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 the most well-known California Central Coast destination, Big Sur – plus hundreds of wineries, thousands of hiking trails, dozens of charming towns, a smattering of natural hot springs, and enough great food and beer to keep you occupied for months.
But here’s the thing about California’s Central Coast: most people don’t know much about it! Yes, even other Californians. For shame. Big Sur may get all of the attention, but it’s certainly not the only must-visit Central Coast attraction.
There are so many places to visit in the Central Coast that are woefully under-appreciated, and as a local, I’m personally insulted. Just kidding. But I am going to spend the next 7k words pouring my heart out about why this little patch of California is worth the trip, so buckle in.
The Central Coast offers everything from sugar-sand beaches and great surfing, to foodie finds and a booze traveler’s dream destination, to adorable marine wildlife critters (otters! Seals! Sea lions!) and groves of Monarch butterflies flitting through delicious smelling eucalyptus trees, to sheer cliffs looking down on crashing waves. Yeah, it’s basically heaven.
I mean, look: we’re totally biased, but driving the Pacific Coast Highway is the best road trip in the entire world, and the Central Coast is full of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. Facts. Our favorite way to spend a weekend is to hop into a car and head down the Pacific Coast Highway, sea breeze whipping Lia’s hair into my mouth somehow, cheap sunglasses glinting in the sun, singing along to our Driving in California Playlist (it is a road trip worthy of its own playlist).
The Central Coast is one of the best weekend trips from the Bay Area, and we visit often. So strap on your seatbelt (yep, gonna keep going with that metaphor) and get ready to fall in love with the 8 best Central Coast getaways.
Planning a Highway One road trip? We’ve created a detailed 10-day California Coast road trip itinerary to help you plan! Enter your email below and we’ll send you a printable version, plus tips to plan your trip.
We also have a Highway One podcast episode! A humanist cult, a Danish hideaway, a gravitational anomaly, towering trees, a spoiled rich kid’s castle, clothing-optional hot springs, and the cutest (and weirdest) animals imaginable: in this episode, we cover everything you need to plan your trip up the California Coast – and all the weird history you never knew along the way.
Listen below or just click here! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes.
Psst: We also have a bunch of other posts about traveling in California! Take a look:
- The Ultimate 10-Day California Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
- The 32 Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops
- Mendocino, California Weekend Getaway Guide
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco, California
- The 24 Best Northern California Hikes
Everything You Need to Know about California’s Central Coast
First things first: let’s get practical. That’s like, our thing. Here some answers to questions you probably have.
Where is the Central Coast, California?
The Central Coast of California is the area south of San Francisco and north of Los Angeles, on the coast of California. Which, by the way, is widely regarded as some of the most beautiful stretch of coast in the world. Oh, did I mention the Central Coast is beautiful? Ahem.
Personally, I find the title to be fairly self-explanatory: it’s in the central coast region of California. Duh! But it turns out that this part of California is relatively unknown outside of California – or even within it. As such, I have this conversation a lot:
“It’s halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.”
“So… it’s 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.”
I spent months gesturing animatedly (OK, furiously jabbing) at maps before Lia finally agreed that the Central Coast was neither SoCal nor NorCal. Let the record stand: the Central Coast is NOT in Southern California. Nor is it in Northern California, though some of it shares the foggy, coastal weather and wineries that Northern California is famous for. The Central Coast in California is its own thing!
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. The entire region would take a series of blog posts to fully explore (well now, isn’t that a grand idea), so in this post, we’ll be focused on the most centralized one, which is also the county I grew up in San Luis Obispo County.
SLO county – as it’s called by those ~in the know, which you now are, congratulations – centers around one major city: San Luis Obispo, home of a major California state university and the only airport in the region.
Even though many people have heard of San Luis Obispo – thanks in no small part to the Scissor Sisters song of the same name – what they often don’t realize is that there are actually lots of little cities near San Luis Obispo.
