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10 charming Central Coast towns where you can relax and recharge

Sign proclaiming the name of Pismo Beach, California Neon-lit letters announce that you're in Pismo Beach.

Easily accessible yet a world away from backed-up freeways and smoggy skies, California’s Central Coast is a haven for stressed-out souls eager to escape the daily grind. Born and raised in Arroyo Grande, landscape photographer Amy Joseph has spent years exploring the area with her camera. Her images capture the essence of the Central Coast and why it’s ideal for slowing down and enjoying some R&R: charming towns, endless beaches, dramatic seascapes, and wooded trails. Joseph’s favorite spot? “Pismo,” she says, where miles of beach connect smaller and often-overlooked communities, each with its unique attractions. Here’s her south-to-north guide.

1. Ventura

The pier at sunset in Ventura, California

If you just drive through Ventura on the 101, you’ll miss a lot. There’s the long broad beach, the boardwalk (ideal for biking or strolling), and the oldest pier in California (pictured above), where you can set up your fishing gear or just take in the sunsets.

Close by, busy Harbor Village offers a choice of eats and a chance to shop and is also the boarding point for an Island Packers Cruise to the pristine Channel Islands. Left your sea legs at home? You can also travel back to California’s cattle ranching days at the Olivas Adobe, browse downtown’s antique and thrift stores, or drive the 14 miles to the sleepy art enclave of Ojai.   

2. Santa Barbara 

East Beach in Santa Barbara, California

History, culture, great food: Santa Barbara has all that plus beachside parks and pathways and downtown’s ever-evolving Funk Zone. Park on Stearns Wharf (try the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company), then board Lil’ Toot for a ride past snoozing sea lions to the harbor for a meal and a stroll along the sea wall. Want some sand between your toes? Try East Beach (pictured above), West Beach, or Hendry’s Beach (a.k.a Arroyo Burro Beach), a local favorite where dogs can romp off-leash. Heading to wine country? Check out Cold Spring Tavern, the rustic 1869 stagecoach stop atop San Marcos Pass that pairs a shady patio with good food and, on Sundays, live music.

3. Arroyo Grande

The swinging bridge at Arroyo Grande, California

The old village just east of the 101 has at least one quirky attraction: a swinging bridge. The structure provides a wobbly walkway over a creek that is home to AG’s unofficial ambassadors: free-range roosters with the run of the town. The bridge connects the walkable shopping/dining area to Heritage Square Park, with its museums and Victorian bandstand. Get closer to nature at Lopez Lake, just 9 miles east, which offers camping, horseback riding, boating, fishing, and swimming. Feeling more active? Ride a 600-foot waterslide at Mustang Waterpark or Vista Lago Adventure Park, where you can admire the views as you glide on a zip line.

4. Grover Beach 

Grover Beach, California

It’s all about the beach here. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner drops you right beside it. You can drive onto the beach at Grand Avenue or head south to Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreational Area. If you don’t have a set of off-road wheels , you can rent an ATV or sign up for a guided horseback tour at Pacific Dunes Ranch RV Resort. Take it even slower at Oso Flaco Lake, where trails and a boardwalk make it a birdwatcher’s paradise.

5. Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach, California

Pismo has grown over the years, but still retains its classic California beach town vibe. The latest updates? The recently renovated pier, playground, and plaza where 8-foot-high neon-lit letters proclaim the town’s name (just in case you forgot) and a giant slide that carries you down to the beach. Your big decision of the day? Putter on the beach, go for a bike ride, or maybe hop on Highway 101 to Shell Beach for clifftop views of the rugged coastline. In the hills behind town, Pismo Preserve provides 880 peaceful acres for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, combining ocean views with shady oak-lined trails.

6. Avila Beach 

Avila Beach, California

Take the Avila Beach Drive exit off Highway 101 and drive to this tiny community tucked into San Luis Obispo Bay, or park at the Bob Jones Trail and hike or bike the 3 miles to the beach. Either way, it’s a leafy wooded route past a sprinkling of natural hot springs and spas, some rustic, some luxurious. Just a mile up the bay, even tinier Port San Luis has sportfishing, kayak rentals, and a boat launch. Port San Luis Lightstation, built in 1889, is accessible only with a guide.

7. Morro Bay

Morrow Bay, California

This laid-back fishing town draws visitors to its small but bustling seafront, one-of-a-kind stores, and a sheltered harbor perfect for kayaks and paddleboards. Morro Rock, a haven for peregrine falcons, is also a great place to spot shorebirds, sea lions, and otters, or go tide pooling. Rugged Moñtana de Oro State Park is about 25 minutes away; en route, maybe detour to sleepy Baywood Park for a cup of coffee and a snack at the Back Bay Café.

8. Cayucos

The pier in Cayucos, California

Blink and you may miss this compact community, formerly a commercial port for ships sailing between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Spend a restful day fishing off the pier, check out the sunset, then head to Old Cayucos Tavern and Cardroom, built in 1906, where there’s shuffleboard, pool tables, live music, and dancing.

9. Cambria

Moonstone Beach,  Cambria, California

Quaint, but with a whiff of sophistication, Cambria straddles Highway 1. On the east side, the old village offers shopping, art galleries, and restaurants plus the seriously quirky, folk-art house known as Nit Witt Ridge. To the west, a string of hotels along Moonstone Beach guarantees you’ll fall asleep to the sound of the surf. Just across the road, the 1-mile-long boardwalk that parallels the beach is dotted with benches for anyone who wants to just sit and watch the ocean.

10. San Simeon  

Elephant seals in San Simeon Beach, California

Seen one castle and you’ve seen them all. That could only be true of Hearst Castle, where William Randolph Hearst’s mix-and-match approach to home décor has resulted in a mélange of Old-World treasures. Not that the elephant seals down the hill on the beach care. Come November, the males, some weighing up to 5,000 pounds, arrive at the Piedras Blancas Rookery intent only on mating. Visit in January and February and you’ll find the beach packed with proud moms and their newborns, some weighing up to 300 pounds.

Freelance writer Annette Winter lives near Santa Barbara. Her favorite place to relax is any beach where the sound of the surf dominates.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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