Happy New Year!
We just got back from our holiday vacation in California! I’ve been talking about doing Hwy 1 and exploring all of California along the coast for the better part of a decade, and it was even better than I imagined! There are a bunch of different ways you could do a California road trip, so I would recommend doing some research on what you want to see and base your travels around that and how many days you are able to be there. We had an incredible time and wouldn’t change much but if we did it again, we would love to start in San Diego rather than Los Angeles. However, based on the flights and timeline, it didn’t work for us this time.
9 Day Itinerary for a California Road Trip from Los Angeles to Napa Valley:
Day 1: Los Angeles
Day 2 & 3: Santa Barbara
Day 4 &5: Big Sur and Carmel by the Sea
Day 6 & 7: San Francisco
Day 8 & 9: Napa and Sonoma
We flew into Los Angeles and rented a car. I would definitely recommend renting online ahead of time as you will get the best pricing. Make sure you are signed up for rewards, so you get points. Also, they’ll try to talk you into insurance through them (which I always decline as my own insurance covers) as well as a fastpass for tolls (you don’t need this until San Francisco, so no need to pay that $11/day rental!)
We only had one day in LA, so we tried to see a few things on our list:
Lunch at classic In n Out burger
Hollywood Sign and walk of fame
Cocktail at Hotel Roosevelt
Dinner at Nobu
Shopping and Farmer’s Market at The Grove
If we stayed longer, we would’ve gone to a game show, hiked Runyon Canyon, gone to explore Venice Beach and Manhattan Beach, and gone on a studio tour.
(Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara was about 1.5 hours, and you’ll go through Malibu on the way if you’re talking Hwy 1.)
Santa Barbara was such a cute town on the ocean and we found it incredibly clean, beautiful, relaxing, and charming.
We stayed at Hotel Milo, an adorable boutique hotel directly across from Stearns Wharf. It was the perfect location, and the hotel offered complimentary wine tasting daily from 4-6 outside by the firepits, as well as complimentary beach cruiser bikes to explore town. The hot tub made for a nice nightcap on Christmas Eve as well.
-explore Stearns Wharf and walk the two piers in the harbor
-Wine Tasting at the 17 tastings rooms in the Funk Zone (my favorite was Paradise Springs, but we also tried Oreana, Santa Barbara, Pali, and a few others.)
-Walk Downtown for Shopping, Movies, Breweries
-Explore the Taco Trail!!
Due to the recent wildfires, we weren’t able to go hiking in the Santa Ynez Mountains to the natural hot springs (!!!!) because of the lingering ash. If we went back, we would most certainly do this.
Big Sur (about 4.5 hours from Santa Barbara)
Normally, you could take Hwy 1 along the ocean through Big Sur north to Carmel. However, due to an earthquake in June 2017, Hwy 1 is shut down for a stretch, and you must take an inland highway north to Carmel and then down Hwy1 to Big Sur. This wasn’t ideal, but we were able to explore a few wineries on the way off River Road in the SLH. Hwy 1 is expected to reopen June 2018.
If you have more time, or like more stops, along the way from Santa Barbara to Big Sur, you could also check out: Madonna Inn, Seal Rock, Hearst Castle.
Big Sur was my absolute favorite part of this entire trip. The views are absolutely breathtaking and it was so fun to explore. We checked out Point Lobos, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, and the infamous Bixby Bridge before lunching at Nepenthe, an amazing restaurant with views overlooking the mountains and ocean. (try the cheese platter!)
There are plenty of options to stay in Big Sur, and you could make a whole trip out of staying here and hiking and camping (stay in a Yurt!) However, we opted to stay in Carmel by the Sea a little north, and I’m so glad we did! This adorable Bavarian beach town, made famous by resident Clint Eastwood, is so charming, beautiful, and approachable. There are only boutique hotels and inns here and nothing is built tall. Its a cute town with residences all around, and the beach is just a short walk down Ocean Rd. We stayed at Briarwood Inn, and it was just a half block walk to downtown. There are tons of cute shops and galleries here and it is well known for its art influence. There are also 16 wineries in the nine block radius of downtown, and tastings ranged from $10-$15 (it is very common and even encouraged to split tastings, if you’re like us and want to try as many places as you can.) The Cheese Shop in the plaza offers unlimited free cheese tastings and we would definitely recommend it.
We had dinner at Affina, a trendy restaurant that had a piano player during dinner.
On day 2 in Carmel, we got back in the car and explored 17 Mile Dr (cost: $10) This drive in a gated community takes you through four different world renowned golf courses, lookout points, points of interest, picnic spots, and instagram-worthy views. From here, we went to Folktale Winery. This winery was in Carmel Valley about 10 minutes away, and was so gorgeous. There were tons of yard games, fire pits, and fun places to sit while you sip. I would definitely recommend coming here for the ambiance.
San Francisco (about 2 hours from Carmel)
On our first day here, we explored the iconic Ferry Building, complete with Farmer’s Market on the weekends, and tons of shops and eateries inside. We took a ride on a cable car down one of San Francisco’s hills, and checked out Lombard St. Just down the hill from Lombard is Fisherman’s Wharf, a very touristy area with shops, restaurants, and kitschy gifts.
On our second day, we rented bikes from Fisherman’s Wharf and took the bike path through Ghiradelli Square, parks, the beach, etc. We stopped for photos at the Golden Gate Bridge before biking across it and down into the town of Sausalito. Sausalito is very upscale, trendy, and pricey. We had drinks and pizza at Bar Bocce and explored the small downtown before taking the Ferry back to the city and dropping our bikes back off. From the ferry, we passed by Alcatraz and saw an amazing sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge-perfect timing!
(I booked our bikes and ferry tickets ahead of time online and saved 20%)
Napa Valley (about 1 hour from San Francisco)
I am a huge food lover and have always wanted to go to one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants. The French Laundry (#1 restaurant in America) is in Napa (downtown Yountville), but since we didn’t have the budget for a $500 pp tasting meal, I made reservations for brunch at Keller’s Bouchon Bistro just down the street. (The Bouchon Bakery is right next door and had a huge line out the door all morning.) After brunch, we headed to Calistoga to wine taste. I had found the Calistoga Wine Passport online beforehand, and purchased two to pick up at our first winery, the castle of Castella di Amorosa. The passports were $60 each and were good for complimentary tastings at 17 wineries. Given that average tastings in Napa are $30-$40, going to just two paid for itself! We also checked out Tamber Bey, which breeds racehorses on the grounds as well, and Sterling, which has the aerial tram up to the tasting rooms. We went downtown Calistoga to explore some of the tasting rooms participating in the passport as well.
At night, we headed downtown Napa from our Airbnb and checked out Oxbow Market.
On the second day, we started at Domaine Carneros with some bubbly tasting and the most gorgeous grounds for photos. This winery is on the way into Sonoma and would be a great starting point if spending the day in Sonoma rather than Napa. We then met up with friends at Mumm before heading to V.Sattui for a picnic lunch. When we were eating our lunch outside, the Napa Valley Wine Train even came to stop!
We had such an incredible road trip! Have you done the Hwy 1 tour? I’d love to hear your favorite stops and spots along the way!