Updated March 6, 2020
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.
In this article
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.