5 of Our Favorite Towns on California’s Coast
Striking hilltop mansions, rugged cliffs and dramatic sunsets combine to make California’s Central Coast a bucket list destination. Like many visitors to the area, we opted to do a road trip along the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
While it was a stunning sensory overload for the four days we hopped along the highway (top-down, no other way to do it), we quickly built up a list of places we MUST go back to for more than a night’s stay. Read on for a few of our favorite places to stop on a California coastal road trip.
This beachside suburb prides itself on being an independent city surrounded on three sides by Los Angeles and on one side by the Pacific. Though technically south of the Central Coast, Santa Monica is a great launching or ending point for a road trip in this region, since LAX airport is about 10 miles away.
The compact, walkable layout means you can leave your car at the hotel and hoof it around town, or grab a two-wheeler from one of the bike-share stations. Head down Main Street at least twice, once in the daytime to check out the boutiques and again in the evening when the twinkly lights strung along the tree-lined thoroughfare are aglow.
Nearby, the Third Street Promenade, a car-free zone, bustles with high-end stores, a movie theater, street performers and a farmers market on Wednesdays and Saturdays that has been called LA’s best.
And of course, you can’t miss the Santa Monica Pier and its Pacific Park amusement area, home to a solar-powered Ferris wheel (said to be the world’s only one). Old school carnival vibes are strong here, with a dozen colorful rides, classic ring-toss and wac-a-mole games, and all the tasty funnel cakes, caramel corn and cotton candy you can handle. You’ll also see the “end of the trail” marker for Route 66 and accompanying souvenir stands. Go ahead and pose for a photo, everyone else is doing it!
Called the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara has a major Mediterranean feel with its white stucco and red tile roof buildings. Look no further than the gorgeous Spanish Colonial-style Santa Barbara County Courthouse, where you can walk through the beautiful sunken gardens, climb the clock tower for city views or join one of the free docent-led tours.
Follow the red brick sidewalk of nearby State Street to explore a shopping and dining district with a good mix of chains and local spots. If you keep strolling toward the coast, you’ll end up on Stearns Wharf, an 1872 wooden jetty with a handful of seafood joints and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, which has a shark touch tank.
A couple of miles inland, stop by Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786. The 10th of the 21 California missions, this one is known as the “Queen of the Missions” and holds a church, mausoleum, museum and 12 acres of gardens you can tour (for a fee).
The essence of "Classic California," this little beach hamlet reads more authentic than perfectly polished, a refreshing change from some of the other seaside cities that could almost be transplanted right into a Disney park. Highway 1 cuts through the center of town, but take a quick detour down the two blocks of Pomeroy Avenue leading to the ocean. Here you’ll find quaint lunch spots with quirky names like Chipwrecked and Cool Cat Café.
If you have a little time, play a quick par-3 round at the 9-hole Pismo Beach Golf Course or visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove to see the orange and black colony cluster in eucalyptus trees (from October to February). There is a California Welcome Center at the Pismo Beach Premium Outlets, where you can pick up free maps and guides for the area (or bargain hunt at the mall).
The local pier, with its recognizable diamond layout, underwent renovations and reopened in 2018 with fresh public amenities.
Cambria and neighboring San Simeon have a collective population that barely reaches 6,000, meaning the colony of elephant seals that lounge on their beaches outnumbers residents nearly four to one. Tourists probably outnumber denizens too, since Cambria is perfectly placed on the intersection of Highway 1 and state Route 46, a winery-laden road.
The village’s Main Street has all the small-town charm you could hope for along with a hodgepodge of German-style timber framing and Western lodge looking facades. You’ll be hard-pressed to run into a chain store, or a business open past 9 p.m., but there’s no shortage of antiques, cafes, bed-and-breakfasts, galleries and vendors selling handmade soaps, quilts and jewelry.
The most popular tourist attractions are all a few miles north in San Simeon. Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark built by media magnate William Randolph Hearst, is a lavish hillside estate you can tour with a guide. The 1875 Piedras Blancas Light Station also offers tours and summer hikes. At the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, hit the boardwalk to watch the marine mammals on the beach below. They arrive throughout the year to rest, give birth and molt (shed and grow new hair and skin).
John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row” is set in the former sardine-packing district of Monterey, and the once industrial center now is a tourist hub, with shops and restaurants housed in former factories. Nearby on Fisherman’s Wharf, built in 1845, you can charter a boat to look for otters, gray whales and seals. All 12 eateries along the historic dock serve some sort of seafood, so it’s no surprise they try to lure you in with free samples of clam chowder. If you aren’t too hungry, pop into Carousel Candies for caramel apples or saltwater taffy made on-site.
Near Monterey are two other small towns – Pacific Grove, home to the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast, and Carmel-by-the-Sea, a condense little village with a European look and a full slate of cultural amenities.
The rest of the Monterey Peninsula is taken up by the Pebble Beach Resorts and surrounding Del Monte Forest. For a fee, you can enter the resort area and take the scenic 17-mile-drive past celebrated golf courses and natural sites like the Lone Cypress, a 250-year-old tree perched on a rock in the Pacific.