California is a fun and fascinating state packed with world-famous destinations and wonderful experiences. Known for its sun, sea and being home to some of the most beautiful coastal scenery on the planet, it’s the perfect place to take a scenic road trip.
Offering a huge range of activities, pleasantly mild weather, and fantastic views, California is one of the best spring break getaways for families, as well as couples and groups of friends.
Here is my 10-day Californian road trip itinerary.
Table of Contents
10 Days in California: Step-By-Step Road Trip Itinerary
2 days in San Diego: Things to see and do
I would recommend starting in San Diego and spending around two days. Here are some must-see places to visit in the gorgeous Californian city.
Rent your car at San Diego Airport!
The Gaslamp Quarter
In downtown San Diego you’ll find the historic district known as the Gaslamp Quarter. It was first constructed in the late 1860s and enjoyed an exciting urban renewal in the 1980s and 1990s. These days, it is a vibrant and bustling cultural center famous for its shops, restaurants, cocktail lounges and nightlife. The Gaslamp Quarter offers plenty of entertainment and events all year round, including comedy, drama, music festivals and Mardi Gras. When looking for somewhere awesome to stay in San Diego I would recommend checking out some of the hotels in this area as it’s a great place to base yourself.
A rugged coastline dominates this area in San Diego, known as La Jolla. You can walk the trails in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and enjoy the inspirational sandstone canyons and bluffs. If you fancy a game of golf, you are in luck with the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course perched atop the seaside cliffs. The La Jolla Cove offers breathtaking views along a curving coastline. Heading down toward the beaches, you will find upmarket boutique shops and excellent restaurants to make your day enjoyable.
Little Italy has to be San Diego’s most festive culinary hot spot with genuine trattorias, pizza joints and craft brew stops, patio cafes and wineries. This lively neighborhood also offers boutique shopping, art galleries and restaurants. There is something for every taste, if your taste is for Italian culture. With cobblestone streets, views of the bay and waterfront parks with fountains, the European-style flavor is immersive. The central feature in the heart of Little Italy is the dynamic Piazza della Famiglia with its flamboyant tiled fountain, offering an ambiance that visitors find both relaxing and stimulating at the same time.
While this fascinating neighborhood with its quaint atmosphere offers fine dining and exciting shopping opportunities it also boasts many historic sites, museums and parks to capture the interest. Visitors can learn about the city of San Diego’s earliest history at the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. It recreates the area as it once existed during its Mexican and early American era.
Little Italy Farmer’s Market
Several blocks of Little Italy are closed to traffic to host the Little Italy Mercato Farmers markets every Saturday. Until 2.00 pm, locals and visitors alike can shop for fresh home-grown produce and delicacies from more than 100 vendor stalls. Exuberant crowds swarm the stalls, happily snapping up crafts, flowers, merchandise and gourmet food.
To the West of San Diego, you can take in the panoramic views of the Point Loma peninsula. Point Loma national park spears out into the sea, with waves crashing onto majestic cliffs, and tidepools exposed each day, to explore at low tide. There is a wonderfully preserved lighthouse at Point Loma, the Cabrillo Lighthouse that rates a visit.
Shelter Island is actually connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway lined with seashore businesses. It was originally a sandbank built up by dredging in the 1930s and developed in the 1950s with hotels, marinas, bayside parkland and restaurants. Visitors can relax at an outdoor concert, go on a fishing trip, take the Shelter Island Art Walking Tour or simply stroll along the Shoreline Park.
As you drive up the coast from San Diego, definitely make time to stop off at ‘Dog Beach’, Dana Point and Huntington Beach. Dana Point is renowned for dolphin and whale watching and here visitors can catch tour boats from the marina for whale watching or enjoy a sunset cruise. Huntingdon Beach in Orange County is famous for its beautiful, long beaches and surfing while Dog Beach was one of the nation’s very first leash-free beaches for dogs. In this special place, dogs (and their humans!) of all shapes, sizes, colors and breeds splash around and have some serious fun in the sea!
Rent your car at San Diego Airport!
2 days in Los Angeles: Things to see and do
Next, I would recommend staying at least two days in the city of Los Angeles. Here you will take in some iconic sights and experiences, definitely try and include some of these popular places.
