Coastal California – From San Francisco to San Diego

Our Coastal California trip was nothing short of amazing, stressful, exhausting and awesome.

I know many of my international readers take full advantage of their time in California and want to see the coast and all it has to offer.  So, I’ve detailed some major stops on our two week trek through California.

Buckle up. Let’s go!

First, a map. This shows the stops we made from San Francisco to San Diego.

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San Francisco

Fishermans’ Wharf – Visit the sea lions, eat, drink, play and be merry. There is so much to do at Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a tourist paradise.

Alcatraz – Absolutely know that you have to buy tickets for this tour months in advance. There is no getting around this. Our vacation was planned less than a month in advance and we couldn’t get tickets. So, be sure to secure tickets as soon as you know your dates. Otherwise, we took the Bay Tour, which was awesome. But, I died a little inside knowing that I didn’t get to walk through actual Alcatraz.

Lombard Street – Known for its windy turns and beautiful scenery, I encourage you to visit this street. We drove down it. It just felt like we had to. It was awesome.

The Golden Gate Bridge – The iconic jewel of San Francisco. You must drive over it. Or bike over it. Or walk over it. Somehow, cross the bridge.

Haight & Ashbury – Unfortunately, this hippie mecca is not what it used to be. No, there’s not actually a Baby Gap on the corner, but there might as well be. You can still find the house where the Grateful Dead was born (it’s darling) and where it all began (my husband and I are big Grateful Dead fans), but there isn’t much to see other than the cross streets.

Coit Tower – We didn’t go here because my family is filled with a bunch of haters, but I think you should see it. It’s a San Francisco icon.

Disney Family Museum – Lord have mercy. If you are a Disney fan, this is your holy grail. I was moved from start to finish and cried at the end. My children stood by me annoyed and being awful as they are, as I bawled over Walt and his contributions to this land we love. Hire a sitter and take this in on your own.

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Muir Woods 

Muir Woods is closer to the city than one might think and has everything you need to escape city life. It’s absolutely beautiful and is perfect for a day’s hike or picnic. It’s simple, quiet beauty – which is hard to find near the busyness of San Francisco.

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Oakland

Children’s Fairyland – Does that whale look familiar to you? It’s not the one at Disneyland. Walt visited Children’s Fairyland before building his park in 1955. In fact, Children’s Fairyland opened in 1950. There are SO MANY glimpses of what we now know and love in Disneyland in this charming park.

Admission is only $10 and you can buy a “key” for $3, which unlocks all the stories throughout the park. A day’s visit will do and I only recommend this for kids 8 and under. I took my 7 year old daughter and we loved exploring and walking the grounds Walt once did while finding inspiration for Disneyland.

Fun fact: Upon building Disneyland, he took two important employees from this park over to Disneyland – the executive director and the master puppeteer.

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Napa Valley 

There are so many lovely places to visit in Napa Valley. It would be impossible to list them all. So, I’ve included two of our favorite vineyards below. All of Napa is to be explored, however. We happened upon these two while honeymooning about 4 thousand years ago.

Sterling Vineyards – This vineyard is the only in the area with an aerial tram that takes you from the main grounds to the height of this wine making haven with stunning views of Napa Valley. Children have fun here, too. With their paid admission, they receive a “happy meal” type box with snacks and a coupon for a discounted slushy once they reach the top. This vineyard really has thought of everything.

V. Sattui – My husband – today – still talks about the chicken salad sandwich with cranberries and the delicious prawns we enjoyed on our visit in the year 2000. It’s a much simpler experience than the above mentioned Sterling Vineyards. In fact, most people enjoy their wine and food on a picnic blanket under the trees. It’s a beautiful area to spend an afternoon.

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Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay is perfect California coastal charm. It’s a quiet town with gorgeous views and lovely stops along the water. My husband I got married here in 2000 and then returned this year with our three children to show them where we married on the beach. (They couldn’t have cared less.)

However, I did hire a photographer to take photos of us in the same exact spot we were married in 15 years prior, only now with our three children. She and her husband did a beautiful job. (This is also something we do on vacation…..we hire photographers to take family photos instead of buying souvenirs. Our children hate us for it, naturally, but I have a lovely collection of family photos from Newport Beach, Coronado Island, Destin, Key West, Half Moon Bay and more.)

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San Jose

Sarah Winchester House – Crazy women make me feel more sane. I’ve watched Gone Girl about 20 times with my husband, willing him to see that I’m closer to normal than Amazing Amy was. My agenda has been fairly unsuccessful, but I keep trying.

