10 Californian day trips for my parents

In two weeks my parents will arrive in California. Armed with a car and this list, I hope to show them why I love living here. (Warning: contains a lot of landscape porn).

1. Drive Highway 1 from San Francisco to Santa Cruz

I found and old copy of Time Magazine and was delighted to find something on my doorstep in their “100 greatest journeys”. Highlights along the way include stopping at any of the beautiful beaches (and possibly sleeping by a bonfire on it), exploring the little towns along the way, fishing, surfing.

2. Drive the Golden Gate bridge (with the roof down)

The Golden Gate bridge is almost a commuter route in my life now, but I still get pangs of excitement whilst crossing it. It’s a dynamic spot; sometimes you’re bathed in sun and sometimes crazy fog swirls around you and San Francisco suddenly clears into view. You should combine the bridge with a visit to Sausalito for lunch (a charming seaside town at the northern base of the bridge, the ferry back to SF offers great views of the city) and a hike up the Marin Headlands to any of the nearby forts. On the San Francisco side explore Crissy Field.

3. Snow shoe or Cross Country ski in Tahoe

Even if you feel a bit rusty at skiing, snow showing and cross country are great ways to get out and explore the beautiful snowy landscapes of the Sierras. These activies are much more like hiking than skiing, snow shoeing is simply walking with funny large shoes on. For simple days out try Tahoe Donner cross-country ski center, Royal Gorge and Sugar Bowl. This is more a two-or-three day trip, but so great I had to include it. Whilst you’re in Tahoe check out Truckee, boat on the lake, ice-skate on top of Squaw Valley, eat at Smokies BBQ and Jax Diner, hike the PCT/rim trail, sledge, horse ride.

4. Lunch on fresh Tomales Bay oysters

Visit Marshall Store on Tomales bay for tasty local oysters. The bar outside lets you eat whilst looking out across the bay. The drive to Tomales Bay is beautiful (take Lucas Valley road, named after George Lucas’s ranch), stop off at Point Reyes Station (a town) for small charming rural California. For hiking, check out the nearby Point Reyes coastline trails. If you’re keen, kayak across the bay and have a bottle of wine on the opposite beach.

5. Explore San Francisco

Walk from Caltrain 4th & King to The Golden Gate bridge beside the bay (Get some chowder at Fishermans Wharf, shop and eat in the Ferry Building, walk through Crissy Field). If you’ve still not walked far enough, loop all the way around following beaches down the south-west side of San Francisco. Watch the surf. Make a bonfire on ocean beach.

There’s tons more to explore in San Francisco. Visit Chinatown, stare at sealions at pier 39, eat North Beach italian food, chill in Dolores park, Have hipster coffee in the Mission (Sight Glass, Four Barrel, Grand Coffee). Wander through Nob hill and eat and drink. Visit the Castro to see SF’s gay side (Reveille Coffee is fantastic). Soak in the views from Twin Peaks (an uber ride is a good idea to get there). Drive up and down the hills (e.g. Laguna Street). Munch organic stuffs in the Marina with the preppy kids. This list is only a tiny bit of the things to do in San Francisco.

6. Hug a redwood

Sequoia sempervirens, aka coastal redwoods, are some of the oldest living things on Earth. Despite enthusiastic logging in the last two centuries there are a ton of great smelling giant redish hued trees for your hugging pleasure. Big Basin park is the perfect place to see the Redwoods; it’s California’s oldest state park and charts the history of the local preservation movement. Check out the waterfalls (a full day hike), banana slugs (big yellow and seasonal) and make a fire in one of the BBQ pits to cook a tasty lunch.

7. Cruise Napa vineyards

Napa and Sonoma are a beautiful place to drink wine, drive, cycle an eat. Once you’re in the heart of wine-country it’s impossible not to find a vineyard, every road takes you through ten more. Favourites include Ridge, Cliff Lede, Charles Krug, Elizabeth Spencer, V Sattui, Louis Martini, Raymond, Stags Leap, Chandon. You can call-ahead if you want to ensure a tour or space. Sit down to a tasting, take some wine to bring home. Napa is also a great place for restaurants: French Laundry, Oxbow market, Places in Yountville, Bouchon, Angel. If you like camping check out Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

8. Visit South Bay downtowns

If you want a quiet day, check out the downtowns in the South Bay. Restaurants, light shopping, coffee. Try Castro St Mountain View, University Avenue Palo Alto (Blue Bottle coffee, Scoop ice-cream, SliderBar hamburgers, Apple Store), Stanford’s campus (the arboretum, palm drive, Hoover tower, memorial court, hike the dish nearby), Los Altos, Saratoga (fancy little town!)

9. Road-trip to Carmel

Go to La Bicyclette for lunch, visit the beach (with your dog), explore the shops. Enjoy the drive down.

10. Spend a day in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is one of California’s charming surfer-towns (also see Stinson; hike Mt Tam as well as visiting the beach). There’s lots to do in Santa Cruz: play on rides on the Boardwalk and get some American fairground snacks, walk around the seafront shops, visit Verve coffee (my personal mecca), kayak with the sea otters, see the Sea Lions under the wharf, hike Wilder Ranch, mountain bike, watch surfers on Steamer Lane, the crazy Saturn Cafe, cocktails at 515, Poke at Pono Hawaiian grill. Driving along Highway 1 North or Highway 9 through the Santa Cruz mountains is enjoyable in itself (stop off in Boulder Creek for charming mountain deli break). You can visit Castle Rock state park or Big Basin from Highway 9 for a fun-packed day.


This is just some of the great things to do in California. For bigger trips try sleeping in the Sierras (Yosemite for dramatic landscape, Emigrant wilderness for easy permits), hit up some hot springs, head to Mexico or the Grand Canyon, off-road in Hollister park, hike Mt St Helena (easy) or one of the Fourteeners (harder), rock climb (Castle Rock / Pinnacles / Mt St Helena / Sierras / Coastal boulders), surf (the West Coast), see the volcanoes at Lassen Volcanic Park, spend some hours in the La Honda Dive bar, explore Berkeley.