coaster, only there’s no track and you’re the one controlling the wheel. Ahhh!

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  • Hop in a kayak and explore Pismo’s incredible sea caves on a Sea Cave tour with Central Coast Kayaks! Keep your eyes open for sea lions, otters, and dolphins.
  • Want to give surfing a try? Hit up Pismo Beach Surf Shop, where you can pick up a board and wetsuit.
  • Pismo Beach has a fantastic little pier and boardwalk! On Wednesdays the pier gets some added excitement with their Farmer’s Market.
  • Seriously, relax at the beach. Watch the incredible sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Build a sandcastle. Chill. Live the SLO life.
Seafood at the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach California
Eat all the fresh seafood that you possibly can at the Cracked Crab in Pismo Beach! Original photo credit: “putting dinner on the table” (CC BY 2.0) by emdot

Where to Eat in Pismo Beach

Much like Morro Bay, the best things to eat in Pismo Beach are fresh seafood and clam chowder. And along with the rest of SLO county, tri-tip is the regional specialty!

  • Apparently, there is a debate about whether the best local food is from Splash Cafe or Brad’s Seafood Restaurant. Honestly, they’re both great. Both have the classic Clam Chowder in a Bread Bowl that even the most discerning palate from San Francisco will say does it justice. On weekends, Brad’s turns on the BBQ pit and serves up some great Tri-Tip Sandwiches.
  • Chow down on as much crab as you can possibly manage – plus other delicious fresh seafood specialties – at the no-frills Cracked Crab. To quote from their website, “our concept is largely based on dumping a bucket of various shellfish on your table with a mallet, crab crackers, and other tools to get the job done.” Yes.

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  • For dessert, you must visit the famous Pismo Beach institution Old West Cinnamon Rolls. Still using the original recipe invented by adorable grandmother extraordinaire Betty Clemens over 40 years ago, Old West Cinnamon Rolls serves up heavenly cinnamon rolls and addictive icing – all in a totally old-school, unassuming little shop. There are multiple kinds of cinnamon rolls and icing, so you can get picky or fancy or just keep it classic. Try the crumb cake cinnamon roll and the cream cheese icing, or just keep it classic. Pro tip: if you get a big batch (as we always do), order the sauce on the side and you’ll get a little more than usual to eat with a spoon later. Don’t judge us!

Montana de Oro state park in Los Osos, California on the Central Coast
Sleepy little Los Osos is tucked between gorgeous coastal Montana de Oro State Park and Morro Bay National Estuary. It’s a great quiet town for nature lovers to explore.

Los Osos: A Sleepy Hidden Gem in the Central Coast

Morro Bay’s neighbor to the south is the small unincorporated town of Los Osos, also (confusingly) referred to as Baywood Park. Even though it’s so close to such touristy places, Los Osos has remained relatively isolated from the neighboring areas and their visitors. What that means is there’s no nightlife, nary a hotel to speak of, and not much in the way of tourist traps – but that just means you’ll be discovering what the locals already know: Los Osos is quietly awesome and a nature lover’s dream. Covered in pine and scented by groves of eucalyptus trees,  Los Osos is tucked in between 2 gorgeous parks – Montana de Oro and Morro Bay National Estuary – making it a fantastic spot for nature lovers. And, if you’re into #vanlife, it’s the home of famous VW Bug rental company Go Westy – so don’t be surprised if you see an unexpected quantity of old vintage VW Bugs driving around town.

Top of the World in Los Osos, California
Check out the view from the Top of the World in Los Osos, a little-known local spot which is an awesome place to perch on your car and watch the sunset.

What to Do in Los Osos

  • Follow Los Osos Valley Road to its end and you’ll reach Montana de Oro State Park. Known for its breathtaking rugged cliffs and pebble beaches, this is a must see for anyone looking for an easy hike with gorgeous coastal views.
  • Feel like a giant as you explore the Elfin Forest by its easily accessible boardwalk. The Elfin Forest is home to “coastal brackish marsh, riparian woodland fringe, pygmy oak woodland, maritime chaparral, coastal dune scrub, and oak and manzanita complex,” as well as myriad critters!
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  • From October to March, you’ll find Monarch Butterflies fluttering around the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve. Explore the park on one of its many hiking trails and appreciate some fantastic coastal views and natural marshes.
  • At the end of town you’ll also find Cabrillo Estates, which is just a neighborhood filled with gorgeous homes… but at the tip top of the hill, you’ll be treated to a sweeping view of Los Osos all the way past Cayucos.
Sylverster's Burgers in Los Osos, California is not your typical burger joint. Order one of their custom burgers with elk, buffalo, or grass-fed beef and don't forget to add one of their insanely generous shakes - all made with real, natural ingredients.
Sylverster’s Burgers in Los Osos, California is not your typical burger joint. Order one of their custom burgers with elk, buffalo, or grass-fed beef and don’t forget to add one of their insanely generous shakes – all made with real, natural ingredients.

