Mar 11, 2023

15 things to do in Avila Beach on California's Central Coast

Tucked away three miles off the 101 Freeway between Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo, about a 3½-hour drive from L.A., there's a tiny little secret most travelers tend to miss: a quaint, walkable village and a wide beach with soft white sand, clear blue water, gentle waves and the most days of sun of all the beaches on the Central Coast. Because of Avila Beach's location in the Port San Luis Harbor, with mountains surrounding the town, the fog lifts here earlier than at other beaches in the area. And when other beaches are fogged in, you can still catch rays at Avila Beach, where on average, 286 days a year are sunny.

This has been common knowledge to some for years. When Sara Elena Loaiza, who now runs a vacation rental property in Avila Beach called Casa San Miguelito, was diagnosed with chronic venous insufficiency, she and her husband took a trip up and down the 101 to find a location that would be cooler than their home in Pasadena and thus better for her health. They ran into some surfers in Cayucos who told them to look into Avila Beach — for both its sunny days and the cooling effects of the ocean breeze. And because Point San Luis juts out on the western end of Avila Beach, the beach is protected from winds and has milder surf, making it safer and popular with surfers and families.

"Avila is sort of this little secret of the Central Coast, a locals’ beach," said James Whitaker, owner of Kraken Coffee in downtown Avila Beach. "Pismo has all the tourists from Bakersfield and the [Central] Valley, and then Avila has a totally different vibe."

Avila Beach didn't always have its relaxed beach-town vibe. Before the area became Avila Beach, the Chumash people had long foraged and fished along the coast. The first Spanish expedition landed in California in 1769, and in the mid-1800s, Miguel Ávila received a Mexican land grant of over 14,000 acres, which encompassed San Luis Obispo Bay and modern-day Avila Beach. In the late 1800s, Captain John Harford built a commercial shipping pier, Harford Pier, which still stands today. Around the turn of the 20th century, the area was booming as a shipping port for San Luis Obispo, making it well positioned when oil was discovered in nearby Santa Maria Valley. For a period of time, Avila Beach was the world's largest oil shipping port and oil tankers lined the bluffs to the west of the beach.

Then, in 1989, an oil leak from Unocal Corp.'s underground pipelines was discovered and made public, marking the end of the oil industry here. It took a few years for cleanup efforts to begin and another few years for the town to be rebuilt. Ultimately, 200,000 tons of contaminated soil were removed and houses and commercial buildings had to be destroyed, including most of the historic buildings. (Only two commercial buildings were moved and then returned: Avila Market and San Luis Yacht Club.) But from the ashes, and with the oil tankers removed in 1999, Avila Beach has forged a new identity as a tourist destination.

These days, Avila Beach is a charming little beach town. With a population of fewer than 1,500 people, there are no chain restaurants or stores to be found. Downtown consists of a few blocks with a handful of hotels, local restaurants and small shops. There's free street parking right in front of the beach. Fair warning: Spots quickly fill up on nice weekend afternoons, in which case there's a $7 all-day parking lot a block away.

The main beach is about half a mile long and has most of the facilities — like bathrooms, showers and a playground — and shops, but there are two other beaches within walking distance: Olde Port Beach and Fisherman's Beach. The limited parking in town and three separate beaches mean the area doesn't feel as crowded as other beaches, except potentially on summer weekends, when a trolley runs from Pismo Premium Outlets to several stops in Avila Beach.

Most of the time, you’ll find a relaxed getaway with sandy beaches, hot springs, hiking trails, wine tastings and more. Here's what to do and where to eat when you’re done playing on the sand.