Road Trip to Los Angeles from San Francisco Bay Area
Via the Pacific Central Coast — mostly!
I have done several road trips from SF bay area to LA — most of the times via the fastest interstate highway I-5, that two-lane highway through inlands with not much scenery, and miles of bullshit(or cow dung) smell to keep company.
In the last few years, I have preferred a combination of highway 101/highway 1 — the scenic route via the Pacific coast, and through many wonderful towns in the central coast/wine valleys. Also, I have avoided the slowest (but the most scenic) route that is just highway 1 all the way. Taking 101 entirely is the most practical approach, at least for me, as is fast and through flat roads, not the cliffhanger that is highway 1 at times. 101 and 1 merges and graces the beach at the right places like Pismo beach/Grover beach/Avila Beach/Santa Barbara and all the wonderful and quaint towns.
Since we had a week off during the Xmas shutdown at work from Dec 24 to Jan 2, there was plenty of time to stop and smell the coffee on the way.
At about 400 miles between SF and LA, I looked for a mid-way place to break the journey and stop for a night or two. I also had a few free nights on IHG (Holiday Inn group) account to use. I had not used the free annual nights since the Pandemic began, and they had extended the validity for an year or more, and I had to use at least a couple before the year-end, so looked for holiday inns first around. Most holiday inn available options were either too close to bay area(Monterey, Santa Cruz ) or closer to LA. So, opted for a town in the middle — Atascadero (ah-task-a-dare-oh) right on Highway 101 at about 220 miles in the middle. This turned out to be the best convenient place than the place I chose for the return trip later. For the return trip, I chose another place 30 miles further south from Atascadero near Pismo Beach which also would be a great place. After the trip, I realize there are several good choices for towns — Pismo Beach/Grover Beach/Avila Beach for beach vibe, or San Lois Obispo or Paso Robles or Santa Barbara. Next time, I might pick San Lois Obispo and Santa Barbara for an overnight stay in the middle.
Now that the stay in the middle was squared away, the rest of the stay was going to be in downtown LA — that I had decided. When the kids were smaller, we had skipped the whole LA downtown every time on our way to Disneyland/Universal/San Diego. We had not even visited a single beach in LA in our 20 years of existence in California. It was always those kid magnets at the end. So, now that the kids are past 18 years, we all are grown up to explore the rest of LA. Of course, we had done the perfunctory Hollywood sign and walk of fame tour a few times, so decided to skip those as well this time.
When I had done the Hollywood hills bus tour last time, it was in the last century, but the guide mentioned the houses of a few stars — I hardly knew any one of them as they were perhaps more familiar with some one who grew up in US in the 60s or 70s or 80s, as he was mentioning a lot of names from the television serials. No one mentioned Jack Nicholson or Schwarzenegger during that tour!
Anyways, back to the pre-plans. I wanted to stay smack in the downtown to enjoy the citi vibe. I had booked a couple of nights each at a holiday inn at Woodland hills area, and then a Residence Inn near the LA Live stadium.
Prior to starting, I had already booked the tickets for 4 at the Getty Villa and the Getty Center for Boxing day. It was not open on Dec 25 as expected. I had to book the tickets a week or two in advance, and I tried to get another day of the Xmas week after I arrived at LA , and it was all sold out. So book in advance. Also, the other free museum I wanted to visit — The Broad was sold out a week before when I tried it. I guess it sells out a month in advance. Also, another museum(MOCA — Museum of Contemporary Art) in downtown was also closed on the day I was in that area. It was open only from Thursday-Sunday. Other than the tickets at the Getty, I did not get any advance tickets to keep all the plans open to explore the downtown and enjoy at a slow pace.
We started the road trip on the Dec 24th morning after breakfast at home.
Dec 24, Friday
Rain was predicted that day, but it did not rain, though it was cloudy all day. Temperature was in the 50–60F as expected during the winter days. We stopped at a subway for a quick bite near Paso Robles, and set out for the first beach on the way — the Morro Bay. Since Monterey/Santa Cruz/Big Sur beaches are close to bay area for just a day trip, avoided all those, and the traffic was pretty smooth through Salinas.
