It’s hard to plan a central coast California road trip because there is so much to do that a week isn’t long enough to explore it all. Believe me, we tried.
What made this trip off the coast of California a great one for the hard-to-please teen set was the diversity of activities, and the unique experiences. And we even missed some of the most popular central California coast mainstays, like driving the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur, because portions of the road were closed.
A Unforgettable Central Coast California Road Trip with Teens
So while most people head from San Francisco to the northern wine country, we set out south to California’s central region.
Feel free to copy our seven day itinerary where teen friendly attractions include a prison in the San Francisco Bay, a stunning sunset in Santa Cruz, whale watching and the world class Monterey Bay Aquarium, bobbing seals near Carmel-by-the-Sea, ginormous trees at one of California’s popular National Parks, and sea otters in Morro Bay, part of San Luis Obispo County.
You can also use our guide to create your own itinerary and maybe add in Santa Maria – Santa Barbara County, which is known as the American Riviera.
Central Coast California: San Francisco Bay
Although not technically considered central coast California (San Francisco is really considered Northern California), this is a great place to fly into from Atlanta and the east coast, and if you find yourself in San Francisco, you have to stay and explore a little. (Side Note: don’t confuse ‘Sunny California’ with ‘Warm’, it gets cold, pack appropriately)
What to do in San Francisco Bay Area
We spent two days in San Francisco and since it was the first time the boys had ever been, we played the ultimate tourist and had a blast. Here’s what we suggest.
Ride a Cable Car. The Cable Car is synonymous with San Francisco and you just have to do it. Plus it’s a fun way to get around the city. TIP: To get that must-have cable car picture without the crowds, go early, or wait until the end of the line.
Walk the Streets. My boys were AMAZED at how steep the streets where when we walked from our hotel in Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf. “Look, there are STEPS in the sidewalk,” they proclaimed. Plus walking gives you a better sense of the neighborhoods.
Take the Double Decker Big Bus Tour. Do the Big Bus Tour early in the day. Similar to Savannah trolley tours you can get on and off at different stops. We took it too late to do that and next time I’d plan at least a half a day. This is a wonderful way to easily see the many neighborhoods quickly, from the colorful Haight, to the cosmopolitan Financial District to the raw Tenderloin.
Visit Alcatraz. My 18 and 13-year-old were enthralled with the stories on the audio tour, most notably the escape attempt that resulted in several guards being locked in a cell and murdered in cold blood. I was intrigued by the families (including many children) that lived on the island with the convicts.
There is more to Alcatraz than just the 20th century prison stories and a second trip is in order to explore the Civil War and modern American Indian history. I’d also like to take the night prison tour, (which I hear is very creepy)
Get your tickets from Alcatraz Cruises before your visit, I saw several folks turned away at the ticket booth trying to purchase day-of tickets.
Musee Mechanique. Musee Mechanique was a recommendation from my niece who lived in San Francisco and a highlight for the 13-year-old. Both boys LOVED this historic video game room along Fisherman’s Wharf. Surprisingly, it was the older games that captivated the boys – centipede, hockey and a submarine game circa 1980 something.
Not surprising, the teen boys took particular interest in the politically incorrect opium den diorama, and the 1800’s peep shows. We’ve come so far, yet not really.
Bike or Walk the Golden Gate Bridge with Bay City Bikes. Walking or biking the Golden Gate Bridge is an absolute MUST. However my macho teens were a little unnerving on the bridge. Apparently heights above a thrashing ocean with only a railing in between and a decent bit of bike traffic both ways are a bit scary for my boys. Maybe next time we walk. Either way, this is one attraction you must do at least one time.
Wok Wiz Chinatown Walking Tour. I would have loved to explore ALL the San Francisco neighborhoods, but with limited time, we opted for a walking tour of Chinatown. San Francisco has the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the largest Chinese communities outside Asia.
