Southern California and Northern California often get the bulk of the attention of travelers, but there’s a coastal region in the middle worth spending some time in too. This is more than just a “flyover region” between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in fact, some of the most stunning areas of natural beauty can be found along the Central Coast. Whether you love to explore small towns, coastal cities, rugged wilderness, or the rolling hills of vineyards, here are some of our favorite sites to see along California’s Central Coast!
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Point Sur State Historic Park, Big Sur (Nearby Hotels)
The Point Sur Lightstation is a historic landmark that was first lit in 1889, and the lighthouse has been continuously operating ever since. You can reach this state historic park by driving about 19 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1. But something that really sets this park apart from other state parks in California is that it is only accessible by guided tour. This helps to cut down on the crowds, if you’re looking for a truly unique Central Coast experience. Contact the park to sign up for a three-hour walking tour of the facility on weekends throughout the year and seasonally on Wednesdays too. It is advised to arrive on the west side of Highway 1 at the locked gate and a quarter-mile north of the Point Sur Naval facility, and tour space is limited. Overall, Big Sur is a perfect destination for cliffside campgrounds and romantic B&Bs. You can do everything from spend time at the beach to go on a forest hike and take a scenic drive here.
Hearst Castle, San Simeon (Nearby Hotels)
Hearst Castle is more than just a home or a museum. You can take a tour here to feel like you were a guest of the famous William Randolph Hearst and see ancient works of art with many treasures and opulent rooms. The castle’s history dates back to 1865, when George Hearst purchased 40,000 acres here. It has around 165 rooms and 123 acres of gardens, pools, walkways, and terraces. Many different tour options are available, with most adult tour tickets costing $25 each. There’s a five-story screen theater here that shows a film about the castle, and advance reservations are strongly recommended.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Santa Cruz (Nearby Hotels)
There’s no better way to enjoy a warm, relaxing day than at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. There is no admission fee to enter the boardwalk, which is packed with rides, free entertainment, an arcade, mini-golf, food, shops, and more. There are fees to ride the amusement park rides here, however, but the boardwalk makes an incredibly fun day out for families on the Central Coast. In addition to modern thrill rides, also featured here are the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and the 1911 carousel. The boardwalk is typically open between late-May and late-August.
Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey (Nearby Hotels)
Located on the edge of Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a fun place to visit for anyone and everyone. Unique and colorful fish, crustaceans, and reptiles live here, and the nonprofit aquarium is also committed to ocean conservation. Daily shows and feedings take place for animals like penguins and sea otters, and special exhibits can be viewed in addition to the regular features. Adult general admission is $49.95, and general admission for kids ages three to 12 is $29.95. The aquarium is typically open to the general public from 9:30am to 8pm.
Shell Beach, Pismo Beach (Nearby Hotels)
There are lots of beaches in this region, but few are prettier or more stunning than Shell Beach. This is where some awesome rock formations known as the Dinosaur Caves are located. And it’s also a perfect spot to launch your stand-up paddleboard. Guided kayak tours of the sea caves are also offered nearby. The quaint beach towns that surround the beach aren’t plagued with stress and traffic, but rather local art performances and some great restaurants.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon (Nearby Hotels)
Head a few miles north on Highway 1 from San Simeon and you’ll reach the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. This is run by a nonprofit organization that wants to educate visitors about these incredible animals and how to protect our coastal regions. Northern elephant seals spend eight to 10 months of the year out in the ocean diving thousands of feet down and migrating for thousands of miles. This local attraction spans about six miles of shoreline and is close to Hearst Castle. Viewing areas are open daily with no fees or reservations needed.
Historic Cannery Row, Monterey (Nearby Hotels)
This region of California has deep historic significance to Native American, Asian, and European cultures. It was established as a fishing area and has transformed into an exciting retail and dining area today. The revered literary novelist, John Steinbeck, was born nearby and wrote extensively about the area. Today, you should come here to enjoy a meal with a view and sample local wines. While in the Monterey area, also make a visit to the romantic and upscale town of Carmel. It’s fun to spend a day here browsing boutique shops and art galleries, grabbing an ice cream cone, and watching windsurfers do their thing while you have a picnic on the beach.
Sand Dunes, Oceano (Nearby Hotels)
One of the most unique parts of the Central Coast is the sand dunes around Oceano. Take a walk through these dunes and you’ll feel like you’re in an entirely different part of the world…or maybe even on another planet! The dunes lead out to the beach, and you can even bring your dog along to play in the sand. Some local shops and campgrounds rent out sandboards to ride down the dunes for a fun day out in the sun. The Pacific Dunes Ranch RV resort is pretty cramped as far as campsites go, but its right next to the dunes and also stables to go horseback riding through the forest and along the beach. San Luis Obispo isn’t far away and much more than just a college town. Downtown SLO is oh-so-walkable and packed with every type of restaurant, shop, and coffeeshop you could hope for.