25 Central Coast Towns for an Outstanding Weekend Escape

Beautiful Central Coast towns line the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each has a unique character, but one thing that unites the towns of California’s central coast is a laid-back vibe. This makes them perfect for a quick escape from the bustling metropolises that anchor either end. 

Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura make up the four Central Coast regions from north to south. The towns highlighted below have everything you need for a relaxing family-friendly getaway. You’ll find beaches that are perfect for swimming or surfing, gorgeous views of the pacific ocean, trails, opportunities to connect with nature, and attractions that range from quirky to adventurous. 

Though most of the towns listed below are on the coast, I’ve also included a few that are a quick drive inland but are well worth a visit during your exploration of this fantastic section of the state. It’s also important to know that many of these towns are not far from each other. Pick a home base, and have fun exploring.

Things are always changing! Make sure to double-check schedule changes and closures before your trip.

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Where is the Central Coast of California?

The Central Coast is located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it has a unique character. The unofficial capital of the Central Coast is the San Luis Obispo region, known by its acronym SLO.

Unlike the pace of life in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Central Coast towns embrace slowing down. Whether you’re passing through or are heading to the Central Coast as a destination in its own right, driving along the coast is part of the fun. Slow down and enjoy the journey.

Map of Central Coast Towns by Region

The Central Coast towns included on this list are mapped out below and color-coded by region. 

If you already have a region in mind, skip ahead through the following links: 

When is the best time to visit the Central Coast?

The Central Coast towns mentioned here span a big chunk of the California coastline. Weather patterns will differ depending on whether you’re at the northern or the southern end, but it’s safe to say that all the towns have a mild climate year-round. I’ve enjoyed sunny winter afternoons in Big Sur and cool summer mornings in Avila Beach.

Like much of California, the best time to visit is fall or spring. Fall was once my favorite time to travel, but now you have to be aware of what has become the fire season. Be in the know on what’s going on throughout the state. A fire anywhere can impact air quality hundreds of miles away. 

Spring might have more rainy days than fall (or so we hope!), but that rain brings the state’s natural beauty to life. When we visited Solvang in early spring one year, I almost didn’t recognize the area. The hills were carpeted with gorgeous emerald green. You might even get to catch the sight of an unforgettable wildflower bloom. 

No matter what time of year it is, expect some fog and cool mornings and evenings. Pack layers, even in the summer.

Central California Coast Towns in the Monterey Bay Region

The northernmost section of California’s Central Coast towns, the Monterey Bay Region offers spectacular natural beauty, from Big Sur’s rugged beaches to some of California’s best surfing in Santa Cruz.

Families can enjoy everything from purple sand beaches to one of the country’s best aquariums to the Garlic Capital of the World in the Monterey Bay Region. There is no shortage of family fun and adventure here!

Santa Cruz

The Boardwalk at Night from the Sky Glider
The fun keeps going on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk after the sun goes down.

An environmentally conscious surf town with wide sandy beaches, Santa Cruz also happens to be home to one of California’s most iconic roller coasters. With a thriving creative scene downtown and majestic coastal redwoods in the mountains, Santa Cruz is a wonderful home base for exploring Central Coast towns in the Monterey Bay Region.

If you want more details on a family getaway to Santa Cruz, click here for the full post.

What To Do

  • Spend the day at the vintage seaside amusement park, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Known for the landmark Giant Dipper Roller Coaster constructed in 1924, this uniquely Californian amusement park is fun for all ages. 
  • Explore coastal redwoods by foot or by train. The one-mile Redwood Grove loop hike at Henry Cowell State Park is an easy stroll that makes a big impact. It’s also a great place to spot the city’s mascot: banana slugs. Next to the park is Roaring Camp Railroad, a family favorite for steam train rides into the redwoods or even back to the Boardwalk. 
  • Experience Santa Cruz’s trippy and silly side at the Mystery Spot. Said to be a gravitational anomaly, the spot’s many visual illusions will keep you laughing and head-scratching. 
  • Anxious to get in the water? Learn to surf at the birthplace of surfing in North America.

Where to Stay

  • If you want to stay in the middle of the action, consider staying at the landmark Dream Inn. Each of the 165 guest rooms has ocean views and the hotel pool is steps from the sand. The Dream Inn is located on the site of Jack O’Neill’s first surf shop and is an easy walk to the Wharf, Boardwalk, and West Cliff Drive.
  • Seascape Beach Resort in the neighboring town of Aptos offers more space and a quieter beach experience. Every room in this all-suite resort has kitchens, fireplaces, and access to 17 miles of beach. Families love the two-bedroom villas. In addition to more rooms, they come with a washer and dryer, full kitchen, living room, and outdoor space. If your room is further from the beach, the resort has golf carts for guests so you don’t have to worry about dragging your gear to and from the sand.

Gilroy

Fun day at Gilroy Gardens.
Flying through Gilroy Gardens after a night camping in the park.

A little less than an hour inland from Santa Cruz, Gilroy is known as the Garlic Capital of the World. You can smell the garlic in the air as you drive in from the coast. If someone in your family loves garlic, this little town is worth a stop.

What To Do

  • Discover 40 rides, a splash park, and over 10,000 trees at Gilroy Gardens, a wonderland for families with young kids. 

Where to Stay

  • Time your visit with one of Gilroy Gardens’s Family Camp Nights. Enjoy movies and other special experiences in the park after hours. Dinner, breakfast, and park admission are included. All you have to bring is your tent and some clothes.

San Juan Bautista

The mission at San Juan Bautista.
Mission San Juan Bautista

Just over half an hour inland from Monterey, San Juan Bautista was the first California settlement not on the water. Today it remains anchored by its Mission and its role in California history.

What To Do

  • The Mission and the State Historic Park are central to the town of San Juan Bautista. For a small entrance fee, you can explore the four main buildings, a blacksmith shop, a jail, and the cabin of a settler. Hear stories to learn about the good and the bad of life in early California. 
  • Wander down 3rd street which retains the town’s wild west feel to imagine years gone by while browsing local shops and grabbing a bite to eat.

