A Road-Trippers Guide to California

Get ready for a pretty hefty post (there is a shorter alternative here). I wanted to do a city guide for the places I stayed in California but I realised that I didn’t explore any of them fully enough to write a good guide. Well maybe I did but it was a while ago so I don’t remember all the details. Instead, I thought I’d put together a guide for anyone planning a road trip through California, with a brief outline of where I went, ate and stayed.

In April 2010, I went on my Great Big Gap Year Adventure. California was my first stop, for a 3.5 week road trip from San Jose in the north to San Diego in the south, and back again. I’m now going to pass on the infinite wisdom I gained in this post. On first glance, this may just look like a guide to places but if you bear with me, there’s also tips on transport, routes, music, time and food. I appreciate that this could be deemed an excessively long post but you can always just skip to the sections that you think are the most relevant/interesting/shortest. 

Places:

Lake Tahoe:

Lake Tahoe

Activities:

Lake Tahoe has plenty to keep you occupied: you can ski in the mountains during the winter or do watersports on the lake and chill on the shore during the summer. I was there towards the end of the ski season but didn’t don my skis. Instead I wandered in the hills and around the lake, including by Emerald Bay, and went to the cinema instead. You can also step over the border into Nevada in order to tick another state off your list and/or enter a casino, which are not allowed in California. As far as food is concerned, there is a McDonald’s, a Subway and a KFC in amongst the wooden and stone buildings. Obviously, there are other  options as well. I had a delicious eggs benedict for breakfast but I have no idea where.

Accommodation:

I was rather spoilt in Lake Tahoe and stayed in a rather snazzy hotel- the Timber Lodge- with my travel buddy and her family. If you’re not on a budget, this is not a bad option.

Blogs:

Five minutes in Nevada 
California Part Eight: lakes, driving and farewells
Travel Photo: Redwood at Lake Tahoe

San Francisco:

San Francisco- Union Square

Activities:

San Fran was easily one of my favourite places in California. I stayed on Union Square, which seemed pretty central and had good access to lots of shops (including Tiffany’s), restaurants and Chinatown.

From there, I explored Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, where I could see Alcatraz, which I sadly didn’t have time to visit. You should also try and spot the Golden Gate Bridge and/or the Bay Bridge while you’re in the city- if you’re on a road-trip you should probably try and drive over them (I only managed the Bay Bridge and that was by accident when I got lost).

Haight-Ashbury seemed to be a more alternative area of the city to go to, with shops that were like San Fran’s answer to Camden market, with lots of quirky and vintage items, including the music store Amoeba Records, where you could shop vinyl until your heart’s content.

San Francisco felt like the most European place I went to in California. I had planned to return after I came back up north to San Jose but I ended up in Lake Tahoe instead. That is not a decision I regret but I would love to go back and properly explore. This city is definitely a place you should stay in.

Accommodation:

Rather like in Lake Tahoe, I was rather spoiled with my accommodation in San Francisco, as I stayed in a hotel on Union Square with my travel buddy and her family.

Transport:

I know if you’re on a road trip you shouldn’t need more transport but, obviously, there is only one way to get around in San Francisco- the cable car. To me, a cable car is a relatively small glass box, suspended by wires up in the air. That is not a San Fran cable car. A San Fran cable car is basically a rather small tram, where if you don’t get a seat you can hang off the side as it goes up and down one of the city’s excessively large hills, of which there seemed to be many. That’s the real reason you should get a cable car- you don’t want to be walking up and down one of those bad boys.

Food:

The Cheesecake Factory: This restaurant-chain basically changed my opinion of cheesecake forever. Before, I wasn’t fussed. I mean I liked cheesecake but I would never choose it over something else. Now I would. The menu was like a short story and my main meal wasn’t anything special but the cheesecake was beautiful. There was more than 30 different types and my friends and I got our to go. We had a picnic of Godiva chocolate, Oreo and banana cheesecake on our hotel bedroom floor. Can you think of anything better?

