Central California Coast Vacation Ideas Central California Coast - Road Trip Planner

Places to Visit in San Francisco Bay Area, Carmel, Napa Valley, Central CA

Things to do / Travel Guide

The central California coast region is home to a jagged, generally unspoiled coastline covered with beaches that are as varied as the topography and the people. In areas close to San Francisco and further south to the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur, the beaches are rugged and rocky. Further south, closer to San Simeon, San Luis Obispo, and Morro Bay, there are golden sand beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The region also features several small towns and some very well-known large cities, all of which lend themselves well to the diverse character of the central California coast. Another great feature of this region is that the renowned Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) runs almost the entire length of this region from Marin County (north of San Francisco) all the way down the coast past Pismo Beach and on to Los Angeles and beyond -taking frequent stops along this amazing route is one of the best ways to explore this region.

Napa Valley, California

Napa Valley has so many wineries that it would take weeks to find and explore them all. However, it's not just the wineries that make Napa Valley a great place to visit; there are other places worth checking out, such as Calistoga, which has been attracting visitors to its mud baths since the days of the California Gold Rush. One of the natural sights in California is the Old Faithful Geyser of California, which, like clockwork, shoots steam 60 feet into the air every three minutes. St. Helena is a sleepy little town with an Old Western feel that caters to upscale tourists. St. Helena is also home to many historic homes, quaint restaurants and inns, and lots of locally-owned boutiques and trendy shops. The main population center in Napa Valley is the town of Napa, located about 55 miles north of San Francisco. Most people speed right through the town of Napa on their way to the wineries but art lovers should take a moment to check out the di Rosa Preserve, which features 30 acres of art created by local Bay Area artists. The di Rose Preserve is only open to guests via private tour.

Sonoma County, California

Like Napa Valley, the most famous places in Sonoma County are the wineries which, just like Napa Valley, are far too numerous to list. Cloverdale, located at the northern end of Sonoma County, is the largest grape growing area of the county and home to the 70-acre Russian River Park with recreational access to the Russian River. Another town in Sonoma County is Petaluma, located about 30 miles north of San Francisco. The area around Petaluma is home to almost 200 wineries and the town itself is one of the oldest in California. Downtown Petaluma is one of the best preserved Historic Downtown Areas and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Santa Rosa is the largest town in the central California wine country and is home to many local attractions, such as the Charles M. Schulz Museum (the guy who drew the “Peanuts” and “Charlie Brown” comic strips).

Marin County, California

Just across from the Golden Gate Bridge lies Marin County. The county is well-known for its stunning beauty that is best showcased in Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Mt. Tamalpais. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Marin County Civic Center, which was completed after his death in 1959 and served as one of the sets for the movie “Gattaca.” Muir Woods is less than half an hour north of San Francisco and is host to a grove of coast redwoods, as well as tanoaks, bigleaf maples, and California Bay laurels. The San Andreas Fault cuts through Marin County, separating the Point Reyes National Monument from the rest of the county. The park features a lighthouse, lagoons, sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs, coastal dunes, and winter whale-watching. Mt. Tamalpais is a mere 2,600 feet but the state park surrounding “Mount Tam” is home to 200 miles of hiking trails and is considered the birthplace of mountain biking.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco is endless in terms of places to see and things to do. Union Square is where many of the fine hotels and theaters are located, while the Civic Center is home to City Hall (which appeared in the James Bond film “View To A Kill”). The San Francisco Opera House, the SoMa district (SoMa is short for South Market and is demarcated as everything south of Market Street, including Yerba Buena Gardens and the San Francisco Museum of Art), the Financial District, and the twists and turns of Lombard Street are also included in the city's highlights. Two of the best-known tourist destinations in San Francisco are Chinatown (one of the biggest and most visited in the world) and Fisherman's Wharf, where anything reeled in from the sea, and lots more can be had. Other spots include Pacific Heights and, of course, the psychedelic playground located at the famous corner of Haight and Ashbury, former home of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The three most recognizable San Francisco city icons are the Golden Gate Bridge (which links the city with Marin County), the pyramid shaped Transamerica Tower (located in the heart of the Financial District), and the cable cars (which have been helping pedestrians climb the city's hills since 1873).

San Francisco to San Jose, California

While heading south from San Francisco and approaching San Jose, one passes the Silicon Valley cities of Palo Alto (home to Stanford University), Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Los Altos, and Cupertino. This area is part of the Santa Clara Valley and is home to technology powerhouses like Adobe Systems, Apple Computer, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Sun Microsystems, Symantec, Yahoo!, and hundreds of others.

San Jose, California

San Jose is located about 50 miles southwest of San Francisco and started off as a small Spanish colony, but in the years since its founding in 1777, it has grown into California's third largest city. Known for its modern high-rises and high-tech industry, San Jose is the capital of Silicon Valley and the global center for the high-tech industry and silicon microchip manufacturing. Located at the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose is home to a variety of sights, such as the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and Planetarium and the San Jose Museum of Art. One spot that is famous for its “Americana” (i.e., strange places that only a country like the U.S. could come up with) is the Winchester Mystery House; it possesses 2,000 doors and 10,000 windows. A family favorite; Paramount's Great America amusement park, is also located in San Jose.