If you are unfamiliar with Sarah Winchester, click on the link above to learn more about her. Simply put, she was a troubled soul who spent her life building and building onto her home to escape the demons that terrified her. Stairs lead to the ceiling. Doors open to a free-fall of two stories. Cabinets are useless with bricks filling their contents rather than space. She suffered a lot of loss and heartache in her life and the Winchester dynasty left her with millions and more time on her hands than she could handle. So, she spent her days with constant carpenters building this massive home to keep her safe from those who haunted her. She was truly fascinating.

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Santa Cruz 

Santa Cruz is the beach town that everyone expects California to provide. There is an enormous boardwalk, tons of restaurants, an amusement park, a pier, and more.

Walk out onto the pier to dine for a better selection than corn dogs and cotton candy. The views are pretty from there, too. Bring some money. Games and attractions here can exceed what you’d spend at Disneyland if you’re not paying attention.

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Monterey 

Monterey is a calmer version of Santa Cruz, with less stereotypical hype and more charm. There’s a simple beauty to this area that differs from the rest of central California.

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Pebble Beach 

When God created golf courses, I’m pretty sure he put Pebble Beach at the top of his ‘must see’ list. It’s everything you’ve heard of and more and the views are nothing short of amazing.

Bring your highest limit credit card for this stop.

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Carmel (the 17 Mile Drive) 

This drive is an absolute must if you’re in the area. My husband went into it kicking and screaming (as usual), but when it was finished, he thanked me for it.

Take a look at the map of what you’ll see and stop where you wish. The guide map you’ll receive on paper upon entering this drive will advise you on where to go and what to do. You’ll get to see the above mentioned Pebble Beach and some gorgeous real estate, plus the famed lone cypress tree.

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Big Sur 

Big Sur is what most people think of when they think of California. It’s over-the-top beautiful with cuddly sea otters swimming adorably through the shallow kelp filled waters. Don’t miss the Bixby Bridge or McWay Falls.

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Hearst Castle in San Simeon

I think I could write for days about Hearst Castle. My children thought differently about this stop, as it was day 14 of our California trek and everyone hated each other at this point. They pretty much missed everything amazing about this place. But, it is absolutely a must if you drive the coast.

Before or after your tour of the castle (no advanced reservations needed like Alcatraz, but your timing options could be limited if you don’t book in advance), visit the pier across the street from the entrance. We saw a whale there the day we visited, in shallow waters, about 1/2 mile from where we were standing. It was fantastic.

Also, before or after your visit, drive 4 miles north of the castle to see the elephant seals that inhabit the coast. They are amazing to watch. I’m a big fan of taking our kids to see actual sea life beyond the glass window we encounter at aquariums and zoos. Watching them in their natural element is an awesome experience. Even my hater 9 year old enjoyed it.

At the castle, we took the Grand Rooms tour, which is the most basic and inclusive of all of your options. I’d love to do them all, but my 9 year old was totally over it all at this point, so we stuck with the simplest version.

Before you see the castle, you’re invited (and I highly encourage you) to see a 45 minute movie on the history of the castle. Then, you’ll board a bus with other tourists to climb the grounds to finally see the structure itself. During your bus ride, you’ll hear the history of the land and see some amazing views. You’ll also see the remains of zoo cages and pergolas and other pieces of Hearst Castle that existed long before you ever visit.

Upon speaking to a docent, I compared the castle – and William Randolph Hearst himself – to The Great Gatsby. The castle boasted amazing parties and was so decadent, it reminded me of the book and when I spoke of this, I thought the docent was going to kick me off the property. Here’s why: The Great Gatsby story was a fantastic mess and the parties thrown at Jay’s mansion were ridiculous in nature. Mr. Hearst was much more refined and was actually known for only allowing up to two watered down cocktails for guests awaiting dinner. (I love that detail.)

After visiting the castle, cross the street again to find Sebastian’s Store. This is a San Simeon landmark. We enjoyed the food here immensely, although, the cheeseburgers were crafted from the very cattle we waved to as we ascended via bus to the castle a few hours prior. Sebastians’s is known for its grass fed beef, raised on the land that the castle sits on.

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San Luis Obispo

Madonna Inn – Please take me if you go. We didn’t get to stay here because our children were actually, physically and literally, melting down from the trauma of a two week vacation through California. Their lives are tough, so we passed on this opportunity and I have regretted it ever since.

Every single room is unique. Take a look at all of your options. I don’t mind which you choose, just let me know when you’ll be there and I’ll bring my sleeping bag.

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Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach boasts “Classic California” beauty and doesn’t disappoint.

