Standing off the coast of Carmel, the sweeping views of the ocean and the crisp air tell me the long drive is all worth it. If you’re looking for one of the most scenic coastal drives in the world, California will be one of the best you’ll have. Hop in the car and take a ride up the coast on highway 1 – you’ll get to stop into some great cities and catch some fantastic landscape views along the way. There’s so much to see, one might not know where to start, but don’t worry – I’ve got you covered. Consider this your destination for travelling up the coast as I take you up the coast.
Day 1: San Diego
The beginning of the coastal drive often starts in the beautiful city of San Diego. If you have some time to spend the day here, I recommend visiting Coronado Island for the beach and heading to the renowned Coronado Hotel for brunch. Afterwards spend an hour walking along Sea Port Village and grabbing a snack or drink and relax on a bench or at one of the restaurants by the pier. Make sure to head to Balboa Park by early afternoon to see it in daylight. You can see a few images of the Spanish influence architecture from Balboa Park from my previous post here. For dinner or night life, head to Gas Lamp District. There are numerous dining options. The best happy hour for food and drinks was Bali Hai along the Port. The Crispy Calamari, Island Beef Skewers and Firecraker Ribs were really good, the views of the water are great, there’s free parking and if you drink, the Mai Tai’s are strong. If you don’t have time, Balboa Park has an outdoor cafe with a good burger and bratt.
Day 2: Santa Monica Pier
The drive from San Diego to Los Angeles is about 2.5 hours depending on traffic and where you stop. Santa Monica Pier is a really popular spot amongst locals and tourists. Grab your sunglasses, take a walk along the beach and pier. Catch the sunset on the beach or at the upper level of The Huntley Hotel – it has one of my favourite views in Santa Monica and is down the street from one of my favourite dining spots there, Fig – go there for happy hour food and drinks during between 5PM to 6PM. When you’re done, walk along the Third Street Promenade there, grab a ice cream made with smoking nitrogen at Creams and Dreams (it’s not cheap, but it’s so creamy and delicious) and watch the street performers before calling it a night. If you want to see Beverly Hills, The Griffith Observatory, LACMA and Getty Villa, Malibu and Laguna Beach. I recommend staying an extra couple of days. If you want to go to Disneyland or Universal, add another day or two.
Day 3: Santa Barbara & Big Sur
The Spanish influence downtown reminds me a little of Spain. Brunch at Tupelo Junction Cafe located in downtown Santa Barbara is delicious. Ask the staff for their specialties – they’re spot on. If you need a coffee afterwards, head to The French Press Dune Coffee Roasters in the area before seeing The Mission for some photos. For overnight stays, check out the local wineries. Otherwise, make sure to leave Santa Barbara early because the coast along Big Sur should be seen in daylight. Approximately 2.5 hours north of Santa Barbara is Montana de Oro State Park. It’s one of the best parks off the Highway 1 Coast with beaches, cliffs, plains and canyons. For all the people who enjoy hiking, you can also choose to drive over to Valencia Peak Trail. I love to hike because I’m a tomboy at heart, but I also love glamorous destinations, so if you’re done hiking and want to walk around a gorgeous mediterranean style home, head to Hearst Castle. There is an entry fee. Visit the website for more information.
Day 4: Carmel & Monterey Bay
We decided to stop into Carmel overnight and spend a few hours here. A wonderful break for those looking forward to visiting a quaint little village full of little restaurants and bakeries. this town is ranked highly as one of the top cities to visit in the US. The coast is pretty, the town is cute and the vibe is bustling and friendly. This is where I did the shoot for my outfit. I love wearing dresses on road trips since they’re so comfortable. I paired them with over the knee boots since it’s Fall. Unless I’m at the beach, I’m always moving, so I like to photograph as I’m exploring to cover as much ground as possible when travelling. While you’re there, take a stroll around the area and pop into some shops. The Carmel bakery is a popular spot for dessert and the beach has a beautiful view.
After Carmel, drive through Monterey Bay and stop into The Spanish Inn to walk along the resort and take in the views by the fire pits. It’s a beautiful resort to relax and grab a small bite and beverage at. I didn’t plan on taking a long walk this day, but you absolutely can. Most people are wearing running shoes along the path. It’s worth stopping at for a few hours.
Day 5 to 6: Santa Cruz to San Francisco
Continue onto Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which is a little over an hour from Monterey Bay. My husband had great memories as a child here, so I really enjoyed revisiting some of the spots along the boardwalk. Similar to Santa Monica Pier, you’ll find a mini theme park. For dining with a view of the pier, stop into Crow’s Nest, and call in advance to make a reservation. While driving to San Francisco in the afternoon, hit The Mystery Spot where the laws of gravity don’t completely work the same as everywhere else because of a slight change in the magnetic field. I heard this spot is fun. I didn’t get to try it myself but heard of it from a friend back when I worked at a marketing agency.
Day 6 to 8: San Francisco
End your trip in San Francisco where you’ll find amazing views and pretty homes everywhere you turn. See my post on 10 Instagrammable Spots in San Francisco for some fantastic spots.
Start the day with a latte from Blue Bottle Coffee in The Ferry Building and grab some bites or desserts from the marketplace. Drive 10 minutes down to visit the Fisherman’s Wharf. No one really wants to go to jail, but people make an exception when visiting the island of Alcatraz – once a place for exiled criminals. Afterwards, drive over to Dragon’s Gate – the entrance to the largest Chinatown in North America. End the night in Union Square where you’ll find lots of great shopping and food. It’s always bustling with locals and visitors. The View is one of my favourite bars with a skyline view. It’s not the most inexpensive, but worth sitting at for an hour during sunset. If you’re on a tight budget, you can always go up to steal a glimpse of the view.
Tartine Bakery and Cafe has a long line, but it moves fast. They have great desserts, coffee and dessert here. Afterwards, drive up to the Twin Peaks for an incredible 360 view of San Francisco. Afterwards, spend half a day at Golden Gate Park walking through the Botanical Garden and the Japanese garden before stopping by the Presidio for photos and views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Start the day with some dim sum at one of the most delicious and authentic places I’ve eaten outside of Hong Kong, Lai Hong Lounge. Take a walk in Ghirardelli Square. If you’re not overly stuffed, grab some ice cream and chocolates at Ghirardelli itself. Afterwards, take some photos on the windiest road in the city for a photo along Lombard Street. I did an outfit shoot here. Head over to the Palace of Fine Arts for a beautiful walk and photos, as I did in this post. If you were a fan of The Full House, Painted Ladies is famous for being in the opening credits, so you can stop by for photos and sit in the park. This is also where I took photos for 10 Most Instagrammable Spots. Shop in the luxury district of Union Square, grab a drink at sunset at Top of the Mark, again in an upper level hotel. Finish off the dine dining at Bouche.
That’s my comprehensive coastal drive itinerary. I hope you enjoyed this post. If you plan on taking the drive for the first time, or again, let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear of your big trip and how you enjoy it.
Photo credit to my one and only, Rise Again BJJ.