With warm weather year-round, the California coast is an ideal location for exploring any time of the year. If you’re planning a trip to the coast, in this guide we share first-hand knowledge of all the best Central California Coast attractions!
As California locals, these are all places that we have personally visited and keep returning to over and over again. From charming beach towns to rugged landscapes and endless hiking trails, there is so much to see and do in this region.
This list covers all the best locations on the Central California Coast from Malibu all the way to Santa Cruz (in order from south to north). Let’s get started!
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30 Best Central California Coast Attractions:
1. El Matador State Beach
Located just north of the bustling Los Angeles city, Malibu offers a peaceful getaway on the coast. This wealthy beach town is known for mega-mansions, lots of outdoor hiking trails, and the scenic El Matador State Beach.
El Matador State Beach is a public beach located off Highway 1 that travels next to the coast. This stunning beach features ocean cliffs with jagged, towering rocks scattered along the sandy shoreline.
The unique setting makes this beach an excellent place for photography, especially around sunset and sunrise!
I use the Sony a7c camera for my travel photos. This is the smallest and lightest full-frame camera available on the market – perfect for traveling, hiking, and road trips – while still maintaining the same incredible image quality as Sony’s full-frame cameras.
Ventura is a cozy Central California Coast town and happens to be our home for the past several years. Despite being a small beach city, there are so many incredible things to do in Ventura!
Ventura is best known for having beautiful beaches, a charming downtown area with lots of restaurants & breweries, scenic hiking trails, and of course world-class surfing. Some of the best surfing spots in California can be found in Ventura County.
Ventura also boasts excellent day picnic sites at the San Buenaventura State Beach. At this beach, you can head on a walk or a bike ride along the Ventura Beach Bike Trail down to the Ventura Pier and beyond. Be sure to stay for an epic sunset at Surfers Point at Seaside Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
If you’ve always wanted to learn how to surf, book this Ventura Surf Lesson! During the surfing lesson, the experienced instructors will teach you how to stand up on the surfboard, find your balance, and ride waves to the shore.
3. Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is the place to go if you’re seeking epic outdoor adventures away from the busy tourist crowds. Planning a trip to the Channel Islands does take a bit of effort as you will need to make boat reservations ahead of time.
Channel Islands National Park consists of five islands:
- Santa Cruz
- Santa Rosa
- San Miguel
- Santa Barbara
These islands can only be reached by a private boat or by booking a ride through Island Packers Cruises. Anacapa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa are the most popular islands for visitors.
I’ve been to Santa Cruz Island as a day trip before and it was truly a remarkable experience! We rented kayaks through Channel Islands Kayak Center in Ventura that we brought on the boat with us to kayak around the sea caves.
After, we spent a couple of hours hiking along rugged cliffside trails with stunning views all around. If you’re looking for incredible California Central Coast day trips, it doesn’t get better than this!
4. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is one of the best attractions in Central California. This beach town draws big crowds year-round for its charming boutique stores, delicious restaurants, pristine beaches, and top-rated hotels.
Santa Barbara County is also home to over 280 wineries and produces some of the best wines in California. It’s the perfect place to take a wine-tasting tour of the Santa Barbara wine country to sample some of the wines made here!
5. Los Olivos
Visiting the small town of Los Olivos is one of the most romantic things to do in Central California. This charming town is home to over 25 wineries and tasting rooms offering the perfect place to relax and unwind for couples on a weekend getaway.
Most of the wine-tasting rooms are located within a couple of city blocks so you can easily walk around and try out a few different spots. Some of the most popular wineries in Los Olivos are:
Solvang is an interesting Central California tourist attraction. This little town is situated between Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach so it’s a great stop for those on a road trip along the Central Coast.
Solvang is a unique town with Danish-style houses and businesses. From picturesque windmills to fun Octoberfest events, pastry stores, and charming boutique shops, the entire town focuses on attracting tourists and visitors.
Not sure where to start? Book this Solvang Food and Photo Tour that will take you to all the best foodie spots in town while learning more about Solvang’s history!
7. OstrichLand USA
Stopping by OstrichLand USA is a unique thing to do on the Central California Coast, especially for families with kids. At this destination, you can pay a small fee and see ostriches and emus up close in a ranch setting.
For an additional $1, you can even purchase bird food to feed the big guys. Just be sure to watch your fingers as some of the birds can get a bit aggressive when eating!
OstrichLand is open to visitors every day from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. The entrance costs $7 for adults, $3 for kids (under 12), and $5 for military. After your visit, you can stop by the gift shop where you can check out souvenirs to bring back home.
