San Diego to San Francisco in 10 Epic Stops

Travel and lifestyle writer Mel Hearse shares her experience traveling the Californian coast along Highway One.

Being a pop culture junkie, it wasn’t a big surprise when I fell deeply and irrevocably in love the first time I visited LA.

The affair has continued over the years, and I’ve been back many times since that first visit.

So, when we decided our boys (nine and 11) were at the perfect age for an extended overseas trip, getting to know California a lot better was top of our list.

A few visits to the Visit California website later, we landed on the perfect plan – two weeks travelling the coast from San Diego to San Francisco.

Here are some of the once-in-a-lifetime memories our family made along the way.

The Dodge Charger

Before we even started our road trip, we were happily surprised when we picked up our car rental from Hertz and found ourselves driving off in a new model Dodge Charger. While there are cheaper options than this model in the US, road trips can be made or ruined by your choice of car – you want the power to overtake effectively on the coast road, space to stretch out in, and mod conveniences will make for a more pleasant trip.

Also recommended? Don’t drive off without a navigation system, relying on your phone could backfire, or cost you a small fortune. These roads often have closed sections due to rock slides that up-to-date navigation maps will warn you about, saving you hours! (Not joking. You will literally have to turn around and drive back the way you came in many cases.)

1. San Diego

Home to a thriving arts scene and emerging craft beer industry, San Diego is also a great place to catch a baseball game at Petco Park, or see giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo, or the otters and whales at Sea World.

Image: San Diego Zoo

We stayed at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club – directly backing on to one of the last remaining private beaches in California, the accommodations are reasonably priced and spacious, and the resort child friendly. Be sure to book a beach barbecue during your stay, where the staff will set up a table and barbecue right on the sand for you to cook as the sun goes down over the ocean. Make time to head out to the Old Town for an authentic Mexican feast. We tried the Café Coyote, where the food was deliciously spicy and plentiful - with margaritas  roughly the size of your head!

2. Laguna Beach

Approximately an hour and half up the coast from San Diego is Laguna Beach. Home to numerous art galleries, cafes, restaurants, and an eclectic mix of local boutiques offering high end resort wear, flip flops and beach dresses, Laguna has a typical laid back beach vibe, albeit with a heavy twist of luxury. We stayed at the Montage Laguna Beach, where we experienced one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever witnessed. The hotel is set into the cliffside, meaning the entrance side of the main foyer is situated on ground level, but the opposite side of the ballroom sized room (and it’s sweeping balconies) are four stories up – giving you wall to wall views of the stunning mosaic pool, extensive grounds and the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see. Laguna Beach offers a handy trolley service that runs the length of the main coast road every twenty minutes, which we used often during our stay for shopping and eating out. We enjoyed one of my top five meals at 370 Common – the food is a mix of fine dining and comfort food, the wine list features great Californian drops, and the service impeccable. They do get busy, so it’s worth making a booking.

Montage Laguna Beach

3. Los Angeles

A shorter drive, LA is just under an hour’s drive from Laguna. Trying to cram all LA has to offer into an overnighter is a challenge too far for most, so it’s best to plan ahead to make sure you see the things you most want to see – and if you have the time, try and do a few nights in different parts of the city. Not sure what to choose? As a family of movie and television buffs, we loved the Warner Brothers Studio Tour -  a couple of hours driving through the working lots, stopping off to see sets from popular shows including Pretty Little Liars and True Blood, checking out the Harry Potter and Batman exhibitions crammed with artifacts from all the movies in the series. Last but not least, a self-guided tour through their new interactive displays including sitting on the Friends couch in the actual Central Perk set. 

Universal Studios is another option, though likely to take your entire day. Universal features its own studio tour through working back lots and plenty of interactive rides – including the Simpsons virtual roller coaster in the newly constructed Springfield (yes, you can eat in Krusty Burger and have a photo with Krusty the Clown.) Consider the front of line pass if time is pressing – it will allow you to skip to the front of the queue for the rides and the tour.

We stayed at The Garland and found it handy to a number of LA highlights. It also runs a free hourly shuttle out to Universal, which we used for our day at the studios. The hotel offers luxe for less rooms (including some great family suites to give parents a little extra space), and features a film screening in the pool area every night with fabulous cocktails on offer.

4. Santa Monica

Still in the LA area, Santa Monica is home to the Santa Monica Pier and the Third Street Promenade – a must stop shopping destination. The Pier is a favourite with families, and we purchased an all-day pass, which allowed us to go on all the rides for a couple of hours, then walk up to the Promenade to look at the shops and enjoy a meal, before returning to enjoy the night view of Santa Monica from the Ferris Wheel. We stayed overnight at the Hotel Carmel by the Sea, a family friendly hotel located a five minute walk from the pier, and right on the fringe of the Third Street Promenade.

