Whether you’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for ten months or ten years, it’s nice to get away once in a while. While the Bay Area features endless opportunities for relaxation and recreation, getaways give us an escape from our all-too-familiar routine and the adventure of exploring an unfamiliar place. California’s Central Coast is a gem that is just close enough for a weekend getaway. The Central Coast offers miles upon miles of natural beauty, wineries, beaches, hiking trails, restaurants, hotels, and so much more. Its centralized location and equidistance between San Francisco and Los Angeles (3.5 hours each way) make for the ideal trip. Our recommendation? Take a trip down Highway 101 to four quintessential Central Coast stops: Paso Robles, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo (SLO), and Pismo and Avila Beaches. Follow along as we guide you through some of the must-do activities and sites at each location, forming the ultimate central coast itinerary. If you only have a weekend, a combination of Paso Robles and Morro Bay is a peaceful and refreshing retreat. If you have a long weekend, a whole week, or even a return trip later in the year, make sure you round it out by visiting SLO and Avila/Pismo Beach!
Part I: Paso Robles and Morro Bay
Your first stop along the central coast tour will likely be Paso Robles. Paso Robles (pronounced ‘PASS-oh ROH-buulz’ or referred to locally as simply ‘Paso’) is home to renowned wineries and some of the most beautiful vineyards in California. With its unofficial title as the “Napa Wine Country” of Southern California, this endearing town is sure to satisfy wine connoisseurs of any budget and preference. Think the aesthetics of Healdsburg but with the low-key vibe that only SLO county can bring. Case in point: spend an entire day exploring Central Paso which consists of a cluster of shops and restaurants built around the beautiful Downtown City Park. This idyllic downtown area can be a matching stand-in for the famed Healdsburg Plaza. We love strolling through Paso's beautiful square to antique-hunt, taste wines, and see the sights. Stop by the Brown Butter Cookie Company (a Central Coast favorite) for a sweet treat at the end of a long day.
If wine isn’t your drink of choice, head over to Tin City, Paso Robles’ industrial-inspired little enclave full of artisans and makers known for its beers and spirits. With 28 different venues, including shops, tasting rooms, restaurants, and more, there is something for the entire family, pets included! If you have limited time to explore Tin City, be sure to visit Tin City Cider Co. Order yourself one of their four-cider flights and take it to one of their many outdoor seating areas. However, if you are looking for a memorable wine experience at Tin City, Desparada Wines is for you. Desparada is a unique spot for those seeking innovative wines and supporting female-owned businesses. Each private tasting does a fantastic job highlighting its spin on old traditions. Another must-see winery is Tooth & Nail. With over 9,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space surrounded by rolling green hills, this winery features 360 degrees of natural beauty. Did we mention that Tooth & Nail winery was built and modeled after a castle, complete with a moat? We recommend exploring their charming grounds on a castle tour during your visit.
For accommodations, Paso Robles Inn is a historic, 132-year-old hotel as old as Paso itself! We love it for its low-key vibe overlooking the town square. Hotel Cheval, on the other hand, is both luxurious and convenient. With an outdoor fireplace lounge, library candy bar, and s’mores butler, this hotel has it all! Paso Robles Inn and Hotel Cheval’s close proximity to historic downtown square make for the perfect stay in between tastings. If you happen upon your Central Coast trip at the end of July, definitely make a point of stopping at the California Mid-State Fair, hosted this year at the Paso Robles Event Center from July 21 through August 1. This large-scale fair features carnival rides, shopping, live music from local artists, exhibits, horse shows, food, agriculture, and more. This large-scale yearly event is returning this year after a hiatus due to COVID-19 and represents one of the first live music events since the start of the pandemic.
Off the beaten path: Try River Oaks Hot Springs or Franklin Hot Springs to detox during your trip.
Next up on your journey down the Central Coast is Morro Bay. This small beach town along the water is accessible by Highway 101 but is more directly off of California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Located along the water, Morro Bay is known for its foggier climates during the mornings, so be sure to bring warmer layers. The town is identifiable due to the infamous ‘Morro Rock’, which was formed over 23 million years ago from the plugs of extinct volcanoes. Our first recommendation for your stop in Morro Bay is to go kayaking. In Morro’s downtown area, you’ll find several vendors renting kayaks by the hour. Kayaking in Morro Bay allows you an up-close view of that infamous Morro Rock, as well as views of groups of sea lions and seals.
You’ll notice the several parks that line the coast. These are great stops for young children to play while providing ocean-front views. If you happen upon Morro Bay on a Saturday, take a break from perusing the bay to check out the local farmer’s market. Situated at the corner of Main Street and Morro Bay Boulevard, this weekly farmer’s market features excellent foods and artisan crafts. End your food tour of the city with an immaculate seafood dinner at one of the many restaurants along the Embarcadero.
Close out your day by watching the sunset at the beach. Morro Bay has some of the best Central Coast sunsets. You’ll find a plethora of surfers catching the final waves at the beach as the sun sets over the ocean’s horizon. The beach adjacent to Morro Rock may become a bit crowded during golden hour, so heed this advice: take Highway 1 north for about a mile, turn left on San Jacinto Street, left again on Sandalwood Avenue, and right on Azure Street. There, you’ll find a small parking lot adjacent to a path leading you to the beach, in a spot mostly known to Morro Bay residents. Enjoy unobstructed sunset views from this spot!
