One of the most thrilling road trips I’ve experienced is cruising Highway One along the Central California Coast. The scenic coastal regions of Monterey Bay, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura provide ample opportunities for outdoor adventure, food and wine tours, and cultural celebrations. Whether you’re camping your way south or hopping from one beachfront resort to the next, consider these 31 amazing activities and attractions sprinkled along the Central Coast.
Monterey Bay-Area Highlights
For Pacific beauty & a classic boardwalk
Known as the “Coney Island of the West,” the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is a go-to destination for seaside attractions and adventure. I love the vintage vibe of the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and the Loof Carousel. Funnel cakes and kettle corn are definitely on the menu.
Beyond the beach, Santa Cruz offers a warm community of arts and culture. Celebrate local flavours with small-batch organic spirits at Venus Spirits. Or explore the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History for a glimpse into local history. Tip: First Friday Festivals offer free admission.
For pedestrian charm
The Mediterranean-inspired seaside town of Capitola Village shares a charming, vibrant neighborhood perfect for boutique shopping and gallery exploration. You’ll find one-of-a-kind home accent pieces, cute beachwear, and more in this fabulous stretch of shops. Summer is always hopping with marathons, classic car shows, and the annual Jay Moriarity Memorial Paddleboard Race.
Travel blogger who has lived the experience:
Laura from OurNextAdventure.co
To eat up its signature Gilroy Garlic Festival
Gilroy Welcome Center
Known as the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy welcomes thousands of visitors each July to this annual festival. Sample regional menus in Gourmet Alley, and add some spice to your step dancing to music at three festival stages. Here are two more great reasons to visit Gilroy.
Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail
Each January, as part of California Restaurant Month, Gilroy Restaurant Week celebrates local culinary champions where guests can savour regional dishes. Year-round, experience an abundance of family-owned wineries and tasting rooms along the Santa Clara Valley Wine Trail.
For sips and Steinbeck
Start in Old Town Salinas at the National Steinbeck Center to admire "Steinbeck Country" through the lens of this influential American novelist.
From here, venture up the River Road Wine Trail. Whether cruising through the vineyard on ATVs at Hahn, admiring the barrels stored in a 100-year-old barn at Ventana, or enjoying a fresh picnic lunch at Pessagno paired with some absolutely amazing Zinfandel, there is a lot of fun to be had at each and every one of the 13 wineries on this tour. The valley is also playfully know as the "Salad Bowl of the World," so visitors are sure to get some of the freshest produce around.
For a classic Monterey experience
Visit legendary Cannery Row for more than 25 restaurants, several unique shops in turn-of-the-century buildings, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For additional family adventure, challenge yourself in the Mirror Maze, and then cozy up in the evening by a seaside fire pit.
For offshore adventure
Flickr/Mitchel Jones (CCbySA2.0)
Find fresh seafood at Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, then sign up for a whale watching tour. Schedule a kayak or bicycle tour along the waterfront with Adventures by the Sea, or set out for a day of adventure on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail.
For oceanside charm
Flickr/Harold Litwiler (CCby2.0)
For a quaint Main Street USA vibe with unique shops, eateries, and pristine beaches, visit Pacific Grove. The town features one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the country and the annual Feast of Lanterns is a tradition dating back more than a century.
Travel blogger who has lived the experience:
Ruth from TanamaTales.com
For beach vibes & birding
Meric Dagli | Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a wonderful park for observing thousands of seabirds, listening to the call of sea lions, and exploring archeological sites. Spend the day hiking trails and then head to Carmel Beach for stunning sunsets.
For classic cars, golf and gourmet bites
Flickr/Basheer Tome (CCby2.0)
Cruising classic cars along the coast is a time-honored tradition. Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance is an internationally renowned classic car event showcasing an award-winning collection. For culinary connoisseurs, the annual Pebble Beach Food and Wine festival celebrates fine wine paired with world class cuisine.
For waves, waterfalls, woods and that famous bridge
adrianArguably one of the most notable landmarks along the Central California Coast, the Bixby Bridge at Big Sur is something you must see in person. Surrounded by redwoods, rocky cliffs, and an unbeatable ocean view, this is a definite bridge to cross on your road trip. For another majestic photo opp, stop along Overlook Trail to witness the 80-foot waterfall at McWay Falls.
San Benito County
For wine and wildlife
Flickr/Stanislav Sedov (CCbySA2.0)
Imagine rolling hills and endless sunshine and you’ll get an idea of what to expect in San Benito County. Around Pinnacles National Park, visitors may catch glimpses of prairie falcons, magpies, and wild turkeys. The same hilly landscape home to wildlife offers ideal grounds for wine growers, so you’ll find an exceptional wine route to tour.
San Luis Obispo-Area Highlights
To tour the famous Hearst Castle
A part of the California State Park system, Hearst Castle was originally built by art collector W.R. Hearst. The estate offers guided tours and a grand garden, along with a theater sharing castle history. Tour reservations are recommended at this popular attraction.
To visit a tiny town
Flickr/Don DeBold (CCby2.0)
You’ll notice the town of Harmony boasts 18 residents, but the town is packed full of charm and big on welcoming visitors. Enjoy a scoop of Harmony Valley Creamery’s signature craft ice cream, then explore the local artisans in town including Harmony Glassworks and Harmony Pottery.
To rev your engine
A fun family favorite, Estrella Warbirds Museum & Woodland Auto Display shares impressive exhibits of Navy and Air Force vehicles, planes, and memorabilia. The auto display focuses on historic racing cars, classic cars, and other artifacts.
For classic Cars & kites
Jeremy BishopGrab a comfy spot on Main Street to watch the annual Cruise Night of the Morro Bay Car Show for a fabulous display of rare and collectible cars. For some of the best kite-flying winds in the world, visit the annual Morro Bay Kite Festival for a full weekend of family fun in the sun.
