Today’s post is very special (and LONG!) and I am so excited about it because not only am I sharing our day-by-day itinerary for our California road trip that we took back in July, but I am also sharing my first ever VLOG! When Drew and I started planning out this road trip, I found it so helpful to read other travel blogs to learn about where people stayed, what they did, and what they liked/didn’t like so that we could have a starting point when planning our trip. Planning any trip can be a little overwhelming, but a road trip can be especially daunting when you are having to coordinate travel times between destinations, decide what to do/see and how long to spend in each place and manage multiple hotels/tickets/restaurant reservations. We started our trip in San Francisco and made our way down the PCH all the way to San Diego, so hopefully this post can be helpful if you are planning a similar trip (or even part of it!).
This road trip was one of my favorite trips that Drew & I have taken together, and it was so fun to document in not only through photos but through video as well! Check out my first ever VLOG below (or also right here) & let me know what you think – would you like to see more content like this? (I actually made two videos of this trip… you can check out the longer version right here!).
And now to the day-by-day breakdown of where we stayed, what we did, what we liked/didn’t like, and most importantly…. what we ate! Enjoy!
We flew from Dallas to SF in the evening after work and after a few flight delays, we got into the city pretty late at night. We took the BART from SFO into the city which is definitely the way to go – it is so much cheaper than taking an Uber or a taxi and it takes you right into the city! We were starving (even though it was midnight!) so we walked around Pac Heights and the smell coming from The Grove on Fillmore Street literally made our mouths water, so of course we had to eat there!
Where we stayed in San Francisco: Pacific Heights (with a family friend)
Where we ate: The Grove on Fillmore; Drew had short rib tacos & I had the most amazing mac & cheese which was perfect after a long day of traveling. We actually ended up going back to that restaurant the next morning for breakfast because our host, Leslie, said it was one of the best in town! It definitely did not disappoint – for breakfast I had the best potato-bacon-cheese scrambled eggs of my life & Drew had French Toast – we could not stop talking about that breakfast for the rest of the trip! Tip: arrive early for brunch on the weekends as it gets packed!
The next morning after brunch, Leslie took us on a little driving tour of SF (including a stop at the Golden Gate Bridge of course!) before dropping us off at the rental car pickup location. Drew & I visited SF for about 5 days for my birthday last year, so we decided we didn’t need to spend too much time in the city before beginning our road trip, but you could always add in more time in SF if you’ve never been there before. Once we picked up the rental car, we were on our way!
As we made our way out of the city we started seeing more hills, surfers, cute little towns, winding roads, beaches, FOG, and all kinds of “pick your own fruit” farms. Drew & I spontaneously stopped at one of the strawberry farms to pick a few and it was so fun! It was free to enter & you paid by the pound for the strawberries you picked.
We continued to Santa Cruz with the intention of stopping to see the pier/boardwalk, but once we entered the city it was WAY too crowded (it was a Saturday) and we couldn’t find a place to park, so we decided to skip it & continue on our way. We made it to our hotel in Seaside (just north of Monterey) around 5pm so we checked in, changed clothes, and headed over to Pebble Beach’s famous 17-mile Drive (read all about that in this post here!). The 17-mile drive ends right near Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is a must-see! This town looks like it is right out of a storybook and is so adorable. We ate dinner at La Bicyclette which was the cutest French-English restaurant and had such great food (their menu changes weekly!)
Where we stayed in Monterey/Carmel-by-the-Sea: Econo Lodge Seaside: this hotel was very budget friendly & was just a 10 minute drive away from the 17-mile drive, the aquarium, and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
On the morning of our third day, we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium because we had heard so many good things about it (and Drew loves aquariums!). While it was cool, we were both honestly let down because we felt like it was way over priced ($50 per person!) and did not live up to the hype. The only part that we really enjoyed was the sea otters, but overall I’d say you could skip the aquarium and you wouldn’t be missing much.
We ate lunch at a sandwich shop in Monterey before heading down to Big Sur – the part of the trip I was most excited about! You’ll know you’ve entered Big Sur when you reach Bixby Bridge – it is breathtaking and definitely worth a stop (see more on Big Sur from this post!). Most people park on the right side of the road just before crossing the bridge, but you can get the best views of the bridge of you park/run across the road to the left side. From there, you can get a view of the bridge with the Pacific Ocean in the background (or fog, as was the case on the day we visited!). A quick note about the Big Sur area: there are very few places to stop/eat, so make sure you bring snacks or eat (& go to the bathroom) before you start making your way through the area. Also, there is zero cell phone reception, which is kind of nice because you can put your phone away and really take in all of the breathtaking views.
