Whether it’s an imaginary line, like the equator that divides the northern and southern hemispheres, or a physical barrier, like the barbed wire indicating the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, the dividing line between north and south is usually well defined. But the line between Northern and Southern California is as foggy as a winter morning on the Pacific Coast.
Golden Staters will universally agree that Sacramento and San Francisco are in the north and Los Angeles and San Diego are in the south. And most Californians would place the north-south line in San Luis Obispo County. But exactly where it is drawn within this coastal region is often open to interpretation. This list of coastal towns in Northern California begins north of the college town of San Luis Obispo, so there’s no question that each destination is in Northern California.
Stretching from the midpoint of the California coast to the Oregon border, these nine quaint coastal towns in Northern California offer breathtaking views, uncrowded beaches, and delicious local cuisine that you won’t want to miss.
Pro Tip: While this list of quaint California towns begins near San Luis Obispo and moves north up the coast, I always recommend traveling the Pacific Coast from north to south when possible. That way, after you’ve stopped to enjoy the views of the rugged coastline and powerful Pacific Ocean, it’s a right turn to get back on the road.
1. Morro Bay
About 30 minutes west of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay is home to about 11,000 residents and is a beautiful, year-round coastal destination that allows visitors to observe marine wildlife. Go on a whale-watching excursion to see humpbacks, blue whales, and gray whales as well as dolphins and orcas. Enjoy local cuisine with a view at House of JuJu or Tognazzini’s Dockside, and stroll along the embarcadero where you may see a sea otter swim by and will almost certainly hear the sea lions barking.
Don’t leave this quaint coastal town without visiting Morro Rock, nicknamed the Gibraltar of the Pacific. This ancient volcanic mound sits on a circular peninsula that juts into the water at the end of Morro Rock Beach. Or see the rock from a different perspective by strolling the boardwalk at Morro Bay State Park or hiking up Black Hill.
Several miles up the coast from Morro Bay, Cayucos is a tiny coastal town with a population of about 2,600. Whether you stop for a few hours or stay for a weekend, be sure to explore this 3.5-square-mile spot along the Pacific Coast.
Stroll above the water on the town’s 950-foot-long wooden pier, where you’re sure to see people lining both sides of the wharf fishing for walleye, surfperch, and halibut. Or take a self-guided walking tour of the Cayucos murals, featuring everything from seascapes to scenes from the Wild West. And before you leave, be sure to grab a cup, bowl, or sourdough bread bowl of filling clam chowder at Duckie’s Chowder House.
Continuing north along Highway 1, the next quaint coastal town in Northern California is picturesque Cambria. Roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it is home to about 5,800 residents. Take in the scenic views from the 1-mile Moonstone Beach Boardwalk that winds along the coast, or explore Moonstone Beach itself, named for the smooth, translucent moonstone rocks that dot the sandy beach. You’ll also discover gnarled twists of driftwood and can explore tidal pools.
If exploring makes you hungry, then enjoy more fresh seafood with a view at the Sea Chest Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant. Or take a break from clam chowder, fresh oysters, and fish by enjoying the global cuisine at Robin’s Restaurant. Regardless of your main course choice, stop by Linn’s Restaurant. And since you’re on the Pacific Coast, I highly recommend the olallieberry, a unique type of blackberry cultivated at Oregon State University.
If you’re looking for a unique place to stay along California’s Central Coast, the three-bedroom, two-bath Victorian cottage used by the keeper of the Piedras Blancas Light Station (more on that below) has been relocated to Cambria and is available as a vacation rental.
4. San Simeon
With less than 500 residents, San Simeon is one of the least-populated destinations on this list of quaint coastal towns in Northern California. One of the most notable things to do in San Simeon is tour the Hearst Castle. Designed by architect Julia Morgan and financed by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, it took nearly three decades to create and was inspired by the European castles that Hearst visited as a child with his mother.
Here’s what you need to know before you tour the massive structure perched on the enchanting hills above the Pacific Ocean in San Simeon.
While you’re nearly guaranteed to see marine wildlife along the California coast, remember to keep a safe distance. It’s illegal to feed, touch, or disturb the marine mammals, and that includes snapping selfies.
Brought to life in several Steinbeck novels (especially Cannery Row) and the television show Big Little Lies, Monterey is one of the better-known quaint coastal towns on this list. Begin your trip to this area by driving the 17-Mile Drive that hugs the Monterey Peninsula. Then see more of the town of about 28,000 residents by visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, exploring the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and strolling along Cannery Row.
Just 45 miles south of San Francisco, the quaint coastal town of Pescadero seems far away from the hustle and bustle of Northern California’s biggest metropolitan area. You can certainly spend a day exploring Ano Nuevo State Park, visiting the Pigeon Point Light Station, or hiking through the redwoods at Butano State Park. But if you do nothing else in Pescadero, be sure to stop at Duarte’s Tavern.
A part of Pescadero since 1894, this James Beard Award-winning local eatery creates mouthwatering dishes from freshly caught fish and locally grown produce. In fact, many of the ingredients come straight from the restaurant garden. Be sure to start your meal with a bowl of artichoke soup and wrap things up with a slice of olallieberry pie.
Pro Tip: To cure a craving for Duarte’s artichoke soup after you’ve returned home, try whipping up a batch yourself with this recipe.
Approximately 3 hours north of the City by the Bay, Mendocino is home to fewer than 1,000 residents. Drink in the beauty of the cobalt blue sea and soak up some sun at the Mendocino Headlands State Park. Then explore the century-old, lovingly restored Point Cabrillo Light Station and museum. The crown jewel of a state historic park, this gleaming white beacon rises high above Cabrillo Point as white, foamy waves crash against the jagged coastline below.
If you’re looking for a bite for breakfast or a casual lunch in Mendocino, try the Good Life Cafe & Bakery. Start your day with a bagel, or opt for a heartier option like a breakfast burrito. At lunchtime, choose from a nice selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches. (And remember, when you’re in Northern California, you can’t go wrong selecting sourdough for your bread!)
Approximately 3 hours up the coast from Mendocino, Eureka’s scenic views include towering redwoods. If you’re driving to Eureka from Mendocino, be prepared to turn eastward shortly north of Rockport to visit the Drive-Thru Tree Park, travel along the Avenue of the Giants, and wind past Humboldt Redwoods State Park before heading back toward the coast.
Fun Fact: As you might have guessed, the town got its name from the exclamation used by gold miners when they discovered the precious metal.
While none is near the size of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Eureka is home to many century-old Victorian buildings. One of the town’s most-photographed sights is the three-story Carson Mansion completed by lumber businessman William Carson in 1885. When you walk away from the Carson Mansion, you’ll notice the pink perfection of the Milton Carson Home directly across M Street. Before you leave town, explore the Old Town Waterfront with this self-guided tour.
Pro Tip: If you plan to head inland from the California Coast for a bit, these are the best things to see and do in Redding.
9. Crescent City
Less than 30 minutes from the Oregon border, Crescent City is one of the last coastal towns to visit before leaving the Golden State. Fanning out from a sandy, moon-shaped beach, this town of 6,800 is home to one of the most scenic stretches of old-growth redwoods in California. Experience their calming beauty by strolling along Stout Memorial Grove Trail in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Then enjoy views of the Battery Point Lighthouse from the B Street Pier. (If you want to visit the lighthouse and museum, it’s only accessible at low tide.)
From Morro Bay to Crescent City, these nine quaint coastal towns in Northern California offer beautiful seaside views, consistently comfortable year-round temperatures, and a welcome break from the state’s crowded cities.