A Coastal California Road Trip
Driving Route 1 is an iconic California experience, and one that’s made immeasurably easier by the fact that the road passes through cities and towns that are equipped for visitors—meaning that the hotels and restaurants you pass along the way are each worthy destinations in and of themselves. We recommend driving from north to south; the view puts your car on the ocean side of the road, letting you look out unobstructed by other cars. And while the trip can be easily extended north as far as Fort Bragg and south through Orange County and San Diego, SF and LA both make convenient and lively bookends (and keep the trip to a length that can be thoroughly conquered in less than a week).
The trickiest thing about starting in San Francisco? The city has so much to explore that you may not actually want to leave. If you do decide to stay for a few days, our personality-based guides cover all the bases, and the health-centric version is good prep for a week of road trip snacking.
Half Moon Bay
South of San Francisco, hook up with Route 1 in Daly City—from there it will take you straight to the coast. Among the sweet little towns you’ll pass is Half Moon Bay, a sleepy (and a bit chilly) beach community with a very walkable main street that makes a perfect first pit-stop.
STAYRitz Carlton Half Moon Bay
Perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean to the west and an immaculate golf course to the North, this is hands-down one of Ritz Carlton’s best properties. During the day, book a tee time at one of their two championship golf courses, which wind along the cliffs overlooking the beach and the ocean with a very Pebble Beach vibe. In the early evening, order shared plates and drinks to one of the fire pits on the patio and watch the sun set over the cliffs (bring a sweater for this part—it gets chilly once the sun goes down).
DOVisit Half Moon Bay State Beach
The beach at Half Moon Bay is a very healthy width and quite long—perfect for meandering beach walks or setting up a picnic—and its size spreads everyone out, so somehow it never feels crowded. The water here is freezing and the waves can get dangerously big (you’re only fifteen minutes from Maverick’s), so it’s not necessarily a swimming destination, but the size of the surf does make for a hypnotizing view.
Carmel & Monterey
In addition to famous attractions like Pebble Beach and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (each very worthy of a visit), next-door neighbors Carmel and Monterey offer stunning coastlines that act as a more accessible preview to Big Sur. Their little downtowns are perfect for strolling, if a bit touristy.
In a town that’s best known for old-school hotels and resorts, the just-opened Hotel Carmel is refreshingly youthful in spirit. The décor here is beachy in a Northern California kind of way (brass light fixtures, mud cloth pillows, and warm wood furniture), an atmosphere that’s continued in Brophy’s Tavern, the inviting pub on the first floor.
Point Lobos is a state preserve with enough hiking trails and information centers that a visit here could easily eat up an entire day. It’s best explored by foot (arrive early, as latecomers have to park along the highway), so you can explore the wildflowers in the forests past the cliffs, then make your way down to the shore, where kids—and, honestly, adults too—can explore tide pools and climb around on the rocks. There are plenty of seabirds to be seen year round, and in the spring, it’s common to find baby sea lions and their mothers sunning themselves on the beach.
This unassuming little bakery is nestled into a surprisingly cozy corner of an otherwise nondescript shopping mall along the side of the road. The pastries (the croissants are especially great) are the real draw here, but you can also pick up salami sandwiches on fresh-baked baguettes, which make a lovely picnic lunch on the beach in Point Reyes. Photo: Samantha Danielle.
EATValley Hills Deli
You’ll probably smell the barbecue at Valley Hills Deli before you see the tiny roadside spot, which smokes meats in-house every day. It doesn’t look like much, but the tri-tip sandwich is just as good as the locals say (not to mention that it’s the perfect lunch to snag on the way out of town).
This place doesn’t need an introduction—it’s on everyone’s bucket list. Our advice: Give yourself a day or two, so you have enough time to soak it all in.
STAYVentana and Tree Bones
The Post Ranch Inn gets all the attention, so it’s easy to forget that there are actually a few other great places to stay here. Nearby Ventana offers plenty of luxury, plus an excellent spa (complete with Japanese soaking tubs). For a less pricey option, try Tree Bones, a glamping operation that offers outfitted yurts, bare campsites, and practically everything in between—between the multicolored yurts and the organic gardens, it definitely evokes the hippie-influenced history of the place.
EATBig Sur Bakery
Don’t let the cozy building and the rustic feel of BSB fool you—this place has some serious food. Baker Michelle Rizzolo (who trained at La Brea Bakery) and the rest of the tight-knit team here churn out California-style seasonal dishes alongside excellent coffee, flavorful sourdoughs, and pastries that visitors line up for. Come for brunch to try their most famous dish, a breakfast pizza cooked in their wood-fired oven.
Nepenthe’s original owners, Lolly and Bill Fassett, actually came to Big Sur in the late ‘40s, wanting to raise their children in the wilderness and, as they put it, “host dance parties under the stars.” The long-standing restaurant is made from redwood and bricks that Lolly made by hand, and the Fassetts (their children and grandchildren still run the place) are an important piece of Big Sur history. The restaurant is every bit as charming and laid-back as it was during their time, and their famous Ambrosia Burger is still the thing to order.
DRINKPost Ranch Inn
Whether or not you opt for a room here, stop in to the bar for a drink. You’d be hard pressed to find a bar anywhere with a better view. For obvious reasons, time it around sunset if you can.
DOVisit New Camaldoli Hermitage
The enormity of Big Sur has a way of nurturing spirituality in its visitors, so it’s no surprise that this peaceful monastery has been operating in Big Sur for more than fifty years. Day visitors can join them for the eucharist (weekdays and Saturdays at 11:30am), or visit their lovely bookstore. For a more immersive experience, they actually host visitors in a limited number of small rooms.
DOHike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This park can be a bit touristy (it’s the place where everyone takes the picture of the gorgeous turquoise cove), but it’s pretty enough to merit a stop regardless. After you check out McWay Falls, which is a quick walk from the parking lot, opt for one of the longer hikes, like Ewoldsen Trail, a 5-mile lollipop loop that shows off some gorgeous redwood forests and has a few more secluded viewpoints. If you happen to be here in December or January, the benches at the end of the Overlook trail are a great place to see whales migrating south.
On your way out of Big Sur, you’ll slowly make your way into the rolling hills and relaxed beaches of San Simeon, which, if less dramatic than where you’ve just been, is just as beautiful. There aren’t too many places to stay here, so we prefer to make a few natural and cultural pit-stops and spend the night a bit farther south.
A visit to William Randolph Hearst’s famously elaborate castle is a bit of a surreal experience—equal parts beautiful and quirky, it’s a curiously American counter to the royal castles of Europe. The only way to view the grounds is with a tour guide (book one ahead of time, as they often sell out), each of which are excellent at pulling fascinating details, like the uses for various antiquated kitchen appliances and stories about the grand architecture, famous guests, or impossible-to-ignore zebras. Good to know: Sebastian Store, across from the museum, has excellent sandwiches.
DOVisit Piedras Blancas State Reserve
The beach at this state reserve is not accessible to people, chiefly because it’s occupied in the summer months by a colony of elephant seals, who come here during their molting season. During the peak months, you can see hundreds of them while the littles stretch their legs and get out of the car. Grown-ups might like a tour of the historic light station, which has incredible views of the ocean, beach, and surrounding landscape.
Further inland from Hearst Castle, Paso Robles (part of San Luis Obispo County) offers a good excuse for a detour off of Highway 1. Some Paso Robles locals liken the area to what Sonoma was like before it became Sonoma. In other words, Paso Robles isn’t as frequented as the wine country above San Francisco, but you can still taste great wine here. The downtown area of Paso also has a surprising number of places to eat and refuel on coffee and snacks.
VISITDaou Vineyards & Winery
There are more than enough vineyards and tasting rooms to choose from, but you’ll find the most stunning view of Paso Robles at Daou. The winery sits at the top of a hill, at 2,200 feet, and looks out onto Daou’s 200-plus acre estate and Paso Robles’s rolling landscape beyond it. Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine du jour here, best sipped in an Adirondack chair on Daou’s outdoor patio. You can make reservations online or call ahead.
VISITBarrelHouse Brewing Co.
A brewery trip is a great alternative to visiting a vineyard (or in addition to a vineyard tour, if you want to extend your stay in Paso Robles), and Firestone Walker is the most well known one: you can get a few really quality varieties here that aren’t sold elsewhere (for example, an unfiltered DBA brewed in barrels onsite, and a stronger beer aged in emptied Kentucky bourbon barrels). But BarrelHouse—which has a large outdoor space with picnic tables, games like cornhole, live music, and a food truck set-up—is more family-friendly (and makes for more fun all around).
