16 Things to Do in Central California Coast | by a Local

Big sur, california road

Let me introduce you to the Central Coast California, where sun-soaked vistas, rolling hills, and exciting adventures await you! In this article, I’ll be your local guide to the must-see and must-do experiences that’ll make your Central Coast trip uniquely memorable.

Whether you’re a wine lover, a beach bum, or an outdoor adventurer, you will find incredible things to do in Central Coast California. 🏄

Let’s start this trip already!

Quick Picks for Your Stay

When you arrive in the Central Coast region, you’ll have plenty to do, and I doubt you want to add “booking reservations” to that list. Do yourself a favor and book your hotels and activities in advance:

Since this region of California consists of many different areas, I plan to dish out the best luxury, mid-range, and budget hotel options in each county.

If you’re more interested in an extensive list of where to stay in CA  or, better yet, unique places to stay, you can read more here.

Getting around the Central Coast is simple but spread out. I’ve included a map below to make getting around a bit easier! 🗺️

Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County is one of the most scenic regions in all of California! I’m here to break down the best of the best, so come along as we explore the charming towns of Santa Barbara County.

1. Check out the Danish-inspired town of Solvang

a row of houses with a windmill in the background

Oh my goodness, this little European mini-town, erected in 1911, is exactly what everyone needs in their lives!

You can’t help but smile when you enter and see this town’s beautiful windmills, colorful Danish facades, and the aroma of yummy Danish bakeries wafting through the air!

One of the area’s popular tourist attractions, this little town is part of the stunning Santa Ynez Valley. It’s only a 90-minute drive from Los Angeles and is known best for its green rolling hills and delicious wine!

Don’t miss the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, housed in an 18th-century Danish Farmhouse, unveiling tons of Scandinavian treasures.

PRICE: FREE, donations accepted

2. Go back in time to Los Alamos

an old western building

Let’s talk about the cutest little town that ever was – Los Alamos!

This adorable, quirky Wild-West town is the perfect backdrop for some delicious wine tasting. You’re going to love the historic downtown that spans half a dozen blocks of cute shops, art galleries, and delicious eateries.

Los Alamos has become known for its gastro-scene – savor some delectable farm-to-table cuisine, indulge in the artisanal chocolates, or sip on locally crafted wines.

Feeling extra fancy? Try the Michelin-starred Bell.

3. Take in the beauty of Los Olivos

buildings in a town

Another jaw-dropping gem on the Central Coast is Los Olivos, known best for its rolling hills and picturesque vineyards.

In the heart of Santa Ynez Valley, Los Olivos has a quaint downtown area with great shops & art galleries.

Don’t miss the opportunity to sip and savor some of the best wines in the world at Demetria Estate Winery or grab a bite to eat at the famous Nella.

4. Spend the day in Santa Ynez

horses on a meadow

There is so much to do in Santa Ynez, from horseback riding and hot air balloons to hiking and wine tasting!

Find yourself surrounded by rolling vineyards and framed by the beautiful Santa Ynez Mountains – it’s an idyllic destination for wine lovers and outdoor junkies.

Santa Ynez is known best for its wine, and of all the activities you can choose from, I’d highly recommend this spectacular wine experience. You’ll enjoy admission to 3 wineries in the valley, a private shuttle service, and a wonderful guided adventure!

If you’re into history, check out the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum & Parks-Janeway Carriage House, with a huge collection of old-school horse carriages.

WINE TOUR PRICE: from US$215 per adult

Join the wine tour

5. Check out the movie credits in Buellton

a motel in a town

Known as the town Sideways was filmed in, Buellton honored the motel in the film by renaming it ‘Sideways Inn.’

Buellton is so beautiful, and it’s spilling over with charm, culture, history, warm hospitality, and stunning natural surroundings make it the perfect stopover.

Moreover, Buellton is a renowned hub for craft beer as well and has great food. It’s an eclectic mix of breweries and restaurants. The town’s claim to fame, the world-famous Andersen’s Split Pea Soup restaurant’s famous split pea soup, is totally worth a stop! Don’t forget your selfie with the giant soup can out front! 🤣

6. Enjoy the serenity of Ballard

an old horse carriage

Definitely worth a mention when talking about this central region of California, Ballard is a tiny, historic town that has an aura of old-world charm.