After stopping at Bixby Bridge, we made our way down to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (which is a different park than Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, so don’t get confused!) to see McWay Falls and to hike (entrance fee is $10 per car). The hike to McWay falls is super short – maybe about 1 mile round trip from the parking lot, so it is the perfect place to stop if you are just passing through the area/ don’t want to do a full-out hike. It is a must-see when in Big Sur!
After seeing McWay falls, Drew and I set out on our hike. We wanted to hike the Edwolson Trail (which according to the park’s website is about 5 miles long), but we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up doing a 12-mile hike that day. It was exhausting but the views were AMAZING and was so worth it! After our hike, we headed to our hotel at the southern most point of Big Sur – Ragged Point Inn. This hotel was one of my favorites that we stayed in – it was just quintessential Big Sur!
Where we stayed in Big Sur: Ragged Point Inn; I highly recommend! The rooms reminded me of cabins & many of them even had fireplaces in the room (sadly ours didn’t though!); moderately priced.
Where we ate: Ragged Point Inn; We ate dinner outside at the hotel’s gourmet restaurant which had a perfect view of the sunset over the cliffs into the ocean (we even saw a proposal take place!). And while the food was pretty good (not the best we had on the trip), the setting was just so beautiful that it made the whole evening perfect. When the sun went down, we were able to sit near the fire pit to keep warm since temperatures dropped down into the low 40s at night.
The next morning we left Ragged Point and made our way towards San Luis Obispo. Along the way we passed Hearst Castle, which we opted to skip. We did make a stop in San Simeon to see the elephant seals which was so cool (and free)! There were hundreds of them on the beach and there was even a sea-elephant expert stationed there that answered all of our questions about them. Definitely make this stop!
We continued on and stopped for lunch in San Luis Obispo, which you can read all about in this post After lunch, we kept on our way until we made it to Santa Barbara which I loved- the beach & palm tress set against the mountainous backdrop was too beautiful! (Read more about SB in this post and this post). We checked into our hotel and then walked over to the Pier for a drink & watched the stand up paddle surfers in the bay.
Where we stayed in Santa Barbara: Franciscan Inn; highly recommend! This hotel was also one of my favorites of the trip because it was so beautiful, beachy, and had such a great bed & breakfast style feel to it (they even had real keys rather than card keys for the rooms!). It was also just about two blocks away from the beach which was the perfect location. Also moderately priced and they have a continental breakfast.
The next morning we went over to visit the Santa Barbara Courthouse (read all about that here!) and then made our way down to Malibu for lunch. We ate at Duke’s Malibu which is right on the water (literally) and has the most amazing views. After lunch we made our way into Los Angeles, checked into our hotel downtown at the JW Marriott LA Live and then went to the Griffith Observatory, which has the BEST views of Los Angeles. A definite must-visit when in LA. We then met up with my best friend Annie for dinner at the Hudson & then drinks on Sunset.
Where we stayed in Los Angles: JW Marriott LA Live; this was by far the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in and had such amazing views of all of LA as well as the Staples Center next door. We loved staying here, but note that it is very expensive, you have to pay for WiFi and for parking (valet is the only option), and it is not located close to many of the tourist attractions in the Hollywood area. But, it is so luxurious!
Where we ate: lunch at Duke’s Malibu Drew had the fish tacos & I had the catch-of-the-day (I don’t even remember what type of fish it was) but it was the best meal of the entire trip! And we ate some amazing food on this trip!; dinner at the Hudson (we all ordered the grilled cheese with short ribs which was SO GOOD. Great drinks too!)
After several days of busy travel & staying out late the night before, we decided to take it easy on our only full day in Los Angeles and sleep in a little. In the afternoon we headed over to the LACMA to see the Urban Lights exhibit which is definitely a must-see (see more on that here!)! We really wanted to visit inside the museum as well, but it is actually closed on Wednesdays so that ended up being a no-go. We will definitely check it out on our next visit to LA though, and I also want to check out the Getty as well!
We started planning this trip all around the main event that took place Wednesday evening: the Liverpool vs. Chelsea soccer game at the Rose Bowl! I don’t really follow any sports (except college football – hook ’em!), but Drew is a HUGE soccer fan and Liverpool is his team. He’s wanted to see them play for as long as I’ve known him and I’ve never seen him so happy as he was when they took the field that night! We knew that parking would be crazy around the Rose Bowl, so we ended up parking in Old Pasedena (we ate there too) and then took an Uber over to the stadium (it was less than $10 which was way cheaper than what they were charging to park over there). We ended up just walking back to the car after the game (it was about a mile) which ended up being faster than it would have been to try to catch an Uber back.
Where we stayed: JW Marriott LA Live
We woke up early the next day to head over to hike the Hollywood Sign – it was so fun and I definitely recommend it! Read more on where to park & which path to take from this post here.
