California’s Central Coast holds unparalleled beauty, quirky little towns, and top-notch wineries. In the age of COVID-related shutdowns and limitations, taking a road trip up the California Coast is a vacation that won’t have you wanting for anything. In this travel guide, we break down the best places to explore, dine, and shop from San Luis Obispo to San Simeon.
Best of San Luis Obispo
Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa
California has missions dotting the entire state and each has its own distinct qualities. San Luis Obispo’s mission dives into the history of the area with artifacts from missionaries, Europeans, and indigenous people. It’s a profound experience to consider how these missions changed the fabric of west coast civilization, for better and for worse.
San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Showcasing indigenous and drought-resistant flora, the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden is a lovely experience on its own, but includes grounding events like guided meditations and full moon celebrations. Be sure to check their calendar for upcoming events!
The Madonna Inn
Named after a local politician, The Madonna Inn is … stunning. Imagine kitsch exploding all over a restaurant and inn and no matter what you’re visualizing, you’re not far off. Plan your trip around the holidays and you can hike nearby Cerro San Luis Obispo, which is decorated with lights at the very top and offers sweeping views of the area.
If you want killer thin-crust pizza with an equally fantastic glass (or two) of wine, Flour House is it. A very well-thought-out wine list has the perfect pairing for any pie you can conjure up.
Blackwater is part clothing, part décor, part plants, part jewelry. And, it’s a whole lot of cool. Find the perfect plant to fit into your reading nook and nab a flowy kimono at the same time. You’ve hit boho heaven.
Best of Morro Bay/ Los Osos
Montaña de Oro State Park
Montaña de Oro is a gorgeous state park nestled in Los Osos. Spend the day here and explore the many hiking trails, all of which offer varying levels of exertion and vantage points. Be sure to check weather conditions in advance.
Not to be confused with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, this one is almost as impressive. The Morro Bay Rock holds deep significance in indigenous culture and you can almost feel the hum of its presence. Incredibly, it even has its own website! And, better than all of the tchotchke shops is the abundance of nature in Morro Bay, including otters galore. Depending on the weather, you’ll probably be able to see at least a few otters playing, body surfing, or just snoozing in the Bay.
Further down the road from most of the tourist shops, Tognazzini’s is worth seeking. Incredibly fresh fish, cold beers, and local wines by the glass are all readily available dockside. If you’re not up to the bustle of this port joint, grab some fresh seafood to go and make your own delicious meal.
Tacos El Viejon
We actually hesitated on sharing this. We don’t want the secret getting out, but Tacos El Viejon is that good. We’d be selfish if we didn’t let you know about it. This simple roadside restaurant has super basic service – you order with the cashier to either eat in or to take away. The food, though, is the best you’ll have this side of the border. And the bonus? The owner is a former luchador and has decorated with pictures of the glory days.
Threads is THE place for vintage fashion. You’ll understand the level of fashion sass the moment you see the owner, who is always dressed impeccably. Dig through the racks to find the perfect Hawaiian shirt or sparkly 80s dress.
Best of Harmony
Harmony Headlands is one of the most beautiful hikes in the area and that’s a lofty claim. Get here early because the small parking lot fills up quickly. It’s also beautiful to watch the morning marina layer to move out and open up to pure sunshine. The hike also isn’t overly strenuous at about 4 miles roundtrip so it’s absolutely family-friendly.
Town of Harmony
Boasting a population of 18, Harmony is just … ok, we admit that we don’t adequately know how to describe it. The stunning little Harmony Chapel will have you wanting to plan an event that requires a stunning little chapel. Just make sure your event isn’t too big because you’ll double or even triple the population.
Best of Cambria
Probably the number one reason everyone comes to Cambria is Moonstone Beach. Because it’s the Central Coast, it’s never very hot here and usually requires a layer or two of clothing just to be safe. Keep an eye out during your morning stroll for moonstone or better yet, jade. Both litter the beaches.
Nitt Witt Ridge
881 Hillcrest Dr, Cambria
Nitt Witt Ridge is a place that can only exist in Cambria. It’s both a source of fascination and disdain but it certainly is what it claims to be: It’s the Anti-Hearst Castle. It somehow ended up on the Historical Landmark list and therefore is in need of restoration but if you’re able to get a tour, do it.
Robin’s is a total standout. The beautiful outside garden space is as delicious as the dishes. Robin’s uses local ingredients for international cuisine and every dish is a home run. Book ahead if you can.
Mozzi’s is legit. Not quite a dive but certainly not glamorous, Mozzi’s is an unashamed throwback to the old west without being cheesy. It’s a favorite among locals and the storytelling can get as colorful as the characters.
Sea + Green
Sea + Green is more of a carefully curated collection of goods than a keepsake shop. There’s a heavy emphasis on the power of crystals but you’re also just as likely to nab a stunning antique from Pakistan. It’s hard not to fall in love with the space.
Best of San Simeon
Entry point along Highway 1 in San Simeon
One of the biggest draws in the area, the elephant seals are fascinating to behold. They’re HUGE and it’s incredible to watch them pull themselves out of the surf for a snooze in the sun. Be sure to keep a respectful distance since the males can be very aggressive and that’s a battle you simply won’t win.
After experiencing Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, you’ll be ready for opulence and Hearst Castle delivers. A shuttle will bring you to the castle itself and, depending on the tour you opt for, you’ll be able to explore lavish indulgence. William Randolph Hearst did nothing on a small scale, and his architect Julia Morgan was more than happy to indulge his whims. Keep an eye out for zebras on the way up – Hearst brought them in and they’re now indigenous to the area. Because why not.
San Carpoforo Creek
Entry point along Highway 1
Why choose between the ocean and a creek when you can have both? This teeny roadside stop is blinkably missable but it’s worth keeping your eyes open for it. If you’re heading north, you’ll see some cars parked and signs for Carpoforo Creek on the left side of the road. A short walk will bring you to a deliciously cold creek that you can either wade through or walk around to get to the ocean. Since there is no official parking lot, it can be tricky to park on the weekends. Stick to weekdays to best enjoy this little piece of heaven.
This is just a small slice of what San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay, Harmony, Cambria, and San Simeon offer. It’s decidedly laid-back and it’s hard not to fall in love with the entire area. And while we certainly don’t want it to get overpopulated, we promise you’ll consider moving here after you experience the stellar oceanfront hikes along the coast.