Ultimate California Road Trip  

A thousand glorious miles

A full-on exploration of the Golden State, from San Francisco to San Diego

This trip hits the famous Pacific Coast Highway but nips inland to visit Californian jewels like Napa, Yosemite, and Palm Springs. You’ll experience the best that the state has to offer, from its contrasting cities, ginormous national parks, world-class wine regions, and beautiful stretches of coastline. As you drive from north to south, the weather gets warmer and sunnier, and when you eventually reach San Diego, a thousand miles on the clock, it’s the perfect moment for a classic beach break.

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San Francisco, Sonoma, Napa, Yosemite, Carmel & Monterey, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Los Angeles

Ideal for
A complete discovery of the Golden State.

Recommended itinerary

San Francisco

Golden Gate City

Your trip starts in style, exploring San Francisco and its many neighbourhoods. It’s an instantly recognisable city, not least for the Golden Gate Bridge. But its steep hills, including the zany Lombard Street, the row of Victorian homes known as the Painted Ladies, and views of the infamous island prison, Alcatraz, are other sights you’ll almost certainly already know – now’s your chance to see them up close. After getting to know the city, pick up your hire car – the road trip begins, although it begins with just a short hour-long drive north to Sonoma over the Golden Gate Bridge.

What to do in San Francisco

Take a sightseeing tour

A Hop-On Hop-Off Official City Tour takes you to all the must-see locations – perfect if it’s your first time in the city. Make time for Golden Gate Park and its museums, including the California Academy of Sciences and the striking de Young Museum. You could bike the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, mooch around Fisherman’s Wharf eating saltwater taffy and watching the antics of the resident sea lions, or take a spooky night tour of Alcatraz.

Where to stay in San Francisco

Rest your head

Choosing Union Square as your base puts you within easy distance of the most popular locations (and right within the city’s shopping district). Check out The Handlery Union Square for a no-frills option, or check into the famous The Westin St Francis, where Charlie Chaplin used to hang out.


Venture to Wine Country

Wine buffs rejoice (or at least clink your cabernet-charged glasses together) – adventures in California’s wine country await, starting in Sonoma. But delectable vino is not all this region has going for it. Throw in a few majestic redwood trees, add the Pacific Ocean to the views, and pepper it with some charming towns, and you have a pretty special place on your hands.

What to do in Sonoma

How you’ll spend your days

Sonoma County is one of the most diverse counties in all of California. But, as it's the wine most people come for, it's appealing to find a base here and linger a little longer, especially as the wineries tend to be a bit more dispersed and diverse than the concentrated viticulture you find in nearby Napa Valley.

Where to stay in Sonoma

A little R&R

Change the pace from city speed to something slower, staying at a resort where you can swim, cycle, and sip on excellent wine. Centred around a cluster of heritage on a sleepy square, the town enjoys a quaintness lacking in busier Napa nearby. The town boasts numerous high-end restaurants, wine bars and tasting rooms, and some of California's oldest wineries lie in the surrounding hills.


Back-to-back wineries

Drive onwards – your wine exploration continues in the beautiful Napa Valley. Looking for oysters, bubbles, and farm-based bites? Local favourite Oxbow Market hits the spot. Downtown Napa is also renowned for art galleries, swanky shops, and paddleboarding from the docks.

What to do in Napa

Wine tasting galore

Hop from vineyard to vineyard, tasting wines in castle-like estates, in hillside boutiques with spectacular views and high-tech subterranean tasting rooms. But wine isn’t the only thing this Californian enclave has going for it – there’s an impressive art scene, and it’s an excellent place for foodies to indulge in restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs.

Where to stay in Napa

Chic and cosmopolitan

What was once the domain of country club styling has given way to far more modern options. Choose which style suits you best for your wine country sojourn. And while luxury options are undoubtedly tempting, you don’t have to blow the budget in Napa.


Hit the road

After exploring Wine Country, your first long drive awaits. It’s around a four-hour drive to Yosemite, depending on where in this 1,100-square-mile area you’re headed. Yosemite Valley, just seven miles long, is the heart of this incredible wilderness.

What to do in Yosemite

Get exploring

Pull on your hiking boots – Yosemite is best explored on foot, following miles of trails ranging from easy walks to challenging hikes. You can also explore the Yosemite Valley by bike, horseback, or rafting down the Merced River. If all that exhausts you, drive to Glacier . for panoramic park views. And don't forget to visit the famous giant Sequoias, some of the largest and oldest living things on earth.

Where to stay in Yosemite

Choose a lodge

Lodges in Yosemite aren’t super luxurious. But the rustic and cosy ambience is befitting of the surroundings. We especially like Tenaya at Yosemite, where days are spent boating and biking, and evenings are spent toasting s’mores over fire pits or taking guided flashlight hikes.

Carmel & Monterey

Back to the coast

Leaving Yosemite in the rearview mirror, you’ll take the four-hour drive to California’s Central Coast and pretty Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey. There’s an incredible lifestyle here – yours to enjoy for as long as you choose to stay – and plenty to do, whether you’ve got the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium in mind or you fancy strolling through Carmel’s galleries and finishing up on its glorious beach.

