This post may contain affiliate links that help support my business in creating content like this. If you make a purchase using one of these links, I may receive compensation at no extra cost to you. Read my disclosure for more information.

Ready to explore the best Central California Coast road trip itinerary? As a California native, my love runs deep for an epic road trip that showcases California’s unique landscapes.

My love for creating itineraries is well-documented here on Bon Traveler, and while I’ve shared my ultimate Northern California Coast road trip itinerary in the past, I’ve never shared one for another area of the coast that I love: the Central California Coast.

Navigate Central California Like a Local!

Unlock the best-kept secrets of Northern & Central California with my curated Google Map, showcasing 600+ accommodations, eateries, coffee shops, and unique experiences. Get the map here!

But take it from someone who’s had the opportunity to really dig into the Central Coast. It’s not a destination you should be sleeping on. There are stunning natural landscapes, design-focused hotels, and noteworthy food and wine scene.

Particularly over the last few years, a number of hotel openings have drawn attention in the travel world with locales like Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. The Central Coast has grown in popularity as a bustling destination. It’s been exciting to see small businesses pop up and offer new things to do in areas I love so much.

The best part? When on a Central California road trip, the journey is as important as the destination. There’s so much to see and so many incredible views along the Pacific Coast Highway. You’ll have an amazing time whether you drive the whole thing or just do a small slice.

With that, here is my preferred Central California Coast itinerary and a guide to the region. As you go through, remember that your own ideal trip doesn’t need to include all of these things. Pick and choose what appeals to you and you’ll have a great experience.

Short on Time? Here’s How I Would Spend 1-2 Weeks Road-Tripping the Central California Coast:

Stop 1: Carmel-by-the-Sea — 2 nights

  1. Hotel Carmelfor the best village hotel
  2. Le Petit Pali at 8th Avefor the best new hotel
  3. Villa Marafor the best boutique hotel
  4. Carmel Mission Inn, for the best design-for-dollar hotel
  5. La Playa Carmelfor the best larger hotel
  6. L’Auberge Carmelfor the best luxury hotel
  7. Carmel Valley Ranchfor the best luxury resort

Stop 2: Big Sur — 1-2 nights

  1. Alila Ventanafor the best all-inclusive hotel
  2. Big Sur Lodge, for the best family-friendly hotel
  3. Big Sur River Innfor the best budget stay
  4. Glen Oaksfor the best design-for-dollar-hotel

Stop 3: Cambria and Cayucos — Pass Through During Drive

  1. White Water Cambria, for the best overall hotel

Stop 4: San Luis Obispo — 2-3 nights

  1. San Luis Creek Lodgefor the best overall hotel
  2. Granada Hotel & Bistrofor the best downtown hotel
  3. Edna Farmhousefor the best private homestay

Stop 5: Santa Ynez Valley — 2-3 nights

  1. Hotel Ynezfor the best overall hotel
  2. The Inn at Mattei’sfor the best luxury hotel
  3. Fess Parker Wine Country Innfor the best-located hotel

Stop 6: Santa Barbara — 2-3 nights

  1. El Encanto, A Belmond Hotelfor the best luxury hotel
  2. The Ritz-Carlton Bacarafor the best beachfront hotel
  3. Kimpton Canaryfor the best downtown hotel
  4. Hotel Californianfor the best family-friendly hotel

What to Know Before Choosing Your Itinerary

Where to Start or Fly Into

Luckily, there are many options for where to begin your trip. Monterey Regional Airport and San José Mineta International Airport both make great choices for those wanting to drive north to south. You can even start farther north such as San Francisco International Airport if you’re looking to avoid a connection.

You can also start your trip from the southern part of the Central Coast depending on where you’re coming from. Santa Barbara Airport works well, and even Hollywood Burbank Airport will put you within striking distance.

Amount of Time

In my opinion, one week is really the optimal amount of time to get the most out of the Central Coast and take in the varied experiences this region has to offer. Everything from stunning nature in Big Sur to city culture in Santa Barbara.

That said, you could easily spend more time on the Central Coast if you want to see it tip to tip or linger in places that resonate with you. This itinerary taken in full will take you up to 12 days.

Weather and Time of Year

I’d avoid the winter if possible since it’s normally a rainier season. May and June tend to bring gloom and fog. Later in the summer, however, can be a great time to go, and it’s typically not as crowded as other, beachier areas of the coast during this time.

Spring and fall are also both gorgeous, with spring bringing abundant wildflowers and fall bringing harvest season to the wineries.

