I initially was going to do my California road trip itinerary in one post and very quickly realized that was just going to be ridiculous (the last truly epic guide I did like that was my Malta one and I swear, I literally had to rest my wee little fingers afterwards for a few hours, they were so typed out). I thought it’d be easier for both you and I if I broke this guide to an unbelievable week on the road into two pieces! We started in LA where I was for work, Matty met me there and then snaked our way up north so to begin with, I wanted to take you through this first leg beginning in sunny Los Angeles to beautiful San Luis Obispo before we tackle the Monterey area and one of my fave places ever, Big Sur!
I had somehow never been to California which is beyond shocking to me (and a lot of you it would appear—I got a lot of perplexed comments on Instagram wondering how it is that I’m always going around the world but hadn’t been just down south to our American neighbours in Cali!). What’s even more perplexing honestly is that Matt used to live in California for years, so you’d think I would’ve visited my partner’s one-time home at least once before! At any rate, I was so excited to finally get a chance to go, and what followed was one of my favourite weeks in what has now become a favourite place. California was just so easy—coming from Vancouver, it was only a few hours flying down, there’s no language barrier (and really, pretty much the same culture given we’re all West Coasters) but oh my God! The food, the views, the beaches, the wildlife, etc—it was just all so magical. It was kind of the perfect combination of an amazing new experience along with a lot of familiar elements—definitely a laid-back trip. If you wanted to do a true Californian coastline experience (i.e. even further south down to San Diego and even further north to San Francisco), I’d budget two weeks, but since we were doing a shorter journey (LA to Monterey, flying out of San Jose), one week was perfect for us. So without further ado, let’s kick off all the must-see’s (and just a note that where to eat and where to stay will be following in separate posts)!
VENICE (DAY 1)
I didn’t actually get as much time as I’d like in LA because we were eager to kick off our road trip, though I did get an amazing 24 hour experience in LA with INFINITI, who I was working with while staying in West Hollywood. One day I’d love to go back and spend a few more days to do some of the things I didn’t see (the Hollywood sign, Rodeo Drive, etc, etc), but what was so amazing was to see just how easy it is to pop on down so I’m not worried about not going back again! After an incredible but whirlwind 24 hours with the INFINITI team, Matt came and met me in West Hollywood and bright and early the next morning we headed off to Venice.
Venice is awesome—weird and vibrant, but also filled with the best restaurants, shopping and just an amazing overall artistic vibe. It was created in 1905 by developer Abbott Kinney, who of course now has a namesake street right in the centre of Venice. Modelled after his favourite Italian city, it has canals, piazzas and beaches just to add a cherry on top to its quirky boardwalk filled with hundreds of vendors, a buzzing skate park and of course, Muscle Beach, where Arnold used to pump iron.
You have to wander through the canals, which are pleasantly quiet and serene compared to the energy of the boardwalk. They’re just beyond beautiful and it’s so amazing to stroll by the houses, each one even more unique than the other. It’s such a crazy concept when you think about it—just plopping a canal system right into LA for the sake of aesthetics, as opposed to Amsterdam, Paris or of course Venice who all had them for functional purposes!
You also have to wander along the aforementioned Abbott Kinney and check out the amazing restaurants (more on that soon) and shops—before you enter the street if you wander up Rose Avenue from the beach, you’ll also catch the famous Clownerina sculpture which is dancing above the street! So weird, so Venice.
And of course, the boardwalk is a must—we walked it to Santa Monica though you can also rent bikes, which I would’ve also opted for if we’d started earlier in the day! Not only is it just so much fun to catch all the energy as you wander by the skate park, Muscle Beach et al, but you can also take in the incredible graffiti that’s on just about every building lining the boardwalk as you walk by.
SANTA MONICA (DAY 1)
We only had a few hours here but it was a must! We wandered over to Santa Monica Pier which was created over 100 years ago and whose amusement park has been running for about the same amount of time. It’s technically the end of Route 66, where you can spot the sign (which is thought to have been part of a movie set) still there!
I’d highly recommend parking up next to one of the lifeguard stands to take in sunset—we got a beautiful sunset here and then wandered up to poke around the shops before Ubering back to Venice to grab dinner (one of our fave dinners actually, we ate so much in Cali!).
MALIBU (DAY 2)
I’d been to Malibu the day before with the INFINITI team to not only experience Nobu (oh.my.god.) but to also check out Zumba Beach too—obsessed! There are so many other amazing beaches to check out but we were just doing a quick breakfast at Malibu Farms over on Malibu Pier before taking off so we didn’t hang around that long.
