A California road trip is one of the best coastal drives in the world and for me it has always been a bucket list holiday. It was everything I had hoped it would be and a lot more. Check out the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway and make sure you get it right!
I can’t stress how important it is to plan it in advance. For those who have heard people saying not to plan it – please ignore them! Well that is unless you have no time constraints and a pocketful of money. Most of us have two – three weeks, so use your time wisely! I have left out numerous places, but these are my recommendations on the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway, based on a two – three week trip. I also have a separate post – top tips for driving the Pacific Coast Highway so make sure you check that one out too. I hope they help you with your travel plans!
1. San Francisco
For most people this is where you will start your journey, try to allow four days if possible. Bike the bridge, see Alcatraz (book online beforehand), walk Fisherman’s wharf and check out Union Square and the Castro district. I stayed at the Suites at Fisherman’s Wharf. They are ideally situated only minutes from the Wharf, Lombard Street ( crooked street) and on the cable car route to Union Square. For more info on San Francisco you can read my blog here.
2. Monterey or Carmel
This is a tough choice as they are very close to each other, so you will probably only chose to say in one. If travelling with kids I would choose Monterey. The aquarium there is one of the best I have seen and the town is very family friendly. I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel. It is a fantastic hotel in the centre of the town with excellent facilities and sea-views. It also has an excellent happy hour from 3 – 6. Not only are drinks half price but so are their delicious light bites. A nice glass of Californian wine and a plate of Monterey Bay Calamari will only set you back $12! They also have an excellent kids menu in the restaurant, even at breakfast time. Monterey has some lovely walks and bike paths along the seafront, and it even has it’s own Fisherman’s Wharf.
Carmel is more authentic and if travelling as a couple, this would be my choice. You will love strolling around the pretty streets and stumbling upon local shops and art galleries, selling upmarket souvenirs. If you happen to be staying in Monterey, pop in for lunch or even a coffee, there is something special about Carmel by the Sea. If you have time, try lunch at Clint Eastwood’s (a former Mayor of Carmel ) Mission Ranch. If you are a golf fan, take a spin to nearby Pebble Beach, they have numerous dining options and some quite reasonably priced.
3. Cambria or San Luis Obispo
Another tough choice but it really depends what you are looking for. Cambria’s quaint town is full of art and antique shops and has a country feel to it. It is generally quiet and everything pretty much shuts down at 9pm so if you are looking for nightlife, don’t stay here! It is the gateway to the Big Sur and the mountainous scenery is a welcome break from the coast road. I liked it because it was a total contrast to the other places we had stopped in, and it was beside Hearst Castle. This was a total surprise to me and well worth a visit. Sitting on 250,000 acres it is so hard to believe that this was once a private house.
I stayed at the Cambria Pines Lodge. The country style hotel with old furniture and quirky gardens make it utterly charming. Visit the elephant seal rookery in San Simeon and witness hundreds of seals playing. Stop by Sebastian’s café for lunch afterwards. It is one of those places that is a post office, a grocery store, a wine tasting emporium and a café! Trust me, their subs ( and wine ) are amazing!
San Luis Obispo is a college town and offers much more night life and upmarket shopping than Cambria. You will find everything from high street stores to theatres as well as some terrific wine bars. It is a good distance from the coast, about a 20 minute drive, so don’t expect the beach at your doorstep.
4. Santa Barbara
This was one of my favourite towns. It is the kind of place I would like to retire to ( in my dreams!). The fact that Rob Lowe happens to live here might have something to do with that! In fact numerous celebrities have houses here, including Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. There isn’t actually much to see but it has such a relaxed feel that you can’t help but chill out. I stayed here for two nights and loved it, (incidentally I found one night was sufficient in Monterey and Cambria). There are no billboards allowed, only pretty shops and upmarket restaurants. Go wine tasting in one of the numerous wine bars, sample some of California’s best restaurants or chill out on the beach. I stayed in the Harbor View Inn which is ideally located across the road from the beach. Try Bouchon for lunch or dinner, its a fantastic French brasserie – but make sure you book in advance.
5. Santa Monica
Santa Monica is a bustling city but with a beach resort feel. We stayed at the fabulous Palihouse Hotel. This luxury boutique hotel is situated on a quiet residential street yet only one block from the heart of the city. The rooms are so spacious, equipped with walk in wardrobes, fully fitted kitchens and round baths. It doesn’t have a swimming pool but if like me, you plan on spending most of your days visiting LA and the surrounding area, this shouldn’t matter. The Santa Monica pier has a fun fair with a rollercoaster and big wheel and although a little tacky, it is a great family friendly resort.
The main hub of the city is the pedestrianised 3rd Street Promenade. It is full of shops and dining options and is a nice place for an evening stroll. Make sure you try the Misfit bar and restaurant for contemporary American cuisine, situated just off the 3rd Street Promenade. If travelling with kids, you will have to do lunch as they are not allowed in after 6pm. Although not as pretty as Santa Barbara, it is a launchpad to stay in when visiting LA. There are plenty of public transport options. If you don’t want to drive into LA, the hop on hop off bus is a good choice which will bring you to all the nearby beaches as well as Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Universal Studios.
6. Los Angeles
I chose to stay in Santa Monica when visiting LA. However, if you want to stay central, West Hollywood (or WeHo as the locals say) is probably your best bet. This two mile radius is home to the Sunset Strip and full of upmarket hotels, designer shops and the latest celebrity hangouts. You can easily pop down to the walk of fame, Beverly Hills and see all the highlights of LA from there. Treat yourself to lunch at Spago in Beverly Hills. Although a two star Michelin restaurant, the prices do not reflect this. It is exceptional value for such amazing food and the atmosphere is electric – I would highly recommend it.
Make sure you visit the California Science Centre. It is free to enter and you could easily spend the day there. It is amazing to see the space shuttle, Endeavour – make sure you book in advance, its only a $2 charge. If travelling with kids, visit Universal Studios which is home to rides such as Harry Potter, Transformers, Minions and Jurassic Park. You should be able to see this in one day. Disneyland however has two parks, so you would need to allow two days to see it properly.
7. Last Stop – Beach!
Driving south from LA you will come across numerous beach towns. Huntington beach is a good choice for college students, Laguna beach is the upmarket choice for families and couples, and San Diego, the most popular option, is suitable for everyone. I stayed at the Bahia Resort Hotel on Mission beach. It is a great family friendly hotel with excellent facilities and friendly staff. You can rent numerous boats at reasonable prices, visit their luxury sister hotel, the Catamaran by steam boat, or chill out in one of their cabanas by the beach. My kids highlight was watching movies at night in the heated swimming pool! Draft is a good choice for drinks or dinner (American style) and offers the best view to watch the sunset. Mission beach on the whole is a little tacky though..
If you want a nice upmarket beach resort try Coronado Bay or La Jolla. Take in happy hour from 3 – 6 in Peohe’s Coronado, overlooking the bay. Like many good hotels and restaurants in California they offer half price drinks and bites during happy hour. San Diego is home to a world famous Zoo, Legoland, Seaworld, the USS Midway museum and some of California’s best beaches. There are lots to see and do in San Diego, so make sure you allow yourself enough time to see it!
Well if you managed to read all of that I am impressed. As you can see there is so much to do, you do need to plan! I am a travel expert and I still felt it necessary to contact umpteen travel agent friends, and read numerous travel blogs for recommendations. Queue to thank our Irish – Californian girl Kristin Skinner from American Holidays for all her advice!
I hope you liked my choices on the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. If I have left out any of your favourites, please comment below – I would love to hear them.
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