The Ultimate Central California Coast Road Trip Itinerary


Stop 1: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Recommended Time: 2 nights

Things to Do in Carmel-by-the-Sea

The fairytale village of Carmel has always had my heart, with its charming architecture, twisting trees, and quaint streets to explore. You can easily spend half a day or more wandering aimlessly, popping into galleries, shopping the boutiques, and taking it all in. Afterward, make your way to Carmel Beach to watch the surfers and take in the scenery.

Away from the town, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a beautiful place to explore and view wildlife. Carmel Valley also has great wineries, including Folktale Winery, a favorite of mine.

Helpful Carmel-by-the-Sea Guides to Plan Your Trip

Carmel by-the-Sea Hotel Recommendations

  1. Hotel Carmelfor the best village hotel
  2. Le Petit Pali at 8th Avefor the best new hotel
  3. Villa Marafor the best boutique hotel
  4. Carmel Mission Inn, for the best design-for-dollar hotel
  5. La Playa Carmelfor the best larger hotel
  6. L’Auberge Carmelfor the best luxury hotel
  7. Carmel Valley Ranchfor the best luxury resort

For a modern stay in the heart of the village, you can’t beat the Hotel Carmel. It’s just a stone’s throw from the many shops, galleries, and restaurants Carmel has to offer and less than a mile to the beach as well. Rooms are charming, with great design around every corner, and the exterior spaces are special too, with firepits and a jacuzzi available for guest use. Daily happy hours with wine take place on the terrace, and the room rate comes with breakfast. Book the best rates here.


Stop 2: Big Sur, California

Recommended Time: 1-2 nights

Things to Do in Big Sur

Big Sur might just be the star of your Central Coast road trip. It’s all about nature here, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park—referred to as a “mini Yosemite”—is one of my favorite places to experience it, with ample redwoods and creeks to explore. Andrew Molera State Park and Garrapata State Park are two great options for hiking.

The well-known and busy Big Sur Bakery is an attraction in itself, with people lining up well before opening to sample its baked goods. I’ve been here countless times and love grabbing pastries to go on the way to the beach. Big Sur provides a very nature-focused experience with jaw-dropping views of the Pacific Ocean.

Helpful Big Sur Guides to Plan Your Trip

Big Sur Hotel Recommendations

  1. Alila Ventanafor the best all-inclusive hotel
  2. Big Sur Lodgefor the best family-friendly hotel
  3. Big Sur River Innfor the best budget stay
  4. Glen Oaksfor the best design-for-dollar-hotel

I’ve stayed at Alila Ventana multiple times and can’t say enough good things about the property. It’s visually stunning, perched among the trees and featuring an ocean view, and its mountainside Japanese hot baths are a standout feature. Rooms are luxurious but cozy, with some suites featuring outdoor showers or hot tubs, and the hotel has a library of vinyl you can borrow to play in your room. In addition, Alila’s all-inclusive format makes things easy in terms of dining. There’s lots of optional programming included, too, such as guided nature walks, stargazing, and beekeeping. Book the best rates here.


Stop 3: Cambria and Cayucos, California

Recommended Time: Pass through during the drive or consider 1 night in Cambria

Things to Do in Cambria and Cayucos

Cambria makes a perfect stop to break up your drive between destinations. The Harmony Headlands hike is a must for nature lovers and sports California poppies in the spring. Moonstone Beach is another great place to get outside, and you can admire its many moonstones and jade rocks during a morning walk.

San Simeon, home to the famous and eclectic luxury estate Hearst Castle, is also just 15 minutes up the road. And consider stopping in the town of Cayucos for lunch at Hidden Kitchen. This coastal spot is known for its delicious blue corn waffles.

Helpful Cambria and Cayucos Guides to Plan Your Trip

Cambria Hotel Recommendations

  1. White Water Cambria, for the best overall hotel

Stop 3: San Luis Obispo, California

Recommended Time: 2-3 nights

Things to Do in San Luis Obispo

This laid-back town provides several great ways to get outside, from wine tasting in the Edna Valley to hitting Avila Beach for a picnic or soaking at Sycamore Hot Springs. And you can’t skip Montaña de Oro State Park, which is an amazing place to hike or spot wildlife, including whales and sea otters.

Downtown is also vibrant, with plenty of places to dine or grab craft coffee or cocktails. Ambiance, Wilde House Paper, and Blackwater are some favorite local shops in the area.

Helpful San Luis Obispo Guides to Plan Your Trip

San Luis Obispo Hotel Recommendations

  1. San Luis Creek Lodgefor the best overall hotel
  2. Granada Hotel & Bistrofor the best downtown hotel
  3. Edna Farmhousefor the best private vacation rental

San Luis Creek Lodge is a beautifully restored motor lodge with impeccable design and thoughtful touches throughout. The interior décor style combines California chic and laidback farmhouse, making for cozy, inviting settings. Each room is outfitted with Aesop bath products and plush Fili d’Oro bed linens. But the best part about this property may just be the breakfast delivery: Each morning, fresh pastries and coffee are placed in a cloth bag hung on your door for when you wake up. Book the best rates here.