Where to Eat in Los Osos

  • One of the main streets in town is Los Osos Valley Road, where you’ll find my favorite brunch place, Celia’s Garden Cafe. To say this place feels homey would be an understatement…I mean, it’s literally built out of an old house. The food is delicious and surprisingly cheap for how much you get. Be sure to get their Hand Squeezed Mimosas.
  • SLO County has a lot of pride in their local chains, and the most obvious evidence of that is Sylvester’s Burgers, the flagship of which is in Los Osos. Their slogan is “Big, Hot, and Juicy,” and while we laughed about that a lot as teens, there’s no better way to describe them. Aside from their oozing burgers, they have the best Chocolate Milkshake in town.
  • Close out your chill day in Los Osos with some craft beers from Baywood Ale House, a small bar that serves up local beers and delicious food.

View of the Central Coast, California near Cambria
There’s a spot as you’re driving to Cambria from Paso Robles on the 46 where you’ll find the most incredible view. Grazing cows, rolling hills – bright green in the spring – and, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Morro Rock!

Cambria & San Simeon: Essential Highway 1 Stops in the Central Coast

If you’re travelling along Highway 1 – perhaps enjoying the Highway 1 Discovery Route – Cambria and San Simeon are 2 essential stops. But we’re lumping them together, because they’re also right next to each other, and it just makes a lot more sense this way. Here’s why we think these stops are fantastic.

Piedras Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon.
If you’re driving up Highway 1, Piedras Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon is one of the best stops for watching adorable, flomping, uglycute elephant seals lay around on the beach and make weird noises at each other. Original photo credit: “Elephant Seal Colony” (CC BY 2.0) by Rennett Stowe

What to Do in San Simeon

  • Just north of San Simeon on Highway 1 lies the Piedras Blanca Elephant Seal Rookery, the largest elephant seal rookery in North America and also one of my favorite places ever because I love elephant seals (they’re so awkward and flompy and uglycute). Here, you’ll find dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of elephant seals at different stages of their migration period. They’re just the cutest, ugliest, least majestic, laziest, balls of blubber ever and I love them with all my heart. The best time to see them is January – March, that’s when you can see tiny flompy little fat elephant seal babies!

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  • San Simeon is also home to the world famous Hearst Castle. This estate can be seen from the scenic Highway 1 and definitely warrants a stop. If you’re into rich people doing rich people things, you’re sure to love it. His pools alone are reason to check it out. No, you can’t swim in them.
    • Here’s a quick sidenote about Hearst Castle. Look, I’m going to be real with you. William Randolph Hearst was sort of the worst (more like Worst Castle, amirite?) and doesn’t really have a great backstory. He went to Europe with his rich family when he was kid, saw a castle, pointed at it and said “I want that one, mummy!” Then he did what a lot of rich people do, and took a bunch of land from First Americans. On this stolen land, lady architect/total badass Julia Morgan built him a fabulous mansion so he could host parties for movie stars and sleep with mistresses. And that’s how he lived out his days: buying stuff he didn’t need – much of it context-less cultural relics – and partying with the rich & famous. I only tell you this because the docents at the estate (and Alex Trebek, who narrates the information session on the bus ride up the hill) paint William Randolph Hearst as the old timey, American Dream achieving, boot strap pulling, pioneer hero…and he’s not. At all. He’s more like if Barron Trump decided he wanted to built a chateau at Standing Rock. If you want a more accurate picture, watch Citizen Kane. The titular character was based on Hearst, except Hearst came from money. Anyway, definitely go to Hearst Castle if you want to gawk at rich people doin’ ridiculous rich people things, which is always fun, but don’t idealize its creator.
Ollallieberry Pie at Linn's Cafe in Cambria, California on the Central Coast
Delicious, heaven-sent Ollallieberry Pie at Linn’s Cafe in Cambria. What’s an ollalieberry, you ask? It’s like a blackberry and a raspberry got together and had a delicious child berry.

What to do in Cambria

San Simeon’s neighbor to the south, Cambria, is a lovely sleepy town covered in trees and a perpetual cool fog, which gives it a nice Pacific Northwest vibe, minus the glittery vampires (that’s a Twilight reference, in case you have good taste in literature and didn’t catch it).