Er, that’s not quite accurate, let’s try that again. There are actually lots of little towns near San Luis Obispo. And guess what? You’re about to be ~~in the know!
How do you get to California’s Central Coast?
Although there is an airport in San Luis Obispo, most of the flights are regional and the airport is quite small. So we don’t recommend flying directly into SLO.
Instead, we recommend flying into either San Francisco or Los Angeles and driving up or down Highway 1 to reach the Central Coast! This is, as we’ve mentioned, one of the best road trips in the world, and the Central Coast is FULL of all the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway.
So which should you fly into, San Francisco or Los Angeles? Central Coast is perfectly situated exactly 4 hours south of San Francisco and 4 hours north of Los Angeles, so you can take your pick. But the stunning coastal views of Big Sur are located between San Luis Obispo and San Francisco, so we recommend flying into San Francisco and driving south.
Oh and hey, while you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, you might as well go and check out of all our posts about our home city 😉
What’s the best time to visit California’s Central Coast?
Coastal California generally has pretty homogenous weather year-round, with a few months of rain between December and March. But don’t let the rain deter you! Even if it rains on a day or two during your trip, the best time to visit California’s Central Coast (which I also consider the best time to visit California in general) is actually late February through mid-April.
Why? The rains bring the sun-drenched, golden California hills to life, covering them in a stunning carpet of lush green mixed with orange California poppies, white Cala lilies, yellow buttercups, and purple lupine. It is stunning. The annual wildflower bloom is not to be missed, especially during super-bloom years!
What’s a super-bloom, you ask? Oh, only a wildflower bloom so large you can see it FROM SPACE. The photo above was taken in Carrizo Plains National Monument, located 60 miles east of San Luis Obispo. Take a day trip to Carrizo Plains in the early spring and you might just catch while tule elk and pronghorns munching flowers on either side of the ambling road. Sure, it’s not technically on the Central Coast, but it’s a great detour during a super-bloom!
As for the weather, California’s coast is generally foggy and cool – not hot and sunny, like you might expect. Bring a jacket, especially for early morning and evening. But be aware that as a general rule, the further inland you head, the warmer it gets: Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, for example, are not directly on the ocean and can get hot during the day. It’s sort of like packing for San Francisco – layer up so you can strip down during the day and warm back up when the temperature drops at night!
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, and it’s centrally located in the heart of San Luis Obispo county.
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, and most of what we recommend doing while you’re here is going on day trips to the surrounding towns near San Luis Obispo! 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 of 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.
- 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.
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 types 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 to 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.
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 on 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.
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.
- 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.
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo
We love to check out vacation homes to get a homely feel during our travels and there are some great VRBOs in San Luis Obispo. This newly renovated Downtown Cottage is super cute and bright, making it the perfect place to call home for a night or two. Or this Historic beautifully renovated craftsman home with a wonderful kitchen and just a 5-minute walk to downtown, it also has a luscious backyard with a hot tub!
You should also check out this Cozy Victorian home featuring a lovely garden, it’s a great place to stay in the Mill Town Historic District!
We always recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.
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.” Sorry to burst your bubbles, kids. Also there’s no Santa. And Captain America has been a double agent the whole time. Too far?
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.
- 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.
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!
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 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…
Where to Stay in Morro Bay
There are some great VRBOs in Morro Bay to check into for your stay, this Charming Waterfront Home is super 70s and totally groovy, and overlooks Morro Bay and Morro Rock! A perfect place to be right on the water and soak up all that gorgeous sunshine.
Alternatively, check out Captain Java’s Cottage this cute and kitschy private cottage is ideal for a romantic getaway! With only a 3 minute walk to the beach, it’s the perfect spot to hideaway from the rest fo the world. If you are looking for something pet-friendly this cottage is located close to town, but with a country atmosphere. The outdoor patio is spacious and there are even horses and chickens next door to visit!
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.”
And while we weren’t in Napa 30 years ago, 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, dry weather, cool foggy nights, beautiful rolling vineyards, and like, several 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. Paso Robles is a booze traveller’s dream destination – we’ve got an entire guide to Paso Robles breweries and distilleries!
