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Take the open road: a 10-day road trip in California

Take the open road: a 10-day road trip in California

From blazing sunsets on Venice Beach to the towering waves of La Jolla Shores, this road trip will take you from San Francisco to San Diego along California’s Pacific Coast Highway.

Being one of the most iconic stretches of coastline in the world, it’s easy to see why a California road trip has become the ultimate travel goal for many. It’s easily accessible from multiple major airports and can be combined with stop-offs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, offering the perfect blend of city exploration and outdoor adventure.

san francisco

Start your road trip in San Francisco, with its fantastically diverse food scene and famously fog-clad hills.

Grab a coffee to go near Powell Street Station, where you’ll take the cable car down the steep Nob Hill, to Fisherman’s Wharf. Here, hundreds of barking sea lions sunbathe and plunge into the water at the Pier 39 docks. Watch them before exploring the wharf, popping into the psychedelic mirror maze, or looking at more marine life at Aquarium of the Bay.

Come lunchtime, grab a double-double burger at San Francisco’s only branch of In-N-Out – California’s most famous burger chain – or head to Taylor St. and pick from a line of local crab stands.

Spend the afternoon walking over the Golden Gate Bridge (pack layers, it gets windy!) or along the adjacent Baker Beach for epic views of the mile-wide strait, before heading to San Francisco’s Chinatown – the largest outside of Asia. It’s famously photogenic for its red street lanterns and temple pagodas. Round off the day with a hearty Sichuan hot pot at Spicy King.

Today is for exploring San Francisco’s world-leading museums and galleries. First up is the California Academy of Sciences: one of the largest natural history museums in the world housed in an expansive state-of-the-art building in Golden Gate Park. This museum boasts a planetarium, an aquarium and an indoor rainforest, and offers a huge range of exhibits to keep both children and adults entertained. Next, head east and drop into the Asian Art Museumwhich has more than 18,000 works – one of the largest collections of Asian art in the world.

Grab a steaming-hot bowl of Vietnamese pho in Little Saigon or a spicy burrito from the Latino Mission District for lunch, before you spend the rest of the afternoon at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). One of the USA’s largest modern art museums, it has 33,000 works of photography, painting and design in a vast, airy space.

Round off the day in one of San Francisco’s coolest neighborhoods, SoMa, which is packed with bars, galleries and restaurants. San Francisco is California’s culinary capital, with the Bay Area home to more three-star Michelin restaurants than anywhere else in the States. try Californiaa fine-dining Mexican restaurant serving innovative, epic tasting menus.

Start early in Golden Gate Park, where locals get a breath of fresh air in the Botanical Garden. Look out for the herds of buffalo and bison here, on your way to the Lands End Trail. Bring a picnic lunch for this four-mile hike from Sutro Baths – via rocky coastline, lighthouses and memorials – to Eagle Point Overlook, which provides photogenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stop in at the Walt Disney Family Museum after your hike, before taking a late-afternoon stroll through the Presidio of San Francisco park to the Marina District, where a lively restaurant and famously LGBTQ+ friendly nightlife scene is waiting to take care of your evening.

Drive down the Pacific coast to Santa Cruz, where you’ll pause for a day of whale watching and surfing. Spend the morning on a surfboard and the afternoon on a whale-watching boat, keeping your eyes peeled for grays, blues and humpbacks.

Los Angeles

The City of Angels is a vibrant, diverse metropolis that’s tied to its natural surroundings thanks to its mountainous backdrop and sun-soaked coast.

Start at bohemian Venice Beach, strolling along the boardwalk from the skatepark all the way to the open-air gym at Muscle Beach, enjoying street artists along the way.

After a street-food lunch, spend the afternoon on foot exploring the Venice Canal Historic District – a pretty neighborhood that lines four rowboat-dotted canals, interconnected by paths, docks and bridges.

Have an early dinner of Baja-style small plates at Gjelina (allegedly a favorite of Beyoncé) so you have time to get back to the beach for sunset. Then, explore the area’s laid-back nightlife with a couple of beers at Venice Ale House.

Take an early-morning hike from the Griffith Observatory to LA’s most iconic landmark: the Hollywood sign. The full route is around nine miles long so take plenty of water if you want to tackle the whole thing. A option shorter is the Burbank Peak Traila three-mile round trip which should only take a couple of hours.

Once you’ve snapped a few photos, head to downtown LA for the afternoon. Grab some Texan BBQ street food at Grand Central Market before spending a couple of hours admiring modern art by the likes of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Come dusk, seek out a rooftop bar for sundowners and snacks – we love the quesadillas and happy hour cocktails at the Ace Hotel.

Start your day on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which showcases some 2,600 brass stars, bearing the names of celebrities, embedded along Hollywood Boulevard. Don’t miss the TCL Chinese Theaterwhere movie stars’ hand- and footprints are immortalized in the concrete paving slabs.

Then, you’ll want to spend the rest of the day at LA’s best-loved theme park, Universal Studios. It’s worth the splurge to take a tour of the real film sets and go on themed rides – before getting a Duff beer at The Simpsons’ Moe’s Tavern or a butterbeer in Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade.

San Diego

On the Mexican border, California’s laid-back surf capital is the USA’s westernmost city, famed for its diverse neighborhoods, outdoor lifestyle and having the best tacos in the country.

San Diego is blessed with more than 60 beaches and 27 miles of ocean coastline, making it ideal for watersports like surfing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. Spend the morning in the waves at Mission Beach and grab lunch on its boardwalk – perhaps at the Beach House Grill at the amusement park, originally built in 1925 (you can still ride the old-school Giant Dipper Roller Coaster).

Continue the outdoors experience on a hiking or biking trail. Annie’s Canyon Trail takes you through a sandstone canyon, while Daley Ranch offers over 20 recreational trails for hikers, bikers and horse riders, 30 miles northeast of the city.

Today is for soaking up the city’s diverse neighborhoods, starting in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park – the birthplace of California. A beautifully preserved collection of 19th-century homes provides a glimpse into early colonial life, and the Whaley House Museum – built on a former gallows’ site – is one of two officially haunted houses in California.

Get some lunch at one of the Old Town’s authentic Mexican eateries, such as El-Agave – which is as beloved for its extensive tequila collection as it is for its iconic tacos.

Spend the afternoon exploring Barrio Logan – San Diego’s oldest Mexican-American neighborhood – starting at its heart: the open-air art gallery of colorful murals in Chicano Park. Over 80 paintings cover the concrete Coronado Bridge and the rest of the neighborhood continues to be one huge canvas, covered in graffiti and historical murals.

After all that walking, you’ll be ready for a craft beer at Border X Brewing – try their hibiscus-infused brew.

Finish off your road trip in California with a day trip to its closest neighbour: Mexico. Staying in San Diego gives visitors the chance to have a ‘two nation vacation’, meaning you can hop over the border for a few hours – you can even walk over the San Ysidro crossing into Tijuana.

Head to El Popo market for an instant hit of Mexican culture, in the form of fresh produce, pots of sun-dried chilis and handmade jewelery stands. Or, Avenida Revolución in Zona Centro is a great day-trip spot for crafts and clothes stalls, plus street food stands cooking up tostadas and quesadillas.

Back in San Diego, party your last night away in LGBTQ+ friendly Hillcrest – a neighborhood packed full of bars and clubs. Don’t miss the gay dive bar Number One Fifth Avenue for fun pre-drinks, before dancing into the early hours in the nightclub-packed Gaslamp District.

Take me there

Fancy a West Coast road trip? don’t forget to apply for an ESTAtake a look at our latest deals and double-check all entry conditions with our live COVID-19 travel map before booking.

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