We then headed over to Santa Monica (about a 45 min to 1 hour drive with traffic) to have lunch on the pier – we ended up eating corn dogs & curly fries! I love visiting the pier because it is so pretty right on the ocean, and nothing screams California more than that! Read more on visiting Santa Monica from this post!
We then hopped back in the car to make our way down to San Diego. I was hoping that we would have gotten on the road earlier in the day, but we didn’t end up leaving Santa Monica until about 3pm which got us stuck right in rush hour as we tried to make our way out of Los Angeles/through Long Beach. We decided to stay on Hwy 1 for this part of the trip until it ends at the southern part of Orange County so that we could continue to take in the ocean views and so that we could pass through all of the cute beach towns like Laguna Beach, Newport, and Huntington Beach. It definitely takes longer to go this route than taking the 5 or highway 73, but the whole point of a road trip is to enjoy the trip, not just make it from point A to point B!
Where we stayed in San Diego: Once we got to San Diego we checked in to our hotel at the Courtyard Marriott San Diego Central, which was very nice and only about a 10 minute drive from downtown San Diego. It was moderately priced and had a Starbucks on the first floor which was so great.
Where we ate: Corndogs & curly fries on the Santa Monica Pier; for dinner in San Diego we randomly found Common Theory via google maps and it was just the coolest! The space had all kinds of different seating options (couches, picnic-style tables, etc), giant garage doors that they had opened up to let the cool California breeze in, and a huge craft beer & cocktail menu. It was such a cool space and the menu was very unique and absolutely delicious.
Our last day of the road trip was one of my absolute favorites because it was the day we went to the San Diego Zoo! In addition to loving Liverpool FC, Drew also has a huge obsession with pandas. For his birthday, I got him and I both passes to enjoy an Early Morning with the Pandas (the pass is $100 per person, in addition to your $50 zoo ticket per person) and if I have one tip to give you in this entire post, it is to buy this pass if you visit the San Diego Zoo. It was the BEST decision that we made and let me explain why….
The pandas are one of the top “attractions” at the San Diego Zoo. Because of this, most of the time (especially in peak season like the summer), you’ll probably have to wait in about an hour to two hour long line to see them. Once it is your turn, you get a couple of minutes in front of the pandas to see them, but then you are moved along so that others can take their turn. From what I have heard, most of the time during the hot San Diego afternoons the pandas are asleep anyway, so you may wait for a long time only to be somewhat disappointed.
With the Early Morning with the Pandas pass, however, you get to enter the zoo approximately 30-40 minutes before the zoo opens. The groups may vary in size, but ours had about 12-15 people in it with two guides/zookeepers that led the way and told us everything we could ever want to know about the animals & answered all of our questions. They knew everything!! They took us to the pandas first, and we got to spend about 25 minutes of uninterrupted time watching the pandas which was so amazing. We were told the pandas are most active in the mornings when they are being fed, so getting to see them move around their exhibits & munch on bamboo was so fun to witness. The day we visited just happened to be one of the panda’s birthdays (happy birthday Mr. Wu!) so it was extra fun because we got to watch him open all of his gifts! (See his ice-pop cake in the picture below?!)
Once the zoo opens, the guides give you a private tour of the entire zoo – on a golf cart! They first took us to the giraffes where they let us feed them lettuce, then we were off to see the entire rest of the zoo including lions, elephants, tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, sloths, polar bears, etc. Even if you don’t necessarily care to see the pandas, this pass is worth it for the private tour of the zoo on golf cart. The entire tour (including the pandas) took about 3 hours. I was planning on having us spend the entire day at the zoo (seriously there is so much to see! Pro tip: you are allowed to bring in food & drink, so pack a picnic lunch if you plan on spending the whole day there!), but since we saw all of it through our tour, we spent about another hour walking around and then had the afternoon free to take a spontaneous trip over to the beaches at La Jolla. Isn’t it beautiful?!
Where we stayed: Courtyard Marriott San Diego Central
Where we ate: Once we left the zoo, we ate lunch at the Crack Shack in downtown San Diego for some fried chicken & a cocktail. It was so good & had a fun outdoor seating and bar area. For dinner, we headed over to Coranado (which is across the bay from downtown San Diego) and ate at Il Fornaio. The food was really good but what was best was the view – San Diego looks so beautiful all lit up at night! About halfway through our meal fireworks started going off downtown, which our waiter said happens every weekend in the summertime. How fun is that?! It was the perfect way to end the last night of our trip.
On our last day, our flight was pretty early so we didn’t have much time to do any sight seeing or even head out for one last brunch. I really loved visiting San Diego and I think we could have easily spent a few more days there – it was so pretty! Although we were so sad for our trip to come to an end, it was the trip of a lifetime and we made so many amazing memories.
Phew – that was such a long post! If you made it to the end… congrats! Thank you so much for stopping by!
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