Regardless of your Christmas destination fantasy — whether it’s a grand castle on a hill, a quaint European-style village, or a picturesque town perched on a cliff overlooking the sea — the California Central Coast likely has you covered.
With its panoramic ocean views, numerous vineyards, and white-sand beaches, the California Central Coast region is gorgeous year-round. But during the holidays, the small and mid-sized towns of the region located midway between the major cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco take on a whole new glow.
From the splendidly festive scene at San Simeon’s Hearst Castle to the Danish-inspired charm of Solvang to the magic of the Cambria Christmas Market, the Central Coast puts on a holiday show that goes well beyond the area’s already-magnificent natural attributes.
And considering that much of the Central Coast enjoys average high temperatures in the 60-degree Fahrenheit range throughout December, the weather is likely to be optimum for a holiday stroll (albeit without real snowflakes).
Many of the Central Coast’s holiday events get started in late November and continue through Christmas or later, while others are one-night events that happen in early to mid-December. What all of the events have in common is the glow from a multitude of twinkling lights.
Here are seven California Central Coast towns that light up for Christmas.
Two million lights, booths offering German-style food and mulled wine, and more than two dozen artisan vendors are just a few of the attractions in store for visitors to the Cambria Christmas Market, an extravaganza that runs from late November to just before Christmas.
The event, which has been operating in the lovely seaside village of Cambria since 2011, is returning in 2022 to its pre-pandemic grandeur, according to the market’s website. “The vendor market and train ride return this year after a multi-year hiatus, and new interactive light displays have been added to the over 2 million lights, making 2022 the event’s largest year yet,” says the website.
Event coordinator Mike Arnold explained that the market originated more than a decade ago as an effort by the owner of the Cambria Pines Lodge to bring European Christmas market spirit to the California Central Coast. Over the years, the event grew exponentially in scope and popularity, and it is expected to bring in as many as 75,000 people over its 25-night run.
The market includes a wide range of German-inspired foods such as brats, chicken schnitzel fingers, currywurst, homemade pickles, and salted pretzels, along with authentic beverages like hot chocolate, hot cider, beer, and Gluhwein (mulled wine). In addition, artisan vendors will be offering chocolates, jewelry, handmade scarves, and imported German goods such as glass ornaments and nutcrackers.
With train rides, live music and carolers, and visits with Santa, the Christmas market has entertainment for every age group, and Arnold said the event regularly attracts large groups of family and friends as well as couples on date nights.
The Cambria Christmas Market takes place on the grounds of the Cambria Pines Lodge, as well as the Cambria Pines Nursery. It is best known for its stunning light show, which features nearly 30 miles of lights.
Pro Tip: The Cambria Christmas Market currently limits ticket sales to 3,000 per night. People interested in attending are encouraged to book their tickets beforehand at the Christmas market website.
The holiday charm of the Danish-inspired village of Solvang is so celebrated that it was the star of its very own Hallmark Christmas movie, A Very Charming Christmas Town. The 2020 movie tells the story of a lifestyle blogger who visits the town on a writing assignment and falls in love.
Solvang, which is known for its Danish-style architecture and picturesque windmill, puts on a month-long Christmas celebration known as Julefest (pronounced Yulefest). The festival runs from late November through early January and is billed as harkening back to “a simpler time and holiday memories of days gone by.”
Julefest features a daily light and music show at Solvang Park, a Nisse Adventure Scavenger Hunt, candlelight tours on select Friday and Saturday nights, an early-December Christmas Tree Lighting, and a Julefest Parade.
The festival is known to conjure up hygge, the Danish word for a quality of coziness. “With holiday trees in businesses, wreaths on light poles and garland strung over the street with a Julehjerter (Danish Christmas hearts), who needs snow when we are hygge?” asks the event’s website.
Along with its softly lit streets and glowing Christmas trees, Julefest also features cuisine such as butter cookies, Danish waffles, Danish Kringle (pastry), and aebleskiver (Danish pancake balls).
Fun Fact: Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants more than a century ago, and the town has since preserved its Danish culture and traditions. Known for its old-world atmosphere and contemporary vineyards and tasting venues, it is a popular tourist destination located in the Santa Ynez Valley of Central California.