With gorgeous tree-lined streets, vintage buildings, and a peaceful atmosphere, it’s a place that feels like you’ve stepped back in time.

Don’t miss the historic little red schoolhouse and church, both dating back to the late 1800s!

Where to stay in Santa Barbara County

You have great options in Santa Barbara for your hotel accommodations! See below for my top choices for every budget, with prices ranging from US$150 to US$450 and above for 2 adults/night.

For the full rundown of where to stay, read our complete guide to Santa Barbara areas & hotels.

Collage of three hotel photos: outdoor pool, bedroom, and living room with fireplace

Luxury (US$350 and up): Harbor View Inn – this luxury option is in a fabulous location, just a 5-minute walk from Stearns’ Wharf, and equipped with a gorgeous outdoor swimming pool and hot tub area.

Mid-Range (US$200 – US$350): Cheshire Cat Inn & Cottages – I love this bed & breakfast mid-range option for its beautiful rooms, comfortable bathroom suites, and stunning, picturesque grounds.

Budget (up to US$200): Coast Village Inn – a heated outdoor swimming pool awaits you at this charming budget option, only a 10-minute drive from Stearns’ Wharf. You’ll love the comfy beds and inviting pool deck.

San Luis Obispo County

San Luis Obispo is more than just a pretty college town, and I’m here to break down all the best things to do in SLO County!

1. Get ready for fun in Pismo Beach

A sign that says pesmo beach in front of palm trees.

How can you not love Pismo Beach?!

Tucked on the coast of San Luis Obispo County, Pismo Beach is a quintessential California beach town with pristine sandy shores and a relaxed, surf-town vibe.

Pismo Beach, not far from the Santa Maria Valley, is the ultimate destination for sun, sea, and surf, and the best way to get acclimated to the area is to try out some surf lessons yourself!

It offers scenic drives through the iconic Highway 1, presenting breathtaking sunsets over the Pacific from Pismo Beach.

Stroll down Pismo Pier, try some clam digging, or embark on an exhilarating ATV adventure on the Oceano Dunes.

Pismo Beach is also a dynamite spot for wine tasting and fine dining. Try Michelin-starred and local favorite Ember for an out-of-this-world dining experience.

SURF LESSON PRICE: from US$80 per person

Book your surfing lesson

2. Enjoy the incredible views from San Luis Obispo

a group of people on a beach next to a pier with houses and hill in the background

San Luis Obispo (SLO as locals refer to it) is an absolutely gorgeous town in the heart of Central Coast, showing off brilliant historic Spanish architecture.

The town showcases historic Spanish missions, such as Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Check out Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, lending a sense of timeless beauty to the town’s landscape.

The town’s historic downtown is filled with unique boutiques, farm-to-table dining, and charming streets.

SLO is also home to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), which gives the town a sort of hip, college-town energy, not to mention wonderful cultural diversity.

If you have the time, you have to visit Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Hearst Castle was home to famed newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and has since been turned into a popular tourist attraction in San Simeon.

Just outside of SLO, there are many wine regions waiting for you – all with exceptional vineyard choices.

3. Do some wildlife spotting at Morro Bay State Park

aerial view of a rock surrounded by water

Along the beautiful coastline that fronts the Pacific Coast Highway, Morro Bay is an adorable fishing village with distinctive, charming appeal.

Don’t miss the iconic Morro Rock landmark, a beautiful rock formation jutting out from the sea.

Morro Rock and its surroundings are a paradise for birdwatching and nature lovers, with an array of birds, otters, and seals that call the bay home.

One of the best parts of Morro Bay, the town’s Embarcadero, is lined with seafood restaurants serving the most delicious seafood you’ll ever eat!

4. Sip the best wines at Paso Robles

a vineyard with vines in the foreground and a colorful sky in the background

If you’re a lover of Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ve probably heard of Paso Robles!

The exceptional wine here is complimented by the region’s rolling vineyards, historic downtown, and a warm, welcoming community,

Paso Robles Wine Country, approximately 3 hour’s drive from San Francisco, is filled with more than 200 wineries and vineyards.

Your trip will be complete if your itinerary features exceptional wine-tasting experiences in Paso Robles Wine Country!

My favorite, JUSTIN Vineyards, is an absolute must-stop. Better yet, join this awesome wine tour and let someone else do the driving!