It was about 2pm after the lunch, and there was a light art show installation near the Paso Robles (https://sensoriopaso.com/) that I had seen on youtube and wanted to checkout. So we had to come back at Paso Robles, and the hotel was a bit far at about 30 miles further south on the way to check in and retrace back. So we decided to head for the nearest beaches.
It was very windy (the sunny photos can be deceiving), and cold, may be in the mid -40s F, so decided to drive south to Morro Bay (about 20 miles south)
The majestic Morro Rock can be seen at least 6–7 miles away. The winds had died down a bit and it was still sunny.
Walked on the dry sand that was getting strewn all around by the winds at Morro beach. Wear goggles for better comfort — the winds here at many California beaches can be sandy, like the Pacifica beach near San Francisco, the Monterey beach is mostly rocky, so I do not recall sand getting in the eyes. There were only a few people on the north side of the rock. So drove a mile+ to the other side which is right at the bottom of the rock. That had a few more vehicles and folks on the beach. Winds started to howl again, and even sea birds had to struggle to stay afloat.
We then headed back to the Paso Robles town for the light show on the hill. There were a couple of cars ahead of us at around 5:30pm. It showed Sold out on the webpage, so the plan was to wait in the line to try the luck to get the few daily tickets sold at the open. It was getting dark by then, and at number 3, we felt pretty good at our chances of getting a ticket. But, for some reason the line was not growing, and it transpired to the guys in the front cars that probably there is no show on Xmas eve. But the web site had no mention of the event cancellation.
The guy at the front discovered that the show was indeed cancelled the Sensorio’s facebook page. Later that week, I had checked the website to see if they were open any day of the following week. Apparently it was closed all days, due to weather or some other reason. Probably the place is closed for good. Very disappointing!
It was Xmas eve, and didn’t want to go hungry and there were quite a few eateries open at Atascadero and we settled for a Thai restaurant which was almost full at 7pm.
The Holiday Inn at Atascadero was perfect. Especially the front desk staff person was very welcoming and got us two connecting rooms, and there was a dancing Santa at the reception.
Since we had our dinner already, crashed on the comfy beds.
Dec 25, Saturday
The continental breakfast was decent considering many breakfast buffets were closed earlier in the year. Each station could have only guest at a time.But it was not crowded at all, and it was a breeze. The seating area was not empty with a few families and couples and kids enjoying the Xmas day beginning.
We checked out after breakfast and was ready for day 2 of the trip. The plan for the day was to visit San Luis Obispo mission at downtown and a couple of nearby beaches — Avila beach and Pismo beach and stroll through downtown Solvang — the cute and quaint Danish town and reach LA by night for dinner.
First stop — San Lois Obispo mission.
The church in the same compound had the morning Xmas service going, which added to the atmosphere.
The neighborhood around the mission is nice to stroll about with beautiful houses quite befitting the architecture around and very much walkable and that we did.
Being X’mas day, the whole area was deserted. So, we headed towards Avila beach.
Next stop was the Pirate’s cove on the beach.
Then on to Pismo beach pier area — not deserted, a few people around.
Since it was Xmas day, there were hardly any eateries open. We took the first option in an arcade in Pismo beach downtown that had veggie pizzas and burgers. (Hot Shots Billiards — https://www.hotshotspismo.com/)
After that quick lunch, it was time to move on to Solvang.
If you are into ostriches, there is a farm right off the freeway on the way to Solvang downtown.
Solvang has a Danish heritage and everything in the downtown reflects that.
We looked for the Danish delicacy — aebleskiver at the couple of eateries that were open. None of those traditional places were open. The only eatery place that was open for coffee that had an Arabic music. We had coffee and baklava instead! We will survive!
There was also Hans Christian Anderson’s statue, another Danish icon!
We walked through the small downtown(just a couple of blocks in all directions, so easy!) for an hour or so, savoring the coffee and the festive delights.
As it was getting a bit darker, and rain started to fall a bit, we decided to move on to LA. Since there was a winter storm warning near Santa Barbara on the beach, the route suggested was via 154, which was not so good in the rain and fading lights as it was a single line traffic. Next time, take the 101 all the way, instead!