Where to Stay

  • Though more of a motel than a hotel with doors facing the inner courtyard, travelers love Hacienda de Leal for its beautiful grounds and clean, relaxed vibe. Enjoy a fire pit in the evening surrounded by courtyard trees all aglow with lights.

Monterey

Whale Watching in Monterey, one of our favorite Central Coast towns.
Searching for whales in Monterey.

A visit to the Central Coast town of Monterey offers special magic. Most come for the famous aquarium, but there is plenty to keep families exploring beyond those mesmerizing jellyfish. Stay awhile and meet local whales and otters, take a family bike ride along the coast, and explore one of California’s oldest cities. It’s a fascinating place to wander, on land and by sea. 

If you want to read more about what there is to do in Monterey and other nearby towns on the Monterey Peninsula, click here for a full post and a four-day itinerary.

What To Do

  • No visit to Monterey is complete without time spent at the famous aquarium! Take your time ogling sardines, leopard sharks, wolf-eels, and many more. There are also plenty of hands-on ways to immerse yourself in the Monterey Bay Aquarium experience. 
  • Embark on a whale-watching tour or hop in a kayak to get a glimpse of the Bay’s fascinating animals up close.
  • Enjoy a family bike ride along the 18-mile Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail.

Where to Stay

  • The Portola Hotel is welcoming to kids but still a nice getaway for grown-ups too. Families enjoy the outdoor pool, kid-friendly eats, and a library with materials for all ages. Monterey vendors like Adventures by Sea and Sea Car Tours also have locations here, making it a convenient home base.
  • If you are up for a splurge, the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa offers a welcome Discovery Kit and a Plaza Explorers Program designed to engage families with fun and educational experiences customized to your interests. The hotel also features suites with bunk beds and is only a 10-minute walk to the Aquarium.

Pacific Grove

Excited to see butterflies at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary.
Pacific Grove goes all out for migrating Monarch butterflies.

This beautiful little town with its trademark Victorian-style homes sits right next to Monterey on the peninsula. It is known as “Butterfly Town, USA” for its annual monarch butterfly sanctuary and migration site. It makes a great home base for Monterey Peninsula explorations.

What To Do

  • If you’re visiting between November and February, check out the town’s beloved Monarch Sanctuary. After a few quiet winters, the butterflies returned during the winter of 2021-22, with a count of about 14,000! It’s a short walk but take your time. Many clusters look more like leaves than butterflies.
  • At Lovers Point Park you’ll find green grass for running, BBQs for grilling, rocks for climbing, two small sandy beaches, clean bathrooms, and good coffee shops. Located in a protected cove, this is one of the safer places for kids to splash in the ocean.

Where to Stay

  • Asilomar State Park and Conference Grounds make for convenient and budget-friendly lodging in Pacific Grove. Rooms are rustic and no-frills but are steps away from a gorgeous state beach on grounds filled with nature trails and historic architecture. 
  • Pacific Grove also has some great vacation rentals. Sanctuary Vacation Rentals offer good options for character-filled and comfortable homes that are the perfect landing pad after a long day of sightseeing. One of my favorites, Villa by the Sea, is about a 10-minute walk to the aquarium.

Carmel-By-The-Sea

Sunset at Carmel Beach, one of our favorite Central Coast towns.
Sunsets attract a crowd on beautiful Carmel Beach.

Dog-friendly Carmel-by-the-Sea is the most upscale of its neighbors, known for boutique shopping and fine dining. It has an artistic soul with many galleries, music festivals, and theater productions. And then there’s the whimsical architecture of the village that opens onto one of the most beautiful beaches of these Central Coast towns. Though this one might be more appealing to parents than kids, there is still something for everyone to explore.

What To Do

  • Enjoy gorgeous Carmel Beach’s white sand beach and adjacent tide pools. This is a magical spot to catch a sunset and is known by some as Sunset Beach. 
  • Stroll through downtown Carmel with its picturesque shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Wander through the labyrinth of side streets with their small garden courtyards and passageways. Reward patient kids with stops at Thinker Toys and Cottage of Sweets
  • Explore the natural wonders of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just south of Carmel. Known as the “crown jewel of the California State Park system,” this is one of my favorite spots to explore with the boys. Check out our favorite trails and resources for kids here
  • Catch a performance at the outdoor Forest Theater. Every August and September features a family musical followed by the annual Carmel Shakespeare Festival in October.

Where to Stay

  • The Normandy Inn offers multi-room cottages located on Ocean Avenue and is just three blocks from Carmel Beach. Parking is limited, but at this location, there’s plenty to see and do by foot.
  • Comfort Inn Carmel-by-the-Sea is an affordable option in a pricey location. Rooms are clean and comfortable and breakfast and limited free parking are included.

Carmel Valley

The Farm Stand at Earthbound Farms
The Farm Stand at Earthbound Farms (photo by Earthbound Farm)

Less touristy than its coastal neighbors, Carmel Valley offers rustic beauty and sunnier skies than the often fog-covered coast. This is a place to get away from it all, with plenty of opportunities to simply relax and explore the idyllic atmosphere.

What To Do

  • Hang out in laid-back Carmel Valley Village. Picnic in the Village Community Park or relax at the family-friendly Cowgirl Winery. While grown-ups sample a new wine, the whole family can have fun playing corn-hole and spying on the resident chickens. 
  • Enjoy the Earthbound Farms Farm Stand. A pioneer in the organic food movement, Earthbound Farms now has a year-round cafe and seasonal visitor experiences that are fun and educational for all ages.
  • Explore Garland Ranch Regional Park by foot, bike, or horse. Historic buildings can be found throughout the park providing a glimpse of Carmel Valley’s past.