TOUR PRICE: US$115 per adult

Join the wine tour

Where to stay in San Luis Obispo

There are beautiful options in San Luis Obispo for every budget. See below for my top hotel choices, with prices ranging from US$100 to US$450 and above for 2 adults/night.

Collage of three hotel photos: bedroom, outdoor seating area, and an armchair

Luxury (US$350 and up): Hotel Cerro – swanky, sleek, and modern, this luxury hotel oozes class and refinement. Enjoy the on-site bar and restaurant and the fantastic fitness center.

Mid-Range (US$200 – US$300): Granada Hotel & Bistro – charming, convenient, and inviting, this mid-range option is the perfect choice within a few minutes walk of all the shops and restaurants in SLO.

Budget (up to US$200): San Luis Creek Lodge – you’ll love this luxury option, with gorgeous modern decor, in-room fireplaces, and free Wi-Fi throughout.

Monterey County

Monterey County is brimming with awesome attractions and hidden gems. I’m here to be your expert guide to the fabulous places you won’t want to miss.

1. Take in the atmosphere at Carmel-by-the-Sea

A man sitting on a bench and a woman walking her dog on a sidewalk in front of a house.

It’s hard to find a place more picturesque than California’s Central Coast city of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Located along the Monterey Peninsula and Pacific Coast Highway, it feels like a storybook village with incredible beauty and an artistic soul.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its fairy-like architecture, amazing art galleries, and peaceful, beachy atmosphere. You’ll love the exquisite beaches, secret courtyards, and cheerful art spread throughout the town.

I love strolling along the streets here and looking at all the perfect little cottages with stunning Pacific Ocean views, but you can also take a guided food & culture tour that will take you not only around the unmissable attractions but also fill your tummy!

Check out the downtown area with boutique shops, cozy cafés, and gourmet restaurants, perfect for leisurely shopping and dining.

Visit the Carmel Mission Basilica to see incredible architecture and enjoy the lush gardens.

If you want to save time and add a little more adventure to your day, try these cool eBike rentals to explore the city on 2 wheels, and if you’re curious to learn what else Carmel offers, read this guide.

TOUR PRICE: from US$140 per person

Join the food & culture tour

2. Spot whales in Monterey

a humpback whale jumps out of the water

Monterey is one of those towns that looks like California looks in all the movies!

Perched high above Monterey Bay, California’s coast town of Monterey is super popular for whale watching. If you’ve never been whalewatching before, it’s one of the most exhilarating things you can do to get up close to a gigantic whale! 🐳

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is home to a diverse range of marine animals, including majestic humpbacks and gray whales.

Don’t miss one of my favorite spots in Monterey, Cannery Row, the waterfront district with shops, restaurants, and the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

You’ll love the charming Old Fisherman’s Wharf with smells of fresh seafood and amazing panoramic bay views.

TOUR PRICE: from US$70 per person

Go whale watching in Monterey

3. Discover the beauty of Pacific Grove

view of a town by the beach

Located on California’s Monterey Peninsula, Pacific Grove is a laid back coastal town that captures the essence of seaside charm and natural beauty.

This idyllic town has a gorgeous shoreline, coastal trails, and a wealth of marine life.

With its dramatic vistas, Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary, and peaceful vibes, Pacific Grove is the perfect coastal town.

Don’t miss Asilomar State Beach, great for beachcombing and sunset, or play in the shallow tide pools.

4. Slow down your pace in Carmel Valley

view of a meadow with wildflowers

Carmel Valley is just one of those places that conjures an image of wildflowers, rolling fields, and stunning world-class vineyards.

Set inland from Monterey, Carmel Valley is a hidden oasis with rustic charm and wine country awards, renowned for its vineyards and natural beauty. You can indulge in wine-tasting rooms, savoring exceptional local wines while enjoying the stunning views of the valley.

The area’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soil help put Carmel Valley on the map and win the town its recognition as a wine leader.

The nearby Garland Ranch Regional Park offers hiking trails through lush canyons or Pinnacles National Park, renowned for its rugged rock formations and captivating hiking trails. It invites explorations of unique landscapes at Pinnacles National Park and is a great way to spend the day.

Where to stay in Monterey

Great accommodations await you in Monterey. Check below for my top choices for every budget, with prices ranging from US$100 to US$450 and above for 2 adults/night.