It was fun to visit a bit of China without traveling literally half-way around the world. We saw oriental delicacies displayed in windows. Watched an herbalist mix remedies. Sampled fortune cookies. Listened to Mandarin and Cantonese. Felt the spiritualness of a Buddhist Temple. All in two hours.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and Museum. We popped into this small but well-done (and free) museum while walking along Fisherman’s Wharf.
Next trip I want to go aboard the schooners, steam ferryboats and tugs (including a paddlewheel) that are docked in the harbor. Make sure to bring your National Parks card for free admission to the boats.
CityPass San Francisco. If you are planning to do a very touristy visit to the San Francisco Bay area like we did, consider a CityPass. It gives you discounts on the most popular museums and attractions, as well as a three-day unlimited transportation pass which includes the cable cars.
Where to Stay in San Francisco Bay
The mammoth crystal chandelier was the first thing I noticed as we pushed through the circular doors at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood, setting the tone for our stay at this historic hotel.
The nude lady in the Room of the Dons. My boys got a taste of yester-year elegance by reading through the small hotel museum in the lobby, even commenting on how they might enjoy a little bit of that bygone pageantry. Be sure to watch the video from the model that posed nude for the mural in the Room of the Dons (ask if you can take a peek at the actual mural and the golden peacock).
Free Drinks at Top of the Mark. The best hotel story is from the Penthouse lounge Top of the Mark, a favorite nightspot for military before shipping out. An officer purchased a bottle of whiskey, took a shot and told the bartender to keep it behind the counter for any serviceman requesting a drink. Last man to enjoy a shot bought the next bottle.
The idea caught on and Top of the Mark now has a cabinet of liquor bottles for serviceman to choose from. Each has a note attached with memories of and by soldiers.
Where to Eat in San Francisco
We filled our bellies to the brim each morning at the breakfast buffet at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins. Consider adding on the club level to your room and this buffet is free. In addition to American fare, they also had Asian options like dim sum and sticky rice.
The CodMother Food Truck. This was a quick stop for crispy fish and chips before heading out on our biking trip. Run by Englishman, and waving the flag of England, this is an authentic experience.
Fog Harbor Fish House. Our meal at Fog Harbor Fish House started with sourdough rolls from local Boudin bakery. Next up, sustainable seafood, starting with an Ahi Tuna Poke appetizer that melded flavors perfectly. If you can’t decide on an entrée, (apparently most people can’t) get the mixed grill of salmon, pacific cod and shrimp. Delicious. TIP: Long wait? This restaurant is located on Pier 39 where the barking sea lions lounge. If you have a few minutes or several, this is a great diversion.
Palm House Restaurant. The Palm House is a neighborhood eatery has a Caribbean flair. Eat inside or on the deck. My quinoa salad had lots of fresh juicy pineapple, and my son’s friend chicken sandwich could easily have fed two.
Central Coast California: Santa Cruz
This beachside central coast California town is home to the University of California Santa Cruz. Their mascot is the banana slug.
As with most college towns, especially ones at the beach, you could spend a week in Santa Cruz, but unfortunately we only had a little over 24 hours. Here’s how we spent our precious time.
What to do in Santa Cruz
Go Surfing, You Won’t be Cold with the Wetsuit. Did you know Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz is the best beginner surfing beach second only behind Waikiki in Hawaii? Well, it is.
My 18-year-old and I both thought this was a highlight of the trip, in fact, he was researching how he could spend a summer here and surf! Tara from Richard Schmidt’s Surf School was patient, enthusiastic and had everyone up on his board within the two-hour lesson. She also told us the seals we saw swimming nearby sometimes come up to the surfers and sit on their boards. (#Goals!)
Tip: Parking in Santa Cruz is pretty much all paid from what we could tell. There is a public parking lot at the Roundabout on Center Street. It is cheaper than parking at Cowell Beach Surf Shop ($10 – $20 depending on season), which is where you’ll meet your surf instructor.
