The journey along California’s State Route 1 is by far the most popular road trip in the United States. Thanks to tips from myAustrian fans Paul and Suzie, we’ve put together the very best places to visit on the road from L.A. to San Francisco – just for you.

 

Los Angeles, City of Angels.

Los Angeles, the city of dreams. (c) Kumar Appaiah

Since you will have landed in L.A., you should be absolutely sure to spend a few days in the City of Angels. Names like HollywoodBeverly HillsSanta Monica and Malibu Beach are enough to send a tingle down the spine of most visitors – or if not that, at least make you curious about a city which is presented to all of us as a vast land of entertainment from the moment we start watching cartoons and movies. While here, be sure not to miss attractions like the Hollywood Film Studios and the Getty Center Museum, go whale and dolphin watching at Newport Beach, or do the Movie Star Homes Tour – in a luxury limo if possible. Then you can relax, leave the megacity behind – which is home to a total of 18 million people, and approximately the same size as Tyrol and Vorarlberg put together – and get out onto the open road.

 

Santa Barbara, picture postcard beaches on the American Riviera.

Chilling, surfing and drinking wine in Santa Barbara (c) Michael Theis

Although it’s not quite 60 kilometres down the coast from L.A., you should be sure to stop off in Santa Barbara, a beach city with a very Spanish flair. It offers picture-postcard beaches, chilled bars, amazing restaurants and wine tastings with the juice of the grape from the surrounding hills. The second-largest city on the ‘American Riviera’ has something to offer, pretty well whatever your taste: the relatively small waves at Santa Barbara Beach make it the perfect place to hire one of the cool local surfing instructors and get out there on a board yourself.

 

San Luis Obispo, San Simeon: strange towns, strange attractions

About 150 kilometres further on, inland now, is San Luis Obispo, a slightly strange but totally fun mission town dating back to the 17th century, with its San Luis Mission and a wealth of comfortable restaurants. On Thursdays the area around Higuera Street is transformed into a vast farmers’ market – complete with dishes straight off the grill and live music.

Then it’s back towards the coast again, and after about an hour’s drive you’ll reach the nice small town of San Simeon. The most famous attraction here is Hearst Castle, built by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst in every architectural style imaginable, and including what must surely be the most-photographed swimming pool in the world – so be sure to reserve in advance for tours here! 

Neptune’s Pool at Hearst Castle, near San Simeon. (c) Anna Fox

 

The Big Sur: wildly romantic natural experiences

McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – well worth the hike! (c) Yu+Mi

San Simeon is also where the legendary 100-kilometre section of coast known as Big Sur begins. This is where films including Basic Instinct and Lassie were made. A whole range of Californian State Parks can be found along the rugged coast, in fact, with its soaring mountains and picturesque bays, with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park definitely one of the highlights. If you’ve got time, you should definitely hike the circular trail to the 25-metre-high McWay Falls, which crash directly onto the yellow-gold sandy beach and blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean. Further north, near Carmel, is the Point Lobos State Reserve, a craggy section of coast famous for its sea otters. The most classic part of Route 1 ends at the much-photographed Bixby Bridge, shortly before Monterey, capital of the former Spanish province of Alta California and our next stopping-off point.

The historic Bixby Bridge at Big Sur – the wildly romantic section of Route 1 in California. (c) Akash Gupta

 

Monterey and Carmel-by-the-sea

With a mild maritime climate and bayside location, five charming and gently rolling beaches in the surrounding area, Monterey is an absolutely unmissable destination. By far the biggest attraction here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the historic Cannery Road – where you can come to understand the fascinating underwater world of the region at sea otter feedings. Just a few minutes’ drive away, meanwhile, is the pretty artists’ town of Carmel-by-the-sea, with its Spanish mission church and fine white sandy beach. You can finish off your day perfectly at a wine tasting here, or enjoy delicious fish and seafood at one of the restaurants with their international cuisine – the French Patisserie Boissiere is a great example, for instance.

 

Half Moon Bay and Mavericks

Big wave surfer at Maverick, the legendary surfing spot in Half Moon Bay (c) Steve Jurvetson

Things can get a bit crazy in the small town of Half Moon Bay. And small wonder –the town is not only home to the artists of the Colony of Coastside Arts, or CoCA, an artists’ colony which organises workshops and studio shows, but also where many of the daredevil big wave surfers live when they’re not out surfing the 25-metre-high waves at the legendary surfing spot of Maverick, at the northern end of the bay. The waves break particularly high at Maverick because of the special shape of the sea floor off the coast here.

If you don’t like things quite so buzzy, but are looking for every bit as spectacular, then you might think about hiking the Coastal Half Moon Bay Trail, which extends right around the bay and offers absolutely breathtaking views. The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, just outside Montara, is also a total must, and feels like it could be a million miles away from the tourist crowds. Be sure to visit at low tide, when you can gaze at the sea grass, starfish, hermit crabs and sea anemones directly beneath your feet in the tide pool.

 

San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, with downtown San Francisco in the background (c) Abe Bingham

After about another 60 kilometres’ drive north, you come to Route 1’s crowning glory: San Francisco. You should be sure to put a few days aside to do California’s fourth-largest city properly, by enjoying attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, the legendary Alcatraz on the prison island in the Bay, the hippy quarter around the shopping mile on Haight Street, visit Fisherman’s Wharf, perhaps, and take a trip by cable car. Countless award-winning restaurants, concert halls and museums such as the San Francisco MoMA offer something to suit every possible taste, making this amazing city on seven (or more) hills a great finish to this unforgettable journey.

 
If you feel like you might fancy a trip to southern California sometime soon, you can book your flight to L.A. here: