Our Central Coast travel guide for California 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.
Central Coast Travel Guide (California): Everything You Need to Know
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.