You can spend months exploring Central California and all the natural beauty it has to offer. From small seaside surf towns to the major tourist destinations that everyone knows about, you could easily extend your vacation indefinitely. Though Central California can get over-shadowed by NorCal and SoCal, it’s a region that offers incredible landscapes ranging from jagged cliffs and crashing waves to vineyards and rolling farmlands. Moreover, Central California has an incredible bounty of farm-fresh produce, fruits and meats which make dining exceptional at many restaurants. Exploring this region of California will be worth while whether seeking adventure or relaxation, or simply a memorable getaway.
One Week Exploring Central California: Travel Guide + Itinerary
There’s never really a bad time to explore Central California. But in my opinion, the best time would be sometime during the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom and it’s not too hot. We went at the beginning of April and lucked out with perfect weather.
Also, always keep a jacket or sweater in hand, as it will always cool way down come sunset. Another thing to keep in mind? In case you stumble upon the perfect spot on the coast to dip your toes in the water, keep flip flops and a beach towel handy.
Keep cash on hand for when you inevitably run in to farmer markets and fresh produce stands on the side of the road.
Central California Destinations
We started our trip in San Francisco and proceeded to Carmel-by-the-Sea, San Luis Obispo, Solvang, Cambria, Monterey and back to San Francisco.
This European-style town offers visitors quaint old world vibes and sophistication that will have you quickly falling in love with the picture-perfect town. Certainly it’s is one of the most quaint, seaside villages you’ll ever come across. Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its fairytale cottages, art galleries, and storybook-looking boutique shops that ooze romance and whimsy. In other words, it’s a one-of-a-kind destination.
Check out my complete Forbes piece on the Monterey Peninsula here.
What to Do in Carmel-By-The-Sea
Bikes, Bites, & Bevs tour with Carmel Food Tours
Stop by Mad Dogs & Englishmen and rent one of their shiny, top-of-the-line e-bikes or classic bikes for a tour of the coast. Popular, incredibly stunning routes include the Scenic Drive in Carmel, 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach and Point Lobos. You can start right at the bike shop and take a number of routes, each one featuring turquoise blue waters, white sand beaches, windswept cypress tress, cliffs and more.
Landmarks include Butterfly House, Carmel River State Beach, and Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch. On your way to the highway, you’ll pass the Carmel Mission which is celebrated its 250th anniversary last year. Your guide will also lead you on a couple lovely mini-hikes in Point Lobos on foot. Perfect for all ages, it’s a great activity to take in the beauty of the coast. Not to mention, it’s suitable for those who don’t love biking (like me!). Be sure to bring your camera and secure your belongings before you take off!
After the e-bike tour with Mad Dogs & Englishmen, part two is a food tour with Carmel Food Tours. This is a two hour tour that includes five locations and a guide who gives excellent insight on the history architecture and culture of Carmel!
See below for the Bites & Bevs part of this fun tour!
When in town, stop by Carmel Beach, one of the most iconic spots on the Central California Coast. This stunning beach has white sand, plenty of space for picnicking and taking in the views and is dog friendly. While here, take a stroll on the Scenic Bluff Path, a manicured pathway that parallels Scenic Road just above Carmel Beach. The trail is shaded by the Monterey cypress takes you to the landscaped gardens to Carmel Point. Meander along the coastline from Carmel Beach to Carmel River Beach with views from iconic Pebble Beach to Point Lobos.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a one-square-mile seaside village that effortlessly exudes charm. Its unique European-feel blends seamlessly with a casual, laid-back Central California vibe, making for an ideal weekend getaway. There are no chain restaurants, parking meters or street addresses, but rather cozy cottages, boutique shopping, wine tastings, quality dining, sweet shops and cafes, countless art galleries and more.
Check out my complete Forbes piece on the Carmel Village & Hofsas House Hotel.
Where to Eat in Carmel-By-The-Sea
When it comes to dining, there’s an endless amount of options.
Start your day off with breakfast at this spacious and modern cafe for some high-quality pastries, savory morning treats and coffee. Afterwards, grab something indulgent to-go like the cinnamon sugar morning bun, kougin-amann or bread pudding for a treat later.
This restaurant combines global flavors like those of Thailand and Mediterranean in a variety of dishes.
