The Jetset Guide To Road Tripping California’s Pacific Coast Highway One
Ahhh, Calfornia’s Pacific Coast Highway One… Rugged seaside cliffs topped with a winding coastal highway that is second-to-none in the world.
This is the bucket list road trip that every traveler’s dreams are made of.
From stunning San Francisco, to majestic Big Sur, to California-cool Santa Barbara, to ritzy glitzy LA, chic Malibu, and everything in-between, a drive down the California coast is the ultimate road trip.
If you’ve been following along on Instagram and Instagram stories, you saw that this past week I took this trip-of-a-lifetime down the coast with Zipcar, making it my goal to create THE ultimate guide to this luxurious, yet wild, stretch of California. It is possible to do the SF to LA trip in one, two, three, five days, but I can’t stress enough that the more time you can spend exploring Highway One, the better. If you can swing it, a week or more is the way to do it – and you’ll still probably wish you had more time. I chose Zipcar to do this trip with because the Zipcar App is the most amazing, easiest way to reserve a car on demand. I just went into the app, picked out and reserved my car ahead of time and headed to a super-nice garage in downtown San Francisco to pick it up the day of my trip. I then swiped my Zipcard (which they mail to you when you start your membership), which unlocked the car, and boom – I was ready to hit the road. The best bonus of Zipcar for trips like these is that the cars also come with a gas card on the driver’s visor, so gas is included (complimentary up to 180 miles per day), making it the best choice for a road trip.
I did my trip in 5 days, which I loosely planned out ahead of time. I wanted to keep it spontaneous (I didn’t even have my hotels booked ahead of time, which you guys know is a big deal for my ultra-planned self), but I definitely wanted to make sure I got to certain spots. I wanted to start and end the trip with the bustling cities of SF and LA, explore the woodsy mountain towns in Big Sur, spend a night in Santa Barbara, hit some tiny beachside towns in Southern California, and definitely wine taste in the Central Coast. I had a TON of things I wanted to do and nothing ahead of me but sunshine and the open road.
Day One: From San Francisco to Glamping in Big Sur
I set out on day one of the trip to head from my beautiful home city of San Francisco to the Big Sur coast. I knew I wanted to wake up in Big Sur (something I had never done before but just knew would be magical, since most people who go to Big Sur tend to just go for the day and just drive through). But I didn’t know how to go about it. I ended up booking a glampsite at Ventana Big Sur day-of and making it my mission to get to Big Sur before the sun set (not only because sunsets in Big Sur are pretty dang spectacular but also because there was no way I was going to be driving those windy, cliffside roads in the dark). I ended up spending a little more time than my “schedule” had planned in Monterey, Pebble Beach, and Carmel on the way to Big Sur, that I juuuuuuust made it for sunset. But the beautiful thing about my timing was that when the sun was going down I was just pulling up to the most perfect, most picturesque sunset I had ever seen.
My guess is you’ve all heard of Pebble Beach Golf Links, but even some of the most avid golfers have never visited this world famous golf resort located on the gorgeous coast of Carmel. I recommend driving Carmel’s famous 17-mile drive (known as one of the most scenic drives in the world) and then stopping by Pebble Beach Lodge on the 18th hole for brunch, lunch, or dinner. Even if you’re not a golfer, the views of Pebble Beach are second-to-none and well worth a stop.
Have kids with you or just want to check out one of the world’s best aquariums? Monterey Bay Aquarium is an amazing stop to make. They’re famous for their (adorable) otters, but you can also check out rays, sharks, octopus, penguins and more. I also love walking Canary Row, the downtown area of monterey, and peeking at the otters swimming in the wild right nearby. Monterey is an adorable little town to take a few hours and enjoy the day.
Fried artichoke hearts in the heart of artichoke country. Did you know that 99% of the world’s artichokes are grown in one little town in California, and it happens to be just off the 1?? I always make it a point to go to my favorite artichoke food truck here. Artichokes are my absolute favorite food in the world and these fried artichoke hearts are pure heaven.
This adorable berry farm right on Highway One has strawberry shortcakes, chocolate-dipped strawberries, strawberry lemonade, strawberry apple cider & more! Highly recommend pulling over and enjoying some of their amazing treats.
JETSET TIP: In the spring and summer you can even pick your own strawberries, such a fun road trip break!!
A trip to Big Sur isn’t complete without a stop at Nepenthe restaurant. I love to stop at Nepenthe for a drink and soak in the views once I get to Big Sur. High above the pacific and tucked into the Santa Lucia mountains, this world-famous restaurant boasts one of the best locations on the California coast as well as one of the best wine lists in the world. Their burgers and all-american food is absolutely delicious, but keep in mind it’s a little pricey and you’re definitely paying for the views, as well. So, if you’re looking for something a little more casual, grab a drink at Nepenthe but dinner at the local Big Sur Taphouse after.
Finding this taphouse was a huge highlight in Big Sur. While there are plenty of 5-star dining options on California’s most famous stretch of national park, after a day of roadtripping, this casual, historic, and rustic dinner spot was just what the doctor ordered. Did I mention the food is AMAZING? Grab a cozy table back by the fireplace, order the tacos or the sourdough melt, and relax with a Big Sur beer. The woodsy, old-timey restaurant will have you feeling like you’re in some wild wild west saloon in no time.
