Coastal towns, incredible wineries, and endless outdoor destinations are just a few of the highlights of a Central California road trip. Embarking on a week-long road trip brought me through San Luis Obispo, Cambria, and Paso Robles.
What inspired this entire trip was the discovery of three new hotels in Central California. You may remember this road trip I did through Northern California last summer where an entire itinerary was crafted around hotels and food. Well, with two reimagined hotels on the coast and an incredible hotel opening in Paso Robles, this trip was reminiscent. Design has always been a core component of my travel inspiration. Whether it’s through the interior design of a hotel, the craftsmanship behind food and wine, or the curation of a boutique — it’s the heartbeat of what I love to discover when on the road.
These three hotels are all very unique to Central California and each so beautifully represents their surroundings. While the hotels may have been the first source of inspiration for the trip, what I found in each of these destinations was so much more.
It was the laidback lifestyle of San Luis Obispo that won me over. The connection to nature in Cambria. The passion for good wine and food in Paso Robles. All of this combined with beautiful spaces to soak it all in makes for an epic road trip. This is my take on Central California — a design lover’s guide to road tripping through San Luis Obispo, Cambria, and Paso Robles.
The Design Lover’s Guide to a Central California Road Trip
What to Know Before Traveling in Central California
Health & Safety: Before choosing to book travel in California, I’d highly recommend reading this post “How To Travel Responsibly And Safely In California” to understand what measures are in place for health safety. If using these guides to travel in California, I hope that everyone can be responsible travelers.
Amount of Time: This guide is structured for five nights in Central California. You can easily do less or more depending on how much time you have. For me, the idea of slow travel is really my focus this year, so 5-6 nights would be my ideal length of travel here in Central California.
Time of Year to Visit: Central California, both coastal and inland, can be experienced during different seasons. It’s good to note that the summer months can be quite hot. My preferred time to visit would be September-November and April-June. Also good to note that on the coast you may have some foggy days during the summer months.
Travel Logistics: This itinerary guide can be done in any order. Pick and choose as you like and create your own itinerary that will suit your interests.
Stop 1 in Central California: San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo has everything you could ask for — a bustling downtown, proximity to the ocean, great hiking, and even nearby wineries. Our two nights here were spent doing just a little bit of everything because you’re under twenty minutes to it all.
What I love most about SLO is the laidback feeling here. I’ve heard friends say that SLO is way of life and after a few days of exploring, I see is exactly what they mean. I’d recommend carving out time to experience it slowly (no pun intended) because there is a lot to enjoy here. Whether you’re out sipping wine in the Edna Valley, popping down to Pismo or Avila for some beach time, or hiking in Montaña de Oro State Park, it’s a place to get outdoors.
I’d recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars to spot whales passing by and getting a closer look at the wildlife like sea otters. My favorite pair is the Vortex Optics Diamondback.
*Travel Tip: A lot of restaurants offer happy hour, so this can be a great way to save some money if you eat earlier.
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo
San Luis Creek Lodge: The newly reimagined lodge in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo debuted the new rooms this summer. Created by PRG Hospitality Group and interior design spearheaded by famed designer Nina Freudenberger (author of best-selling book Surf Shack) turned the San Luis Creek Lodge into the beauty you see today. The California chic aesthetic is combined with a laidback farmhouse, making the rooms very inviting. Each of the rooms is outfitted with Aesop bath products and plush Fili d’Oro bed linens. In the morning, fresh pastries and coffee are placed in a cloth bag, hung on your door for whenever you wake up. Rooms start at $119 a night. Book here.
Where to Dine in San Luis Obispo
- Mistura: A pleasant surprise in downtown SLO was the organic Peruvian restaurant, Mistura. Come here for fresh ceviche and unique dishes. One tip: they have a $20 3-course prefix menu available from 11-5pm.
- Flour House: Wow, wow, wow!! The Flour House was just incredible and their Neapolitan-style pizza is seriously good. I’d recommend grabbing a table on their back patio and eating this pizza fresh right out of their Stefano Ferrara oven made in Naples, Italy.
- Mestiza Bar y Cocina: This was one of the few restaurants we couldn’t make it to as it is only open for takeout for family-style meals, so I’m hoping it will be open to guests soon again. This is a modern Mexican restaurant right downtown.