Experience Sunset on West Cliff Road. You know if the locals are there, it’s the place to be, and West Cliff Drive at sunset is full of locals absorbing the breathtaking views alongside tourists.
Watch the Pros Surf. Whether you surf or not, you can watch the pros at Steamer Lane which is along Cliff Drive. While you are there, check out the small Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.
Play on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. I’m a child of the 80s, so the Lost Boys movie pulled me to the Santa Cruz boardwalk even though it was closed for the season. My teens did not share my vampire enthusiasm, but they did get a kick out of the beachside amusements and the totally creepy Laughing Sal at the arcade.
Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market. If you want to get a quick taste of what this entire region has to offer, visit the Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market held year round each Wednesday in the heart of Downtown Santa Cruz. Not only can you get amazing fresh produce (the strawberry fields are just miles away!) you’ll also meet the best local craftsman and shop owners, while listening to local groups perform.
Check the schedule for special events like a book mobile scavenger hunt, pop-up breakfast series, cooking demos, kids crafts and more.
Visit the Redwoods. Right outside Santa Cruz in Felton is Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. My boys were floored at the size of these ancient trees. I mean seeing them as the Ewok Village in Star Wars is one thing, seeing them in person is quite another.
We really wanted more time here to take it all in and maybe hunt for the notorious banana slug. Be sure to study the large tree stump on display at the head of the trail. This tree was born about the same time as Jesus! And if you want more Redwoods, take a look our friends at Trekaroo who have visited Redwood forests up and down the California coast.
Steam Train at Roaring Camp Railroads. We did not have time for this adventure, but it’s something the folks at Visit California recommended and given the railroad history in California, I would have liked to experience it. If you have time, add this to your itinerary.
Tasting Room at Martinelli’s. If you buy sparkling cider on New Year’s Eve, chances are you know Martinelli’s, where they have advocated that you drink your apple a day for more than 150 years.
On our way to Monterey, we stopped in Watsonville at the Martinelli Tasting Room. It’s a quick free stop that lets kids saunter up to the bar and taste cider flavors the way adults taste wines in California’s wine region. The folks here were beyond friendly and even sent us away with a bottle of our favorite flavor.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
The first thing I noticed about the Inn at Pasatiempo was the smell, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Right outside our motel room door was a pretty garden that included lots of eucalyptus. The smell was calming and made me stop, lower my shoulders, and breath deeply.
Pasatiempo is located on Highway 17 coming into Santa Cruz. They have a golf course on site and a nice lobby restaurant/bar that was rocking with a meeting crowd on the night we stayed. They offer a small continental breakfast in the morning that included breads, whole fruit and oatmeal. Enough to get your day started on the right foot.
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz Farmer’s Market. If you are lucky enough to visit Santa Cruz on a Wednesday, there is no better place to grab lunch than the farmer’s market – and not just for the free samples. During our visit they had a rotisserie chicken food truck that dripped on grilled Brussels sprouts. And for dessert, made from scratch (with locally sourced ingredients) ice cream from nearby Penny Ice Creamery. Ummm, Yum.
The Assembly. The folks that brought you The Penny Ice Creamery also own this Downtown restaurant. The Assembly is the place to get your burger fix. My 18-year-old went all the way with the John Wayne, a burger with a fried egg on top. My youngest and I stuck to the standard Assembly burger letting the 100% certified organic ground beef speak for itself.
We opted to top off dinner at the actual Penny Ice Cream store rather than just having the Penny ice cream on the Assembly dessert menu. It’s always best to go to the source.
Zoccoli’s Deli. Located along the main street in Santa Cruz, this place reminded me of an authentic New York Deli. Grab a number, order your sandwich and pick it up at the front. Food is what my youngest likes best and we introduced him to the delicious world of au jus here.
Taqueria Los Pericos. If you can get a spot in this tiny parking lot, it’s worth it. My food lover voted it the best quesadilla he’d ever had.
