AAA Magazines

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

Ventura is home to the oldest pier in 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 sunset.

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 (open 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Sundays), browse downtown’s antique and thrift stores, or drive the 14 miles to the sleepy art enclave of Ojai.   

2. Santa Barbara 

The sun sets over East Beach in Santa Barbara, California

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 water taxi 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 Saturdays and Sundays, live music.

3. Arroyo Grande

The swinging bridge at Arroyo Grande, California

You might spot roosters enjoying the creek below Arroyo Grande's swinging bridge.

The old village just east of the 101 has at least one quirky attraction: a swinging bridge (pictured). The structure provides a wobbly walkway over a creek that is home to Arroyo Grande’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.

Read more: The top 10 things to do on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip along Route 1 in California

4. Grover Beach 

An ATV in the distance at Grover Beach, California

Off-road vehicles cruise the Grover Beach shoreline.

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

Beachgoers enjoy the water and sand at Pismo Beach.

Pismo has grown over the years, but still retains its classic California beach-town vibe. The latest updates? In 2020 the city renovated the pier, playground, and plaza where 8-foot-high neon-lit letters proclaim the town’s name (just in case you forgot).

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

Avila Beach is nestled in San Luis Obispo Bay.

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 (open Wednesday and Saturday), built in 1889, is accessible only with a guide.

Read more: 4 day trips to charming California beach towns

7. Morro Bay

Boats in Morro Bay Harbor, with Morro Rock in the background

Morro Rock is a California Historical Landmark.

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 Nautical Bean.

8. Cayucos

The pier in Cayucos, California

The pier in Cayucos is a popular fishing spot.

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, and don't leave without picking up sea salt-sprinkled cookies to go from Brown Butter Cookie Company

9. Cambria

A walkway with ocean views in Moonstone Beach

Go for a stroll with an ocean view along the Moonstone Beach boardwalk.

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 Nitt 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  

A trio of elephant seals resting on the sand

Elephant seals relax on San Simeon Beach.

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.

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon