Top 5 things to do on the Pacific Coast Highway

The Pacific Coast Highway hugs the California coast for more than 650 miles. Peter Ellegard suggests some of his favourite things to do along the way

1. Get your kicks at the end of Route 66

Stroll 110-year-old Santa Monica Pier to the marker signalling the end of Route 66. The so-called Mother Road runs for 2,400 miles across eight states from Chicago to Los Angeles satellite city Santa Monica and celebrates its centenary in 2026. Buy souvenirs of it at end-of-the-pier shop 66 to Cali. 

View surfers riding Pacific rollers and wide Santa Monica State Beach from on high on the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel at the pier’s Pacific Park amusement park and get a nostalgia rush on its historic Looff Hippodrome carousel. 

The original Muscle Beach, next to the pier and alongside the Ocean Front Walk path, is where America’s physical fitness boom began in the 1930s. 

Less than an hour’s walk, or 15-minute cycle ride, on the path is bohemian Venice Beach, where bodybuilders pump iron at present-day Muscle Beach and where its famous boardwalk pulsates with performers, artists and eclectic stalls.

Stay: New boutique hotel Venice V occupies a refurbished building right on the Venice Beach boardwalk that was once a glitzy hotel attracting early Hollywood stars.

2. Paddle with sea otters and sea lions at Morro Bay

A delightful, laid-back stop missed by many driving California’s Highway 1, nature is a key attraction at Morro Bay.

The bay from which this fishing port turned holiday, boating and water sports haven gets its name is actually an estuary all but enclosed from Pacific waves by a long sand bar and dominated by a towering rock often capped by a fog hat.

The calm, protected waters are a perfect refuge for marine wildlife. Sea lions congregate on a purpose-built raft to bask, bicker and bark at each other, while sea otters wrap themselves in kelp and lay on their backs to feed, nap and care for their pups.

They can be seen from restaurants, bars and vantage points along the waterfront Embarcadero thoroughfare, but the best way to get a close-up view is on a guided kayak trip. Not too close to disturb them, though.

Whale-watching tours head offshore to see humpback whales, grey whales and dolphins, while migrating monarch butterflies cluster on eucalyptus trees in Morro Bay State Park from October to March.

Stay: Wake up to the sound of roosting herons and cormorants in an adjacent natural preserve overlooking the water at the Inn at Morro Bay.

3. Wonder at the opulence of Hearst Castle

Open for tours since mid-May after being closed for two years because of the Covid pandemic, the grandiose hilltop mansion built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst near San Simeon is a California State Park and a must-visit on the Central California coast.

Casa Grande, as he called the ornate 38-bedroom main house, was inspired by a historic Spanish church and incorporates architectural features taken from many old buildings across Europe into its fabric as well as being filled with a wealth of antique treasures, art and textiles.

It was originally a family home but became known for the lavish costume parties thrown by Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies for the rich and famous, among them Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Bob Hope and Winston Churchill.

Perhaps its most opulent feature is the Neptune Pool, with its Romanesque temple, colonnade and classical statues.

Stop off to see magnificent elephant seals nearby at Piedras Blancas.

Stay: San Simeon is the gateway to the dramatic Big Sur coastline and the Post Ranch Inn offers luxury and grandstand ocean views atop 1,200-foot cliffs at Big Sur.

4. Explore charming and sophisticated Carmel

More than 30 years since Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, as it is officially called, this one-square-mile village is as quirky as it is quaint. 

A permit is required to wear high heels, available free from City Hall. Carmel’s pretty cottages and houses only have names and no street addresses. There are no streetlights, nor parking meters, making it very visitor-friendly. It also has no pavements beyond the commercial downtown area.

You won’t find any chain restaurants, either. Instead, dine at welcoming independent eateries such as Casanova, set in a house once owned by Charlie Chaplin’s personal cook, and people watch from cafes tucked between boutique stores and high-end fashion shops.

Visit Carmel Mission, one of California’s 21 historic Spanish missions, relax on Carmel’s sandy beach and enjoy a slow ride on the Monterey Peninsula’s picturesque 17 Mile Drive. 

17 mile drive

Stay: Find your Zen in boutique hotel Tradewinds Carmel, an Asian-Californian fusion with a lush meditation garden.

5. Ride the cable cars and streetcars of San Francisco

Unless you prefer hiking up and down its hilly streets, the most enjoyable way to get around San Francisco is by riding its venerable streetcars and cable cars. 

There is a difference. The sleek F Line streetcars are enclosed and are powered by trolley poles connected to overhead wires, whereas cable cars on the three lines use an underground cable system and allow passengers to stand on outside footplates. Watching cable car operators manually turn them on the turntables at the ends of each line is fascinating. 

Cable Cars

Hop off for cheesecake and bubbles or coffee at the Cheese Cake Factory’s open-air patio on Macy’s rooftop overlooking Union Square. You can also use them to get to Fisherman’s Wharf, the city’s main tourist area, and Pier 39 from where you can take a cruise to Alcatraz island and sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. 

A metro system and rapid buses also allow easy, car-free travel around the city.

Stay: Stylish and contemporary Hotel Zoe is just steps from the Fisherman’s Wharf waterfront while sister property Argonaut is housed in a historic warehouse next to the wharf. Both offer free rental bikes.

Next steps

To book your trip to California and the Pacific Highway, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678

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Peter Ellegard

Award-winning travel writer & photographer

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