We had our dinner at a traditional South Indian restaurant at Woodlands (https://woodlandsinla.com/) which was very close to authentic Indian tastes. It was cheaper and tastier than most Bay area Indian eateries.
After that dinner, we got to the holiday inn hotel and it had free garage parking. The next hotel in downtown, it was going to cost a $51 per day to park the car. So that was a good thing. It is in a nice location, but kind of sterile ambiance, probably ok for a night or two.
Dec 26, Sunday
It was gonna be a hectic day with two timed reservations at two different locations — one at 10:30am at the Getty Villa, and the next one at 2:00 pm at the Getty Center. They are 15 miles apart too!
First the breakfast. It was underwhelming, to say the least. Very few selections and one has to line up at a counter, where a solitary server just hands out pre-packaged stuff on a paper plate. Probably the worst holiday inn that is trying hard to squander away all the excellent location and facilities. I checked out a day in advance as the service and attitude of the front desk was not good! Life is short and why spoil a good vacation with bad hotels!
We checked out in haste and rushed to the Getty Center, which was 15 miles away.
The Getty villa location was magnificent overlooking the pacific ocean in an upscale neighborhood next to Malibu — Pacific palisades.
We made it to the Getty Villa entrance gate five minutes past our appointed time. The security staff assured as it is not an issue at all and directed us to a parking garage. The parking was not free, the admission was free though. I had booked the parking(all-day only option) also in advance for $20.
Got parking right next to the entrance. There were so many empty spots, as the location had opened just thirty minutes prior, I guessed.
The gate check included covid vaccination cards as required by law at most indoor places. I had added all our cards electronically in apple wallet which was useful.
The Getty Villa is majestic. Getty was the richest man during his time. It is apparent there with so many artifacts and is a recreation of an Italian manor/villa from Pompei in southern Italy.
The museum collection reflects Getty’s tastes —ancient artifacts depicting good times with wine, women and men and lots of wine chalices — some large and communal than the modern day individual glasses, goblets of a bygone era unearthed and made in clay/ceramic.
In retrospect, this place needs at least a day or more to explore. We could spend only half a day here, as we had to make the appointed time at 2pm at the other Getty.
Grabbed a quick bite at the cafe for the road which was quite full with plenty seating in the outdoor cafe. Kind of a European vibe with outdoor seating and all. That is good considering this is Winter!
Next, The Getty Center which is about 15 miles off the coast inlands.
Parking was almost full, and had to drive a bit around inside the multi-storied garage to get a spot. The checkin counter was also a bit long(longer than the Villa) — perhaps around ten-fifteen people ahead. Th usher checked the vaccination cards for all and then the timed reservation tickets.
The Center was atop a hill that overlooked the valley which gave a good view of the city this side of LA. LA is a sprawling big city that extends many miles (500 square miles) in any direction. There was this gondola/train that took us from the valley down to the top(5 minutes or so).
The Center is huge- bigger than the Villa.
It has so much to see to spend a few days. Including a few Van Gogh originals.
Also, recent ones — like the one from Anderson Cooper (the CNN anchor) and heir to the Rockefeller legacy(who was a big patron of arts during his time). Of course, this is a private museum built by another billionaire. Still better than the wax museum celebrities and the stars on the side walk of fame!
The museum has a wide eclectic collection of paintings and styles, and statues and even some sofas.
The views from the outside terraces are also spectacular!
It was getting darker and the crowds were thinning out and it was getting colder (may be mid 40Fs)
Had dinner at another excellent Indian eatery near by — https://www.annapurnacuisine.com/ (not fancy but authentic taste). The place was busy with online orders, so the waiter was buzzing around, and forgot some items we ordered. But we were full even without it. So no big deal!
I had cancelled the stay for the night before, and found another hotel nearby for stay — A best western near Santa Monica beach. It did not have the same business ambiance as the Holiday inns, but would do for a night.
Dec 27, Monday
Though the hotel was not fancy, the neighbor hood was excellent for an early morning walk.
The neighborhood and the houses had good character unlike the city locations.