If you’re a foodie and you love drinking (um, us) you’ll want to spend at least 2-3 days exploring Paso Robles.
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, and 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
For more suggestions, head to our guide to the best wineries in Paso Robles.
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! 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.
Things 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.
- 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).
We’ve got tons more tips where that came from – in fact, we have a whole post about things to do in Paso Robles. Take a look:
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.
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.
Where to Stay in Paso Robles
We’ve stayed in a few places during our many trips to Paso Robles, and we highly recommend either staying within walking distance to town, or staying near (or on) the picturesque vineyards that Paso Robles is known for! Here are our picks for either option.
Stay Near Farms & Vineyards
There are tons of unique vacation rentals in Paso Robles, offering one-of-a-kind experiences like waking up on a vineyard or in an olive grove! That said, we recommend booking directly through VRBO or Plum Guides because they have fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record, poor customer service and lax security.
Here are our favorite vacation rentals in Paso Robles:
- On the outskirts of Paso Robles is the gorgeous Olive House set in the middle of a working olive farm! The olive oil orchard is located in Paso Robles’ wine country on a high ridge, with sweeping views of a picturesque valley filled with rolling hills, olive trees, ranches and vineyards. Sit on the arched outdoor terrace sipping wine from a local winery and dipping fresh-baked bread into award-winning olive oil while watching the sun set over the orchard and vineyards!
- Stay directly on the Adelaida Road Wine Trail in this jaw-dropping rustic lodge, originally designed and constructed by the set designer of Little House on the Prairie. This beautiful cabin spent half a century as a working cattle ranch before a local purchased it and turned it into one of the best vacation rentals in Paso Robles we’ve seen! Curl up next to the huge stone fireplace and live your best rural life surrounded by vineyards.
Stay Near Town
Staying within walking distance to Paso Robles’ central plaza means you’ll also be walking distance from coffee, incredible food, and the many tasting rooms located around the square! There’s nothing better than walking around exploring Paso’s charming boutiques and tasting rooms before stumbling home, safe and sound.
Here’s where to stay near town:
- Paso Robles Inn is located in the center of downtown Paso Robles, just off the central plaza and around the corner from our favorite coffee shop in town, Spearhead Coffee. It’s the perfect starting point to walk to the best restaurants & tasting rooms in Paso Robles! Your winery-themed room also comes complete with its very own mineral hot springs, fed into a jacuzzi tub on your own private balcony. And, yes, it is as romantic as it sounds. And if your own in-room mineral hot spring wasn’t enough, head through the gardens to take a dip in the heated pool.
- This Spanish-style bungalow is walking distance to downtown and comes with 3 bedrooms. I’m digging the exposed beam ceilings and wood-burning fireplace, as well as the outdoor patio, BBQ and fire pit! This is a perfect centrally-located spot for a small group. We recommend booking directly through TurnKey to get the best deal!
Want more suggestions? We dug through hundreds of options to round up 7 of the best Vacation Rentals in Paso Robles (for both couples and groups)!
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 necessarily 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 its 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!
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 things 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!
- 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.
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.
- 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!
Where to Stay in Pismo Beach
We love staying at the luxurious The Cliffs Hotel & Spa. It’s a bit of the splurge, but for those views and the private beach access, it’s worth it! For a vacation rental option, this cute budget-friendly beach flat is just a 6-minute walk to the beach.
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.
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!
- 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.
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.
Where to Stay in Los Osos
Sticking with VRBOs in Los Osos you can find a real variety of places to choose from. We really love this Exquisite Cottage, it is super adorable and has its own private garden so you can live your Secret Garden fantasy. It’s also just a block and a half walk to the bay!
Cambria & San Simeon: Essential Highway 1 Stops in the Central Coast
If you’re traveling 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.
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!
