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San Diego

Tom from San Diego asked

Places to see in Northern California

I'm taking my gap year this year and driving up the coast of California this October with some friends (we're going to try the East Coast in the spring). We have literally no idea what to see, what to do, where to stay, what to get the picture. We're planning on taking our time driving up (maybe a week or so) and then spending at least a month in the northern part of the state. What should we see?

California (CA)

4 Answers
answered first by
Shauna from Santa Monica, California

You're going to my favorite part of the country! So much great stuff to see and do there! See if any of this works for you:

Things to see/do:

  • Sunset Drive-In Theater - Classic vintage drive-in movie theater that is still going strong. Worth a road trip just to check it out. Apparently the sound system is transmitted through your FM radio. Definitely old-school and high on the charm factor.
  • Crest Theatre - I'm an avid filmgoer and this theater is definitely on my list the next time I'm in Sacramento. Turns out the original theater on the property was a vaudeville theater built in 1914 and later they used the shell of the original building to create a new theater in the 40's.
  • Hearst Castle - There are many tours available at this phenomenal "home." One of interest is the evening tour, that is only offered in the spring & fall. The idea is you get to experience the castle the way it was experienced by the original guests/visitors in the 30's (read gorgeous, fun, festive)
  • Berkeley Rose Garden - Prime time visits for these rose gardens are said to be in May. Also a hidden gem for great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Santa Cruz Surfing Museum - All the surfers in the house might want to check out this museum. Turns out the Santa Cruz coastline was recently given the spot in the World Surfing Reserve. And that doesn't come easily. Congrats.
  • Bixby Creek Bridge - This bridge leads from Big Sur to Carmel and is also sometimes known as the Rainbow Bridge which I completely get: it links two of the most beautiful spots (Big Sur to Carmel or visa versa) with incredible spirit and magic.
  • Pacific Coast Highway - PCH for me is home. Yet every time I drive it, I catch my breath at its beauty, changeable nature (in color, sounds, reflections) and true majesty. It is practically in my back yard but something I never take for granted.
  • Redwood National Park - If you've never hugged a tree, this might be the place you give it a shot. You'll be sure that trees are people too once you take in the true majesty and chapel-like feeling here of peace and awe. Definitely worth a trip.
  • Big Sur -  I've practiced yoga for many years and often heard there were several power points in the world that were considered deeply sacred and spiritual. Big Sur is one of them. If you have a mystical bent, this notion might appeal to you. It has worked well for me.
  • Old Sonoma Road - Old Sonoma Road is a great place for a drive. When I was here I got to do so from the back of a Ducati. Nothing like a lot of wind in your hair as you whiz by such lush vineyards, the birds seem to whoop in reply to, Whoooopee, I'm in Napa!
  • Mill Valley (California) - I was just here a few months ago and lucked out because there was a terrific arts festival tucked into the woods. You can imagine the combination of clean air, majestic trees and crazed children with painted faces darting around you as a magician keeps everyone occupied. And let's just say the fun is amplified if two of those kids are your wild, incredibly cute 4 year-old nieces.
  • Half Dome - They call this hike the most "demanding day" you can attempt in Yosemite so it is up to you whether to brings your clamps & climbing gear or to use the aid of the provided cables for the hike. This is a 10+ hour climb & one to prepare for.

Places to eat:

  • Remedy Coffee - Great place to recharge before or after a visit to BAM (Berkeley Art Museum). It is actually now called Babette and there is somewhat secret entrance to for it on the Bankroft Street side.
  • Psycho Donuts - So they actually call this an asylum and they have nurses on hand to serve you your Pscho Passionata or the Dead Elvis complete with custard and peanut butter. If not enough, you can get your pic taken in a padded cell.
  • Smart BR Coffee - So you're looking for some coffee in Richmond and not only do you find coffee and Richmond here, you get a bunch of terrific Brazilian offerings as well. Look for the Brazilian flag outside.
  • Pizza Rustica - It seems umbrella drinks are making a comeback and what better place to have a Mai Tai than at the original spot of Trader Vic's Tiki Hut. Known as the Conga Lounge it is part of the restaurant. Sing conga music now: Bah bah bah be bah Bah!
  • Arinell Pizza Inc - I am a firm believer that you need to be able to get a great slice no matter where you are. But apparently, Arinell's in Berkeley gives it to you thick OR thin and they've been doing it 32 years. To me, this is comfort food at its best. Great prices.
  • Morimoto - For all you foodies and Iron Chef fans I don't need to tell you that this is the place to get a little taste of the Asian wonders from Chef Masaharu Morimotu's kitchen in Napa. If you want to take his food with you, grab a copy of his cookbook. Great souvenir that you won't regret.
  • Cakebread Cellars - This is a nice wine I've had many times, the Chardonnay being a great standard. Turns out the founder, John Cakebread is also a photographer and was in Napa to photograph area and ended up making an offer on the property. They now have 13 separate locations.
  • Nepenthe - Definitely check out Nepenthe next time you're in Northern Cali. The family history at the Nepenthe Restaurant is particularly incredible. I highly recommend their colorful cookbook because it is filled with terrific stories (recipes are probably great as well) & history.

Places to stay:

  •   Americana Lodge Redding Hotel - Every classic road trip requires a classic hotel seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Perfect location to unwind as you drive to Shasta Lake. This is vintage Americana with fair rates.
  • Convict Lake Resort - Yes, there was a shoot-out here and yes, they were escaped convicts from Nevada City. And no, it didn't end well. The mountains overlooking the lake are named after the posse members who were brave enough to confront them. Best to just rent a cabin and keep to yourself. Pets are welcome.
  • The Ahwahnee Hotel - A classic hotel if ever there were one with the unusual design influence combo of American Indian, Art Deco, Middle Eastern and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Their Great Lounge has a terrific stone fireplace. Perfect after you make that long climb in Yosemite, even if just from your hotel room.
  • The Madonna Inn - I loved it here and rented a white cadillac in Los Angeles and drove it up the coast in order to arrive appropriately "dressed" at the Madonna Inn. I got the room called Stairway to Heaven. There was a spiral staircase right in the middle and yes, there were clouds everywhere. The downstairs restaurant is cool with very memorable restrooms
  • Half Moon Bay - I just love this place!

Places to shop:

  • Bone Room The - Sure, they've got premium skeletons, claws, horns & fossils like you've never imagined, but I'm especially taken by the fact they have some pretty cool jewelry. And if you're shopping for something really special you might splurge on that scorpion set in lucite!


If you get sick of driving, try the Amtrak Station-SLO train. Very chic station happening there.

Comments (1)

wow...awesome answer wow..awesome answer

Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Sunset Drive-In Theater (attraction)
  2. Crest Theatre (attraction)
  3. Hearst Castle (attraction)
  4. Berkeley Rose Garden (attraction)
  5. Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (attraction)
  6. Bixby Creek Bridge (attraction)
  7. Pacific Coast Highway (attraction)
  8. Redwood National Park (park)
  9. Big Sur (city)
  10. Old Sonoma Road (attraction)
  11. Mill Valley (California) (city)
  12. Half Dome (attraction)
  13. Remedy Coffee (restaurant)
  14. Psycho Donuts (attraction)
  15. Smart BR Coffee (attraction)
  16. Pizza Rustica (restaurant)
  17. Arinell Pizza Inc (restaurant)
  18. Morimoto (restaurant)
  19. Cakebread Cellars (restaurant)
  20. Nepenthe (restaurant)
  21. Americana Lodge Redding Hotel (hotel)
  22. Convict Lake Resort (hotel)
  23. The Ahwahnee Hotel (hotel)
  24. The Madonna Inn (hotel)
  25. Half Moon Bay (city)
  26. Bone Room The (attraction)
  27. Amtrak Station-SLO (attraction)
comments (1)
likes (9) thanks
answered by
Lauren from Los Angeles

Make sure you see Carmel. Gorgeous drive to get here on windy roads, and incredible scenery! The roads can be windy and make sure you go when its not foggy, or you won't be able to see more than a foot in front of your car!

I also love Monterey Bay and I especially love the Monterey Bay Aquarium. this is one of my favorite aquariums, huge tanks of colorful large fish that reach the ceiling. You can even see a diver swim among them to feed the fish. Its right in the village of monterey, with tons of restaurants and shops right on the water.