For a special occasion, make a reservation at this Forbes Four Star fine dining destination located at the Bernardus Lodge & Spa. This menu is inspired by seasonality and locally sourced seafood, meat and produce. Set on 28 stunning Carmel Valley acres lush with vineyards, flowers, lavender, olive orchards, culinary gardens and more, Lucia showcases the best this area has to offer. In short, it’s a worthwhile culinary experience.
Check out the below video for our dining experience at Lucia!
This is a casual deli for gourmet sandwiches on the go. Once you have your food take it to the beach or nearby Point Lobos State Park for a picnic al fresco.
This British-style sweet shop has been around since 1959. For example, it offers homemade fudge, imported licorice, gummies, chocolates and more. It has what you need to satisfy your sweet tooth.
If wine is your thing, why not do a tasting at this lovely tasting room? While there, try out the 2015 Late Harvest Riesling if you’re into sweet wines. It’s divine.
For a pre-dinner cocktail and bite stop by this casual spot located alongside Hotel Carmel. Pub fare includes braised short rib fries; fish and chips with fresh halibut; Brophy’s burger with cremini & king trumpet mushrooms; and the crispy calamari.
Popular Carmel Food Tour spots include:
This a upscale bistro in situated right in the downtown area and features an impressive array of grilled USDA Prime steaks and seafood dishes.
This upscale watering hole located in La Playa Carmel offers classic libations and elevated contemporary comfort fare in a historic, sleek lounge. They offer a selection of signature cocktails that include the Bud’s Martini with Gin, Vodka, and Lillet; and The Mayor with Whisky, Bitters, Orange, and Bourbon Cherry. Meanwhile, munch on popular bites such as the Prime Rib French Dip; Salmon Nicoise Salad; and Bud’s Burger.
Check out the below video for all the spots we ate at!
A brewery and New American restaurant is in a vibrant, open aired shopping area. Known for it’s lively bar scene, this spot has a great selection of beers and craft cocktails and barbecue that includes St. Louis ribs, smoked brisket, and half chicken served with a special house porter barbecue sauce.
A lively Mexican restaurant offers Baja-inspired fare with local ingredients. Must-try items include the Tacos Baja Norte; Chile Relleno with Mexican squash “ratatouille”; and the Burrito “El Naufrago”. Afterwards, wash it all down with a refreshing cocktail or Jaranitas soda.
Where to Stay in Carmel-By-The-Sea
If you’re looking for somewhere to spend the night, check in to Hotel Carmel. This boutique property is located just steps away from boutique shops, galleries, restaurants, and the beautiful Carmel Beach. Moreover, it features a fire pit, pool and ocean views.
For a different vibe, check in to the historic, family owned boutique inn, Hofsas House Hotel. This property has a delightful pretty, light pink exterior and features distinctive Bavarian-inspired décor. Examples of this decor include a playful mural along with various enhancements at the front of the building painted by artist Maxine Albro.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo is a charming town that flies under the radar of many tourists, especially those traveling Central California. It’s a great midway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Furthermore, it’s just 15 miles away from some absolutely incredible beaches including the classic California beach town, Pismo Beach. Not to mention, this part of Central California boasts hundreds of farms which cater to year-round daily farmer’s markets selling the freshest produce, meats and more to local chefs and their restaurants.
In addition, as a town in close proximity to the coastline it has plenty of fresh seafood to impress diner with. To add to its top notch culinary scene, this area is also now for producing some of the country’s best wine thanks to its temperate Mediterranean climate and high quality soil. Scenic, nearby wine tasting areas include Paso Robles.
What to Do in San Luis Obispo
Enjoy miles of pristine, stunning beaches on the coast, as well as water sports that are available at any given beach town. Why not try surfing, kayaking or paddle boarding? While on the boardwalk, enjoy bites like fish and chips and take in beautiful views no matter where you end up on the icon Highway 1. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for wild life, even whales depending on the time of the year!
SLO is home to three wine regions—Paso Robles, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande— each producing award-winning wines in laid back luxury. Furthermore, Edna Valley alone is home to over 27 tasting rooms. Exceptional wineries include Edna Valley Vineyard, Tolosa Vineyard, Chamisal Vineyard, Biddle Ranch Vineyard and more. Paso Robles is another incredible wine tasting region. Because of its 11 viticultural areas and Mediterranean climate, high quality wines are what this place is known for.
SLO is buzzy university town with lots of great boutique shopping in its cute downtown area, which also has plenty of great eateries, bars and cafes. Retail therapy anyone?
Avila Beach Hikes
Avila Beach is another area home to countless hikes and trails that offer beautiful coastal views from Point Sal to Point San Luis. Great hiking places include the 5 mile roundtrip Bob Jones Trail, which includes a tidal estuary to explore; clothing-optional Pirates Cove’s Mallagh Landing Trail; Sycamore Crest Trail; the paved Shell Beach Bluff; Avila Ridge Trail and more. Make sure to bring picnic goodies, pack your camera and wear good hiking shoes!
Where to Eat in San Luis Obispo
Park 1039 is an upscale eatery and market that offers guests a taste of fine French living through fine dining, wine tasting (they have over 2000 bottles!) and artisanal shopping. Chefs Brendan Collins and Sarah Carlisle are extremely passionate about using local ingredients. For instance, they forage for every item they can, even sea water for the best finishing salt you’ll ever taste. Because of this, it’s quite a unique dining experience.
Situated next to Hotel Cerro is Brasserie SLO which is a chic spot serving modern coastal cuisine with an emphasis on the quintessential French dining experience. Above all, dishes use ingredients from both the abundant agricultural life on the Central Coast, along with produce from its own Edible Gardens.
This lively spot offers all-day take-away and dine-in options with house-roasted rotisserie meats, family-style dinners, specialty sandwiches, farm-fresh salads, and rustic-style baked goods. They also offer local ingredients for sale from small-batch purveyors; local wines; fancy salts; coffee beans and more.
Check out my complete Forbes piece on the where to eat in San Luis Obispo, California here.
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo
Hotel Cerro is a relatively new property in the heart of the downtown area with modern, cozy, accommodations; a stylish, chic rooftop pool and bar; and a recently opened Central California coast-inspired day spa and private gym.
Solvang is one of the most memorable, one-of-a-kind towns in Central California. It had been on my bucketlist for as long as I can remember! With one stroll through town, you feel like you’ve left the states and transported to an adorable, peaceful town in Denmark. In short, from unique architecture, traditional Danish bakeries and history to its own wine country and a top-notch culinary scene, there’s lots to appreciate.
Old-world European architecture; looming windmills, boutique shops that include places to buy specialty items like coo coo clocks, kitschy souvenirs and clogs; and more make this “Danish Capital of America” worth the visit.
Check out my complete Forbes piece on Solvang, California here.
What to Do in Solvang
One of the best parts of this town is the fact that Solvang is home to a number of unparalleled, traditional Danish bakeries that offer the freshest, most indulgently delicious pastries you’ll find. Don’t let the lines deter you. A short wait is worth biting in to a flakey, soft, freshly baked almond custard kringle or a rich cream cheese, fruity raspberry or apple danish. Not to mention, each bakery has it’s own vibe and charm, try to check out each one!
This bakery was established in 1960 and some of their most popular items include the Æbleskiver; Flødeboller; and the classic Danish cakes and Danish butter cookies. Another good thing to know? It has fun automated robot “bakers” in their storefront, be sure to grab a video!
This is Sovang’s most popular Danish bakery known for a variety of authentic, delicious Danish pastries, breads, cookies and cakes including Danish custard kringle, almond tarts, butter rings and an authentic RundsTykker Danish Continental Breakfast. Olsen’s uses the recipes of four generations of Olsen Bakers and because of that it’s super authentic.
Located in Petersen Village Square is Mortensen’s Danish Bakery, a quaint cafe featuring everything from almond paste thumbprint cookies and bear claws to pistachio squares and pretty little petite four cakes. Due to its variety, making a decision on what to buy is tough!
This old-timey bakery offers tubs of Birkholm’s fresh Danish butter cookies, which come an assortment, and of course a huge selection of fresh Danish pastries that include cherry-cheese pastries, chocolate Barvarian cream-filled danishes and more.
This namesake bakery is so incredibly cute! It’s also one of the most photogenic, thanks to being next to one of the town’s iconic windmills. Founded back in 1911, this bakery offers all the Danishes specialties from strudel and butterings to Danish pastries and cinnamon crispies. It also sells impressive cakes and a selection of gingerbread houses for any occasion.
