Considering living on the Central Coast or just visiting the beautiful Cali Central Coast region? This six-county region of California boasts some of the best beaches in the state along with dramatic landscapes, mountains, and lakes. Here’s a complete guide to the largest Central California coastal cities and Central Coast towns to fall in love with!
Where Is the Central Coast of California?
The Central California Coast refers to the coastal region from Monterey Bay to Point Mugu north of Los Angeles County and south of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. There are six Central Coast counties from north to south:
- Santa Cruz County
- San Benito County
- Monterey County
- San Luis Obispo County
- Santa Barbara County
- Ventura County
The combined population of the Central CA coast is 2.2 million. Over 840,000 people live in Ventura County alone.
The Calif Central Coast area is divided into five main regions:
- Monterey Bay region of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties known for the redwood forests of Big Sur and the Monterey Bay Aquarium
- San Benito region, the inland Central Coast area 30 miles northeast of Monterey Peninsula and 45 minutes southeast of the Silicon Valley
- San Luis Obispo region or SLO known for outdoor recreation and Pismo Beach
- Santa Barbara region known as the American Riviera and part of the California Wine Country
- Ventura region known for its beaches, Channel Islands National Park, and Los Padres National Forest
Below, we’ll explore the largest Central Coast cities then delve into the gorgeous Coastal California towns and cities in each region.
Major Central Coast California Cities
The six-county Central Coast region is not densely populated with mostly small towns and agricultural land. There are only 23 Central Coast cities with a population of at least 20,000 and only six cities with more than 100,000 people. Here’s an overview of the 10 major cities in California coastal region.
|Largest Central Coast California Cities|
|Oxnard||202,063||Ventura (Greater Los Angeles)|
|Salinas||163,542||Monterey Bay (Salinas Valley)|
|Thousand Oaks||126,966||Ventura (Greater Los Angeles)|
|Simi Valley||126,356||Ventura (Simi Valley, Greater Los Angeles)|
|Ventura||110,763||Ventura (Coast, Greater Los Angeles)|
|Santa Maria||109,707||Santa Barbara (Santa Maria Valley)|
|Santa Barbara||88,665||Santa Barbara|
|Camarillo||70,741||Ventura (Greater Los Angeles)|
|Santa Cruz||62,958||Monterey Bay (Coast)|
Monterey Bay Area – Central California Coastal Cities & Towns Amid Redwood Trees and Picturesque Beaches
Monterey Bay is a Central Coast region south of Bay Area and San Jose. The Monterey Bay Area refers to the Central Coast communities in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties on Monterey Bay. The Monterey Peninsula is the anchor of the northern section of the California Central Coast.
The Monterey Bay Area is home to some of the most well-known things to do in Central Coast California including Big Sur and State Route 1 or the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
There are many gorgeous Central California coastal towns and small cities to explore around Monterey Bay. Coastal communities include:
- Santa Cruz (pop. 63,000) is one of the most picturesque California coast cities and known for its wharf stretching into Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
- Seaside (pop. 32,000) is a paradise for nature lovers with beaches, whale watching, and hiking within reach.
- Monterey (pop. 30,000) is best known for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
- Aptos (pop. 24,400) is a small town comprised of several villages like Rio del Mar and boasts Seacliff State Beach with camping, hiking, and a pier.
- Marina (pop. 22,400) home to the Fort Ord National Monument.
- Pacific Grove (pop. 15,000) with charming Victorian-era bed and breakfasts.
- Capitola (pop. 9,900) is one of the larger Central Coast beach towns and a popular tourist destination.
- Pleasure Point (pop. 5,800) is a quintessential California coastal town with beach cottages, surf shops, and harbor seals.
- Del Monte Forest (pop. 4,200) which includes the famous resort community of Pebble Beach.
- Carmel-by-the-Sea (pop. 3,200) is a tiny beach community with the picturesque Carmel Beach backed by cypress trees and the historic Carmel Mission Basilica Museum.
- La Selva Beach (pop. 2,500) is part of the larger Aptos community.
You’ll also find many tiny hamlets along the Monterey County Central CA coast. These hamlets may be home to just a couple dozen households and many are in Big Sur, a largely uninhabited coastline. There are definitely a few gems to visit like Carmel Highlands which has some of the most expensive real estate in the United States. The tiny Moss Landing fishing village is a nice stop for fresh seafood, surfing, and antiquing. The small hamlet of Lucia is best known for the Lucia Lodge, a cliffside resort.