If you don’t like any of these, check out this guide on the best areas & hotels in Monterey.

Collage of three hotel photos: armchairs in front of a fireplace, bedroom, and hotel exterior

Luxury (US$450 and up): InterContinental, The Clement Monterey – right on Monterey’s historic Cannery Row, you’ll love the location of this luxury gem. Pacific Ocean views, incredible food, and beautiful suites are only some of the perks here.

Mid-Range (US$200 – US$400): Spindrift Inn – located directly on the beach, this mid-range option is brimming with charm and appeal. The rooms are perfectly decorated, the beds super comfy, and the access to the sand unbeatable!

Budget (up to US$150): Wave Street Inn – located close to the Monterey Aquarium, this hotel has free Wi-Fi, clean rooms, and in-suite refrigerators. Take advantage of their on-site concierge for directions and suggestions.

Ventura County

Here’s my list of top things and towns to visit in Ventura County:

1. Immerse in the California lifestyle in Ventura

aerial view of a town on the beach

Ventura is a laid-back beach town celebrated for its pristine beaches, vibrant arts scene, and welcoming community. You’ll love the upbeat downtown area in Ventura, great people-watching, and casual beach vibes.

Ventura’s coastline draws in surfers from all over the world – they love to flock to Rincon Point, known for its world-class waves.

The Ventura Pier and Promenade have killer ocean views and yummy cafés, so you can spend the whole day here watching the waves.

If you’re dying to get on a hike, check out Los Padres National Forest for amazing nature and trail opportunities.

2. Relax all day in Ojai

aerial view of a valley

I. Love. Ojai. 🥰

Tucked away in the picturesque Ojai Valley, Ojai has a look, feel, and creative energy all its own.

This charming town, nestled amidst the Topa Topa Mountains, is known best for its natural beauty, spiritual retreats, and artistic community. You’ll love the vibrant arts scene, rejuvenating spas, and a backdrop of majestic mountains!

Jump on the Ojai Valley Trail or explore Matilija Canyon, a hidden gem known for its breathtaking waterfalls and lush scenery.

Ojai’s downtown area is so cute! Boutique shops, cozy cafés, and art galleries line the streets and the overall theme is ‘wellness’.

Where to stay in Ventura County

Ventura has really great hotels to choose from. Below are my top choices for every budget, with prices ranging from US$100 to US$450 and above for 2 adults/night.

Collage of three hotel photos: hotel exterior, bedroom, and outdoor pool

Luxury (US$450 and up): Ojai Valley Inn – say hello to the most gorgeous resort spa you’ve ever seen! This hotel has an incredible spa, wellness activities, a stunning pool, and on-site yoga.

Mid-Range (US$200 – US$400): Ojai Rancho Inn – within walking distance to the Ojai Valley Trailhead, this charming property has an inviting jacuzzi, large rooms, and wellness-based activities.

Budget (up to US$150): The Capri Hotel – located near a beautiful golf course, this Ojai hotel is perfect for the budget traveler. It has a crystal-clear swimming pool, lush grounds, and clean rooms.

🏛️ Best museum:Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum
🍷 Top paid attraction:Santa Ynez Valley wine tour
🌳 Best free attraction:Moro Bay State Park
🍲 Best restaurant:Bell

FAQs about things to do in Central Coast California

aerial view of mountains by the ocean

🌴 What cities are considered the Central Coast of California?

Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey Bay are the 4 regions that make up the Central Coast.

🍷 What are fun things to do on the Central Coast?

The most fun things to do in Central Coast are wine tasting in Santa Ynez Valley, whale-watching in Monterey Bay, and taking surf lessons in Pismo Beach.

♥️ What is Central Coast California known for?

The Central Coast is known for amazing vineyards, gorgeous state parks, and pristine beaches.

😎 When is the best time to visit the Central Coast of California?

Every season is a great season on the California coast, but for Central Coast prime weather is in spring & fall.

Conclusion

a vineyard with mountains in the background

The Central Coast California has so much to offer, from phenomenal wine-tasting experiences to breathtaking hiking, to exhilarating activities – it’s hard to get bored here.

If your trip is fast approaching, let me take a moment to remind you to book in advance for your top attractions and hotels!

Every last detail – you know I want to hear it! Comment below with all your best travel stories.

Aloha & safe travels,

Hayden G.


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