- Field Day Coffee: Open Thursday to Sunday, this quaint coffee shop was our favorite during the trip.
- Scout Coffee Co.: For good pastries and coffee beverages, come here in SLO.
- Sidecar Cocktails: Cocktails here are great, pop in for their patio seating.
Things to Do in San Luis Obispo
- Montaña de Oro State Park: For those looking to hit the coastal trails, make your way here. My favorite trail was the Bluff Trail as it winded around the edge of the coast. It’s relatively flat, so it’s an easier hike. Be sure to pop down into Spooner’s Cove for a scenic area.
- Avila Beach: When the weather is great, a beach day is a must on the central coast of California. Avila is a quaint beach town near downtown San Luis Obispo and offers a wonderful beach to enjoy.
- Biddle Ranch Vineyard: The Edna Valley is home to some wonderful wineries near the downtown and I’d highly recommend making an appointment at Biddle Ranch Vineyards to try their wine. You can even bring your own food here to enjoy with your tasting.
- Downtown San Luis Obispo: The downtown has a lot to offer for boutique shops. Pop into Ruby Rose, Ambiance, Wilde House Paper, and Blackwater.
- Morro Bay: If you’re looking to spot the local sea otters, head to Morro Bay near Coleman Park. Often they’re spotted here. Morro Bay makes for a great afternoon excursion. Stroll the beach, go surfing here, walk the promenade, and choose from a few restaurants for local seafood.
- Read an additional post: How to Spend 48 Hours in San Luis Obispo
Stop 2 in Central California: Cambria
Over the years we’ve driven through Cambria as we make our way from Big Sur but never made a stop here. Now I see why so many people love Cambria. It’s a quaint, small-town beach destination with all the charm you could ask for.
The coastal area is truly scenic — wide-open views up and down the coast. And when the weather is clear some epic sunsets. You’re close to a lot of coastal hiking trails, but what may be the most relaxing thing to do here is posting up on a patio with a book in hand, soaking it all in.
*Travel Tip: Consider stopping in the town of Cayucos for lunch at Hidden Kitchen on your way up the coast.
Where to Stay in Cambria
White Water Cambria: The second hotel to get reimagined this summer by PRG Hospitality Group and designer Nina Freudenberger is White Water located in Cambria on Moonstone Beach. Both the lobby and rooms are effortlessly cool — a blend of Scandinavian tones and coastal California textures. There are 25 rooms in total and are all now fully opened as well as the lobby and library. I’d highly recommend booking their Premier Ocean View Room with a fireplace to enjoy when the temperatures cool off at night. Rooms start at $130 a night. Book here.
Where to Dine in Cambria
- Hidden Kitchen: We actually ate at the location in Cayucos on the way up to Cambria as the Cambria location is only open on the weekend. This was one of our top meals in Central California. Their blue corn waffles are ridiculously good and I highly recommend their carnitas tacos.
- Robin’s: If you’re looking for a charming patio in a garden, this is it. Their food is California-fare and perfect for lunch or dinner.
- Black Cat Bistro: For those looking for clam chowder and coastal food, head here. We ordered our food for pickup and took it back to the hotel.
Things to Do in Cambria
- Moonstone Beach: This beach can be enjoyed in a few different ways. Whether you’re there to surf, spot moonstones themselves, or walk the boardwalk above, it’s a wonderful way to get outdoors.
- Fiscalini Ranch Preserve: Head here for a scenic loop trail that is near the ocean. Good to know that right now the direction is one way only to maintain social distancing.
- Elephant Seal Vista Point: Further up the coast is a chance to see the famous elephant seals just off of Highway 1. The parking lot is massive and there is plenty of space to go for a short walk above the beaches where they hideout.
- Harmony Headlands State Park: This headlands state park along the ocean has wonderful trails for hiking.
- Hearst Castle: The famous castle that sits up on Highway 1 in San Simeon designed by William Randolph Hearst is a must-visit. At the time of this being written, it does remain closed to visitors due to the ongoing health crisis. I’d recommend checking their site for the most up-to-date information and opening dates.
