Cambria is a common pit stop on the road between San Francisco to LA, but it shouldn’t just be a place that you stop for petrol or to stretch your legs. There are some beautiful, fun and quirky things to do in Cambria that you just won’t get time to see or do if you only schedule it for an hour or two on your road trip.
For starters, Cambria is right next door to one of the most famous Californian landmarks – the Hearst Castle estate, which was built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst who was known for his antique collections and extravagance.
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But beyond the castle and its exotic animals, there are beautiful stretches of coastline to admire, a small-town feel that welcomes you with open arms, and some absolutely delicious pie.
Best things to do in Cambria
Located in San Luis Obispo County, Cambria sits on California’s Highway 1 coastal drive and is the midway point between the state’s most famous cities – San Francisco and Los Angeles. The highway is well known for being one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the world, and allows for many great stops along the way, such as Pismo Beach and Solvang.
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Cambria was first inhabited by the Native American Chumash people, who use the rivers and ocean as sources of food and water. The area really began to attract settlers in the 1860s, with the discovery of a mineral that mercury could be extracted from. But the town’s fortune waxed and waned with the mercury price, and a huge fire in 1889 ended mining for good.
Nowadays, Cambria is known as a ”village” of 6,000 people and a tourism industry that keeps it afloat. Now, let’s have a look around. Mr M and I visited Cambria and San Simeon in late October, which ended up being perfect weather-wise and we managed to be there in time for two festivals in the same weekend. So there’s no reason to shy away from the place after the summer months are over!
Take a self-guided walking tour
For introverts, or even just for couples and families who want to do their own thing and not join bigger groups, there’s a self-guided walking tour of Cambria in app form. I downloaded the Visit Cambria app for Android (because I don’t Apple in any shape or form) and away we went wandering down Main Street, or as my quasi-bogan Aunt would call it, ”the main drag”.
There’s basically tips for everyone in your family, and for whatever type of traveller you are – from art, historical, wine and beer and mystery tours, to weekend and full day itineraries, a guide through the best local hikes and trails, to live music and secret gems. Even if you’re more of a spontaneous traveller, this is the app to use to find the best things to do in Cambria.
Being a history nerd, I opted for the historical tour and we opted for the historical walking tour, and got to feast our eyes on all the beautiful old buildings, and at least one with a history that will raise eyebrows. The ”Bucket of Blood” is at 4111 Bridge Street, and is so known because of the rowdy dances held in the building after World War II. It was a saloon at the time, and was well known for fist fights, and Saturday night dances augmented with the presence of hookers.
Marvel at some spectacular scarecrows
Remember those festivals that I mentioned earlier? Well one of them was the Cambria Scarecrow Festival, which occurs during the month of October. It actually spans Cambria and the neighbouring towns of San Simeon and Harmony. These aren’t your regular garden-variety (pun intended) scarecrows wearing flannel shirts and floppy hats either.
No sirree Bob, these scarecrows take things up a notch from their Wizard of Oz namesake and feature hay and paper mache creations doing everything from riding bikes, taking baths, dancing, painting and fishing. It seems as though everyone in town gets involved in the creativity because there are hundreds of scarecrows lining the streets, and popping up outside of hotels in the area.
We had so many favourites that it’s tough to narrow the list down – there was Raggedy Anne and her best mate Raggedy Andy, a giant dinosaur that looked to be made of corn husks, the old woman who lived in a shoe, the Seven Dwarves, and some interesting cyclists.
Stop for Lunch at the Cambria Pub & Steakhouse
There are just so many great places to choose from when it comes to grabbing a bite to eat in Cambria, that it really can be tough to choose a place to stop for a rest. We chose the Cambria Pub & Steakhouse for a few reasons:
- There was a gentleman sitting outside with a husky puppy
- It was full of locals watching a football game
- There were quite a few beers on tap
- We wanted some pub food after all that walking
And it delivered on all of those fronts, despite having a few staff members call in sick that day. It looked like the whole place was being run by two guys out the front and a chef in the back, and we overheard that they happened to be short staffed that day. But we thought that the service was still great under the circumstances and our meals were spot on. Mr M, ever the burger connoisseur, went for the ABC burger. That’s Applewood bacon, cheddar cheese and avocado, served with an unhealthy amount of fries. I have been trained to never pass up the opportunity to try the fish and chips. The fish was tempura battered, and came with even more chips and coleslaw.
We ate so much that the prospect of an afternoon filled with more walking was a little daunting, and to be honest, we could have done without dinner that night.
Stroll the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk
Luckily we chose to tackle the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk, which is just a mile and a half long. The boardwalk is built on top of a bluff, so it gives you views out to the surf and over the craggy coastline.