We enjoyed the cinnamon rolls at Old West Cinnamon Rolls as much as we did the beaches and general area. Absolutely do not enter this area of California without trying one of these delicacies. Most of my group got the plain jane version of just the roll with icing. I added walnuts because I live on the edge.

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Solvang

For years, people have told me that I had to visit Solvang. It was built for people like me – who enjoy overdone decor and manufactured charm. They were so totally right.

It is actually the cutest town ever – with a Danish village that is straight out of a Disney movie, if ever one was made about the town of Solvang. Eat, sleep, shop and dine in this adorable little village.

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Santa Barbara

Fun fact: My husband got laid off in Kansas City (which I loved) many years ago and instead of looking for jobs there, we decided to move where we wanted to and then find jobs. I know. Insanity.

We chose San Diego after vacationing here twice and have never doubted our choice since. Until we visited Santa Barbara. Still faithful to San Diego and never leaving, we absolutely adore this town and visit as often as possible. The shopping district has some fantastic restaurants and stores and the mountains so close to the water make this city amazing.

Visit the beach, pier, aquarium and more. And, don’t miss our favorite place to eat – with your feet actually in the sand – The Shoreline Cafe. It’s the best value for your dollar on the coast and here’s the best part: When your kids are finished eating, you can send them to the beach while you sit and enjoy a cocktail with your spouse.

Still thirsty for some wine? Take a look at the vineyards just outside of Santa Barbara.

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Malibu

Pepperdine University is here and it’s gorgeous. My idiotic husband insists I include that this is where Baywatch was based on, so look for Pam running in slow mo. Also, the Malibu Fish Market is awesome and right off Coast Highway. Duke’s is also fun and a celebrity hang out. The last time my husband ate there, he sat next to the band, Metallica. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

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Santa Monica 

Santa Monica feels very much like Santa Cruz. Both have amusement park attractions and old school beaches. Sight seeing is fun here. I once saw a man in a Borat type swim suit (no joke).

Check Groupon for discounts for Pacific Park, the amusement park on the pier. They often have admission at nearly half off.

The coolest part about the pier in Santa Monica is that it is the end of Route 66. Total photo op and you know I love that. Learn more about the rise and fall of this famed city before you visit. You’ve likely seen it in just about every movie ever created about the beaches in California.

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Marina Del Rey

Marina Del Rey. It’s more than a song by George Straight. I didn’t realize this until moving here, but it’s an actual town and it’s a fun place to visit. Rent a kayak or just swim in the bay. The beach area is easy to get to with free parking. Fair warning, however: Because of the busy boats coming and going, the water here is said to be less clean than other areas. Many have warned us of pollution. It all looks fine to me, but I suggest keeping heads above water to deter ear infections and the like. With the water being so cold here, that’s not an unreasonable request, actually.

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Los Angeles

And when you’re ready to venture into Los Angeles, I have plenty of information for L.A., including where to find the Hollywood sign, how to deal with the traffic (or avoid it), and all the sites you would want to see in Los Angeles.

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Orange County

San Diego beaches are my favorite, but Orange County has some lovely options. Crescent Bay (pictured above) looks like something out of Hawaii and is quite different compared to other SoCal options. Find the five best beaches within 30 minutes of Disneyland at this link.

Oh, and I just happen to know a thing or two about Disneyland, also, in case you want to visit that theme park.

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San Diego

America’s finest city – San Diego – is my favorite city in all that I’ve ever visited. There is so much to do here and I absolutely cannot say enough good about it. Stop by the harbor for Fish and Chips in Oceanside (where I live), visit LEGOLAND, go to SeaWorld, stop by the zoo, experience the tide pools in La Jolla and more.

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Serenity Now

Phew. Anyone else exhausted? We did the trek detailed above (plus Yosemite and Palm Springs) in two weeks. We likely lost a few years off of our lives due to our children breaking down spontaneously and frequently, but it was worth it. This is the kind of Griswold trip everyone should take at least once with their children. We’ve done two now – the former being cross country through the Grand Canyon – and have made memories for a lifetime.

I encourage you to embrace the craziness and venture out. Go see it all. Life is short.

Here are some tips on how to not lose your mind:

  • Have realistic expectations. People will cry. If you do it right, every person on your vacation will cry at one point. This is OK.
  • Be ready to be on the go and know how to manage your hotel room, plus coming and going from it.
  • Know that not everyone is going to want to do everything. If you have the means, allow people to stay back if they’re not up for an excursion. We were lucky enough to have our teenage son available to sit with one of the kids when the boys didn’t want to join us. And, as much as it pains me for anyone to miss out on anything, it was best for all of us at that point to split up.
  • Finally, carry a flask.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Casey – I’m a California native and just want to say Bravo! You’ve captured the very best and accurately summed up each spot better than I could have done myself. Nice post!