  • While in Cambria, grab a bite to eat at Robin’s Restaurant, a “global cuisine” staple owned by the same people at NOVO in SLO.
  • For dessert, it doesn’t get much more classic than an Olallieberry Pie from Linn’s Bakery. WTF is an olallieberry? Basically it’s what happens when you take a raspberry, mix it with a blackberry…then mix that with another blackberry. It’s a semi sweet and semi tart berry that takes the best traits of all 3 berries, plus has a super fun name. Linn’s is so famous on the central coast, you can grab a frozen pie at just about any grocery store, but I suggest getting one at the real spot. You’ll also find myriad other Olallieberry goodies at Linn’s – everything from Ollalieberry cream pie to Ollalieberry preserves, all made without preservatives or high fructose corn poison. It’s all delicious, and it’s a famous local institution!

Surfers in Cayucos, California on the central coast
From the pier in Cayucos, you can watch surfers down below. Or, if you’re slightly braver, you can rent a board and hop in the water too! You’ll be treated to excellent views of the “3 stacks and a rock” in Morro Bay.

Cayucos: The Central Coast’s Quiet Beach Town

     Want to chill at a Central Coast beach town but hate the crowds of tourists? Cayucos is for you. It’s just north of Morro Bay and hasn’t been flooded with tourists trying to find the imaginary setting of Finding Dory. The vibe here is super mellow, a little bit Wild West, and very chill surfer.

The pier in Cayucos, California is much quieter and more mellow than its counterpart in Pismo Beach. If sleepy beach towns are up your alley, make a point to stop by Cayucos. At least to grab some cookies...
The pier in Cayucos, California is much quieter and more mellow than its counterpart in Pismo Beach. If sleepy beach towns are up your alley, make a point to stop by Cayucos. At least to grab some cookies…

What to Do in Cayucos

  • Grab a board at Good Clean Fun and surf – you’ll find some of the best surfing around right underneath the pier. (Lia’s preferred surfing adventure these days is watching surfers FROM the pier, which is also a valid option.)
  • After you tip your toes in the surf, hop next door to crusty pirate dive Schooner’s and drink with the locals while watching the waves roll in.
  • Across the street is another San Luis Obispo County staple: Brown Butter Cookie Company. Really the name tells you everything you need to know about it, except for how addictive they are…but Highly Addictive Melt In Your Mouth Cookies From Heaven doesn’t flow as well.
  • The best place in town to eat is Cass House, a farm to table (or ocean to table) fine dining experience located in a boutique hotel.
  • For delicious smoked fish sandwiches topped with famous (around here, at least) Cayucos Hot Sauce, stop by Ruddell’s Smokehouse.

I hope you’re feeling good and inspired to rent a car, hop on the 1, and check out the Central Coast in California. Comments, questions, strong opinions? Leave us a comment below!

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The Central Coast in California, USA is full of incredible places to explore. From charming Central Coast towns to wineries to beaches to hot springs to hiking to wildlife and more, California's Central Coast has it all! This local's guide has all the insider tips for an amazing trip to the Central Coast in California, including what to do and where to eat & drink! | Pismo Beach | Shell Beach | Avila Beach | San Luis Obispo |Morro Bay | Cayucos | Atascadero | Paso Robles | Los Osos | San Simeon

Disclaimer: Part of our trip to the Central Coast was sponsored by Travel Paso. All opinions, bad jokes, sassy remarks, and mistakes we made while drinking in Paso Robles are entirely our own responsibility and totally not their fault.

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32 Comment

  1. Ali says: Reply

    Ok this is definitely a part of the US I have no experience with, and apparently I’m missing out! The scenery looks gorgeous and the food sounds great. And how cute is that otter? Great guide!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      It’s beautiful and the otters are so freaking cute!!! I couldn’t believe how many of them there were in Morro Bay’s harbor 😮 and with BABIES!

  2. Jen says: Reply

    Such beautiful photos! Looks to be more my pace rather than Southern California. And I’ve been meaning to take a roadtrip through there to visit the glass pebble beach nearby. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  3. Oh yes! This will come in handy as I am currently planning a big trip home to Cali and want to do a full scale road trip to show my German husband my home! Pinned! #blogpostsaturday

    1. Lia says: Reply

      This would be perfect!

  4. WOW! You’ve really opened my eyes to all that Central Cali has to offer. The food looks amazing as does the landscapes. I cannot wait to visit again!