Blogs:

California Part Two: a trip to San Francisco 
California Part Three: fish, food and detours
America: the land of cheesecake, cheesecake and more   cheesecake
Travel Photo: Alcatraz 

Travel Photo: Union Square, San Francisco 

Berkeley:

USA California Berkeley
Activities:

It took my travel buddy and I a little while to actually get to Berkeley, having accidentally ended up in downtown San Francisco on our way from San Jose. When we arrived, parking seemed impossible but we eventually found somewhere to leave the truck and went to find the alternative Telegraph Avenue, after a McDonald’s lunch, which seemed to resemble San Fran’s Haight-Ashbury. If I’d had money, I would have liked to have taken advantage of the multiple music shops on the street.

Food:

Cafe Gratitude: If you’re looking for something healthier than McDonald’s, this vegan restaurant would appear to be a good option. Everything was served raw but I was only stopping for a drink so I left after my friend and I finished our ‘I am compassionate’ orange juice and ‘I am open’ tea.

Blogs:

California Part Three: fish, food and detours

San Jose:

USA California San Jose
Activities:

Before and after I headed south, I was based in San Jose, with my travel buddy’s family. We didn’t actually explore the local area that much but still found plenty of places to eat, shop (Santana Row and a nearby Westfield shopping centre, which had a Pottery Barn- like in Friends) and go to the cinema. We also found it to be a handy place to stay when visiting San Francisco, Monterey Bay, Los Gatos and Berkeley, which were all in driving distance.

Food:

Panda Express: this was basically a fast-food Chinese place. You’d go and select one of the ready-made options and get a fortune cookie with you meal. This soon became my regular.

Mayflower Restaurant: if you want to spend slightly longer eating Chinese food then you can always try the Mayflower. Alternatively, you may want a takeaway, in which case the Mayflower also works for this.

Blogs:

California Part One: the journey begins
California Part Three: fish, food and detours

California Part Eight: lakes, driving and farewells
America’s most convenient burger

Los Gatos:

Activities:

Los Gatos was a nice little town to just wander around in. It was a little bit like something you would expect to see in a western, with a Hispanic influence. One thing California is not short of is good, old-style sweet shops and Los Gatos was no exception with Powell’s.

Food:

Gilley’s: This was a nice coffee shop where I found a great toasted chicken caesar sandwich. If you’re spending an afternoon in Los Gatos, this is a good option for a light lunch.

Blogs:

California Part Three: fish, food and detours

Santa Cruz:

Santa Cruz

Activities:

I’d heard that Santa Cruz could be a bit of a party town and Pacific Avenue specifically was apparently the place to be, but sadly that wasn’t my experience. That may well have been down to three things: 1) I was under 21 and so below the legal drinking age; 2) the weather was pretty gloomy and drizzly; and 3) I was staying at a campsite outside of town and so had to drive.

Again due to the bad weather, I couldn’t really make the most of the beach but I could still have fun on the boardwalk, which plays host to a funfair. At the very least, as long as the weather isn’t too extreme, you should go and play around there.

Accommodation:

I stayed at a campsite outside of town called New Brighton State Beach. It was, surprise surprise, near a beach and in the middle of a wooded area. If you’re going to camp, it seemed like a good option.

Blogs:

California Part Four: the road trip begins and stalls

Monterey Bay:

Monterey

Activities:

I loved Monterey. Initially, I went to visit the town’s famous aquarium, which lived up to the hype with everything from big, orange jellyfish to otters and seahorses, and then I returned a few days later for a short stay. I’d turned up at a campsite by the Big Sur, in the middle of nowhere, after several hours driving. Having seen multiple American horror films and since there was literally nothing to do (particularly because it was raining), I turned the truck around and went back to somewhere I knew I loved and wanted to spend more time- Monterey Bay.

It was a nice town to chill out in and I spent a day or so wandering around the shops on the Cannery Row, including the Candy Factory sweet shop, and eating at various places, like a Mexican restaurant on the seafront- where the food wasn’t amazing but the view was- and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory shop, where I became the proud owner of a giant brownie, as big as my hand.

Sadly, being under the legal drinking age at the time, I couldn’t go into bars but I did pop my head around the door of the Bulldog British Pub briefly. Just for sentimental value.

