This short but stunning coastal drive features idyllic beach towns, Hearst Castle, and a roadside elephant seal rookery.
With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history and mellow vibe, San Luis Obispo (or as locals call it, SLO) is a Central Coast must-see. This college town has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
Explore Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Enjoy live music on the plaza on summer Friday nights. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evening, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for SLO’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, and craft beer.
Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.
SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.
Wake up with an almond croissant and double espresso made from locally roasted beans at Scout Coffee.
The quaint beach town of Morro Bay, just north of San Luis Obispo, offers plenty of fun. Don’t miss iconic 581-foot Morro Rock, where you might spot nesting peregrine falcons. Or look for sea otters and other wildlife as you paddle the bay with a rental from Kayak Horizons. Explore Morro Bay State Park, with its rookery full of nesting great blue herons and egrets, learn about the local environment and take in gorgeous views across the water at the park’s Museum of Natural History, or hike the short trail to the summit of Black Hill Lookout for more panoramas of the bay. Morro Bay may be famous for its wildlife, but if you’re more into birdies than birds, play a round on the state park’s historic Morro Bay Golf Course, which dates to 1923. Seafood is always on the menu in Morro Bay, whether you queue up for halibut fish-and-chips at Giovanni’s Fish Market or go for the pan-seared scallops in the Galley Seafood Grill & Bar ’s waterfront dining room.
With its ranching traditions and surfing, Cayucos’ unique blend of the Old West and tasty waves earned it honors as America’s coolest small town from Budget Travel magazine a few years back. Walk on the pier for views down coast to Morro Rock and to watch surfers catch their precious waves. In town, shop for beach-themed art at the Cayucos Collective and stock up on delectable smoked salmon and ahi at Ruddell’s Smokehouse. For dessert, you’ll definitely want to pick up a collection of Brown Butter Cookie Company’s sweet-and-salty specialties. The espresso cookies are irresistible, but keep a watch out for limited edition flavors and newly introduced varieties. If you’re looking for more formal dining, The Grill at Cass House serves an impressive lobster roll at lunch and dinner favorites like Tuscan-style short ribs with charred tomatillo salsa. On the way out of town, follow the network of trails that explore four miles of coastline and the secluded pocket beaches at Estero Bluffs State Park.
Stop in to Brown Butter Cookie Company to pick up melt-in-your-mouth specialties.
The sprawling metropolis of Harmony (18 people), across the highway from Harmony Headlands State Park (which leads to a hidden stretch above the ocean) is home to Harmony Cellars , a family-owned boutique winery and tasting room which has been carrying out a local winemaking tradition dating back to the late 1800s. The town also has an exquisite glass art gallery, Harmony Glass Works , where you can learn to make your own pieces, or browse the gallery for vases, jewelry, and sculptures owner Eric Dandurand and other leading glass artists from around the world have created. For more crafts, Harmony Pottery Works sells beautiful ceramics and locally produced lavender soaps. While in Harmony, keep your eyes open for a 1957-vintage ice cream truck. Considering Harmony is barely a block long, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Indulge in some scoops and cones of Harmony Valley Creamery ’s scrumptious craft ice cream.
Taste wine at the family-owned Harmony Cellars.
Browse the many craft and fine art galleries in the heart of town, including The Vault Gallery, specializing in works by acclaimed West Coast artists and located in a one time bank building. A piece of Olallieberry pie at Linn’s Restaurant is a Cambria tradition, as is lunch on the trellised patio at Robin’s Restaurant, a Central Coast favorite since 1985.
The Black Cat Bistro takes full advantage of San Luis Obispo County’s local and seasonal bounty in such dishes as an appetizer featuring Cayucos-raised abalone. During the day, discover premium varietals from boutique Central Coast wineries at Madeline’s Restaurant’s tasting room; by night, pair your new favorites with such tantalizing entrees as a lamb tenderloin topped with dried fig in a Zinfandel reduction.
But before dinner, you’ll want to catch sunset. Take your pick of two memorable Cambria spots: Moonstone Beach’s mile-long boardwalk or Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, where trails connect into pine forests in the hills above the ocean.
Ephraim Pottery West features beautiful handmade vases, bowls, and lanterns.
A few miles up the coast from Hearst Castle, you’ll find one of the state’s best wildlife experiences. Get an up close look at the giant walrus-like elephant seals on the narrow strip of rocky beach known as Piedras Blancas (white rocks). If you’re an animal lover, get ready to spend hours in this land-based seal rookery, where the huge marine mammals breed, birth, molt, and rest. Giant bulls, some measuring 16 feet from tip to tail and tipping the scales at more than 4,000 pounds, inflate their trunk-like snouts to create a distinctive, roaring bellow that cuts through the sound of crashing surf. The smaller females soak up the sun, or tend to their pups. Peak season is December through May. Smaller numbers of seals may be seen year-round. Helpful docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are on-site to answer questions. Insider’s tip: Four miles south on State 1 in San Simeon, Sebastian’s Cafe serves juicy burgers using beef from the nearby Hearst Ranch, and a tasting bar serves varietals from Hearst Ranch Winery.
Designed by legendary architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle is positively enthralling: a collection of priceless art and antiques from all over the world, exquisitely assembled in a mountaintop Mediterranean estate that Hearst dubbed La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill).
The castle out-Hollywoods Hollywood and is as grand as the finest palaces of Europe. And the story of its visionary owner, William Randolph Hearst, is a made-in-America fable that proves that fact is truly stranger than fiction.
Considering that the castle rambles over roughly 80,000 square feet, 165 rooms, and 123 acres of gardens and pools, no single tour can fully capture its splendor. In fact, take your pick of nine different ways to explore the castle, including seasonal evening and holiday tours. Or splurge on your very own four-hour private tour for up to six people.
Love art? The Art of San Simeon Tour looks at the priceless assortment of tapestries, paintings, and sculptures that Hearst collected for his castle. Limited to eight visitors, the tour explores a few rooms that have never been previously accessible to the public. Or for architecture buffs, nothing beats the Designing the Dream Tour, which focuses on the unique creative collaboration between Hearst and Morgan that spanned more than 30 years.
It’s just a few minutes downhill to your next stop at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach.
On the way to Ragged Point, take in the stunning coastline views along Big Sur’s southernmost cliffs. Stroll through the gardens at the Ragged Point Inn & Resort or work your way down the short but definitely steep 1.2-mile roundtrip Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to reach a secluded black-sand beach. For a casual lunch, head over to the sandwich stand to order up a burger, salad, or fish and chips (there’s also an ice cream stand). Settle in at one of the picnic tables or spread out a blanket on the broad lawn. On summer weekends, enjoy live music in the plaza, or stay for a romantic gourmet dinner served 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean at the Ragged Point Restaurant . Follow the Salmon Creek Trail into the rugged coastal mountains as you hike along a canyon and through oak forests to Spruce Camp. For day hikers, it’s a good turnaround spot and makes for a beautiful four-mile roundtrip outing.
Stay at the Ragged Point Inn & Resort were you can see what’s blooming as you stroll through the gardens, or work your way down the short but steep 1.2-mile round-trip Ragged Point Cliffside Trail to reach a secluded black-sand beach.