What California coastal towns should be on your Highway 1 Road Trip?
Hiya The Next Somewhere Readers! My name is Kara, blogger at Whimsy Soul. Follow me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul or TikTok @whimsysoul. I’ve been living in San Francisco for over 6 years and have literally put over 30,000 miles on my car exploring this state. Road tripping is my JAM, and more often than not, you can find me cruising down HWY 1 to some tiny, cute California coastal towns to spend the weekend eating oysters, or kayaking sea caves, or fantasizing about buying a little beachside bungalow (you know, if only I had 1.5 million to drop on a house.)
California has over 800 miles of coastline – and while I’m a firm believer that you can find an epic adventure anywhere along the Pacific Coast Highway, there’s just something about these cute towns that just take the cake for the *chef kiss* perfect California road trip.
It can easily take 12 hours to drive the length of California, and that’s without any bathroom or gas breaks. If you’re planning on tackling the entirety of the California coast, set aside a week minimum to do it justice (though 10 days would be more enjoyable in my opinion.)
These are the best places to stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Leggo!
Mendocino is hands-down one of my places on earth, not just California. It’s kind of like if Ireland and California had a baby – sweeping green coastlines mixed with quaint cottages, Redwoods and a slight underlying hippy vibe. Mendocino is always my go-to California coastal town to retreat to when I just need a break from it all. (Yes – that means cell service is limited up here, so download any maps offline you need prior to visiting, but plan on giving yourself a digital detox while exploring Mendocino!)
Downtown Mendocino is just so dang charming. This area used to be a logging town and you can still see remnants of that history with the architecture. You can even spot old wooden posts along the Mendocino coastal bluffs that were used to haul Redwood logs onto ships to carry down south!
Where To Stay In Mendocino
Some of my favorite luxury resorts and hotels are in Mendocino. I’m talking rustic lodges with rooftop hot tubs and private chefs, or whimsical ocean view cottages with firepits and complimentary happy hours. There are budget lodges and a few good campsites around here, but I recommend treating yourself to a nice hotel. It’s the best spot on the coast to get fancy and unwind in nature.
📍The Inn at Newport Ranch: A luxury lodge on 100+ acres of a working cattle farm. Enjoy free happy hours daily, private coastal trails and a rooftop hot tub for stargazing.
📍Heritage House: The ultimate romantic and whimsical hotel in Mendocino. Check out those private decks with ocean views!
📍Mendocino Grove: Looking for something more down to earth, literally? Try glamping at Mendocino Grove!
Where To Eat In Mendocino
📍Trillium Cafe: My favorite dinner spot on a sunny evening. Make sure to sit outside in their garden and try their lamb chops!
📍North Coast Brewery: As a Wisconsin grown gal, I have high standards for beer and North Coast meets them. They’re one of the best craft breweries in the state. Come by for a flight and make sure head across the street from their restaurant to their gift shop to take home a 6 pack!
📍Django’s Rough Bar: Located on the harbor in Fort Bragg, this joint has a quirky patio and tasty AF seafood. Best for lunch when you can sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.
Things To Do in Mendocino
📍Sea Kayaking: Mendocino has some really cool sea caves that can only be explored via kayak. I suggest using Kayak Mendocino which offers guides tours that launch from. Van Damme Beach State Park
📍Glass Beach: This is one of the best beaches along Highway 1 for uniqueness. Up in Fort Bragg, glass beach is what it sounds like – a beach made of up colorful glass instead of just sand and rocks!
📍Hike Russian River Gulch: So many good trails here – from easy coastal bluff trails to ones that wind into the hills to secret waterfalls.
Pro Tip: Skip Napa Valley wine tasting and instead hit up Anderson Valley, right outside Mendocino County. You can find free tastings here (yes, FREE) and the wineries are delightfully laidback.
If you’re looking for where to stop on Highway 1 north of San Francisco, don’t overlook on of California coastal towns, Sausalito. It’s right across the Golden Gate Bridge but it feels a world away from the city. I always think Sausalito looks more like something you’d find on the Amalfi Coast rather than the Bay Area.
Personally, I’m over in Sausalito every week since I go kayaking there. I love gawking at all the funky houseboats here (there’s one that looks like that Taj Mahal!) and soaking in the views of Downtown San Francisco from the water. But if kayaking isn’t your thing, you’ll still fall in love with the flower-lined streets, fresh seafood and sweeping bay views of this town.
Where To Stay In Sausalito
I think the best hotel in Sausalito is Casa Madrona. It’s built up along the hill so there’s a lot of steps (and elevators, don’t worry) but that really just means all the rooms have a bay view. The room we stayed in had a huge porch overlooking Sausalito and Richerson Bay. Lemme tell you – I never felt fancier than waking up and sipping coffee while watching the sailboats zip by.
