10 Day California Road Trip
10 days in California is just enough time to take in some of the best coastal views, the most breathtaking national park, a Spanish town and the chilled vibes of LA.
Day 1: Santa Monica
Collect your hire car at LAX and take the short ride to Santa Monica, L.A.’s hippie-chic, beach-loving little sister. Lined with wide beaches and its iconic pier that’s topped with carnival rides and restaurants, packed with independent coffee shops, creative restaurants and trendy boutiques. Spend the day exploring the area, taking a walk along the boardwalk as you settle into the laid-back L.A. lifestyle.
Later head to Abbot Kinney Ave for dinner and drinks, lined with the coolest little independent bars, cafes and restaurants.
Day 2: Explore L.A.
An early morning yoga session followed by delicious brunch should set you up perfectly for a day of exploring. One of my favourite things about L.A. is the opportunities to get outside into nature with great hikes in the hills. What’s more, you can tick off the Hollywood sign at the same time. This was a little confusing to research and is made to sound a little more tricky than it actually is.
Park on Canyon Lake Drive. From here it looks as though you’re already there making this a great L.A. outdoor activity for all abilities. Park your car and start walking up the hill, you’ll find lots of vantage points with fantastic views of the sign.
You can keep going as far as you like, there will be other people doing the same walk so it’s super easy to know where to go. We walked quite high up and just turned around when we felt like it. It’s much warmer here than in Santa Monica with it’s cooling sea breeze so make sure you dress appropriately and bring water.
A good walk calls for a great lunch. The Butchers Daughter has a lovely patio where we snagged the front row for a spot of people watching in the sun.
Heading back into Santa Monica, we rented bicycles from our hotel (there are lots of rental shops around the area that google can help with). Head down to the beach promenade, full of people cycling or skating and generally enjoying the outdoor opportunities.
I did a casual cycle from Santa Monica Pier going south until the promenade finishes, just after Venice and just before Marina del Rey. It gets really quirky with lots of things to stop and see, the lifeguard huts in Venice, the bustle of Venice Beach Boardwalk and of course Muscle Beach where there are guaranteed to be some big muscular people keen to show you what they’ve been working on.
Cycle back to Shutters on the Beach for a tea or cocktail, depending on how the weathers been for you.
For dinner ideas head over to my post about the delectable foodie options in L.A. I had been so excited to visit Little Pine (you need to book ahead) so we headed over to Silver Lake for a delicious Friday night.
Day 3: L.A. to Santa Barbara
Up early for a last L.A. yoga session washed down with a bowl of açai to prepare for some upcoming days of sitting in a car.
It is exciting finding the entrance to the Pacific Coast Highway just close to Santa Monica as it led us along the waterfront heading north away from the city. It was a cloudy foggy day in L.A. but that didn’t stop the queues of cars trying going to the beach, I soon found out that there is no such thing as bad weather for Californians and any excuse for a beach day is good enough for them.
After a few hours along the coast we arrived in Santa Barbara, an elegant city that hugs the coastal hills, where classic Spanish architecture and sun-washed Riviera looks can easily lead you to question whether you accidentally drove all the way to the Mediterranean coast. An earthquake in 1925 followed by a romantic look back to the region's Spanish visitors 150 years earlier resulted in the current Spanish colonial-style architecture, red-tiled roofs & whitewashed courtyards.
Stop in the town centre for lunch and a wander through the shopping area that is steeped in the classic Santa Barbara architecture. We ate at Natural Cafe and bagged one of the outdoor tables in the sun for a spot of Santa Barbara watching.
Visit the beautiful Old Mission Santa Barbara, known as “The Queen of the Mission’s”, surrounded by grass it’s a spot for families and friends to lazily enjoy a sunny afternoon.
Then head back into town to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the grandest building in town where the Spanish-Moorish castle-like influences are obvious and the Bell Tower provides views across the city to the bay.
Again, our hotel had bicycles so we spent the afternoon cycling the palmtree-lined promenade. We stumbled upon Chromatic Gate where you can come as close as possible to walking through a rainbow.
Cycling here is really beautiful, it’s much less busy than Santa Monica with towering trees, drum circles popping up and people just enjoying life.
You can’t visit the waterfront without exploring the picturesque Sterns Wharf. Badly damaged by fire several times, it has been beautifully rebuilt and has one of the best views in all of California from the end of its pier.
