The West Coast of the United States is a fascinating place. We love the low-lying coastal areas, sandy beaches, gorgeous cities, sleepy coastal towns, and natural attractions along the Pacific Coast.
The coast was originally the home to many indigenous tribes but was settled by Europeans following the discovery of gold. The West Coast has undergone a huge transformation since the earliest European settlers arrived here and now, is one of the trendiest places in the country.
The West Coast of Mainland USA consists of the three states of California, Washington, and Oregon. California is the most popular with visitors while Oregon is slowly getting more recognition for its foggy coastline and sea stacks.
Coastal Washington is the hidden gem along the coast and one of our favorite places to go for a road trip is the Olympic peninsula. Alaska is also technically West Coast and so is Hawaii, but are not popularly considered so because of their remote location.
The West Coast is often called the Best Coast – a tribute to its spectacular scenery and world-class cities. It is among the greatest travel destinations in the world.
Most of the West Coast cities have a unique bohemian vibe and counterculture and are especially popular with young professionals and millennials. The cities have everything to offer from culinary hotspots, museums, urban parks, and historic attractions.
Best Cities to Visit on West Coast
The West Coast is popular for its diversity and has a lot of cities that are worth visiting. They all are distinctly different from each other in their foods, values, trends, and cultures.
While most people think of Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles when they think of the West Coast, the region is also home to some of the most underrated cities like Sacramento, Bend, and Tacoma.
Here is our favorite list of the best cities to visit on the West Coast.
Seattle is popularly known as the ‘Coffee Capital’ of the United States. Visitors will find an espresso bar on every corner of the city. The city is famous for its many tourist attractions including the vast Pike Place Market and the iconic Space Needle, which was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. The Space Needle is located in the Seattle Center, which in itself is a destination filled with an entertainment complex, museums, theaters, restaurants, and sports facilities.
The Chihuly Garden and Glass museum which features blown glass artwork by artist Dale Chihuly is also located in the center. The Olympic Sculpture Park, a part of the Seattle Art Museum, has many renowned sculptures along the waterfront.
Discovery Park is the largest park in the city and is great to get up close to nature. The West Point Lighthouse is located in the park and can be seen via a 4.4-mile loop trail. From almost anywhere in Seattle, you can see great views of the stunning Mount Rainier.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco is the heart of northern California. This city is famous for some of the best tourist attractions in the country.
The world-famous Golden Gate Bridge is a popular San Francisco icon and visited by thousands of people every day. It is also the most photographed bridge in America and is considered an engineering feat. Visitors can experience the bridge in a variety of ways including taking a cruise in the San Francisco Bay.
Apart from the Golden Gate Bridge, there are many other attractions in the city. Alcatraz Island Cruise is popular with tourists because of its interesting history. This was a former prison and several notorious prisoners were kept here.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest and oldest Chinatown in the US. This city celebrates the Chinese New Year festival on a large scale and the celebrations are amazing to attend. The many outdoor adventures near San Francisco and the mild year-round weather make it a perfect destination along the West Coast.
Welcome to the city which goes by the slogan, ‘Keep Portland Weird’. This city in the Pacific Northwest is an amazing destination to visit on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip as it has many unique attractions for the visitors.
Portland is known for its amazing parks and museums and it is also home to an incredible food scene. Visitors can eat off a variety of food carts, local farmers’ markets, and food truck pods in the city.
Most visitors begin exploring Portland in Washington Park. The largest urban park in the city, Washington Park has several tourist attractions including the International Rose test garden, Japanese Garden, museums, and the Oregon Zoo.
The city has a great emphasis on sustainable living and is environmentally friendly. The hip vibe and culture of Portland makes it perfect for millennials and urban visitors.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles is renowned internationally in the film and entertainment industry, making it a hotspot for celebrities and tourists alike for decades. However, at present, LA offers a lot more including a diversity of beaches, trails, museums, shopping experiences.
A West Coast road trip to Los Angeles is always glamorous with a visit to Hollywood and its grand Hollywood sign for city views and the 1.3 mile Walk of Fame at Hollywood Boulevard. Outdoor exploration is also popular at the gorgeous Venice Beach where activities like swimming, surfing, and skateboarding are always in action.
A fun-filled visit to Disneyland theme park and behind the scene tours at Universal Studios are perfect for cinema fanatics. There are numerous intriguing art displays and famed science exhibits at the Griffith Observatory, The Broad, and LA County Museum of Art. The list of things to do in LA is endless ensuring not a single dull moment.
