Critique my California Road Trip/San Francisco Visit Itinerary!
April 5, 2013 11:06 AM   Subscribe

In one short month Mr. Bruno and I are traveling to California (from Boston) for a long overdue vacation. I am hoping you can help me make it even more awesome (it’s been years since we got to travel without a family visit or a wedding to attend, so it’s already pretty awesome). I have seen this thread, and used it to plan parts of this trip, and would like some specific feed back as well as general recommendations, if you’ve got ‘em. Accomodations and number of nights are set, but activities are not. Things we like: eating, walking/not-too-long hikes (especially in parks/gardens), people watching, unusual museums/unique visitor attractions, farmer’s markets, bookstores, unique food shops. Most of our vacations are just walking around, poking into places that look interesting, and eating.

Here is our tentative itinerary, it is long and I am full of questions:

We arrive late into LAX, and are planning to pick up a car at the airport and drive to our hotel in Santa Monica.

We’re staying on Main St. & Ocean Park Blvd. Any good breakfast/dinner restaurant recommendations, preferably in walking distance (up to a mile)? Good places to get fish tacos? Planning to spend Saturday on/near the beach instead of going into LA proper. Sunday morning the farmer’s market is right near our hotel, then I thought we would maybe drive Mulholland on our way out of town (even though it’s out of the way). Will there be a good spot to take cheese-ball selfies with the hollywood sign in the background?

From Santa Monica, we head north up the PCH for 2 nights in Santa Barbara. Anything we shouldn’t miss in between? In Santa Barbara we’re staying on State St, a few blocks from the beach. Things we want to do: poke around the boardwalk/pier, visit the Botanic Garden. Is the Chumash painted cave worth a visit?

Our next stop is 1 night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. What should we do/see in SLO? Where should we eat?

We plan to leave SLO earlyish so we can stop and see the elephant seals, but is a stop at Hearst Castle worth the time/expense? We have two nights in Monterey, and we plan to go to the aquarium. Is there anything else we shouldn’t miss in Monterey/Carmel?

The last part of our trip is 5 nights in San Francisco; we’ve got an apartment in North Beach. We plan to arrive mid-day, drop off our bags, then drive back down to the airport and BART back into town. (Unfortunately, returning the car in the city adds $100 to the reservation). I’ve got more restaurant recommendations than I have actual meals to figure out, but we do have to fill the time between meals one way or another. Could we spend a whole day at GG park or Presidio and not get bored? What about SFMOMA? I’ve heard about Omnivore Books, but are there other fun book or kitchen-y stores we shouldn’t miss? What are some good streets for strolling along that will give us a sense of a given neighborhood (this goes for any of these cities)?

Thank you all so much for your input, and for reading this whole mess.
posted by hungrybruno to Travel & Transportation around San Francisco, CA (51 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have either of you actually been to Alcatraz? I know it's more obvious than obvious, but I found it surprisingly worthwhile. There are so many intriguing aspects that I never knew: the stories of the families who lived and worked there, the American Indian Movement occupation, the micro-ecosystem that encourages unique plant growth. And it's really beautiful, from the decaying structures to the views across the bay.

After I went, I even got my extremely-cynical-about-anything-touristy mom to call the Master Gardeners who do their landscape restoration, and when she was out there she did a day or two of work with them. She had a great time.
posted by Madamina at 11:13 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would suggest you consider stopping at SFO to ditch the car and take a Super Shuttle to your place in North Beach. Parking in North Beach is a huge pain, and the traffic between SFO and North Beach is no picnic. This will give you more of your afternoon to enjoy being in San Francisco.

Hearst Castle is a tough call. Overall, it is kind of terrible, but it is useful to see that having more money than God doesn't save you from having terrible taste, and it's a good way to bring out one's inner Socialist. I'm glad I've been, but I don't need to go back.
posted by ambrosia at 11:14 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also in SF, check out the area around Mission Dolores. We spent at least a morning starting at the mission itself and then wandering over to 826 Valencia, aka the Pirate Store, and environs. Lots of cool shops and stuff, like Paxton Gate.
posted by Madamina at 11:19 AM on April 5, 2013

I'd say Hearst Castle is worth it. I've been twice; we did one of the alternate tours the second time and it was much neater. We got to see the kitchen and some of the other less "pretty" parts of the buildings. Plus once the tour's over, you're free to just wander around the grounds aimlessly, which was my favorite part.
posted by zsazsa at 11:25 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Things we like: ... walking/not-too-long hikes (especially in parks/gardens)

Between SLO and Monterey, if you're driving up Hwy 1, take 30 minutes and stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park. Quick walk out to the ocean and unusually beautiful.
posted by cairdeas at 11:29 AM on April 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

And! Relatively nearby, there is a great restaurant, and the Henry Miller library, which is super tiny (like one room) and also worth a look.
posted by cairdeas at 11:32 AM on April 5, 2013

Best answer: Oooh! Oooh! I know the answer to this one! Underpetticoatrule and I lived in Monterey for about four years and I worked for the tourism organization there, so I may give you more to do than you really want.

SLO: Madonna Inn has its own restaurant which is an experience, let me tell you! If that doesn't float your boat, underpetticoatrule and I have had fantastic meals at Buona Tavola on Monterey Street (next to the movie theater, swanky Italian) and SLO Brewing Co. (very casual, great fish and chips, great mac and cheese, fabulous beer, there's a nightclub under the restaurant)

Road trip between SLO and Monterey: Yes, Hearst Castle is totally worth the time and money. Breathtaking.

I actually wrote an article on this part back when I worked for Monterey's tourism organization, though it's going in the reverse direction. It may still help you:

Highway 1 through Big Sur has some of the most breathtaking views in the world. Warning: gas up before you leave because there are many, many miles without gas stations along there. Leave yourself time to stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and check out McWay Falls, to stop at Nepenthe and have a drink or nibble while overlooking the Pacific (it's an experience!) and to stop at the unmarked Garrapata Park, which doesn't look like much as you're driving by, but take five steps off the highway toward the ocean and the amazing views will be revealed.

Other Monterey stuff: If you like wine, you have to do the wine tasting route in Carmel by the Sea (personal favorites: Scheid and Caraccioli Cellars) and you've got to stop by Pierce (just off Cannery Row at the corner of Wave and McClellan). Buy a bottle of wine and get some cheese at the Carmel Cheese Shop in Carmel Plaza and take it down to Carmel Beach with a beach blanket to watch the sun set (you are allowed to drink wine on the beach and the sunset is spectacular). Carmel by the Sea also has the best-restored California Mission in the state - it's especially astounding if you see the photos of what it looked like before they started restoring it.

If you like biking, I highly recommend the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail, which underpetticoatrule and I used to bike every weekend. If you like mountain biking or hiking in wild areas, the Fort Ord National Monument is wonderful.

If you like wildlife, make sure to stop at the pier at Moss Landing (just off Highway 1) to see massive amounts of sea lions, plus otters and seals and all kinds of other critters. You can even go kayaking there, or take the Elkhorn Slough boat tour.

Let me know if you want restaurant recommendations for Monterey and what your taste leans to, because I have LOTS of recommendations. The Greek salads at Petra in Pacific Grove are still my favorite (I want their secret dressing!) Peppers in Pacific Grove is a local favorite for Cal-Mex, and for good reason. Parker Lusseau in Monterey makes the best pain au chocolat I've had anywhere, hands down.

I'm sure the rest of Metafilter will have SF covered, so I'm not going to bother with that...
posted by rednikki at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the reminder - I should have pointed out that we're driving up Hwy 1, yes.