- 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. We recommend taking a guided tour like this one to learn about the story behind this ridiculous, gawdy mansion – and its creator, William Randolph Hearst, about whom the movie Citizen Kane is based – and to hear some of the fabulous stories about the celebrities and glamorous types that visited here.
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).
- Head to Covell’s California Clydesdale’s Ranch, the only place in the country where you can ride giant Clydesdale horses! These gentle giants are seriously massive. Like, the size of small buses. But they’re also totally tame. Sitting 6 feet up in the air on your truck-sized horse, you’ll have sweeping views of the ranch and the hills. This is a wonderful and unique way to spend an afternoon in Cambria!
- Grab a bite to eat at Robin’s Restaurant, a “global cuisine” staple owned by the same people who own NOVO in San Luis Obispo.
- 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!
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.
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. (After our surfing disaster, 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.
For more adorable and cute things to do in Cayucos, check out our guide of things to do in Cayucos or click on the button below. Go on, you know you want to!
Planning a Highway One road trip? We’ve created a detailed 10-day California Coast road trip itinerary to help you plan! Enter your email below and we’ll send you a printable version, plus tips to plan your trip.
I hope you’re feeling good and inspired to rent a car, hop on the Pacific Coast Highway, and check out the Central Coast in California! Psst: We have a bunch of other posts about traveling in California! Take a look:
- The Ultimate 10-Day California Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Itinerary
- The 32 Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops
- 12 Adorable Things to do in Morro Bay, California: A Local’s Guide
- 12 Charming Things to Do in Cayucos, California
- The Booze & Food Guide to Paso Robles, California
Which place in the Central Coast are you most excited to visit? Leave us a comment below!
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Disclaimer: Part of our trip to the Central Coast was sponsored by Travel Paso and we were generously lent a car from Toyota for our road trip. All opinions, bad jokes, sassy remarks, and Captain America spoilers are entirely our own responsibility and totally not their fault.
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I grew up in SLO County and host an annual wine/beer/food trip in the area with a dozen or so friends. I always point them to this article as THE go-to guide for what to see/do/eat/drink in the area. This is the authoritative source, as far as I’m concerned!
I knew I could trust you when I read your coffee recommendations for SLO (Scout’s probably my favorite overall) and Paso (Spearhead is a classic!). Next time you’re in the area, might want to try a couple more and consider adding them to your list:
Coastal Peaks (third-wave coffee hiding in a second-wave “third space”)
Kreuzberg (beautiful shop in a historic building right on Higuera with good third-wave roasts)
Active (haven’t been myself, but the photos on Google look pretty legit third-wave)
Heading back “home” there in December and can’t wait!
Lia Garcia says
Thanks so much for the suggestions, and for the kind words, Chris!
Pamela Hayes says
Just spent a few days in Grover Beach, another really cool central coast city! Not a lot to do here, but the beach is awesome! You can actually drive your car, bring your dog and ride horses right on this super clean beach. The Rib Line, which was on Man VS Food, just opened and is delicious. Red Bee Coffee also a great place for caffeine and “super bite” muffins.
Lia Garcia says
That sounds awesome, thanks for the tip!
Alexandra D says
Y’all. Okay. This is a good post. But ALSO I checked out the Playlist, and while you have “Scar Tissue” by RHCP, you are missing “Road Trippin”, which is, IMO, the quintessential Highway 1 song.
Especially for a road trip, but it is also great for a shorter segment of the trip. I have listened to it many times between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.
Lia Garcia says
Dang, that’s a good callout.
I thoroughly enjoy your writing style. Thanks to you both! I usually don’t read that much content in one sitting. I want to take a first timer to get on that huge horse but it may be too intimidating right away.
The poor horse looks like he is ready to collapse with all that weight on his back.
Lia Garcia says
Sir, that’s a Clydesdale. They can carry up to 350 pounds and pull up to 8,000 pounds. I’d love to think you are just really concerned about the wellbeing of the horse, but it seems more likely that you’re just trying to point out the fact that I’m fat. Trust, both the horse and I are just fine.