El Palamar Taco Bar. This was recommended by a family we met in San Francisco saying it was a favorite of the locals and located in the back of a coffee shop. We peeked in but after tacos the night before, we opted to go with a deli lunch at Zoccoli’s.
Central Coast California: Monterey County
Our stay in Central Coast California ‘s Monterey County was fairly short, but we did hit a few of the highlights.
What to do in Monterey
Kayak Elkhorn Slough with Monterey Bay Kayaks. High winds prevented us from taking our scheduled kayak tour of Elkhorn Slough where I had my heart set on getting up close with sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions.
Apparently also on the watch list were sea bunnies, an underwater slug that looks like a fluffy little spotted rabbit. Several California friends recommended this tour, so although we didn’t go, I’d put it on your to-do list.
Monterey Bay Whale Watching. High winds continued for our whale watching adventure. We were still able to go out with Monterey Bay Whale Watching, but it was rough seas. We did get to see a few whales in the distance, but got a much closer glimpse of adorable sea otters swimming in the harbor and harbor seals flopped all over the rocks, which was just as thrilling to me.
I enjoyed just being on the boat, but my 18-year-old wasn’t able to enjoy much of anything due to being incredibly seasick. Even if you are fine on boats, take the Dramamine the night before AND about an hour before heading out.
Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Monterey Aquarium is one of my favorite aquariums, probably because I’m such a sea otter nut and they have a huge two-story sea otter tank as soon as you walk in. It’s here that I learned these sweet creatures carry a rock in their ‘pocket’ to open shells.
What makes this venue even more special is the outdoor viewing area where you can watch the wild sea otters in Monterey Bay. It was fun to see the animals natural home after our outing in Atlanta with Cruz, one of the sea otters at the Georgia Aquarium.
17-Mile-Drive. This is one of the prettiest drives in all America. To one side are incredible views of the Pacific Ocean with whitecaps crashing on the rocks. To the other are perfectly manicured golf courses and magnificent homes that look like something from a movie set.
The boys’ favorite part – seeing the seals wiggles and hop their way to the water. Even in a torrential downpour, my youngest stood in the rain and let out full-bellied laughs as he watched them.
The Wharf Marketplace. Located near the Monterey Wharf, this is a perfect stop for lunch after whale watching. But even if you don’t eat here, it’s fun to just walk through to see the plethora of local produce, cheese, wine, flowers, seafood, and bakery items. Maybe take something back for later.
Central Coast California: Carmel-by-the-Sea
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a one square mile European inspired community along central coast California that is chock full with inspiring art galleries, shops and restaurants. A short walk away is a white sand beach. But the crown jewel, according to locals and in-the-know friends is Point Lobos State Park. Unfortunately we did not have time to visit.
Where to Stay Carmel-by-the-Sea
Hofsas House Hotel. This German inspired family owned and operated Inn has HUGE rooms (great for a family), a cozy lobby for continental breakfast and an outdoor pool. My favorite amenities however are the location, and the hospitality.
Hofsas House is walkable to everything – shops, restaurants, art galleries and the beach. Carrie, our hostess was a wealth of knowledge about the community, as well as what to see and where to eat, giving us all her favorites. We felt like insiders and she did not steer us wrong on the where to eat advice.
Where to Eat in Carmel-by-the-Sea
Flaherty’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar. Yes the food at Flaherty’s is exceptional. My son’s lobster sandwich came piled high, and my fresh, sustainably harvested fish had perfectly blended flavors.
But what made the meal over-the-top was owner Ken Spilfogel. You can tell when someone enjoys what they do, and where they do it. It was fun to be a part of that, if only for an evening.
And maybe the Olallieberry pie made with a blackberry/Loganberry hybrid grown in nearby Watsonville pushes the evening up the ranks too. It was good. Especially ala mode.
Big Sur Bakery. Our hostess at Hofsa House recommended this spot. A quick look at the menu and the cool house that serves as the restaurant and I’m in.