Will now stop threadsitting and go back to adding awesomeness to my google map.
posted by hungrybruno at 11:35 AM on April 5, 2013

Oh, AND! More restaurant recs: Vesuvio and La Bicyclette in Carmel by the Sea, and Demetria if you can get in (I never could, and I lived there - the place is always mobbed). The Crown and Anchor in Monterey has the best deep fried artichoke hearts, which is THE local bar food and you MUST try them. Our favorite pizza place in the world is Pizza My Heart at the Del Monte Center. Yes, it's at the mall, but trust us. It's cheap and AMAZING and we miss it horribly.
posted by rednikki at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2013

farmer’s markets

rednikki's mention of Moss Landing reminded me of this. There is this amazing permanent farm stand along the 1 there. They will have signs out front saying things like 10 avocados for a dollar. They have a ton of delicious things. To me that is one of the experiences that is most evocative of California, to have my mouth full of an avocado I just got for 10 cents, that was picked a couple miles from where I bought it.
posted by cairdeas at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In San Francisco, there is a stage production of Hedwig and The Angry Inch at The Boxcar Theater in The Mission...

It's a small theater and the performers are sometimes on your table. It's fun, wacky, and the drinks are cheap.

definitely go to SFMOMA

the whales are here in May:

The California Academy of Sciences is amazing
posted by bobdow at 11:46 AM on April 5, 2013

Best answer: SFMOMA is closing for close to three years for expansion construction starting June 2, so see it while you can!

Make sure to visit the men's room off the lobby at the Madonna Inn.
posted by zachlipton at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

The farm stand in question is Pezzini and the parking lot is amidst the artichoke fields. They're really neat plants up close. Alas, brussels sprout season is past but the artichokes are still good - if you know how to prepare them you should buy some to eat at your SF apartment.

There's a great farmers' market in downtown Monterey every Tuesday afternoon. We visited it without fail. There may also be one on Saturday or Sunday at Del Monte Center.

Monterey oddity: the Last Chance Mercantile, which is the thrift store at the dump. If you're any kind of maker or thrift store person, this place is THE BOMB. A truly ridiculous amount of stuff we've built for Burning Man was done with materials from there. It is underpetticoatrule's favorite place in the world.
posted by rednikki at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

We've gone on a few City Walking Tours here in SF; they're done by volunteers, and they're free (small donations welcome), and the two we've been on have been pretty damn good.

I could easily spend a day in the Presidio or GG Park....but I'm a birder, and YMMV a lot. GGP has some excellent formal gardens and museums; the Presidio has....not as much. Not for a whole day, I would think.

Bookstores. You're staying in North Beach, so go to City Lights. Buy some poetry and go next door to Vesuvio to read and drink, then cross the street to Specs and have another.
posted by rtha at 11:54 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh! And visit the old whaling shack at Point Lobos Reserve in Carmel. It was a shack whalers lived in and has whale bones and stuff around it. You can also visit the only remaining whalebone sidewalk in Monterey Historic Park.
posted by rednikki at 11:54 AM on April 5, 2013

If you want to hang onto your car for a day, I'd recommend a trip to Muir Woods and/or Mt. Tamalapais, both of which afford you a chance to see a little of Marin County, and also a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. I definitely echo the Alcatraz trip above. Bring warmer clothing if you do it, and if you decide you want to, book in advance, at least a week in advance.

North Beach has many Italian restaurants, but also many tourist traps. Pick one or two ahead of time. I really enjoy Golden Boy Pizza, after a night drinking. Polk street will be nearby. Thursday night is Drinking and Science night at the museum in Golden gate park.

Big Sur had a very cool rocky beach somewhere (although you will get this everywhere on the coast, so just enjoy whatever one you enjoy). I loved the elephant seals. Carmel by the sea was a little overly-touristy for my tastes.
posted by Phredward at 11:54 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you're going to do Golden Gate Park or the Presidio, rent some bikes. There are a ton of bike paths in the area, and it's a very, very nice ride.

Failing that, if you still have a car with you, it's worth crossing the bridge and exploring the area to the west of the Golden Gate -- the views are simply stunning. (This side of the bay is probably a bit too hilly for casual cyclists). Mt. Tam and Muir Woods are also both *well* worth a visit (we did it on our way to Sonoma -- it's a bit out of the way, so I don't know if I'd necessarily recommend Mt Tam if you're pressed for time, even though it was pretty freaking awesome)
posted by schmod at 11:56 AM on April 5, 2013

Stay out of the Tenderloin, my wife and I accidently walked through there and now my wife has no interest in ever going back to SF.
posted by notned at 11:59 AM on April 5, 2013

Unfortunately, unless you plan on going into Hollywood proper, you can't see the Hollywood sign from Santa Monica and it's in the opposite direction from the way you're headed. You also, can't get that close to the sign, so it's not like you can sit on the H or anything. That said, you could do your cheeseball photos at the Santa Monica Pier sign.

