The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
When it comes to America’s best road trips, it’s hard to beat the Pacific Coast Highway. Driving Highway 1 means hours cruising along stunning bluffs overlooking the Pacific, plus designated vista points for sparkling ocean views. And, of course, there are plenty of restaurants (Korean barbecue!), beaches (Santa Barbara!), and attractions (the Henry Miller Memorial Library!) along the way.
There's arguably something for everyone. For animal lover's there's the Elephant Seal Rookery at San Piedras Beach in San Simeon, where more than 15,000 elephant seals migrate every year. From the viewing platform, you can watch them all flop around in the sand. That's about the best roadside attraction there is.
For posh eaters, a restaurant along Big Sur offers a $55 prix fixe lunch menu and, perhaps more notably, what could be one of the most beautiful views on the planet. Further south, just outside of Santa Barbara, nosh on fish tacos, bao buns, and kimchi fries. In L.A., eat some of the best Korean barbecue in the United States, tasting pitch-perfect Waygu beef (grilled tableside, of course) and savory kimchee pancakes—all at a no-frills restaurant in a strip mall.
For those that love nightlife, hidden bars along the route serve inventive cocktails using high tech equipment and ingredients like coconut flakes and grapefruit sand. And in case you're tired of the speakeasy concept, keep in mind that one of L.A.'s newest offerings has an '80s theme and private karaoke rooms.
I recently hit the road with the mission of plotting out the best itinerary for a weekend trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Here’s my play-by-play guide, complete with stops for photos in Big Sur, antiques shopping in Solvang, and craft cocktails at one of L.A.’s newest speakeasies.
Looking to finally take that perfect California road trip? Read on.
9 a.m.: Breakfast at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco
If you’re departing from San Francisco, it’s a good idea to kick-start the morning with a hearty breakfast. Welcome to the Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero, an 1898 transit hub that’s something of an icon thanks to its handsome white clock tower. Inside, you’ll find artisanal bakeries, cheese shops, cafes, and a mushroom shop. Grab a coffee at the Oakland-born Blue Bottle and a pastry at the Acme Bread Company. For something heartier, order an egg and cheese sandwich from Cowgirl Creamery Artisan Cheese Shop.
Noon: Stop for Photos at Bixby Bridge in Big Sur
It’ll take you about three hours to reach Big Sur from San Francisco, and by then you’ll be ready to stretch your legs. As soon as you hit the section of the Pacific Coast Highway connecting Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur, you’ll start seeing vista points where you can pull off the road and take photos. Be sure not to miss the one approaching Bixby Bridge. Sure, there will be plenty of other tourists getting out of their cars to take selfies, but with a stunning view like that, how can you blame them? Join in and snap away—you’ll want to remember this landscape forever.
12:30 p.m.: Lunch at Nepenthe in Big Sur
After you’ve taken your fill of photos, it’ll be time to fill your stomach. If you feel like splurging, the Post Ranch Inn’s restaurant Sierra Mar offers a $55 prix fixe lunch menu and a chance to dine at a restaurant with one of the world’s best views. For more casual fare, where you can relax with equally fantastic views of the Pacific, stop at Nepenthe, which serves sandwiches and salads in a rustic lodge dating back to the 1940s.
1:30 p.m.: Visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur
Big Sur has a long and storied literary history, and seeing the natural beauty of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, it’s easy to understand why. Walt Whitman wrote about its charms and the Beats found endless inspiration in the landscape and bohemian way of life. Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962, and his experiences inspired his book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. The Henry Miller Memorial Library stands on the site of the home of Miller’s friend Emil White, who dedicated it to him when Miller died.
3 p.m.: Stop to see the elephant seals in San Simeon
As you continue south on Route 1, you can’t miss the Elephant Seal Rookery at San Piedras Beach in San Simeon. Over 15,000 elephant seals migrate here every year. From the viewing platform, you can watch them all flop around in the sand.
6:30 p.m.: Explore the Danish town of Solvang
Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley is the charmingly anomalous town of Solvang, settled in the early 20th century by Danish pioneers. Take a quick detour off of Route 1 to explore this village full of Danish architecture, antique shops, restaurants, and more. The town square features a bust of Hans Christian Andersen and there’s a replica of Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid statue. For a quick break, pop into the family-owned Mortensen’s Danish bakery for strudel, butter cookies, and other treats.
8 p.m.: Check in at the Goodland and Dine at Outpost
After a full day of driving, you’ll be ready for a good meal and some R&R. The Goodland, a Kimpton Hotel just outside of Santa Barbara, offers both—plus cocktails and SoCal vibes to boot. The retro-inspired hotel centers on the pool, where bands perform live music in the evenings and people gather around fire pits with margaritas and beers. Grab a table on Outpost’s terrace and order fish tacos, bao buns, and kimchi fries for an eclectic feast. After dinner, unwind with a nitecap at the Goodbar or head up to your room, with its plush bed, coastal furnishings, and turntable.
9 a.m.: Breakfast at Renaud’s Patisserie in Santa Barbara
In the morning, head over to Renaud’s Patisserie, a Santa Barbara standby just a short drive from the Goodland for excellent pastries or organic eggs prepared any style.
Noon: Admire the Getty Center’s Art and Architecture
Before heading into the heart of Los Angeles, stop at the Getty Center to get your culture fix. Oil tycoon and art collector J. Paul Getty originally built the Getty Villa in Malibu to house his collection of European art, and his foundation continues to fund the museum as well as the newer Getty Center designed by Richard Meier. Ride the tram up to the top of the hill and spend a few hours exploring the grounds—they have excellent views thanks to their lofty vantage point—and the galleries within.
3 p.m.: Check in at The Line in Los Angeles
Opened in 2014, the ultra-hip The Line is not only a great base for exploring L.A.’s up-and-coming Koreatown neighborhood, but is also a destination in and of itself. The revamped midcentury building features a raw but polished aesthetic (think exposed concrete custom furnishings and original art), two great restaurants and a café by Roy Choi, an outdoor pool, and an ‘80s-themed speakeasy by the Houston brothers (complete with private karaoke chambers). Be sure to request a room with a view of the Hollywood Hills—the beds face the windows so you can wake up to a stunning vista.
7 p.m.: Feast on Korean Barbecue at Park’s BBQ
While you could easily stay within the bounds of The Line and dine at Roy Choi’s Pot, you’d be remiss not to venture out and see what else the neighborhood has to offer. Beeline to Park’s BBQ, a no-frills restaurant in a strip mall, for authentic Korean barbecue that draws locals and celebrities alike. Get ready to feast on shrimp or Waygu beef grilled tableside and a smorgasbord of sides, including veggies and savory kimchee pancakes.
9 p.m. Cocktails at the Walker Inn
Make sure to reserve your spot at the new hidden cocktail den by bartending impresarios Dave Kaplan, Alex Day, and Devon Tarby. You can order from the book, but your best bet is to choose the omakase-style service. One of the expert bartenders will guide you through the rotating menu, tailoring the selections to your preferences. The inventive cocktails are made using high tech equipment and each one is artfully presented in its own type of glass, with accouterments that might include coconut flakes and grapefruit sand or a sprig of sage.