8. Oceano Dunes
If you’re looking for a fun way to spend a few hours, head over to the OHV Open area – Oceano Dunes SVRA just south of Pismo Beach town! This open space allows off-roading in cars and ATVs amongst giant oceanfront dunes.
If you don’t have a car that you feel comfortable taking into the dunes, we recommend renting an ATV or UTV from one of the rental companies in Pismo Beach. This is what we did on a previous visit and had such a blast riding a 2 seater UTV up and down towering sand dunes!
9. Pismo Beach
As California locals, Pismo Beach is a place that we keep returning to over and over again!
This coastal town has an array of fun outdoor adventures including camping, hiking, surfing lessons, and ocean kayaking. Pismo Beach also offers lots of opportunities for relaxing and lounging on the sunny shoreline.
A few of the top places to visit in Pismo Beach include:
- Pismo Beach Pier. Here you can walk down the wooden pier and watch surfers catch waves in the ocean.
- Pismo Preserve. This outdoor space has beautiful oceanfront hiking trails. Our favorite hike is the 3.4-mile-long Spring To Spring Trail At Pismo Preserve.
- Meadow Creek Trail. This short trail follows a wooden boardwalk next to the ocean dunes with stunning views along the way. It’s flat and easy making it a great place to go for a leisurely stroll for families with kids and dogs.
- Old West Cinnamon Rolls. I can’t visit Pismo Beach without stopping by Old West Cinnamon Rolls. This family-operated bakery has been selling THE BEST cinnamon rolls since 1972 (the long lines out the door speak for themselves!).
10. Monarch Butterfly Grove
Pismo Beach offers some of the best opportunities for viewing Monarch Butterflies on the California Coast. At the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, you can stroll around and explore a eucalyptus grove where butterflies seek shelter in the winter months.
We recommend visiting Monarch Butterfly Grove grove from October to December when you might see thousands of butterflies resting together in the eucalyptus trees. This is one of the few groves in California that often receives over 10,000 butterflies per season!
11. Dinosaur Caves Park
Dinosaur Caves Park is one of the top things to do on California’s Central Coast with kids. This 11-acre oceanfront park features a playground, easy walking paths, and wildlife viewing opportunities making it a great spot to visit for families.
Take a walk along the bluffs, enjoy the scenery, and see a variety of bird species that live on the jagged ocean rocks just off the shore. This location also features restrooms and is dog friendly, so it’s a great stop for those on a road trip along the coast.
12. Avila Beach
Situated slightly north of Pismo Beach, Avila Beach is another wonderful location for outdoor enthusiasts. Some of the most popular attractions in Avila Beach include the oceanfront Smugglers Cave, Cave Landing, and Pirates Cove Beach (clothing optional).
If you have extra time on your hands, I highly recommend hiking the Ontario Ridge To Shell Beach Bluff Trail. This loop is only 3 miles long with stunning coastal views from up top. There’s even a picture-perfect swing that hangs off an oak tree with the sparking ocean as the background!
After, stop by the Avila Valley Barn to browse through local products, grab a sandwich for lunch, and pet the adorable farm animals.
13. San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo (or SLO) is a wonderful Central California Coast city for relaxing getaways. SLO is situated slightly inland between Pismo Beach and Morro Bay so it’s a little less crowded than the nearby beach towns.
San Luis Obispo is a great place to visit for the day as a stop on a road trip or as a weekend mini-vacation. A few of the most popular attractions in the city include Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa 1772, the famous Bubblegum Alley, and Irish Hills Natural Reserve.
SLO is also home to the quirky Madonna Inn where each of the unique rooms is decorated with a different theme!
Just a short drive from the city you can visit charming local wineries including:
14. Montaña de Oro State Park
Montaña de Oro State Park is a hidden gem just south of Los Osos town near Morro Bay. This oceanfront State Park offers quiet campsites at the Islay Creek Campground along with beachfront hiking trails.
Covering over 8000 acres of land, Montaña de Oro is one of the biggest State Parks in California yet it’s very much under the radar for most travelers. Here you can enjoy solitude away from the crowds, beautiful seaside scenery, and miles of hiking & mountain biking trails.
15. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is the perfect Central California coastal destination for those who want to be close to the beach, yet get away from big tourist crowds. This low-key town is a great place to head for beachfront camping, hiking, and mountain biking enthusiasts.
Whenever we come to spend a few days in Morro Bay, we like to stay at the Morro Bay State Park Campground. There are also lots of great hotels in Morro Bay with ocean views if camping is not your thing!
A few of the top things to do in Morro Bay include hiking the Black Hill Trail, visiting the towering Morro Rock, and indulging in fresh seafood at the waterfront restaurants situated along the Embarcadero shopping strip.