Griffith Park and Griffith Observatory
Located in the center of Los Angeles, Griffith Park is the United States’ largest urban wilderness park with trails and outdoor tourist attractions, and of course, the famous Hollywood sign. Also, in Griffith Park, on the slopes of Mount Hollywood, is the Griffith Observatory which contains the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Visitors can use the free public telescopes or explore the space exhibits and immerse themselves in the wonders and immensity of the cosmos. Enjoy the sunset walk and talk tour, and watch the sun setting over Hollywood before indulging in some stargazing.
Rodeo Drive, Santa Monica
A highlight of your visit to Los Angeles is a trip down Rodeo Drive, which is justifiably known as the shopping precinct of the rich and famous. Stretching for 2 miles, this street in Beverley Hills has to be one of the most famous in the world. It boasts the world’s most exclusive, high-end boutiques and designer shops and has featured in many films.
LA Farmer’s Market
Considered the original Farmer’s market, the local markets held at 3rd and Fairfax is certainly LA’s most famous. It dates back to 1934 and it represents a traditional stalwart of LA life and is a favorite destination for locals and visitors alike. The vendors’ sprawling stalls form a rabbit warren of little trendy shops and stalls, interspersed with restaurants and eateries. It offers a wide range of local foods and gourmet produce.
This is a great place to stay in Los Angeles. Once an Italian enclave, Los Feliz has in recent times morphed into a hip hillside village neighborhood with trendy cafes, boutique shops and old book stores. It even has a genuine 1920s movie palace, the Vista Theatre, and concerts are still held at the famous Greek Theatre. There are some magnificent homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself, including Ennis House and Hollyhock House in the Barnsdale Art Park.
As you leave Los Angeles, stop off at Malibu Beach in the Santa Monica Mountains region. Malibu is the famous beachside city to the west of Los Angeles, with incredible beaches, some cool beach style shacks and 27 miles of coastal beaches to explore. Malibu is also famous for being home to Hollywood A-listers who live in gorgeous homes there and has been a location used for making movies and television series, including The OC and Baywatch.
Popular stops include Zuma Beach and Malibu Lagoon State Beach, renowned as being great surfing conditions. Some of the beaches are known for their long sandy stretches and others for sea caves and rocky shores, and deep blue water full of remarkable kelp forests, and reefs.
Moving inland, there are trails to explore through impressive canyon country, and views of spectacular waterfalls and open grassland as you head into the Santa Monica mountains.
1 Day in Santa Barbara
Next stop at the beautiful and very popular coastal city of Santa Barbara. When the Spanish occupiers arrived in the 1780s, they found the area already settled by the native Chumash people. The city today is located on the central Californian coast with a dazzling backdrop provided by the Santa Ynez Mountains. You can still see the Spanish colonial influence in the architecture, with typical white stucco houses and their red tile roofs.
This picturesque city is well known for its sweeping, sandy beaches and warm, sunny climate. Visitors can also enjoy the upmarket boutiques and restaurants offering fine dining and local wines. Santa Barbara is also famous for the long list of celebrities who reside here, including Hollywood royalty like Tom Cruise and Stephen Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg and Kevin Costner. Entertainment heavyweights like Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey also call Santa Barbara home.
1 Day in Avila Beach
As you drive up the coast stop at Avila Beach located on San Luis Obispo Bay. It’s a pretty and very laid-back place, and the Avila Beach pier is perfect for a gentle stroll and the beach is perfect for relaxing. Avila Beach has also become a popular tourist attraction for whale watching out on the Bay.
1 Day in Morro Bay
The small city of Morro Bay is a little further along the coast and features fascinating lagoons, nature trails, miles of unspoiled beaches and an estuary alive with abundant bird life. There is an ancient rock mound landmark of volcanic origin, at one end of Morro Rock Beach.
Popular leisure activities include boating, surfing and golf. You can hire a kayak and view the marine life including sea otters, seals and sea lions or you could go whale watching in season. For the more adventurous types, there is plenty of breathtaking scenery and wildlife to enjoy while biking and hiking.
The ten-day Californian road trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Big Sur. This area is famous for its dramatic natural beauty and pristine scenery, making it attractive for campers being one of the best places for family glamping in northern California, for hikers and beachcombers. Big Sur boasts a long, undeveloped coastline with the steep cliffs of the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains forming an extraordinarily scenic backdrop.
