Follow one of the world’s most celebrated routes on this coast-hugging drive. You can start this trip at either end. Here, the trip begins in San Diego, at the southern end of the state, then travels north to beach towns, through elegant Santa Barbara, then north to Big Sur. Continue on to more beaches and attractions in Carmel, Monterey, and Santa Cruz. End in the ultimate “City by the Bay,” San Francisco.
Learn more about the Big Sur component of this scenic drive by listening to the California Now Podcast.
Start in one of California’s sunniest destinations, not just in terms of the weather, but also in attitude. In the heart of the city, shop in 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 neighbourhoods, such as Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village—pedestrian-friendly enclaves that are the epicentre of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom.
Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighbourhood 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 favourite 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 in downtown’s Little Italy area (home to chef Richard Blais’ eateries Juniper & Ivy and fried-chicken-fuelled Crack Shack) 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.
Drive along San Diego’s coastline north—with a visit to beautiful La Jolla (elegant shopping and sidewalk cafés abound)—then pick up the beginning of Highway One in Dana Point, which leads through Orange County to Huntington Beach.
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 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. You can get a taste of the Surf City life with stays at Huntington Beach’s luxurious oceanfront resorts, such as Waterfront Beach Resort, the super-family-friendly Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach, and Paséa Hotel & Spa.
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.
Next, follow the coast north through California’s largest metropolitan area, Los Angeles, and then hug the coastal hills as you head toward effortlessly elegant Santa Barbara.
Next stop on your coastal cruise is this elegant city of Santa Barbara, hugging the coastal hills, where classic Spanish architecture gives the region a sun-washed European look straight out of the Riviera.
While Santa Barbara may have a burnished antique look, the Spanish colonial-style architecture—all red-tiled roofs and whitewashed courtyards covered in climbing bougainvillea—didn’t actually 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. Then explore the city’s forward-looking neighbourhood—the rehabbed warehouses of The Funk Zone, now home to urban wine-tasting rooms, artist’s studios, and cool boutiques.
Now drive north to sample the region’s legendary vintages in a beautiful, mellow stretch of wine country.
This next stop encourages you to slow down, relax, and really savour your surroundings—and the amazing wines produced here. The Santa Ynez Valley, just north of Santa Barbara, is one of most diverse grape-growing regions in the county. Near the Pacific, fog and cool air rolls in at dusk, ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Thirty miles inland, it’s sunny and hot—perfect for Bordeaux varieties like Cab Franc and Merlot.
And scenic? How about rolling hills, endless vines, and ancient oaks to the horizon. Between the wines and the views, 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, Solvang and Los Olivos—even if you don’t remember the movie, these places are all worth a visit.
Where to go? Why not start at Sunstone Winery. It has a cool wine cave, sustainably grown grapes, and a spectacular limestone chateau available for overnight stays. Or, try the Rhône varietals at Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos, or the Pinot Noirs (the oldest in the County) at Sanford Winery in Lompoc.
Another tip: buy a pass from Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association to save on tastings at 15 participating boutique wineries.
Next stop is San Luis Obispo County—with cool seaside towns including Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and Cambria— and a visit to one of the state’s (if not the country’s) remarkable structures, the ornate compound known as Hearst Castle.
Your next stop, San Luis Obispo, may just be the perfect embodiment of the Central Coast. With its nuanced food and wine scene, rich history, and a decidedly mellow vibe, SLO (as the locals call it) is a must-see. This college town also features a slice of ranch culture—thanks to the area’s Santa Maria-style barbecue—and has ranked in past surveys as one of the happiest cities in America.
The spirit of downtown SLO is captured in Mission Plaza and Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, which dates back to 1772 and overlooks the plaza. Explore the mission and its museum, or show up on summer Friday nights for live music on the plaza. 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 evenings, you can find the city’s farmers market, a showcase for San Luis Obispo’s culinary landscape, including local tri-tip, tamales, craft beer (sample those at The Libertine Brewing Company), and the acclaimed clam chowder from Splash Café. Enjoy the locally sourced scene more intimately at Novo Restaurant & Lounge, which pairs a globally inspired menu with an idyllic creek-side setting.
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.
San Luis Obispo County—a.k.a. SLO CAL—is home to an array of cool small towns, too. On your way into SLO, try the epic tri-tip at Jocko’s steak house in Nipomo, explore the dunes at Pismo Beach, and then say hi to the lounging sea lions off the coast of Avila Beach. Other essential stops as you then head north toward Hearst Castle include the harbor village Morro Bay, beachy Cayucos, and picturesque Cambria, set on beautiful seaside bluffs.
From Highway One, you’ll see this incredible complex of ornately embellished towers and buildings perched high on a coastal hilltop in San Luis Obispo County, like a coastal Shangri-La with 360-degree views. Park in the main lot of the state park grounds of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, then check in at the visitor centre to ride one of the park’s shuttle buses up to the castle for a guided tour. (Make online reservations well in advance, especially during the busy summer months.)
Lavishly designed by Julia Morgan (California’s first female licensed architect) as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the complex, completed in 1947, is an extraordinary temple to opulence and excess. Now showcased within one of California’s most visited state parks, it is a must-see to end all must-sees, an eye-popping extravaganza with a 165-room castle, 127 acres of terraced gardens, fountains, and pools.
