There’s nothing like taking the coastal roads through California. With the Pacific Ocean as your compass, it’s easy to follow a straight(ish) line through the state’s most iconic beach towns, cliff hikes, and valley passes. While the southbound route from San Francisco remains a long-standing favorite, more travelers are beginning to uncover the charms of Southern California, particularly in the region surrounding Los Angeles. Here are some of our favorite stops as you make your way from the bottom up.
Sunset strolls in San Diego
Think of San Diego like the overture to your epic California road trip: waterfront views, open-air bars, and some seriously phenomenal hiking. As California’s southernmost city, a big part of the San Diego vibe is spending time outdoors. For an urban experience, wander the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter, home to delightful eateries like Rustic Root (which has a great rooftop) and the Persian-themed Bandar, or the nearby East Village. The San Diego Zoo, which has been ranked number one in the world several times, is also conveniently located downtown.
Across the harbor – either via a short drive over the Coronado Bridge or a ferry ride – you will find Coronado. Home to the historic Hotel del Coronado, which sits oceanfront along a 1.5-mile long beach – one of the dreamiest you’ll find in the state. On weekends, be sure to pack a picnic so you can linger and watch the sunset, or stroll into town for a meal at one of the many quaint restaurants.
As you’ll quickly learn, the beauty of exploring California by car is all the hidden spots you’ll find in between destinations – and as you make your way north on I-5, the route is full of scenic coastal stops all vying for your attention. First up, Torrey Pines State Park, a natural reserve with winding dirt paths that lead up to a stunning overlook where the waves will appear to be crashing at your feet. Locals love to catch the sunset here, so try to time your hike towards the end of the day.
Meanwhile, the classic 60s surf town of Encinitas is where you’ll find the San Diego Botanic Garden (home to 4,000 kinds of plants) as well as laid-back restaurants like Pacific Coast Grill. And if you’re in search of a thrill, spend an afternoon at the Del Mar Racetrack, where racing season runs from mid-July to early September. But the beaches are the biggest gems here, particularly Moonlight State Beach, which has plenty of amenities like volleyball, tennis courts, and barbecue pits to keep your whole family amused.
Orange County: a shopper’s (and surfer’s) paradise
About an hour from San Diego
If it’s sunshine you want, sunshine is what you’ll get in Orange County, one of the most picturesque stretches of southern California’s dazzling coastline. Comprising suburban neighborhoods, delightful oceanside resorts, and an endless row of blissful beach towns, the sprawling SoCal region is a joy to drive through.
Further along the coast is Laguna Beach, a quaint beach town that attracts a diverse, free-spirited crowd. If you’ve got energy to burn, head up to the town’s best-loved hiking spot, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Afterward, head to brunch at The Cliff and then spend the rest of the morning wandering through Laguna’s abundant art galleries. And depending on what time of year you show up in Dana Point, you’ll be able to spy on blue or gray whales from the underwater viewing pod of a yacht.
Huntington Beach, whose 1,850-foot pier is one of the most iconic in the state, has something for daytime and evening travelers. During the day, spend a few hours wandering the exhibits at the International Surfing Museum, and then hop on a board yourself at one of the many surf schools dotted along the shore. After the sun goes down, you can light bonfires right on the beach – not only is it a great way to connect with locals, it’s also an excuse to make s’mores.
Further up the coast, Costa Mesa is a magnet for shoppers, so you’ll definitely want to save room in your suitcase. South Coast Plaza offers a staggering 250 boutiques, with everything from Alexander McQueen and Chanel, to the GAP and Foot Locker. With the town’s wide range of malls and outlets, there’s pretty much something for every taste and budget (more of an indie shopper? Stop by The LAB.) At the end of the day, you can review all your purchases over a glass of rosé at the Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa.
Of course, many folks come to this particular section of Southern California for just one reason, and that’s Disneyland. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more unusual, go for a stroll through Anaheim Packing District, an old citrus packing warehouse from the early 1900s that’s now filled with more than 25 local food vendors, who serve everything from southern-style BBQ to Indian curry.
