The Ultimate California Highway 1 Road-Trip Itinerary
Road Trip Travel
A cruise down California's Highway 1 — the PCH as it is affectionately known by locals — from San Francisco to Los Angeles is the quintessential California road trip. As you journey through quaint towns and stunning landscapes unlike anywhere else on the planet, you will find yourself mesmerized by the postcard-perfect beauty and sheer diversity of this 500-mile stretch of highway. This five-day adventure covers all of the main attractions, from Bixby Bridge in Big Sur to the beaches of Malibu, with stops at hidden gems and local haunts along the way.
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Cambria Beach Lodge
Indulge in coastal relaxation at Cambria Beach Lodge, where modern comforts, breathtaking views and a laid-back atmosphere combine for a memorable stay along the stunning Central Coast of California.
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Located at Surfrider Beach, a great pick for easy access to the Malibu Pier, featuring rooms with a sophisticated, yet laid-back Californian feel.
Shutters on the Beach
The classic Santa Monica beach experience, the lobby makes this property feel more intimate, but the pool is a great scene.
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Day 1: San Franciso to Monterey
Start the day with an early breakfast at Tartine Manufactory to fuel up for the 120-mile drive to Monterey. Hop onto CA 1 and drive to Half Moon Bay for a seafood lunch at Sam’s Chowder House. Sam’s is famous for its Lobster Roll, which is hailed as one of the “Five Best Sandwiches in America” by The Today Show. As you make your way south, take a quick pitstop in Capitola, the most darling candy-colored beach town near Santa Cruz. It is also the oldest beach resort on the West Coast. Depending on the time, you may wish to meander along the famous 17-mile drive at Pebble Beach before arriving in Monterey. Check into either the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel & Spa or the Monterey Tides, a recently renovated boutique hotel right on the beach. Tip: If you stay at Monterey Tides, ask for the second or third floor for the best vistas. Cap off a perfect day with a seaside dinner at Fish Hopper, located on the pier at Cannery Row.
Day 2: Monterey to Cambria
Begin the day with an early morning beach walk before driving 10 minutes south to the quaint town of Carmel-by-the-Sea for breakfast at iconic Katy’s Place. If you love eggs benedict you will die and go to hollandaise heaven with more than 20 varieties to choose from. After a leisurely walk around town, it’s time to head to Big Sur! Your first stop Bixby Bridge for the iconic Big Sur view and photo.
Grab coffee-to-go and a chocolate cookie at Big Sur Bakery and then admire McWay Falls from the overlook trail. As hunger sets it, it is time to head to Nepenthe for a leisurely lunch of California fare perched on a Big Sur cliff overlooking the ocean. The views are magnificent. Head out toward the central coast beach town of Cambria, stopping to see the elephant seals sunbathing at the rookery in San Simeon. San Simeon is also the home to Hearst Castle, which I highly recommend it if you’ve never been. In Cambria, stop in at the Cambria Pines Lodge’s Fireside Lounge for Happy Hour or an early dinner before checking in to the hotel. Check into the Cambria Beach Lodge just in time to watch the sunset at Moonstone Beach.
Day 3: Cambria to Santa Barbara
After enjoying a complimentary continental breakfast in the lodge’s reception area, followed by a stroll through town, I highly recommend taking a quick inland detour off Highway 1 to Paso Robles for a morning of wine tasting. Head back to the 101 freeway to San Luis Obispo for lunch, a slice of the renowned Pink Champagne Cake and a bathroom break at the quirky Madonna Inn. Tip: The inn is famous for its restrooms, especially the men’s, which has a waterfall over the urinal!
As you make you way down the central coast, you pass through the towns Santa Ynez Valley, sometimes referred to as Napa’s baby sister, including Los Alamos (the trendiest town in the region at the moment,) Los Olivos and Buellton, the town made famous in the wine cult film, “Sideways." Arrive in Santa Barbara mid-to-late-afternoon and head straight to the Funk Zone for some more wine tasting at Municipal Wines, or the other 14 tasting rooms that make up Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail. Check in at Hotel Californian, a stunning Moroccan-inspired hotel steps from the beach. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bad meal in Santa Barbara. I highly recommend making a reservation at Bibi Ji, a modern Indian street food restaurant on State Street. Other popular restaurants with walking distance of the hotel include The Lark (New American), Loquita (Spanish tapas) and Lucky Penny (pizza.) If you wish to venture out a bit further from the funk zone, La Super-Rica Taqueria is always a hit as is Bettina (Italian) in Montecito and Toma (Mediterrean) on State Steet in downtown Santa Barbara.
Day 4: Santa Barbara to Malibu
Kick off the day in Santa Barbara at Helena Avenue Bakery for a cold brew coffee and their famous Breakfast Sandwich on Brioche. On your way out of town, I highly recommend you stop at Metropoulos Fine Foods Merchant, a delicious gourmet food shop and deli. Have them pack up a couple of sandwiches for the road. Trust me, they are some of the best handhelds you will ever eat, and this food emporium is a local favorite. Take the 101 S to Ventura County and follow the signs back to Highway 101 of the scenic drive to Malibu. If the tide is out, make a pit stop at Leo Carillo State Beach to explore the tide pools or go for a beach stroll at one of the most stunning So Cal beaches, El Matador. Check in at the Surfrider Malibu, an exclusive 20-room Californian Beach House located on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, across the street from the world-famous Surfrider beach.
Lunch/brunch at Malibu Farm directly across the street from the hotel on the Malibu Pier. I normally go the cafe at the end of the pier, but this epic journey is worthy of a meal at the organic, farm-to-table restaurant at the beginning of the pier. After lunch, do a bit of shopping at Aviator Nation (located directly across from the pier) and Malibu Country Mart, which is excellent for not only local and designer brands but also for people watching. End the day by watching the sunset with a glass of wine in hand on the hotel’s rooftop, or catch Happy Hour and sunset views at the Malibu Beach Inn’s Carbon Beach Club or Nobu, both located a very short walk from the hotel.
Day 5: Malibu to Los Angeles
No trip to Malibu would be complete without a hike. I suggest driving back up the coast for about 15 minutes to the Point Dume Nature Preserve, which offers beautiful walking trails and a wooden boardwalk along the cliff, as well as stairs down to the quiet beach where you will often find sea lions sunning themselves and dolphins frolicking in the surf. Other great hiking options include Escondido Falls and Solstice Canyon. If you’re hungry, head to the Point Dume plaza for Lily’s famous breakfast burrito. I suggest calling in your order though as they take 45 minutes to prepare and there is often a line-up. Head back down the coast to Santa Monica to begin your Los Angeles adventure. For beachside accommodation, Oceana and Shutters on the Beach are excellent choices. Santa Monica Proper is my favorite hotel in Los Angeles, and if you prefer to stay in the heart of the action, aka West Hollywood, the Pendry Hotel and 1 Hotel West Hollywood would be my picks.
Need to Know
For more travel tips, check out Fora Advisor Grace Hilty’s guide, 3 Days in Big Sur, California.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to California.