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Located between two of California’s biggest cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Central California Coast is known for its more laid-back vibe with charming beach towns, abundant marine life, wine country, outstanding cuisine, and more. It stretches south from Monterey Bay to the Santa Barbara/Ventura region, with San Luis Obispo County at its heart. As there is such a long list of things to see and do, this article generally focuses around that area, including the towns of SLO, Morro Bay, Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, and Paso Robles, though we’ve included some options farther north and south.
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What Is It?: Some of the best whale watching in California can be enjoyed just minutes from downtown San Luis Obispo. There are three whale species frequently seen from the boat of a deck or along the San Luis Obispo County shoreline: humpback whales, blue whales, and gray whales. While orcas aren’t commonly spotted, they make occasional appearances too.
Why Do It?: Close encounters with whales in the wild can be a life changing experience – infinitely better than watching them in a small tank. Depending on the type of whale, you might be able to see them lunge feeding, breaching, tail slapping, and more, all year-round.
Good to Know: Watch from shore in Morro Bay, Shell Beach, Avila Beach, or Pismo Beach. Or, for a better opportunity, join a whale watching tour. The humpback pictured here put on quite the performance for passengers who went out with Sub Sea Tours from Morro Bay.
What Is It?: The Avila Valley Barn is a must-visit for families, although locals and visitors of all ages enjoy visiting with the chance to get up close to farm animals, buy fresh produce and much more. There are goats, pigs, donkeys, cows, and all sorts of chickens, like this Polish Crested bird with its comical crest of feathers that give it kind of a punk rock look.
Why Do It?: You can feed the animals and take advantage of many Instagrammable photo-ops as well as purchase famously delicious pies, local fruits and veggies, honeys, jams, and much more.
Good to Know: The Avila Valley Barn is open year-round from 9 am to 6 pm. It also offers “u-pick” cherries, berries and stone fruits from May through October, and apples and pumpkins in the fall.
What Is It?:San Luis Obispo is famous for the Nine Sisters, a spectacular string of volcanic peaks that stretch from Morro Bay across San Luis Obispo. Bishop Peak is the tallest at 1,559 feet, with two routes to reach the top.
Why Do It?: A must-do hike for any hiking enthusiast, from the crown-shaped peak you’ll get a jaw-dropping view of the rolling hills and the town of San Luis Obispo.
Good to Know: The 3.5-mile hike can be accessed at Brittany Circle, or take the 4.2-mile trek from Patricia Drive. It’s a moderately difficult hike with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain following dirt and rock trails, so you’ll want to wear your hiking boots. The most stunning view can be enjoyed at sunset.
What Is It?: Founded in 1772, San Luis Obispo Mission was the fifth Spanish mission built in the state, located in Mission Plaza right in downtown SLO.
Why Do It?: The mission includes a museum that displays artifacts from various periods in its history, providing an interesting look into the region’s past.
Good to Know: The mission is open daily and free to enter. You might want to stroll the grounds as well, with beautiful gardens that include roses, succulents, and other plants. There’s also a gift shop on-site.
What Is It?: A resort hosting one of the most well-known golf courses in the region, located just south of San Luis Obispo and northwest of Pismo Beach.
Why Do It?: Tucked into the hills at the edge of the bay, you’ll be able to play a very scenic round on the par-72, 6,500-yard championship course.
Good to Know: Practice facilities are offered that include a driving range with grass teeing areas open from dawn to dusk. There’s also a bar serving sandwiches and other light bites.
What Is It?: Known as the “Wild West of America’s wine regions,” Paso Robles is home to over 200 wineries and 26,000 acres of picturesque vineyards.
Why Do It?: Wine enthusiasts can look forward to numerous opportunities for tasting and touring, including sampling some of the very best Rhône-style vintages in California.
Good to Know: The area also hosts numerous restaurants, serving a diverse array of cuisine, including contemporary wine country fare.
What Is It?: A Mediterranean Revival-style mansion that’s one of America’s few true castles. Perched on a hilltop just above Highway 1 along the coast, it was built as a home for publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and took over 30 years to construct.
Why Do It?: It’s renowned for its extraordinary opulence, including a wealth of international antiquities that Hearst acquired largely through Sotheby’s auction house, and highlights like the magnificent Neptune Pool.
Good to Know: The property is part of the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, open for public tours. There are many different tour options, such as “Designing the Dream” and the “Art of San Simeon.”
What Is It?: Solvang was founded by Danish-Americans in 1911 and today it’s like walking through a town in Denmark that was dropped on California’s coast. It comes complete with Danish-style architecture, half-timbered homes, replicated windmills, and even a statue of “The Little Mermaid.”
Why Do It?: To get a taste of Danish culture without taking a long-haul flight. Enjoy strolling the streets while admiring the old-world European architecture, browsing the 150 or so boutiques and shops, many of which sell Danish items, and indulging in delicious Danish pastries.
Good to Know: Don’t miss the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art if you want to learn more about Danish history. Or learn about the life of the Danish author best-known for his beloved fairy tales at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.
What Is It?: Morro Bay is home to abundant marine life that includes an active sea otter population that inhabit the waters here year-round. Sea lions, seals, and smaller creatures like starfish can all be seen too.
Why Do It?: If you want to view sea otters up close, as they tend to stay near the shore, Morro Bay is one of the best places for safe viewing opportunities.
Good to Know: Some of the top spots for sea otter watching in Morro Bay are along the Harbor Walk and near South T-Pier. You can see pups between October and January, and again in March and April.
What Is It?: There are multiple opportunities for kayaking and paddleboarding along California’s Central Coast, with both rentals and guided tours available.
Why Do It?: Paddling is a fun and active way to explore the area and enjoy the opportunity to get closer to wildlife like sea lions, sea otters, pelicans, and more.
Good to Know: Avila Beach and Morro Bay are two of the best spots to paddle. Sub Sea Tours also rents kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes for paddling the National Estuary of Morro Bay.
What Is It?: There are many places throughout the Central California Coast to shop, including downtown San Luis Obispo, but Morro Bay may offer one of the most charming areas for giving your wallet a workout.
Why Do It?: Right along the waterfront there are all sorts of unique locally owned boutiques to browse or buy, and throughout the three different shopping districts there are plenty of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered in thrift stores and antique shops.
Good to Know: Morro Bay is also a great place for waterfront dining.
What Is It?: San Luis Obispo hosts a farmers’ market downtown every Thursday evening.
Why Do It?: It’s a great place to immerse yourself in the local vibe while enjoying tasty eats from the food trucks, picking up fresh produce, and taking in live entertainment.
Good to Know: This popular weekly event runs from 6 pm to 9 pm all year long, weather permitting.
What Is It?: The Oceano Dunes, also known as the Pismo Beach Sand Dunes, is just a few minutes south of Pismo Beach. An official Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation area, it’s popular for riding dune buggies and other ATVs.
Why Do It?: Riding across the dunes in a vehicle designed for the sand provides a thrilling adrenaline rush. Buggies were made to race up and down the dunes at high but safe speeds, providing an exciting off-roading experience enjoyed while taking in the beauty of the area. Plus while you’re here you can take advantage of the opportunity to swim, surf, and hike.
What Is It?: The Sunset Drive-In Theater is one of only a few remaining drive-in theaters in the entire state of California that still offers the chance to watch a film from the comfort of your vehicle.
Why Do It?: To enjoy an evening of fun that evokes the nostalgia of times past.
Good To Know: There are two shows nightly, seven days a week. Drinks, popcorn and other snacks are available for sale, but you can always bring your own. Look for the bright neon sign if you’re arriving after dark.