The breakfast at the hotel was good and decent. Much better than the holiday Inn at woodland hills. Also had interesting pictures in the dining area befitting the Route 66 vibe at Santa Monica.
After looking at the pictures, we were all ready for the Santa Monica beach — which was the destination for the Hollywood dream chasers across US in the last century during the heydays of Route 66 that is defunct now, but started in Chicago which is in the upper middle of the country to all the way down to LA.
This is the best beach I have ever been to. Barcelona comes pretty close. The whole vibe with the runners and joggers and tourists and wide expansive views is beyond parallel. California has so many beaches. But this 5–6 mile stretch all the way to Venice beach is the best!
If I had stayed longer at the Muscle beach (very aptly named!) , even I could have developed beach dude muscles.
It was a cold day at the beach with rain forecasted in an hour or so. Yet, there were a few folks playing volleyball.
Since the rains were coming, we walked a mile plus to Venice beach which has a different vibe, less affluent and with a crazy vibe. It does not call out itself as weird as Austin says in its marketing calling card. Here no such self advertisement is necessary. It is obvious here with no such yuppie pretense. It just is.
The predicted rain and drizzle started and we walked back in the rain, enjoying the rains.
It was well past lunch time, and decided to have lunch at another Indian eatery. — Indias Oven (https://indiasoven.com/) which had very high yelp rating.
By the time we got there by car, it was raining heavily, and we had a window seat to see it all.
The food was hot and well presented and was excellent and the ambiance was very good. Good place to be on a rainy afternoon.
It was pouring when we came out of the restaurant, and we were planning to drive to Rodeo drive and Mulholland drive to gawk at celebrity shopping area and houses. But with the rains could not see much, so decided to head to the hotel.
The hotel room — Residence Inn (https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/laxri-residence-inn-los-angeles-la-live/) was on the 9th floor and was right in the downtown next to other high raise hotels.
The city view in the night was spectacular!
Since it was rainy decided to order in a light dinner from an Italian place — Pasta Roma via Doordash.(https://www.doordash.com/store/pasta-roma-los-angeles-16630/). Since we had a heavy and late lunch, most of the pasta/soups turned into leftovers, and went to the fridge.
Dec 28, Tuesday
The morning view was better with Hollywood Sign far in the distance.
The morning was chilly, but good for a walk downtown to observe the city while it was quiet.
After the refreshing walk, had a sumptuous breakfast buffet at the hotel as expected of Residence Inns. Not the best (the best one IMHO was the Residence Inn in Vancouver, British Columbia!)though!
It was going to be a sauntering walking along through LA downtown, and catch a museum or two if open and tickets available. Weather was good and sunny. Not warm but not rainy, and I would gladly take it!
This was the walking plan!
The Broad museum was closed that day — Tuesday it seems! Did not have tickets anyway!
Though the museums were closed, there is plenty to see where real people were going about.
Next destination was the Angels flight funicular was good and cheap — $1 for a ticket!
Ride is short and fun and was in some movies — of course!
View from the bottom(end of journey) to the top.
It is an old market with many food stalls — kind of a food hall, but not the sterile mall type. It is not lunch time yet, we have to come back an hour later.
The last book store next. A collection of old books — like stepping into a harry potter movie scene!
Bradbury building — But it is closed!
The inside looked promising though!
Also, a wedding chapel. Are we in Vegas?
Spring Arcade — except for a coffee shop, nothing much to see there.
Same building — called Broadway Arcade from the other side of the steet.
And, we are back at the Grand Central Market for lunch!
After lunch, resumed the walk towards the eastern side — towards the Art district.
The city hall looked majestic from far. so walked towards it.
City hall — that was closed.
Came upon this fantastic Japan town area. All ethnic shops and teeming with local people.
The art district was somewhat underwhelming. Looked like a wannabe art district with lofts and semi-industrial yards with graffiti thrown in. Seen similar stuff in Berlin/London, I think. Lofts and probably cheaper upcoming area in old ship yards and such backyards.
Most places looked deserted. What is art without live people?
Headed back towards the last stop. A train station. Union Station. Not for travel. Just to see it as a destination!