Where to Eat in Solvang
This restaurant features reclaimed wood accents, two fireplaces, and wood tables and banquettes that have all been hand-built. As a result, this this steakhouse has a warm, upscale ambiance and modern ranch flair. Moreover, what separates itself from most other steakhouses is the fact that the establishment sources many, if not most, ingredients from the restaurant team’s very own farms. Specifically, Sear Farm and Roblar Farm are just minutes away from the steakhouse.
Read my full review of Sear Steakhouse here.
Check out the below video for our dining experience at Sear Steakhouse!
This eatery offers diners seasonal, scratch-made food, made possible through the direct relationships with local farmers and purveyors of artisanal foods and beverages in the area. Above all, peasants FEAST menus honor every part of each plant and animal destined for the restaurant’s tables, through beautiful dishes that highlight the local agricultural community.
Where to Stay in Solvang
Book a stay at The Vinland Hotel & Lounge, which is conveniently located in the heart of Solvang’s Mission Drive in walking distance to all the fun in the area. This relatively new hotel features 82 modern, sleek rooms and both a hot tub and heated pool, (both of which aren’t too common here).
Cambria is a lovely seaside town known for its coastal landscape that combines both the ocean and weathered pine forests. It’s an artsy place with tons of gorgeous, rugged scenery; places to appreciate nature; as well as areas for cycling and hiking trails. The town offers art galleries; boutique and antique shopping; and moreover, great spots to indulge and imbibe.
What to Do in Cambria
This pretty beach a scenic, preserved area that’s ideal for watching marine life include whales, dolphins, sea otters and elephant seals. Because the boardwalk is a mile-long, it’s ideal for stroll at anytime of the day to take in the lovely ocean views.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
The Fiscalini Ranch Preserve features 437 acres of forest, grasslands and meadows. In other words, it’s ideal for hiking, biking, or bringing a furry friend to explore this sprawling natural landscape. Visitors are encouraged to enjoy epic views of wildlife, birds, otters, migrating whales and more from the rocky coast, which drops down a dramatic 400 feet.
Where to Eat in Cambria
Start your day off this laid-back Cambria gem that offers a one-of-a-kind menu of both sweet and savor waffle creations and a variety of smoothies. They offer blue corn waffles which serve as the perfect, uniquely flavored vehicle for delicious piles of toppings.
Robin’s Restaurant offers diners a menu of internationally inspired dishes made with local farmer’s market-fresh ingredients. Moreover, the restaurant has a spacious, garden setting which showcases live music. It’s known for have the largest selection of vegetarian dishes on the coast.
Linn’s Restaurant known for its famous olallieberry—a cross between a blackberry with a raspberry—pies and desserts. But before dessert, order a hearty one of Linn’s signature pot pies with a flaky, hand rolled double crust filled with chicken and veggies. After that, finish your meal with Linn’s olalliberry pie a la mode—it’s divine. Other examples of desserts include the olalliberry bread pudding almondine; cream puff with ollaliberry custard; and the olallieberry cream cake with vanilla cake, berries and a vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. In other words, you can’t go wrong!
Where to Stay in Cambria
Check in at Cambria Pines Lodge, a relaxing coastal retreat nestled in the hills of Cambia. Minutes from Moonstone Beach and the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, it also offers 25 acres of grounds, lush gardens to explore and an organic kitchen garden. Cambria Pines Lodge Restaurant also offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a range of dishes featuring steak, seafood, and pasta made with organic, hand-picked herbs and produce from their culinary garden. They also have on property the rustic Fireside Lounge which features nightly entertainment
Monterey is an absolutely gorgeous Central California destination. It’s most famous for its rugged scenery, including cliffs, state parks, tide pools and more. Moreover, it’s known for its wild marine life, think whales, otters and seabirds; as well as, one of the top aquariums around, The Monterey Bay Aquarium. For foodies, there are wine tasting rooms and world-class dining, meanwhile, history buffs will appreciate the story behind Cannery Row and the historic buildings here. The area also is home to a number of unique boutiques on Cannery Row and outdoor activities like kayaking and paddle boarding.
