We're going to be road tripping this summer from San Francisco to Los Angeles (Disneyland, specifically) and need your best tips!
April 11, 2012 8:33 PM   Subscribe

We're going to be road tripping this summer from San Francisco to Los Angeles (Disneyland, specifically) and need your best tips!

Hey peeps, we're Canadians and have never been to California before. My husband was going to go to a summer boot camp, but it was cancelled. So since he has a plane ticket already, we might as well make a trip out of it. I jokingly suggested we go to Disneyland (hey, I want to see the California Zephyr up close). This is our sixth trip stateside.

Here are some details:

- We would be flying into San Francisco and staying a few days - what should we see? What places should we avoid? What places are good to eat at (we are mostly food tourists)?

- We would be driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles - any caveats to that? Good places to stop at? Places not to stop at (after a creepy encounter in Lima, Montana, I have to ask!).

- Once down south, we want to go to Long Beach, Disneyland and perhaps check out Hollywood and go on one of those cheesy tours of the stars homes. Again, what should we see? What parts of town should we avoid? What places are good to eat at?

I looked at some of the other Asks about California, but they are a few years old and I know restaurants change and new attractions are opened.

Thanks a bunch!
posted by Calzephyr to Travel & Transportation around California (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've done the drive down the state many times. Take the coastal route (the 1, not the 5). It will take longer but it's much prettier. There are some pretty weird little towns along the way but most are not creepy. Maybe stop at Hearst Castle on the way down and stay the night, or stay at the Madonna Inn? It's a long drive to do all at once on vacation.

I'm sure I'll think of other things too - this is just a first stab :) When is this trip exactly? Disneyland advice will vary depending on whether school is in session or not, I think.
posted by troublesome at 8:38 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

What's your food budget? You can go pretty damn high-end in both cities.

For the drive down, you have two options: down the coast or through the middle of the state. The coast route is beautiful, and has more interesting places to stop in, but takes much longer. The drive down the 5 is purely utilitarian, and takes about 5.5 hours. I'd actually recommend this route, since there's so much to see and do in both cities, and the traffic on the 1 on the weekends especially can be infuriating.

Is there any reason in particular you want to visit Long Beach?
posted by mr_roboto at 8:45 PM on April 11, 2012

Seriously, the Madonna Inn is what I'd be doing with my life right now if I were doing whatever it was I wanted to be doing when I was a seven year old girl. STAY THERE. It's a magical mystery crazyplace, although the food is overpriced and mediocre, so maybe just buy a rose-encrusted wine goblet at the gift shop and then find somewhere in town to eat. UNLESS THERE IS DANCING IN THE MADONNA INN STEAKHOUSE THAT NIGHT in which case all bets are off, you have to go there. You can't beat that kind of cheesy old-man goodness.
posted by padraigin at 8:45 PM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't do the visiting-the-star's-homes tour, there are so many fun things to do in LA - including fun touristy things - and I just haven't heard good things about the tours. Here are some yelp reviews.

My girlfriend went on a fantastic food-tasting tour of several neighborhoods - Chinatown and others, I think. I'm unfortunately not sure what company. I think that kind of thing would be more fun than seeing the outside of someone's gate, but you can decide for yourself.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:46 PM on April 11, 2012

Response by poster: Is there any reason in particular you want to visit Long Beach?

To see the Queen Mary :-) Alberta is landlocked, so really, any sort of beach is incredibly amazing.

I think that kind of thing would be more fun than seeing the outside of someone's gate, but you can decide for yourself.

Aw, that's too bad that they are hit or miss. Ah...we'll save those pennies for food, I think! Thanks for the links.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:01 PM on April 11, 2012

I had am amazing salad in Lima, MT! I still think about it. Well, it wasn't that amazing, but it was unexpected, strawberries and blueberries!

I suggest you take Hwy 1 through Big Sur and stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where it is a very short hike to see this. You could also stop at Nepenthe for a pretty expensive burger. Sit on the deck! It is an example of the hippy California of the 60s that isn't that easliy found any more. Here's their weather cam.

In LA, I love to go to Japantown, hit up Beard Papa for cream puffs, shop at Giant Robot and maybe have noodles for lunch.

I think yelp might be best for SF food, while Chowhound is better for LA.
posted by Duffington at 9:04 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

For the drive down, you have two options
Actually, there's a third option - take Hwy 101. It's more scenic than 5 (much more) and faster than 1 (much faster). You can stop in various nice towns on the way: San Louis Obispo, Solvang, Santa Barbara. If you have time, I recommend going thataway.

If you're interested in old California Missions, there are several worth visiting on the way down 101: San Juan Bautista is especially cool, it's like a slice of 1850's California. (Bear in mind that the missions have a dark side, as well as the glowing side presented by The Church.)