If you happen to be around at the right time (late December to February), you might be lucky enough to watch whales migrating and dolphins frolicking. You’re most likely to see grey whales, white-sided dolphins, sea otters, and the California sea lion. But if you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of humpback or minke whale.
You might be wondering why it’s called Moonstone Beach, when the shoreline is obviously made up of sand. Moonstones were commonly swept up onto the beach by storms in the area, but visitors would gather them and take them home as souvenirs, and others would polish them and turn them into jewelry. Builders began to use the stones and sand from the beach to build streets, footpaths and the foundations of buildings in the early 1900s. The damage was done, and when breakwaters were installed and dredging began, Moonstones no longer washed up on the beach.
Moonstone Beach Boardwalk:
North Entrance: Moonstone Beach Drive, past Leffingwell Landing State Park.
South Entrance: Follow Moonstone Beach Drive to a dirt parking area just before the El Colibri Hotel.
Try a piece of Olallieberry pie
Have you ever heard of an Olallieberry? Me neither. Until I saw one and thought ”oh, that’s a mulberry”. Except it’s not that either. The Olallieberry looks like a blackberry and was developed by Oregon State University in 1949. Olalie is actually the Native American word for ‘berry’, so you’re eating a berry berry (not to be confused with that pesky vitamin B1 deficiency, beriberi).
All tangents aside, Olallieberries are big in the Cambria area, and you’ll find them sold as preserves, sauces and in my favourite form – pie. We visited Linn’s Easy as Pie Cafe, just one of the eateries in the Linn’s empire, started by Renee Linn back in Kansas City, Missouri. It seems like the business owns a block off Main Street in Cambria. On Bridge Street alone, there’s the cafe, Linn’s Gourmet Goods store, and Linn’s Homestyle Goods and Sale loft. If you’re looking for fruit in its purest form though, head to Santa Rosa Creek Road for Linn’s Fruit Bin Farmstore. I lied, it seems I had more tangents up my sleeve.
In any case, we trundled up to the cafe early on Sunday morning for a taste of Olallieberry pie – the berry is a mix of blackberry and red raspberry, which makes it tart and sweet and delicious. If you’re not into that kind of thing, don’t worry, there are heaps of sweet treats to choose from at the bakery.
Linn’s Easy as Pie Cafe: 4251 Bridge Street, Cambria.
See the zebra and cows of Hearst Castle
Technically over in neighbouring San Simeon, you will want to make this short drive north on Highway 1. The grounds of Hearst Castle spans 127 acres of land, with the castle itself sitting atop a hill away from the road. That left plenty of space for grazing land and exotic animals that landowner and media magnate William Randolph Hearst would collect for his ”Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology.
At the time, Hearst’s collection included Rocky Mountain elk, American bison, antelope, camels, sambar deer, emus, and giraffes. But when things turned south for Hearst financially in the late 1930s, he donated many of his animals to zoos or sold them. But not all of his zoo animals found homes and instead were allowed to roam around the grounds free.
That’s why it’s common to see zebra grazing in paddocks alongside Highway 1, along with cows and deer. As common as it is for locals, it’s still strange to see native African animals roaming free in California. So much so that I’d call it an unmissable stop.
Hearst Castle Zebras: 10 miles north of Cambria Main Street, on California Highway 1.
Visit Hearst Castle
While you’re over in San Simeon, you can’t go past a tour of Hearst Castle, or Casa Grande, as it was known by the publishing magnate who went from camping atop a hill with is family, to building his own estate. Despite its secluded location, the castle attracted the who’s who of Hollywood and political elite to stay, including Charlie Chaplin, Carey Grant, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Buster Keaton.
William Randolph Hearst, who owned and commissioned the castle and three bungalows close-by, inspired the classic film Citizen Kane. During his life, the castle had 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, two pools, and a zoo. He was an avid European antiques collector, and his home is dripping in Spanish ceilings, Italian renaissance inspired rooms, brocade, gold trimmings, priceless pieces of art and sculpture.
We wholly recommend taking the Evening Tour of Hearst Castle, which winds through the castle and one of the bungalows, but adds the atmosphere of actors dressed in 1920s and 30s attire, as if they were guests of William Randolph enjoying a stay at Casa Grande.
Hearst Castle: 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon.
See Elephant Seals in their own Sanctuary
Drive a little further north and you’ll be at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. A visit between December and March will give you the best opportunity to view the Elephant Seals, however, we were there in October and there were no shortage of them lazing around the beach. The rookery’s population is about 25,000, but you’ll seen between hundreds and thousands on the beach, depending when you visit.
In December, the adult males arrive, weighing more than two tonnes and start to fight each other for dominance over a portion of the beach. The females give birth in January to pups that weigh a whopping 32kg (70 pounds). The mothers nurse their pups for just four weeks, weans them and heads out to sea alone.