Where to Stay

  • The 500-acre Carmel Valley Ranch is a destination in and of itself. This all-suite hotel features fireplaces and decks in every room and a wide range of onsite adventures, including experiences just for kids. The whole family will enjoy fireside chats with the resident naturalists (and s’mores), disc golf, falconry, a day at the family pool and splash pad, and much more.
  • At the Camp at Carmel Valley, visitors can choose to glamp in rustic cabins (no electricity and BYO bedding) or enjoy a full-service house rental. Once a children’s camp, they offer a range of classic camp activities from swimming, yard games, and board games to group campfires, tie-dye sessions, and guided hikes. All meals are included, so all you need to do is sit back, relax, and play.

Big Sur

Bug in awe at McWay Falls.
Hypnotized by gorgeous McWay Falls.

In remote and rugged Big Sur, all of the best things to do lead outdoors. You can go from redwood forest hikes to waves crashing onto a purple sand beach within minutes. Though Big Sur is a popular spot for romantic getaways and wellness retreats, it’s also a wonderful place for families to unwind and connect. Your phone won’t work much of the time and many lodging options come without televisions. But you can get outside and enjoy family fun while immersing yourself in the area’s natural beauty.

For more on our favorite family-friendly Big Sur stops, click here for a full post and a four-day itinerary.

What To Do

  • If you are visiting the area between February and April, make time to wander through Garrapata State Park’s Calla Lily Valley. This surreal little hidden valley full of wild Calla Lilies is hidden just off of Highway 1. Walk back via the beautiful beach before hopping back into the car.
  • Hike up to Pfeiffer Falls, one of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s most family-friendly trails. Stop by the lodge to treat the kids to post-hike ice cream. 
  • Stop for lunch at the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant, where your to-go order comes in a cooler that you can bring down to the river. Relax in the restaurant’s Adirondack chairs with your toes in the river while the kids play nearby. 
  • Play on a beautiful beach with purple sand and the Keyhole Arch, one of the region’s most photographed natural bridges. Click here for a full post on planning a family day at Big Sur’s purple sand beach.
  • Take a family photo by McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. McWay Falls is one of only two tidefalls, a waterfall that pours into the ocean, in California. The walk to the overlook is quick and easy. You’ll be viewing with plenty of others, but the good news is that you’ll easily find someone willing to snap your family photo. 

Where to Stay

  • The Big Sur Lodge may not be fancy, but it has comfort, convenience, and a great location in the park. You won’t have TV or WiFi, but you have hiking trails, a heated pool, the river, and good eats right outside your door. Accommodation fees include admission to three state parks: Pfeiffer Big Sur, Andrew Molera, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns. 
  • Kirk Creek campground is known for its dramatic ocean views. If you’re ok with bringing fresh water and using vault toilets, you’ll love this gorgeously situated campground.

Central California Coast Towns in the San Luis Obispo Region

The San Luis Obispo Region is the unofficial capital of the Central Coast. It’s the area that comes to mind for most people when they think of Central Coast towns. SLO is both an acronym and a way of life here. The cities and towns that line this section of the coast range from vintage Main Streets to classic California beach towns. Expect to find quirky shops, great local restaurants, sandy beaches, and gorgeous hiking trails.

San Simeon

The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle in one of our favorite Central Coast towns.
The inviting Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle. Join the Foundation at Hearst Castle to take a dip!

San Simeon is best known as home to the over-the-top mansion built for one of the richest men of his time. But when you’re done with your Hearst Castle tour, there’s still plenty for families to see and do in this sleepy beach town.

What To Do

  • Hearst Castle looms high on the mountain above San Simeon. It is a mansion-turned museum that asks guests to imagine what it would have been like to be a guest of media baron William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and 30s. The experience is best for families with kids 5+. We last visited when the boys were 2 and 4 years old. They loved the bus ride, and JJ was impressed by the grand scale of the house. But tour sizes are large, and they aren’t designed for kids. We enjoyed the outdoor spaces more because I could walk with Bug at the edge of the group when he got antsy. 
  • Elephant seals love the California coast! San Simeon is home to the Elephant Seal Preserve at Piedras Blancas. You can view the seals from a wide boardwalk without a tour or hike. Visit in late January during pupping season, early May at peak molting season, and in late October when the juvenile elephant seals return from the ocean.

Where to Stay

  • San Simeon Lodge is a family-friendly motel with a pool that is a short walk from the ocean and local restaurants. The Lodge is a great value option given its location. 
  • If you’re looking for a place to camp with an RV, the San Simeon Creek Campground offers 134 sites in Hearst San Simeon State Park, 5.5 miles south of the Castle. The sites in the lower section have more shade and trees, but the upper section has much better views.

Cambria

Boys playing on the boardwalk in front of Moonstone Beach, another great road trip stop on Highway 1 with kids in one of our favorite central coast towns.
Clowning around on Moonstone Beach.

Stretched between towering pines and the Pacific Ocean, this quintessential Central Coast town harkens back to simpler times. Visitors love to stroll its walkable downtown with artsy shops and boutiques, wine tasting, history, and amazing restaurants. Active families will want to venture out to explore natural wonders as well.

What To Do

  • A trip to Cambria isn’t complete without a visit to Linn’s Restaurant. Make sure to leave room for dessert to sample a slice of Linn’s famous olallieberry pie. 
  • Spend a day relaxing on Moonstone Beach. Whether you want to sink your toes in the sand, stroll down the boardwalk, try to spy on some whales, or play at Shamel Park on the beach’s south end, there’s something for everyone on Moonstone Beach. 
  • Get up close and personal with majestic Clydesdale horses at the Covell Clydesdale Ranch. The ranch is home to about 100 Clydesdale horses of all ages and sizes. Anyone who is 7 years old or older will enjoy a guided tour where you can bond with a Clydesdale horse while taking in the beautiful views and learning about ranch history. All ages are welcome on a ranch tour by UTV or trailer.

