Woman standing on a rock overlooking a beach town in Central California
Central Coast

12 Of The Best Beach Towns In Central California

California’s Central Coast is one of the most scenic places to vacation in the entire State. In this post, I cover all of the best beach towns in Central California and recommendations for what to do in them.

Each of these cities is so charming and unique! Some are hidden little gems that are easy to miss while others attract big tourist crowds during the summer season.

As a California local, I have been to each of these destinations many times so you’ll be getting lots of insider tips on local attractions, places to eat, and where to stay.

Whether you are planning a Highway 1 road trip or somewhere to escape for a few days, here are all of the best Central Coast towns in California!

12 Best Coastal Towns In Central California:

1. Ventura

Ventura Botanical Gardens trail in downtown Ventura.

Ventura is the perfect California coastal town for weekend trips and quick escapes. This charming beach city has a bit of everything to please everyone from friends groups to couples, and families. I lived in Ventura for two years and there is just so much to do here!

Start your trip by exploring Ventura’s downtown where you can roam around Main Street and browse through vintage clothing stores, coffee shops, and specialty stores. Then head down to the Pier and enjoy a beer at the MadeWest Brewing Co. overlooking the ocean.

For dinner, I recommend Rumfish y Vino for its cozy outdoor patio and delicious cocktails. If you’re looking for something a bit more casual, Spencer Makenzie’s is a must!

In the spring season, visit the Ventura Botanical Gardens when it’s at its peak bloom. Here you can explore several hiking trails with colorful flowers, plants, and stunning ocean views.

For hotel stays, the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, an IHG Hotel is a Ventura classic with rooms overlooking the ocean. For something a bit more funky, the Waypoint Ventura offers a fun glamping experience in vintage trailers!

Read Next: 26 Best Things To Do In Ventura, California

2. Carpinteria

Stairs leading down to the beach at Carpinteria State Beach
Stairs leading down onto Carpinteria State Beach.

Carpinteria is one of the best beach towns in Central California for families. Here you can camp at Carpinteria State Beach just steps from the ocean and enjoy lots of fun activities like hiking, swimming, fishing, and more!

For outdoor lovers, I recommend hiking the 2.7-mile-long Carpinteria Bluffs Trail to Tar Pits Park. Along this trail, you can enjoy stunning ocean views and stop by the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary viewpoint to see harbor seals lounging on the beach.

For dining, I recommend walking down Linden Avenue in downtown Carpinteria. A few of my favorite restaurants in town are Siam Elephant Thai Restaurant, Guichos Eatery, and Rincon Brewery for their craft beers.

If you’re into surfing, Rincon Point is one of the best surfing spots in California! Haven’t tried it out yet? Then book this surfing lesson in Mondo’s Beach just south of Carpinteria. During this surfing lesson, you’ll learn all of the basics with experienced instructors.

3. Santa Barbara

View of the coastline and Santa Barbara city from Inspiration Point Trail.

Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful Central California Coastal cities that is world famous. This gorgeous beach town boasts some of the top resorts on the Central Coast along with incredible eateries and Spanish-style colonial architecture.

There are a lot of activities to do in Santa Barbara, especially in the Funk Zone and along State Street. For first-time visitors, I recommend starting with the Old Mission Santa Barbara 1786, Leadbetter Beach, and going on a Santa Barbara wine-tasting tour.

For a bird’s eye view of the town and the coastline, hike the stunning Inspiration Point Trail that overlooks the Pacific Ocean from its summit.

If you’re looking for a place to dine with a view, I recommend the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company situated at the end of the Stearns Wharf. From this restaurant, we have even spotted whales in the ocean!

Want to treat yourself? Then book a stay at Hotel Californian situated at the center of Santa Barbara’s downtown.

4. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is one of the best beach cities in Central California!

Pismo Beach is a fun vacation town favored by Central Valley locals. This is one of the most popular towns along the Central Coast known for having oceanfront dunes, exciting beach activities, and Monarch butterfly watching.

Pismo Beach is a great place to rent an ATV and cruise along the towering beachside dunes. This is also one of the only places in California where you are allowed to drive your personal vehicle onto the beach itself.

For first-time visitors, stopping by the Pismo Beach Pier and boardwalk is a must! Be sure to snap a photo of the iconic ‘Pismo Beach’ sign before heading out to eat at one of the local seafood restaurants.

If you enjoy camping, within the town you can stay at the Oceano Campground or North Beach Campground. Both campgrounds are located just steps from the sandy shoreline so you can watch a sunset and then head to the campground to roast marshmallows over a fire.

Read More: 20 Top Things To Do On a Weekend Trip To Pismo Beach

5. Avila Beach

Harford Pier in Avila Beach.

Avila Beach is one of the lesser-known coastal cities in California. Tucked away within the San Luis Obispo Bay this small town attracts families and college students looking to vacation away from the big Pismo Beach crowds.

We recently stayed at the Flying Flags Avila Beach RV Resort and had such a relaxing time! From the resort, we were able to walk down to dog-friendly beaches, Harford Pier and local seafood restaurants serving fresh catch of the day. 

Within a short drive of Avila Beach, you can hike the Ontario Ridge To Shell Beach Bluff Trail. This is one of my favorite hikes in San Luis Obispo County that offers stunning ocean views along with a secret oceanfront swing.

