Your journey up to this point has been replete with spectacular scenery and enthralling cityscapes - it might be easy to think that there’s not much left that could compare to the highlights of your trip so far… but you’d be dead wrong. You are about to embark on one of the most praised coastal road trip routes on Earth, and visit one of the world’s most culturally vibrant cities. There is much, much more for you to discover on the final leg of this itinerary.
*If you're considering taking this trip in reverse order, it's as easy as picking up a San Francisco RV rental.
San Luis Obispo
After the big city lights of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo County is likely to come as a welcome change of pace. The relatively small city of San Luis Obispo (just San Luis to locals) lies at the heart of the county and is a great place to base yourself as you explore the surrounding countryside. Make sure you do get out of the city to explore, as there are many interesting places and experiences waiting within a short drive from the city.
San Luis Obispo County is a haven for lovers of the outdoors. There are many different hiking trails for a whole range of fitness levels, many of which provide expansive views over the surrounding countryside. Bishop Peak offers some of the best views over downtown San Luis. The climb is moderately steep, so you’ll want to be at least a little bit in shape to tackle this hill but providing you can make it to the top, the scenery will more than reward your efforts. A little further away from the city is Montano De Oro State Park. This coastal park is truly beautiful, especially in spring when the wildflowers bloom, and offers many different walking trails, from easy to moderate difficulty.
You don’t have to leave the city to find interesting things to do though. The Madonna Inn is a famous local landmark that has been around since the 1950’s. Known for its pseudo-Swiss Alps facade, elaborately themed rooms, and rock waterfall urinal, the motor inn has been immortalized in movies, TV shows and music videos. Bubblegum Alley is another well known tourist attraction in the city. No one quite knows how it got started, but by the 1970’s this alley lined with thick layers of chewing gum left by passers-by was well established. Several attempts to clean the alley have failed, and to this day it remains one of SLO’s most iconic locations.
San Luis Obispo County is also well known for its wine country which produces some of California’s finest pinot noirs and chardonnays. Several different companies offer shuttles to take visitors on wine tours around the coastal SLO wine region - if you’re at all partial to a vino or two, this is an opportunity that should not be passed up.
Less than an hour up the coast from San Luis Obispo is the small town of San Simeon. While the town itself is not particularly noteworthy, there are two attractions here that make it well worth stopping in San Simeon on your way northward.
Built on a hill overlooking the San Simeon area is the legendary Hearst Castle, formerly owned by powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. In its heyday, this group of mansions hosted many elite personalities including Charlie Chaplin, Clarke Gable, Franklin Roosevelt, the Marx Brothers and Winston Churchill. No expense was spared in the creation of Hearst Castle - in fact, much of it is made from architecture brought back from Europe (notably ceilings from churches and monasteries) and pieced together to create this opulent getaway. A tour of Hearst Castle is a must while you’re in the area; the sheer extravagance on display has to be seen to be believed.
The other attraction to look out for while you’re in San Simeon is the elephant seal colony 11 kilometres north of the town. Seals can usually be seen on the beach just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse year round, though late January, April and October are particularly good viewing times. There’s no charge to see these massively magnificent mammals - head to the Elephant Seal Boardwalk for the best view.
As you continue along the coast, you’ll pass through the area known as Big Sur. This section of your journey is widely regarded as one of the most scenic routes in the United States, if not the world. The sparkling Pacific Ocean stretches away to your left while dense evergreen forests arise to your right. Much of the route traces its way along clifftops, allowing majestic views of the seascape far below.
This city, about 2 and a half hours from San Simeon, marks the end of the Big Sur region and is a convenient place to stop for a rest before the final push through to San Francisco. While you’re in town, Monterey Bay Aquarium is well worth a visit. The aquarium features more than 600 different species of sea life and is one of the world’s few aquariums to hold the ocean sunfish. There’s even an Outer Bay wing which provides an open sea gallery looking out into Monterey Bay.
Another hour and a half will bring you into the city of San Jose. The third-largest city in California and capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose is a thriving modern metropolis that’s riding the wave of the booming tech industry. It’s not just business that sets this place apart though - this global city offers a plethora of opportunities for holidaymakers and tourists too.
Looking for a little retail therapy after the long drive up the coast? Head to Santana Row, the “it” place to be in San Jose with numerous designer retailers and top-notch eateries. Those with a penchant for shopping could spend a whole day here, roaming from store to store, stopping only to eat a delicious meal.
Keeping the kids happy after all that travel will be top priority for some, and one of the best places in San Jose to take the whole family is the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Even though you’re about as far from Egypt as you can get, this museum has an exceptional array of authentic ancient Egyptian artifacts, from mummies to statues to 18th Dynasty coffins. Both entertaining and educational, adults and children alike will love diving into the history of this renowned civilization.