Food:

Osio: On my way to find internet access at the library on Pacific Street (this was before everyone owned smartphones), I found a cinema called Osio. I didn’t stop for a film but I did stop for a bite of a big, reasonably priced salad. It was a good option for healthy food that didn’t completely break the bank.

Accommodation:

Having not been impressed by my campsite by the Big Sur, I ended up at Hostel International in Monterey instead. This was my first real experience in a hotel and I spent the first night in the bottom bunk in a big dorm room, worrying that my stuff would be stolen as I slept. Needless to say, that did not happen. Instead the place provided warm comfort instead of what would have been a cold, wet and lonely night in the tent. It may have been a little old fashioned but the staff were friendly and they put out ingredients for guests to make waffles or pancakes for breakfast. I’d say that was pretty good. I was certainly very happy with the last minute decision to return to, and stay in, Monterey.

Blogs: 

Travel Photo: rainbow in Monterey Bay
Travel Photo: Monterey Aquarium
Thanks for your help Sat Nav
California Part Three: fish, food and detours
California Part Four: the road trip begins and stalls

Big Sur:

23505_10150174345465331_7228978_n
Activities:

The Big Sur isn’t exactly a place- it’s more of a stretch of road. If you’re driving down Highway 1, this is what you’ll be aiming to see. It’s a coastal road that affords views of blue sea (and sky if you’re lucky), rolling hills and looming rocks. I also found multiple seals on a particular patch. In a nutshell, this is what a California road trip is all about. It’s also home to Hearst Castle, which is a site you really should see. It’s not your average castle, with classical/Mediterranean inspiration and two pretty impressive swimming pools.

Accommodation:

My initial plan was to stay at a campsite close to the Big Sur but when I arrived it seemed empty. I couldn’t even see staff. It was in the middle of nowhere, early afternoon and it was raining. My travel buddy and I would have been bored and we didn’t like being there alone. With that in mind, I turned the truck around and we to a hotel in Monterey instead. It turned out we could put a day aside to drive down the Big Sur, see the seals and explore Hearst Castle and didn’t need to stay overnight in the area to do so.

Blogs:

California Part Five: sea, seals and Hollywood
My Seven Wonders of the World
Thanks for your help Sat Nav

San Luis Obispo:

California USA Pismo Beach
Activities:

Even though I stayed close by, I didn’t spend much time in San Luis Obispo itself. I wandered around the shops on and around Higuera Street and got some food but that’s about it.

Accommodation: 

Having driven from Monterey, through the Big Sur, I camped at Pismo Beach, a little way outside of San Luis Obispo. As far as campsites go, it was pretty nice, particularly as it was right by the beach so I could wander from my tent to go and watch the windsurfers and build sandcastles. There was also a supermarket nearby so I could stock up on goodies for my cool-box as well.

Food:

Natural Cafe: After some window shopping, I stopped for a grilled cheese sandwich, and some black crisps, before returning to the shops. Uber-healthy food is probably not my thing but this is a good option if it’s yours.

Jamba Juice: Keeping within the healthy theme, I stopped off at the Jamba Juice chain more than once on my trip up and down California. When you’re road tripping, staying healthy and getting your five-a-day isn’t always easy so stopping for a smoothie- and paying out for one- is always a good choice.

Blogs:

Do bears like Californian beaches?
California Part Five: sea, seals and Hollywood

Santa Barbara:

USA California Santa Barbara
Activities:

I only stopped off in Santa Barbara for lunch whilst I was driving from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, so I can’t really give you the lowdown. Even from my fleeting visit, however, it was clearly a very, very nice area with great shopping opportunities, including along State Street, even if perhaps a bit on the expensive side.

Food:

The Habit: Whilst walking along State Street, I found this burger place on the side of the road. It had good quality food which was well priced and the service was prompt. All in all, a good choice.

Blogs:

California Part Five: sea, seals and Hollywood

Los Angeles:

LA- Hollywood Boulevard

Activities:

You don’t need me to tell you that the main thing to do in L.A. is Hollywood. I thought it was an area but it turned to be a road: Hollywood Boulevard. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed. Parking was expensive- at $20 for two hours- and the place just seemed a bit run down and you practically have to squint to see the Hollywood sign far off in the distance.

