Driving up and down the California Central Coast is one of the most scenic and beautiful drives you will ever travel. Starting from the south, the regions are Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey Bay. These four areas feature everything you expect from the California coast, with miles of rocky shoreline, dreamy beaches for swimming and surfing, and panoramic views out over the Pacific. But these spots also extend far inland and take in both towering mountains and rolling hills. Some areas are even desert-like too.
From Carpinteria’s sunny beaches to the wild North County coast, this is a region filled with many moods and discoveries. Santa Barbara you can take the Red Tile Walking Tour to see the romantic Spanish architecture that helped earn the city the title of “the American Riviera.” Santa Barbara is also a major arts destination thanks to such leading cultural institutions as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. You can visit more than a dozen leading winemakers in downtown and near the beach on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. You can taste wines near Lompoc (also home to celebrated flower fields), in the Santa Maria Valley, or in the Santa Ynez Valley, where you’re sure to be charmed by the small towns of Santa Ynez, Buellton, and Solvang—the Danish capital of America. And don’t forget to try Santa Maria-style barbecue—California’s famsous low-cooking tradition.
With it’s historic mission the city and college town of San Luis Obispo, this is a region with irresistible beach communities and an international reputation for winemaking. The region’s big draw is legendary Hearst Castle near San Simeon but each town has its own appeal—from the vintage Main Street-style downtown of Arroyo Grande to the classic California beach town of Pismo Beach.
Cambria is set among its namesake pines while tiny Harmony is a onetime dairy community that’s now home to artists. Blessed with numerous state parks and beaches, this is a place for escapes into nature, including kayaking on Morro Bayand hiking the coastal bluffs north of Cayucos. With car-sized elephant seals (the world’s largest) on the beaches north of San Simeon and creative wine-country cuisine in Paso Robles’ historic downtown, there’s no end to the discoveries awaiting you in the San Luis Obispo Region.
From the waves crashing into Big Sur’s towering cliffs to Morgan Hill on the edge of Silicon Valley, the Monterey Bay Region offers an endless assortment of California experiences. Historic inland towns such as Hollister near Mission San Juan Bautista and Gilroy—home to a world-famous garlic festival. Newly designated Fort Ord National Monument is a haven of shifting sand dunes, while the volcanic formations at Pinnacles National Monument east of Salinas Valley form a sanctuary for rare California condors.
Even the communities along Monterey Bay all have their own distinct identities. Artsy Carmel has held onto its village atmosphere while Monterey preserves remnants of the colorful waterfront life that John Steinbeck vividly portrayed in Cannery Row. Along Cannery Row, world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium celebrates the incomparable marine life of its namesake bay. Farther north, Santa Cruz is famous for its progressive ways, a vintage seaside amusement park, and as California’s birthplace of surfing.