If there was ever a reason to rent a convertible, this road trip is it. This ultimate cruise along California’s sunniest strip of coast-hugging roadway, locally know simply as “the PCH,” lets you visit sand-and-surf beach towns (maybe even snag a surf lesson), artists’ enclaves, shopping meccas, and iconic theme parks, such as SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California. The route described here starts in romantic Santa Barbara, nicknamed “the American Riviera,” and continues south to San Diego; if you prefer, you can start in San Diego and drive north. Whatever you do, spread on the sunscreen, flip the car top down, and go.
Start your coastal cruise in this elegant city hugging the coastal mountains, where classic Spanish architecture gives the region a sun-washed European look straight out of the Riviera. The Santa Barbara, nicknamed “the American Riviera,” may have a burnished antique look of much of the Mediterranean, the current Spanish colonial-style architecture—all red-tiled roofs and whitewashed courtyards covered in climbing bougainvillea—didn’t take root until 1925, when an earthquake damaged downtown buildings, making room for a whole new style. And in this case it was a romantic look back, a nod to the region’s first Spanish visitors more than 150 years before. The elegant building style has stuck around, and become the city’s visual touchstone.
Perfect architecture, and perfect setting. Tucked into the lee of the Santa Ynez Mountains and protected from the brunt of Pacific wind and waves, “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.
Now drive southeast to relax in the surfer-friendly town of Ventura.
Kickback relaxation finds a perfect home in this appealing coastal town roughly 65 miles/105 kilometers north of Los Angeles. While antique hounds have long known to pull off the PCH to poke around Ventura, a new generation has started to discover the town’s microbreweries, smart eateries, cool clothes boutiques, and live music scene. The good news is that the revival of Ventura’s downtown Ventura has buffed things up while preserving the town’s sun-and-surf charm, where family-run cafes with two-table balconies serve espresso and an ocean breeze. (After all, the Pacific is only a couple of blocks away, and it seems as if locals are required to have surfboard racks atop their cars.) Down by the water, stroll the historic Ventura Pier. You can also catch the Island Packers boat to Channel Islands National Park.
Travel south to ultra-cool Santa Monica and spend time shopping, eating or relaxing on the beach.
Set along a curving shoreline, the neighboring coastal communities of Santa Monica and Venice Beach blend classic Southern California sand-and-surf scenes with upscale shopping, creative dining, and vibrant nightlife and entertainment.
Technically, Santa Monica is independent from L.A., a dynamic oceanfront city in its own right. While the broad beach and lively pier are great places to experience the city, consider timing your visit to coincide with Santa Monica’s outstanding downtown farmers’ markets, frequently honored as one of the country’s best. Here, mingle with chefs doing their daily shopping, watch cooking demos, or just relax with a latte and watch the scene (and maybe spy a celebrity or two). Make a mental note of what you’re seeing sold by local farmers—it’s likely to show up on the menus of the city’s innovative farm-to-fork restaurants. Work up an appetite with a ride on Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail, which runs roughly 22 miles/35 kilometers from Santa Monica south to Torrance. Another activity: serious shopping. Start at upscale, multi-story Santa Monica Place (its classy rooftop dining deck focuses on artisanal foods). Next, walk to adjacent pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade, with big-name brands, galleries, movie theaters, and comedy shows.
And then of course, there’s the beach, a broad expanse lining the coast for 3.5 miles/6 kilometers. For an incomparable view, take a spin on the solar-powered Ferris wheel at Pacific Park, with rides and games topping historic Santa Monica Pier.
Drive southeast to Long Beach to visit the massive Queen Mary luxury liner, now permanently docked here (special exhibits, dining, and lodging), and the outstanding Aquarium of the Pacific.
With beaches and marinas along its waterfront and a busy dining and shopping scene on downtown’s Pine Avenue, Long Beach blends big city sophistication with resort town fun. Tour the legendary, permanently docked ocean liner Queen Mary, then relax with a drink in the ship’s Observation Bar—you can even stay overnight in one of the ship’s cabins. Special exhibits are on display throughout the giant ship, and wandering through the various levels to see them feels like a journey through a time warp—you can almost imagine a bygone time of ladies in velvet and lace coming down the ship’s main staircase for dinner with the ship’s captain.
Also along the waterfront, outstanding Aquarium of the Pacific has huge tanks and displays featuring coral reefs, goofy Magellanic penguins, and other ocean habitats. For beach-town style, head to the Belmont Shore neighborhood. East Village, home of the Museum of Latin American Art, has an edgier, hipster vibe.
Continue south to stretch out in the sand to watch top surfers carve it up in Huntington Beach, nicknamed “Surf City, USA.”
Plan at least a day to hang out and get 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 viewing of some of the local dudes riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Pier.
From the pier, it’s just a short walk to 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. You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach luxurious oceanfront resorts. Or discover more natural sides of town by trying horseback riding in 354-acre/143-hectare Huntington Central Park, and with bird watching and by exploring trails in Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetlands and one of Southern California’s most vital coastal habitats.
Next, head southeast to Costa Mesa, hub of some of the state’s best shopping destinations.
Shopping in The O.C. is almost as legendary as surfing, and this town, just inland from the coast, has the mega-shopping destinations of them all: South Coast Plaza, California’s largest luxury shopping complex. You can easily spend a day here perusing boutiques for luxury brands such as Hermes, Chanel, and Prada. The massive complex also includes more than 40 places to eat, from quick bites and specialty foods to splurge-worthy fine dining—consider seasonally inspired dishes served at sleek and polished Marche Moderne, or the gourmet fusion fare served at Anqi by Crustacean.
