The Central Coast of California runs along the Pacific Ocean from just south of San Francisco to Santa Barbara, just north of Los Angeles. It includes a diverse range of regions, including the Livermore Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, magical Monterey and Carmel, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. This region is one of the most popular in California, both for natives and out-of-state tourists. While just a short while ago it was not a significant wine region, it now produces some of the best wines that California has to offer. Together with spectacular scenery and fine dining, this is a region that begs to be explored and enjoyed. The best way to explore the Central Coast of California is by car. You should plan on spending at least a week on the coast and a couple of extra days in both San Francisco and Los Angeles to experience the entertainment, nightlife, and fine dining of these two wonderful, but very different, cities.
The best way to visit this region is to fly into either San Francisco or Los Angeles and depart out of the other city at the end of your trip. Given the distances to be traveled and the wealth of things to see, the best option after arrival is to rent a car.
When to Visit
High tourist season is summertime. The summer and holiday weekends can be especially crowded when you not only have tourists but also locals escaping from metropolitan areas. If you are visiting during this time it is advisable to book well in advance and be aware that Friday evening incoming and Sunday outgoing traffic can be quite heavy. The warm spring and autumn days are the time to visit when crowds are down and one can take advantage of off-season rates. Autumn is also the time when one can experience the excitement and smell of harvest at the local wineries. The weather during spring and autumn are the sunniest. Cool fog along the coast is very common inland during the warm summer months and temperatures can vary dramatically during the day.
The Towns – going from North to South
The city of Livermore, founded in 1869, is the easternmost city in the San Francisco Bay Area and the official gateway to the Central Valley. It is the home to the renowned Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Sandia National Laboratory. The historic downtown is going through a renaissance with many new shops and restaurants, and is the town’s cultural center. This city is an ideal spot to launch one’s exploration of this valley’s vibrant wine industry.
Since the 1800s, this resort city has been popular for its beaches and coastal redwood forests. The area is also known for its natural beauty and moderate climate, usually warmer and sunnier than elsewhere along the coast. This is the perfect place to stroll along the boardwalk and take in the carousel and roller coaster that date back to the 1900s. Make a stop at the wharf for your favorite seafood. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s lots of fun. Christmas time is especially festive when the annual Holiday Lights Train offers trips every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Its brightly decorated train features Santa and his helpers greeting the passengers. Reservations for the train are a must and sell out every year. The surrounding towns of Capitola, Soquel, and Aptos offer quality restaurants, small inns, resorts and wonderful shops.
This town has a vibrant downtown which is home to some of California’s most historic buildings, as well as the famous Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf. Be advised that these can get quite crowded during summer and holiday weekends. The town is also known for having the oldest continuous jazz festivals in the United States, and its Aquarium is considered the best in the country, if not the world.
This quaint town is a favorite for locals as well as out of town tourists. It is an historic haven for professionals in the field of the arts. The area has charming architecture, unique shops, galleries, meadow trails, beautiful beaches and wonderful restaurants. You can explore by wandering the side streets, checking out hidden courtyards and enjoying coffee or tea at a local café. What more could one want! The Christmas season is extra special when the town turns into a storybook setting with lights, decorations and carolers. Nearby, the Carmel Valley offers resorts, golf, and a burgeoning wine industry, while the Big Sur region to the south has some of the most spectacular coastline in California, if not the U.S.
This artist colony originally started as whaling and mining settlement, and during late winter and early spring you can still spot the whales close to the shore. The old downtown has wonderful Victorian buildings filled with galleries, shops, and restaurants. It’s great for one to walk around the area smelling the scents of pine and sea. The locals love to just hang out here!
San Luis Obispo
This town is located roughly half way between San Francisco and Los Angles on the Central Coast. It is one of California’s oldest communities, which the locals fondly call “SLO” or “San Luis.” Its historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is the best preserved example of 18th Century Spanish architecture to be found. This town is considered the cultural and commercial hub of the Central Coast region. The downtown area is very European in style with quaint shops and outdoor dining. California Polytechnic State University, known as Cal Poly, is located here giving the town a youthful vigor and offering intellectual stimulation. A favorite activity for locals is hiking Madonna Peak.
This is a charming historic town is located in the Santa Ynez Valley and the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, on what once were major stagecoach and rail routes. The town is known for its art galleries, shops, antique stores, wine tasting, and country markets.
One of the favorite local activities in this city is shopping. Besides the shops and galleries, the main attractions are the ocean, the beaches, and foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Santa Barbara’s climate is said to be similar to the Mediterranean and the city, called the American Riviera, has long been a favorite getaway for Los Angeles residents. In spite of the posh hotels, big mansions, trendy boutiques, and ubiquitous Ferraris, Santa Barbara remains a laid-back town.