What to See on a Road Trip Along the California Coast
Sometimes the most memorable trips are the ones where you leave the passport at home and just gas up the car. And there’s no better place to roll the windows down, turn up the tunes, and hit the road than the California coast. Check out this guide to discover the 5 best stops, so you can plan the perfect itinerary for driving along the California coast.
Things to Know
The coast is truly epic, and depending on how long you have, your trip can easily be extended to take in the dunes of Pismo Beach, tranquil Half Moon Bay, the theme parks of Anaheim, and lively San Diego. The stops below are just a starting point covering some of the can’t-miss attractions, but there’s plenty more to see if you scratch beneath the surface.
If you’re wondering when to drive the California coast, it’s helpful to remember that Northern California is notoriously misty, so bring a windbreaker and an umbrella, even in summer. Autumn might actually be the best time to visit the California coast, and September and October often offer clear skies and beautiful views.
When it comes to what to take on a road trip through the region, don’t forget the camera, as you’ll definitely want to snap some pics of the stars, whether you find them in the sky above stunning Big Sur or at Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood.
Kick off your coastal adventure in one of America’s most beloved cities, where you can dine on Dungeness crab at Fisherman’s Wharf, jog at Golden Gate Park, take a tour of Alcatraz, and catch a baseball game at AT&T Park. The city by the bay isn’t just a quick pit stop, so plan on spending a weekend here if possible, and try to find a hotel that will put you near all the sights.
Hotel Vertigo is not only situated within walking distance of the San Francisco Museum of Art and Union Square, it was featured in Vertigo, making it the perfect choice for cinema fans. The Fairmont, meanwhile, offers old-school luxury in a convenient location near all the cable car connections.
Other San Fran must-dos include walking the Golden Gate Bridge, cycling down famously twisty Lombard Street, snapping some photos of the iconic Full House home (aka the “Painted Ladies”), and shopping at bustling Union Square. Foodies shouldn’t leave without chowing down on dim sum in vibrant Chinatown and dipping into the delectables at the Ferry Building, while families can stop into the Aquarium of the Bay and the Exploratorium.
The drive from San Francisco to Big Sur via Highway One is unforgettable: think fog-shrouded bluffs, intimate beaches, and momentous redwoods. There are plenty of noteworthy pit stops along the way, so if you’ve got the time and the inclination, then stop at Half Moon Bay for some whale watching, ride the roller coasters at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, relax with a glass of white wine in chilled Carmel-by-the-Sea, and soak up the sunset at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Once you get to Big Sur it’ll be easy to see why its siren call has enchanted everyone from Kerouac to Henry Miller; this is a magical place of sea and sky, where California condors soar above the jagged coast and the stars spill across the atmosphere. There aren’t any high-rise hotels or booming nightclubs, but you’ll discover an inspiring, almost ethereal landscape where you can recharge your batteries and connect with the natural world.
You’ll find a great spot to just kick back and soak up the vibes at the Big Sur Lodge, a perfectly situated accommodation near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The lodge has a restaurant, in-room fireplaces, and an outdoor pool, making it a good choice for all seasons.
After exploring Big Sur, jump in the car and continue your road trip along the California coast. The drive to Solvang covers over 175 miles, and there are a number of great places to stretch your feet along the way. Pull off in San Simeon to tour Hearst Castle, the lush home of the former publishing tycoon, race a dune buggy along the sands of Pismo Beach, and pop into the wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley, where you can recreate the journey from Sideways. If you’re looking for a place to lay your head, check out the famous Madonna Inn, a kitschy hot spot in San Luis Obispo.
Solvang itself loves a bit of kitsch, and although the charming town’s traditional Danish architecture, windmills, and bakeries now coexist with hip wine bars, buzzy boutiques, and farm-to-table restaurants, the classic European vibe is still heavy. Check out the Little Mermaid Fountain, take in a show at the Solvang Festival Theater, and catch up on literary history at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum.
You might experience a bit of culture shock trading Solvang for Los Angeles, as if stepping out of a period film and into one of the world’s most vibrant and modern cities, but LA is definitely one of the best stops when you’re driving the California coast. Not only does it have some of the best food on the California coast (check out the tacos in Boyle Heights and the street food scene in Silver Lake), it’s bursting with hip bars, old-world glamour, and world-class attractions.
Book a room at Grafton on Sunset if you want stay in the heart of the famous Sunset Strip, or settle into a suite at the Millennium Biltmore Los Angeles if you want to be within walking distance of the Staples Center and Pershing Square. From traveling amongst the stars at the Griffith Observatory and strolling beneath the sunset at Venice Beach, to shopping on Rodeo Drive and museum-hopping on the Miracle Mile, if you’ve been wondering what to see on the California coast, Los Angeles has the answer: everything.
With its dreamy beaches, upscale shopping centers, and beautiful people, driving in Orange County is a holiday in itself, especially when you catch a glimpse of Disneyland’s Matterhorn looming over the landscape, or a surfer threading the needle of a perfect wave. And indeed, the OC is probably best known for its surfing culture and epic theme parks, but there’s much more to this sun-kissed suburbia than buff beachgoers and pulse-pounding rides. Visit stunning Heisler Park to catch some amazing sunsets, take a bar crawl around downtown Santa Ana, and sail around tony Newport Harbor; Orange County has plenty of memorable attractions.
If you’re looking for the perfect place to stay, check in to the Lido House, a breezy hotel with a great location, a spa, and a laid-back rooftop terrace where you can reflect on how many miles you’ve come.
With so many outstanding sights and unforgettable adventures, it’s no wonder that a road trip on the California coast is at the top of traveler’s bucket lists. Book accommodation for your California coast road trip through Expedia today!