These top whatevers are so much fun, I’m going to do them for every place I have the authority. Which basically means every place I’ve lived. And I spent four years in San Luis Obispo, so here’s my top 10 for California’s Central Coast!
Central California is filled with quaint communities that feel a whole world away from the grand metropolises the state is known for. One of the best is Ojai, located eighty miles outside LA and fifteen miles inland from Ventura, at the base of the Los Padres National Forest. A beautiful artist and farming community, Ojai offers hiking, shopping, food tasting, Meditation Mount (a 32 acre education and community-based spiritual center), and Bart’s Books, one of the best bookstores in California. It is a very quiet and relaxing escape.
In addition to quaint communities, Central California also features lots of cultures: Mexican, Spanish, surf, beach, agriculture, college, retirement, and also… Denmark? Danish culture hasn’t permeated the entire Central Coast, but it alive and strong in Solvang, one of the world’s great Danish enclaves. Solvang was founded by Danes over 100 years ago, and the city has stayed true to its roots, filled with Danish food and architecture and numerous tributes to Danish history and culture. As a result, it has become one of the most unique attractions in California.
Cambria is split into two parts. East of Pacific Coast Highway is Main Street, another of California’s quaint artist communities, this one with numerous studios and galleries. Also here is Nitt Witt Ridge, a four story folk-art house made entirely of seashells, native material, concrete, and garbage. And west of Pacific Coast Highway is the coast. Like much of California, Cambria boasts beaches, restaurants, and hotels, but Cambria also offers a beautiful wilderness boardwalk and an accompanying tide pool shore.
7. Hearst Castle
Grandiose, extravagant, over-the-top, however you describe it, Hearst Castle is amazing. A tribute to art, ego, and way too much money, Hearst Castle is now owned by the state, who give tours of its 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 127 acres of gardens, movie theater, airfield, sports courts, defunct zoo, and most spectacularly, its indoor and outdoor pools.
6. Wine Country
California has the best wine in the world and while Napa has the best wine in California, Santa Barbara is a very close second. And not only is the wine amazing here, but the wineries are too, beautiful and upscale and elegant and inviting. Whether you’re buying, tasting, or going on a tour, this is one of the best wine areas around.
5. Downtown San Luis Obispo
It’s not the most famous city on the central coast, but downtown San Luis Obispo (SLO) is awesome! The city strives to maintain a leisurely pace and also keep chain stores out, the result of which is a lot of eclectic shops, small mom and pop ones you won’t find anywhere else. Downtown SLO also has amazing restaurants and (thanks to nearby Cal Poly SLO) great bars and nightlife, not to mention one of the best preserved missions in California. And every Thursday, the whole city comes down to partake in one of the state’s best farmers’ markets, and the first Thursday of every month, downtown is overtaken by bike riders, riding around town with music and in costumes; it’s tons of fun. Finally, downtown SLO has the best gum alley you’ll ever see.
4. Santa Maria BBQ
It’s not as famous as Texas, Louisiana, Memphis, or South Carolina, but Santa Maria BBQ is delicious. It’s also unique, focusing on tri-tip, which for some reason is almost exclusively a California thing. The best place to get it is at Firestone Grill/Main Street Grill/Dog House Grill, a family restaurant with locations in San Luis Obispo, Cambria, Bakersfield, and Fresno. Go there and try it, you won’t be disappointed!
3. Pismo Beach
One of California’s most famous beaches, if you’re a surfer, beach bum, sun bather, or people watcher, this place is for you. Obviously the surfing is great, but this beach offers even more: soft, smooth sand, stunning cliffs, and a picturesque fishing pier. Finally, Pismo also offers one of California’s best coastal communities, with lots of shops and restaurants, including Splash Cafe and their award winning clam chowder (Pismo Beach used to be known as the clam capital of the world).
2. Santa Barbara
California’s Riviera, Santa Barbara and #1 below are the most famous destinations on California’s central coast. There’s tons to do here, tons of beaches and resorts and tourist infrastructure. The city also has excellent food, amazing Spanish architecture, lots of festivals, and a great surf culture. Add to this UC Santa Barbara and party central Isla Vista, and this city becomes a California icon, one that should not be missed.
1. Big Sur
Of course Big Sur is #1, it’s one of the must see destinations in the United States and one of the most spectacular drives in the world. It really is incredible: windy and fun, with breathtaking views around every turn. And then there’s Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls, Piedras Blancas lighthouse, elephant seals, and all the beaches, hiking, and wildlife. If you’re in California’s Central Coast (or anywhere in California), Big Sur is a must!
And that’s it! My central coast top 10! What did I miss? Avila Beach, Carmel by the Sea, Firestone Brewery, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pebble Beach/Lone Cypress/17 Mile Drive, the Nine Sisters, Pinnacles National Park… there’s so much to do in California’s Central Coast, as if Southern California, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Bay Area weren’t enough. California is amazing! It’s my favorite place!