Santa Monica farmer's market is the awesomest farmer's market ever. As far as tacos go, I'd hit Tacos Por Favor. Yum.

If you're going to take Mulholland out of L.A. (though I don't necessarily recommend it), you could stop at the Rock Store. Big biker hang out. I've seen Jay Leno there twice. Also, they do have pretty decent burgers, but not much else. I'd vote for stopping for lunch in Ventura or Pismo Beach rather than L.A. Barrelhouse 101 in Ventura or Lure (a fish place) are actually quite lovely.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:59 AM on April 5, 2013

Best answer: In the Monterey/Carmel area, you can't miss Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. It's right off Highway 1, just south of Carmel, so you'll literally drive right past it on your way north from Big Sur.

It's exactly the kind of walking-around-in-a-park thing you're looking for, with the added benefit of seeing endangered California sea otters hanging out in the kelp. They are problematically cute and entrancing. If you're a sucker for cute marine mammals, plan to spend a few hours here.

Also seconding rednikki's mention of Moss Landing, another little town you'll drive through on Highway 1. It's dead center between Monterey and Santa Cruz, at the mouth of the Salinas River where it flows into Monterey Bay. If you're a birder, a lover of marine mammals, or a kayaker, the Elkhorn Slough kayaking experience is not to be missed. We were there at the beginning of March and a sea otter mama and pup kept pace with our kayak for about a mile. I am not ashamed to say that I cried.
posted by jesourie at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

From Santa Monica, we head north up the PCH for 2 nights in Santa Barbara. Anything we shouldn’t miss in between?

I live in between and no there is nothing really worth stopping for, other than perhaps to hit up one of the roadside fruit stands (which can be easily located by the big hand-painted strawberry signs) so you have something to nibble on while you drive as you enjoy the breathtaking views from Malibu to Oxnard and from Ventura to Santa Barbara.

My only other suggestion would be to keep an eye open as you pass this little community on that latter stretch. It's a charming and somewhat remote beachside neighborhood that's been ravaged by deadly mudslides to the point where people really shouldn't be living there anymore, and you can't enter the place without passing a sign telling you so -- and yet there they still are. I find it a little fascinating.
posted by ctab at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2013

I didn't know about Pezzini! Apparently there is more than one awesome farm stand there. Here's the one I was thinking of.
posted by cairdeas at 12:03 PM on April 5, 2013

The thing that really made going to Alcatraz worthwhile for me was the ranger tour, where you go round parts that are otherwise closed off. There's an audio tour for the cell block, but, while good, it pales in comparison to the ranger tour. The problem is that there seems to be no way of knowing what times the tours are until you get there. We went on the first boat of the morning (I don't remember why--maybe you saved a few dollars) and there was a tour that started right when we arrived and the next one was after lunch or something.

City Lights is worth a stop.
posted by hoyland at 12:04 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you like wine, in Carmel you want to taste the wine at Wrath
Hold onto the car for long enough to see Muir Woods.

Also, in addition to the more centrally located tourist Chinatown come out to Clement Street. Stop at Green Apple Books.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:04 PM on April 5, 2013

At Moss Landing - eat at Phil's Fish Market. Great seafood and it's featured often on the Food Network. I can't enough of the mussels in that buttery, winey broth or the garlic bread they serve with it. I always ask for extras for both. Work off the food with a kayak around Elkhorn Slough or a simple walk on the beach. Last time I was there, we saw several sea lions playing in the surf.
posted by HeyAllie at 12:12 PM on April 5, 2013