  2. Casey, I cannot thank you enough for sharing this!!!! My fiancé and I moved to San Diego from the east coast a year 1/2 ago and still had not done the PCH. We finally made a plan to do it this Christmas weekend Friday-Monday. We wanted to go all the way up to San Fran and then drive back down making stops on the way. I researched a few other ideas on Pintrist but yours was not only the most organized but the most helpful as well!!! We literally just printed out this page and brought it with us. It ended up being a life saver once we got to Big Sur and realized our cell service would be cut off for a few hours so electronic maps and googling places to stop was no longer an option. ***A heads up to everyone, screen shot a picture of a map or bring a printed one, you will not have cell service almost the whole coast drive of Big Sur. Unfortunately our trip did not go as well as planned. A massive rain storm hit hit us on Friday and we only got as far as Santa Barbara where we stopped for the night to get a hotel. ****A heads up to everyone, route 1 gets VERY flooded during heavy rain and it was a very dangerous dark drive. Good thing it only rains about twice a year in CA! We awoke early the next day and wanted to explore but since day light savings wasn’t on our side we decided to get on the road quickly since we weren’t able to see any of the coast view the day before due to the rain and night fall. We drove through Solvang to check it out and it certainly was such a cute little town. On the way out we were intrigued by ‘Ostritchland’ so we stopped to feed them. ****A heads up to everyone, If you are in a rush you can totally skip this stop; if you have kids however, they might get a kick out of it. We were so excited when we arrived at Hearst Castle! But then extremely disappointed when there were no tours available- this was at 2 PM and all tours of the entire day were sold out. We would have booked before hand but we really have no idea when we would have made it with the storm. ***Heads up to everyone, this was on Christmas eve and on a Saturday so DO make reservations just in case if you are planning to get there on a weekend and/or holiday weekend. We took your suggestion and grabbed a burger across the street, THE BEST BURGER EVER! Despite the fact that the rain made the first half of our trip so difficult, it left us with the most unbelievable rainbow that we saw from one end to the other that stretched across the field next to Sebastian’s shore. It was so bright and vibrant I am still in awe! We saw the Elephant seals and then drove all the way the very end of Big Sur where it meets Carmel. ***Heads up to everyone, there were a lot more trails then we thought on the drive through Big Sur, if you like to do some hiking and explore highly recommended to spend a full day or more and even camp or rent a cabin here to make the most of it filled with a ton of stops in this area alone. We were able to witness the sunset on the coast but it was pretty cloudy so nothing super special. We stopped for gas once we got to Carmel and when we went to turn the car back on we discovered the battery had died 🙁 AAA got there super fast, jump started us but due to it being 6 PM on Christmas eve, no auto part stores were open for us to replace it so we again could no longer keep going north and got a hotel in Carmel by the sea. The next morning, Christmas day, the car was dead yet again so AAA came and jump started it for us again and we knew we could not turn it off again without needing another jump start. So, we did the 17 mile drive and then headed back to San Diego. Yes, we drove 444 miles on a dead battery and never turned the car off from 8:30 AM to 7:30 PM. Unfortunately we could not see Mcway Falls since it required us to walk down a path and we had to leave our car running. So, anytime we wanted to sight see we had didn’t walk more than 5-10 feet away from our truck. We did our best to laugh about this even though it obviously wasn’t the trip we were expecting. ***Heads up to everyone, December was very windy and certain parts were pretty cold. Also, they did not display those clear blue skies you expect to see, highly recommended to go during the spring, summer or even fall months. However, the 17 mile drive was PERFECT. Blue skies, no wind and probably the best part of our trip- DO NOT SKIP THIS!!! Thanks again for all of the suggestions Casey, I appreciate you typing all this out for others. Since we used your itinerary the whole time I wanted to share our funny story with you along with adding some of my own suggestions to others as well. We will try this again someday!

    • Love your input, Katie! So happy you could make the best out of some tricky situations. Well done!

      Thrilled my post could help. There’s so much to see and do. I want to go back and do it all again.

  3. Hi Casey. We are now just over two weeks before the start of our vacation. Based off of your suggestions, message boards and trip advisor I’m getting very close to finishing up our itinerary. Can you tell me what you think especially for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday?

    Fri 4/22 – Mon 4/25 – SF – Alcatraz, Pier 39, Bikes across the GG Bridge into Sausalito, Lombard, Chinatown, Cable Cars, Seals etc.