Devin Gorgea says
Last Year I visited CA with my office mates because of some office work so we don’t have to much time to admire the beauty of CA, but thanks to god that we are going back again at the end of this month with our family for a week, so I was looking for a blog where I can get the best things to do there thanks for recommendations ! loved it.
Hi guys, would love to read this page but there seems to be a page error and it cuts off right after the table of contents. Spending a week driving between San Francisco, Yosemite and the central coast so would love to check out your insider tips!!
Lia Garcia says
Wow, thank you for letting me know! We’ve fixed this and the whole post should be showing now.
Yep, working now thanks! I’ve been reading Disney, Yosemite, San Francisco pages in the meantime. Love your work.
Enjoyed your tips on Central Coast! How long is the drive from Paso Robles to the LA airport on a Saturday morning? Trying to plan! Thanks!
Lia Garcia says
I’d say give yourself 4-5 hours minimum, 6 to be safe because you never know how LA traffic is going to be!
Such a great, thorough guide to this region! We’ve only explored a bit of it but would definitely love to go back and do a longer road trip through the Central Coast. I think I need to go to Cambria just to eat that pie!! omg……I’ve never heard of ollallieberries but I think I need to try them!! They sound delicious.
Lia Garcia says
They’re so good! I’d never heard of them before I visited Cambria, either.
Alexandra D says
Watsonville, in Southern Santa Cruz County, has Ollalieberry pie, too!
It’s just 90-100 minutes south of sf without traffic. Check out https://www.gizdich-ranch.com/pie-shop-deli (All of their pies are excellent!)
You can find ollalieberry pie in Berkeley too, at FatApples.
Lia Garcia says
No kidding!! OMG, we’re going to go this weekend then – thanks for the tip!!
Dang, I need to get myself to California! Morro Bay looks pretty, but I feel like Cayucos is probably more my speed!
Lia Garcia says
Luckily, they’re neighbors 🙂 We spend a lot of time in Morro Bay, but we’re actually planning a trip to Cayucos next month! We’ll have a whole post up about it soon, stay tuned!
My 12-year old son has a hockey tourney in LA, so we’re taking some extra time driving from Colorado via old Route 66 kitchiness, before settling in Pismo Beach for four days! Your information was very very helpful. Can’t wait to have some Central Cost fun! Thanks!!!
Lia Garcia says
Oh how fun!! That sounds like a great family trip 🙂 Have fun, Tony!
Thank you for such an informative post, we are from South Africa and have been to SF many times for work, next week we are back again and we are heading out of town for 3 days to explore more. I have noted Morro Bay and Pismo Beach as places we are going to get to and base ourselves around.
Barbara Radisalvjeivc says
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.
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!
It’s a very sore point for Jeremy! Cambria is sooo cute. I hope you had some olallieberry pie!
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!
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 🙂
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.
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!
Emily Alice Bloor says
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 🙂
Practical Wanderlust (@practicalwander) says
Thanks Emily! Definitely visit as many of these adorable Central Coast destinations as you can next time you visit California!
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!
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.
Tanmaya Godbole says
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!
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.
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.
Yessss definitely!! It’s gorgeous in Feb/March after the rains have made everything turn bright green.
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 🙂
Heh, the puns are all Jeremy’s creation! He’ll appreciate that you liked them 🙂
Lisa Michele Burns says
Wow what a guide! I love the look of Pismo Beach, definitely somewhere I’ll stop and photograph 🙂
It’s certainly photogenic. Particularly at sunset, as you can see!
In Between Pictures says
I love California! I have always wanted to do a road-trip and this was so helpful!
I’m glad to hear that! California is the best state for Road Trips!
Blank Canvas Voyagee says
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
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!
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 🙂
Thanks Bri! I’m usually a NorCal girl myself but I think we can all can agree that the Central Coast is amazing!
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!
Thanks Char! We just left a few days ago and I already miss it 🙁
California Globetrotter says
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
This would be perfect!
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!
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!
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!