What to Do in Monterey
The aquarium is literally one of my all time favorite places to spend a day at! Firstly, the amount of sea life they have on display is absolutely unreal! I’ve always been obsessed with tide pools and the ocean wildlife, so if you’re like me this place will equally blow you away! Secondly, its enormous variety of marine life includes a rainbow-colored kaleidoscope of fish; penguins, jelly fish and a variety of sharks, and exhibits which currently include the giant pacific octopus; the kelp forest; open sea; rocky shore; and sea otters.
Cannery Row is one of the most popular tourist spots on the coast thanks to its nautical charm, history, and eclectic shopping. Beautiful waterfront hotels, restaurants, candy shops and boutiques, it’s a must when experiencing Monterey.
For the most outrageous panoramic views, you’ll need to experience the iconic 17-Mile-Drive. Before you do, stop by the iconic Pebble Beach Club and test out a top-of-the-line Lexus. What better place to do it than the also iconic 17-Mile-Drive? You’ll certainly revel in taking your Lexus for a spin through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula, hugging tight turns on the coastline, wind in your hair, and enjoying the sights.
Be sure to make stops at points of interest including the Lone Cypress, the extremely popular 250-year-old tree which is also the logo for Pebble Beach Company; Harbor Seals; Bird Rock; the 5,300-acre Del Monte Forest of Monterey Cypress trees; and more.
Where to Eat in Monterey
Start your day off right with a luxurious breakfast spread overlooking the bay at Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen. Stunning views and incredible coastal fair? Yes, please! Start with oysters on the half shell and mimosas, followed by heartier specialities such as the Dungeness crab Benedict or the oak smoked salmon & avocado toast. Meanwhile revel in the incredible views that surround you.
Before you leave your hotel, satisfy your morning sweet tooth try these out-of-this-world pastries including almond, chocolate croissants and cinnamon rolls from Tidal Coffee.
The Bench at Pebble Beach Resort
While at this ritzy place, Take a seat at The Bench at Pebble Beach Resort. Overlooking the 18th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links, The Bench delivers an eclectic menu inspired by global styles and uses the innovative technique of wood roasting and open-flame cooking.
Established in 1968, the restaurant offers an epic wine cellar that holds over 20,000 bottles and more history than you could imagine. For instance, there are arched brick catacombs; wrought iron-gated wine vaults; antiques; and rare, historical artifacts which are just a few of the authentic elements of this cellar. The menu offers fresh, sustainable seafood and usda prime beef. Surf and turf; diver scallops; grilled wild abalone medallions; filet mignon and more await diners.
Where to Stay in Monterey
While in town, check into the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, which is ideally located on the historic beachfront property within Monterey Bay’s Cannery Row and walking distance to all the fun cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
As the only Forbes four-star rated hotel in Monterey, the Plaza also offers a penthouse-level Vista Blue Spa; Schooners Coastal Kitchen, and the property’s newest addition, The Helmsman Lounge, perfect for imbibing on artisan spirits and delicious small plates.
Check out my complete Forbes piece on the Monterey Peninsula here.
Six Day Itinerary Of Central California From San Francisco
Arrival at Carmel-by-the-Sea
Bikes, Bites & Bevs tour
Check-in at Hotel Carmel
Brophy’s Tavern for Drinks
Lucia for Dinner
Overnight at Hotel Carmel
Breakfast at Rise + Roam
Drive to San Luis Obispo
Shopping/ Explore Downtown
Check in at Hotel Cerro
Dinner at Brasserie SLO
Overnight at Hotel Cerro
Breakfast at SLO Provisions
Hike or Beach afternoon
Drive to Solvang
Check-in at Vinland Hotel and Lounge
Dinner at Sear Steakhouse
Cocktails at V Lounge at Vineland Hotel
Overnight at Vinland Hotel
Explore downtown Solvang – Danish Bakeries
Lunch at pesants FEAST
Drive to Cambria
Check-in at Cambria Pines Lodge
Olalliberry Pie at Linn’s
Dinner at Robin’s
Overnight at Cambria Pines Lodge
Breakfast at Hidden Kitchen
Drive to Monterey County
Lunch at The Bench at Pebble Beach
Pick up Lexus for a self-guided tour of 17-Mile Drive at The Lodge Concierge
Check-in at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
Explore Cannery Row
Dinner at The Sardine Factory
Overnight at Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
Breakfast at Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Depart for San Francisco