    Char xo

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Char! We just left a few days ago and I already miss it 🙁

  5. Bri says: Reply

    I’m definitely partial to Southern California (originally being from Long Beach) but I must say that Central California is stunning – and the pictures don’t even do it justice! Love this post, as usual 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Bri! I’m usually a NorCal girl myself but I think we can all can agree that the Central Coast is amazing!

  6. America is calling!! What a fantastic and elaborated post! How long did you stay in California for? We would love to visit. 🙂

    Telma @ Blank Canvas Voyage

    1. Lia says: Reply

      You definitely should visit! We’ve been to the Central Coast before many times from the Bay Area (our most recent home), but on this trip we visited California for a full month, spending a week exploring the Central Coast!

  7. In Between Pictures says: Reply

    I love California! I have always wanted to do a road-trip and this was so helpful!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m glad to hear that! California is the best state for Road Trips!

  8. Wow what a guide! I love the look of Pismo Beach, definitely somewhere I’ll stop and photograph 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      It’s certainly photogenic. Particularly at sunset, as you can see!

  9. This guide is wonderful! I loved the puns. Wish I’ve had this guide and a ton of money when I was in California! Haha, and I’ve been to the seal place you mention 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Heh, the puns are all Jeremy’s creation! He’ll appreciate that you liked them 🙂

  10. We visited SLO and Paso Robles last year with our dog and simply loved it. We have to make a return visit since it was new years eve and most places were closed.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Yessss definitely!! It’s gorgeous in Feb/March after the rains have made everything turn bright green.

  11. This is an amazing guide!! Going to bookmark it because we are driving back up the coast to Big Sur in May! Would love to check out the cute little spots you mentioned in the smaller towns!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Yesss definitely! You’re going to run into some issues in May though – highway 1 is currently closed after heavy rains, so driving north on the 1 from these areas you won’t get very far. After San Simeon you’ll find the closure at Ragged Point. You can either go all the way up on the 101 and head south from Monterey, OR from Paso Robles, head up the 101 North, take exit 252 for Jolon Road, left on Mission road, then Left on Nacimiento-Fergusson road which will take you to Big Sur. It’s really pretty but crazy windy, so if you get nauseous pop a dramamine.

  12. Fabulous guide, as usual! I’m so glad you’re bringing attention to one of my favorite areas of California. Paso Robles deserves more love 🙂 Love this post, Lia!

    1. Jeremy says: Reply

      Hopefully Paso doesn’t get TOO much love and have to go the way of Napa! But for now, they’re enjoying a really cool emergence of quality craft booze and food! I think that’s really exciting and definitely something to experience.

  13. This is such a great post! Thanks for sharing such a wonderfully detailed (and pretty!) guide! I went up to Santa Barbara and stayed in Carpinteria for a few days last year and loved it, and your guide has me really wanting to explore more of the coast and some of the off-the-beaten track destinations. Looking forward to reading more of your blog posts 🙂

    1. Thanks Emily! Definitely visit as many of these adorable Central Coast destinations as you can next time you visit California!

  14. This guide is so good. I have been dying to do a road trip up the coast starting in California, and these are definitely places I would love to stop. I am bookmarking this under my West Coast road trip guides.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Do it!! I’m only slightly biased, but California is home to the best road trips in the world. I mean, at LEAST the US. The 1 is just GORGEOUS! It’s under construction at the moment but hopefully by the time you plan your trip out here it will be fixed!

  15. Karen says: Reply

    Wow, I wish I had know about Pismo Beach on my last trip to California when we were roadtripping up the coast. On my next trip, I’ll definitely need to stop off. The recommendations sound great!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Yesss next time you find yourself back in the states! And obviously you have to stop by the Bay Area and let us show you around 🙂

  16. Sarah says: Reply

    Definitely an exhaustive post!! And I like that you stand up for the Central Coast’s independence ;P I’ve been to Cambria before – it’s beautiful!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      It’s a very sore point for Jeremy! Cambria is sooo cute. I hope you had some olallieberry pie!

  17. I’ve lived in Paso Robles wine country for over 25 years now after spending the first 2/3 of my life in Southern California. I would never go back. The pace of life is slower here and the scenery is beautiful. I love visiting Moonstone Beach in Cambria when I want to get to the coast, though I’ve also been to the other beaches mentioned here. What I like best about the Central Coast is the easy traffic flow. Traffic jams are very rare on our freeways in this country. We don’t have the kind of rush hour traffic that exists from Santa Barbara South or north of Monterey County. We do have the occasional road construction and accident traffic tie-ups, but they usually only impede traffic flow for a few minutes before you are moving again.

    I recommend the Central Coast for those who want to relax and enjoy wine and nature.

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