My favourite place was actually somewhere I found on the parallel Sunset Boulevard: the Guitar Centre.  If you’re more into music than movies then this is the place for you, stacked full of memorabilia, with handprints in the floor from the musical greats.

It might sound like I didn’t particularly enjoy L.A. but I would still recommend it as a place to stay. Obviously, you can’t not visit Hollywood- despite the exceptional parking fee- and from the city you can easily access  other areas, like Santa Monica and Malibu, so it is worth it.

Food:

Cold Stone Bakery: This chain ice cream parlour is genius. Basically, you pick an ice cream flavour, then you can pick goodies to mash into it. I went for chocolate ice cream, chocolate chops, brownie pieces and cookie dough. Heaven.

Johnny Rockets: You can’t go to America without going to an American diner. This was the diner I went to. I can’t remember it exactly but I think seem to remember stools by the counter, booths with mini jukeboxes and a black and white tiled floor. It was good but I made a mistake with my order. Instead of going for what you should go for in a diner- something greasy with a milkshake, like my friend did- I went for something healthy with juice. At least it was still tasty.

Blogs:

California Part Five: sea, seals and Hollywood
Cold Stone Creamery: DIY ice cream 

Santa Monica:

Activities:

Santa Monica is a lovely area with some lovely beaches, my favourite of which was the alternative Venice Beach, where the promenade was full of quirky shops, cafes, Muscle Beach, artists, street performers and people playing sports and music. It was easily one of the highlights of my time in California. It may have cost $15 in parking in the small lot we found but I could park until 5pm so at least I didn’t have to worry.

The pier is a good, busy area with rides and restaurants. It was the first place I went on my arrival in the area. My dinner at a seafood restaurant was a good introduction.

Food:

Huckleberry Bakery: I was taken here by some of my travel buddy’s family. They recommended an early start, which turned out to be necessary as it started to fill up at 8.30am. I gorged on a breakfast of ginger cake, cinnamon rolls, strawberry pie and scrambled egg with fresh orange juice. Need I say more?

Blogs:

California Part five: sea, seals and Hollywood
California Part Six: food, glorious food and Venice Beach

San Diego:

USA California San Diego
Activities:

The one place you probably know about in San Diego is San Diego Zoo. There is a reason for that- it was probably the best zoo I have ever been to. It even had koalas- my favourite animal, which I had never seen before (although I was about to in Australia). It wasn’t a cheap day out but, if you like animals, you probably should still go.

What you may well not know about San Diego is that the zoo is one of 13 museums and attractions in the ever-so-slightly huge Balboa Park (no connection to Rocky Balboa- I checked). Not knowing that, I didn’t leave enough time to see anymore than the zoo. I’m telling you this so you don’t repeat my mistakes. I love a good museum.

Away from Balboa Park, there is more to see. Being close to the coast, there are several nearby seaside towns which you can chill out in. These include Moonlight State Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach but Ocean Beach was my favourite. I wasn’t there long but could immediately pick up on its relaxed hippy/surfer vibe.

From the beaches, I went to the Sunset Cliffs and onto Cabrillo Park where I saw the monument and lighthouse on Point Loma. You could get some pretty good views of the city from there.

Back in the city, Little Italy is a nice area to frequent if you are looking for something to eat. I was taken to an amazing place- Filippi’s Pizza Grotto– where the portions were so big that all four of my party left with doggy bags (me included). The menu looked delicious, so I particularly appreciated having the option of being able to combine to half-sized portions (do not interpret half as small) on one plate. I went for meatballs and lasagne.

Considering that there is quite a bit to explore- both in the city and the surrounding area- San Diego is definitely a good place to stay for a couple of days at the very least.

Food:

Pho: I think that this was the first time I tried Vietnamese food and it was probably some of the best Vietnamese food I have ever had- and I say that having since been to Vietnam. My bbq beef, noodles, vegetables and beansprouts made me excited to go to the country.

In-N-Out Burger: One of the things I loved about America was the sheer amount of food. But this was also a problem: I am incapable of making decisions. After recounting my tale of trying to choose food in a restaurant, one of my travel buddy’s relatives suggested In-N-Out Burger- the fast food chain. There was minimal choice and good, quick, cheap food. Perfect.