A few of the most popular seafood eateries in Morro Bay are:
16. Morro Bay T Pier
Popular for its stunning views, Morro Bay also offers some of the best places for viewing wildlife in California!
Morro Bay T Pier is situated along the Embarcadero road and extends like a T shape out into the ocean creating a calm habitat for wildlife, especially sea otters. Sea otters typically stay near marinas and nature preserves where they can find plenty of kelp forests and seafood to munch on.
Depending on the time of year, you can see from a few to several dozen sea otters floating in the Morro Bay marina. Due to calm water and abundant food options, the Morro Bay T Pier has become a popular place where you can observe sea otters with their young pups resting on their bellies (is there anything cuter than this?!).
Cayucos is a hidden little gem of a town that most people don’t even know about in California! Here you can visit the Cayucos Pier, hike at Estero Bluffs State Park, and swim, surf & layout in the sand at Cayucos State Beach.
If you want to get away from the crowds while enjoying stunning ocean views, we recommend hiking the Cass Hill Trail in Cayucos. We’ve done this hike a couple of times and the views from the summit are just gorgeous!
Cambria is a picturesque area on the Central Coast with stunning landscapes. Charming boardwalks, rugged ocean views, and diverse ecosystems make Cambria a great place to enjoy nature and observe wildlife in California.
For first-time visitors, I highly recommend spending a few hours hiking at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Here visitors can often spot whales, seals & otters, and head down to the beach to explore tide pools from the trails that travel next to the bluffs.
Cambria also has a small, charming downtown filled with cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and wineries.
19. San Simeon
San Simeon is a charming area that offers lots of outdoorsy things to do for families and couples.
Here you can spend the day lounging in the sand next to the San Simeon Pier, go on a hike along the San Simeon Bay Trail to see elephant seals, and enjoy wine tasting at the Hearst Ranch Winery set next to the ocean.
If you are a fan of camping, you can book a campsite at the Hearst San Simeon State Park which features spacious campsites close to the beach. For hotels and vacation rentals, check out our guide that covers 18 best places to stay in San Simeon, California!
20. Hearst Castle
When looking for places to visit on California’s Central Coast, be sure to add Hearst Castle to your list! This grand estate is located on a hilltop near San Simeon and allows visitors with guided tours.
Hearst Castle consists of 165 rooms, a spacious garden, terraces, and outdoor swimming pools, all filled with artwork and historic artifacts. Visitors can book a variety of Hearst Castle daily tours that showcase different parts of the estate.
On your way to Hearst Castle, be sure to keep an eye out for wild zebras that reside in the hills surrounding the property. The zebras were originally brought over by William Randolph Hearst as part of his private zoo and were later released into the wild.
21. Elephant Seal Vista Point
If you love animals, you’ll want to visit Elephant Seal Vista Point just north of San Simeon!
This is one of the most popular sightseeing stops along California’s Central Coast for families and little kids. This vista point is located just north of Hearst Castle and consists of walkways and viewing platforms where you can giant elephant seals lounging on the shoreline from a safe distance.
Elephant Seals were once nearly hunted to extinction, but have made a miraculous recovery. The best time to visit this lookout point is in the winter months from November to January when the elephant seals congregate on the beach for mating.
22. Big Sur
Big Sur is a place that you have to see at least once in your life! This rugged stretch of California coastline has some of the most pristine landscapes in the world that are hard to believe exist.
The entire Big Sur drive is around 90 miles long starting in San Simeon in the south and ending in Carmel-By-The-Sea in the north. It’s best to set aside 2-3 days to explore Big Sur and see all of its top attractions at a comfortable pace.
If you’re short on time, you can drive the entire stretch of Big Sur in one day. We’ve done both and either way, you’ll be able to enjoy stunning views along the way!
Before heading into Big Sur we recommend downloading a Big Sur Self-Driving Audio Tour that comes with a map of the route and all the best attractions. There is no cell reception in Big Sur so this will help you keep a lookout for popular stops!
23. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a beautiful destination on California’s Central Coast. This is an easy attraction to access while driving along Highway 1 in Big Sur so many people stop here on their road trips.
The most popular trail at this State Park leads to a viewpoint of McWay Falls, a stunning beachfront waterfall in California. Visitors are not allowed to go down to the sandy shoreline but can see and photograph the waterfall from a designated viewing platform.
Visitor Tip: It costs $10 to visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for the day. The visitor parking lot is located just north of Pacific Coast Highway 1.