    Mon 4/25 – Depart early in rental – Big Basin National Park for Redwoods (instead of Muir to avoid back tracking), 17 Mile Drive, Staying the night in Monterey

    Tue 4/26 – Route 1 ocean drive (Big Sur and stops south of there). I’m still pondering a trip to the castle and Solvang on your recommendations. Based on logging a lot of miles and having a 10 and 8 year old do you think we should stop at the castle and/or Solvang? Is it worth a quick stop? It looks like Solvang may be easier for a quick stop than the castle. Could we see the castle without take the tour to save time? Originally my plan was to get down to Mandalay Beach that night but now may stop at Santa Barbara.

    Wed 4/27 – If we only go to Santa Barbara my plan is to sight see in Santa Barbara in the morning and leave after lunch (Shoreline Cafe?). The afternoon would then be spent in Santa Monica (beach, pier). Option B (if we were to make it down to Mandalay Beach instead) is to hit Santa Monica first and end at Huntington beach. If you had your choice would you do Santa Barbara/Santa Monica or Santa Monica/Huntington? Or maybe some other idea? Either way that night we’d check in at GCH at DLR.

    Thurs 4/28 – Sat 4/30 – DLR for three days and flying out on Sunday.

    • I love your plan! And I would choose Santa Barbara over Huntington for sure. It’s so gorgeous there. Regarding the castle, it’s a commitment. You cannot see it without buying a tour, as the tour gives you access to the bus that climbs the mountain to the castle. My kids were OVER it by that point. So it really depends on how much you think they can take. Let me know how it goes. LOVE that you’re doing this!!!!!! Memories for a lifetime.

  4. There could not be a better timed article than this one for our family. In late April 2016 my family (wife, son (10) and daughter (8)) and I will be taking a California trip from New England. We’ll be flying in to SFO on Friday 4/22 and flying out of LAX on Sunday 5/1. Right now our plan is to spend three nights in SF to hit all the sights in the city. The following morning we plan on renting a car and heading to Muir Woods and then heading down the coast staying the night in Monterey. The following morning we’ll do the long trek down Pacific Coast 1 until we hit Mandalay Beach stopping many places along the way. After checking out of our hotel in Mandalay Beach we were thinking about spending minimal time in LA in the afternoon but starting out at either Malibu, Venice or Santa Monica. We’d then end our vacation with three days at DLR probably staying at the Grand Californian.

    I do have some questions for you. First after spending a little bit in Muir Woods in the morning could we make it down to the Monterey area and fit in the 17-Mile drive? Also could we realistically travel Pacific Coast 1 Monterey to Mandalay (5.5 total driving hours) the next day and still see a lot of the sights? I do understand that this could be a long day but we are trying to fit in as much as we can. Finally if you were to spend one day in the LA area (beaches and city) what would you do? At the end of the LA day we hope to sleep in an Anaheim area hotel before ditching the rental car and staying in the Californian the next day for our 3 days at DLR.

    Any thoughts or tips on our California touring plan would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for the article and help.

    • Brendan,

      I’m so thrilled you’re doing this! Such an awesome experience.

      So, your first question – if you tour Muir Woods and get on road by 11am, you’ll have time to make it to Monterey with the 17 mile drive. Take into consideration, however, that you’re driving through San Francisco just to get onto the coast, so the earlier you leave Muir Woods, the better.

      Second – if you want to stop only briefly and not worry about the Hearst Castle tours and such, then you’ll be OK. If you don’t already have a hotel booked for Mandalay Beach, I highly recommend The Embassy Suites at Mandalay Beach. Great location, on the water, with free breakfast and happy hour with snacks. Good value for what you’ll pay.

      Third – Los Angeles – don’t miss Griffith Park (to see the Hollywood Sign and great views of L.A.), the TCL Chinese Theatre (used to be called Grauman’s Chinese Theatre), the Hollywood Walk of Fame (very close to Grauman’s) and Santa Monica (iconic California Beach with an amusement park on the pier).

      Hope this helps! Please let me know what other questions come up while you’re planning!

      • Thanks Casey! Seriously, this is great info for us.

        Thank you so much for the one day LA suggestions. We’re looking for the greatest hits so that sounds perfect.

        Funny you should mention the Embassy Suites as I have already booked the Suites in both Mandalay and Monterey. Good value and I do love their breakfast in the morning.

        I’m sure I’ll have other questions along the way. The kid’s are pysched as we just received our DLR DVD in the mail on Friday and promptly watched it. This vacation will definitely be fun to plan as its almost three different vacations in one. Also I am very excited to see DLR after going to WDW so many times.

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