Where to Stay

  • The Sea Otter Inn is located across the street from Moonstone Beach. In the morning, they leave you a breakfast basket outside your door, and one of the options is breakfast burritos. Does it get any better than waking up with breakfast burritos on the beach? It’s also a pet-friendly property with a pool, hot tub, and fire pits with ocean views.
  • The Cambria Pines Inn is a comfortable place for families to stay in town. Wander through 25 acres of gardens, soak in the outdoor pool and hot tub, and take a walk downtown (though the trail to town takes you on a steep downhill that is not stroller-friendly, something we learned the hard way!). This is the perfect place to be if you’re in town for the amazing annual Christmas Market, located on-site.

Paso Robles

Paso Robles is an emerging wine hot spot but is still family friendly.
Grapes are the name of the game in Paso Robles (photo by LI Create from Getty Images Signature via Canva).

A little less than an hour inland, Paso Robles is emerging as one of California wine’s latest hot spots. Folks often say it’s like Napa in the early days. It’s still unpretentious and fun, and you’ll find plenty of kid-friendly places to taste. Paso is also home to the fairgrounds where you can enjoy the Mid-State Fair, annual rodeos, and other family-friendly events.

What To Do

  • Relax at a family-friendly winery like Sculpterra. On weekends enjoy a tasting or a glass outdoors with great music and rotating food trucks. If you’re interested in more family-friendly wineries, check out this list by Paso Wine
  • Visitors rave about the immersive art installation, Light at Sensorio. What was supposed to be a temporary art installation continues to be extended. The original work, Bruce Monroe’s Field of Light, is a 15-acre walk-through experience with more than 58,000 glowing spheres illuminating the landscape. 
  • Because it’s located further inland, Paso Robles is hotter than other Central Coast Towns. To cool off head to the Ravine Water Park, which features fun attractions like a wave pool and the 7-story-high Thunder Run family raft ride. 
  • At Zoo to You, Conservation Ambassadors provide a safe and caring home for displaced, abused, abandoned, or permanently injured wild and exotic animals. They use their unique program to educate visitors about wildlife conservation. Meet the animals up close on one-of-a-kind animal encounters with animals from around the world, including kangaroos, eagles, and lemurs.

Where to Stay

  • The Adelaide Inn is a family-owned hotel known for great service, clean rooms, and welcome amenities including an outdoor space with a pool, lawn, BBQ area, and putting green.
  • Accommodations at Cava Robles luxury RV resort include spacious RV sites as well as some fully furnished glamping cottages, each with a fire pit. You’ll also enjoy swimming pools, a splash pad, a hot tub, and an onsite restaurant for when you want to relax at the end of the day. 

Cayucos

Cayucos, CA: a relaxed cowboy type of central coast town.
Cayucos State Beach and Historic Cayucos Pier (photo by Getty Images via Canva)

We have friends who moved to California from Texas. They are always in search of a town with the ideal mellow California Beach vibe, and Cayucos is their favorite find so far. This central California town is often described as having a “relaxed cowboy” beach town feel, which is the perfect combo for our Texan friends… and many others.

What To Do

  • Hit the beach! With six miles of white sand beach stretching to Morro Rock, Cayucos State Beach is one of California’s best for surfing, swimming, tide-pooling, and soaking up the sun. 
  • Wander along the Estero Bluffs Trail which follows along the coastline with grasslands and seasonal wildflowers. Depending on the time of year, you might spot gray whales migrating or otters and harbor seals playing closer to shore. Scramble down to the beach near San Geronimo Creek where you can explore tidepools in the peaceful waters. 
  • Cayucos locals find fun ways to celebrate throughout the year. The town is known for its festivals, from the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Dip at the Pier (costumes encouraged) to a month of celebrating Sea Glass in March. Check out their calendar of events before you go. 

Where to Stay

  • Shoreline Inn on the Beach is located directly on the beach. And when you’re not on the sand, you’re close to downtown and the pier. Rooms have balconies or open up to a communal green space and picnic area.
  • Beachside Rentals is the place to go for a comfortable and homey oceanfront vacation rental. Book a place like Laurie’s House and enjoy spending time outdoors with a dining table and firepit on the deck overlooking the beach and a private stairway to the sand. 

Morro Bay

Playing on the muddy beach at Morro Bay State Park, one of our favorite central coast towns.
Morro Bay magic on a walk to the fantastic heron rookery.

This Central Coast town is best known for the landmark Morro Rock, a 576-foot tall volcanic plug perched at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Formed 23 million years ago, it’s now home to nesting Peregrine Falcons and has California Historical Landmark Status. Drive to the base of Morro Rock for a closer look, or simply enjoy the views from throughout town while munching on fresh seafood or enjoying your next outdoor adventure.

What To Do

  • Calm Morro Bay is full of natural beauty and wildlife and is a great spot for beginning kayakers. Join a family-friendly nature tour with Central Coast Outdoors to get a closer look at the water. 
  • Stroll the Embarcadero to visit shops and restaurants along the waterfront and say hello to sea lions and otters. The dock outside the Great American Fish Company is a big hang-out spot for the otters in particular.
  • Morro Bay State Park’s Estuary Preserve is an 800-acre wetland that creates rich habitats for animals who call Morro Bay home. The Heron Rookery is one of the coolest wildlife experiences we’ve had. You can see and hear double-crested cormorants, great egrets, and great blue herons roosting in trees between February and June.
  • If your kiddos are curious to see what’s beneath the surface of Morro Bay but aren’t quite ready for a dive, check out the SSV Seaview Sub Sea Tour. This 21-passenger vessel has an underwater viewing room so passengers can see the fish, jellyfish, kelp, and other marine life from the boat.

Where to Stay

  • The Beach Bungalow Inn & Suites may not be on the waterfront, but this modest hotel is a great value. Spread out in one of the family suites and leave the car behind while you stroll to restaurants, shops, and many Morro Bay attractions. Breakfasts are included and will be delivered to your room. Beach cruisers are also available if taking a bike ride around the Bay is on your list. 
  • If you’re looking for the quintessential California waterfront getaway, look no further than this gorgeous Bayfront Beach House on Airbnb. Greet sea otters in the morning, experience true waterfront dining in the evening, and stroll to the Embarcadero or Morro Rock if you can tear yourself away.