I also think Santa Cruz is totally worth a stop between Monterey and SF. For a quick visit (say 2-3 hours) I'd recommend taking a walk down Pacific Ave (the main street, great for people-watching, food, coffee, there are a few indie bookstores and other cool things), walking over to the boardwalk, and continuing your walk up West Cliff. On West Cliff, if it's a good day/time for surfing, check out the surfers at Steamer Lane.
posted by cairdeas at 12:33 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with the section upthread to try to do the rental car dropoff before you check into your hotel, unless your amount of baggage is unmanageable. The Super Shuttle should be an economical option to get back into the city with bags, or BART is doable if you're traveling relatively light. I think you'll appreciate the saved time not making the trip in, with the hassle of a car to park and deal with, and then navigating through the city on surface streets. SF to SFO is actually a quick, straight shot on 101, but traffic can be heavy at certain times.
posted by handful of rain at 12:34 PM on April 5, 2013

I just spent a long weekend in San Luis Obispo and had a lot of fun. We stayed at the Madonna Inn for one night and it was incredible and everything I wanted it to be. We ate dinner at Big Sky Café and it was really good although we had to wait for a long time to get a table. We spent an afternoon in Montana de Oro state park. The bluff trail was gorgeous and we had fun looking at the tide pools.

A highlight was definitely kayaking in Morro Bay. It's really protected and calm. There's a pier with sea lions and we also saw a seal, a bat ray and lots of birds including pelicans. And it only cost us $34 for two kayaks for quite a long time (not sure on the time but it was a lot longer than the 1.5 hours they charged us for). Otherwise Morro Bay looked really touristy but we did get tasty burgers at Wee Shack.

And then there were the elephant seals just north of the Hearst Castle. I think we spent an hour and a half there watching them and chatting with the docents. I love marine mammals so much! The Hearst Castle was less exciting than the elephant seals but still quite cool. What a weird place.
posted by carolr at 12:48 PM on April 5, 2013

Is there anything else we shouldn’t miss in Monterey/Carmel?

Absolutely follow the advice to take a short drive to Moss Landing. You'll see more otters/sea lions there than anywhere else on the coast -- and without the tourists. It's one of my favorite spots in CA. You want to drive past the main exit for town, cross the bridge over the slough, and turn into the public parking lot (or continue up the road slightly to the turnoff for the state beach). Both areas have great, close-up views of wildlife.

Also check out the great tide pool between Pacific Grove and Carmel at low tide. (If you get to Asilomar State Beach, you've gone too far.) Bonus points: Read Steinbeck's Cannery Row before you go so you can have that image of Doc Ricketts plucking tiny octopi out of those same tide pools.

In Santa Barbara, you should eat at La Super-Rica Taqueria. It was one of Julia Child's favorites.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:54 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Exploratorium is opening at it's new location in San Francisco this month (Pier 15). It's as unique a museum as you'll find anywhere. It might be crowded due to the recent opening.
posted by huckit at 12:56 PM on April 5, 2013

Best answer: While you are in the Monterrey/Carmel area, if you have a nice day, go to Santa Cruz for the Boardwalk!

You can also tool around to Capitola, grab a couple of slices at Pizza My Heart, and then sit on the beach and enjoy the gorgeousness!

Be SURE you have a full tank of gas upon leaving San Luis Obisbo, there aren't a lot of gas stations on 1, and what there are will feel like robbery.

If you're taking 1 up from Monterrey to San Francisco, stop in Pescadero. Duarte's Tavern is the place for Artichoke Soup, Chippino and O'Lallie Berry Pie. Has been for over a century.

I will say that while you may want to drive from Monterrey to San Francisco up US1, weather and road conditions may make it problematic.

Where you usually get hung up is north of Hearst Castle (TOTALLY worth it, but you'll need to get tickets in advance). Can be lots of mud/rock slides there, especially in the spring.

No need to fret if that's the case. Head south, just past Cambria, to State Road 46, and cross over to 101. I've had to do this more than once. (The drive is VERY twisty and windy, and if you're prone to motion sickness, you probably will be pretty green by the time you arrive in Monterrey. Also, it's slow going.) The bonus is, on Hwy 46, you can see THE Hidden Valley Ranch.

I have to say that the drive north from 46 to Monterrey on 101 is fabulous in its own right. You're in a misty valley and from mountain to mountain all you see are grapes. Grapes! GRAPES!