Village Cottage of Sweets. This old fashion sweet shop has jars and jars of deliciousness including candies (even some old time stuff you never see anymore), as well as chocolate. A must stop for kids and kids at heart.
Central Coast California: San Luis Obispo County
Love the nickname for this central coast California area – SLO Cal. I could definitely slow down and spend a lot more time here.
Things to do in Morro Bay and San Simeon
Ride Bikes from Farmer’s Kites & Surreys. Rent a bike in Morro Bay and take the flat road all the way out to Morro Rock, which is the last peak of the Nine Sisters. The Sisters were formed 23 million years ago from the plugs of long-extinct volcanoes. If the wind has kicked up, get a kite instead and fly it on the beach.
Kayak the Bay with Central Coast Outdoors. What makes this kayak tour in Morro Bay a bit different than any other is a visit to the Morro Bay sand dunes. Dock on the bay side and trek over the wind swept desert, past an early Chumash Indian shell midden to the ocean. There are no prescribed trails on the sand dunes making it feel very natural and untamed.
Natural History Museum. From the kayak we could see the skeleton of a whale on the deck of this popular Morro Bay attraction.
Walk the Embarcadero. On our last day in Morro Bay I got up a little early and walked along the Embarcadero. At times along the water, others perusing the shops. At one point we stood about five feet away from a harbor seal looking to score a fish breakfast from a dockside container.
Visit Hearst Castle. The castle, located in San Simeon, was once the private home of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. There are 165 rooms; 127 acres of gardens plus if you look closely you might find zebras roaming. The zebras are decedents of the animals in Hearst’s private zoo.
There are several different tours of Hearst Castle. We took the main house tour and saw a smattering of Hearst’s incredible art collection. The ranger told us the art in just one room is worth more than the entire California State Park budget!
Just as impressive – the over-the-top architectural details, like the diving platform of the indoor pool, or the statues that fall into a dream world in the movie screening room.
View the Elephant Seals. A few minutes north of Hearst Castle is one of the coolest things you’ll see on the roadside, hundreds of elephant seals lounging and barking on the beach. Park at one of the designated lots and watch them from the wheelchair accessible boardwalks.
There are approximately 23,000 seals that visit this beach, but never at the same time. Hundreds arrive in July and August, and from January through May it can be thousands.
Where to Stay in San Luis Obispo County
My youngest would say the complimentary hot breakfast at the newly remodeled Estero Inn was a high point for our stay, but my favorite was the bayside views. We watched the sunset on the water behind Morro Rock as we played checkers in the living room, and found sea otters floating in the bay within a stone’s throw from the deck. The Estero’s location is within walking distance to shops, restaurants and nightlife. I would definitely stay here again on a return visit.
Where to Eat in San Luis Obispo County
Dorn’s Original Breakers Café. A short walk from the Estero Inn and just up the stairs from a life-sized chessboard is Dorn’s, a family owned restaurant that serves local seafood (and a whole lot more). It has been a local staple since 1942.
The ahi tuna was melt in your mouth and my blackened fish had just enough kick. The youngest sampled the fried platters up and down the coast and loved the option here. In warm weather, ask for a seat on the deck overlooking the bay.
Bayside Café. The Bayside Cafe marina restaurant is located in Morro Bay, but totally worth a trip even if you aren’t going out on a boat or kayak tour. After eating out so much, it was a treat to enjoy a really good spinach salad with just the right amount of almonds, cranberries and feta. The 18-year-old had a huge plate of fixings for his fajitas and the youngest of course sampled the fried menu.
Robin’s Restaurant. Robin’s is located in Cambria, between San Simeon and Morro Bay. It felt too upscale for my kids, but they welcomed them anyway (and even younger ones too). The converted home in the historic East Village is a favorite for locals, having been voted several times as the Best of SLO County and Best North Coast Restaurant. Come early in warm weather to enjoy live music in the private patio garden.
And if you want to venture even farther down the coast, here are the best things to do in San Diego from our friends at Travel Mamas.