Los Osos

Beautiful Montaña de Oro State Park in Los Osos, CA
Montaña de Oro State Park (photo by Yulee from Getty Images via Canva)

When you want to get away from it all, spend a day or two in Los Osos. This sleepy town attracts more nature lovers than beach vacation tourists. Come here for natural beauty and rejuvenating outdoor adventures. 

What To Do

  • Los Osos is home to beautiful Montaña de Oro State Park with its rugged cliffs, quiet sandy beaches, streams, and canyons. Families enjoy Spooner’s Cove beach with a seasonal lagoon that flows to the ocean. The 3.4-mile out-and-back Bluff trail takes you past wonderful ocean vistas to tide pools near Corallina Cove
  • The Elfin Forest is an ancient oak grove with trees that only grow 4 to 20 feet tall. There is a one-mile boardwalk loop trail that guides visitors through these amazing oaks where adults often stand a full head taller than the trees. On the third Saturday of the month at 9:30 am, docents lead “Nature Walks in the Elfin Forest.” Walks are free, there is no need to sign up in advance. 
  • Try your hand at birding, and maybe nature journaling, at the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve. The preserve’s 32 acres have been owned and managed by the Morro Coast Audubon Society since 1989. Enjoy a quiet hike, beautiful views of Morro Bay, and a great introduction to Central Coast birding. 

Where to Stay

  • Relax and recharge at this beautiful bayfront vacation home just steps from the bay. Enjoy views of Morro Bay and Morro Rock from every room.

San Luis Obispo

Picking Citrus at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, considered by many to be the  capitol of central coast towns.
Picking out oranges in the Cal Poly agriculture fields.

Slightly inland, San Luis Obispo is sunnier and a bit busier than neighboring Central Coast towns. Home to Cal Poly, SLO, it’s half college town and half farm town. I went to school here myself, and though the town has grown since my graduation, it still retains the easy-going, friendly vibe that I recall.

What To Do

  • Visits to San Luis Obispo almost always involve a stroll downtown. Shop unique local stores, savor one of Firestone’s famous tri-tip sandwiches, and soak in the bustling Thursday night Farmers Market. There are two main landmarks in downtown SLO: the beautiful Mission de San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and the Bubble Gum Alley, which will likely draw you in no matter how gross you think it is!
  • The most popular hike in the area for families will take you to Bishop’s Peak. The tallest of the Nine Sisters, the 1.559-foot summit offers views of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding Los Osos valley. The trail starting at Highland Drive is 3.5 miles round trip with 950 feet of elevation gain, making it a challenging but rewarding day hike.
  • If you prefer to explore by horseback, the famously gaudy Madonna Inn offers trail rides for visitors ages 7 and up. Enjoy stunning views of the mountains and surrounding area, and celebrate with a slice of one of the Inn’s yummy cakes. 
  • Engage with the Cal Poly ag department at one of Cal Poly’s U-Pick Days. Our boys had a great time running up and down the citrus fields. Student fields are located off the Highland Drive entrance. Drive north up Via Carta for the Plant Shop and lovely Arboretum. 
  • If you’re traveling with younger children, make a stop at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. Three floors and an outside play area are filled to the gills with hands-on exhibits for kids ages 1-10. 

Where to Stay

  • Hands down, my favorite place to stay in San Luis Obispo is Petit Soleil. A cute little bed and breakfast, with a seriously good breakfast and evening wine tasting, you can count on a comfortable stay with great service. As a bonus, the San Luis Obispo outpost of the delicious Splash Cafe is so close that they share a parking lot. Can’t get any better than that. 
  • For a central location, you can’t beat Hotel San Luis Obispo. Located a block from the Mission, this is a great home base for visitors who want downtown at their doorstep. Rooms have small balconies or patios for some extra space to relax at the end of the day. 

Avila Beach

Avila Beach is great for families and one of our favorite central coast towns.
Beautiful Avila Beach.

Avila Beach is one of my favorite destinations for families looking for a low-key beach getaway. The beach is just steps from the center of town, and the surrounding hills shelter it from the wind. You’ll find that the weather is overall warmer and sunnier than other Central Coast towns, making Avila perfect for long days playing on the sand. More laid-back than its popular neighbors, San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach, it’s close enough for easy visits to either.

For more details on what to do nearby, click here for our full Avila Beach post with a four-day itinerary.

What To Do

  • It’s no surprise that going to the beach tops the list of things to do in a town called Avila Beach! Of the six main beaches in Avila, three are great for family beach days and can be easily accessed along Avila Beach Drive. Avila Beach / City Beach is a large sandy beach that runs along the town waterfront. Families with young children enjoy hanging out along the shores of San Luis Obispo Creek at the north end. There is also a fun little park with a pirate-themed playground for when you need a break from the sand. The shops and restaurants of Avila Beach are just up the stairs near the pier.
  • Avila Barn is a popular spot to pick up some farm-fresh fruit, delicious baked goods, and cute gifts and souvenirs. This once little farm stand has grown into a tourist destination in its own right. It’s got a great family-friendly vibe, quality goods, a BBQ, and a sweet shop. Depending on the season, you may be able to extend your visit with hayrides, pony rides, pumpkin patches, and hay mazes. 
  • For a unique whale watching experience, check out Avila Beach Whale Watching. They offer one-hour coastal wildlife viewing tours and two-hour whale watching excursions most of the year. The small boat only takes 6 passengers at a time, ensuring that everyone has a great view. 
  • If you’re looking to turn your beach getaway into a family adventure try a family surf lesson with Van Curaza Surf School. The school welcomes everyone of every ability level to come out and give surfing a try. Book a group lesson for the whole family and build some unforgettable memories together. Lessons are tailored to your group to make the best experience possible for your family.

