Pacific Coast Highway 101
Art Wager / Getty Images
A great thing about being unable to decide on where to go for a family vacation is that you can turn that indecision into an amazing road trip. By blending together our desire for a little bit of everything, we realized the big picture was an exploration of California. My family of four would start in San Diego and end in San Francisco, making sure to take in as much in between as possible. Here are the spots we hit, bumps in the road, nice surprises, and tips for making the long car rides and multiple hotel stays go as smoothly as possible.
We unloaded the bags, and decided to make a plan for that leg of the trip over dinner. A nearby McCormick & Schmick’s was the perfect choice, for it was not only fun to say three times fast, but also accommodating to dietary restrictions, picky kids, and our inability to rouse ourselves into nice evening wear after a long day of travel. After dinner, the kids had a great time splashing in the rooftop pool, while my husband and I relaxed before the busy week ahead.
After a big breakfast, we got an early start at the zoo, and did not stop until almost dinnertime. There truly is an endless amount of animals, attractions, play areas, and animal encounter spots to experience at this world-famous zoo. We trekked the whole thing on foot, marking our way on one of the free maps to ensure we didn’t miss a thing.
The panda bear was a highlight for our family, and I much appreciated that every restaurant had vegetarian options when it was time to break for food. It was everything people rave about, and I’m so glad we had a chance to see it for ourselves.
We woke to my husband taking the rental car to a round of golf, so the kids and I ended up Uber-ing to a Dave & Buster’s about a third of the way to our final destination for the day. This was a fun (air-conditioned) way to pass the time and have some lunch before meeting up with my husband at Safari Park.
Though only about forty minutes from our hotel, it was significantly hotter so I was glad I loaded each kid up with water bottles. Despite being of the same name, this zoo was different from the first one we visited. It had a more desert-ish feel, but kept us just as enamored while we photographed gorillas, peeked in on napping lemurs, and pet friendly goats. The coolest (and most expensive) decision we made was to go on a caravan safari and feed giraffe. It was educational, beautiful, and full of laughs. Once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure.
We didn’t give ourselves a lot of time in L.A., but we did do two things very right. First, we picked a hotel with a big pool, which we visited every day. Second, we were nestled on Wilshire Boulevard, where there were plenty of familiar places to eat, plus a Target at which I was able to stock up on water, snacks, sunscreen, and some beach toys.
Admittedly, the kids weren’t super into this, but they did like seeing a handful of familiar names, and all the enormous gift shops full of kooky souveniers—including one with Elvis’ Cadillac parked inside.
None of us were interested in heading to the movies, but we still stopped by this iconic theater to see the handprints in the sidewalk and snap a few pics. The street outside was bustling to set up for a film premiere that night, so the kids thought this look at the pre-red-carpet prep in action was pretty neat.
This. Was. Awesome. My family is full of movie lovers and TV fans, so this was right up our alley. We took a guided shuttle tour around the lots where many of our favorites were filmed, from the upside-down kissing scene in “Spider-Man” to the “Gilmore Girls” pavilion and a stop to stroll through a garage packed with Batmobiles. On top of that, we walked through the Harry Potter and DC Universe exhibits, where we saw costume and props from the films, and even got to wear the sorting hat to see which Hogwarts house we belonged in.
There was so much to do! We held an Oscar. My kids did green screen films of them flying on brooms and being chased through the streets of Gotham City. And don’t even get me started on the shopping; there were tees, mugs, and other goodies for every WB movie and show we loved, making it almost impossible to walk out of there.
Day or night, this place is nerd nirvana. Unless you luck out—or come very early—you’ll park on the side of an extremely curvy road with a long walk ahead of you next to a bit of a drop-off, so keep a close eye on any little ones and wear super comfy shoes. Once on property, there were ice cream and drink vendors ready to rehydrate before heading up or in.
We hit the roof first, which has a great view of the Hollywood sign, plus sweeping vistas of the Los Angelas area. There are a handful of coin-operated binocular viewers the kids climbed onto for a closer look. Inside, there are interactive exhibits, telescopes, and information galore. Our favorite was the Hall of the Sky.
Pacific Coast Highway
Our eyes were on a long day in the car between LA and San Fran, so we decided to make it as beautiful and fun as possible. The PCH was a stunning seaside drive with so many visit-worthy stops along the way. Every turn revealed a new postcard-worthy scene, and the sun setting over the sea was absolutely glorious to behold.
