View of Bixby Bridge on Pacific Coast Highway as taken from my iPhone
The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of best, if not the best, drives in the country. The views along the highway are simply spectacular and breathtaking. Although the PCH runs through most of the California coastline, I will focus on the section between Los Angeles and San Francisco: Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Central Coast and Big Sur, Monterey Bay Area, and San Francisco Bay area. I recently took a second trip driving up the PCH from Southern California to San Francisco. We started in San Diego. We connected to the PCH at a starting point of Malibu in Los Angeles. We broke our trip up into two days. We stopped at Santa Barbara after cutting through Malibu before making our way to San Luis Obispo in the Central Coast, where we spent a night. We completed our trip up to San Francisco after stopping at the Big Sur, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Los Gatos the second day. The PCH is not one continuous highway. Certain parts of it can end abruptly without much notice. As such, using a global positioning system (GPS) (e.g. Google Maps) is helpful. In addition, not all parts of the highway have great views. The best parts of the highway are between San Luis Obispo and Monterey in the Big Sur. The views in Malibu are great too. Accordingly, I recommend taking the quickest route suggested by a GPS if you are not driving through Malibu or the Big Sur.
Below are my recommendations.
The Santa Monica Pier, then cutting through Malibu, is a great place to start a drive up the PCH. Pepperdine University (24255 Pacific Coast Hwy, Malibu, CA 90263) is right on the highway so I just set my GPS to bring me there. There are 20+ miles of scenic routes along Malibu. Of course, it is expensive real estate so there are amazing views and beaches. If you do not live there or do not want to spend time on a beach, there is really not that much to do but just drive through and enjoy the views. There are some popular fish and chips restaurants along the highway. They are good but there are better ones in Los Angeles.
The section of the PCH after Malibu is also a spot where we got lost. We assumed that we needed to continue up route 1. However, we actually had to drive west and connect to US 101 North to continue on the PCH and head towards Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful beach town on the California coast. Even if you do not have time to enjoy the beaches [like us], it is still worth a stop when traveling up the PCH. The Paseo Nuevo neighborhood is only a .5 mile off of the PCH after you exit and has plenty of shops and restaurants. There is also a free parking lot [up to 75 minutes] behind the Marshalls on E Canon Perdido Street so do not try to drive around looking for parking. There are plenty of good options for food in the area. Unfortunately, we arrived around 3:30 PM when a lot of the restaurants are closed in between lunch and dinner. Pickles & Swiss (811 State St, Santa Barbara, CA) is an excellent sandwich shop. I ordered the Crispy Chicken West (lightly breaded homemade chicken, smoked bacon, tomato, romaine lettuce, and barbecue and ranch sauces) and really enjoyed it. Since it is a hole in the wall, it is quick and a good option if you are only passing through Santa Barbara along the PCH. If you love coffee, I highly recommend Handlebar Coffee Roasters (128 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101). It is one of the best coffee shops along the California coast. I have tried a lot of great specialty coffee shops around the country and it measures up to any of them.
San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo (SLO) is a fun and hip college town [Cal Poly] on the Central Coast. It has great energy as a big town masquerading as a small city. For me, it is a must stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. You could easily stay there for a few days and have a good, short California vacation. There is plenty of great food and some of the best coffee shops anywhere in downtown SLO, along Higuera Street and its side streets. The beautiful Avila Beach is about a 20 minute drive from town. You are also within driving distance of the most gorgeous parts of the PCH in the Big Sur. Again, there are plenty of great food and coffee options in SLO. Here are the ones I enjoyed.
1. Firestone Grill (1001 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401)
Firestone Grill is known for its barbecue, specifically its tri-tip steak sandwiches. It loved it when I visited in 2012 and returned to eat it again on my second trip to SLO. The steak is cooked well and extremely tender. The meat is a bit bland because it is not marinated. The accompanying barbecue sauce is awesome and adds all the flavor. As a result, get extra barbecue sauce. The bread is really good too. I also recommend the delicious parmesan fries. They are crisp and the parmesan gives a lot of flavor. The portions are generous and the price is moderate.
2. Seeds (1133 Garden Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401)
I have become a big fan of acai bowls in the last two years. Seeds features awesome acai bowls. The names are very simple: Bowl 1, Bowl 2, and Bowl 3. I ordered Bowl 2 which has acai, almond milk, blueberries, and strawberries as a base. It also includes blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, pepita, and bee pollen as toppings. The presentation is second to none. I also like that they start the bowl with a layer of granola at the bottom so that the toppings are spread out throughout and not concentrated on top of the acai. On the other hand, I do have two areas of improvement. First, I prefer the acai slightly colder. More importantly, I think Seeds needs to use better honey. In my experience, awesome honey can put an acai bowl over the top. Nevertheless, it is still one of my favorite bowls since it is the best looking one with fresh ingredients.
3. Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab (860 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401)
If you are looking for great ice cream in SLO, Doc Burnstein’s is a great ice cream parlor to stop by. The pistachio was a little weird when I tried some. For this reason, I did not order it. However, the honey almond [one of the flavors for June] was phenomenal. The chocolate dipped homemade waffle cones are very good too.
SLO definitely has some of the best coffee anywhere. All the lattes I had at the three shops I tried are amazing. In addition, each shop is charming and look great.