- Read an additional post: A Guide For A Weekend Getaway In Cambria, California
Stop 3 in Central California: Paso Robles
This is the wine country I’ve always hoped for. Incredible wineries, beautiful architecture, and certainly some of the most welcoming locals I’ve met. Paso Robles, you’re an absolute gem of a place, I wish I would have visited sooner!
When it comes to enjoying Paso Robles, the wineries are really a big part of it. They are everywhere, you’ll notice as you drive in. I’d recommend picking two to three to visit, and then adding some more unique experiences to your time there.
A few of those experiences include the incredible art exhibit by Bruce Munro called the Field of Light. Thousands of lights come to life over the fields and you stroll through soaking it all in. This may be one of the top art experiences in the world. Another unique way to experience the wine culture here is through a sunset horseback ride that goes through a vineyard. Is there a better way to end a day in the wine country?
*Travel Tip: If you plan to wine taste in the Adelaida area of Paso Robles, book an appointment for when you make your way from Cambria as you’ll be passing right by.
Where to Stay in Paso Robles
Geneseo Inn at Cass Winery: One of the coolest hotel openings this year in California was the 8-room Geneseo Inn located at Cass Winery. Made of industrial shipping crates, these modern rooms are perched over the vineyards. Each of the spacious rooms is uniquely decorated, not one alike, with modern amenities and bright interiors. As part of your stay, an Estate Breakfast is delivered to your room to enjoy on your patio with a view. You’ll want to book a few nights here and consider adding on one of their unique experiences as part of Camp Cass, like archery, horseback riding, or their all-inclusive Harvest Retreat. Rooms start at $350 a night. Book here.
Where to Dine in Paso Robles
- Cass Winery & Cafe: I’m a huge fan of doing a wine tasting and being able to enjoy a meal, so I’d recommend Cass Winery. Reserve in advance a spot on their patio under the oak tree and definitely try the mac-n-cheese with wine-braised short rib. Another option for a unique dining experience in Paso Robles is Cass Winery’s monthly dinners, see this link for upcoming ones.
- The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar: One of the most recommended restaurants in Paso Robles was The Hatch and I’m reporting back, it is amazing. Their rotisserie chicken is a hit and we loved their artichokes.
- Halter Ranch: Over in the Adelaida area of Paso Robles is Halter Ranch Winery and their cafe serves a wonderful lunch on their terrace to enjoy with a wine tasting.
- Paso Market Walk: The new kid on the block is the Paso Market Walk (a food hall of sorts). Grab ramen and be sure to try the Leo Leo Gelato here!
Things to Do in Paso Robles
- Wine Tasting: There are several wineries to choose from when in Paso Robles. You may already have the favorites that you like, but I want to highlight two wineries in particular. Cass Winery is an absolute gem — it’s “French DNA and Paso Personality” and all of their wines are estate grown. I’m a huge fan of white wine, so their French varietals like Roussanne and Viognier were some of my favorites. You can go wine tasting at their tasting room and enjoy their patio. The second winery is Halter Ranch Vineyard located in the Adelaida area of Paso Robles. Their location is stunning and offers a wide variety of wines to try at their tasting room. Other popular wineries are Sculpterra, Turley, Justin, and DAOU.
- Field of Lights at Sensorio: One of the most spectacular art experiences is in Paso Robles called the Field of Lights at Sensorio. Over 58,800 lights come alive at night across 15 acres and sway in the winds. Book tickets in advance, currently open through January 2021.
- A Harvest Retreat at Cass Winery: Perhaps you want to make a full experience of your time in Paso Robles that is completely all-inclusive. Cass Winery is offering a wonderful opportunity to do so with their Harvest Retreat where you can experience the harvest season and enjoy incredible food. See here for more information.
- Horseback Riding in a Vineyard: If you’re looking for a more adventurous way to experience wine country, I’d highly recommend booking a horseback ride with Central Coast Trailrides. They offer horseback rides through Cass Winery and Halter Ranch Winery, with even a sunset trail ride.
What to Pack for the Trip
In Central California, especially on the coast, the weather changes frequently. One day you’ll have blue skies and then the next, very foggy skies. I’d recommend bringing layers, comfortable shoes if you plan to go for a coastal walk and a dress or two for the warmer days. Central California is very relaxed for dining and experiences.