Where to Stay

  • It’s hard to find a better hotel option for families than the Avila Lighthouse Suites. Not only is it steps from City Beach and all of the fun and convenience of downtown, but every room is also a suite with a living room, bedroom, and private balcony or patio. The owner’s suites include a small kitchen with a refrigerator and microwave, so you can easily make some meals in your home away from home. When you tire of the ocean, you can splash in the hotel pool and hot tub with ocean views.
  • We love this cute little 2-bed, 1.5-bath cottage from the early 1900s. It comes with beach views and a patio with a fire pit and BBQ for relaxing outside “at home.” The beach is only a half-block away, so you can easily come and go as you please. Book directly with Seven Sisters for the best rates.

Pismo Beach

Playing at Dinosaur Caves Park on a foggy Pismo day. Pismo Beach is one of our favorite Central Coast towns.
Playing on a foggy day at Pismo Beach.

Billing itself as a classic California beach town, Pismo Beach is more overtly touristy than its Central Coast neighbors. When people think of Pismo, most think of the Pismo Pier Plaza with its new, and very Instagrammable, illuminated seven-foot-tall letters that spell out Pismo Beach. But while this is a must-see part of town, there’s plenty more adventure to be had in Pismo. 

What To Do

  • Chow down on delicious eats. Pismo is known for some famous eateries. The line for Splash Cafe, with its famously rich and creamy clam chowder in a bread bowl (I highly recommend ordering it with the seafood topper), often snakes around the block. And you don’t want to leave town without tasting incredible Old West Cinnamon Rolls
  • Dinosaur Caves Park is fun for the whole family. An 11-acre, ocean-front, bluff-top park hosts community and entertainment events in addition to a fun and unique play structure. Take your Old West Cinnamon Rolls there for breakfast and let the kids play off the sugar!
  • Families traveling with tweens and teens might enjoy a different view of Pismo: that of the Sea Caves from a kayaker’s POV. This Cave Excursion offered and guided by Central Coast Kayaks, leads participants through a series of arches, caves, and rock gardens. It’s a challenge, but this popular tour is exciting for kayakers at all levels. 
  • A favorite activity of many Pismo visitors is riding ATVs and dune buggies along the sand. Outfitters like Sun Buggy Fun Rentals have all you need to get started. 
  • South of the Pismo Pier, Pismo State Beach becomes much quieter. You can relax on the beach with fewer crowds and, during the migration season, wander into the Monarch Butterfly Colony via the adjacent campground. This is a wonderful part of Pismo that feels worlds away from crowded attractions. 

Where to Stay

  • The Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa is an all-around wonderful choice for visiting families. Set along the bluffs, each room is a 1 or 2-bedroom suite with a living and dining room, kitchen, and balcony or patio. The gorgeous grounds include a pool overlooking the ocean and an expansive fire pit and BBQ area.
  • Like their sister property in Avila Beach, Pismo Lighthouse Suites offers a great option for families. This all-suite hotel has a newly upgraded Play Deck with a pirate-themed play structure, mini golf, giant Connect 4 and Chess, and more. At the end of a busy day, it’s great to be able to unwind with a glass of wine while the kids have plenty of room to run around outside a hotel room.

Central California Coast Towns in the Santa Barbara Region

The Santa Barbara Region has a Mediterranean feel and some of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes on the California Coast. Like Big Sur, it’s often thought of as a popular place for romance and wellness, but this region is also a wonderful place for families to get outside and adventure together.

Los Olivos

Clairmont Farms in Los Olivos
Clairmont Farms in Los Olivos (photo by Ashala Taylor, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Charming Los Olivos was founded in the 1880s. Its historical Victorian homes and buildings now house art galleries, tasting rooms, and shops, but it retains an unpretentious vibe. 

What To Do

  • Gab fresh-squeezed lemonade at Los Olivos Lemons, a stand that’s shaped like a giant lemon! 
  • Visit Clairmont Farms, where visitors are welcome to stroll through the fields and picnic at one of California’s most important sources of lavender. Essential oils and other goods can be found in the onsite boutique.
  • Enjoy the region’s wine at Coquelicot’s family-friendly tasting room in the middle of downtown Los Olivos. The large garden space has picnic tables, a bocce ball court, fountains, corn hole, and winding pathways to explore together. 

Where to Stay

Buellton

Flying Flags Resort in Buellton offers fun for the whole family.
The cabins at Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground (photo by Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground)

When I was a kid, Buellton was synonymous with an Andersen’s Pea Soup stop on the way to Disneyland. But it’s worth more than just a lunch stop. Buellton’s family-friendly playgrounds and outdoor adventures make it a fun and convenient home base for families looking to explore the Santa Ynez Valley.

What To Do

  • The 0.65-mile round trip trail to Nojoqui Falls is fun for all ages and worth a visit. The trail ends at a viewing platform where you can admire the 80-foot falls. The park is free to enter and offers picnic tables, grills, and a playground so you can enjoy a picnic after your walk.
  • Buellton is home to the Santa Ynez Botanic Garden which makes education and family-friendly fun a top priority. We love visiting Botanic Gardens with our boys, especially those that offer interactive programs to help families understand and appreciate nature. 

Where to Stay

  • Flying Flags RV Resort & Campground is a great choice for families. Visitors who are not traveling by RV can “glamp” in one of the resort’s safari tents, trailers, cabins, or cottages. Many of the accommodations come with furnished private patios and BBQs. When you’re not out and about exploring, on-site amenities include a pool, hot tub, a splash ground, playground, bocce ball courts, and more. There are scheduled programs for family fun and the Campfire Cafe to keep you comfortable and stocked with all you’ll need during your stay.

Santa Ynez

Santa Ynez is known for its horses and cowboy town style.
Santa Ynez horses (photo by SchraderStock via Canva)

A “sophisticated cowboy town,” Santa Ynez embraces its 19th-century style with old western building facades, saloons, and feed stores. Modern shops and galleries line streets with horse-shoe embedded crosswalks, while local restaurants serve up a delicious local favorite, waffles.