1 day in Carmel-by-the-Sea
From the Big Sur coastline, your tour will soon arrive at Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is a delightful, romantic seaside destination and artist’s enclave. Stay and enjoy a full day of sightseeing in this quaint location where there is quite a bit to see and do. Expect to see charming historic buildings, artisan boutiques and enchanting little cottages, giving the town an old-world feeling.
Along with a scenic coastline, Carmel offers many other interesting attractions, including art galleries, museums and restaurants. Pay a visit to San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, one of the most intriguing Spanish missions in the State and includes the Carmel Basilica, which is a stunning historic landmark featuring interesting architecture and a decorative interior.
Carmel also boasts its own charming little village of fairy tale cottages created by Hugh Comstock in the 1920s and 1930s. His signature style features steep-sided thatched roofs teamed with storybook window panes and half-timbered detail. There are still twenty-one of his original cottages surviving for tourists to enjoy, with one of them an English-style tea-rooms and another is a boutique shop selling fine china and teas.
Next leave Carmel and take a quick stop in nearby Monterey, another interesting destination city located along California’s central coast. Monterey Beach is a wild and beautiful area, where visitors can enjoy kayaking and whale watching. Some of Monterey’s other attractions include Cannery Row, a historic and now lively waterfront district that once housed a sardine-processing industry.
2 days in San Francisco: Things to see and do
End your journey with a stay in the beautiful and eternally fascinating city of San Francisco. Here you can take in some of the world’s most iconic sights.
Fisherman’s Wharf on the northern waterfront is a very busy, world-famous tourist destination. There are souvenir shops and stalls, boutiques and eateries, and you can enjoy sweeping views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Alcatraz prison island. You can take historic ship tours, and visit attractions like the Aquatic Park, a wax museum, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. There is even a very cute re-established seal colony residing at the wharf.
Pier 39 is a popular shopping center built on a pier at Fisherman’s Wharf, with plenty of restaurants and seafood stalls on offer, including the floating Forbes Island Restaurant.
Golden Gate Bridge
Opened in 1937, the internationally recognized Golden Gate bridge was, at the time, the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world. At its highest point, it reaches 227m tall. It spans a one mile wide strait that connects San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. It was certainly lauded as one of the most beautiful bridges ever built and has been acclaimed as one of the Wonders of the Modern World.
The bridge is popular with tourists, with walkways on each side of the six vehicle traffic lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. Located on the San Francisco end of the bridge is a visitor center with a gift shop, called the “Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center”.
Book your cruise around the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island!
This vibrant San Francisco neighborhood is known as the birthplace of the 1960s counterculture ‘hippie’ movement. Once frequented by colorful cult leaders, revolutionaries and counterculture musicians like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, it remains a fascinating destination where cultures and eras seamlessly blend.
Haight Ashbury is one of the few areas that escaped being seriously damaged by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and as a result, you can see many wonderfully preserved Victorian homes still standing.
A visit to the notorious prison island of Alcatraz starts with a 15-minute ferry ride, followed by a fascinating 2 or 3 hour tour. Situated in San Francisco Bay, this little island started with a lighthouse, military fortifications and a US military prison. From 1934 it was repurposed as a Federal high-security prison for some very dangerous prisoners, including mobsters like Al Capone and George Kelly (Machine Gun Kelly), and Robert Stroud who was known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”. Along with the criminals, prison staff and their families also lived on the island. Since 1963, when the Federal penitentiary was shut down, the unoccupied island has become a very popular tourist destination due to its rich and sinister history.
Book an exciting helicopter tour for the best views of San Francisco!
Day trip to Napa Valley
A trip to the lovely Napa Valley will take just over an hour out of San Francisco. Once you have arrived, there is a thriving wine scene to experience. Napa Valley has been enriched by volcanic soils which dictates a unique flavor in this wine-growing region. The valley’s signature grape, the Cabernet Sauvignon, dominates the industry’s annual wine grape harvest. On your trip to Napa Valley, you can enjoy a wine-tasting tour around many of the delightful boutique wineries, and see the Domaine Carneros, a striking French-style Chateau.
Author Bio: Becky Moore is the founder of GlobalGrasshopper.com.