Best Places to Stay on a California Coast Road Trip

When planning a trip to California, travelers usually place Los Angeles and San Francisco high up on the must-see list. It is possible to drive between the two cities in one grueling day, but if you do so, you’ll miss the worthwhile attractions of California’s Central Coast including the historic Santa Barbara Mission, the regal Hearst Castle, the invigorating Highway 1 drive through Big Sur, the informative Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the throwback fun of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The best way to break up your trip is to spend an evening in one of California’s Central Coast communities.

Lodging will most likely be your biggest expense while traveling up or down the Central Coast.Lodging will most likely be your biggest expense while traveling up or down the Central Coast. Spending a night in a downtown hotel adjacent to fine restaurants or in a cottage with soothing sounds of the nearby crashing sea can come with a hefty price tag, and even an inexpensive room on the California Coast can sometimes be as pricey as a high-end room in Bakersfield or Kansas City. Here are some ideas for overnight accommodations for people with all kinds of budgets. Be sure to note that all price ranges listed here are for the busy summer season, so you may be able to score a room at a much better price during the off season.

Santa Barbara

Less than a two-hour drive north from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is worth spending some time in due to its broad beaches, palm tree-shaded downtown, and historic sights including the Santa Barbara Mission. Santa Barbara is where people go to pamper themselves, and the Simpson House Inn (121 E. Arrellaga, 805/963-7067, $255-610) fits the bill with its luxurious rooms spread out between a 19th-century Victorian house and four adjacent garden cottages. The staff here will even deliver popcorn to your room on a silver plate if you stay in and watch a movie!

A fountain in the garden of the Simpson House Inn in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara’s Simpson House Inn has rooms and cottages available. Photo © Stuart Thornton.

For somewhere easier on the wallet, the Presidio Motel (1620 State St., 805/963-1355, presidiosb.com, $129-269) has 16 clean and basic rooms right on bustling State Street. Even better, a night stay comes with free use of one of the motel’s beach bikes.

Even the hostels in Santa Barbara are upscale. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better room in a better location than at the Wayfarer (12 E. Montecito St., 805/845-1000, dorm beds $50-90, private rooms $200-300). Located in the city’s arty Funk Zone, the Wayfarer has unhostel-like features including a heated outdoor pool and sleek, contemporary décor.

San Luis Obispo

Both Oprah Winfrey and National Geographic have dubbed the Central Coast city of San Luis Obispo as the “happiest place in America.” This happy spot makes an ideal overnight stop on a drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco due to its location halfway between the two cities. Located just off Highway 101, the Peach Tree Inn (2001 Monterey St., 800/227-6396, $89-160) has inexpensive rooms, a friendly staff, and a complimentary breakfast in the morning.

To stay right in the midst of downtown San Luis Obispo, consider the Granada Hotel & Bistro (1126 Morro St., 805/544-9100, $130-300), a boutique hotel with seventeen rooms that have exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. Unwind at the on-site bistro with tapas and wine.

There’s no place quite like the Madonna Inn (10 Madonna Rd., 805/543-3000, $199-469), a roadside attraction with over a hundred themed guestrooms including a “Safari” unit decorated with animal prints on the furniture and the “Caveman” room with rock walls and rock ceilings. Forget about all of the miles you have traveled at the pool terrace with a heated infinity pool, two whirlpools, a spa, a fitness room, and a pool bar.

map of California's Central Coast

Central Coast

Hearst Castle and Cambria

The Hearst Castle is one of the most visited attractions on the Central Coast with good reason. It’s a stunning architectural achievement crowning the mountains that overlook the serene San Simeon coastline. The best place to stay during a stop to tour the castle is the nearby hamlet of Cambria. Far and away the most inexpensive overnight option in town (besides camping) is the Bridge Street Inn-HI Cambria (4314 Bridge St., 805/927-7653, $32-95). The hostel, which was once the home of a pastor, has single bunks in a co-ed dorm room as well as private rooms available.

The Sand Pebbles Inn (6252 Moonstone Beach Dr., 805/927-5600, $159-279) has a superb location across from Moonstone Beach and just feet away from the very popular Sea Chest Oyster Bar. Spend extra money for a room with a full ocean view.

Big Sur

The mountainous slab of stunning coastline between San Simeon and Carmel is Big Sur. Considering its miles of spectacular hiking, waterfalls spouting from the hillsides, and rugged beaches, there is a chance you’ll want to spend more time here than you initially planned. Lodging options in Big Sur are expensive if you are not camping, but Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (48865 CA-1, 831/667-2378, $100-270) is a collection of rustic buildings that has a trio of rooms with a shared bathroom for budget travelers. These options include “Petite Cuisine” ($100) with a single bed, “Little Room” ($115) with a double bed, and “Van Gogh” ($115) with two single beds. A big bonus is that the adjacent Deetjen’s Restaurant serves the best breakfast in Big Sur.

The recently remodeled Glen Oaks Big Sur (47080 CA-1, 831/667-2105, $225-450) has a few types of nice, moderately priced accommodations available within the Big Sur Valley. The motor lodge-style rooms have gas fireplaces, while the cabins are uniquely decorated and located in a redwood grove.

The Ventana Inn & Spa (48123 CA-1, 831/667-2331, $600-3,000) is one of Big Sur’s two luxury inns. Spoil yourself with a room that has a private deck or patio and then take a soak in the Japanese bathhouse or a swim in one of the inn’s two pools.

Monterey

The Spindrift Inn is a waterfront boutique hotel in Monterey, California.

Enjoy real wood-burning fireplaces at Monterey’s Spindrift Inn. Photo © Stuart Thornton.

Monterey is one of the Central Coast’s most beloved cities because of its world-renowned aquarium, impressive history, fine seafood, and ocean recreation offerings. The Monterey Hostel (778 Hawthorne St., 831/649-0375, dorm bed $32-37, private room $79-89, family room with five beds $99) is the town’s best choice for travelers on a budget. The building is just a few blocks from the aquarium and Cannery Row.

A more expensive option is the Spindrift Inn (652 Cannery Row, 831/646-8900, $239-719), which is perched above a Cannery Row beach. The boutique hotel has gas fireplaces that burn real wood and some rooms with wonderful bay views.

Santa Cruz

To experience the Central Coast’s beach culture, stay a night in Santa Cruz with its historic beach boardwalk and variety of surf breaks. The Hostelling International Santa Cruz Hostel at the Carmelita Cottages (321 Main St., 831/423-8304, dorm beds $31, private rooms $48-113) has the benefit of being located in some renovated cottages just above the boardwalk. The downside is that the grounds are closed from 11am to 5pm every day.

Patio view of the Hostelling International Santa Cruz building.

Find a dorm bed or a private room at Hostelling International Santa Cruz. Photo © Stuart Thornton.

The Seaway Inn (176 W. Cliff Dr., 831/471-9004, $139-288) offers fairly basic motel rooms at an affordable price in a superb location above Cowells Beach and the boardwalk. Next door is the West Cliff Inn (174 W. Cliff Dr., 831/457-2200, $210-350), which has extravagant bed and breakfast accommodations in a restored, historic mansion. The many perks here include a breakfast buffet.

The Central Coast is very crowded during the summer season, so definitely try and plan your stays as far in advance as you can. Have a great trip!