To make downtime in the car more entertaining, we made sure to load multiple movies, books, and games onto iPads for the kids, plus headphones, mini games (like UNO), and journals before we left home. To keep things running, I also had back-up batteries and extra-long power cords for all devices at the ready. Traffic ended up being slow-moving throughout the trip, so I’m glad we thought ahead.
Santa Monica Pier
It was time to get some sand between our toes, and the Santa Monica Pier seemed like the best place to do so before we really hit the road. There were plenty of secure garages to park in, keeping our belongings safely in the shade and on camera. After a quick change into swimsuits and buying towels at a convenience store (which we should have picked up for much cheaper at that Target stop earlier), we walked across Ocean Avenue and under the famous Yacht Habor sign, making our way to Santa Monica State Beach.
One sandcastle, two long walks, and one short nap later, we met a family friend for an early lunch at Blue Plate Taco (so so so goooood), then spent a couple of hours at Pacific Park, playing games and going on rides. The kids won prizes, I got cotton candy, my husband had French fries so good he (almost) wouldn’t share. Everyone left happy.
Cannery Row was a nice spot to stop to refuel and stretch our legs. Loads of novelty shops and boutiques holding everything from art to jewelry to kitchenware to clothing line a walkable strip. The candy store teeming with childhood favorites made my day—and my kids’. There’s also indoor mini golf and every kind of food or drink you’d want. We went to Lalla Oceanside Grill, which felt grown-up but was comfortable for and accommodating to the kids, too.
My husband loves visiting college campuses, so he surprised us with a detour to the Stamford U bookstore. Way less boring that it sounds, it had books for all ages, gifts, SU gear, and grub we grabbed for the road.
The Golden Gate Bridge
Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog is a must-do, of course, but we took it a step further. To get a better look, we drove up the hillside and took a short hike to get a birds-eye-view of the bridge, Alcatraz, and surrounding area. Yes, we needed to break out the sweatshirts and scarves up there, but the effort and extra layers were absolutely worth it.
A quick search found us a residential area just above the famously bendy road, allowing us free on-street parking. We walked down the steps, through the brilliant gardens, then back up to the top to take a ride down in our rental car that we caught on video because how could we not?
We spent an entire day at the pier, which is so much more than we had expected. Shopping, food, that enormous carousel (of course we took it for a spin!), street performers, arcade, bike rental, whale watches—there was just so much to see, do, eat, and drink. The sea lions were like watching a comedy act, and my kids got to jump twenty feet in the air at the Frequent Fliers trampoline.
A food-loving friend told us to eat at The Stinking Rose, a garlic-themed restaurant in Little Italy. Everything. Was. Amazing. So was the walk around the neighborhood and into Chinatown. About five blocks from our Union Square-area hotel was a jaw-dropping three-story bookstore called Alexander Book Company that the kids and I settled into quite nicely one afternoon.
A wonderful thing about wandering is that you never know what delightful little shop or incredibly talented street performers you’ll come across along the way. Doing this often results in some of the best parts of our travels.
Maybe Next Time
Two things we wanted to do while in California were both in San Francisco, but just didn’t happen. We found out the hard way that to get close to Alcatraz, you really do have to make reservations months in advance. A trip into the Redwood forests—like Muir Woods—was also a bust, for certain areas were closed off due to the fires and smoke and tours to the open ones were also booked up weeks in advance. As disappointing as this was, we got so many other adventures and experiences in that we all agree this still was one of our very best family vacations.
Smart Planning Ahead
Because the temperatures from place to place varied from sweltering to downright cold, we all packed clothes in light layers that coordinated and rolled up tight in the suitcases. Two of the three hotels had pools and we knew we’d also hit at least one beach, so we brought a roomy beach bag with pool toys, large ZipLoc bags for wet or sandy suits, and extra hangers and laundry clips to help air-dry everything a bit more quickly.
Since as the mom I tend to end up being the designated pack mule, I made sure to slip slim backpacks in for each of the kids with a reusable water bottle and space for snacks, a sweatshirt, and whatever souvenirs we picked up while out every day. This, itself, saved my spine.
Finally, we gave ourselves a day to settle back in at home (and do alllll sorts of laundry) before starting back up at work, camp, and other responsibilities, rather than hit the ground running. It gave us a chance to look over the pictures we took and talk about what we loved about this trip, so we can start thinking about where we want to go next.