One of the most picturesque drives in the world is along the California coast on the Pacific Coast Highway. The typical route is to start in the Bay Area near San Francisco, continue through the beautiful beach towns of Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, drive over the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, journey through the mission town of San Luis Obispo, make a foodie pit stop in the Santa Ynez Valley, venture forth to Santa Barbara, and finish your trip in sunny Los Angeles. There’s stunning scenery and jaw-dropping landscapes along the way, including some of the most beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and wildlife. This is a once-in-a-lifetime drive, so we recommend taking your sweet time and enjoying the ride. Life is about the journey, after all. Of course, you’ll need to make some pit stops on the way, so we’ve compiled a list of all our favorite coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants, and hotels along Highway One. Jump in your convertible, roll the top down, and turn up The Beach Boys. Buckle up – here’s our guide to the California coast.
We actually started our drive an hour north of San Francisco, in the small town of Healdsburg. This town is absolutely worth a visit for any foodie on the road, so we’re including our Healdsburg recommendations here. What are you waiting for? Add Healdsburg to your itinerary! To get your caffeine fix, pay a visit to Black Oak Coffee. This is a really high level local coffee shop, serving single-origin pour-overs as well as espresso-based drinks. It was easily some of the best coffee we found along our road trip. If you’re a pastry lover, you need to hit up Quail and Condor, an incredible bakery from former Single Thread chefs. We tried a selection of pastries, including the rosemary vanilla morning bun, a giant cinnamon roll with cream cheese frosting, a parmesan and onion biscuit, and a ham and cheese croissant. The same owners also have a sandwich shop called Troubadour Sando, where they are making delicious sandwiches, like roasted chicken with pan drippings and fresh truffle, and egg salad on fluffy milk bread. (Pro tip: wrap up some of these sandwiches for when you get hungry on the road.) They also have some sweet treats for sale here, too, like a delicious yuzu tart with whipped cream.
Of course, the main reason for our visit to Healdsburg was to dine at Single Thread, our favorite restaurant in the US. This three-Michelin-starred farm-to-table restaurant is absolutely worth planning a trip around. It’s currently ranked no. 37 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 list, but it’s only going to keep climbing as the years go by. Kyle Connaughton is the chef and his wife Katina runs the farm; together, they collaborate to make a tasting menu displaying the seasonal bounty of Sonoma County. Since our visit, they’ve also opened Little Saint, an entirely vegan restaurant serving a 100% plant-based menu with produce from their farm. We hope to try it our next visit to Healdsburg – and trust us, we’ll be back!
Scenic Pit Stops
And now, the real coastal journey begins! The Golden Gate Bridge is a perfect place to kick off your big drive – and no California road trip is complete without pictures by this iconic red bridge, right? Park (for free!) at the Golden Gate Overlook, wander through the woods, and head down to the observation deck to watch the fog roll in over this San Francisco landmark. Can you spot Alcatraz in the middle of the bay?
After driving for about an hour and a half, you’ll find Shark Fin Cove, located just outside of Santa Cruz. The beach is named for the striking rock that juts out of the ocean in the shape of (you guessed it) a giant shark fin. This cove is truly a sight to behold and well worth pulling over the car for a photo op.
First things first: ice cream! When we arrived in Monterey, we satisfied our sweet tooth at Revival Ice Cream, an artisanal ice cream shop serving handcrafted, organic ice cream scoops made with local, seasonal ingredients. Our favorite flavor was the “Bee’s Knees,” a honey and beeswax-based ice cream with crunchy pieces of “honeycomb” made from coconut nectar and caramelized sugar. Another spot we enjoyed in Monterey was Alta Bakery, a charming neighborhood bakery serving pastries, pizza, and à la carte brunch dishes. We were especially delighted by the vanilla cruffin and the rose and white pepper latte. Speaking of coffee… while in Monterey, be sure to visit Captain + Stoker, an amazing specialty coffee shop and roastery serving pour-overs and simple food like avocado toast. Here, we had a natural Ethiopian heirloom coffee with notes of white grape, berries, and canned peaches.