What To Do

  • Stroll downtown to pick up breakfast or lunch at The Baker’s Table, and keep your eyes peeled for the occasional horse hitched to a post. 
  • If you have a little one hoping to go on a ride, Seein’ Spots Farm is on a mission to educate the public about miniature donkeys. Located about 5 minutes away in nearby Ballard, the farm offers rides to small children. All are welcome to meet the donkeys and the many other animals on this one-of-a-kind rescue farm.

Where to Stay

  • Immerse yourself in the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley with valley views from every room of this Santa Ynez cottage. The owners live nearby with their family and may share the inside scoop on a local’s perspective for the best family-friendly activities in the area.

Solvang

Strolling through Solvang.
Strolling through Solvang on a sunny day.

Known as the “Danish Capital of America,” this charming little town will delight at first sight. Visitors love its Danish architecture, authentic Danish bakeries, and even family-friendly wine tasting options for mom and dad. Solvang has more amenities than neighboring Central Coast towns in the Santa Ynez Valley, so it makes a good home base for families looking to explore this wonderful region. 

For more details on what to do nearby, click here for our full Solvang post with a four-day itinerary.

What To Do

  • A highlight of any Solvang visit is sampling the baked goods from the Village’s Danish bakeries. Enjoy traditional butter cookies, aebleskivers, Danish waffles, and more. Taste your way through town and then bring home some butter cookies as a way to remember your delicious Solvang visit. 
  • Fans of The Little Mermaid will want to stop by the Hans Christian Andersen Museum to learn more about the life and work of this celebrated Danish author. The museum is conveniently located above The Book Loft if you’d like to pick up a story on your way out.
  • Hans Christian Andersen Park is located within walking distance of the center of Solvang Village. Enter through the castle arch and let the kiddos enjoy the playground’s tall slides. The park also features a music-making station and a rock-climbing wall. Plenty of trees and picnic tables are scattered throughout the park.
  • Just five minutes outside of Solvang Village is Ostrichland, USA. A one-of-a-kind destination, Ostrichland houses over 100 ostriches and emus. Visitors can get up close to feed them or watch them roam. The large enclosure allows the birds to get up to impressive speeds. 

Where to Stay

  • If you’re looking to stay in a central downtown Solvang location with a pool, check out the Vinland Hotel and Lounge. Rooms were thoughtfully designed for families and groups, with vanities separated from the bathroom so everyone can get ready and out the door as quickly as possible. For larger families, there’s even a loft room with three beds on two floors.
  • For a unique Central Coast lodging experience, stay at Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort. Rates include breakfast and dinner, and families can choose from a range of suite and cottage accommodations. Only 6 minutes from downtown Solvang, the ranch feels a world apart given its location on over 10,000 acres of hiking or riding trails. The property also has a 100-acre spring-fed lake, two golf courses, tennis courts, a pool, and a spa. Visitors will find a range of family-friendly activities to participate in around the ranch. 

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Natural History Museum's Prehistoric Forest. Playing at one of our favorite Central Coast towns.
The boys loved wandering through the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum.

Santa Barbara has been a favorite California family vacation destination for decades. More urban than its neighboring central coast towns, the city is easy to explore with plenty of activities and attractions that are perfect for kids of all ages. You’ll find coastal luxury, gorgeous natural wonders, and rich cultural history. From kayaking and hiking to the Santa Barbara Sea Center and Zoo, there are endless opportunities for family adventures in this slice of California paradise.

For more ideas on things to do in Santa Barbara with kids, plus some other details and recommendations, click here

What To Do

  • Newly renovated in 2018, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History sits on 17 acres of oak woodland along Mission Creek. Visitors learn about Santa Barbara’s unique cultural history and explore nature in the Museum Backyard. You might encounter a naturalist eager to share his or her expertise, a nature mystery box, the backyard creek exploration zone, a sensory garden, and more. Also outdoors is the prehistoric forest, where visitors will venture out for a stroll and encounter their favorite dinosaurs in the wild.
  • Stearns Wharf is the oldest working wood wharf in California. The wharf is a great stop for visiting families spending a long weekend in Santa Barbara. Just the drive onto it was exciting for my kiddos! On the wharf, you can explore the Santa Barbara Sea Center, hop on the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi, and even try your hand at fishing. 
  • Known as the zoo with a view, the Santa Barbara Zoo houses animals representing 160 species, including giraffes, gibbons, snow leopards, and gorillas.
  • Santa Barbara has some great playgrounds, and Kids World is one of the most loved. Built in 1993, the 8,000-square-foot playground features a castle, swings, slides, bridges, and even sharks and whales to climb. The park is located across the street from the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, a lovely botanical garden with a koi pond, sensory garden, and butterfly garden that’s a joy to visit in its own right. 
  • For a family-friendly hike, check out the Douglas Family Preserve. A local favorite, the 70-acre property was once the site of a well-known nursery. One of the most popular trails in the park is a one-mile flat loop hike that half traces the coastline and half looks back to a park where you can watch paragliders taking off from the surrounding mountains. Time your walk near low tide so you can head down to popular Arroyo Burro beach after and explore the tide pools.

Where to Stay

  • The Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront offers traditional hotel room options, but many come with a patio or balcony for a bit of outdoor space. There are two-room suite options as well. Families enjoy the large onsite pool and the location right across the street from popular East Beach. You’re a quick walk to the Santa Barbara Zoo, Stearns Wharf, and State Street.
  • Set north of downtown Santa Barbara near the University, the Ritz-Carlton is set on 78 acres. Amenities include a two-mile beach, three zero-edged saline heated pools, and water sports like surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding. The resort is also home to Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program. Participants of all ages can join classes and workshops to discover the Gaviota Coast’s natural wonders through memorable adventures.

Carpinteria

Carpenteria Beach is a great place for kids to play.
Waiting for the next gentle wave to roll onto the beach in Carpenteria.

Carpinteria is loved for its small-town vibes, beautiful not-too-crowded beaches, mountain views, and hiking trails. Hidden in plain sight just off 101, it’s a somewhat under-the-radar destination, and there are plenty of folks who’d like to keep it that way.