Stop in King City for a pee and a soda.

Honestly, a California Road Trip is ALWAYS the best.

Alcatraz is indeed FANTASTIC, and again, get tickets in advance, lest you be disappointed.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:56 PM on April 5, 2013

Best answer: Oh -- ProTip regarding Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets: Buy them at the front desk or concierge of a big hotel, rather than the Aquarium. The tickets cost the same, but they're good for two consecutive days' admission, you don't have to stand in line to get them, and they allow you to enter through the members' entrance -- thus bypassing another line if it's a busy day. And go early for best crowd avoidance.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:05 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you drive up Hwy 1 from Monterey, stop at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve for great tidepooling (check the tide tables).
posted by elmay at 1:06 PM on April 5, 2013

The Chinatown Alley Tours are close to you and unique. 15 Romolo is a great bar and one of the only reasons I would brave North Beach. The Winogrand exhibition currently at the SFMOMA is FANTASTIC and I think everyone in the world should go.

Stick to the Mission for food. I could send you all over the city for great spots, but the Mission is easy. Take the J from Embarcadero down to 24th St, walk back up and over and through the park and Mission itself. Valencia St is hipsterville while Mission St itself, a block over, is the Epcot Center of crack. The Tenderloin is Disneyland, of course. If you like crack, try the Tenderloin!
posted by kcm at 1:07 PM on April 5, 2013

That car return plan will kill your day. Why don't you just drive to the airport, return the car, and either Supershuttle to your hotel or BART to Embarcadero and cab to North Beach? (That's assuming you don't just want to take a cab from the airport to your apartment, which would be the simplest way to do it, and not much more expensive than the Supershuttle option, since Supershuttle charges per person.) You really don't want to have to deal with a car in North Beach.

You asked what to do around SLO. The answer is wine tasting. Don't miss Claiborne & Churchill.

As mentioned above, Point Lobos is fantastic for a very light hike in a spectacular setting. Watching the surfers at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz is a joy, and if you're there for brunch, eat at Zachary's (closed Mondays.)

Hearst Castle - yes. Interesting and a fun piece of California history.

The Presidio is not a place to spend a day, there's nothing there. GG Park absolutely is -- the museums there are excellent (the Academy of Sciences and the De Young.) Bonus, there is both an excellent cafeteria and a fine dining restaurant at the Academy. Don't miss the Conservatory and especially the Japanese Tea Garden in GG Park. Randomly, at the end of the park there is a herd of bison, fun to see.

Research SF restaurants and make your reservations in advance.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:08 PM on April 5, 2013

Worth grabbing a drink in the Madonna Inn lounge even if you don't eat there. SLO restaurants worth checking out include previously mentioned Big Sky, Novo (ask for a table on outside), Goshi, Jaffa Cafe, and Koberl at Blue. The Range in Santa Margarita (just north of SLO) is worth the extra drive, but bring cash only. Not sure what day of the week you are in the SLO, but there's a huge farmer's market every Thursday afternoon.

I get a kick out of Hearst Castle but YMMV. Cambria just south is a sleepy little town for poking around, etc. Across from the Castle is Hearst Memorial State Beach, there's a cool little flat hike you can do there. Also there is Sebastians Cafe, great sandwhiches but usually a bit of a wait.
posted by snowymorninblues at 1:12 PM on April 5, 2013

Oh, if you're going to be in SF on a Thursday, you can go to the Cal Academy in the evening for one of their Night Life events. The advantages over going during the day are many: Cocktails! Dancing! Smaller crowds (and no kids in strollers)! Penis bone cart with explainy docents! Much, much cheaper than daytime tickets!

Definitely buy tickets in advance. Get there on the early side if you want to go to any of the special lectures or presentations that are happening that night, since those are usually first-come, first-serve.
posted by rtha at 1:51 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Depending on your rental agency, you might also be able to drop your car off in Berkeley or Oakland without paying the $100 surcharge. Depending on traffic and timing, this might be a better option. Berkeley is also arguably a more interesting place to stretch your legs and get something to eat than the airport is, should you want to do that at that juncture.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:02 PM on April 5, 2013

We go to LA every year and then spend some time in a neighborhood we haven't seen before driving up the PCH to Ventura/SB area, depending on where our convention is at. The past couple years we've ventured inland a bit to Solvang and Ojai, both of which were a lovely drive and a really nice, sunny respite from our miserable weather.