If you’re merely wanting to unwind from your travels and soak up a little serenity, the Municipal Rose Garden is the place for you. This 5.5 acre garden (located in the aptly named Rose Garden neighborhood) features 189 rose varieties and is widely praised for its beauty and peaceful atmosphere.
Once you leave San Jose you will at last be within striking distance of your final destination. Less than an hour and a half will bring you to the beautiful, strange, eclectic, vibrant and altogether wonderful city of San Francisco.
You couldn’t hope for a better way to round off your west coast road trip than winding up in San Francisco. This multifaceted city has justly earned its reputation as one of the world’s top urban travel destinations. The cutting edge nature of the city is reflected in sheer amount of wildly successful next-gen companies based here: Reddit, Twitter, Craigslist, Pinterest and Airbnb are just a few of the household name businesses with headquarters in this city. It’s not the business side of the city that draws masses of visitors to Frisco every year though. Read on to discover the San Francisco attractions that you need to experience to get the most out of your time here.
For the perfect overview of the city, jump aboard a moving historic landmark: one of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars. Not only is this a fun, easy way to see home of the city’s major landmarks, you’ll also have the distinction of riding the world’s last manually operated cable car system. Established between 1873 and 1890, the cable car network is an integral part of San Francisco and no visit here would be complete without at least a brief ride on one of the cars. If you’re keen to learn more about their history, you can hop off at Mason and Washington streets to have a look around the Cable Car Museum - you’ll even be able to see the giant wheels turning underground cables that power the cars.
There are myriad things to do in San Francisco itself, but to get to Frisco’s most popular attraction you’ll need board a ferry and head out into the middle of San Francisco Bay. The former fortress-prison of Alcatraz lies 2.4 kilometres offshore from the city; surrounded by the cold, hazardous currents of the bay, its isolation made it a near inescapable stronghold. Today however the island is far from inaccessible, with tours to Alcatraz proving to be a smash hit with tourists from across the globe. Learn about the Native American occupation of the island in the 1970’s, take the harrowing audio cellhouse tour (narrated by former inmates and guards), and delve deep into the history and lore of this fascinating place. When it comes to San Francisco tours, this is the crème de la crème. Just be certain to bring a warm jacket with you - no matter what the season, heavy fog and strong winds are common.
There are few better ways to immerse yourself in a city’s culture than sampling the dishes it’s famous for. In San Francisco, that means chowing down on a Mission Burrito. This massive helping of meat, beans, cheese, guacamole and salsa wrapped in a steamed tortilla might just fill you up for the rest of the day and will certainly satisfy your Mexican cuisine cravings. Opinions are divided on where to find the best Mission Burrito (ask any San Fran local and they’re likely to give you their impassioned opinion on the matter) but many say that the best place to go is La Taqueria on Mission Street. Don’t take our word for it though - sampling burritos from a couple different places over the course of your stay is a worthwhile and very tasty exercise.
Of course, one of the most recognizable images of San Francisco is the Golden Gate Bridge. This is the most photographed bridge in the world, and it’s easy to see why. This visually distinctive wonder of engineering stretches for 2.7 kilometres across the Golden Gate strait. To get up close and personal with this marvellous structure, you can choose to walk or cycle across it. Opening hours vary between the East and West sidewalks, so it pays to double check before you set out. Even if it’s a sunny day, windchill can bring temperatures on the bridge down to icy lows so make sure to wear appropriate clothing.
If you’re a sports fan, a visit to AT&T Park is a must before you leave. Even if baseball isn’t really your thing, just soaking up the atmosphere of a game in this stadium is well worth the admission price. This is the classic American “ballgame” experience at its best - book ahead to snag the perfect seats or head along at the last minute (even halfway through the game) to pick up ‘standing’ tickets for cheap if you’re not that fussed about the game itself. Either way, your time here is likely to be unforgettable.
For those seeking a foodie heaven, look no further than the Ferry Building Market: every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday local farmers and artisan food purveyors offer a dazzling selection of fresh produce and gourmet delicacies. Head along early to get the most out of the market as most stalls will be closed by 2pm. If you go on Saturday you’ll also find an open-air artisan market where you can browse jewelry, art, clothing and more. The Ferry Building Market is massively popular with locals and tourists alike; if the idea of mouth watering gourmet morsels and fresh local produce appeals, get yourself down there at all costs.
From the sun baked salt flats of Utah to the scenic coastlines and cityscapes of Northern California, this trip will take you through some of the most striking landscapes and famous cities in the world. When you’re hunting for a road trip that epitomizes “epic” and fairly bursts with variety, it’s hard to do better than this. And while all good trips must come to an end, this is a journey that will leave you with stories to tell and memories to share for many years to come.