By Jill K. Robinson

Southern California may get prime beach town attention, but it’s California’s Central Coast region that has it all, except for the crowds vying for each sandy square foot. The string of small beach towns that line the coast south of Big Sur to Santa Barbara are the perfect place to learn to chill-out like a local, get some fun and sun, escape the hustle and bustle, and sample some of the best food and wine in California.

The Santa Barbara area is the Central Coast’s largest population center, and it lures travelers with its white Spanish-style buildings, red-tiled roofs, vast beaches, plenty of fine arts venues, bright boutiques, outdoor adventures, culinary tastes and an inland region (the Santa Ynez Valley, featured in the movie Sideways) known for wine and Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Visitors to the area can see hulking elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, relax in the sleepy beach towns of Cayucos and Morro Bay, tour hilltop Hearst Castle, or find some fun in college-town San Luis Obispo. The old-fashioned piers of Avila Beach and Pismo Beach are ideal spots to take a tasty meal break with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Ventura’s Mission San Buenaventura is the last of the California missions founded by JunĂ­pero Serra. The oceanside town is also a gateway for adventures in Channel Islands National Park, considered “California’s Galápagos,” with tide pools, kelp forests and unique flora and fauna species.

Even though the Central Coast region’s main highlight is indeed, its coast, the varied geography and moderate climate ensure that there are plenty of treats for visitors to enjoy. Whether your preference is digging for clams, surfing the perfect wave, strolling Mediterranean-style village streets, sampling fresh regional cuisine and world-famous wines, or lazing on the beach and watching the changing tide, it’s all right here on the Central Coast—and there’s enough for everyone.


South of Big Sur, the coastline is dotted with a necklace of small beach towns. Cambria’s galleries and antique shops perch on pine-forested hills above the ocean. Laid-back Cayucos is an old-school beach retreat with a surf break and fishing pier near the main drag. Morro Bay’s landmark, an ancient volcanic peak emerging from the ocean floor, stands at the entrance to a beautiful estuary.

Tucked between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is often called the “American Riviera” because of its Mediterranean climate and red-roofed buildings. Head inland to artist enclave Ojai to unwind and take in the “pink moment” sunsets—the color of cotton candy.


Even though Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are larger than the rest of the beach towns, there’s enough space throughout the Central Coast region to find ample breathing room and sometimes, be the only person around. Hike to the top of Bishop Peak, the tallest of the Nine Sisters, a chain of volcanic peaks. Take advantage of some sweet surf spots and catch the perfect wave. Head out from Santa Barbara on a whale watching tour to see some of the largest mammals in the Pacific Ocean.

On the Carrizo Plain, considered the largest single native grassland in the state, it’s possible to see surface fractures of the San Andreas Fault, which puts man/nature cohabitation in perspective. The Los Padres National Forest stretches across the scenic Coast and Transverse ranges, and offers a wealth of opportunities for fishing, hiking, camping and bicycling. Kayak among tide pools and kelp forests where sea otters live in Morro Bay, or just amble along miles of scenic beaches, stop when you want to, and dig your toes in the sand.


Many place names on the Central Coast remain from Native American tribes, as well as from Spanish and Mexican settlers. The California missions and other well-preserved buildings still exist from before 1850, when California became a state. The Central Coast’s inland region has a wealth of land for agriculture—from wine to olives—but farmers here are just as comfortable taking a quick trip to the wide, sandy beaches during breaks from the harvest. Even though Santa Barbara is the big city in the area, it has a relaxing vibe that would suffocate in a second in downtown Los Angeles.


The Central Coast is rich with natural adventure for families, including plenty of beaches and outdoor space, historic sites and water activities. View underwater life on a semi-submersible tour in Morro Bay. Discover how the ocean has shaped the history of the Central Coast at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Go camping in the Channel Islands or Los Padres National Forest. Even picking your own berries at a local farm is far more fun when you can smell the ocean air and not hear the sounds of traffic.


Spanish History
Get a glimpse into Santa Barbara’s origins with a visit to Mission Santa Barbara, known as “Queen of the Missions.”

Paso Robles Vineyards
The fastest growing wine region in California isn’t Napa or Sonoma. Paso Robles recently added 11 sub-AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) to distinguish the differences in terroir in its entire growing region.

Pink Moment
Look to the east for the setting sun’s reflection on the bluffs of the Topatopa Mountains in Ojai for a brilliant pink sunset.

Nitt Witt Ridge
Offering a fun contrast to the immaculately curated mansion of Hearst Castle, Cambria’s Nitt Witt Ridge is a castle-like creation of driftwood, abalone shells and a variety of funky treasures.

Volcanic Sister
Walk out to the base of Morro Rock, one of a series of volcanic plugs known as the Nine Sisters of San Luis Obispo County, in Morro Bay.

Del Norte
Visit Mammoth
Pismo Beach
Discover Siskiyou