Visiting California is like going to Europe. Short of moving there, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in a single trip, which, all things considered, is just fine, because you’ll want to visit more than once.
With so many sights and attractions to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin. If you’ve got the time, a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, is the perfect way to get your feet wet.
City By The Bay
You can either rent a car when you arrive in San Francisco, or wait until you’re ready to move on.
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), the rail and subway system, and MUNI (San Francisco Municipal Railway), the city’s public transportation system that includes buses, light rail and cable cars, make it relatively easy to get around the city without a car.
Contrary to popular belief, few locals ride the cable cars anywhere; they are slow, expensive ($7 per person/per ride), and often teeming with tourists, who wait in long lines to board. That said, you have to do it at least once, just to say you did. After that, walk, use public transit or Uber your way around.
A great way to get the lay of the land is to take a bike tour with Dylan’s Tours (www.dylanstours.com). The $89 price tag is well-worth the six hours you’ll spend traversing the city — 20 miles in all.
You’ll visit places like famous hippie haunt Haight-Ashbury, as well as Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park and a handful of other fun stops including the houses used in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and the iconic “Full House” series.
And don’t worry about sore legs; the bikes are electric, making short work of San Francisco’s hilly streets. Dylan’s also offers various guided minibus tours for non-bikers or anyone who prefers to let someone else do the work.
If you’re headed to Alcatraz, and pretty much everyone is, make sure to book tickets well in advance of your visit. The only official site for tour tickets is Alcatraz Cruises (www.alcatrazcruises.com), and especially during peak summer season, tickets often sell out weeks, even months in advance.
Depending on how long you’re staying in the city, set aside time to eat lunch or dinner at Burma Superstar (www.burmasuperstar.com). Serving up fabulous Burmese dishes like Pumpkin Pork Stew and Tea Leaf Salad, the eatery is a local institution.
Since there are no reservations, it’s common to find enthusiasts lining up outside up to an hour before it opens, so get there early and be prepared to wait.
An hour north of San Francisco is Muir Woods (www.nps.gov/muwo), a must-see for anyone who has ever dreamed of standing beneath a towering canopy of redwoods.
The park is extraordinary, the experience humbling, and the parking … a nightmare. If you’re planning to go between May and October, the Muir Woods Shuttle (www.marintransit.org/ routes/66.html) brings visitors back and forth from Sausalito, a charming seaside city just a short, 30-minute, ferry ride away from San Francisco, and worth a visit on its own merit.
Combine the two for a memorable day trip by taking the Sausalito Ferry from the San Francisco Ferry Terminal, located in the Financial District.
Before departing, however, take some time to wander through The Ferry Building Marketplace (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com) to grab some food, do some shopping or simply admire the historic building and its array of diverse vendors.
Heading south on Route 1, it’ll take about three hours to get to Monterey, where there’s plenty to do. Most people take a day to visit its renowned aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org), as well as the famous Cannery Row (www.canneryrow.com), once a fish-packing district, now home to a bevy of shops and restaurants.
But, really, it’s the unparalleled scenery along the PCH beginning in Monterey and points south that’s the true showstopper. Driving along the bluffs, high above the Pacific, the view is both brilliant and dizzying.
With sheer drops and hairpin turns, it’s also a little scary. Fortunately, there are a fair number of scenic overlooks for breaks and pictures.
Consider stopping for lunch or dinner at Rocky Point Restaurant (www.rockypointrestaurant.com), located 10 miles south of Carmel. Perched atop a breathtaking vista, the view is to die for . Sure, it’s $19 for a hamburger, but it’s not the food you’re buying, and it’s worth it. Just up the road from Rocky Point, on the Big Sur coast, stands Bixby Bridge.
Spanning 260 feet above Bixby Creek, it’s one of the most photographed bridges along the California coastline and you’ll likely have to work for a parking spot. But to leave without a photo of your own is unthinkable, so it’s mandatory , and you’ll be glad you did.
About midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is the quaint village of Cambria (www.visitcambriaca .com), the ideal place to spend a few days recharging your batteries at one of its handful of charming hotels or inns.
With quiet solitude and stunning Pacific views, it’s the kind of place that sticks with you, long after you’ve left.
Hearst Castle (www.hearstcastle.com), the former home of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, is a popular attraction in nearby San Simeon. Set high atop a hill, with a gorgeous view of the Pacific coastline, the museum offers various guided tours of the grand mansion and its lavish grounds, starting at about $25 for adults and $12 for kids.
Along the same stretch of road are several elephant seal viewing areas (www.elephantseal.org).
Named for their giant size and the males’ protruding noses, elephant seals come ashore twice a year (December through March, and again in early summer) to mate and molt. They are a remarkable sight, stretched out along the beach and repeatedly flicking sand onto their bodies to prevent getting a sunburn.
City Of Angels
Vast, sprawling and home to possibly the worst traffic in the country, Los Angeles can be overwhelming. You won’t get anywhere quickly, so be strategic in your planning, and tailor where you stay around what you plan to see.
A convenient way to tick off some of the city’s top attractions is to take A Day in LA tour (www.adayinlatours.com). Like the name implies, it’s a full day of sightseeing aboard a comfortable, “Rasta” minibus, with a knowledgeable guide providing interesting facts and navigating the traffic, so you don’t have to.
Stops include Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive, Griffith Park (with a fabulous telescope and views of the Hollywood sign), the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and The Farmer’s Market at the Grove.
It’s a bit pricey at about $100 per person (plus gratuity), but it’ll be the best money you’ve ever spent (no, seriously) just to avoid having to drive.
Bordered on three sides by Los Angeles, Santa Monica is an upscale, beachfront city full of great shopping, restaurants and a hopping nightlife. The Santa Monica Pier (www.santamonicapier.org) along an oceanfront promenade has been around since 1909, and is a mecca for tourists and locals alike.
Offering a wide array of food, gaming, as well as the Pacific Park amusement center, it’s a popular destination. On warm nights, the bright lights and bustle serve as a magnet, drawing in throngs of people who come to ride the ocean-view Ferris wheel, take a swim or just stroll along the expansive beach late into the evening.
A dozen miles northwest of LA is the city of Burbank. Host to numerous entertainment companies including Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and NBC, it’s where many films and television shows like “Ellen” and “Conan” are produced.
It’s also the location of Warner Bros. Studios. Studio tours (Basic and Deluxe) are available starting at about $62 for adults, and $55 for kids (www.wbstudiotour.com). The Basic Tour lasts two to three hours, and takes guests through backlots, soundstages and the prop department for a thoroughly fun glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes.
Highlights include a stop at the café used in the film “La La Land,” a visit to the set of one of Warner Bros.’ hit TV shows like “Big Bang Theory” (no pictures allowed, sorry), and the chance to hang out at Central Perk, the coffee shop preserved from the set of “Friends.”
Finally, while staying in LA, set aside a day for Malibu, home of the rich and famous.
While it’s entirely possible you’ll encounter any number of A-Listers who own property there, that’s not the reason to go. Instead, go for the lush scenery, the cliff-hugging ride
and El Matador State Beach (www.parks.ca.gov).
Before going, however, know that it’s difficult to access, and parking is nearly nonexistent. Most folks either cram into the postage-stamp lot, or park along the PCH, but the reward is a photographer’s dream.
High bluffs, unusual rock formations and a craggy shoreline make for an ideal backdrop, drawing scores of wanna-be models, selfie-enthusiasts, and pretty much anyone else who owns a camera.
But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then this one easily says it all, capturing the true essence of California’s undeniable allure in just a single snapshot.