I’ll give you fair warning that Elephant Seals do not emit a pleasant smell, but watching them fight and play is pretty interesting. Make sure you stay on the wooden walkways and keep any dogs on leashes and off the beach. There are usually guides on the walkways to answer any questions you have.
Elephant Seal Rookery: 4 miles north of Hearst Castle, on Highway 1.
Stop in at the Piedras Blancas Light Station
Almost two miles north of the Elephant Seals, you’ll come across the Piedras Blancas Light Station, a must-stop point for any maritime enthusiasts in your group. The light house at Piedras Blancas was first illuminated back in 1875, and a fog warning was installed in 1905 to warn ships of the craggy coastline beyond the famous fog.
The first lighthouse on the site was 30 metres tall (100ft), but the area was prone to earthquakes, and damage caused to the building meant that the top levels had to be removed. The Fresnel lens, created in 1872 in France, was also damaged during the earthquake, and is now on display on Main Street in Cambria.
Life for the light keepers and their families was tough. They were isolate, had to collect their own water, and their food was regularly harvested from the crashing waves below.
Tours of the lighthouse are run each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning (sadly, we missed the tours). They last for two hours and you’ll have to walk for about half a mile to get to the lighthouse. Unfortunately, you can’t climb to the top of the tower because of safety concerns.
San Piedras Blancas Light Station Tours: Begin at the former Piedras Blancas Motel (1.5 miles north of the light station) on Highway 1, NOT at the lighthouse.
Go kayaking off San Simeon
Take advantage of the warm weather and rent a kayak from San Simeon Cove. The cove used to be William Randolph Hearst’s private port and is a beautiful spot to get out on the water and see the estate from a different angle, as well as the sea life below you.
You can opt to either rent a kayak for your own paddling fun, or join one of four tours that include viewing the cove, doing some fishing, visiting Marine Terrace and Otter Cove, or Moonstone Beach.
San Simeon Cove: W. R. Hearst State Memorial Beach, San Simeon.
Go for a hike at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
If you’re up for a short hike, try the Marine Terrace Trail, that stretches a mile through Fiscalini Ranch, which is a public park in Cambria. It’s a nice wide dirt trail that is open to bicycles as well. If you’d like something with more water views or to add a little more distance to your walk, try circling around onto the Bluff Trail and enjoy the spring flowers and water views. Don’t forget a jacket though, as it can get blustery up on the bluffs.
The land was first owned by the Fiscalini family in 1850s, but in the late 1990s there were plans to build a housing development on the 434-acre site. Luckily, in 2001, the land was set aside for public use and became a park for everyone to enjoy.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve parking lot: 4065 Windsor Boulevarde, Cambria
Do some antique shopping
When it comes to antique finds, Cambria has well and truly got you covered. Rich Man Poor Man antiques has two stores on Main Street, packed to the brim with trinkets and loved items. Then there is Antiques on Main, which has over 10,000 square feet of selling space on three levels and carries everything from furniture to small items. And to round it all off, there’s Granny Had One, a beautiful quaint store on the west end of Main Street.
Where to stay in Cambria & San Simeon
Because of the popularity of Hearst Castle, accommodation can be pricey in San Simeon and Cambria. We stayed at The Morgan Hotel in San Simeon, which was lovely and our room had its own gas fireplace, which was a beautiful touch as well. We were close to the beach and could hear the waves crashing from our rooms. The continental breakfast overlooking the hotel’s indoor pool was also really tasty and good to fill up on before heading out for the day.
If you’d like to stay in Cambria itself, try the Bluebird Inn, Her Castle Bed and Breakfast or the Olallieberry Inn Bed and Breakfast. Be warned that they’ll probably be a little more expensive than you’re used to paying. If you’d like some more budget-friendly options, try looking 22 miles away in Moro Bay or 14 miles away in Cayucos.
Where can I eat in Cambria?
We’ve already mentioned the two spots that we visited in Cambria to eat – the Cambria Pub & Steakhouse and Linn’s Easy as Pie Cafe. Truth be told, Mr M and I aren’t huge eaters when we travel so we tend not to visit a lot of the local eateries. Which doesn’t help you very much, but I did reach out to the very helpful people at Cambria’s Tourism Board, and got some suggestions for great places to eat:
- Centrally Grown: Take a little walk through the restaurant’s edible gardens and enjoy the sculptures, water features and ocean views, before sitting down for a meal.
- Boni’s Tacos: This hole-in-the-wall eatery is your go-to for delicious tacos in the area. Ever had a potato taquito? You can try them right here!
- Robin’s Restaurant: You’ll find Robin’s in a historic building, which is atmosphere enough, but the international menu is also something to marvel at.
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