What to do in Carmel & Monterey

Get out on the water

If you take the 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove, you’ll see the sea life in the waters here, including the harbour seals. It may inspire you to get out onto the water and take a whale-watching tour from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. In the evening, Carmel spoils you with its restaurants and cellar choices.

Where to stay in Carmel & Monterey

Linger longer

Make the most of the oceanside location and stay at Monterey Bay Inn or Intercontinental The Clement. But if you plan to stay a few days or more in the area, it’s worth considering the beautiful Carmel Valley Ranch, where you can roam the 500 acres of vineyards and farms and indulge in a wholesome, outdoorsy life.

Santa Barbara

Welcome to the American Riviera

Plan to set off early from Carmel – the drive to Santa Barbara will take you all day if you want to enjoy the best of Highway 1 as it passes through Big Sur. You’ll see the iconic Bixby Bridge, pull over to spot breaching whales and gaze skyward for a chance to see a circling condor. You’ll eventually reach Santa Barbara – one of California’s most desirable towns.

What to do in Santa Barbara

Med-style moods

If it’s time for the beach, SB has you covered with East Beach, West Beach, Leadbetter Beach, Butterfly Beach and more. You’ll want to make time to explore the main thoroughfare, State Street, where outdoor bistros are perfect for people-watching before hopping on the Trolley that makes its way up and down the street.

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

Live the high life

You can expect to pay more for hotels in this swish part of California. El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, is one of the most luxurious in the area, overlooking the coast and spoiling guests with its facilities and activities. But the Best Western Plus Pepper Tree Inn might provide everything you need if you’re passing through SB or looking for a more affordable option.

Los Angeles

A star-studded metropolis

LA is only a couple of hours from Santa Barbara. But it’s worth taking it slowly and planning to stop at some beaches along Highway 1 and enter Los Angeles via Malibu.

Hollywood Hills

What to do in Los Angeles

Max out your time

Consider an All-inclusive Pass from Go City to cram in as many tours and sights as possible. You’ll get access to over 40 tours and attractions from a vast list of options, including Universal Studios Hollywood, the Getty Centre to Griffith Observatory, a Beverly Hills bike tour, and Madam Tussauds Hollywood. Hang on to it – the pass also includes entry to LEGOLAND California and San Diego Zoo, which might come in handy later in your trip.

Santa Monica

Where to stay in Los Angeles

Pick your neighbourhood

Los Angeles is big. So before choosing where to stay in this sprawling metropolis, decide what you want to do when you’re here. If you’re checking off the tourist hotspots (think Walk of Fame and Dolby Theatre), staying around Hollywood might be wise. If you’re in the mood for the beach, decide whether Santa Monica suits you or continuing a bit further south to Huntington Beach or Laguna Beach is the laid-back version of LA you’d like to experience.

Palm Springs

Into the desert…

A hundred or so miles east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs is a sun-baked, sepia-toned, cacti-strewn landscape peppered with palm trees and colour-happy hotels. Expect swathes of honey-scented bougainvillaea, cinematic surroundings, and a touch of mid-century magic.

Palm Springs

What to do in Palm Springs

Relax or roam?

Palm Springs is the land of sunshine and retro vibes. Brunch with blood orange margaritas, play bocce ball under the stars and float in pools dotted with candy-coloured unicorns. Taking a cruiser bike up Palm Canyon Drive (a boho version of LA's Rodeo Drive) is the way to travel in these parts. Veer off for superbly curated vintage shops and exotic botanical gardens, then spin over to The Movie Colony to glimpse the former homes of Hollywood stars.

Where to stay in Palm Springs

Your desert escape

Choose a secluded bungalow for a movie-star-style getaway, or find a lively spot to join a cocktail-sipping crowd on a rooftop bar. If you’re ready for post-LA relaxation, plump for a resort with a pampering spa.

San Diego

Heading south

It feels like the further south you travel down the coast of California, the more easy-going life becomes. So, once you reach the sun-soaked depths of San Diego, within touching distance of Mexico, it’s fair to say things are pretty chilled. From Palm Springs, you may route back to the coast to Orange County – maybe stopping for some whale watching at Dana . – before taking Interstate 5 south to San Diego.

San Diego

What to do in San Diego

Experience the SoCal lifestyle

San Diego is a game of two halves. You’ve got the coastal hotspots – where La Jolla, Coronado, and Mission Bay vie for your attention. Then you’ve got the urban core, where the Gaslamp Quarter claims the lion’s share of hotels, shops, and restaurants.

San Diego

San Diego

Where to stay in San Diego

The grand finale

To finish your ultimate California road trip with a proper beach break, look no further than Hotel Del Coronado – it’s a fantastic beach resort and the perfect way to finish your trip. If you opted for a beach-style break in LA, you might be ready for San Diego’s city life, in which case, consider the opulent US Grant, a Luxury Collection Hotel, or a hotel in the lively Gaslamp Quarter.