A few other popular destinations in the area include Smugglers Cave, Pirate’s Cove Beach (clothing optional), Avila Hot Springs, and the popular Avila Valley Barn. We love to stop by the Avila Valley Barn to see all of the adorable animals at the farm zoo and enjoy lunch at the outdoor Chicken Shack & Smoke House.

6. Morro Bay

Morro Bay is one of the best beach towns in Central California to live in.

Morro Bay is best known for having a giant volcanic plug called Morro Rock that you can spot from just about anywhere in town.

Start your visit by walking down ‘Embarcadero’, a small promenade lined with seafood restaurants and shops. Morro Bay is one of the best places in California to observe sea otters resting, feeding, and playing with their young pups in the marina.

While in Morro Bay, I recommend hiking to the top of the Black Hill Trail for the best views of the area! From this viewpoint, you can marvel at the iconic Morro Rock looking grand in the distance.

Plan to stay overnight? For a cozy hotel option, check out the charming Inn At Rose’s Landing which has fantastic rooms overlooking the bay.

Prefer camping instead? We love to camp at the Morro Bay State Park Campground situated within walking distance of the marina, Morro Bay State Park Boardwalk, and Black Hill Trail.

7. Cayucos

At the summit of Cass Hill in Cayucos, California.

Tucked away just north of Morro Bay, Cayucos is one of the cutest beach towns in California. Cayucos is not as big as the other nearby Central Coast cities, but it is full of beachy vibes and tranquility.

Cayucos mostly consist of inns, motels, and vacation rentals. The main attraction of the town is Cayucos Beach along with the Cayucos Pier which is great for walking, fishing, and enjoying sunsets.

This is a great coastal town for those seeking a quiet vacation on the coast. While in the area, hike to the top of Cass Hill or take your furry friends to the nearby Morro Bay Dog Beach.

8. Cambria

Moonstone Beach Boardwalk in Cambria.

Cambria is a quaint Central Coast beach town hosting a lot of beachfront hotels and vacation homes. The main attraction of this town is Moonstone Beach Boardwalk which travels next to the ocean and Moonstone Beach.

The wooden boardwalk is a great place to go for an afternoon stroll, see the charming homes that line Moonstone Beach Drive, and enjoy ocean views. The boardwalk ends at Moonstone Beach Park where you can observe wildlife, do a bit of beachcombing, and walk on the sandy shoreline.

Cambria is just a short drive from the famous Hearst Castle perched on top of a hill. After taking a tour of the castle be sure to set aside a few hours to explore downtown Cambria, stop by the local art galleries, and enjoy a bit of wine tasting.

Read Next: 13 Incredible Things To Do In Cambria, California

9. Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the top small beach towns in Central California.

Located just north of Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea serves as a great overnight stop for those on a Highway 1 road trip. While it’s full of charming hotels and inns, Carmel itself can keep you busy for several days!

The main attraction of this town is the white sand Carmel Beach. Besides going on long walks on the beach, stop by the Carmel Mission Basilica Museum where you can explore a historic church built in 1771.

After, browse through the local art galleries, boutique stores and enjoy a bit of wine tasting at the downtown wineries.

From Carmel, you can easily access Big Sur attractions and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve that’s known for rugged ocean cliffs and turquoise coves.

10. Monterey

Monterey is one of the best places to visit in Central California.

Of all the coastal cities in California, Monterey is one of the most scenic ones! Start your visit by taking a walk along Cannery Row full of charming cottages, cafes, wineries, and seafood restaurants overlooking the bay.

Monterey is also a great place to do a bit of whale watching. For the best chance to see these gentle giants, I recommend going on this Half-Day Whale Watching Tour From Monterey. Depending on the season, you might spot grey whales, humpbacks, blue whales, dolphins, sea lions, and more!

If you’d rather observe marine life from the land, spend a few hours exploring the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium which features over 80,000 animals and plants.

While in Monterey, head down to the Monterey Wharf to browse through gift shops, candy stores, and fish markets. After, enjoy a meal at one of the local seafood eateries (the clam chowder is a must!).

11. Pacific Grove

Turquoise water at Lovers Point Park in Monterey Bay
Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove.

This area boasts a beautiful beachfront along with peaceful walking paths. My favorite location is Lovers Point Park which has a small white sand beach and turquoise water.

From Pacific Grove, you can head on the famous 17-mile drive around the Monterey Peninsula. For a fun way to explore this area, book a guided Monterey 17-Mile Drive Electric Bike Tour to see all of the most iconic viewpoints and landmarks along the way!

Pacific Grove is also home to one of the most important Monarch Grove Sanctuaries in California. Here you can observe thousands of monarchs clustering in the eucalyptus, pine, and cypress trees during the winter months.

Read Next: 10 Top Places To See Monarch Butterflies In California

12. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz is a funky California town with lots of beach access, surfing spots, and unique attractions like the Natural Bridges State Beach.  

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a fun place for the entire family! This beachfront boardwalk features roller coasters, arcade games, laser tag, mini golf, shops and so much more!

Santa Cruz is also a very central location for exploring the nearby redwood forests. My personal favorite is the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park where you can take a train ride through an ancient old-growth forest.

Looking for more California travel inspiration? Be sure to check out these popular posts next:

This post is written by Laura Sausina. Hi, I’m a California local and the founder of the California Wanderland travel blog. I currently live in Ventura County and help 30,000 readers a month discover things to do in Central California! Read more about me here.

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