What To Do

  • Carpinteria state and city beaches top many “best of California” lists. Because the shore is sheltered by the Channel Islands, it’s known for gentle swells, making it one of California’s safer beaches to swim.
  • What’s the difference between a harbor seal and a sea lion? How did the Chumash build their housing? How does an eagle build its nest? What is a tomol? Find answers to these questions and more at the innovative Tomol Interpretive Play Area, which encourages learning about the region’s pre-European cultural and natural history through play. 
  • Further inland, Canzelle Alpacas is nestled in the foothills above the beach. Families can make reservations to see what alpaca life is all about on the farm. Explore multiple pastures as you meet and feed the resident alpacas, llamas, and other amazing farm animals. 
  • In early October, there’s no better place to be than at Carpenteria’s Avocado Festival. I can’t imagine anything more classically California. And delicious!

Where to Stay

  • This two-bedroom condo is just steps to the beach. Very family-friendly, it comes with cruiser bikes for parents and Huffy bikes for kids. You’ll keep your packing light and rental costs low with included boogie boards, a surfboard, wetsuits, beach chairs, sand toys, a cooler, and an umbrella. When you need a change of pace from the beach, enjoy the property’s hot tub and pools. One is shallow for little ones. You’ll be set for the perfect beach getaway. 

Central California Coast Towns in the Ventura Region

The Ventura region is the smallest and southernmost section of California’s Central Coast. Though this region feels more SoCal than other Central Coast towns to the north, you’ll still find mellow beaches and quaint inland farm towns. We feature two of them below. 

Ojai

Ojai Valley Inn Landscape
Ojai Valley Inn (photo by Jaminin Spielsburg by Getty Images via Canva)

Thirty minutes inland from the Ventura coast, Ojai is a beautiful mix of old-school artists and hippies and new-school foodies and winemakers. It’s also the gateway to the Los Padres National Forest, meaning that there’s plenty to see and do for those looking to relax in the valley or take on an outdoor adventure.

What To Do

  • Established in 1964 by Richard Bartinsdale, Ojai’s Bart’s Books is the largest outdoor bookstore in the world. It has over 130,000 mostly used books creatively displayed in and around what was once a house. Pick up a new cookbook in the kitchen or peruse the poetry section in the living room. They are known for an extensive collection of volumes on the great outdoors and environmental studies conveniently sorted next to each other. A picture book from the kids’ section would make for a perfect Ojai souvenir. 
  • If you’re in town on a Sunday, make time to peruse the weekly Ojai Farmers’ Market. Come hungry to sample some of California’s finest fruits, veggies, bread, jams, chocolate, honey, and more. Make sure to sample one of the Friends’ Ranch pixies while you’re there!
  • Take a hike in the Los Padres National Forest. A popular family hike near Ojai is Rose Valley Falls. Generally considered an easy route, it takes about half an hour to complete the out-and-back trail. It is open year-round and is beautiful to visit anytime.

Where to Stay

  • Opened in 1923, the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa is the town’s famed luxury resort. The gorgeous grounds include three pools, including the Pixie Pool designed for families, and nine restaurants which range from casual to formal. The Inn is also one of the few Ojai lodging options that caters to families. Keep them busy with a kids’ camp, family crafts at the artist cottage, s’mores roasting, kids cooking classes, and more. And if you ever want to leave the resort, you can rent bikes and take the beautiful resort pathways downtown or hop on an old-fashioned trolley. 

Ventura

Exploring the big pirate ship at Marina Park, Ventura.
Ventura’s Marina Beach has unique play features.

It’s hard to think of Ventura without thinking of Patagonia. Drawn to the surf, beautiful surroundings, and quick access to mountain and river experiences, Yvon Chouinard established Patagonia’s headquarters here in 1973. And unlike many of its neighbors, Ventura hasn’t changed all that much since then. As you might imagine, there are plenty of outdoor adventures to experience near this iconic Central Coast town.

What To Do

  • Snap a photo on Ventura Pier, the city’s main landmark. This is an ideal spot for a sunset stroll. Extending from the Pier is the Ventura Promenade, a popular pedestrian pathway that leads to Surfer’s Point. San Buenaventura State Beach is about a mile and a half walk in the opposite direction. 
  • Ventura is the gateway to Channel Islands National Park. The park encompasses five unique islands and their ocean environment, preserving and protecting a wealth of natural and cultural resources. To get there, book your tickets through Island Packers Cruises which is located in Ventura Harbor Village. The park’s visitor center is a five-minute walk from Island Packers near Harbor Cove Beach. 
  • Marina Park is a family-friendly spot where kids can run around the lawn or play on the big pirate ship in the sand. Soter’s Point is an easy walk that can be accessed by a nearby trail that leads out to the jetty where you can watch boats leave the Harbor and head into the ocean. There are picnic tables with beautiful views all along the way.

Where to Stay

  • For a unique travel experience, glamp in a lovingly restored vintage trailer at Waypoint Ventura. Not only will you have your own space and private patio, but you are also welcome to enjoy the common firepits, swings, lawn games, and more. Not only is this a fun kid-friendly place to stay, but it’s only about a mile walk to the beach.
  • Located midway between Ojai and Ventura, the Ventura Ranch KOA offers camping and glamping opportunities for those who want to experience both the mountains and the ocean. If you don’t want to pack your tent, you can book a teepee, Conestoga wagon, safari tent, or cabin. The 76-acre property will keep the whole family entertained with a playground, lawn games, arts and crafts, rock climbing, the Bigfoot Watering Hole, and a beautiful pool. There’s even a combo zip line/ropes course for the family to try. 

Time to pick your favorite Central Coast town (or towns!)

Phew! I hope one or more of the above magical places strikes your fancy. The great thing about the Central Coast is that you only have to pick your home base, as many of these towns are only 10-15 minutes apart. And you can always stop a time or two on the drive to and from your destination!

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