For a twist on big-box shopping, visit Costa Mesa’s relaxing The LAB Antimall, focusing on appealing independent shops. At The ARTery, see quality handcrafts and artwork displayed in tricked-up shipping containers. At South Coast Collection (SOCO), browse at home decor and culinary stores surrounded by handsome landscaping.
If you like your shopping with a dose of entertainment and amusement-park fun, visit Irvine’s Spectrum Center, where a soaring Ferris wheel, plus a carousel and kiddie train for the little ones, give you a unique way to take a break between boutiques. Late nights are lively here too, with movie theaters, Irvine Improv Comedy Club, and quality restaurants.
Now put the credit cards away and head for one of California’s prettiest stretches of coastline, just south at Crystal Cove State Park.
In 1912, an early Laguna Beach artist described finding a rugged coastline “with cove after cove and headland after headland, golden cliffs and deep blue and purple ocean and clear emerald pools, lazy sea and pounding surf.” More than 100 years later, that’s the world that you can still experience at this 2,400-acre/971-hectare coastal parkland. Head inland and upland on foot or mountain bike to explore trails winding into the foothills (especially pretty after winter rains encourage annual grasses). Walk along the park’s 3 miles/5 kilometers of coastline to find your own perfect sandy crescent with family-friendly waves (also popular with surf-casting fishermen). Another find here: Crystal Cove State Park Historic District, order an ahi tuna burger at The Beachcomber at Crystal Cove, or pick up a creamy shake from Ruby’s Shake Shack to take back to your beach blanket. There is also a charming collection of vintage beachfront cottages, rustically restored and available for overnight stays. (Note: reserving one of the 21 extremely popular cabins takes patience and perseverance; check the website for details.)
Drive a few miles south to the posh enclave of Laguna Beach for galleries, beachfront dining, and romantic inns and resort hotels.
Here’s another one of those places where you look around wondering, “How do I get to live here?” Bright sun warms the hillsides, where cheerful cottages—some fancified, some not—tumble down the steep cliffs to the jumble of downtown streets, all ending at the edge of a sparkling blue sea. This is a grownup play land, a place with romantic hideaways dripping with bougainvillea, rooftop restaurants perfect for toasting the sunset, and a coastline dotted with protected crescents of sand—some attracting the local surfer crowd, some family favorites, and some perfect for a peaceful escape.
"Here’s another one of those places where you look around wondering, “How do I get to live here?”
Laguna Beach was first settled as an artist’s colony, and it still has a generous sprinkling of quality galleries in town. Painters often perch their easels along the bluffs, and its fun to watch them create a pretty seascape before your eyes. When you need a break from the sun, dip into the hushed galleries of the Laguna Art Museum, with an excellent collection of contemporary works by California artists, such as Wayne Thiebaud and David Gilhooly. Laguna Beach is also home to summertime’s remarkable Pageant of the Masters, a one-of-a-kind event when classic artworks are recreated using brilliantly painted tableaux, all populated by real people done up to exactly resemble figures in the original paintings. The festival is wildly popular and performances always sell out, so get tickets well in advance.
While the next stop, Legoland California in Carlsbad, is wildly popular with kids, it’s a fun stop for everyone—a chance to play with one of the world’s classic toys, have fun on clever rides, and splash in a lively water park.
It’s hard to say who enjoys this amusement park more: the little ones running around in a magical world created by 60 million LEGO plastic bricks, or their parents who get a kick out of it too. Walk through Miniland USA for a visual and structural jaw-dropper: expansive miniaturized recreations of Washington D.C., New York, and San Francisco, as well as scenes from Star Wars. There’s also a chance to go behind-the-scenes to look at the soundstage and models used during the The LEGO Movie. While the focus here leans towards making little ones smile, there’s plenty to entertain older visitors too: the park has more than 60 rides, shows, and attractions, including three rollercoasters. Kids especially love Driving School, where they learn the ways of the road in LEGO-esque mini-cars, and Safari Trek, where riders drive animal-striped Jeeps to wind around a world of life-size giraffes, elephants, and tigers (all made of—you guessed it--LEGO bricks).
For a fun overnight, consider a stay at the onsite LEGOLAND Hotel, with totally tricked up rooms fit for pirates, royalty, and adventure. This temple to everything LEGO has nailed every detail down to the themed rooms (pirates, kingdoms, and cowboy adventures) and a lobby featuring a giant mosh pit full of plastic blocks, so kids can build away while grown-ups check in. Inspired extras include a LEGO box in every guest room. And those rooms have a unique family-friendly approach too: separate sleeping areas for grown-ups and kids (up to 3 youngsters can sleep in bunk beds or a pullout trundle bed, with kids’-area walls painted with LEGO themes and characters, including snarky signs including “Ye Olde Adults Keep Out!” Guests can also enjoy poolside movies and early entry time into the park.
Finish your trip in the sun-splashed city of San Diego, with Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, the lively Gaslamp Quarter for nightlife, and diverse culture and dining.
End your trip with at this sunny, waterfront city. Downtown, shop at Horton Plaza, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, explore one of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village—pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom. Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighborhood bordering Balboa Park’s northeast side. Along 30th Street and University Avenue, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine and boutique wines at Urban Solace, or wing it at local favorite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day). Work off lunch by heading down to San Diego’s sparkling Mission Bay to rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks. Finish with dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter. Splurge on a night at one of California’s iconic lodgings, the Hotel del Coronado, on idyllic Coronado Island, connected to the city by an arcing bridge that makes you feel like you’re a million miles away.