In fact, the castle’s two pools are standout attractions. The outdoor Neptune Pool, 104 feet in length and with an oil-burning heating system, evokes ancient Greece and Rome, with marble statues of Neptune and Nereid guarding over the aquatic paradise. The second, smaller indoor Roman Pool has the look of a decadent Roman bath, with rich details including cobalt blue and gold smalti, or glass tiles. Look up to see intricate mosaics depicting a star-filled night sky, spreading across the roof and dome. The pool is surrounded by eight marble sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, goddesses, and heroes, carved by Italian sculptor Carlo Freter.
From Hearst Castle, you can take a detour to the wine lover’s magnet of Paso Robles, or head north 15.5 miles to Ragged Point. Take in the views of crashing waves against plunging cliffs from the patio of the Ragged Point Inn. Towering 400 feet above the Pacific Ocean, this oceanfront locale is a prime viewing spot for whales, dolphins, and elephant seals, and is considered the “Gateway to Big Sur.”
Next up, you’ll encounter the most famous panoramas along the Central Coast—Big Sur.
Welcome to Big Sur, one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront between Carmel-by-the-Sea and Hearst Castle has no specific boundaries, no urban core, drawing you (and writers like Henry Miller and Beat Generation darling Jack Kerouac) in with a magic allure that is almost palpable. This is, quite simply, a place you want to be—bluffs, sea, and sky.
"This is, quite simply, a place you want to be—bluffs, sea, and sky."
Drive Big Sur’s length via twisting Highway One, with plenty of pullovers at places like Bixby Bridge. Another favourite photo op: McWay Falls, a silvery cascade that falls some 70 feet from the sea cliffs to a remote beach below 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, North America’s largest birds, or look down to scan the swells for migrating whales or sea otters floating among dense beds of kelp, California’s signature seaweed.
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.
Continue north along Highway One towards your next stop, romantic Carmel and historic Monterey. Along the way, consider a detour to explore Andrew Molera State Park, where you can ride horses right next to crashing waves.
Wrapped by the Pacific on three sides, the Monterey Peninsula at once offers wind-tossed beaches and quiet coves, fine dining and casual eats, early history and postmodern art.
Your first stop will be Monterey Bay to visit the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. With its psychedelic jellies and bat-ray petting tanks, the aquarium is a must-visit, especially for families. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives, including California sea otters. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
Step outside and find yourself among hotels, shops, and restaurants filling former fish-packing plants along Cannery Row, made famous by local author John Steinbeck. Rent bikes to follow the coast south around the peninsula to Pacific Grove, Asilomar State Beach, and the sea-and-spray beauty (and gazillion-dollar homes and celebrated Pebble Beach golf courses) along the 17-Mile Drive.
Head south to artsy Carmel-by-the-Sea (locals call it car-MEL), a town that deftly straddles the balance point of rich history and new wealth. The Carmel Mission is one of the state’s most beautiful, and shady trails fan out from the site into lush Mission Trail Nature Preserve. Stroll the white sands of dog-friendly Carmel Beach, or explore Carmel’s main village, with gallery-lined streets, cosy gastropubs, and even cosier inns. Or, spend an hour or two hiking around the gorgeous shoreline trails and wave-battered bluffs of Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, 10 minutes south of Carmel.
Continue north beyond Monterey to the boho-funky beachfront town of Santa Cruz, where surfers carve waves and kids play on a classic waterfront boardwalk.
This ultra-mellow beach town has a decided split personality—and both sides are cool. First, there’s the woo-hoo family fun of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a yesteryear-style esplanade lined with classic coasters, arcade games, corn dogs, and a historic carousel. Then there’s downtown Santa Cruz, where local college students browse for vintage and boho chic, and relaxed restaurants focus on organic, local ingredients.
But at its heart, Santa Cruz is a surf town. This is where the sport was originally introduced in California, and top surfers know that the place to be is Steamer Lane. Need more proof? Nearby lives Jack O’Neill legendary surfer and force behind the O’Neill empire, pioneer of the wetsuit and elder statesman of everything surf in the Golden State.
In the center of town, away from the beachfront crowds, Pacific Avenue offers many shops with a local twist, including the venerable O’Neill’s where surfer guys and girls can find a bikini or board shorts, flip-flops, or a wetsuit—the creation and design of the city’s favorite son, the legendary Jack O’Neill (he still lives a beach ball toss from the beach here). The independent Bookshop Santa Cruz is packed with happy locals, especially during frequent author talks, and many other boutiques offer art, clothing, and home furnishings (check out the gorgeous artisanal glass at Annieglass).
Next, travel to your last stop—the beautiful “City by the Bay,” San Francisco.
Start your trip to one of the world’s great cities. For a novel way to explore “the City by the Bay” park your car and explore by foot, bike, and unique public transportation. 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 Fisherman’s Wharf and the Exploratorium science and learning museum.
Return your bikes and hop a cable car to ride over the hill to the high-end shops and enormous Macy’s, NikeTown, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus around bustling Union Square, with a stop for Italian pastries and cappuccino at Emporio Rulli right in the square. Nearby, stroll boutique-lined Maiden Lane—pedestrian only thoroughfare during the day, when cafes set up tables and chairs right in the street. Nearby Westfield Mall, a dazzling complex on once scruffy but now spiffed up Market Street, glitters with even more stores, including an deluxe food court on the lower level. At night, catch a show in the theater district, or head to North Beach to see Beach Blanket Babylon, a raucous and irreverent San Francisco institution. 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.
Next stop, drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge to unforgettable Point Reyes National Seashore.