The Monterey Bay Area also includes many inland cities and towns. Here are the largest inland communities with at least 10,000 people.
- Salinas (pop. 163,000) is the second largest of Central Coast California cities. It’s a major regional job center and home to the National Steinbeck Center and award-winning parks.
- Watsonville (pop. 52,600) is tucked away outside Santa Cruz in a lush agricultural region.
- Soledad (pop. 25,000) is a city in the Salinas Valley area and a major wine producer. It’s the gateway to the Pinnacles National Park and home to the Mission Nuestra Senora de la Soledad or the Soledad Mission.
- Prunedale (pop. 20,600) offers outdoor recreation at Manzanita Park and Royal Oaks Park with beaches just 10 minutes away.
- Live Oak (pop. 17,000) is just outside Santa Cruz.
- Greenfield (pop. 16,000) was one of the fastest-growing cities in Monterey in the 2000s and best known for its Harvest Festival.
- King City (pop. 13,400) is in the Salinas Valley on the Salinas River and hosts the annual Salinas Valley Fair.
- Scotts Valley (pop. 12,300) is a suburb of Santa Cruz and 30 miles outside downtown San Jose. It’s a popular retreat for mountain hiking.
- Soquel (pop. 10,000) is just barely two miles inland from Capitola and the northern Monterey Bay shores.
San Luis Obispo (SLO) – Charming Towns in San Luis Obispo County
San Luis Obispo County is one of California’s original counties and one of the most popular tourist destinations on the California Central Coast. The region is known for its vineyards, historic architecture, and small town characteristics.
San Luis Obispo cities along the California coast include:
- Los Osos (pop. 14,500) is a coastal town near Morro Bay known for hiking, kayaking, and horseback riding at Montana de Oro State Park.
- Grover Beach (pop. 12,500) is known for its family-friendly amenities and sandy shores with ocean views from the mountains.
- Morro Bay (pop. 10,800) is famous for Morro Rock and Morro Bay State Park with some of the most beautiful beaches in Central California.
- Pismo Beach (pop. 8,000) is the quintessential Central California beach town and known for its expansive beaches, Monarch Butterfly Grove, clam digging, and the Clam Festival.
- Oceano (pop. 7,600) boasts the largest dunes complex in the state.
- Cambria (pop. 5,700) is a small California coastal village with dramatic landscapes and a walkable downtown area.
- Cayucos (pop. 2,200) is known for its boardwalk and pier with dog friendly beaches.
- Avila Beach (pop. 1,500) is tucked into the cove of the San Luis Obispo Bay.
The Five Cities California region of San Luis Obispo is on the southern end of the county’s coast. The five cities in San Luis Obispo are Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, Oceano, and Shell Beach (actually part of Pismo Beach).
The largest San Luis Obispo cities are inland. Here are the main inland SLO communities:
- San Luis Obispo (pop. 47,000) is famous for the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Toloso, California Polytechnic State University, and its many vineyards.
- Paso Robles (pop. 31,500) is a charming small town known for olive groves and wineries.
- Atascadero (pop. 29,800) boasts tons of attractions like the small Charles Paddock Zoo and the Sunken Gardens.
- Arroyo Grande (pop. 18,500) is one of the Five Cities of the Central Coast.
- Nipomo (pop. 18,000) features a huge community park for horseback riding and camping.
- Templeton (pop. 8,500) is a world class wine production community.
There are a handful of even smaller villages and communities including San Miguel, Lake Nacimiento, Cayucos, and Woodlands.
Santa Barbara Area – Central Coast California Towns in Wine Country
The Santa Barbara area of the California Central Coast offers the best of everything: stunning Central California beaches, peaceful rural towns, charming communities and wineries in Wine Country, and the beauty of the mountains.
Several of the largest Central California beach towns and large cities are in the Santa Barbara area. Here are the Santa Barbara County cities and towns with 4,000+ people.
- Santa Maria (pop. 110,000) is known for Santa Maria-style barbecue and the dozens of wineries in the Santa Maria Valley.
- Santa Barbara (pop. 89,000) is a California coastal city along the Santa Ynez Mountains with historic Mediterranean-style stucco and tile roof buildings, wineries, and a downtown area filled with upscale boutiques.
- Lompoc (pop. 45,000) is home to more than 40 street murals and several major wineries.
- Goleta (pop. 33,000) is 10 miles outside Santa Barbara and home to the famous Goleta Beach Park and a protected Monarch butterfly grove.