Time to take the scenic route! From downtown Monterey, drive along the coast to Lovers Point Beach. The coastline here is jagged and craggy, with rocks jutting out, cypress trees growing on cliffs, bluffs, and waves crashing onto the sand. It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful stretch of beach, and well worth a slight detour from the highway. Also in the area is the famed 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach, a private section of the coast that has an $11/per person toll. As we were short on time, we didn’t do this drive, but we’ve heard it’s beautiful.
Next stop, Carmel-by-the-Sea – a charming beach town hidden in what looks like an enchanted forest. The roads twist and turn through the trees, whose roots are spilling out over the sidewalk. The downtown area feels like a quaint little village, with artsy shops and restaurants that blend in with the fairytale cottage homes. At the bottom of the hill is an expansive, white sand beach, mostly obscured from view until you break through the trees and into the clearing.
Although we didn’t have much time in Carmel, we had a nice dinner at Seventh & Dolores, an upscale steakhouse which sources sustainable beef from a local Californian farm. We loved the bone-in ribeye, which came topped with truffle butter and served with triple cream potato purée. If you’re feeling really fancy, splurge on the caviar serving with house-made crepes and some Krug Champagne – they sell it by the glass! The same owners also have a bakery and café in town called Rise + Roam, which serves pastries and pizza. We didn’t have a chance to visit on this trip, but we heard good things from locals, so we hope to check it out next time. We also wanted to visit the all-day brunch restaurant Stationæry, but it wasn’t open the day we were passing through. A good excuse to return.
We really enjoyed our stay at the Carmel Mission Inn, a newly renovated boutique hotel with a big swimming pool, a jacuzzi, and fire pits around the property. We thought the hotel was very affordable for the area, and its location right off Highway One made it a perfect base for our road trip. We loved our stay here and would definitely return.
Scenic Pit Stops
The next portion of the drive is arguably the most scenic of them all. You’ve, no doubt, seen photos of the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, which crosses over the Bixby Creek in Big Sur. This dramatic concrete bridge hangs between the cliffs, beckoning tourists and locals to look on in awe. Get your cameras ready! When you’re approaching the north end of the bridge (driving south along Pacific Coast Highway), pull over to the side of the road where there is a dirt parking area. From here, you can take pictures of the bridge, with the waves crashing below. (Note: in peak season this area can be very congested with tourists, and delays may occur.) Fun fact: this is one of the tallest single-span arch bridges in the world!
About thirty minutes further down the coast is McWay Falls, an 80-foot-tall waterfall whose thin stream spills onto the beach below. (When the tide is high, it pours directly into the ocean.) The beach is inaccessible except by boat, but you can park in the parking lot and follow a short trail for a view of the waterfall. An hour drive beyond the falls is Ragged Point, another place worth pulling over for a photo. You can do a short (but intense) hike down to the breathtaking black sand beach, or you can take pictures of the view from above. Also in San Simeon is the Elephant Seal Vista Point, where you can see hundreds of elephant seals sunbathing on the beach. (These marine mammals can weigh up to 8,000 pounds!) The exquisite Hearst Castle, an ornately decorated mansion and museum is also located in this part of the central California coastline, although the castle was unfortunately closed during our trip, due to road damage. The castle has reopened to tourists now, so we look forward to visiting next time.
San Luis Obispo
When we arrived in San Luis Obispo (SLO), we were desperately in need of a refuel. No, we’re not talking about gasoline, we’re talking about coffee! Scout Coffee is the place to go in SLO. Their original location has been open for almost ten years in the downtown area, and they have another café located near the university campus. They roast their own coffee and serve pastries made in-house – be sure to try their signature chocolate chip cookie! We were pretty hangry at this point in the road trip, but a trip to Firestone Grill fixed that problem. The legendary tri-tip sandwich here really hit the spot; it’s a perfect road trip lunch, easily eaten in the car if you’re on-the-go. (Pro tip: order it with extra barbecue sauce!)
Santa Ynez Valley
About an hour south of SLO is the Santa Ynez Valley (SYV), which encompasses Los Alamos, Los Olivos, and Solvang. Los Alamos is a super tiny town, with only about fifteen storefronts on one road. Setting foot in Los Alamos is like stepping back in time and traveling to the wild west. The historic wooden storefronts make it feel like a cowboy could step into the road at any moment. Of course, there’s a saloon, a few local watering holes, antique shops, some restaurants, a bakery, and a motel. Be sure to check out Bodega for natural wine and Bob’s Well Bread for breakfast.
