Avila Beach is a family-friendly beach destination perfect for four (or more!) days of fun. If you’re looking for ideas on your next family getaway, read on for the inside scoop!
We’ve compiled the top 10 Avila family experiences so that you know what not to miss on your trip. We’ve also added some of the best places to eat, family-friendly lodging, and even a suggested itinerary in case you need help figuring out how to best use those precious vacation hours.
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WHY AVILA BEACH IS THE PERFECT FAMILY-FRIENDLY GETAWAY
Avila Beach is an awesome destination for families looking for a chill 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 destinations, making Avila perfect for long days playing on the sand.
This area is more laid-back than its popular neighbors, San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach, but it’s close enough for a quick visit to SLO’s famous Farmers Market or Pismo’s unbeatable clam chowder. Check off each of the following things to do in Avila Beach one by one, or simply relax and enjoy a wonderful beach getaway.
TOP 10 FAMILY-FRIENDLY THINGS TO DO IN AVILA BEACH
1. THE BEACH
It should come as no surprise that going to the beach tops a 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
Avila Beach / City Beach is the large sandy beach that runs along the waterfront of this quaint beach town. Families with young children also enjoy hanging out along the shores of San Luis Obispo Creek at the north end, which forms a small calm lagoon perfect for little ones. 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.
Olde Port Beach
Olde Port Beach is just about 1 mile west of Avila City Beach. It has a wide sandy cove and is known as more of a local beach. This is the one spot in town that you can let your dog run on the beach leash-free. Olde Port Beach is also the only beach that allows seasonal bonfires.
Official bonfire rings are generally available from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, weather permitting. Fire rings are available on a first-come, first-served basis. If you want a bonfire on a summer weekend, make a full day of it and stake out your spot as early as the afternoon.
The last beach you’ll come to along Avila Beach Drive is Fisherman’s Beach. Fisherman’s Beach is bordered by the Port San Luis Boatyard and Historic Harford Pier (also known as the Port San Luis Pier). You can rent kayaks nearby, and push out from here if you’re bringing your own.
2. KAYAKING TO THE PORT SAN LUIS LIGHTHOUSE
Families rave about their experience with Avila Beach Paddlesports, where you can rent tandem kayaks and explore on your own or join a guided adventure tour. One of the most popular outings takes you to the lovely and historic Port San Luis Lighthouse, where you can leave your kayaks on a small secluded beach and explore the lighthouse grounds.
Beginners are welcome, though Avila Beach Paddlesports has a minimum age requirement of 7. All participants must be fully comfortable swimming.
3. AVILA BARN
Avila Barn is a popular spot to pick up some farm-fresh fruit, delicious baked goods, and super 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.
Year-round, visitors enjoy lunch from the Farmers BBQ. Make sure to sample the Barn’s famous grilled corn while you’re at it. Families also love to visit the farm animals, feed the goats, and pick fruit during the U-Pick seasons. During our visit, we were able to visit with a baby donkey, llamas, ponies, pigs, chickens, and an emu!
Given all of the activities, Avila Barn has become a popular spot for locals and visitors alike. Don’t expect a sleepy country farm stand. If you don’t like crowds, plan a visit on the early side. We arrived at about 10 am, and the crowds were pouring in for lunch when we left around 11:30 am.
4. WHALE WATCHING
Avila Beach Whale Watching is not your traditional big boat whale watching tour. They offer one-hour coastal wildlife viewing tours and two-hour whale watching excursions most of the year. What makes a tour with this company stand out is that their boats only take 6 passengers at a time, ensuring that everyone has a great view. They use a power catamaran that gets to the whales quickly with a more stable platform.
John and I recently took a whale watching excursion in Monterey. It was three hours on a large boat with at least 30 people. Even though we were thrilled by the experience of meeting a curious baby whale, we were ready to go after three hours of bobbing. We would feel much more comfortable taking the boys on a trip that is shorter, smaller, and more stable! I tried to book a tour here before our last trip, but it was already sold out. I’ll be sure to update the post as soon as we’re able to go.
May through November is Humpback Whale season with August through mid-October being peak months. January through May is the Grey Whale migration season, with March and April being the peak Season.
5. HARBOR BOAT TOURS
See Avila from a new perspective with a boat tour around the bay. You’ll find several options to choose from in town, but I thought that the Adventure Harbor Tour with SLO Tours looked like a great option for families. Described as a boat/roller coaster ride, you’ll zoom around harbor highlights like Pelican Jetty, the Shark Trench, and the Avila Sea Caves.
SLO Tours also offers two-hour whale watching tours on their USCG Aluminum RBS Safeboat Defender.
6. SURF LESSONS
Looking to turn your beach getaway into a family adventure? Try a family surf lesson with Van Curaza Surf School. VCSS is passionate about sharing its love of surfing and the ocean, and safety and fun make up the central core of its mission.
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.
7. CENTRAL COAST AQUARIUM
Central Coast Aquarium is a two-room aquarium located near Avila’s City Beach. Though small, it remains popular with visitors and locals thanks to its friendly staff who love to share their sea animals with kids.
During our visit, the boys were thrilled to touch a small swell shark, to see the “pier pilings” fish fed, and to ask plenty of questions while petting sea stars at the tide pool tank. Everything was hands-on and approachable, and the boys loved their experience.
Public programs like Shoreline Explorers, beach clean-ups, and traveling tide pools extend their reach beyond the building’s walls.
8. BOB JONES CITY TO SEA TRAIL
If you want to stretch your legs and get a lay of the land beyond the beaches, the Bob Jones City to Sea Trail is a popular well-marked paved pathway. Take a stroller-friendly walk or kid-friendly bike ride on this mostly flat trail that starts close to the Avila Barn and ends near Avila Beach (or vice versa).
The complete trail distance from one end to the other is about 3 miles (6 miles round trip). If you’re visiting in the summer and only want to go one way, the free Avila-Pismo Beach Trolley makes stops at the trailhead on Ontario Road and in the middle of town near the beach on 1st Street. Be sure to check the trolley operating status and schedule before you go!
9. KID-FRIENDLY WINERIES
The region surrounding Avila Beach has more than 100 wine tasting rooms, each with its own style and vibe. For parents who like to sample local wines, it’s easy to add some kid-friendly wineries to your list of things to do in Avila Beach.
The most popular family-friendly winery in Avila is Kelsey See Canyon Winery. In addition to wine and cider tasting menus, families can picnic on the outdoor patio and purchase a bag of birdseed to feed the large flock of peacocks that call the winery home.
About 15 minutes inland from Avila is Edna Valley’s Sextant Winery, whose tasting room is located in the Old Edna Townsite General Store. Enjoy your flight with lunch from the onsite Gourmet Deli or grab a glass and take a walk around the beautiful grounds which refer back to the Old Edna of the 1880s.
10. EXPLORE NEARBY CENTRAL COAST TOWNS
One of the great things about this spot is that it’s a quick drive to nearby Central Coast towns, each filled with its own unique character. If you need a change of scene, hop on 101 and take a short drive in either direction.
San Luis Obispo
As a graduate of Cal Poly, I enjoy stopping by San Luis Obispo every chance I get. SLO is well known for its walkable downtown filled with small shops and restaurants. There was a big dust-up during my time living there when a Carl’s Jr. tried to move into a spot on Higuera Street. The branch didn’t last long in this town that loves its small local businesses!
Choosing to dine at old favorites like Firestone’s is increasingly difficult with so many delicious new restaurants to try downtown, but one thing I never tire of is sipping a Linnea’s mocha with Mexican chocolate in the back garden.
If you can visit on a Thursday evening when Higuera is closed to pedestrian traffic for the town’s popular farmers market. Sample food from local restaurants while you stroll and enjoy entertainment and people watching.
Pismo is a classic coastal city that is somehow a mix of hometown charm and touristy kitsch. Ocean views can be found everywhere along the 101, with the Pismo Beach Pier at the town’s center. When exploring the downtown, don’t miss out on Splash Cafe’s thick and creamy clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl with a seafood topper. It’s seriously ruined clam chowder for me anywhere else.
Families love Dinosaur Caves Park on the bluffs above the beach. Parents enjoy the ocean views, while kids climb on the park’s concrete dolphins, orca, seals, and, as you might guess, dinosaur and dinosaur eggs!
Just south of Pismo Beach, you’ll find the Oceano Dunes Preserve and State Vehicular Recreation Area. With 1,500 acres of dunes, this is one of the most extensive coastal dunes left in California. Though you have the town of Oceano on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, the dunes can be so large that you would be forgiven for thinking that you’re in the desert!
Oceano is the only California State Park that allows you to drive your own car onto the beach (4 or all-wheel drive recommended). You’ll also find rare opportunities for activities like exploring the dunes by ATV, SunBuggy, or even a Hummer adventure tour.
Sandboarding is allowed, though you’ll need to arrive with your own board, sled, or saucer. You can check out our tips for DIY sandboarding from our Mesquite Sand Dune experience in Death Valley here. The Guadalupe-Nipomo dunes just south of Oceano are less crowded and quieter, making it a perfect spot for sandboarding. Especially if you want to avoid vehicle adventures in Oceano!
GETTING TO AVILA BEACH
Avila is easily reached by car. It’s located just off 101, 100 miles north of Santa Barbara or 150 miles south of Monterey. The location makes this area a perfect weekend getaway from either the Bay Area or Los Angeles. It’s also an ideal stop on a coastal California road trip.
Because most people arrive by car, Avila’s limited downtown parking fills up fast. If you’re driving to the beach, plan to get there early to get a spot!
WHERE TO STAY IN AVILA BEACH WITH KIDS
The beach is at the heart of this laid-back town, and you’ll find plenty of lodging options within an easy walk of the beach and downtown. There’s nothing better than simply waking up in the morning, grabbing some towels and toys, and walking across the street to set up for a family day at the beach.
When traveling with our young kids we look for lodging options that have plenty of space for the boys to run around. We also find that having two rooms gives us a place to hang out after bedtime without having to whisper. I’ve included a couple of my favorite Avila Beach finds below.
If you’re looking to book direct, Seven Sisters is a popular property management group in the area.
Avila Lighthouse Suites
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.
Cottage by the Sea
Families 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.
Bikini Bungalow is a great option if you’re traveling with a larger group. With two bedrooms and a large sleeping loft, it comfortably sleeps 10.
Located in the heart of Avila Beach, you’ll be steps away from the beach and right in the heart of the downtown area as soon as you walk out the door.
Book directly with Seven Sisters for the best rates.
KID-FRIENDLY EATS IN AVILA BEACH
Old Custom House
Steps from Avila Pier, the Old Custom House is a bar & grill offering casual dining on a lovely patio with ocean views. This restaurant is an Avila Beach classic and can get crowded, so it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you’re with a larger party.
As mentioned above, Avila Barn is a fun thing to do in Avila Beach in its own right. Get there around 11 am to snag a picnic table and enjoy an early BBQ lunch from the grill. Don’t forget to pick up some of the Barn’s famous grilled corn! If you still have room, take a spin by the Sweet Shop after feeding the goats.
From Splash Cafe’s amazing clam chowder to delicious street corn to everyone’s favorite acai bowls, Avila Market offers something for everyone. Enjoy your meals onsite, or take them to go and eat across the street on the beach.
Mersea’s is a casual spot for fresh and delicious seafood with awesome views in every direction. Located at the end of Harford Pier next to Fisherman’s Beach, it’s the perfect spot to stop after a boat or whale-watching tour.
Hula Hut & Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream
An ice cream treat is a perfect way to end a family beach day. Head to the Hula Hut on Front Street for a delicious scoop of Doc Burnstein’s ice cream, saltwater taffy, and a coffee pick me up for mom and dad. Affogato anyone?
ITINERARY: FOUR DAYS IN AVILA BEACH WITH KIDS
The following is a sample itinerary for a four-day family weekend in Avila Beach that features the things to do suggested above. I’m the type of person that wants to see as much as possible everywhere I go, so I know it’s on the busy side. John usually offers a pared-down itinerary, but this time there wasn’t much he wanted to take out. He actually asked me to add in a beach bonfire!
Do as little or as much as you’d like. A town like Avila Beach offers something for everyone.
Day 1: Get Settled and Unwind
Take the Scenic Route
The drive to Avila Beach from the South Bay is about 3 hours via 101 or 4.5 hours via beautiful Highway 1. If you have time, take the scenic route. It’s one of the best drives in the state. Choose from endless stunning stops including Point Lobos State Reserve and McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas and the Morro Bay Embarcadero are big hits with families as well.
Head to your home away from home, settle in, and get a lay of the land. Stretch your legs by taking a walk along the beach and checking out the shops and restaurants in town.
Day 2: Lazy Beach Day
Sleep in, take it easy, and head to the beach whenever you’re ready. Spend the day splashing on the shore and making sandcastles. Head up to the beachside playground if the kids need a break from the sand.
Central Coast Aquarium
Located just steps from the beach, a visit to the Central Coast Aquarium will give the kiddos a new perspective on the ocean. They are open in the afternoons, making this a great stop after lunch. Ask about interactive programs like swell shark and tide pool encounters.
When you’re ready to wander back to your hotel or vacation rental, make a stop by the Hula Hut & Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream on the way home for a sweet treat.
Day 3: Land and Sea Adventures
Get on the Water
Kick-off day 3 with an adventure on the water. There’s plenty to choose from depending on your interests. Meet humpback whales with Avila Beach Whale Watching, kayak to the Port San Luis Lighthouse, zoom through the harbor on an Adventure Harbor Tour, or take a family surf lesson. There’s a fun way for every family to get out on the water together and make some lasting vacation memories.
Lunch at Mersea’s
Celebrate your morning on the water with lunch on the pier watching the local sea lions.
Explore the Valley
Rest up and then take a leisurely bike ride on the Bob Jones City to Sea Trail. If you’ve worked up an appetite again, there are plenty of snacks to choose from at Avila Barn, located near the Ontario Road trailhead. You can even enjoy an early dinner from the BBQ before heading back to the beach.
Celebrate the last night of your family getaway with a bonfire on Olde Port Beach.
Day 4: A Few Last Stops
Check Out a Nearby Town
Make sure you don’t leave the area without checking out one of the other Central Coast towns. Grab breakfast and take a stroll down Higuera St. in SLO. If you head south to Pismo, indulge in a clam chowder lunch, and let the kids get their wiggles out at Dinosaur Caves Park. Can you tell I’ve had Splash Cafe on the brain throughout this post?