One thing I really enjoyed on the way to Solvang was a short, easy stroll into a small but picturesque waterfall called Nojoqui Falls (na-HO-we), off the 101. It falls down a sandstone cliff covered in moss, so it's not a huge thing, but it's really cool looking, and a lovely place to take a picnic lunch and just sit for a while and admire the Venus maidenhair ferns and listen to the trickle of water.
posted by emcat8 at 2:16 PM on April 5, 2013

Best answer: For Santa Monica breakfast:
M Street Kitchen--It's my favorite place for breakfast and is just a few blocks from your hotel. Nice sunny patio, great eggs with homemade english muffins and good pastries and coffee.
Fish tacos: Tacos Punta Cabras. I'm seriously in love with this place. Everything is homemade and fresh here--they make their own tortillas, salsas, horchata (yum!) and if you go, you should definitely get a mixed seafood coctele (like ceviche). Not something I'd usually get at a taco joint but these guys have cooked in some amazing restaurants and everything is fresh. Tacos Por Favor is also good but they're fish tacos are not.
Easy Lunch/snack and close to your hotel: Sunny Blue for omisubi made fresh.
Dinner: Superba Snack Bar or Gjelina in Venice. Both have great food and/but both are kind of a scene. It's fun just to walk around Venice and the Abbot Kinney area.
Things to do: Sounds cheesy but riding the ferris wheel at sunset is awesome. Also, I love to ride my bike along the bike path from Santa Monica to Venice. Near the pier it's fun to stop and people watch where there are people swings on the rings--a lot of people do the rings, tightrope walk, some kind of acrobatic yoga--fun people watching. If the Annenberg pool is open, it's a great place to lounge around (plus it's Marion Davies former beach house). Happy hour at the Basement Tavern on Main. Have fun...memail me if you like.
posted by biscuits at 4:09 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I saw the thread summary I thought "I'd better suggest they stay on the Madonna Inn," but I see you have that covered. It's worth it to upgrade to a rock room/waterfall shower if you haven't. It's not that much more.

Seconding La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara and Nepenthe in Big Sur.

And for a new suggestion, consider stopping at Jade Beach in Big Sure. I haven't been there, but I've heard good things.
posted by unix at 4:38 PM on April 5, 2013

You're not going to cross the Golden Gate bridge? you can walk, bike, or even drive. If you do that, keep driving the extra 90 minutes to wine country.
posted by jander03 at 8:05 PM on April 5, 2013

Shoreline Beach and Park in Santa Barbara.

And definitely Solvang, the kitschy Danish wonder town of California. Try Birkholm's Bakery for good pastries.
posted by book 'em dano at 11:34 PM on April 5, 2013

Your timing is good for fair weather, with a possibility of fog along the coast. A third vote for La Super-Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately the Chumash Painted cave isn't much to see. It's suffered vandalism and has restrictive fencing. I'd pass on the Nojoqui falls suggestion too. We've had low rainfall and the falls area won't be much to see.

Recommend a visit to Port San Luis while in SLO town. We like the Customs House in Avila for dinner, especially the clam chowder. On your way out you can take Madonna road to Los Osos Valley road and route around to Hwy 1 at Morro Bay. Have breakfast or brunch at the Garden Café in Los Osos, their eggs Benedict is great. If time allows Montana de Oro has great scenery.

Do take time for a walk on one of the beaches along Hwy 1, Jade cove or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as recommended above.

Passionfish in Pacific Grove near Monterey has been our choice for seafood when we are in the area.