I'd take Hwy 1 from San Francisco to Santa Cruz and Watsonville (from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz is one of the world's most beautiful drives) then cut inland to 101 for the rest of the trip.

You could visit the big trees from Hwy 1, either at Big Basin (not very convenient for redwoods at Hwy 1) or by going a few miles inland from Santa Cruz to Henry Coe State Park in Felton, where there's a hollow giant redwood where John Frémont may have camped during his explorations of the west.
posted by anadem at 9:06 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Ah, Preview!) If you love beaches, the stretch of highway 1 between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz has EXCEPTIONALLY FINE beaches!
posted by anadem at 9:08 PM on April 11, 2012

Talk about when you're going, time at Disneyland, etc-can give you better advice. New Carsland is opening June 15, so huge crowds at California Adventure can be expected there.
posted by purenitrous at 9:08 PM on April 11, 2012

Long Beach isn't very "beachy". It's a busy port city. The queen mary is kind of a tourist trap, but I'd enthusiastically recommend a whale watching cruise out of Long Beach harbor. If you're interested in a real Southern California beach, head to Santa Monica and Venice, or, of you have the time, up to Malibu, to Zuma and Point Dume.

Seriously, though; what's your food budget? All hinges on that.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:10 PM on April 11, 2012

How long do you have for this trip? The coast road is beautiful and there are several great places to stop along the way, but it is slow. And you don't want to drive it after dark. The inland 5 freeway, as mr_roboto says, is fast and unbelievably boring. If you have time, do the coast road and stop in Monterey (aquarium), Carmel (beach), Hearst Castle (crazy person architecture), the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo (extreme cheese! Visits the men's bathroom and pee in a waterfall!), Santa Barbara (architecture, beach, weekend art market).

I have plenty of things to recommend in LA itself, and star tours would not be on the list. There is tons of great food here, depending where you will be staying. My personal favorite for not-astronomical prices is Little Next Door in Fairfax for weekend breakfast. I have plenty of great recommendations for astronomically priced but amazing food if your budget stretches that far. If you want to see the beach, Santa Monica is great. Tons of great restaurants, lots of beach, grab brunch at the Annenburg Beach House (meh food but its directly on the beach, which is rare). I love the Getty Center, more for the architecture, views, tram ride and the cafe than for the art. Depending what's showing the art can be good too :)

I don't know SF all that well, but Coi restaurant if your budget stretches that high. If you like coffee, then promise me you will go to Blue Bottle Coffee for great coffee and fantastic breakfasts (don't be put off by the queue, it moves fast). Their siphon coffee is too weak for my taste, order it some other way (but the flavour is amazing!). Be touristy, drive up to the Golden Gate bridge, across to the northern side, park and walk around the headlands enjoying the view of the bridge and the city.
posted by Joh at 9:10 PM on April 11, 2012

If you do take the coastal route (even just partway!) do stop at Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel. It's breathtaking... one of my favorite places in the whole state. Also you can stop and see the Elephant Seals in San Simeon.
posted by everybody polka at 9:14 PM on April 11, 2012

While in Long Beach, you might want to visit the Aquarium of the Pacific.
posted by Linnee at 9:18 PM on April 11, 2012

Highway 1 is a great drive. Going South from San Francisco...

Santa Cruz is a neat beach town. There's a pretty cool boardwalk, and amusement park right on the beach.

If you like aquariums at all, you should definitely stop in Monterey and spend a day there. It is amazing.

Hearst's Castle in San Simeon is really interesting if you are into the roaring twenties and history.

Whatever you do, it will be a great time! As far as food, I'd try to eat up as much seafood as you can. In San Francisco we really enjoyed Farmer Browns.
posted by fyrebelley at 9:45 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in ocean-type things, the Aquarium of the Pacific is ring near the Queen Mary. And if you're in Long Beach, Open Sesame in Belmont Shore (part of Long Beach) has great Lebanese food. Aroma di Roma down the street has great gelato and you can walk around neighboring Naples and see beautiful, ritzy houses built on canals.
posted by corey flood at 10:07 PM on April 11, 2012

If you've never done it before, definitely take highway 1 from Monterey to San Simeon. Yes, it's slower, but that's the whole point. You can stop and look at thigs like the bixby bridge and McWay Falls along the way.

If it was me, I'd drive highway 1 the whole way, and depending on how long I had, stay in Santa Cruz, Monterey, or Santa Barbara, all of which are interesting enough to warrant spending a day there. Also, as someone mentioned, Hearst castle is actually really interesting and is along the way on highway 1.