Where To Eat In Sausalito
📍Lapperts Ice Cream: Grab a cone of Ube ice cream ( or your favorite traditional flavor) and take a stroll along the docks while looking at sailboats.
📍Poggio Trattoria: I dream about this Italian spot all the time. You simply must have dinner here. Grab outside seating for people watching and order a pizza and Aperol spritz.
📍Bar Bocce: Waterfront bar with bocce courts, drinks, food and of course, downtown San Francisco views.
Top Sausalito Things To Do
📍Go kayaking: Sea Trek is the best kayak rental spot in the entire Bay Area. They’re so nice and welcome beginners. I go kayaking here at least once a week so you may spot me. If so, say hi!
📍Shopping: From handmade ceramics ot art to clothing, there’s tons of cute shops to stop by.
📍Muir Woods Hiking: Just about 20 minutes drive from Sausalito is Muir Woods, a Redwoods State Park with easy trails under the old giants. Make sure to reserve parking ahead of time online.
📍Battery Point: My FAVORITE San Francisco lookout point! You get so close to the Golden Gate Bridge it feels like you can almost touch it.
Half Moon Bay
About 45 minutes South of San Francisco is Half Moon Bay – a charming town that always seems ot have flowers popping off, no matter the season I visit. Half Moon Bay’s downtown is incredibly charming. Buildings haven’t changed much over the years and leaves the town feeling old-timey, but in a cute way.
Where To Stay In Half Moon Bay
📍San Benito House: This downtown hotel used to be a saloon and has played host to a lot of interesting characters over the years. It’s had a renovation but still hasn’t lost the original charm.
📍Ritz Carlton: This is the one BIG HOTEL in town. It’s right on the coast for epic sunsets. Try and book a room with a private firepit to roast marshmallows at.
Where To Eat In Half Moon Bay
📍Sam’s Chowder House: The famous chowder spot in town.
📍Sacrilege Brewery + Kitchen: A newish brewery with great craft beer and also tons of other local options.
📍Granola’s Coffee House: My favorite cafe for breakfast!
Top Things To Do In Half Moon Bay
📍Visit a Pumpkin Patch: Half Moon Bay is known for pumpkins. They have a huge pumpkin festival each fall and there are tons of local patches to visit for u-picks and farm activities. We drive down from San Francisco every year to pick out pumpkins for our fall decor.
📍Montara Beach State Park: Half Moon Bay stretches along Hwy 1 a pretty far distance and hence is home to a lot of coastal bluff trails and beaches. I really love Montara Beach which is usually covered in flowers. Pink ones in the spring and purple ones in late summer!
📍Sunflower Fields: Missed June sunflower season in Northern California? Hit up Half Moon Bay come September. They grow as tall as your heads here!
PS — Pescadero is one of the best hidden California beach towns up North. It’s inland about 5 miles between Half Moon Bay and Davenport. It’s small, charming and has a fantastic coffee shop if you need to fuel up. Stop by the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, too!
Davenport is home to one of my favorite hidden attractions along Hwy 1 California – Shark Fin Cove!!
You’ve probably heard of the college town Santa Cruz but have you heard of Capitola? Personally, I think it’s way cuter. I mean, just look at those colorful houses!!! Capitola is right next door to Santa Cruz but smaller and makes the perfect beach getaway on a hot summer day. Come early to grab a good spot on the sand and leave room for beach tacos.
Where To Stay In Capitola
📍Soquel Glamping Tents: Holy moly, I adored my stay at these glamping tents near Captiola!! Tucked about 10 miles into the hills, these tents come with everything you want: fire pits, grills, bathrooms, outlets, dreamy string lights for vibes and comfy bedding. The owners are really nice, too!
📍Chaminade Resort & Spa: If glamping isn’t your thing, try Chaminade, a luxury resort with lush grounds for morning walks, a spa and villas! You fancy.
Where To Eat In Capitola
📍Capitola Wine Bar & Merchants: Just a few blocks off the beach this cozy wine bar serves up cheese plates and nibbles on top of offering a wide selection of wine.
📍Gayle’s Bakery: Hit these guys up on your way to the beach to stock up on mouthwatering pastries, pies and coffee!
📍Mijo’s Taqueria: Wander over here for lunch! I recommend getting a few different types of tacos per person so everyone can try something new. Eat them at the restaurant or bring them back to your beach blanket for tacos on the beach!
Top Things To Do In Capitola
📍Beach Day: If the weather is right, plan on spending all day anchored around the beach. Swim in the waves, wander the village (next door to the beach) and soak up all that sun.
📍The Venetians: Aka the colorful houses! Whenever I stop by Capitola I always wander around these gems. They’re the symbol of the city and such a unique bunch of houses that you can’t find anywhere else in California.