- Bello Mundo Café (974 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401)
The latte I had here was perfect. The latte art was excellent. The richness and smoothness of the taste was consistent throughout the drink. In addition, it includes a small complimentary biscotti on the plate.
- Kreuzberg Coffee Company (685 Higuera St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401)
I also had another perfect latte at Kreuzberg in terms of art and taste. I give Bello Mundo Café a slight edge because my latte there was more consistent throughout the drink. The lattes also include a complimentary small cookie on the plate.
- Scout Coffee Co. (1130 Garden St, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401)
Scout Coffee makes its own almond milk. I have seen many coffee shops struggle with making lattes with almond milk. The barista I had at Scout passed with flying colors. I had the best almond milk latte I have ever had here.
The best views on the PCH are located between SLO and Monterey. It is where you will find cliffs and mountains meeting the ocean directly. The rugged Big Sur is the most popular stretch in between those two cities. There are many state parks and hiking trails in the area. You could easily spend a week there to enjoy that unique stretch of beautiful coast. Of course, it is spectacular just to drive through. Below are a couple of recommendations if you are just driving through.
- Hearst Castle (750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon, CA 93452)
Heart Castle is a National Historic Landmark along the PCH before you reach Big Sur if you are driving north. It is a popular tour to take a shuttle up to the castle to explore it. However, I have never done it and it could take half a day. Nevertheless, I do enjoy parking across the street and spending 10 minutes to take in the views around the area. You can also see the castle from a distance at the bottom.
- Andrew Molera State Park (45500 California 1, Big Sur, CA 93920)
There are a lot of state parks and trails in the Big Sur. Andrew Molera State Park is a good one to stop by if you do not have a lot of time to spend in Big Sur. It is only one mile one way [2 miles round trip] to get to the ocean and see where a river meets the ocean. The views at that point are spectacular. It is $10 to park in the parking lot which also pays for the other parking lots in the other state parks for the day if you want to stop by another one. Of course, you can also park on the side of the PCH and walk down.
Monterey is a fishing city on the Central Coast. It features a beautiful bay and fisherman’s wharf. It is a nice place to stop by for food if you are hungry. However, I do not consider it a must see.
- 17 Mile Drive
If you are approaching Monterey from the south, you will see signs on the PCH for the 17 Mile Drive. It is a popular drive through the Monterey Peninsula. Along the 17 miles, you will drive through residential neighborhoods and see the homes of the wealthy, Pebble Beach [arguably the most beautiful golf course in the country], and, of course, beautiful coastal views. It is a private road so you need to pay $10 to enter. Although it provides some gorgeous views, it does not measure up to the free views you see driving through the Big Sur. If you are driving south and coming from the north, it is an excellent appetizer for the drive ahead. If you are going north and already saw Big Sur, it is not as satisfying eating the appetizer after you already had the main course.
- The Poke Lab (475 Alvarado St, Monterey, CA 93940)
There are plenty options for food in Monterey, especially close to Fisherman’s Wharf. We stopped at the Poke Lab. It is a small shop that serves the best poke I have eaten since my trip to Hawaii. I ordered the Poke Lab Bowl which includes spicy tuna, ahi tuna, salmon, and avocado. I took and recommend taking all the complimentary toppings: edamame, green onions, masago eggs, ginger, and a Furikake Mix. The fish is ridiculously fresh and I assume it is caught the day of near the wharf. It is great food and very quick.
Santa Cruz is a great coastal city to stop by on the PCH. The downtown area is vibrant with plenty of shops and restaurants. The wharf is fun. The boardwalk includes a solid amusement park. You can see and hear seals under and around the pier. You will also see plenty of fisherman trying to catch dinner. It is worthwhile to spend two hours walking around the boardwalk and pier. While I have tried a restaurant on the pier in 2012, it was not very good. In general, there is nothing special to eat there. I would probably eat a turkey leg or some comfort food on the boardwalk if I was compelled to eat there. Again, you can head back to the downtown area. Naturally, parking is expensive and the lots are jammed around the wharf and boardwalk. However, you can find free street parking if you are willing to drive a little bit up to West Cliff Drive and park on the side streets off of it. It is only a 10 minute walk down to the wharf from there. Be sure to read the signs. Some streets are permit parking but others are not.
If you are looking for some great coffee, The Verve is the shop to hit in Santa Cruz. I have been to the downtown location (1540 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060) and Seabright location (104 Bronson St, Santa Cruz, CA 95062). Personally, I prefer the Seabright location. It featured the better baristas when I went. It is also away from the downtown area so it will be easier to find parking and avoid traffic.
In addition, certain parts of Santa Cruz can be sketchy so I would be careful where you ventured.
My friend and I stumbled on to this small, charming town when we were stuck in traffic attempting to drive from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and needed to get off the highway to get some gas. We are glad we did. While it is not a must see or must stop, it is a great spot to get something to eat, especially if you are stuck in traffic going to San Francisco and want to wait it out. We were not able to dine at the first place I found on Yelp but we were happy to eat at Centonove (109 W Main St, Los Gatos, CA 95030). The meatball sliders are a phenomenal appetizer. The Gnocchi Bicolore entrée is also excellent. It is a spinach and beet gnocchi that includes prosciutto. You can definitely taste that the gnocchi is homemade because it is very soft. The restaurant also has very good, complimentary homemade bread.