Central CA Coast Travel Guide (Best Towns, Where To Stay & More)

Central Coast Travel Guide (California): Everything You Need to Know

Our Central California Coast travel guide covers everything you need to know for your road trip — including the best towns, where to stay and more!

With such a huge coastline, you could spend a month driving along California’s Hwy 1 and still miss some of the small towns that make this state so unique. We have driven through and stopped along California’s central coast on several occasions, but each time we visit we find a spot we didn’t know existed and this trip was no exception.

We like to boast that our little beach town in San Diego is the best kept secret in California. Much to my surprise, this trip opened my eyes to tiny beach towns just like ours that claim to be the last funky beach town in California (a title that has been given to the town we call home).

We thought we had explored the lesser-known towns on our previous trip to this area, but I guess we were wrong. This trip, we started in San Luis Obispo and ended in Carmel — a town I had lived only an hour away from, yet never explored. We only spent one day driving through Big Sur and McWay Falls since we visit this area about once a year, so we were able to give ourselves more time in the spots we had yet to discover.

Andrew Molera State Park Central California


Central Coast Travel Guide (California): Everything You Need to Know


Cambria, CA

We stopped in Cambria for gas on past trips and Scott remembers me declaring my immediate love for this adorable town. It’s an easy place to overlook (if you blink, you will miss it!) but there’s more than enough reasons to make this a priority on your next trip along the coast of California.


Where to Eat in Cambria

Cambria’s little downtown strip is full of wine cellars, culinary shops, and restaurants serving fresh, organic dishes with a flare. We stayed in Cambria for two nights and spent both evenings at a different restaurant.

Robin’s Restaurant serves international cuisine and is a favorite with the locals in Cambria. With dishes like Filet Mignon Chow Mein and Japanese Scallops & Short Ribs, it was definitely a unique experience.

On our second evening, we tried Black Cat Bistro. We loved our waiter at Black Cat; he was knowledgable, yet relaxed, and he even made a few funny jokes when we asked about the menu items. Scott tried abalone for the first time and it was cooked perfectly — not too chewy.

If you like hard alcohol, just be advised that neither restaurant has a full bar. I’m guessing it’s not common to have a full liquor license in this area, but with all of the exquisite wine and craft breweries, you don’t really need it.

Cambria California Beaches
Leffingwell Landing Beach in Cambria


Where to Stay in Cambria

El Colibri Boutique Hotel & Spa is a charming hotel within walking distance to downtown Cambria as well as Moonstone Beach. Their spa is open to all hotel guests, with two saunas and a hot tub open until 1am.

They have a wine bar downstairs with daily tastings and on Saturday’s, they invite one of the premium boutique wineries in the area to offer tastings while guests enjoy live music. The colorful decor and welcoming staff made us feel right at home.

Read more: 10 Best Things to See and Do on California’s Central Coast


Cayucos, CA

Stopping in Cayucos was sort of an afterthought. We had originally planned to spend all day hiking and wine tasting near Cambria, but instead, we drove about twenty minutes south to have lunch in Cayucos. From the moment we drove into the downtown strip of Cayucos, I could already tell this was our type of beach town. The people we met exude pride about their little town and it’s not overrun with tourists.

Central California Cayucos Pier


Where to Eat in Cayucos

Schooner’s Wharf is located right on the water, with upstairs tables overlooking the ocean. We watched longboarders surf perfect waves and soaked up the December sunshine while we ate fresh oysters and fish tacos. We couldn’t get enough of the Cayucos hot sauce on the table — it goes perfectly with oysters and clam chowder — and had to buy a couple of bottles before we left town.

central california restaurants
Schooner’s Wharf in Cayucos


Carmel, CA

I still can’t believe I’ve never explored Carmel before this trip. I lived in Santa Cruz for over three years and visited many of the nearby areas, but Carmel was never on my radar. This alluring seaside village has managed to keep its original vision of  “a village in a forest overlooking a white sand beach.”

None of the houses or business have street numbers, the village has no street lights and there are no parking meters. Also, fun fact: Clint Eastwood served a term as mayor of Carmel in the late 1980’s.

Read more: The Best Places to Camp in California (And Must-Know Travel Tips!)

carmel central coast of california
Downtown Carmel


Where to Drink in Carmel

Everything is within walking distance, which makes it easy to stumble back to your hotel after several wine tastings (a must when you are visiting Carmel!). We split a Wine Walk Passport — a package that includes one wine tasting flight at any 9 of the 14 tasting rooms.

The best part is that it never expires and you can even give the rest away to friends! We only visited two tasting rooms and both of us were already feeling tipsy; the pours are very generous. So yeah, we have 7 more tasting rooms to visit on our next trip to Carmel.


Where to Stay in Carmel 

We stayed at the lovely Hofsas House and the owner, Carrie, made our stay in this area a memorable one. Upon arrival, we found a bottle of wine chilling next to a cheese platter with crackers, and our Wine Walk Passport (they offer a discount on the passports if purchased as a package). I love wine and cheese, so I was pretty ecstatic to see that waiting in our room after a long day of driving.

Hofsas House is a dog-friendly and centrally located boutique hotel and it’s a great value for the area. They offer several room packages from a hiking package with a gift certificate to a local deli, romance packages, wine packages, and a bonfire on the beach package. Visiting in December means the weather will be unpredictable, so while we weren’t able to enjoy a beach bonfire, we did roast s’mores in our in-room fireplace.

In addition to all the other useful information we learned from Carrie, I am ashamed to say I did not know there was a small airport in Monterey. Add this to the fact that Alaska Air has direct, cheap flights from San Diego and this could easily be a romantic weekend getaway for us!

Finding these hidden gems in a state where I’ve lived my entire life is proof that there is always more to explore in your own backyard. We really could have kept ourselves busy exploring just the coast of San Luis Obispo because it’s overflowing with tiny, relatively-unknown towns.

For a more in-depth look at California’s best coastal towns, read our Pacific Coast Highway road trip guide.


Plan Your Trip to Central California

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  1. Luis A (mediodiablo) says:

    I remember having the best oysters ever just south of Cayucos. It was in Morro Bay.
    The central coast is peaceful. Hope it stays this way 🙂

    1. Ordinary Traveler says:

      I hope so too! 🙂

  2. Discovering hidden gems in your own city is quite a remarkable feeling, isn’t it? It’s never too late to explore your own hometown. It’s great that you were able to discover that small airport in Monterey.

    1. Ordinary Traveler says:

      I’m constantly finding new places to explore nearby. Thanks for reading, Rachel.

  3. Catherine Sweeney says:

    I love driving along the Central Coast. Haven’t made it south to Cayucos, but have been to both Cambria and Carmel. Enjoyed our stay at Hofsas House in Carmel, too. The wine passport is a great deal, but I didn’t know that it never expired. Hope I can find mine — there are a couple of places we didn’t get a chance to visit. In her comment, Edie mentioned the Sea Chest in Cambria. I give it a thumbs up, too.

    1. Ordinary Traveler says:

      So awesome that you’ve been to Hofsas House. I hope you can find your wine passports! It looks like we definitely need to check out Sea Chest.

  4. My husband and I have visited Cambria and the surrounding towns every year for our wedding anniversary for the past eight years. We always find something new and beautiful to enjoy. If you pass back through, try to make it to the Sea Chest Restaurant in Cambria. Wonderful food and recommended by the locals.

    Your blog is great!

    1. Ordinary Traveler says:

      Thanks so much for the suggestion and your kind words about our blog! We’ve been going to Big Sur every year around the holidays, but I think we may have found a few new spots to add to the annual trip.