One of the newer additions to downtown Paso’s dining scene, The Hatch specializes in wood-fired rotisserie meats. (The farro and roasted vegetable dish with burrata is a good vegetarian option.) If you’re not staying in Paso for dinner, Kreuzberg Coffee Company is a good stop before you get back on the road.
San Luis Obispo
Continuing south, but heading back toward the coast, your next stop should be the city of San Luis Obispo.
Admittedly, people are split on whether or not you spend the night at Madonna Inn. The rooms are kitschy for sure, but in a fabulous way. The hot-pink tennis courts are open to hotel guests as well as day spa visitors.
Plan to spend some time relaxing on beautiful San Luis Obispo Bay at Avila Beach; pick up food first at SLO Natural Foods Co-op.
Santa Ynez Valley
Some people might skip over Santa Ynez in favor of getting to Santa Barbara quicker, but if you have an extra day or two, it’s a worthy stopover. Like Paso Robles, there are a number of lesser-known vineyards with lovely, laid back vibes. Set against the Santa Ynez Mountains, the small, quirky Danish village, Solvang—gabled roofs, windmills, Danish bakeries, pickled herring and all—makes a nice home base. If you’re looking for more nightlife, though, Los Olivos, which has tasting rooms right in town, is a good option.
The best place to stay in Solvang is the 41-room boutique hotel, The Landsby, which blends minimalist, modern design with Scandinavian decor. It’s also a good place to grab a drink, even if you’re not staying here.
EATPaula’s Pancake House
Paula’s Pancake House is legendary in Solvang. Go early, or call day-of to put your name down, then wander the nearby shops before sitting down to stacks of Danish pancakes.
Open for breakfast and lunch (except on Tuesdays), as well as dinner (every day), Succulent Cafe puts an elevated spin on comfort dishes with locally sourced ingredients. Don’t miss the homemade biscuits.
It’s hard to go wrong here, but this is our ideal itinerary: Andrew Murray is one of Santa Ynez’s most talented winemakers, sourcing from a select number of local vineyards, focusing on Rhône varieties. Check out his winery along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Family-owned Demetria is where you go for the picturesque, panoramic view of Santa Ynez. (If there’s been rain and the hills are green, for a moment, on the ride to the top of the estate, you might forget you’re not in Southern Italy.) Make a reservation, and if you aren’t packing a lunch, order a sandwich here. For a totally different feel, head to easygoing Foxen 7200, known as “The Shack,” located right off of Foxen Canyon Road, which has a patio in the back.
Santa Barbara is small enough that you can easily get a good feel for the city, even if you’re only spending a couple days here as you continue South. The caveat, however, is that you’re going to want to come back again, and for longer. (But we have you covered with a dedicated guide when you do.)
STAYBelmond El Encanto
While San Ysidro Ranch and the Biltmore take up a lot of the local oxygen, the Belmond El Encanto is more than deserving of its Forbes five-star accolades. Perched on an olive tree-studded hillside overlooking the Pacific ocean, the 92-room hotel (consisting of Craftsman-style suites and freestanding bungalows) re-opened in 2013 after undergoing a comprehensive renovation, which added a pool and tricked-out fitness studio to the grounds, while maintaining the historic property’s architectural integrity and immaculate gardens. And it’s another hotel that doubles as a fine cocktail spot.
EATThe Hungry Cat
Everything at chef David Lentz’s mainstay is consistently amazing, but it’s the seafood that’s the true standout. When available, the uni is a sure bet, as it’s local and Santa Barbara is known for it—same goes for the oysters. Reservations are a good idea, or come at lunch, when it’s less crowded.
Rent bikes in town and cruise up and down the bike path that hugs the water. The combined ocean/mountainside view does a good job of summing up what’s so cool about traveling CA’s coastline.
The spa at Belmond El Encanto is wonderful, but for a totally awesome New Age freak-out, book a treatment at Salt in one of their subterranean caves: they’re made of Jurassic-Age salt blocks and crystals, and lined with Himalayan salt.
The good news part about ending your road trip in Los Angeles is that you can easily continue the fun here for a few days. And if you are staying in town for a bit, check out our guides to the city.
Make Malibu Farm your last official road trip stop on Route 1, which is called the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) in LA. Located on the Malibu pier, this restaurant has sweeping views of the ocean in both directions (and even of Catalina Island on a clear day). Get the Zucchini pizza and a glass of sangria.