There aren’t that many options for staying overnight in Big Sur, but it was a huge priority of mine to make happen on my trip down the coast. Waking up surrounded by gorgeous redwoods just steps from the Pacific Coast? Yes please. If you’re a camper, Big Sur is a dream come true, with many campsites and popular camping trails. But if you’re roadtripping through, chances are you don’t have a tent on you, and you don’t want to have to pack for camping on top of everything else you’ve already packed… which is why I was SO excited when I found the Ventana Inn’s beautiful glampsite.
Glamping is all the benefits of camping – being out in the wilderness, roasting s’mores by the firepit, and cuddling under a blanket under the stars…. but with none of the hard work. Connected to a luxe resort, they have thought of everything at this glampsite, providing you with a safari tent complete with a super-comfy bed (so, don’t worry, it’s really more of a glam hotel room, not sleeping on the floor of a tent), electric warm blankets (that you control with a remote control by the bed), a fire pit and complimentary fire starters, a cooler packed with ice, comfy lounge chairs, a luxurious bath house, and so much more. Glamping was truly one of the most amazing and unique experiences I have ever had, and easily the highlight of my road trip. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Or stay in an airbnb near the coast!
Day Two: Exploring Big Sur to Pismo Beach & San Luis Obispo
One of the most photographed waterfalls in the world is McWay Falls in Big Sur – an 80-foot waterfall that runs year-round off a granite cliff at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. It’s an easy half-mile hike along Overlook Trail to get there, and definitely a must-stop on highway one.
Firestone Grill in San Luis Obispo
If you’re looking for the absolute best way to end a long day of driving – look no further than Firestone Grill’s world-famous tri tip sandwich and a local brew (or wine) on tap. San Luis Obispo is one of the cutest college towns- home to Cal Poly SLO, and has a ton of fun restaurants, bars, and even a Thursday Night farmers market that shuts down the main street to solely pedestrian traffic.
Ventana Grill in Pismo Beach
If you’re looking for a little more upscale dinner, head to Pismo Beach’s cliffside Ventana Grill for sunset. Their views will sweep you away and the food is just as good.
Day Three: San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles Wine Country to Santa Barbara
Although Paso Robles was a bit inland from Highway One, I knew I wanted to get there on my trip down the coast. This little tucked away area of California is known for their to-die-for Pinot Noirs and delicious rhone varietals. The best part about this area though? It could not be more laid-back and humble. There are more than 300 wineries, many of which have been awarded some of the top wine awards in the world, but you’ll be hard pressed to find the priceyness of Northern California and Napa Valley. Here in Paso Robles, the focus is on quality and experience. Most places in the area won’t even charge you for a wine tasting (unheard of in Napa where you can sometimes pay up to $80 for a single tasting).
Some of the most famous wineries are Justin Wines, J. Lohr, Daouo and Eberle. I only tasted at J. Lohr this trip (we had to get to Santa Barbara!), but learned so much about the wine culture of Paso Robles in that one tasting and I am just dying to get back there for a proper full winery-packed weekend trip.
Day Four: Santa Barbara to Malibu
This awesome beachfront area of Santa Barbara is chock-full of boutique wine tasting rooms, art galleries, eclectic shops, microbreweries, and farm-to-table restaurants that make it the hottest place to be on a weekend day. Make sure you check out the Santa Barbara Wine Collective for some delicious local wine flights, Les Marchands (started by the sommeliers in the famous netflix documentary Somm) and Corks and Crowns and definitely have a wood-fired pizza at Lucky Penny.
Head to the beach in Malibu or just take a walk on (or under) their famous pier.
El Matador State Park, Malibu, CA
This super-chic hotel is full of dreamy beach bungalows set directly across the street from Surfrider Beach, on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway.
Moonshadows Malibu overlooks the Pacific right on Highway One and is the perfect place to catch the sunset, grab a drink, or dine on their renowned seafood.
This delicious mexican restaurant, located just across from the pier, features a great happy hour menu from 5-7 (half off margs, apps, guac, tacos, and more). The food was delicious, and the vibe was great.
Day Five: Malibu and Los Angeles
No morning in Malibu is complete without a visit to Malibu Farm, a delicious local organic cafe, bakery, and restaurant on Malibu’s famous pier. The breakfast (and coffee) is as to-die-for as the views. If you’re staying at the Surfrider, it’s right across the street.
Santa Monica Pier
No trip down Highway One in California is complete without a finish at the gorgeous Santa Monica Pier. It’s been an LA icon for over 100 years and is still one of the most visited attractions in the city.
The Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows Santa Monica: This is my favorite hotel in LA. It’s classic california resort, across the street from the beach, connected to the Bungalow (great, sceney place for drinks) – and the Miramar restaurant is TO DIE FOR!
After checking out Santa Monica, walk over to Venice Beach, famous for its artist culture and quirky beachfront boardwalk, full of everything from street performers and vendors to the most famous skate park in California.
and of course…. no California road trip would be complete without…
In n’ Out Burger!!!!
order a double double animal style. You won’t be sorry.