San Luis Obispo
For wine tasting, culture and history
Flickr/Kristina D.C. Hoeppner (CCbySA2.0)
For a relaxing afternoon, spend time exploring Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, built in 1772 and surrounded by Mission Plaza. Here you’ll find two blocks of restaurants, galleries, and more downtown attractions perfect for a casual stroll.
For an award-winning dining experience, make reservations for Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steak House. With hot pink decor and twinkle lights adorning the dance floor, you’ll love the blend of fine dining in a playful atmosphere.
If breweries and beer are more your taste, you’ll want to explore members of the Central Coast Brewers Guild. Use the interactive beer trail map to guide you through Central California’s craft breweries.
Travellers who have lived the experience:
Scott and Megan from BoboAndChichi.com
To choose your own active adventure
One of the Central Coast’s best places to boost your adrenaline is Pismo Beach, a gorgeous stretch of sand perfect for horseback riding. If you love water sports, this is a great spot for kayaking, kite boarding, and surfing. When hunger strikes, you’ll find a vast assortment of dining and beverages in this seaside town.
Santa Barbara-Area Highlights
For murals and makers
Take a mile walk along the Old Town Lompoc Heritage Walk and enjoy sites that date back to the 1870s. 36 Lompoc Murals throughout the historic heart of downtown will delight and surprise with the assortment of artistic expression. Wrap up your exploration with downtown food and wine and a little boutique shopping.
Travel writers who have lived the experience:
Dave from CanadianTraveller.com
To eat up some tasty food festivals
Romeo Belarmino | Petroliana Museum
The annual Buellton Wine & Chili Festival hosts a chili and salsa contest, along with area wine tastings, entertainment, and more. Local favorite Buellton Brew Fest features more than fifty breweries and wineries with live entertainment and food trucks. Or, visit downtown Buellton for year-round culinary celebrations, wine tastings, and brewery tours.
To get local in Santa Ynez Valley
Visit Olive Hill Farm for an amazing sensory experience of tasting local artisan oil. Or satisfy your sweet tooth at Stafford’s Famous Chocolates, a Los Olivos tradition since 1987. For unique hand-crafted goods, visit Artisans Gallery for handmade leather goods.
For a slice of Denmark in America
I immediately fell in love with Solvang’s Danish village of Scandinavian bakeries and cafes. Just 35 miles north of Santa Barbara, this quaint town features European-style architecture, windmills, and wineries. Annual events include food lover’s Taste of Solvang, while weekly 3rd Wednesday festivities include wine tastings and entertainment.
To taste the Taco Trail
Mark Weber | Old Mission Santa Barbara
Considered “The America Riviera” for its romantic Spanish architecture and culinary culture, you’ll find a mouthwatering assortment of venues in the Santa Barbara Taco Trail. Combine tacos with margaritas year-round and the annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta, and you’ll see why Santa Barbara is a food enthusiast destination.
For seafood, shopping, and sunshine
Jay Sinclair | Stearns Wharf
Visit the Saturday Fisherman’s Market for fresh seasonal seafood and a vibrant waterfront community. Continue your seaside stroll at Stearns Wharf for souvenirs and specialty shops, and a visit to Great Pacific Ice Cream Company. With 300 hundred days of sunshine, Santa Barbara is a coastal paradise bursting with history and culture.
To bliss out in nature
Ojai - pronounced "Oh-hi" is the Chumash word for "moon" - which pretty much sums up the ethos of this blissed-out stronghold. Ojai caters to a relaxed crowd looking to pamper, meditate, tap into the spiritual, or simply escape the franchise trappings of bigger cities. Shop boho threads and lifestyle goods at In the Field, sleep in an Airstream at Caravan Outpost, shop vintage at Summer Camp, and indulge in a communual Kayum (traditional Chumash) treatment at Ojai Spa and Resort.
To surf, sip and SUP
©kamilo_bustmant | Mission San Buenaventura
For a leisurely drive, be sure to cruise along the Ventura County Coast. Here you’ll find charming towns stretching across the coastline, whale watching and championship golf, and access to Channel Islands National Park.
Channel Islands National Park
For an off-grid detour into nature
Flickr/Chetan Kolluri (CC BY-ND 2.0)
If you can believe it, just off the coast of America's most populous state, one national park manages to escape widespread attention. Channel Islands National Park ranks around the eighth-least* visited in the contiguous United States. The Islands can thank their remoteness for their hidden-gem status, and also the rich biodiversity that thrives in their isolation. Visit on a day trip or camp overnight.
For coastal cuisine and adventure
Marvel at the annual Tall Ships celebration or spend the day sport fishing sea bass, halibut, and other Pacific catches. Experience the longest model railroad train layout at Murphy Auto Museum. For food and fun, celebrate seasonal treats during the annual Oxnard Tamale Festival, savor sweet specialties during the annual California Strawberry Festival, and spice it up during the Oxnard Salsa Festival.
Old Town Camarillo
To eat up farm-fresh gourmet
With year-round sunshine and a charming downtown perfect for pedestrians, Old Town Camarillo is a delight to visit. From local breweries and bistros to a Saturday Farmers' Market, you’ll find plenty of tasteful temptations celebration the local agrotourism.
Keep reading: 10 Reasons to Escape Winter in Camarillo
For presidents & parades
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Explore more than 100 acres of collections at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum. Board Air Force One or tour the kids around a Secret Service Exhibit. Then experience the culinary culture of Simi Valley at the Cajun & Blues Music Fest or the annual Simi Valley Days carnival and parade.
Travel bloggers who have lived the experience:
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