3. Paso Robles
Another famous California wine region that capitalizes on its charming setting during the holidays is Paso Robles, the Central Coast area town known for its more than 200 wineries.
Paso Robles offers a full schedule of Christmas events, many of which take place in and around the pretty town square, known for its lofty old oak trees. During the holidays, the oak trees of City Park are draped with twinkling lights that cast a glow over the entire downtown area.
Paso Robles’ signature holiday events include a Downtown Lighting Ceremony in late November, a Christmas Light Parade in early December, and the Annual Vine Street Victorian Showcase on the second weekend in December. All of the events boast the small-town ambience that Paso Robles is known for.
The Annual Vine Street Victorian Showcase brings on a warm Christmas spirit that is “worthy of a Hallmark Channel original Christmas movie,” says the town’s website. The event features a street of Victorian homes that are all decked out in holiday finery. The event is described as a massive holiday block party, which includes Ebenezer Scrooge, the Snow Queen, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, community caroling, illuminated floats, and live music.
Pro Tip: Although the Bruce Munro Light at Sensorio is more a year-round event than a holiday event, the venue’s gorgeous Field of Light and new Light Towers are sure to add holiday cheer to a visit to the Paso Robles area.
4. San Luis Obispo
An annual Holiday Parade, a lighted-up Holiday Plaza, and a sweet Santa’s House are among the holiday events that take place in the mid-sized city of San Luis Obispo. The town’s website describes its Christmas offerings as “Classic cars, shining stars, and electric guitars” — all of which make for a “rockin’ good time.”
The nearly half-century-old tradition of the Annual Holiday Parade takes place in early December and features decorated floats, marching bands, and classic cars.
San Luis Obispo’s holiday activity is centered on downtown’s Mission Plaza, where the Holiday Plaza brings light tunnels, a 20-foot holiday tree, and a new Musical Light Show. The event, which takes place from late November through early January, also features a classic carousel and visits by Santa Claus.
5. Pismo Beach
For a “surfin’ Santa” atmosphere and a sunny seashore scene, head to the oceanside town of Pismo Beach. The small town located about 15 minutes southwest of San Luis Obispo puts on a Classic California Christmas event that plays up the town’s miles of white sandy beach and sea-bluff terrain.
Pismo Beach’s holiday calendar includes fun and whimsical events such as a surfboard decorating contest and a Santa Express drive-by parade. The surfboard competition brings out decorated boards that appear all around Pismo Beach, Shell Beach, and Oceano. The boards will be on display through the final judging in mid-December.
The Santa Express began as a response to the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2021, and the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce will bring back the tradition in 2022. “We drove through neighborhoods in Shell Beach and Pismo Beach spreading holiday cheer,” the website says of the 2021 event, adding that the event would continue this year as well.
6. Morro Bay
A parade of boats festooned with twinkling lights is the main holiday show in the coastal town of Morro Bay. With the massive volcanic plug, Morro Rock, as a backdrop, boats sporting Santas, palm trees, and reindeer parade through the bay.
The Morro Bay Lighted Boat Parade is a project of the Morro Bay Harbor Department and the City of Morro Bay, and it annually includes 30 to 40 entries. The parade takes place near Morro Bay’s scenic Embarcadero and typically attracts entries from Morro Bay’s fishing, leisure, and yachting community.
The town also features the Rotary Santa’s House on select weekends through December. Along with festive decorations, Santa’s House features a giant chess board along the Embarcadero.
7. San Simeon
For a taste of luxury and grandeur, San Simeon’s hilltop Hearst Castle is the go-to spot along the California coast. The castle’s website notes that every year from the end of November through the end of December, “Hearst Castle is decked out in holiday splendor.”
The holiday tours allow visitors to view the castle as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s glamorous guests enjoyed it during the 1920s and 1930s. “From the large outdoor wreaths to towering trees in the large social rooms, you will enjoy this winter wonderland during the month of December,” the website adds.
Tickets for a variety of castle tours, including a Holiday Twilight Tour, are available on the Hearst Castle website.
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