There are places in California that are known around the world. And then there are the lesser-known, hidden gems. The Central Coast is filled with such places; small towns that were once stagecoach stops, restaurants and hotels in beautifully restored historic buildings, and tiny museums honoring famous writers. Mixed in are hundreds of wineries producing award-winning wines and restaurants receiving national attention.
As a resident of California for over 40 years, I am always amazed at how much my home state has to offer. I’ve made several road trips through the Central Coast, and each time we discover something new. Here’s the route I recommend if you have a few days to explore this region, starting in the south and concluding 100 miles later in the north.
A portion of my trip was hosted by the Nomada Hotel Group and Visit Santa Ynez Valley, but all opinions are my own.
Solvang is one of the better-known destinations in this region, and for good reason. Founded by Danish immigrants in 1911, the streets are lined with half-timbered buildings topped with wood-shingled roofs, colorful shops selling Danish goods, and of course, windmills.
Start your day right with traditional Danish pastries at one of the many bakeries in town. Birkholm’s Bakery & Cafe has been in operation since 1951 selling Scandinavian cakes, breads, and pastries. Then stroll the streets of Solvang enjoying boutique shops, wine-tasting rooms, and restaurants. Don’t miss the small, but informative Hans Christian Andersen Museum located on the second floor of The Book Loft. I loved revisiting all of my favorite childhood fairytales written by this celebrated Danish author.
To fully enjoy Solvang and the surrounding small towns, be sure to stay for at least a night. I recommend Hotel Ynez, situated halfway between Solvang and Santa Ynez. Positioned between two churches and a residential neighborhood, this quiet property is perfect for a relaxing getaway. 22 rooms surround a large outdoor garden dotted with firepits, cozy seating areas, and a bocce ball court. Jason and I grabbed a bottle of wine to enjoy while playing our first-ever rounds of bocce ball. The rooms are modern and spacious, and each has its own patio and hammock.
I have just one recommended stop in the town of Buellton, but it’s an important one, Hitching Post II. Specifically, I suggest lunch and wine tasting in the outdoor space located next to the original restaurant. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the 2007 movie, Sideways. This restaurant featured prominently in the movie, both on-screen and off. In 2019, founders Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley decided to expand operations to include a lunch spot and wine-tasting room.
It’s all about the barbecue at Hitching Post II, so Jason ordered the ribs while I enjoyed a cheeseburger. We rounded out our meal with an excellent glass of 2019 Highliner Pinot Noir. Both the wine and the food are complemented by the view. If weather permits, grab an outdoor table under one of the giant oak trees.
3. Los Olivos
Los Olivos is a wine lover’s dream come true with dozens of tasting rooms within a short walk along its two main streets, Grand Avenue and Alamo Pintado Avenue. This unincorporated community was originally a stagecoach stop and dates back to 1860.
Today, Los Olivos is the perfect spot to try new wines and enjoy excellent food. Jason and I had the chance to visit Grimm’s Bluff Wine Tasting Room and sample their excellent sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons.
You’ll likely need a break between wine tastings, so fortunately there are some lovely shops to explore. My favorite was J. Woeste Treasures For Home & Garden. Formerly a residence, this home and garden is now a plant nursery and gift shop. It’s quite large and boasts an impressive inventory. If you’re visiting around the holidays they also have a nice selection of decorations for both inside and outside your home.
Our day continued at Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe for another wine tasting and dinner. After being seated next to the fireplace, we sampled three Bernat wines; Sangiovese, Syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. Then we enjoyed a delicious dinner. All the produce for the restaurant is grown on the nearby family farm which is adjacent to the vineyard where the grapes for Bernat wines are grown. This is definitely the place to go if you’re seeking a romantic dinner with your partner.
4. Los Alamos
At first glance, Los Alamos doesn’t look like much. Its main road, known as Bell Street, is short and dusty. But it’s what’s hiding behind each of the storefronts that makes this place worth visiting.
If you’re here during breakfast or lunch, you must head to Bob’s Well Bread. Started by a former movie studio executive, Bob Oswaks, this bakery and cafe serves delicious pastries, sandwiches, soups, and salads. I’m still dreaming about their kouign-amann, a pastry hailing from the Brittany region of France that’s like a denser, sweeter croissant. A second location recently opened in nearby Ballard serving equally delicious food.
For dinner, we had the pleasure of trying Pico, a fine dining restaurant located in the former Los Alamos General Store. Built in 1880, this building has been well cared for over the years, resulting in a space that still has beautiful wooden floors, ceilings, and beams, all making for a warm and inviting dining experience. But what matters most is the food — and it’s excellent. A highlight was definitely Winfield Farm pork tri-tip with bean stew and caramelized onions. And whether you like craft cocktails or a good glass of wine, they have both. The owners also have a winery called Lumen, and you can pop into their tasting room located next door.
Just a bit outside of town is a lovely spot for wine tasting at Dovecote Winery. A covered wood deck perched on the edge of a pond is the perfect spot for sampling delicious white and red wines, with our favorite being the 2022 Estate Grenache Blanc. All tastings are private and must be arranged in advance.
High on a hilltop is the ideal space to spend the night, the Skyview Los Alamos. Once a bare-bones roadside motel, this property has been transformed into a stylish boutique hotel. What used to be parking spaces in front of each room is now a garden lined with lanterns and dotted with fire pits and seating areas. The cozy rooms feature dark wooden floors, local art on the walls, and private patios overlooking the valley. Included for each guest is a complimentary glass of Skyview Vineyards pinot noir rosé.
5. San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo (or SLO as it’s known by locals) is a much bigger town than the previous stops. Its downtown straddles the San Luis Obispo Creek, a tiny waterway that provides a lovely backdrop to a park along with a few shops and restaurants. In fact, anytime we visit we enjoy a meal at Novo Restaurant and enjoy their outside deck built over the creek and around a few large oak trees.
Spend some time wandering the streets of downtown SLO lined with old-fashioned street lights, large trees, a few historic buildings, and plenty of great shops.
The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is certainly worth a visit. Founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772, the mission was the fifth built in a series of 21 spanning the state of California. There’s a small museum on the premises, and visitors are always welcome to walk through the main sanctuary when services are not taking place.
Our favorite place to stay in SLO is The Granada Hotel & Bistro. This red brick building once housed a brothel, and they’ve opted to lean into that history with a decor that features dark colors and velvet upholstery. Rooms are small but don’t lack for anything. I haven’t tried their restaurant yet, but hope to do so next time.
6. Paso Robles
While not nearly as well known as Napa and Sonoma, Paso Robles has become a premier wine destination. But unlike its neighbor to the north, it’s not crazy expensive.
Start in Paso’s town square centered around Downtown City Park. Here you’ll find several tasting rooms, a few restaurants, and my personal favorite, Brown Butter Cookie Company. Be careful how many of these delicious cookies you buy because it’s really tough to stop eating them.
Then head out of town a bit to Justin Winery. Choose wine tasting, lunch overlooking the vineyards, or both. Their restaurant was recently named Michelin Guide Recommended.
Our favorite reason for a stop in Paso is the nighttime light show called Sensorio. As the sun sets, 100,000 multi-colored lights become visible against the night sky. Pathways weave through the installation giving guests the chance to appreciate the lights from several vantage points. We purchased VIP tickets, but I wouldn’t do that again; I think general admission is more than adequate.
For an elegant overnight stay in Paso head to Allegretto Vineyard Resort. The owner of this resort is a passionate art collector and has placed many of his favorite pieces throughout the property. There’s also a chapel, labyrinth, and a small vineyard on site.