Tucked into the Santa Ynez valley, Santa Barbara is surrounded by award-winning wineries. So it was back to our hotel where they have complimentary wine tastings every day around sunset to taste some of the local grapes in the setting of the typical Californian palms.
Dinner at Mesa Verde is an absolute must. I was really torn, wanting everything on the menu and shamefully ended up ordering enough to feed a small village, but it was all worth the night time overeating sweats. Think ‘chorizo’ tacos, butternut & blackbean empanadas, polenta fries, lasagne, Moroccan tajine, and you’ll have a rough idea of what the table in front of me looked like.
Day 4: Santa Barbara to Carmel-by-the-Sea
Today was Easter Sunday so everywhere I wanted to try for breakfast was closed. Which led me to stumble across Breakfast Culture Club which had delicious avocado toast, juices and matcha (and coffee) and turned out to be a cool hangout with a surfers vibe.
The navigation was set for Solvang, the ‘Danish Capital of the USA’, with my very own Viking behind the wheel there was no avoiding it. The town was founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who travelled west to establish a Danish colony that was far from midwestern winters. Architecture is built in Danish style with half-timbered houses, a Round Tower, Danish rural church and a Little Mermaid replica, plus red and white Danish flags hanging everywhere. If Denmark is on your bucket-list but you still haven’t made it, this is a good close second.
Heading back towards Highway One, Shine Cafe in Morro Bay is a great lunch stop with delicious meals and a health shop to stock up on essential road trip snacks.
From here is where the views get really special and the stops more regular. Piers stretch out into the California seas as the road hugs the coastal cliffs.
The beaches close to San Simeon are full of Elephant Seals with the pregnant females coming in to give birth and nurse their newborn pups. There were hundreds along a small stretch of beach that I could have watched all day long.
Note that a little after this, Highway One was closed for a long stretch. The signs were bad/non-existant so along with many others, you get all the way to the blockage before finding out how far you have to drive back to go inland and around, adding a few hours to the drive.
It’s worth going as far as you can before turning off though because it was around here that the road turned into the Pacific Coast Highway that we’d come to see. There’s little information about the closures online but try to check in advance if possible.
Just in time for sunset, we arrived in Carmel at our beautiful hotel, the Hyatt Carmel Highlands, tucked up in the hills above Carmel offering up prime sunset views from our sea front balcony.
Whatsmore, their Pacific’s Edge restaurant serves a plant-based tasting menu which was one of the most delicious feasts I’ve had and in such a beautiful setting.
Day 5: Monterey, Carmel & Big Sur Coastline
Into Pacific Grove, on the edge of Moterey, for breakfast at Tilli Gort’s Organic Cafe, a longstanding vegan & veggie restaurant since 1969, which you can feel in the diner-like slightly dated vibe.
Monterey has a lot of history but is more industrial with hints to it’s fishery days. Head south along the coastal road, stopping at the many view points along the way.
You will eventually reach the 17 Mile Drive in Pebble Beach which requires a $10 payment to get in but is well worth it. Follow the red-dotted line between iconic golf courses to see the inspiring Lone Cypress sitting out all alone in the sea, Bird Island which is covered by birds, Seal Rock home to lots of happy seals as well as beautiful secluded beaches and lots of multi-million dollar homes that will have you checking your lottery tickets.
Carmel is much more quaint with a cosy village-feel. Visit the Carmel Mission for one of the states most beautiful sights. Stroll the white sands of dog-friendly Carmel Beach and get lost in the secret alleyways of the town, winding between galleries and cosy inns.
Continue south to Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge, the most photographed spot along the Big Sur coastline.
Stop at numerous turnouts that give you magnificent views of the bridge and the coastline beyond.
Carmel was so cosy that we headed back in for dinner and stumbled across a cute little restaurant called Basil which had some good vegan options and where we noticed that nearly everyone else in the restaurant was ordering exactly the same vegan dish as us.
Day 6: Carmel to Yosemite
Begin with a trip to Whole Foods in Monterey to stock up on supplies for Yosemite and because well, who needs an excuse to go to Whole Foods? Food options in Yosemite are limited so it’s good idea to have some picnic and road trip supplies. We got really into our picnics and headed down to Monterey Beach to have a breakfast picnic to kick off our day.
