The Central Coast of California is an often underrated destination with sunny weather, great hiking, and beautiful uncrowded beaches. California’s Central Coast spans the coastal region between Point Mugu (Los Angeles County) and Monterey Bay and includes the rugged, undeveloped stretch of coastline known as Big Sur.
These coastal towns are stunning and filled with California’s hidden gems. Here you’ll enjoy fun outdoor activities, excellent restaurants, boutique hotels, and of course a plethora of alluring beaches. Here’s my guide to 15 Central Coast beach towns not to miss!
1) Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is a fun, coastal town just north of Monterey. Walk the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and enjoy all of the rides, food, and events like the Boardwalk Marketplace Pop-up event where local artists sell their handmade goods.
Go to the Santa Cruz Wharf and see the shops and restaurants by the ocean. If you like history, check out the Santa Cruz Surf Museum to learn about the history of surfing in California.
If you’re looking for a beautiful outdoor adventure, you can explore Natural Bridges State Beach and see the unique rock formations. After all of this fun exploring, stop at Pizza My Heart for a slice of their famous pizza!
Monterey is a small beach town of about 28,000, famous for the tranquil Monterey Bay and Cannery Row, a popular strip adorned with gift shops, seafood restaurants and bars in converted factories.
The bay is a great place to take a kayak out in hopes of seeing sea lions or even dolphins. You can rent a kayak or paddle board from Monterey Bay Kayaks or even go on a fishing tour with them!
Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and learn about marine life. You can also visit Old Fisherman’s Wharf and explore this interesting landmark while visiting the shops and restaurants nearby.
Another charming spot to visit is the protected marine area of Lovers Point Park. Here you can picnic, fish, swim, and surf!
3) Pacific Grove
Pacific Grove is a small, picturesque coastal town in Monterey County, located between Point Pinos and Monterey. Pacific Grove has numerous Victorian-era houses, some of which have been turned into bed-and-breakfast inns.
I love this area because of the beautiful beach paths that run along the sea where you can spend hours walking along the ocean and taking in the sparkling coastline. A great little B&B that I love and highly recommend in Pacific Grove is Seven Gables Inn!
Carmel is a picturesque beach town on California’s Monterey Peninsula just south of Monterey. Enjoy a nice sunny day at Carmel Beach or explore the Carmel Art Association Gallery, Carmel’s oldest art gallery where you can view work by over 100 professional local artists.
If you’re looking to get outdoors, visit Point Lobos Natural Reserve where you can explore protected marine areas that are great for scuba diving, snorkeling, or sightseeing. Point Lobos is considered the “crown jewel” of California’s 280 state parks and is a magnet for nature lovers around the world.
During your stay in Carmel, you can also wander the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum and view the fully restored 1979 Roman Catholic Mission Church.
5) Big Sur
Stretching along the famous Highway 1, Big Sur is a quaint but beautiful coastal town. Be sure to stop and see the breathtaking waterfall at McWay Falls, and stop to snap photos of Bixby Creek Bridge (featured below), one of the most photographed bridges in California due to its aesthetic design and beautiful setting.
Enjoy a beach day at Andrew Molera State Park or Sand Dollar Beach. You can walk down to Pfeiffer Beach and explore the purple sand and interesting rock formations.
Big Sur is famous not only for its views but also for its incredible array of art galleries. Coast Big Sur is a great one that displays fine art next to their café where they sell delicious treats and coffee. Hawthorn Gallery is home to unique art and interesting pieces as well. Visit Downtown and see the different shops and restaurants.
6) San Simeon
San Simeon is a sweet beach town just south of Big Sur. While in San Simeon a visit to the famous Hearst Castle is a must. William Randolph Hearst started to build a fabulous estate on his ranchland overlooking the village of San Simeon in 1919. Today this historic landmark attracts visitors from all over the world.