Stop 4: Santa Ynez Valley, California

Recommended Time: 2 nights

Things to Do in Santa Ynez Valley

One of the main attractions of this area is wine, and you can’t leave without popping into a tasting room or visiting a vineyard. Sunstone Winery and Brave and Maiden are two stunning spots where the wine and views are equally incredible, and Bodega Los Alamos is a popular and aesthetically pleasing tasting spot in Los Alamos.

There are also several towns within the valley, including Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, Los Olivos, and Solvang, and each offers something different and special. Solvang is known for its Danish architecture and culture, while Santa Ynez and Los Olivos each offer excellent boutique shopping (don’t miss Santa Ynez General, Forage Florals, or the Los Olivos General Store).

Helpful Santa Ynez Valley Guides to Plan Your Trip

Santa Ynez Valley Hotel Recommendations

  1. Hotel Ynezfor the best overall hotel
  2. The Inn at Mattei’sfor the best luxury hotel
  3. Fess Parker Wine Country Innfor the best-located hotel

Don’t let the casual and bohemian feel of Hotel Ynez fool you: It’s still quite elegant and cozy. This beautiful boutique hotel sits on two lush acres of land and is perfect for a trip any time of year. In the warmer months, the pool is a convenient way to cool off, and fire pits offer a place to warm up and enjoy a glass of local wine on chilly evenings. Its Solvang location off the main strip of restaurants and tasting rooms provides for a more quiet and private experience, so it’s a great place to stay for a more relaxing getaway. Book the best rates here.


Stop 5: Santa Barbara, California

Recommended Time: 2-3 nights

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, also known as the American Riviera, really has it all in terms of things to do. There’s tons of natural beauty along the coast and in the mountains, along with tons of history and culture. Shopping, dining, and drinking opportunities are all abundant, and the Funk Zone is the perfect neighborhood to do all three.

For me, the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens is a can’t-miss; you can stroll through several different garden types and even see some redwoods. The Red Tile Walking Tour downtown is also a major draw, and it will take you around all the city’s most important historic sites. Santa Barbara, thanks to its location, is also the best place on this road trip itinerary to hit the beach, and my recommendation is Butterfly Beach.

Helpful Santa Barbara Guides to Plan Your Trip

Santa Barbara Hotel Recommendations

  1. El Encanto, A Belmond Hotelfor the best luxury hotel
  2. The Ritz-Carlton Bacarafor the best beachfront hotel
  3. Kimpton Canaryfor the best downtown hotel
  4. Hotel Californianfor the best family-friendly hotel

On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, the Kimpton Canary provided a great home base for exploring the city. You’re just steps off of the city’s main street, making the location hard to beat. Rooms have the beautiful Spanish-inspired architecture that Santa Barbara is known for, and the rooftop—which has a pool, hot tub, and bar—is the perfect place to catch the sunset. Book the best rates here.


Save This Post for Later on Pinterest

PS — Are You Booking a Trip Soon? Use My Booking Checklist!

These are the sites I use most to book my own trips. Using the links below is a great way to support Bon Traveler’s travel journalism at no extra cost to you. If you need help organizing your itinerary, get my free travel itinerary template here.

1. Book Your Flights

Use Skyscanner to find the best flights. It searches 100s of airlines and websites across the globe to ensure you’re not missing out on any route options or deals.

2. Book Your Accommodations

Use Booking.com for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.

3. Book Your Tours & Experiences

Use Viator or Get Your Guide to find the best tours and experiences. They are my favorite tour search engines. I always check both as their inventory varies depending on the destination.

4. Book Your Car

Use Discover Cars or Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.

5. Don’t Forget Airport Lounge Access

Get a Priority Pass membership to gain access to 1,400+ VIP lounges and airport experiences worldwide. The Priority Pass app is the first thing I check when I have a layover. I’ve been a member for over a decade, and having a comfortable place to relax before and between flights makes air travel so much more enjoyable.

6. Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

I never leave the country without travel insurance. It provides comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong (ie. illness, injury, theft, and cancelations, etc.). I use it frequently for my travels to stay protected.

My favorite companies that offer the best coverage and rates are:


Xx,
Jessica

1 Comment

  1. Supraja Lakshmi N Reply

    This is a very detailed and helpful guide for planning a road trip along the Central California Coast. You have covered everything from the best hotels and restaurants to the most scenic and fun activities. I love how you categorized the itinerary by different stops. Your photos are also beautiful and show the diversity and charm of this region.

Write A Comment