24. Pfeiffer Beach
Pfeiffer Beach is a beautiful hidden gem along the Big Sur coast. This stop offers epic views of rugged ocean cliffs, a sandy beach where you can lay out, and a unique rock formation called the Keyhole Arch.
To reach Pfeiffer Beach you will need to turn off from Highway 1 and follow the narrow Sycamore Canyon Road to where it ends at the Pfeiffer Beach Day Use Area.
Visitor Tip: It costs $12 to visit Pfeiffer Beach for the day which you can pay upon arrival. Dogs are allowed on the beach which is great for those traveling with their furry four-legged friends!
25. Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park is a Central Coast attraction that can be a quick stop or you can turn it into a several-hour adventure. This gorgeous State Park consists of beachfront hiking trails that start at the coast and travel into the nearby canyons.
If you’re looking for quick road trip stops, there are several turnout points along Highway 1 where you can park your car and walk down to the rugged ocean cliffs. A few of the most popular viewpoints are:
- Garrapata State Park Vista Point
- Painters Point
- Soberanes Point
In the spring months, you’ll see lots of blooming wildflowers along the trails adding to the beautiful scenery. Keep an eye (and ear) out for sea lions that you might see and hear lounging in the rocks nearby.
26. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
At Point Lobos State Natural Reserve you’ll find lots of short day hikes, rugged cliffs, wildlife viewing opportunities, and gorgeous ocean views. Two of the most popular hikes here are the Cypress Grove Trail and Sea Lion Point Trail which travel next to stunning ocean cliffs and turquoise beach coves.
Visitor Tip: It costs $10 to visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for the day. You can pay the visitor fee at the entrance booth that’s located at the beginning of the park off Highway 1. Keep in mind that dogs are not allowed anywhere within this nature reserve (including cars).
Want to see the best of this nature reserve in a short amount of time? Then book this Guided 2-Hour Point Lobos Nature Walk where an experienced guide will take you to all the top landmarks and wildlife viewing spots in just 2 hours (rated 5/5 stars)!
27. Carmel By The Sea
Right next to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, you can visit the small coastal community Carmel-By-The-Sea. We often stay here on road trips because you can find plenty of charming hotels and inns while still being close to the Big Sur drive.
One of the most fun things to do in Central Coast of California is visiting Monterey City just north of Big Sur! Known for its laid-back vibe, its proximity to the coast, and the incredible scenery, Monterey is a must-see location.
For starters, we recommend driving the loop around the Monterey peninsula and stopping at some of the most popular attractions including:
- Old Fisherman’s Wharf
- Lovers Point Park
- Spanish Bay
- Lone Cypress
- Pescadero Point
Monterey is also home to thriving marine life. If you have kids, set aside a few hours to explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium where you can see different exhibits and wildlife viewing stations.
From Monterey, you can also head on an exciting Half-Day Whale Watching Tour. During this tour, you’ll be able to see migrating grey whales along with humpbacks, blue whales, dolphins, and sea lions – a true bucket list experience!
29. Santa Cruz
For a unique and memorable vacation, head over to Santa Cruz situated just slightly south of San Jose. This eclectic beach town offers fun attractions such as Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Natural Bridges State Beach, and the Santa Cruz Wharf.
From this coastal town, you can head on many amazing redwood trails near Santa Cruz to hike amongst giant redwood trees.
Within a short drive, you can also reach The Mystery Spot – a fun tourist attraction where you can take a tour of a ‘slanted cabin’ and be entertained for an hour by the quirky tour guides displaying various gravity-defying objects.
Felton is located just slightly north of Santa Cruz and offers a wonderful place to escape into the forest. The scenic drive along Highway 9 is an adventure of its own with towering redwoods, viewpoints, and narrow, twisty turns!
At Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, you can visit some of the oldest redwood trees in California that were protected from logging. Nowadays only 5% of the original redwood forests remain on the West Coast after most of these gentle giants were logged during the 1800s.
Within this redwood park, you can marvel at 270+ foot tall redwood trees, hike the mile-long Redwood Grove Loop Trail and cool off at the San Lorenzo River. As a fun adventure, you can book a train ticket at Roaring Camp to ride a historic steam train through towering redwood trees – an unforgettable experience of a lifetime!
Looking for more information on Felton? Check out these guides next:
- How To Hike The Lime Kiln Trail In Fall Creek Unit, Felton
- 10 Top Rated Vacation Rentals & Hotels In Felton, California
- Staying At The Fern River Resort In Felton
We hope this guide has helped you discover a few new places to add to your Central California travel bucket list. With pristine landscapes, sandy shorelines, fun outdoor activities, and charming beach towns there are plenty of adventures to discover on the coast!
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