Arrive at Yosemite through the El Portal entrance along the State Route 140 which is the most scenic entrance travelling up the Merced River Canyon. It’s $30 for a 7 day pass (the shortest pass) and having a car makes visiting the area so much easier.
Yosemite National Park is a jaw-dropper of a park and it’s not surprising that it’s also a Unesco World Heritage site. Waterfall-striped granite walls, the emerald-green Yosemite Valley and sky scraping giant sequoias, visitors are undoubtedly mesmerised by the natural beauty packed into Yosemite.
Start your visit at Tunnel View which gives views across Yosemite Valley with El Capitan to the left, Bridalveil Fall on the right and Half Dome filling the centre. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch to get your Yosemite bearings, where the view was so special that we just kept coming back. Many of the main sights in the Yosemite National Park are conveniently close together. You’ll get a map on arrival and will probably want to pull over quite often to take in picture perfect sight after picture perfect sight.
We did the short walk to Mirror Lake, famed for the splendid sights of Mt Watkins and Half Dome being reflected in the tranquil waters. The lake is a special tranquil spot where you feel completely lost in nature while being in total awe of the sights around you.
Bridalveil Fall is a short walk away and provides such a treat. At least on the day of my visit, it was worth having something waterproof on with the sheer amount of water being thrown down the fall providing more spray than your morning shower. It’s very worth persevering through to see the beautiful late afternoon rainbow that is created with the sun meeting the water which is a sight in a million.
Soaked, head back up to Tunnel View to experience the change in colours as the sun sets behind you. In spring, the days are warm but it changes very quickly as the sun sets so have some layers with you for this.
Accommodation is scarce in the National Park. There are lots of camping sites as well as private cabins and more formal accommodation, but because of where you are you can expect to pay a premium. We stayed at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which is a national historic landmark and the most upscale lodging in the park. It is described as ‘luxury’ which was maybe awarded relative to local options because the brown walls and carpet that seemed to have been there since the hotel opened were far from luxury. The restaurant is beautiful and far more elegant than you would expect in the middle of a forest. A pianist plays while the vast banquet hall is lit up by candles, and there are plant-based options to choose from.
Day 7: Yosemite National Park
Set your alarm well before the sun is scheduled to rise to head out for this special time. We, along with all of the other visiting photographers, headed to Tunnel View where the sun rises behind Half Dome. There’s something truly special about being here without the hordes of tourists and allows you time to reflect on the stunning beauty of where you are.
Soon after, head to Yosemite Falls. This is another great one to visit before everyone else arrives. And another fall that made my day with a rainbow emerging where the water crashed. Visiting in the Spring meant thunderous runoffs that are as magical as they are humbling.
For the rest of the day we drove around looking out for picturesque spots, and did we find some picturesque spots! This included getting slightly lost when free-styling a walking route along the shores of the Merced River, resulting in bear calls and a gentle jog. There’s something special about finding your own special spot, but there’s so much talk of bears that you don’t want to stray too far from the trodden path.
Head to Tunnel View again for sunset but this time take the short hike up behind the car park where the serenity feels as though you have this wonder all to yourself.
Day 8: Not to Death Valley! Instead back to L.A.
We had planned to drive from Yosemite to Death Valley which look very close on a map, but it was only once we were there that we realised it is actually at least an 8-hour drive followed by another 5 hours to get to L.A. For one night we decided it wasn’t worth it plus I had become so in love with L.A. and had so many restaurants that I wanted to check out that I was more than happy to have an extra day there.
Set off from Yosemite early to get to L.A. for lunchtime.
Stay in Beverly Hills to get a different perspective of the city and because the temperature is a few degrees warmer away from the sea. We checked into trendy design-hotel Sixty Beverly Hills Hotel which had one of the comfiest beds I’ve ever enjoyed and a stunning rooftop bar complete with swimming pool.
Gratitude Beverly Hills is a great lunch spot with outdoor seating and delicious food complete with affirmations to make you really smile about life. Afterwards take a walk along Rodeo Drive to experience the glitz and glam of Beverly Hills, lined with designer store after designer store and tour buses running up and down to point out who shops wear.
Make sure to pop to Sprinkles for a very special twist on a traditional ATM.