Enjoy a glass of wine with an ocean view at “Hearst Ranch Winery” and learn about winemaking and the origins of the winery. You can go take a lovely walk down the San Simeon Pier and maybe even see a migrating humpback whale! San Simeon might be a small town but there is much to see and do while you’re there.
San Simeon is also home to elephant seals which you can see lounging at the beaches there. If you’re interested you can learn more about them at the Friends of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center and Gift Shop. This popular spot to observe elephant seals has a boardwalk and multiple viewing areas along the coast.
Cambria is a small coastal village. On your visit to Cambria, you can explore Moonstone Beach Drive to admire the sparkling coastline. Along the bluff top you’ll find the wooden Moonstone Beach Boardwalk which spans one mile from the Santa Rosa Creek day-use area to the Leffingwell Landing day-use area which is great for walking, observing animals and having picnics.
Shamel Park is a great place to visit to pick up natural moonstones and see the tide pools at low tide. For a mellow hike along the sea, you can also wander the Bluff Trail in Fiscalini Ranch Preserve (a 434-acre preserve in the middle of Cambria).
A great spot you can grab a glass of wine in Cambria is Stolo Vineyards and Winery. For breakfast, lunch and the “best mimosas in town” try Cambria Mimosas Steak & Seafood which is open 8AM-3PM Monday – Friday and 8AM-4PM Saturday – Sunday.
Cayucos has good surf and fun-loving locals. This small, mellow beach town is located in between Cambria and Morro Bay. During your visit, you can go for a surf at Cayucos State Beach or have a barbecue at Hardie Park.
If you like fresh seafood try the clam chowder from Duckies Chowder House (11AM-7PM), or enjoy lunch or dinner looking over the ocean at Schooners (11AM-9PM).
While in Cayucos, go for a walk on the recently rebuilt Cayucos Pier, or take an ocean-view hike and check out The Whale Trail where you can do a self-guided whale-watching tour to witness migrating gray whales.
9) Morro Bay
Morro Bay is a beautiful city on the coast of California known for the famous “Morro Rock” that soars over 570ft tall. I love to surf right in front of Morro Rock Beach but the wind can be unpredictable so make sure you check the forecast before paddling out.
If you enjoy kayaking, be sure to check out A Kayak Shack, located near the bay right off of Main Street for all of your kayak rental needs. Downtown Morro Bay runs along the sea and is home to an array of cute boutiques and seafood restaurants and provides the perfect spot to wander for a few hours.
During your stay, you can visit the Museum of Natural History to interact and learn about the environment or explore a specialty Museum known as the Morro Bay Skateboard Museum.
10) San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, or as the locals call it ‘SLO’, is a lovely city just south of Morro Bay. SLO has a vibrant downtown array and offers an array of fun activities.
Stay at the famous Madonna Inn to see the unique, quirky themed rooms and eat at their delicious bakery. If you like hiking, head up to Bishop Peak for a hike with views of the sweeping coastal mountain range.
In the morning grab coffee at my favorite local coffee shop, Scout Coffee Co. which has two locations. If you want to sit and enjoy the café, I recommend going to the one on Foothill Blvd. If you want to take your coffee and walk the shops in Downtown SLO, go to the one on Garden Street.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth you can grab tasty doughnuts from the famous SloDoCo.
Downtown SLO offers over 350 shops with tasty lunch spots, cute cafes, boutiques, and brewers on every corner. (Start on Higuera St and you can wander to side streets from there.) While in downtown San Luis Obispo be sure to stop by the famous Bubblegum Alley on Higuera St (a 15-foot high and 70-foot long alley lined with chewed gum left by passers-by) to snap photos.
I also suggest having lunch at the Apple Farm Inn for the best corn chowder and cornbread in town with mouth-watering honey butter.
Avila Beach is an adorable beach town just off Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo. From soaking at the Avila Hot Springs to visiting the Central Coast Aquarium, you will not run out of things to do in Avila Beach.