We stayed at the Alamo Motel, a charming motel on the main strip. (Fun fact – did you know that motel means “motor hotel”? All the rooms can be accessed directly from the parking lot – easy access for motorists on the go.) The room design was super cute, with claw foot bathtubs and nice smelling soaps. The beds were comfy, and the minibar was filled with trendy snacks and cookies. There’s a fire pit that is stocked with wood to make a bonfire, and s’mores kits are available.
The main reason for our stop in Los Alamos was to visit the Michelin-starred restaurant Bell’s, the restaurant that put this town on the foodie map. Chef Daisy Ryan got her start cooking in New York City at Gramercy Tavern, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, and Per Se. The main dining room is studded with windows that flood the space with light. The vibe feels like a homey French farmhouse – we loved the red-tiled floor, the bar facing the open kitchen, and the brass pans hanging from the ceiling. Although the restaurant has a star, don’t expect anything fancy. At lunch, there is a concise à la carte menu that includes a few sandwiches and a seasonal salad. Dinner is a tad more upscale, with a prix fixe, three-course tasting menu. Bell’s is a solid restaurant to have a meal at when passing through the area – but be sure to make a reservation in advance!
The Bell’s team has also opened a second restaurant, Bar Le Côte, in the neighboring town of Los Olivos. They’ve renovated a rustic, two-story house, and the interior design is stunning. The walls are painted a vibrant green with colorful prints hanging in frames, and the floor is checkered with black and white tiles. The chef is Brad Matthews, who formerly worked at Bar Pintxo and Fishing with Dynamite in Los Angeles. Bar Le Côte is a modern seafood bistro, with small plates designed for sharing. Two of the standout dishes for us were the crudos. The day boat scallop crudo came with pickled mighty cap mushrooms, creme fraiche, and dill pollen, while the dry-aged longfin yellowtail crudo combined turnips, seaweed cream, and bottarga.
While in the SYV, a stop in Solvang is mandatory. It’s a little piece of Copenhagen in California! Yes, you read that right – Solvang is a town established by three Danes over 100 years ago, with small replicas of the famous Little Mermaid statue and the Round Tower. It’s a must-visit – especially for Scandinavians! Don’t leave without trying some æbelskiver, Danish pancake balls served with powdered sugar and jam. Also worth visiting: peasants FEAST is a cozy lunch spot, and Good Seed Coffee is a great place to get your caffeine fix.
Our last stop before returning to sunny Los Angeles was Santa Barbara, a beautiful beach town with lots to offer. We had an exquisite anaerobic pour-over at Dune Coffee, a local roaster with two coffee shops in the downtown Santa Barbara area. They also serve open-faced toasts, topped with your choice of avocado, smoked salmon, almond butter and honey, or butter and seasonal jam. For dinner, we went to Bettina Pizzeria, an adorable neighborhood restaurant serving organic wood-fired pizzas and natural wine. We loved the cacio e pepe arancini, the pepperoni pizza with wildflower honey, and the caramelized onion pizza with raclette, fingerling potato, and tarragon. To drink, we had a Trosseau from Bénédicte and Stéphane Tissot, a light and juicy red wine that paired perfectly with the pizza. During our brief time in Santa Barbara, we stayed at the Mar Monte Hotel. This gorgeous oceanfront hotel is located in a historic building with Spanish Colonial-inspired architecture and charming design accents, like colorful Mediterranean tiles. Mar Monte has a beautiful restaurant, an outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi, a fitness center, and a great location – steps away from the beach, and very close to the downtown area as well. We hope to come back and spend more time in Santa Barbara – there are lots more restaurants we want to check out next time!
A couple hours later, we were back in my hometown of Los Angeles. This coastal road trip along Highway One solidified my belief that California is the most beautiful state in America. From the bright blue hues of the seemingly endless sky, to the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean, to the white and black sand beaches, to the vast forests, the sheer cliffs, and the impressive bridges, this road trip shows how rich and diverse the landscape of California is. This is a must-do drive for anyone planning a trip to the West Coast!
Have you done this iconic California drive before? Let us know in a comment below.