📍Santa Cruz Pier: If you’re dying to see Santa Cruz, carve out a couple of hours in the late afternoon to run around the Santa Cruz pier. There’s tons of rides and games!
Carmel By The Sea
Carmel is one of the best coastal towns in California. Houses don’t have numbers here and most of the houses are whimsical cottages. It makes you feel like you traveled to Europe, or perhaps a fairy tale book. I haven’t seen anything like it in the United States before.
Where To Stay In Carmel
📍L’Auberge Carmel: Ugg, this historic hotel is so dang dreamy! It has European decor & architecture, large soaking tubs in the rooms, a back garden for guests and within walking distance to all the good stuff in town.
📍Mission Ranch Ranch: OMG, this hotel is so cool! On the outskirts of town, this sprawling ranch has live animals, tons of gardens and epic rooms (most of them have private outdoor soaking tubs!)
Where To Eat In Carmel
📍Pescadero: Head here to grab Baja tacos under heat lamps and string lights before walking down to the ocean for sunset!
📍Mission Ranch: You simply must have dinner at the Mission Ranch one day, even if you aren’t staying here. Their back patio overlooks a rolling green field with sheep, perfect place to catch a sunset with drinks and seafood.
📍Revival Ice Cream: My FAVORITE place to grab an ice cream cone to go!
Top Things To Do In Carmel
📍Carmel Mission: I adore the historic Carmel Mission. On Sundays you can enter for free, otherwise, it’s $10. They have cool gardens here to explore but I really love all the historical local displays to help you learn about the indigenous population here, the Mission building and history of the town.
📍Beach Sunset: I swear Carmel has the BEST sunsets on the West Coast. They’re always so vibrant and clear here. Come Golden Hour, it feels like the entire town walks down to Carmel Beach to soak up the show.
📍Explore the town by foot: Carmel is best explored by foot. There’s a long Mainstreet full of shops and restaurants, but also veer off into side streets. You’ll find so many whimsical houses to look at.
Next you’ll be driving through Big Sur, which you’re probably familiar with thanks to Big Little Lies. It’s stunning, but it’s mostly just outdoor recreation (vs cute coastal towns.) If you have time, swing by the Calla Lilies, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see Keyhole Rock, and McWay Falls but plan on driving through this portion of the coastal highway.
You made it to San Luis Obispo County! Central Coast baby. Pismo Beach is my new favorite beach town. Most people come to SLO to go wine tasting in Paso Robles, but you totally need to block off a weekend to Explore Pismo. It’s colorful, laid back, and has tons of outdoor rec (like kayaking, hiking, swimming and sand dunes!)
Where To Stay In Pismo
📍Vespera: Literally right on the beach and steps away from the pier, Vespera is one of the top hotels in the Pismo. They have a KILLER outdoor space with chairs and firepits to lounge and watch the sunset. Rooms are upscale, some even have soaking tubs. Or, head to their ocean-view hot tub for an evening soak after a long day exploring.
📍Sandcastle Hotel: Sandcastle Hotel is also right on the beach, but the rates are usually cheaper than Vespera if your budget is smaller. They also outdoor seating with heat lamps and a rooftop restaurant and bar for sunset happy hours.
Where To Eat In Pismo
📍Ventana Grill: Come for lunch and sit outside on the patio. It’s on the side of a cliff with sweeping views of the water below. You must their clams and cocktails.
📍Pierside Market: We ate here every day for breakfast. I loved their acai bowls and avocado toast!
📍Surfside Donuts: The BEST donut place in town! Come early – they always sell out by 10am or 11am. The line is worth it, I promise!
Top Pismo Things To Do
📍Wine Taste in Edna Valley: Just about 10 minutes from Pismo is the small AVA of Edna Valley. No need to drive all the way up to Paso! I recommend starting at Malene Wines. They have a cute airstream and outdoor seating.
📍William Randolph Hearst Castle: This famous castle is about a 45 minute drive North of Pismo but totally worth the day trip.
📍Pismo Beach Dunes: Ghe highlight of this small town in my opinion. Also known as the Oceano Dunes SVRA, these dunes absolutely look like something you’d find in the Middle East, not next door to the beach in California. Of course, they’re epic any time of day, but I recommend coming at Golden Hour to watch the sunset and catch the Green Flash from here.
I think Santa Barbara may be one of the cutest cities along Highway 1 (other than San Francisco – I love my Bay Area home!) While on my first visit a few years ago, we actually decided to extend our stay last minute, that’s how much we loved the vibe here! It mixes small California beach town with modern upgrades perfectly.
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
📍Kimpton Goodland: Kimpton hotels are QUEENS at chic AF decor and overall good vibes. The Goodland makes you feel like you stepped back into time to the 70’s in Santa Barbara. Record players are in every room, there’s an airstream out front and best part? Free nightly happy hours.