If you enjoy spending your time by the water, Avila Beach Pier and Pirates Cove beach are two great places to explore. If you are looking for a nice walking trail or bike ride, Bob Jones Trail is a great option.
While in Avila beach be sure not to miss Avila Valley Barn where you can pet animals, wander a hay maze, and shop for an array of local fresh fruits and vegetables.
12) Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is full of fun and exciting activities. You can explore Pismo Beach State Park and see the migrating butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Grove during the months of late October to February. You can also walk down the iconic Pismo Beach Pier and hang out in the plaza there.
After a long day of fun in the sun in Pismo Beach, you can enjoy dinner at a variety of local restaurants overlooking the ocean. Specializing in fresh seafood, restaurants like The Oyster Loft and SeaVenture Hotel are two great options for a family-friendly meal.
13) Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is filled with beautiful views and an array of things to do like shopping on downtown State Street and wine tasting on the Urban Wine Trail in the Funk Zone.
If you like cute, local coffee shops, try Dune Coffee Roasters. While in Santa Barbara be sure to explore Stearns Wharf and visit the Sea Center which is very fun for little kids. My daughter loves the Sea Center and asks to go there to “pet the sharks” every time we are in SB.
If you like wine, stop by to Deep Sea Winery on the pier where you can sip on a glass of wine while looking out to breathtaking views of the sea and the riviera. There is also a great candy shop and an ice cream shop on the pier too.
I lived in Santa Barbara for over 10 years and this is my favorite town on earth! You can check out my Santa Barbara Bucketlist for all my local tips and
Carpentaria is an adorable beach town just south of Santa Barbara. I lived in “Carp” (as the locals call it) for several years and loved the small-town vibes, the hiking trails, and its beautiful stretch of uncrowded coastline.
Carpinteria is home to “California’s safest beach” and also has a small, cute downtown area with little boutiques and several good restaurants. On Main Street, you will find cute coffee shops like Lucky Lama. For lunch, stop at The Spot for the best burgers in town.
When you’re in Carpinteria be sure to spend time surfing or watching surfers at Rincon. Just south of Car, known as one of the best waves in the world, Rincon is my favorite place to surf in California. It’s also a great place to spend the day at the beach.
If you visit Carpinteria during the annual Avocado Festival on the main street, you can enjoy live music, local beer, fresh, local guacamole and even avocado ice cream!
If you enjoy antique shops, thrift stores, or local surf shops, Carp is the place for you. Carpinteria is located near many farms that produce fresh fruits and vegetables sold at the local farmers market every Thursday from 4-7 pm.
Ventura is a beach town just south of Santa Barbara that has excellent surfing and is less touristy. Walk the Ventura Pier or enjoy a beach day at Ventura Beach on a nice sunny day.
Go shopping on Main Street in Ventura and grab a coffee at any one of the many coffee shops nearby. My personal favorite coffee shop there is called Singing Sun and is located near Main Street.
A cute thrift shop to check out is Buffalo Exchange, which is filled with quality, used clothing. At night, Main Street in Ventura turns into a fun outdoor restaurant and bar hub. Try Lure Fish House and Brophy Bros for fresh, local seafood and great cocktails.
If you want to do a fun day trip visit Lake Casitas and spend time enjoying the beautiful reservoir or head to nearby Ojai where you can explore the cute downtown area and stay at beautiful Ojai Valley Inn.
Central Coast Beach Towns Wrap Up
I hope you enjoyed reading this round-up of the best California Central Coast beach towns! I highly suggest taking a road trip up or down highway 1 and exploring each od these cute little coastal towns. If you have questions or tips for our readers please leave these in the comments below.
Have you been to the Central Coast? Please share your experience or questions in the comments below!
Read More About California
- 30 Things To Do In Malibu
- Best Authentic Mexican Food In Los Angeles
- Fun Things To Do With Little Kids In West LA
- Where To Stay In Lake Tahoe
Pin For Later
This website uses affiliate links in some of our articles.