Sixty Beverly Hills is a great spot to enjoy the late afternoon sun. In the evening head nearby to Gracias Madre, authentic Mexican food with an outdoor patio filled with olive trees - you might mistakenly think you’re actually in Mexico.
L.A. is famous for it’s speakeasy bars. The Roger Room nearby claims to have the best cocktails in town and if you manage to find the entrance you’ll find out that they are pretty good. A small, narrow, intimate room with art deco design and still bearing the name of the previous owner, its a more authentic speakeasy than many of the newbies.
Day 9: L.A.
The unofficial uniform in L.A. is the gym kit. Almost everyone everywhere is either on their way to the gym, back from the gym, or just likes the idea of looking like they’re going to the gym. As a regular Barry’s Bootcamper in London, I was ridiculously excited to take a class at the home of Barry’s, where it all began in West Hollywood, so kicked the day off with a morning sweat session. And once I was in sweat mode, I went to check out the hype behind Y7 Yoga Studios (read more here).
M Café is a great place for breakfast with so many natural and organic options on the menu. Fueled up, we headed up to the Griffith Observatory. Views here take in the entire LA Basin as well as the surrounding mountains and on a clear day the Pacific Ocean.
The landmark observatory gives an insight into the universe with the world’s most advanced star projector. The Zeiss Telescope on the east side of the roof gives sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills with more telescopes coming out in the evening. On my next trip to L.A. I can’t wait to visit the Griffith Observatory after sunset to see L.A. lit up and gaze up at the stars above.
For a lunch, don’t miss Crossroads Kitchen where you can taste the Impossible Burger as well as a long list of other delicious items. It’s only available for lunch during the week so make sure you time your visit well.
The Walk of Fame is so synonymous with L.A. that its one to tick off. It was surprisingly easy to park for free on one of Hollywood Blvd’s side roads and you don’t need more than 10 minutes to see what it is and then carry on your day. Stars line the pavement on both of the road which is simultaneously lined with touristy shops and people dressed up like movie characters for money. Mickey Mouse’s star was the highlight for me.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the largest museum in the western US, is home to all the major players, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Ansel Adams, as well as millenia’s worth of Chienese, Japanese, ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures. You could easily spend a whole day here. And it’s just as beautiful outside as it is in. It has recently acquired Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation with hundreds of vintage LA streetlamps that has been propelled to stardom by social media. Spend the afternoon exploring LACMA for yourself.
Check to see if there are any sporting events during your visit, the US really does these well. Having been to a Nets game in NYC, I was really excited to enjoy the buzzy atmosphere of a Lakers game and I was in luck with them playing at home on our last night. After the game we headed to Echo Park, L.A.’s hip east-side neighbourhood, a haven for dive bars, casual dining and live music. Mohawk Bend serves wood fired vegan pepperoni pizzas well into the late evening and there’s nothing better to finish off an evening of basketball with.
Day 10: L.A. to LAX
The sunrise from the rooftop on Sixty Beverly Hills Hotel is worth getting out of bed for and leads perfectly into the last California yoga session.
Having visited Little Pine for dinner on Day 2, I accidentally stumbled across the Brunch menu and couldn’t really think about anything else since. So, booking ahead (this place is popular) my final morning was spent savouring the delights of the ‘sausage’ sliders, pancakes and a cinnamon roll to go. Fellow brunch diners included Moby, it was so nice to see that he is very much part of this very special restaurant, plus he’s such a vegan legend that it felt good to be eating my last Californian meal amongst great company.
Drive back along Mulholland Drive, taking in the views from up in the hills and lusting after some of the most beautiful houses that have ever been built. From here we drove towards the airport through Santa Monica, taking a final gaze at the wide sandy beaches. Continue south, reaching the Venice Canals, which gives a completely different experience of Venice than it’s famed beachfront. Marina del Rey provides a nice little bit of boat lusting just before LAX.
And so my Californian roadtrip came to an end. L.A. is protrayed in so many ways on the screen that I shamefully came with so many misconceptions. I was so surprised by the reality of what I encountered, a chilled city full of dreamers where you can be whatever you want to be and enjoy it. So many outdoor opportunities and living in a big city, it’s always nice to get away with some days in nature. It’s hard to pick a highlight, the coastal views, Yosemite, the delicious food, all I know is that California is a state that I fits my state of mind so well and I already can’t wait to come back.