Off the beaten path: If you’re seeking more greenery during your trip, Montaña de Oro State Park is for you. Head to Highway 1 South, taking exit 277 towards Los Osos Baywood Park. Montaña de Oro features hidden beaches, walking trails along the bluffs, and hikes in the intermediate and advanced levels.
Part II: San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach, and Pismo Beach
San Luis Obispo
Referred to as “the happiest city in America” by Oprah Winfrey, San Luis Obispo is the perfect halfway destination between the wine country of Paso Robles and the beach towns of Avila and Pismo. A perfect first stop is downtown San Luis Obispo, affectionately called “SLO” by locals. There, you will find fine dining, exquisite hotel stays, and landmarks.
Guisseppe’s Cucina Rustica, Luna Red, Flourhouse, and Thai Palace are some of the most popular local restaurants in the downtown area. Hotel SLO, built in 2018, serves as a modern destination rivaling the more traditional San Luis Obispo hotels and sites. Check in at the lobby before making your way to its rooftop bar, which offers impeccable views of Bishop’s and Madonna Peaks, two hallmarks of the city. Extend your stay to a Thursday, if possible, as the main roads of downtown San Luis Obispo are shut down during the evening hours for the weekly farmer’s market. The farmer’s market is a town favorite and has recently resurfaced after a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
San Luis Obispo is known for its hiking trails, too. In fact, there are over 45 distinct hikes in SLO, ranging in distance between 0.9 miles to 17.4 miles. The locals have gone as far to create a hiking challenge to conquer three of such trails called the “Tri-Tip Challenge”. Start your day at Bishop’s Peak before climbing Madonna Peak, finishing at the top of the “P”. Once you have completed this challenge, reward yourself with some tri-tip at Firestone Grill.
Off the beaten path: A can’t-miss activity in San Luis Obispo is a visit to the quirky Madonna Inn. This colorful inn includes a steakhouse restaurant and bakery known for its world-famous Pink Champagne Cake. Explore the Madonna Inn grounds with the Inn’s very own horseback trail ride tour.
A tour to the Central Coast wouldn’t be complete without a stay at one of the two famous beach towns: Avila and Pismo. Both are picturesque beach towns, but each has its own distinct vibe. A stay at Avila Beach is ideal for those with younger kids or who seek perhaps a quieter stay. The Downtown/Front Street area is designed for families in mind: pre-teens roam around and explore candy shops, while parents grab an espresso at Kraken before settling in for the day at the beach a mere stone's throw away from a bevy of accommodations, from beach house rentals to condos and hotels. From there, the smooth, sandy beach is perfect for skimboarding, whiffle ball, beach volleyball, you name it.
Looking for a free, outdoor activity? Look no further than Avila Beach’s Bob Jones trail. This 2.5-mile (5-mile loop) fully paved, bike-friendly trail spans from Highway 101 to Avila Beach. Get lost in Avila Beach’s neighboring residences, golf course, and natural scenery before exiting the trail at the beach. Seize the opportunity for a break at the beach before completing the walk by checking out the Avila Beach Market for a refreshment or acai. After completing the walk along Bob Jones trail, treat yourself to some relaxation at the Sycamore Springs Resort in Avila. The resort’s hillside hot tubs can be booked by the hour. We recommend booking a slot and taking in the serene environment created by the resort’s tree-canopied hillside.
Pismo Beach could be seen as Avila’s older sibling. A stay here is ideal for families with young and older children, a group of college friends, or those who want more action. The main beach can get quite busy so plan ahead. Once you settle in though, there are chowder houses, quirky shops, and for those young skaters, some cool skate shops that celebrate Pismo’s unique vibe. Looking to stay the night? Pismo Beach is home to some of the best hotels in the central coast. North of the main beach is a string of oceanfront hotels of a variety of price points and styles. Many of these hotels feature unobstructed views of the ocean and private entrances to Pismo Beach, or the quieter beaches to the north. Be sure to wear supportive shoes, however: the walk from the hotels to the beach tends to involve descending several flights of stairs since the hotels are located on bluffs.
One of our favorite Pismo stays is The Cliffs Resort & Spa. Located directly off of Highway 101, this upscale resort features an oceanfront lanai that makes you feel like you’re on Maui! The hotel features on-site pools, hot tubs, a full spa, fire pits, and an on-site restaurant and bar.
Finish off your evening with a bonfire at Pismo Beach, where cars are permitted to drive onto the sand. Be sure to stop by a local grocery store on the way to grab s’mores materials, because this beach offers the perfect s’mores environment!
Off the beaten path: If Pismo’s main beach is too busy for your liking, walk the steps from the bluffs of The Cliffs down to the South Palisades Park, a secluded beach below the bluffs of a quieter neighborhood.
California’s Central Coast has countless amenities and activities to offer. This blog post only scratches the surface at the different gems within Paso Robles, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, and Avila and Pismo Beaches. One weekend getaway to the central coast may not be enough!