Embrace your inner Californian. Hire a convertible and drive the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to San Francisco, stopping at the iconic towns, vineyards, and museums along the way. By Calum Henderson.
The first thing you’ll want to do once you get your rental car is put the top down and hit the open road, but not so fast. San Diego is home to some of the best SoCal has to offer, so you should plan to stick around for at least a day or two.
Head out to Coronado, a resort peninsula just minutes from downtown San Diego, and stay at the historic Hotel del Coronado. Part of Hilton’s Curio Collection of unique resorts and hotels, ‘The Del’ has hosted countless celebrities on the beach since it first opened in 1888.
From the beach, you’ll be able to see the jets flying in and out of the nearby naval air base. San Diego has a long and rich navy history, as evidenced in the Tom Cruise classic Top Gun. For the full experience, visit the USS Midway Museum located on board the aircraft carrier docked at Navy Pier.
San Diego is also home to some of the best craft breweries in the United States, if not the world. If you want to drink the best IPA of your life, pay a visit to Ballast Point brewery and try some of their many varieties of Sculpin IPA fresh from the tap.
Now it’s time to hit the road and head north – but what about a quick swim? The beaches north of San Diego offer some of the best ocean swimming in all of California, so if you fancy a dip, pull in at La Jolla.
The famously posh beachside community just a few miles north of downtown is also home to some of the best dining in the city, so see if you can’t snap up a lunch reservation at the renowned George’s at The Cove while you’re there.
If you’re a golfer, La Jolla is also home to the famous Torrey Pines golf course. Hire a set of clubs and hit the fairways to relive Tiger Woods’ 2008 US Open victory.
Best known as the setting of mid-2000s MTV reality series and Lauren Conrad star vehicle Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, and roughly equidistant between San Diego and Los Angeles, this is your quintessential Californian beach town, and it’s a tourist favourite for a reason.
Laguna Beach is full of galleries, museums (Laguna Art Museum is the oldest in California), restaurants (try local favourite Nick’s, or the Instagram-worthy The Deck), markets and beautiful scenery at every turn. Take a stroll along the scenic coastline at Heisler Park, explore the Laguna Beach sea caves and rock pools (check the tide times first) and make sure to visit the ‘Pirate Tower’ built into the cliffs at Victoria Beach.
Where to start: the compulsory visit to California’s famous In-N-Out Burger, or a drive straight up to Griffith Observatory to take in the city view? Why not get it to take away and kill two birds with one stone.
There are few better cities in the world to push the boat out in than Los Angeles. Book a $1,000-a-night room at the Ritz-Carlton – why not? Or, if you want to experience the height of hip modern accommodation, try The Standard Downtown or Ace Hotel on for size.
Browse the iconic shops on Rodeo Drive all morning, stroll to the end of Santa Monica pier after a luxuriously long lunch at the eye-catching garden bar Herringbone, then balance out the indulgence with a visit to one of the city’s many museums and galleries.
The Getty Villa, nestled in the Pacific Palisades as you drive north out of the city, is one worth stopping for. It was opened by oil tycoon J. Paul Getty in 1954, and is home to over 40,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiques, but is worth visiting for the setting alone.
San Luis Obispo
The drive from LA to San Fran is peppered with towns worth stopping in. You could easily make this stretch of the journey last a couple of weeks. The charming, laid-back mission town San Luis Obispo (SLO for short) is a great base if you want to spend a day or two exploring the Central Coast. Stay at the Madonna Inn, one of the most eccentric hotels you’ll find anywhere in the world, with over 100 themed rooms ranging from ‘hunting lodge’ to ‘gold glitter’.
No Californian road trip would be complete without at least one winery visit, preferably many more, and SLO puts you within a stone’s throw of several great wine trails. To the north, Paso Robles is a popular destination for those in the know – call into Eberle or Daou vineyards to see why Californian wine doesn’t begin and end with the Napa Valley. South of SLO, the Santa Maria Valley shouldn’t be overlooked either – make sure to call into Presqu’ile to enjoy the views of the valley from their rooftop terrace, and Riverbench, where the tasting room is a converted 1920s Craftsman home.
After driving through the majestic scenery of Big Sur you’ll need to stop and catch your breath. Monterey is the place. The town’s famous aquarium is worth a visit, and afterwards you can explore Cannery Row, the historic sardine canning precinct that’s since been rejuvenated into a premium shopping and dining destination.
We’ve arrived at our final destination, but if you think we’re just going to ditch the rental at the airport and fly straight back home you’re dreaming.
For a start, we haven’t been to any sporting events yet. With respect to LA’s mid-century modern Dodger Stadium and celebrity-studded Staples Center, San Francisco has California’s best sport-watching opportunities.
If you’re there in summer, a visit to the iconic waterfront AT&T Park for a Giants baseball game is an essential experience. If your visit coincides with the NBA season, you’ll be able to see the Warriors at their brand new stadium the $1bn Chase Center, in downtown San Francisco.
You’ll be hungry by now. So hop on a cable car, head to Fisherman’s Wharf, indulge in a marathon yum cha session in the city’s famous Chinatown then walk (or bike) it off across the Golden Gate Bridge. If you cross from the city side, you’ll end up in the charming bayside town of Sausalito – settle in at the waterfront Bar Bocce, take in the views across the harbour, and raise a toast to a successful Californian road trip.