Golden Gate Park and the museums there are worthwhile. Will your time in The City (SF) allow you to take a ferry across to Sausalito or Oakland? The ferries provide a relatively low cost way to see a lot of the Bay from the water.
posted by X4ster at 11:45 PM on April 5, 2013

Forgot to suggest connection to Hwy 1 from Hwy 101 via Hwy 246 at Buellton. That route will take you through the agricultural fields around Guadalupe and the sand dunes south of Pismo Beach. As you pass through the Five Cities area just south of San Luis Obispo you can check out Pismo Beach and if you're hungry stop at Zorro's in Shell Beach.
posted by X4ster at 11:58 PM on April 5, 2013

Correcting my last post. The return connection from Hwy 101 going north is just past Gaviota. It's the exit toward Lompoc, not at Buellton as I said above. You'll pass through Lompoc where the La Purisma mission is, near Vandenberg AFB, then bypass Casmalia and on through Guadalupe into San Luis Obispo County.
posted by X4ster at 12:35 AM on April 6, 2013

Because you're enthused about books, definitely, definitely, definitely worth a little detour to Ojai and the fabulous Bart's Books.
posted by ambient2 at 1:53 AM on April 6, 2013

Seconding Passionfish for a Monterey-area dinner. Had an excellent meal there last Saturday.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:24 PM on April 6, 2013

Response by poster: See, THIS is why I love the internet. Thank you all so much!
posted by hungrybruno at 5:55 AM on April 8, 2013

Oh, hey, I am doing this trip (in reverse) right now. I am typing this from the Safari Room at the Madonna Inn. (I am 90 percent sure that there is a real tiger skin above my head, draped across the bed's headboard.)

A few things, north to south:

- We did a quick side trip to Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, and even looking out from the 20-minute parking area onto the large stone bridge was cool.

- Do, do stop at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see McWay Falls. Totally worth it, even paying the state the $10 park day use fee. (The state parks really need the money too.) Take the pedestrian tunnel under the highway instead of darting across like we did.

- There are two construction sites on Highway 1 between Hearst Castle and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Today we were at the head of a huge line of cars and waited for 30 minutes at the southernmost one. So be prepared for that.

- The elephant seals at Piedras Blancas are AMAZING right now. There are hundreds of them on the beach, some starting their catastrophic molt. I have seen elephant seals before (at Año Nuevo), and the seals today were the craziest thing I've ever seen. Juvenile males jousting, lots of young seals lying down, seals entering and leaving the ocean. It's also right off the highway, super easy to stop, no walking required.

- We didn't need to reserve Hearst Castle tickets in advance today. The Great Rooms tour has a 50-person capacity. We bought our tickets for the 2:20 p.m. tour at 1:58 p.m. The upstairs rooms tour is smaller (15 people), so you might have to hang out at the visitor center for a while, but we could have gotten on the 3 p.m. tour there. I think this time of spring is the slow season. Considering how variable traffic can be on Highway 1, I would hate to be worried about missing your tour time. As for whether it's worth it: I am going to say yes. It's a famous thing to see, you get a nice capsule description of what William Randolph Hearst's life was like (spoiler: ridiculous, rich and also weird), and you see a ton of really old tapestries.

- I just ate dinner at the Gold Rush Steakhouse at the Madonna Inn (it's been a long day), and it was a surprisingly good $41 filet mignon while sitting in a circular pink booth. My husband had a very good (and huge) New York strip ($37). The banana cream pie ($7.50) was kind of frothy and delightful with an unusually good crust. The Safari Room is not the greatest room (these rooms aren't luxurious, but the commitment to theme is strong), but it's meeting my expectations. The hotel has only wired internet. If you think you'd like to use the pool, request a room near the pool. It's a chilly and longish walk from the farther away buildings.

- Tomorrow I'm going to Lotusland in Santa Barbara, and I have high hopes that it will be cool. (You must reserve in advance, and tickets are $35.)
posted by purpleclover at 8:35 PM on April 24, 2013

Update: Lotusland was—well, not terrible exactly, but certainly not worth $35 and an annoying reservation process. The garden was just okay, and the docent gave one of the most incorrect garden spiels I've ever heard. (Many of the plants were shockingly misidentified.) If you want to go to a garden and go on a walk, I much prefer Filoli, south of San Francisco.
posted by purpleclover at 6:59 PM on April 25, 2013

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