Also, as was mentioned, Long Beach is not really very interesting. You'd be better off going to Malibu if you want to go to the beach. I could talk about California beaches all day long, I've spent much of my life since i was a kid driving up and down the coast investigating them, looking for surf. One thing you'll find as a general rule is the landscapes are more dramatic in the northern part of the state, but the beaches are more inviting in the traditional way (warm water, showers, food vendors) farther south.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:57 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

- Check out Chowhound's SF board for recent discussions by overheated foodies. SF has an incredible array of restaurants, there are a lot of recent AskMes on the topic. Two tips: Try to get some good Filipino food near San Francisco, in Daly City or Milbrae. Tribu Grill is decent, there are lots of review on Yelp for good places. Also try Mitchell's Ice Cream and Humphry Slocumbe in SF for wonderful ice cream flavors.

For the drive:
- Elephant Seals, either at San Simeon or Ano Nuevo
- Pescadero: go to Harley Goat Farms and Duarte's Tavern for artichokes and ollaliberry pie
- Kayak in Elkhorn Slough near Monterey
- See Heart Castle in San Simeon
- Check out the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Monterey
- Santa Cruz boardwalk and wharf (walk down to the fishing boat dock to see the sea lions lounging behind the chain link fence)
- Big Sur, IMHO, is overrated, but if you do go, go whole hog and stay at Esalen or in a yurt. Or just crash the hot springs at 2AM or whenever they are open to the public (check times first).
- Buelleton Ostrich Farm (giant eggs, $20)
- Madonna Inn Nthed
- Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA
posted by benzenedream at 11:42 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite things in the whole world is driving on Highway 1 between San Francisco & southern California. Favorite.

I hope, hope, hope that you make the time for highway 1. Make a day of it, so you can stop at all the great places you'll see along the way. One of the best things to do on the pacific coast highway is just pay attention & stop when you see something interesting. When you see a couple cars parked along the side of the road or something that catches your eye—there are these *amazing* semi-hidden places where you can hike down to the water, or hike up a ways & find hidden waterfalls. One of them, you hike a little ways down this cliff, then you go through a tunnel & wind your way on a path, then you're out on the wild rocks, with the surf crashing around you and nothing but the wild birds and the sky above. There's another place where water runs out of the rocks & over the land, mists up into the air and I swear it looks just like Lord of the Rings. Another little place called Seven Stairs... it has seven stairs, and a sign that says "Seven Stairs". It's just this little tiny alcove with some stairs, a waterfall, and a picnic table. Weird but wonderful.

Big Sur, Julia Pfeiffer Burns... can't go wrong. Also Cambria is one of my favorite little towns along the way.

If you're adventurous and you love the wildness of the northern coast, take the long & winding road. Just drive & stop when you feel you should stop. Enjoy the sun and the cliffs and the great wide ocean. Do note, however, that you should start early & finish your drive before dark. Driving in the daylight is beautiful & exhilarating. At night in the fog it's scary.

I made a photo gallery so you could see kind of what it's like.
posted by eleyna at 11:51 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to hang out on the beach, I recommend the beaches that are north of Los Angeles. You could visit the ones just north of LA on the PCH (accessible from LA), where you can swim. Or, for some beautiful, gorgeous beaches - they even have tidepools! - I recommend the ones around San Luis Obispo, which is on your way if you take the 101 down the coast. They're colder, but you can still go in the water if you want.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:30 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi guys, just two quick details before I run out the door. This is great stuff guys, I think I'll just end up printing it out and highlighting all the places :-) We will be going for two weeks.

I want to be vague about the dates, because I don't want to spread that info. Safe to say that we will be missing the opening of New Carsland.

We have no food budget :D We never set one because we've don't want to regret missing a great experience for want of sticking to a budget.

Oh, we're also nerds. We have friends in San Francisco, so we'll be crashing with them. One works at Google and promised we'd have lunch in the cafeteria. We are pretty good for nerdy places to see.

We will be flying back out from San Francisco, so it looks like we could take route 1 at least one way.
posted by Calzephyr at 5:37 AM on April 12, 2012

Two that I haven't seen recommended yet, and since you say you're nerds...:

The Musee Mechanique (warning: autoplay mechanical laughter) is one of my favorite cool things to see in SF. Mechanical arcade games from long ago.

And for LA, my "must see" includes the La Brea Tar Pits. Saber toothed tigers and wooly mammoths, in an actual tar pit.

Every city has its cool houses and funky neighborhoods and museums, those two attractions are very much features entwined in unique aspects of SF and LA unique.

And I'll reinforce the recommendation for driving down Route 1.
posted by straw at 9:23 AM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Good reminder Straw! I will have to look up any arcade museums. We loved the one in Las Vegas.
posted by Calzephyr at 1:48 PM on April 12, 2012

Response by poster: Eleyna...thank you for the pictures...the fourth last one is absolutely magical. I would love to go there for sure.