Tacoma is a port city in Washington. It is located on Puget Sound and is one of the best places to visit in Washington State. It is a highly cultural destination and has plenty of museums to pique your interest. Most of these museums are adjacent to each other and can be easily seen on one trip.
Tacoma is most famous for the Museum of Glass, a one of a kind museum in the US that focuses entirely on contemporary artworks made from glass. Visitors can see the Bridge of Glass which has Dale Chihuly artwork for free.
The Washington State History Museum is popular with tourists for its vast collection of Pacific Northwest artifacts and a seasonal Native American Art exhibition. The Tacoma Art Museum represents local artists and contemporary art.
Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium has marine life, animals, and plants from all over the world. Kids love seeing several exhibits about birds, Asian animals, arctic exhibits, etc. The city is also home to America’s Car Museum, which has a magnificent collection of classic cars and modern automobiles.
San Diego, California
San Diego, located near the southern border with Mexico, is the oldest city on the West Coast. From the Cabrillo National Monument to Old Town San Diego, the city’s rich culture shines through in the historic buildings and architecture.
San Diego is a popular travel destination for its sandy beaches, warm weather, and sunshine. The city has a variety of amusements for all kinds of visitors.
The large urban Balboa Park is home to hiking trails, museums, Spanish colonial architecture, theatres, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Seaport Village, with its benches, picnic tables, waterside patios, and fresh seafood restaurants, is great for a stroll on a sunny afternoon.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park offers amazing views of the Pacific Coast and is a great place to enjoy the sunset. The city is also great for foodies. Gaslamp Quarter is well known for its Mexican cuisine while the night clubs and rooftop bars in San Diego attract party animals.
San Jose, California
Nicknamed the ‘Capital of Silicon Valley’ for its innovation and technical excellence, San Jose is the ultimate tourist destination for geeks and nerds.
A prime attraction is Tech Interactive, a technology museum where kids can get hands-on with robots, experience an earthquake, fly like a bird over cities and see science and engineering movies in an Imax theatre.
History lovers should visit the Egyptian Museum to see mummies and other artifacts that originated on the Nile River.
Other than technology, the city also has a lot to offer for tourists. A must visit is the Winchester Mystery House, a sprawling mansion that is designed to ‘confuse ghosts’! Inside the house, visitors can see strange rooms, stairs that don’t seem to go anywhere, and other quirky features.
San Jose Museum of Art has a strong collection of sculptures, paintings, and modern graphic art. The Municipal Rose Garden has beautiful blooming flowers.
Sacramento is the capital city of California. It is often counted amongst the best places to visit on the West Coast owing to the vintage charm of its historical architecture, gorgeous museums, and the hippy Midtown.
Exploring the abandoned Sutter’s Fort and Old Sacramento Historic Park brings back memories of the mid nineteenth century marking the beginning of the Gold Rush era. The museums here are no less with the State Capitol Museum featuring a glimpse into California’s past and the Railroad Museum allowing guided tours of restored train cars and locomotive engines.
The Fairytale Town, a storybook themed park, with creative playsets is a favorite of the kids. The Tower Theatre or the Crest Theatre is perfect to catch an old classic, a concert, etc. While others enjoy the famous Second Saturday Art Walk amidst the pretty art galleries of Midtown.
The sleepy coastal town of Monterey is the best city on the West Coast to experience the small-town atmosphere made stunning with diverse wildlife, unparalleled beaches, exhilarating outdoors, and top-quality wine and dining.
Riding along the 17-Mile Drive is an experience in itself with views of the ocean and the coastline surrounded by the Del Monte Forest. A stop at Pebble Beach with championship golf courses, spas, gourmet restaurants, and boutiques is also popular.
The huge marine exhibits of Monterey Bay Aquarium displaying sea otters, penguins, and sharks are a hit among the tourists. The Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row are lined by seafood restaurants, candy shops, souvenir shops, and wine-tasting rooms. With so many unique attractions, Monterey is not a place to be missed.
A Pacific Coast Highway road trip is incomplete without a stop at Olympia, the capital city of Washington State. Olympia houses various opportunities to explore its evergreen landscape and charming history. Moreover, it allows tourists to enjoy a handcrafted way of life with special farmers’ markets, local-coffee, wine, beer, and spirits.
Stroll along the Capitol Lake shoreline inside the State Capitol Building campus which houses the historic legislative building and allows free guided walking tours of the same. Enjoy a movie, concert, or discover local art and history at the grand movie palace of Capitol Theatre.