Where To Eat In Santa Barbara
📍La Super Rica: A cash-only authentic Mexican joint that always seems to have a line because it’s a popular lunch spot among the locals. It’s SO GOOD, you must eat here.
📍Zaytoon: This is such a charming hidden restaurant that serves Lebanese cuisine. Most of the tables are outdoors under string lights and around fire pits. Every Friday and Saturday night there will be a belly dancer mingling among the diners. Order the Strawberry Lemonade for a unique flavor punch! Note – you need to make reservations ahead of time on their site + put outdoor seating in the comments to ensure a table.
📍McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream: A trendy ice cream shop with some of the best strawberry ice cream I’ve had in ages!
Top Things To Do In Santa Barbara
📍Chromatic Gate: A tall rainbow-colored art installation right on the beach! It makes for cool photos and is the symbol of Santa Barbara.
📍Wine Taste: Santa Barbara has the cutest little wine tasting neighborhood in the Funk Zone. Start at Municpal Winemakers and work your way around to wahtever catches your eye.
📍 Santa Barbara Courthouse: This has to be the coolest courthouse in the entire country. It looks like a Mission crossed with an art museum – think murals covering the walls, large arching windows and a huge garden. Visitors can take the elevator to the top floor for an EPIC view of the city.
Oceanside & Carlsbad
Literally next door to each other, Oceanside and Carlbsabd are basically the same town. They’re a bit North of San Diego and have all that Southern California laid-back beach charm you want. Craft beer, bike rentals, cute shops, colorful house. Oh, and probably the most famous flower field in the whole state.
Where To Stay In Oceanside & Carlsbad
📍The Westin Carlsbad Resort & Spa: The Westin Carlsbad Resort and Spa is a new hotel on the Sheraton property, a sprawling space with plenty of dining options, a spa, pools, a hot tub and more! We stayed here and really loved our modern room and the view from our room’s balcony. (Yes, balcony! Love me a patio to sit on while traveling!) Waking up with a dip in the hot tub, breakfast at 20|Twenty and then a morning read on the patio… perfection!
📍Fin Hotel: A newly remodeled boutique property on the Oceanside hotels rooster, Fin Hotel is a charming little hotel on the main strip that’s in perfect walking distance to most of the things you’ll want to do, especially things in downtown Oceanside.
Where To Eat In Oceanside & Carlsbad
📍Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub + Whet Noodle: OMG – this is a MUST stop restaurant duo! I don’t frequently use “OMG” to describe food, but OMG, the couple behind Whet Noodle & Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub have something special going on. On one side of the building is Seabasstropub, a restaurant that can best be described as a punk rock London bar meets California cool.
📍Revolution Roasters: A cute, airy coffee shop with tasty pastries and unique lattes. I personally loved all the outdoor seating here! A must stop for morning java.
📍 Masters: This is the other OMG restaurant in Oceanside. I honestly wish we lived closer to Oceanside so we could dine at Masters more often! You’ll love everything about this place. From the large, airy floor plan filled with natural light, to the handcrafted cocktails (Try the Master 7 Mule!) and of course, the menu which boasts things like pork belly and short rib mac & cheese, Masters is special.
Top Things To Do In Oceanside & Carlsbad
📍Flower Fields: You’ve seen these all over Instagram each spring. Endless rows of colorful flowers pop up in Carlsbad and the farm is open for visitors! So put on a cute dress and take alllll the photos.
📍Go on a bike ride: My personal highlight of our trip was biking around the city on electric bikes. We rented bikes from Pedego Electric Bikes, a shop located right downtown in the old Victorian. I’ve never biked on an electric bike before but now I’m not so sure I can go back to regular bike rides! This was so handy in Carlsbad as the coastline goes up and down a fair amount.
📍Kayaking the Lagoon: On top of the ocean, Carlsbad is home to a lagoon! We spent a morning kayaking the Carlsbad lagoon and loved the peaceful vibes of this area. I’ve tried sea kayaking a few times and I prefer paddling on lakes, Bays and lagoons WAY more, which is why I was happy Carlsbad offers both types of water for visitors.
Just a midwest gal who ran away to San Francisco. Now flaunting curves + having adventures. Follow me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul or TikTok @whimsysoul. Originally from Wisconsin, I’ve been living in San Francisco for over 6 years and have literally put over 30,000 miles on my car exploring this state. Think of The Whimsy Soul as your online BFF here to help you experience something new. Every day, I’m sharing body positive style, attainable travel advice, beauty hacks and more.
👉 I hope this helps you plan the perfect California Hwy 1 road trip! There’s so many cute California coastal towns to explore and I could honestly probably spend the next decade running around this state and still not see everything. But these towns are some of my favorites!
Give me a shout-out on Pinterest pretty please?