California’s spectacular Central Coast is a vast region that stretches 350 miles between Ventura and Santa Cruz. Some folks, tethered to strict schedules and trying to travel as fast as possible between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, speed through the Central Coast in a day. Or drive down Highway 5 and miss it altogether. But a leisurely California’s Central Coast road trip is the best way to visit this pristine wonderland.
We recommend at least a full week and preferably 10 days to two weeks to dive deep into the Central Coast and experience all its wonders, the natural beauty and laidback lifestyle. Set your travel mode to “chill” and cruise through the Central Coast at a relaxing pace, using this itinerary as a foundation.
This itinerary assumes you are beginning your trip in Southern California and will head north. If you fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), drive up Highway 1 along the coast through Malibu and Oxnard to Highway 101, then head north to Ventura.
If you begin in the San Francisco Bay Area, just reverse the itinerary.
You can also bite off chunks and leave the rest for a future visit.
The city of Ventura is about 60 miles north of LAX via Highway 1 and US 101. Pull off at Victoria Avenue and take a break at Ventura Harbor. Park in one of the harbor’s beachside lots, slip off your shoes, dig your toes into California sand, then dip them into the Pacific Ocean. Check out the exhibits at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center across from the beach, and stroll around Ventura Harbor Village. Rent a paddleboat or kayak to view seals, sea lions, shore birds and other marine life up close. Grab lunch in the harbor.
Note: If you have time to add a day to your schedule, board an Island Packers boat to Channel Islands National Park and hike around Anacapa or Santa Cruz islands.
Mid-day — Downtown Ventura
Exit Highway 101 at California Street (locals call it “C” Street) and park in one of the many free public lots sprinkled around downtown. Stroll along Main Street to visit vintage and antique shops, Mission San Buenaventura and the Museum of Ventura County.
Afternoon — Beach and Promenade
Stroll or bike along the seaside promenade and historic Ventura Pier.
Head north to picture-perfect Santa Barbara, fabled for its stunning setting, colorful history and world-class arts and culture.
Tip: If it’s a weekday, don’t get on the road before 9 am as you’ll likely get stuck in slow-moving commuter traffic. If you’re reversing this itinerary on a weekday, avoid the commuter traffic heading south between 4 and 6.
First stop: the Santa Barbara Visitors Center, corner of Garden Street and Cabrillo Boulevard. Park in a waterfront lot and amble along Stearns Wharf, the harbor, Funk Zone district and beaches. Rent bikes or surrey cycles and pedal along the bike path to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge and Shoreline Park. Or spend a few hours at MOXI, the new Museum of Exploration and Inspiration for children and visitors of all ages, from pre-K to gray. Leave your wheels in the parking lot and walk to one of the dozens of restaurants in the area for a casual lunch.
After lunch, you have several options. Follow the Urban Wine Trail and taste wine, beer and spirits in the Funk Zone and downtown Santa Barbara venues. Head to the Santa Barbara Courthouse and ride the elevator or climb the stairs up to the rooftop deck for panoramic views. Travel back to the 1700s at the Presidio and Mission Santa Barbara, or kayak or paddleboard in the Santa Barbara Harbor. Browse boutiques along State Street, or simply suntan on the beach.
After breakfast, hit the road (either Highway 101 or Highway 154) to northern Santa Barbara County. This is a peaceful rural region, where savvy travelers escape from urban stress. It’s also a world-class wine region, with more than 100 wineries, launched into international wine destination radar in the hit film Sideways. Stop in Buellton at Industrial Eats (get a bite to savor in-house or order food to go), then drive a few miles east to historic towns and villages: European-themed Solvang, and Old West outposts Santa Ynez, Ballard and Los Olivos. Or drive west along Santa Rosa Road or Highway 246 to explore the Santa Rita Hills and sample first-rate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Onward ho to San Luis Obispo County! Stop at Pismo Beach to check out the beach and waterfront vibe, then drive a few miles north to sunny Avila Beach and Port San Luis for scenic views of Avila Bay and the Pacific shoreline to the south. Detour a few miles inland via Price Canyon Road to Edna Valley and taste wine or sample craft beer. Continue north on Highway 227 to San Luis Obispo.
In San Luis Obispo, visit Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and wander up Higuera Street, the city’s main shopping and restaurant hub. If it’s a Thursday, don’t miss the city’s legendary Farmer’s Market.
Time for more coastal adventures. Drive west to Morro Bay and gawk at massive Morro Rock. Walk or bike along the Embarcadero boardwalk, then travel along Highway 1 north 4 miles to Cayucos, a tiny, classic beach town. Continue north to the minuscule, artsy “town” of Harmony (population 18) before arriving in Cambria. Stop the visitor center on Main Street and pick up or download a walking tour map of historic sites in Cambria’s East Village, which dates back to the mid-1800s. Walk the 3-mile boardwalk along romantic Moonstone Beach, or trails in the nearby Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.
Head north to San Simeon, just a few miles north of Cambria, and stop by the visitor center and the Friends of the Elephant Seals office to learn about the huge colonies of elephant seals that haul out on nearby beaches. Continue a few miles north to Old San Simeon for a bite to eat at Sebastian’s before joining a tour at Hearst Castle (book tours online) across the highway. After your tour, continue north on Highway 1 to the Elephant Seal lookout just south of Piedras Blancas Lightstation.
A half-hour drive along scenic Highway 46 West leads to Paso Robles, historically known for its abundant hot springs and today’s plethora of wineries, craft breweries, distilleries, olive oil ranches and other attractions. Spend the day wine touring, walking around the historic downtown square and dining at one of Paso’s plentiful restaurants.
Head back to the coast and Highway 1 for the dramatic drive north along legendary Highway 1 and the Big Sur coast. Get on the road early so you can reach Big Sur by lunchtime.
Spend the day hiking, relaxing and chilling amid the Big Sur vibe. Overnight in Big Sur or time your return north to arrive in Carmel before sunset.
Browse the shops, galleries and restaurants in the square-mile village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Drive along stunning 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach and along the waterfront to Pacific Grove. Get up close and personal with otters, sharks, sea horses and other marvelous marine creatures at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Option 1: Curve around the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary waters up to Santa Cruz. Continue up Highway 1 to Año Nuevo, Half Moon Bay, and San Francisco. Or over to Silicon Valley and San Jose.
Option 2: Drive inland to Highway 101 and head south.