Bask in the unique fauna of the West Coast at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, home to various marine, terrestrial, and bird species. Mount Rainier National Park and the Olympic National Park provide the adrenaline with dramatic snow-clad peaks, hiking trails cutting through forests, and blooming meadows.
Astoria in Oregon is an appealing port city surrounded by the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean on two sides. With pleasant weather prevailing round the year, Astoria lets you do everything, be it hiking, watching whales, or sitting in cozy little coffee shops.
Enjoy hiking the Cathedral Tree Trail to reach the Astoria Column with traces of Astoria’s history and views of the city. Spend time camping, kayaking, or watching the historic shipwreck at Fort Stevens State Park. Explore the coastal beaches, forts, forests, and two old lighthouses while visiting the Cape Disappointment State Park.
Head to the Oregon Film Museum with interactive sets to recreate iconic movie scenes with your loved ones. And do not forget to visit the Fort George Brewery for authentic beer and Clemente’s Café for some refreshing seafood.
The capital city of Oregon, Salem is the perfect destination for a pleasant and relaxing stop amid a West Coast USA road trip. From museums and theme parks to greenery and heritage, everything comes together in this city set in the Willamette Valley.
Gorge on handmade farmstead cheeses like Gouda, Brie, Mozzarella, and Cheddar at the Willamette Valley Cheese Company. Enjoy an amusing day out exploring the hiking trails, boat docks, playgrounds, bridges, and the famous Riverfront Carousel at the Riverfront City Park.
Head for a tour around the Oregon State Capitol to discover its modernist art deco, statues, history room, portrait hallway, and the Oregon Pioneer perched on top of the central tower. While those looking for an active time visit the Bush’s Pasture Park which offers tennis playgrounds, softball fields, hiking trails, rose gardens as well as the Bush House Museum.
The cliffside trails and beaches of Mendocino, a small coastal community, make it much more charming than other big towns. Designated a historical landmark, Mendocino resembles New England villages with its charming cottages and Victorian mansions.
Mendocino Headlands State Park is one of the top attractions here for its rugged coastline, secluded beaches, hiking trails, and history, a favorite of artists and photographers. Ascending to the top of 115 feet Point Arena Lighthouse is worth the 360-degree views of the ocean and surrounding areas.
The Jughandle State Reserve is famous for its Ecological Staircase Walk. This is a must-visit attraction featuring long and short walks overlooking the changing coastal landform. Head to the Ford House Museum for a journey through Mendocino’s history and then to Kelley House Museum to witness period pieces from the 1800s.
A university city like no other, Eugene has its history rooted in the hippie culture and progressive ideas. Eugene is proudly known as the ‘Track and Field Capital of the World’ for the top-class competitions, events, trails, and outdoor spaces.
The Alton Baker Park with its bridges, bike trails, running route ‘Pretrial’ named after hometown hero Steve Prefontaine and water trails is a favorite of tourists. Catch various opera and jazz events as well as rare art displays at the Hult Centre for Performing Arts.
For a look into the process of rehabilitation of injured birds, head to the Cascades Raptor Centre home to eagles, falcons, hawks, and other birds of prey. At the main attraction, the University of Oregon, discover the heritage, culture, and history of Oregon by visiting museums like the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
A small city on the Deschutes River, Bend is surrounded by the peaks of the Cascade Mountains on one end and the desert plateaus of Oregon on the other. Bend is a must-visit while on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip to enjoy a refreshing look at history, adventure, and landscape.
Hike to the summit of Pilot Butte, an extinct volcano, to witness astonishing views of the mountains, desert, and the city. Experience more of the unique volcanic history by visiting Newberry National Volcanic Monument and the Lava River Cave, a huge lava tube. Do not forget to engage in rockhounding around Central Oregon to take a little piece of obsidian home.
Enjoy the history and live wildlife exhibits at the High Desert Museum. And for a tummy treat, visit the Deschutes Brewery on the Bend Ale Trail providing fascinating brewery tours and cold craft beer.
Santa Barbara, California
With the backdrop of Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is a glamorous town with Spanish architecture and stunning waterfronts. From beaches, trails, museums, to churches and shopping streets in close proximity, Santa Barbara is a delight to explore.
The East Beach offers stunning views and sunbathing opportunities while the West beach is famous for fireworks on the Fourth of July. Experience the colonial history at the Santa Barbara Mission, an operating worship house with a museum of colonial artifacts.
Head out to the Santa Barbara Channel for a closer look at the Mink Whales, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, and Dolphins galloping. And the Stearns Wharf is a must-visit with its fresh seafood options, wine tasting, a touch of an aquarium, and loads of other shopping alternatives.