5. Santa Barbara

Often referred to as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is home to classic Spanish architecture, and has a sun-washed European look straight from the Riviera. Home to 1700 wineries and 22,000 hectares of vineyards, exploring Santa Barbara's Urban Wine Trail in downtown Santa Barbara is a great way to see the area – the tour encompasses 17 tasting rooms and takes you all around the local area. Wine not your thing? We spent some time strolling along State Street, packed with excellent shops and dining - Santa Barbara is also famed for its farm to table dining.

6. Pismo Beach

An hour and a half out of Santa Barbara, Pismo Beach is the ultimate laid back, California beach town. We hired bikes from Wheel Fun Rentals and rode up the road to the pier – about 15 minutes at a kid friendly pace. We stayed at the Seacrest Ocean Front Hotel, and while sitting in the hot tub, a couple that are regular visitors to Pismo recommended the Cracked Crab for dinner – they toss the freshly caught and cooked seafood straight onto the paper covered table. It’s super kid friendly, and one of the most popular restaurants in the area, so book ahead or you’re looking at least a two hour wait for a table.

7. Paso Robles

My youngest son’s favorite stop on the whole trip, Paso was an unexpected highlight – you’ll need to come in from the coast road an hour or so (you’ll still be heading in the right direction). We were lucky to nab a behind the scenes tour at the Clos Solène winery, where the kids got to see the grapes and production process (and meet the owner’s dog – a bonus as we were missing ours.) We then popped across the road to the BarrelHouse Brewing Co for live music and craft beers, before Uber-ing back to our hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites to enjoy a night in the pool for some much needed down time for the kids.

In the morning, we headed out with Margarita Adventures and zip-lined our way through acres of hilly vineyards – and our nine year old was far from the youngest ‘zipper’. We finished up our Paso Robles visit with a tour of the Firestone Walker Brewing Co and lunch at the adjacent Taproom Restaurant – and can highly recommend the house brew tasting paddles.

Zip-lining over wineries. Image credit: Chris Leschinsky

8. Big Sur

Another one and three quarter hours down the coastal road, Big Sur is a must do on the Highway One road trip - the drive itself being the draw card. The winding roads are a photographer’s paradise (and even the most amateur snappers are likely to nab a few decent shots.) Best photo op stops? Bixby Bridge, and McWay Falls - great for spotting endangered California condors, migrating whales and sea otters.

Campgrounds abound, as do rustic cabins, and there are a few splurge-worthy hotels on offer (we didn’t stay the night), including the cliff-hugging Post Ranch Inn, or luxurious Ventana Inn and Spa.

9. Monterey, via Carmel by the Sea

Driving along the coastal road towards Monterey, we passed through picturesque Carmel by the sea – and if you have the time, it’s well worth an overnighter so you can wake up to the picturesque beaches in the morning. We stopped in for lunch at the well-hidden but highly recommended Treehouse café – we came for the balcony and view of downtown Carmel, the delicious seafood was a delightful bonus. 

Monterey itself is a white sanded beach stop-over on the highly-recommended list for those that do the LA-San Fran drive with less time to spare. We decided to stay at the Monterey Plaza Hotel for a night of luxury – the hotel has been the top rated hotel in the area on TripAdvisor for five years, and currently features in the top 25 in the US. Well placed along the romantic, quiet end of famous Cannery Row (with fab shopping and local food), this hotel was like slipping out of reality for a night – the room has carpet you can sink into, and views over the beach that make your shoulders sink about ten levels (it’s actually built out over the shoreline, so we left the sliding doors open and fell asleep to the waves slapping onto the shore.)

Before leaving Monetery, we stopped at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the kids were gob smacked by the psychedelic jellies and bat-ray petting tanks and fell a little bit in love with the California sea otters.

10. San Francisco

Nothing can quite prepare you for San Fran – the first glimpse of the iconic Golden Gate bridge (treat yourself to one of the many fine dining experiences in Fisherman's Wharf and watch the sun set over it), the steep hills dotted with historic houses and the amazing shopping and restaurant scene. If you’re short on time, the Fisherman's Wharf area is a good spot to set yourself up in – it’s easy to walk to shopping and restaurants, and to the wharf where many tours to Alcatraz leave hourly during the day. The tour to Alcatraz will cost you around half a day, but we found it a really significant (and fun) experience, and even our boys were moved by it.

View from Hotel Zephyr

We took an afternoon Big Bus Tour across Golden Gate Bridge and through downtown San Francisco; and highly recommend both taking the tour (and a jumper – despite the very hot day, the wind really picks up as you cross the bridge!) We stayed at the newly renovated, nautically themed Hotel Zephyr, where they had great shared spaces focused on fun – pool tables, ping pong tunnels and grouped fire pits with metal artworks as the centerpiece. Situated on the main drag in Fisherman’s Wharf, it was central to all the tourist attractions we planned to check out and had a terrific view of the wharf from our balcony (a bonus when you’re travelling with kids and corralled by their bedtime.)

Hotel Zephyr

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