- Orcutt (pop. 31,000) is in the Santa Maria Valley and just ten miles from the ocean.
- Eastern Goleta Valley (pop. 29,000) is between Santa Barbara and Goleta.
- Isla Vista (pop. 15,800) or IV is mostly home to students attending the University of California, Santa Barbara or Santa Barbara City College.
- Carpinteria (pop. 13,000) is known for its walkable main street and the largest Torrey Pine in the world.
- Montecito (pop. 8,700) is a town just five miles outside Santa Barbara and one of the most affluent communities on the California Central Coast. It’s famous as a celebrity enclave.
- Guadalupe (pop. 8,500) is a small suburb just outside Santa Maria.
- Vandenberg Village (pop. 6,500) is situated in the hills outside Lompoc.
- Solvang (pop. 6,100) is famous for its Danish-style architecture. This historic Danish town is part of the Santa Ynez Valley.
- Buellton (pop. 5,300) is in the Santa Ynez Valley and a popular tourist stop.
- Santa Ynez (pop. 4,700) is a cowboy town in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley wine country.
One of the most picturesque areas is the Santa Ynez Valley between the San Rafael and Santa Ynez Mountains in Santa Barbara County. About 20,000 people live in the Santa Ynez Valley, home to the largest concentration of wineries in the Santa Barbara area. The valley boasts over 70 wineries as well as a strong equine lifestyle with 52 breeds of horses. There are five Central Coast towns and small cities in the valley: Solvang, Buellton, and Santa Ynez are the largest while Ballard and Los Olivos combined are home to about 1,600 people.
You can explore cities near Santa Barbara here to get a broader look at the Santa Barbara area.
Ventura County – Central Coast Destinations One Hour North of LA
Ventura County is part of the Greater Los Angeles metro area with a landscape that stretches from California Central Coast beaches to Mt. Pinos of the Los Padres National Forest at 8,831-foot elevation. The region features 42 miles of coastline and fertile agricultural valleys. More than 46% of the county is covered by Los Padres National Forest.
There are ten incorporated cities in Ventura County:
- Oxnard (pop. 202,000) is the largest California Central Coast city and famous for its nightlife and stunning harbor. Oxnard State Beach Park is one of the region’s top destinations thanks to its picturesque palm tree-lined jogging trail and golden sand.
- Thousand Oaks (pop. 127,000) is just 15 miles outside Los Angeles and known for its great parks, schools, and shopping.
- Simi Valley (pop. 126,500) is adjacent to the Chatworth neighborhood of Los Angeles.
- Ventura (pop. 110,800) is one of the largest cities on the Calif Central Coast and officially called San Buenaventura. It’s famous for the wooden Ventura Pier at San Buenaventura State Beach and the nearby Channel Islands National Park which can be reached by ferry.
- Camarillo (pop. 70,800) is nestled perfectly between the mountains and the beach with great outdoor recreation.
- Moorpark (pop. 36,000) is home to the Moorpark Country Club and features pepper tree-lined streets in its charming downtown.
- Santa Paula (pop. 31,000) is part of the Santa Clara River Valley and known for its citrus orchards.
- Port Hueneme (pop. 22,000) is a gorgeous beach city famous for its surfing.
- Fillmore (pop. 16,500) is an agricultural community along the Santa Clara River.
- Ojai (pop. 7,600) is a tiny city 15 miles north of Ventura that hosts the annual Ojai Music Festival.
The Ventura area of the Central Coast is also home to smaller unincorporated areas. The largest Ventura County towns are:
- Oak Park (pop. 13,900)
- El Rio (pop. 7,000)
- Mira Monte (pop. 6,800)
- Oak View (pop. 6,200)
- Meiners Oaks (pop. 3,900)
- Santa Rosa Valley (pop. 3,300)
- Casa Conejo (pop. 3,300)
San Benito County – Inland Central Coast Area Near Silicon Valley
San Benito County is a frequently overlooked Central Coast region halfway between Monterey Bay and the southern end of Silicon Valley. It’s often thought of as both part of the Bay Area and the Monterey Bay Area.
The smallest California Central Coast county by population, San Benito has just one major city: Hollister. Home to 42,000 people, Hollister is one of the largest Central Coast cities in the greater Monterey Bay Area. It’s mostly an agricultural town known for olive oil, pomegranates, apricots, and chocolate and it claims the title of “Earthquake Capital of the World” thanks to the Calaveras Fault running beneath the town.
Central Coast California Map
Use this map of Central Coast California to explore the largest cities and towns in the region.
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