Blogs:

California Part Six: food, glorious food and Venice Beach
California Part Seven: animals, beaches and even more food
California Part Eight: lakes, driving and farewells
America’s most convenient burger

Transport:

I think its pretty self-explanatory but if you are going to go on a road trip, you are probably going to be using a car of some sort (or, I guess, a bike or caravan). If you are going to do it proper USA-style, however, there are really only two options: a convertible or a pick-up truck. I went with the latter and, to this day, I still miss that not-so-little thing. It became home and even gained a name- Truck.

Route:

Route 1

I used two main roads for my journey: Route 101 and Highway 1- the Pacific Coast Highway. Highway 1 is the scenic bit, where you can drive and get a view. See the Big Sur section below to see what I’m actually talking about. On the way back, I found a freeway that went straight up from San Diego to San Jose. It wasn’t particularly scenic but we were running out of time. There were some hills but mainly just lots of agricultural land. The highlight was probably lunch at the International House of Pancakes, a branch of which we found by the side of the road.

Time:

I spent 3.5 weeks in California, however I did spend several days in San Jose just chilling out with the family we were staying with (although I did spend other days exploring other areas that were in driving distance). My point is that you could probably do it quicker if you needed to, although I’m glad I didn’t. Particularly as I still have stuff left I’d like to do- especially since I am now over-21 and so don’t have to go to bed when the sun goes down.

Music:

During my trip, Guns N’ Roses and Train seemed to keep popping up on the radio. I also had a 3-disc reggae CD and a Red Hot Chili Peppers album, when I got fed up with the radio signal constantly cutting out when I moved further down the state. Other than that, any song to do with California, America, travelling or road trips is sure to get you over-excited.

Blogs:

For your iPod: Guns N’ Roses
For your iPod: tracks for California 

Food:

USA California San Jose

America is basically the mothership for all food lovers. The food is good, there is lots of it and it comes in giant portions. What’s not to love?

Road Trip Snacks:

Mother’s Circus Animal Cookies: I got into a discussion with my travel buddy’s uncle about food, in particular Cadbury’s Animal Biscuits- you know, the ones that are plain on one said and chocolate on the other. Oh, and they are shaped like little animals. He told us to try the American version: plain biscuits, covered in icing. I pretty much ate these constantly the entire time I was in the car. I did make the mistake of leaving them on the dashboard and they did melt in the Californian sun, solidifying into one, big icing-y, biscuity block. That was fine though, it just meant I could break bigger chunks off.

Ruffles Chips: I should start off by saying that ‘chips’ is the word Americans use to describe ‘crisps’. Just to confuse you. Chips, the way I know them, in America are fries. Anyway back to the Ruffles. These ridged crisps came in a range of flavours but it was the baked cheddar and sour cream that kept me and my buddy occupied over the weeks. I later found them in Hong Kong and almost cried with delight. I then found them in my local Spa shop back in England but sadly not in my flavour. Still, I’ll take what I can get.

Camping Food:

When I was camping, I generally ate dinner out but I still needed to fill a cool-box for my other meals. For breakfast, I went for cinnamon pastries- if the deflated air bed wasn’t enough to get me up in the mornings, they were. For lunch, if I didn’t go to a cafe, peanut sandwiches were the way forward. Then there was the snacking where, somehow, my travel buddy and I ended up with grapes which we dipped in Nutella. I don’t remember how that came about, all I can say is don’t knock it until you try it. We were getting chocolate and one of our five-a-day- everyone was a winner.

Blogs:

If anyone is going to America, can you pick me up some of these please?
America’s most convenient burger
America: the land of cheesecake, cheesecake and more cheesecake
Cold Stone Creamery: DIY ice cream
Review: In-N-Out Burger @ San Diego
Review: Cold Stone Creamery @ Los Angeles
Review: The Cheesecake Factory @ San Francisco 

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10 thoughts on “A Road-Trippers Guide to California

  1. Absolutely amazing blogpost! It really helped me to find out more about the wonderful state of California 🙂 recently I’m really getting into this topic a lot, and your post was perfect for receiving a nice view and information! Thanks a lot ❤️

    Like

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