Your ultimate guide to a California road trip
Tuesday, 14 August 2018
California has it all. It's a geographically beautiful state with breathtaking coastlines, arid deserts, and the highest and lowest points in the 48 contiguous United States.
It's also home to some of the most alluring cities in the country, from stunning San Francisco, to glittering Los Angeles, to sandy San Diego.
This abundance of natural beauty and man-made attractions has made California one of the top U.S. tourist destinations for many years. According to Visit California, the state's tourism arm, travelers and tourists spent more than $126 billion in the state in 2016 alone.
And while there are some out-of-this-world national parks (Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Pinnacles, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, just to name a few) dotting the state's inland, the California coast reigns supreme on many road-trippers' bucket lists.
If you're thinking you can't do the California coast on a budget, think again. Then bookmark this story full of California road trip ideas and start checking on flights.
California road trip kickoff: San Francisco
Fly into the City By the Bay, rent a car, and point your GPS to Ocean Beach, a massive swath of sand on the westernmost side of San Francisco. Grab lunch at one of the many cafés and then spend the day exploring the more than 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park.
Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, as well as the Japanese Tea Garden and Botanical Garden. You could easily spend a day just visiting museums, gardens, and of course, people watching.
Spend the next few days in comfortable walking shoes strolling the city's famed neighborhoods. San Francisco, even with its giant hills, is extremely walkable and residents are known for their hospitality. Some must-see neighborhoods include Pacific Heights, Noe Valley, Russian Hill (check out Hyde Street between California and Lombard), and Cole Valley. On your foot tour, make sure you visit some of the city's well-known restaurants, nighttime hotspots, and farmer's markets. One of the best farmer's market is CUESA at the Ferry Plaza every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Don't miss it.
There are countless places to explore on day trips from San Francisco, from wineries in Napa and Sonoma (bonus points if you make it all the way up to sleepy Mendocino – about five hours north), to Berkeley and Oakland in the East Bay.
Load your car with all the goodies from San Francisco and hop on Highway 1 heading south. Make sure you aren't in a rush, as this stretch of highway is among the most picturesque in the world with tons of vista points for photo ops (Jump shots! Selfies!).
An hour south of San Francisco you'll find beautiful Santa Cruz, a laid back surfer town filled with fun restaurants, walking streets, shops, and piers for watching sea lions and other marine wildlife. If you're ready to get your feet wet, try your hand at kayaking.
Drive about an hour south of Santa Cruz and you'll hit Monterey and Carmel, two jewellike cities right on the ocean. Don't leave without checking out the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium and spending an afternoon browsing the shops of high-end Carmel-by-the-Sea (where none other than Clint Eastwood was previously mayor).
Next up is a longer drive (about four hours) down to the gateway of Southern California: Santa Barbara, dubbed “The American Riviera." This city of just under 100,000 residents is filled with Spanish-style architecture, rows of palm trees, and outdoor cafes around every corner. While there are wineries about an hour away, those who'd rather stay in town and near the water can check out the Urban Wine Trail, which offers more than a dozen local tasting rooms.
Wave goodbye to the pristine Central Coast, head south, and soon you will find yourself in infamous Los Angeles traffic. This city of 3.9 million may have auto congestion, but it doesn't take away from its beauty and world-renowned attractions.
You could start by spending a day at the breathtaking J. Paul Getty Museum, which offers an unsurpassed view of the city. From there, you could catch a show at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood, go shopping at the celebrity-laden Grove (watch out for Mario Lopez filming Extra!), spend an afternoon on the beach in Santa Monica, or grab your hiking gear and explore one of the city's many canyons.
A quick two-hour drive south will land you in sunny San Diego, the beachiest of all beach towns. Head straight to tony La Jolla for surf lessons and then fill your belly with tasty fish tacos from one of the many hip restaurants along Prospect Street.
There are thousands of things to keep you busy in San Diego. You could spend days exploring the world-famous San Diego Zoo. A daylong stroll through historic Balboa Park will take you through botanical gardens and 17 museums. If you're feeling fancy, you could grab high tea at the iconic Hotel del Coronado.
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