Having said that, even if you just get a chance to hang out at the pier, take some time to wander along the beach and dip your toes in. I’m about as much of a beach/ocean baby as they come, so even though it was cold getting a chance to be right in the water is something I seek out everywhere I go. Again, can’t wait to go back to LA again soon and spend more time in the southern parts but if you budget a couple of hours here while doing a longer coastline road trip like we were, that’ll give you ample time to have a good bite and walk before you take off!
SANTA BARBARA (DAY 2)
And then our real road tripping kicked off! The drive up the Pacific Coastal Highway was so unbelievable along this stretch, from taking in Point Mugu to getting glimpses of surfers grouped together in rolling waves as we blitzed by seaside towns.
Santa Barbara was our next stop and it was well worth the drive. Of course, this is southern California so the driving times can fluctuate a lot—because we were there for the long weekend it took double the time it usually would, but this would ordinarily be about 1.5 hours from Malibu, even if you’re taking the PCH.
We took in Stearns Wharf (all the piers in California kill me—why don’t we have more of these on our coastline here in BC?!) which was amazing. I really appreciated that all the towns and especially all the piers always had amazing history plaques so that you could actually learn a ton as you wandered around and took in the sunshine! We wanted to take in some of the other attractions up the hill but didn’t want to take our car out of the parking lot when we saw this little shuttle leaving from the wharf. For about $1, we both hopped on and got a nice, leisurely drive up the main road State Street in this cute little electric shuttle.
Since we got there later in the day we didn’t get to see the Mission, though I did end up learning a lot about all the original mission that were set up through California over the next couple of days and it ended up becoming a little passion of mine! More on that in a second but if you are in SB, I heard it’s beautiful so definitely stop by! But for us, we grabbed dinner and then ended up calling it a day after a very full day of sightseeing and driving.
PISMO BEACH (DAY 3)
I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is about Pismo Beach but something about it just made me totally and completely fall in love with it. The older I get the more I realize I’m not really much of a city person—I actually would love to just live on the Sunshine Coast or somewhere quieter, though Matt is the opposite (very urban-oriented) so our more sleepy corner of Vancouver is a nice compromise. I think long story short, I just felt instantly like this could be home for me. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s been a longstanding dream of mine to just surf for like 3 years undisturbed somewhere and this seems like a great place to do it. Matt was less convinced about us moving there but not gonna lie, it’s a little dream of mine now.
Before even going, I really had to do some convincing for us to stop there—there was just something about it that really drew me in, even just by reading about it and seeing images. If you’re lucky, you can see some amazing wildlife here like elephant seals, but for us it was all about wandering around Pismo Beach and just taking it all in for an hour or so before we hit the road again.
Just a note here—if I could redo only one thing out of the whole trip, I wish we had stayed in Pismo Beach overnight on Day 2 (it’s only a 1.5 hour drive from Santa Barbara). Yes, it would’ve been more driving over Day 2, but it was just so dreamy, I wish we’d been able to have just woken up and wandered around with more time in the AM! So if you can, see if you can make the trek up here!
SAN LUIS OBISPO (DAY 3)
Only literally 15 minutes away, San Luis Obispo is a beautiful town, with a vibrant student population thanks to California Polytechnic State University. On our way from Santa Barbara through to Pismo Beach and SLO, this is where we started noticing these bells on El Camino Real as we whizzed through Los Padres National Park (which was unbelievably beautiful, by the way). I was so intrigued by them and after doing some research, discovered that these were actually mission bells set up to mark the path (El Camino Real means “The Royal Path”) from San Diego to Sonoma. Travellers could stop at each mission (including that one I mentioned in Santa Barbara), which were deliberately set up to be about a day’s trip by horse.
Of course, being the biggest history nerd in the world I was really intent on stopping by the San Luis Obispo Mission after learning this fact and it was there I saw this statue of Saint Junípero Serra. Naturally, I then had to research him and found out that he’d insisted on walking the whole path by foot to adhere to the values of humbleness that the Franciscan monks upheld, resulting in lifelong injuries. These missions that he was instrumental in setting up were the first Spanish settlements in California, which I didn’t realize! So if you’re into history, try to take in each mission—I forced Matt to stop by each one afterwards for the rest of our trip!
But back to San Luis Obispo—on the way from Pismo Beach, stopping at the famed Madonna Inn is well worth the slight detour because it’s just so kitschy and amazing. If we didn’t stay at Pismo Beach, we said this would be another option—apparently it’s unreal staying here and the prices are actually pretty reasonable! SLO just had a very cool vibe, very relaxed with tons of great food and shopping, beautiful homes, etc. There is a monarch butterfly grove just outside of Pismo Beach but we found that there were tons in SLO—just set up shop next to a flowering bush and watch them come and go. It was unbelievable.
And with that, that’s the first leg of our road trip! We’ll start off at the end of Day 3 in Carmel so stay tuned for that coming next week—can’t wait to share!