Oakland, California

Oakland started off as a suburb of San Francisco, it is, after all, located on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay, but this working class enclave grew into a city in its own right. This growth was spurred when planners placed the West Coast terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad right in the center of town. Writer Jack London, author of “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” is an Oakland native. Today, visitors can check out Jack London Square, the brightly-lit waterfront promenade that is named after him. Also, the Bay Bridge, which links Oakland to San Francisco, is a site in and of itself that many bridge-loving visitors find fascinating. History buffs should head down to the docks at the corner of Clay Street and Water Street to visit the USS Potomac, or, as Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, “the floating White House.” The USS Potomac is now permanently moored in Oakland, but during his presidency the famous ship was used by FDR as his presidential yacht. Oakland was once considered a crime-ridden city but that imaged has changed in the past years. Now urban renewal, a prosperous economy, downtown redevelopment, and a booming port industry have changed Oakland for the better. Most tourists only pass through or around Oakland, but sights like the Bay Bridge and the USS Potomac make Oakland well worth a day trip.

Berkeley, California

The city of Berkeley, located on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay, is known as a bastion of intellectual liberalism and is home to the University of California at Berkeley. Famous for a long history of student activism and intellectual activity, Berkeley was also known for hippies and “flower children.” Today it's also famous for “yuppies” that have gentrified certain parts of the city. Telegraph Avenue, the main drag, just off the UC Berkeley campus, is still home to a handful of hippies and modern beatniks.

Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is located about 70 miles south of San Francisco on the northern side of the Monterey Peninsula and was also featured in the cult-classic “The Lost Boys,” starring Keifer Sutherland. Perhaps best known for being home to the campus of the University of California Santa Cruz, this area is a college town popular with folks that either live or vacation here for quick, weekend getaways. Santa Cruz is filled with cultural sites, such as the historic Mission Santa Cruz. New Age spas and whale-watching cruises (which depart from the local wharf) are also very popular. A great place to take the whole family is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, it's host to great arcades, rides, concerts, and “beach vibes.” Also of particular interest is the truly bizarre “Mystery Spot” just north of town. At the Mystery Spot, apparently, the energies of the earth have gone all awry making for a fun house of sorts where the magnetic fields make for unusual architectural designs and bizarre experiences.

Monterey, California

The city of Monterey has a history dating back to the Ohlone tribe who inhabited the area over 1,000 years ago. The area had been in Spanish hands since the mid-1700s before finally coming under the rule of the United States (following the Mexican-American War). The city claims to have been the site of many of the state's firsts, including the first printing press, brick house, theater, and public library. Following World War II, John Steinbeck made the city a well-known landmark by writing about the area in his celebrated novels “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.” More recently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has put the city on the map - it is one of the largest aquariums in the world and hosts almost two million visitors a year.

Big Sur, California

Big Sur is a 90-mile stretch of coastline starting about 160 miles south of San Francisco, between Carmel and San Simeon and wedged between the dramatic Pacific Ocean coastline and the Santa Lucia Mountains. It is famous for being home to a forest of California redwood trees as well as the Bixby Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, Jade Cove, and the McWay Cove Waterfall. Big Sur Village, the one “town” in the 90-mile stretch of the Big Sur coastline, is considered one of the most romantic places in the whole state and also a great place to go for a little R&R.

Cambria, California

Cambria, located in the southern part of this region, is right on the coast and surrounded by mountains and hills covered from top to bottom with pine trees. This small town is divided into two distinct areas: East Village and West Village. East Village is more artsy and, as such, is home to many local artists, studios, and art galleries; West Village is more modern. Main Street is the main drag here in Cambria and it runs the distance from one end of town to the other.

Morro Bay, California

Morro Bay is located about 15 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo and is almost halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. People who come here usually come to marvel at the 576-foot tall Morro Rock, one of the “Nine Sisters” (a series of volcanic peaks that form a 12-mile line between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay), which sits at the mouth of a local waterway and is home to endangered peregrine falcons and other migratory birds. Another local attraction in the town of Morro Bay is the Giant Chessboard at the Embarcadero. Carved out of redwood trees, this Giant Chessboard was inspired by the giant chessboards in Germany and features three-feet-tall chess pieces. There are near-perfect beaches, such as Atascadero State Beach, just north of Morro Rock, as well as Morro Strand State Beach, both of which have gentle waves and lovely views. Cabrillo Peak, in Morro Bay State Park, is another popular tourist attraction. In addition to lots of twisting, turning hiking trails, the park has many 360-degree overlooks as well as many opportunities for swimming.

Pismo Beach, California

Pismo Beach is known for wide and expansive beaches. Families and sports enthusiasts enjoy flocking to the beach just north of Grand Avenue, which is considered by many to be one of the best beaches in the state of California. Just past Wadsworth Street, the coastal beach becomes more rugged and less sandy en route to Pirates Cove and Shell Beach, however, this section of Pismo Beach is less popular than the area north of Grand Avenue.

Places to Visit in San Francisco Bay Area, Carmel, Napa Valley, Central California Coast

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