Comments (0)


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Carmel (attraction)
  2. Monterey Bay (attraction)
  3. Monterey Bay Aquarium (attraction)
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answered by

We live on the Central Coast, so I will address that area...

Old Mission Santa Barbara Stop and see one of the old missions in Santa Barbara.  Eat at  Norton's Pastrami & Deli 18 W. Figueroa (sorry it is a new place to trippy, but I don't know how to add it). A favorite of locals and you may even see Dennis Miller (comedian) eating there.   Leadbetter Beach & Park is a popular beach, but all of the beaches are nice.

Head north on the 101 and exit Clark street and head west.  Turn right on Highway 1.  When you get to Main Street you will be in  Guadalupe, a small farming town.  Turn left on Main and you will be at the Gateway to the Dunes.  This is where Cecil B. DeMille's movie, The Ten Commandments, was filmed.  You will go through ranch land, so you will see deer, cow, coyotes, and if you are lucky, a bobcat.  Continue all the way to the  Guadalupe Beach which is a nature preserve.  Very rustic and beautiful.  Eat at  El Tapatio (great Mexican will have to wait for it, but it is worth it) on Highway 1 on your way out of town or stop at  Romo's Market (fast mexican food...try the carne fries or burritos).

Continue north to  Pismo Beach.  You can stop and see the butterflies at the monarch preserve...there will be a bunch of cars on the sides of the road.  In Pismo Beach, eat at  Splash Cafe a local favorite for clam chowder.  If you need gluten-free clam chowder, then go to  The Moose Deli & Brew.  Great hotel here is the Kon Tiki Inn.  It is an older hotel, but the prices are good, and every room has a fabulous view of the ocean.  The rooms on the 4th floor have fireplaces.  The  Seacrest Beach Resort is also a nice place to stay...newer and more modern, but not every room has an ocean view.  Continue on Highway 1 and go to Avila Beach.  If you go to the end of the pier, there is a place where you can walk below the peir and see the sea life below.  There is great wine tasting here and beautiful beach.  Eat anywhere, it will be good.  You can also go to the  San Luis Obispo Pier and see sea lions.

North of Avila Beach is San Luis Obispo.  There is another great mission here  San Luis Obispo Mission which is prettier than the one in Santa Barbara, but good to see the differences in missions.  If you are in San Luis Obispo on Thursday night, make sure you go to the street market and see the popular-with-tourists Bubblegum Alley.  Just ask one of the shopkeepers where it is.  Then go to San Simeon, there is a little cafe there (the only one there in the park) that has great burgers featuring Hearst Ranch beef.  If you continue on Hwy 1, stop and see the elephant seals past San Simeon.  

One more thing...there is great wine tasting everywhere in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo...must be 21, and make sure you have a designated driver.

Comments (0)


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Old Mission Santa Barbara (attraction)
  2. Norton's Pastrami & Deli (restaurant)
  3. Leadbetter Beach & Park (attraction)
  4. Guadalupe (attraction)
  5. Guadalupe Beach (attraction)
  6. El Tapatio (restaurant)
  7. Romo's Market (attraction)
  8. Pismo Beach (city)
  9. Splash Cafe (restaurant)
  10. The Moose Deli & Brew (restaurant)
  11. Kon Tiki Inn (hotel)
  12. Seacrest Beach Resort (hotel)
  13. San Luis Obispo Pier (attraction)
  14. San Luis Obispo (city)
  15. San Luis Obispo Mission (attraction)
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answered by
Tony from Seattle

Holy crap, I can't compete with Shauna's epic answer, but I will add...  If you can possibly do it, check out  Point Reyes National Seashore - it's gorgeous if you're into wilderness stuff.  If the timing is right, take a nighttime kayak trip on  Tomales Bay - the bioluminesence there is amazing when the moon isn't full.  Great BBQ oysters around there if you enjoy that sort of thing, too.

Comments (0)


Mentioned in this answer:

  1. Point Reyes National Seashore (attraction)
  2. Tomales Bay (attraction)
likes (2) thanks

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