San Luis Obispo, California
A popular halfway stopping point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo is the ideal city for a relaxing stop at the foothills of Santa Lucia Mountains. The pleasant weather with sunshine on more than 300 days of the year makes the outdoors perfect for picnics, sightseeing, and sunbathing.
The Spanish building of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa features an exquisite interior, a courtyard garden, and a museum showcasing Spanish and Native Indian culture. Held on Thursday evenings, the SLO Farmers’ Market on Higuera Street is crowded by vendors selling fresh produce, restaurants selling street food, and some festive live music.
A 23-mile shoreline with consistent waves at Pismo Beach is frequented by surfers, bodyboarders, and other sports enthusiasts. While some head to the Avila Valley Hot springs to enjoy the therapeutic natural thermal soaking pools.
A quiet, romantic seaside destination, Carmel by the Sea is often remembered for its Spanish architecture, old-world charm and village ambiance. Because it doesn’t use numbered street addresses, this town is perfect to wander and chance upon storybook cottages, cafes, unique shops, and art galleries.
The Caramel Beach gives a secluded feel with pristine white sand and cypress trees allowing fun activities like sunbathing, nature walks, or volleyball. Shopping around Ocean Avenue lets one discover unique artisan shops, jewelry stores, boutiques, and antique stores. Explore the charming art galleries, beautiful courtyards, and passageways of Downtown Caramel.
The local wildlife amid scenic views of the Pacific Oceans intrigues tourists on a visit to the Point Lobos State Reserve. Yet others gaze at the sheep while enjoying a Sunday buffet brunch or sipping on drinks at Mission Ranch. Some head to the Caramel Wine Walk for a memorable wine tasting experience.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
One of the most beautiful locations on the West Coast, Cannon Beach is a seaside village with remarkable beaches, rock formations, and viewpoints. An escape from an otherwise active schedule, Cannon Beach allows tourists to sit back and relax around a beach fire, taste authentic candy, or go around hiking.
Right in the middle of Cannon Beach sits the marvelous Haystack Rock, the world’s third-largest monolith, making for photogenic scenery and home to a diverse marine life. The Ecola State Park is famous for camping, picnicking, hiking along the Clatsop Loop Interpretive Trail, and unmatched views of Tillamook Head and Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Watch the complicated art of live glassblowing up close at Icefire Glassworks and bring a piece home.
Port Angeles, Washington
A quiet town on the Olympic Peninsula, Port Angeles houses the best of lakes, rivers, mountains, forests and local lavender farms. This town became popular as the setting of the famous Twilight series and has since been a treasured tourist spot.
Hiking at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge leads to rewarding views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the San Juan Islands as well as the New Dungeness Lighthouse. Enjoy sightseeing at the top of Hurricane Ridge to witness snow-clad mountains, vibrant sunsets, and deer grazing in the meadows nearby.
For a change, head to one of the various events in Port Angeles like the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts in May or the Sequim Lavender Festival in summer.
Newport in Oregon is a small fishing village that turned into a beach resort town with time. The Victorian construction of Newport is accompanied by an aquarium, excellent seafood restaurants, museums, and interesting water activities.
A tour of the Hatfield Marine Science Center offers live marine exhibits and educational displays about ocean-related topics. The South Beach State Park is ideal for thrilling watersports, kayak launching, fishing, hot showers, hiking, or wildlife watching. The tallest lighthouse in Oregon at Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site is a must-visit.
The historic Newport Bayfront with the iconic Yaquina Bay Bridge and numerous seafood restaurants, shops, and art galleries along the Bay Boulevard make another hit attraction.
Popularly known for the hillside vineyards, the Napa Valley is a tourist favorite. From hiking trails to museums, art galleries, and local boutiques, Napa offers more than just wineries and handcraft cheese.
Board the Napa Valley Wine Train to enjoy a tour of local wineries with American cuisine served onboard. Go for an entertaining paddleboarding tour on the waters of Napa River. Head for a hot air balloon ride offering rich views of the vineyards and the valley.
Learn about the farm life and animals at Connolly Ranch or head to the Napa Valley Opera House to catch some theatrical entertainment and witness the historical architecture. Don’t forget to visit the Oxbow Farmers Market for local gourmet food.
Other useful posts to plan your Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Planner
Pacific Coast Highway 4 day Itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 5 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 7 day itinerary
Pacific Coast Highway 10 Day itinerary
All PCH Itineraries
Best Places to Stay along the Pacific Coast Highway
Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops