Follow this spectacular coast-hugging drive, making time for stops in places like Huntington Beach, Santa Barbara, and Monterey.
Start: San Diego
End: San Francisco
Duration: 4-7 Days,10 Stops, 583 Miles
San Diego is one of California’s sunniest destinations. This waterfront city is overflowing with exceptional dining and craft beer experiences, outdoor adventures, family fun, and great shopping. Explore diverse neighborhoods like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter, the East Village, North Park, and Old Town, head to Balboa Park for a museum-filled day or a trip to see the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Enjoy a day at the water at one of the city’s many beaches, such as Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, or Pacific Beach. You can rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks at sparkling Mission Bay.
Plan at least a day to hang out and catch the surf vibe in this classic beach town, where the main drag heads straight to the beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf. Surfing definitely sets the tone in Huntington Beach, and even if you never grab a board, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great views of the locals riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Pier.
From the pier, it’s a short walk to the outdoor mall Pacific City, or Main Street’s stylish boutiques and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in Huntington Beach’s fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons.
Or discover more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in 354-acre Huntington Central Park, or bird watching and exploring trails in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
Perfect architecture, and perfect setting. Santa Barbara, aka “The American Riviera” enjoys a dreamy Mediterranean climate, with plenty of sunny days and mild winters. Add wine country producing, award-winning vintages, outdoor adventures on land and sea, big-city arts and entertainment, and you have a city that’s a poster child for the California good life.
Stroll State Street for excellent shops and dining, launch a kayak from East Beach to paddle under Stearns Wharf, visit the classic Old Mission Santa Barbara, and tour the 1782 Presidio for a look at original adobes like El Cuartel, the second oldest surviving building in the state. Then explore the city’s forward-looking neighborhood—the rehabbed warehouses of The Funk Zone, now home to urban wine-tasting rooms, artist’s studios, and cool boutiques.
Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country
The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the county, with five distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Near the Pacific, fog and cool air rolls in at dusk, ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Thirty miles inland at Happy Canyon, it’s sunny and hot—perfect for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot.
Start your visit by buying a pass from the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association to save on tastings at more than a dozen participating boutique wineries. And if you’re looking for a totally different way to tour the region, sign up for a Cloud Climbers Jeep Tour to go four-wheeling on mountain roads to various wineries, including picnic lunch.
Between the wines and the scenic rolling hills, it’s easy to see why the region became a star in the 2004 surprise hit, Sideways. Take a self-guided tour of the film’s many shoot locations in Buellton, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos—even if you don’t remember the movie, these places are all worth a visit.
San Luis Obispo
With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history and mellow vibe, San Luis Obispo (or as locals call it, SLO) is a Central Coast must-see. This college town has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
Explore Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. Enjoy live music on the plaza on summer Friday nights. Year-round the first Friday of the month offers Art After Dark, with downtown SLO galleries opening their doors for wine tastings, snacks, and chats with local artists. A few blocks away, every Thursday evening, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for SLO’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, and craft beer.
Be sure to pay a visit to the 110-room Madonna Inn when you are in town. You can finish the day with a slice of the famed pink champagne cake and then retire in one of its quirky themed rooms, such as the Caveman, the Love Birds, and the Fox & Hound.
SLO delivers the goods on the wine-tasting front. Bottles bearing the world-renowned Paso Robles appellation can be found only about 30 miles away. But don’t miss the nearby Edna Valley region, in particular the Chardonnays of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Pinot Noirs of Tolosa. Then, check out the under-the-radar wineries of Arroyo Grande Valley, including the sparkling wines at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery.
Designed by legendary architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle is positively enthralling: a collection of priceless art and antiques from all over the world, exquisitely assembled in a mountaintop Mediterranean estate that Hearst dubbed La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill).
The castle out-Hollywoods Hollywood and is as grand as the finest palaces of Europe. And the story of its visionary owner, William Randolph Hearst, is a made-in-America fable that proves that fact is truly stranger than fiction.
Considering that the castle rambles over roughly 80,000 square feet, 165 rooms, and 123 acres of gardens and pools, no single tour can fully capture its splendor. In fact, take your pick of nine different ways to explore the castle, including seasonal evening and holiday tours. Or splurge on your very own four-hour private tour for up to six people.
Love art? The Art of San Simeon Tour looks at the priceless assortment of tapestries, paintings, and sculptures that Hearst collected for his castle. Limited to eight visitors, the tour explores a few rooms that have never been previously accessible to the public. Or for architecture buffs, nothing beats the Designing the Dream Tour, which focuses on the unique creative collaboration between Hearst and Morgan that spanned more than 30 years.
It’s just a few minutes downhill to your next stop at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach.
Post Ranch Inn
Splurge on a night at the Post Ranch Inn, where Big Sur-style pampering means morning yoga, nighttime star-gazing, and infinity hot tubs that look out over the Pacific.
Welcome to Big Sur, one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long expanse of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle draws you in with a magic allure. This is, quite simply, a place you want to be.
Drive Big Sur via twisting Highway One. One favorite photo op: McWay Falls, a silvery cascade falling some 70 feet from the cliffs to a remote beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can see it from the open sections of the park’s Overlook Trail. Look up to see endangered California condors, or look down to scan the swells for migrating whales or sea otters floating among dense beds of kelp.
Try the famous Ambrosia burger on the deck of Nepenthe, then nurse your beer to watch the sunset. Campgrounds abound around Big Sur, as do rustic cabins at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. The region’s beauty also makes it a magnet for splurge-worthy hotels like the cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, or Ventana Big Sur, which combines traditional luxury accommodations with fabulous glamping options.
Set along the curving sweep of its namesake bay, Monterey is a community in touch with both the natural world and the tides of history. On Cannery Row you’ll find luxurious waterfront hotels and remnants of old cannery buildings as you walk toward Old Fisherman’s Wharf, the historic pier that juts into Monterey Bay. Set out on a whale-watching or fishing trip, and don’t miss the clam chowder at the wharf’s many seafood restaurants.Or spend the day at Monterey Bay Aquarium, which gives you close-up looks at the bay’s remarkable marine life. Go nose-to-nose with adorable sea otters and catch glimpses of leopard sharks and schools of sardine swimming through the kelp forest exhibit. With 28-foot windows, it’s one of the world’s tallest aquariums. And just a short distance from town, some of the world’s finest golf courses await at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Famous for grand-dame Victorians, classic cable cars, dynamic diversity, trend-defining, Michelin-starred cuisine, a beautiful waterfront, and a soaring crimson bridge, San Francisco, aka the “City by the Bay”, truly has it all and stands out as an ultimate must-see.
Pedal bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, then explore the lush Presidio, a former military base that’s now a park, or head into Golden Gate Park to visit museums and row across a secret gem, Stow Lake. Continue along the flat Embarcadero to the bustling Ferry Building Marketplace, the Exploratorium science and learning museum, and colorful Fisherman’s Wharf.
Take a cable car ride to the high-end shops in bustling Union Square, with a stop for Italian pastries and cappuccino at Emporio Rulli right in the square. At night, catch a show in the theater district. For more nightlife and dining, stroll Valencia Street in the Mission, a trendy and eclectic hotbed of restaurants and bars, and awesome late-night scoops at Bi-Rite Ice Cream.