Go behind the scenes in LA’s quirky neighborhoods
1 hour from Anaheim to Hollywood
Though Los Angeles and San Diego sit only 2.5 hours apart, the two cities couldn’t be more different. While San Diego moves at a more leisurely pace, La La Land is glamorous, quirky, and restlessly creative. Get ready to plunge headfirst into Hollywood, the world’s showbiz capital, where brightly lit hotels, the Walk of Fame, and the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theater (now called TCL Chinese Theater) all sit side by side on Hollywood Boulevard.
There’s no greater thrill for movie lovers than booking a tour at Warner Bros. Studio, Paramount Studio, or Universal Studios, three hallowed institutions when it comes to LA cinema lore. Want to zoom out and get a better understanding of the LA metropolis, with all its interconnecting neighborhoods and boulevards? Glitterati Tours helps first-time visitors hit all the main neighborhoods, like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood.
Downtown Los Angeles, which is like a treasure trove for architecture fans (see: Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Broad) has done a 180 in recent years. It has evolved from an overlooked relic to a modern cultural hub, bursting with art and music, as well as delicious international cuisine inside the bustling Grand Central Market, which is home to nearly 40 distinct food vendors. A few musts include the hearty breakfast sandwiches at Egg Slut, the Middle Eastern-inspired Madcapra, and Knead & Co. for some expertly handmade pasta.
Just beyond the storied offices of the Los Angeles Times, is Little Tokyo, a micro-neighborhood that’s awash with colorful ice-cream shops and big-name Japanese department stores. In the heart of it, DoubleTree by Hilton connects to many of the neighborhood attractions, and even features a Japanese-style garden on the third floor, with footbridges and views of downtown. Stop in at Cafe Dulce, to sample an authentic matcha latte, paired with one of the house-baked “dinosaur eggs” – chewy brioche made with tapioca flour.
Moving from downtown to the coast, you’ll pass through The Grove, where many locals like to while away a Saturday bouncing between the various shops, sampling goods at the weekly farmers market (one of the city’s oldest!), or stopping in at the seasonal concert series. Of course, there’s plenty of options if you’re hungry too. A few marquee names of the restaurant world can be found in this mall, including Ladurée (famous for its pastel-colored macarons) and Dominique Ansel’s new restaurant, 189.
Of course, there’s more to California’s largest city than just celebrities and coffee – the coast offers an entirely different landscape of bright promenades, laid-back marinas, and surprising marine life. One of the best ways to dive into this other side of Los Angeles is by heading down to Long Beach and hopping aboard the Catalina Express. This hour-long ferry whisks passengers 22 miles off the coast to Catalina Island, a hidden paradise that used to attract stars like Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart during the golden era of Hollywood.
Step inside some of San Francisco’s famous museums
6 hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco
As you make your way further north to the famous Pacific Coast Highway, one of the things that starts to become clear about California’s well-trodden coast is just how little of it is worth skipping. On the 400-mile stretch between Malibu and San Francisco, there’s an urban wine trail, a valley that inspired John Steinbeck’s novels, and a coastal wilderness area that was practically made for road trips.
But the best is saved for last: San Francisco stunned the world in the 1930s with an unusual engineering feat that later came to be known as the Golden Gate Bridge. Almost a century later, that gleaming vermillion roadway remains an important symbol of the city’s bold, forward-thinking spirit. You’ll find traces of that spirit in the museums (in particular, de Young Museum and the fantastic SFMOMA), shops (City Lights is a must), and top-tier dining spots (a good starting point would be the Mission District, a home base to many of the city’s coolest culinary locales). And be sure to include two of San Francisco’s most iconic stops on your itinerary – Lombard Street, one of America’s most crooked streets, and the infamous Alcatraz Island.
Take a stroll from the Ferry Building – home to an excellent farmers market three days a week – north along the Embarcadero, where you’ll pass Telegraph Hill and the iconic Exploratorium. Soon, you’ll arrive at Pier 39, where a concentration of family-friendly options like GoCar Tours, and Houdini’s Magic Shop are sure to keep the whole brood entertained. Nearby, end the day at one of three Hilton downtown hotels, with breathtaking views of the city: the Hilton Financial District, Hilton Union Square, and Parc 55 San Francisco (which has become a big draw for foodies, thanks to the inventive Thai fare at http://kinkhao.com/, a Michelin-starred restaurant).