Insectosaurus...tidepools! That would be awesome. I forgot that sometimes that beaches can be closed, so that's a great tip. It's funny how much geography affects your daily life :-)

Thank you Tyler...this is why local knowledge is priceless.

Fyrebelly, it sounds like I'll need a second trip to see everything :-D Hearst Castle would be pretty amazing. Duffington, I hope I can get to that point! This is what I love about California, everything is so gorgeous. I want to be completely immersed in a place I have only seen in TV and movies.
posted by Calzephyr at 2:01 PM on April 12, 2012

OK; food ideas for LA.

Korean BBQ: This can be argued endlessly. The LA Weekly recently called Genwa the best in town; I haven't been there yet. I have been to Soot Bull Jeep, which is a kind of a perennial favorite, and is very good (even though my Korean friend says that it is "for Americans").

Sushi: You can get world-class sushi in LA, and you can pay an arm and a leg. Urasawa is the highest of the high end: it's in Beverly Hills, it has two Michelin stars, and it is priced accordingly. If you don't want to spend that much, I'd suggest Sasabune, which is pretty minimalist in terms of decor and service, but has a distinctive approach to sushi, and is very good. Echigo is similar (I actually prefer it slightly). These latter two places you're talking maybe $60-$80/person for omakase.

My favorite restaurant in LA is Providence, which focuses on seafood, and has had two stars for a few years now.

There are plenty other high-end options, too.

If you want Chinese food, stay out of Chinatown and go to the San Gabriel valley (arrival point for current immigrants from China; Chinatown is where they settled up until the early 80s or so). Lots of places there; I recently had dim sum at Elite in Monterey Park. It was great. The dumplings at Din Tai Fung in Arcadia send lines out the door every weekend.

While you're in the San Gabriel valley, try Babita in San Gabriel. It's a tiny place, almost like eating in someone's living room, that serves carefully prepared, original, Mexican food. For counter-service Mexican or taco stands, your options are nearly endless, and I won't even dare to opine...
posted by mr_roboto at 3:11 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

mr_roboto, I think you and I are food twins. I'll echo your food suggestions (esp Providence which I LOVE!) and add sushi recommendations - Sushi Yotsuya way out in the valley (I prefer it to Sasabune and Echigo) for extremely good traditional omakase; or Sushi Park on Sunset for equally good quality omakase but with a bit more experimentation.
posted by Joh at 3:52 PM on April 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Mr. Roboto and Joh...suggestions noted :-) One of the things that we love about visiting the US is having REAL Mexican food and fresh seafood. Actually, uh, food is general much fresher in the US simply because the population is bigger and closer to the producers.
posted by Calzephyr at 4:05 PM on April 12, 2012

Response by poster: Hi peeps, the hubs and I are back from our trip! It was a great time and we had a lot of fun packed into those two weeks. Here's some of the things we managed to do:

- SF - Musee Mechanique (loved this!), bay boat ride (loved it), Alcatraz night tour (gave me mixed feelings but good otherwise), Maritime Museum, Ghiradelli Square, cable cars and cable car museum (fascinating!), Fisherman's Wharf, Hyde Pier, City Lights bookstore, did an open top bus tour

- Mountain View - saw our Googler friend and Google campus, drove around Facebook's parking lot (ha!), Computer History Museum (loved loved loved this)

- Santa Cruz - unfortunately we rolled in around midnight, so the scenery was not to be had. I think I liked Santa Cruz the least out of all the places we went to. We were locked out of our hotel because we arrived late and had to scramble to find another that was open. The boardwalk was mostly closed/quiet because it was a weekday.

- Carmel - checked into the cozy Colonial Terrace Inn, but unfortunately we didn't have enough time to see Monterey by the time we got there :-( Wish we had stayed in Carmel instead of Santa Cruz.

- missed driving the #1 highway because of our GPS :-( I was so disappointed to not see Big Sur. Next time though! The GPS got us onto #101 and we did accidentally go through wine country and saw Blackwell's Corner, which is supposed to be James Dean's last stop before he died (we were also lured by fresh fudge signs :-))

- Anaheim - Disneyland! Nuff said. It actually creeped me out a little because everything was so perfectly engineered.

- Venice/LA - our frustration with the GPS resulted in booking a tour with Amazing LA Tours. This wasn't cheesy and very enjoyable! Loved the driver and got to check off things on our list in one easy afternoon. Loved the beach at Venice very much.

Thanks again for the suggestions! We managed to a lot, and now that we know where things kind of are, I'm sure we'll be able to check out just as much next time. And we'll have a better GPS by then too, I'm sure.
posted by Calzephyr at 11:32 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, we never got to Long Beach, which is probably just as well. By the time we got to Venice, we realized our plans were pretty ambitious and just enjoyed the real beach :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 11:36 PM on May 11, 2012

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