It is indeed a sight to see!
First thing in down town LA in general and the train station. No people. The freeway Carmaggedon everyone had experienced many times in LA’s maze of freeways was a far cry.
Since we had done quite a bit of walking for the day, took an Uber back to the hotel!
Since there was no plan to hang out in downtown LA, decided to drive to Downtown Disney to catch the festive spirit there. Downtown Disney is much more peaceful than the frenetic rush between the rides and the long lines at the Parks.
On the 30 plus mile drive, decided to look for Indian restaurants, and chanced upon this little India at Artesia with many many restaurants(and jewelry shops)
For a mile plus , there is nothing but Indian restaurants. I had never heard of such a place in California, even though I had been living in California for close to twenty years!
We had our food at Bhima Indian Vegetarian Restaurant, which was very good tastewise!
We spent an hour there and headed back home!
Dec 29, Wednesday
We contemplated extending our stay for a day or two, but the weather prediction for the day was rains again. So this was going to be the last day in LA this time.
Before the breakfast went for a quick walk into the neighborhood, a little cold but still sunny!
I had read about the whopping $700MM paid by the crypto startup Crypto.com for the naming rights of the basketball arena of the Los Angeles Lakers(formerly Staples Center) . BTW, It is a so-so app, compared to many other more popular crypto investment options — Coinbase, binance.us, Robinhood, Square, and even Paypal, and many more in 2021)
After breakfast, we checked out and it was already cloudy.
Drove to Marina Del Ray where supposedly had the best fireworks by the beach near LA to see what the hype was about.
It was raining and it looked under whelming. I would rather go to Disneyland for fireworks!
Headed north out of LA through the Mulholland Drive, and it was raining heavily by then.
Caught the price the LA Hollywood celebs pay for gas in their neighborhoods.
The $5 gas prices where the Hollywood moguls live. Probably pairs with the $10 oxygenated water they get from the upscale Erewhon grocery market there.
The rest of the drive back via 101 North through Santa Barbara was fine except for the rains lashing down.
Had Latte at the CAJE coffee shop in beautiful Santa Barabara downtown.
Reached the hotel(Holiday inn at Pismo-Grover Beach) for the night by 8PM.Used Doordash again for food delivery. For some reason, Ubereats app very few restaurants on its site in LA and here. Though I tend to order more using Ubereats back in SF. This time a Pakistani restaurant. The doordash driver had to drive some distance, and it took close to an hour total which was understandable! Food was good!
Dec 30, Thursday
Last day of this trip — 7th day!
Plan was to go to Pismo Beach/Oceano for a sand dune buggy ride by the beach. On the way up, it was cold and drizzling when we got there, so decided to attempt it on the way back if the weather is good.
Weather was good and Sunny!
The breakfast was decent and a good start for the rest of the day’s activities.
I had researched a bit on the best time to drive on the beach — low tide time — which was around 11am that day, so booked an hour slot starting that time. There were a few choices for Dune buggy rentals, but chose the one that was open 24x7 for phone calls. The other two were not open at 7am when I made the booking for the same day.
Since we were a family of four, booked a 4 seat Dune Buggy — 4 Seat Explorer XP.
We reached an hour before at 10am, and the paperwork(drivers license info for all), and the shuttle to the actual buggy took us close to an hour.
The shuttles can seat only 8 passengers, so we could not get on to the first ride(every 10 minutes or so).
The terrain and the setting was fantastic on a lovely sunny day!
The staff at the Sunbuggy rentals were very good, helpful and patient. We rode on the tiny hills. An automatic with just two controls — the break and accelerator like the car. You really have to put the pedal to the metal to go up the hills.
Two of us took turns in driving it. It was a hassle to put the helmet and the buckles as the buggy is old and the metallic buckles are a bit tough to secure. We finished at least ten minutes before the 12pm finishing time, as it was more of the same. One hour is more than sufficient to get the feel of it.
It was a lovely morning to spend at the Pismo Beach.
Had lunch at an Olive Garden in San Luis Obispo on the way home. The drive was ok, got delayed by an hour with the traffic. We were back home at 8PM.
The trip odometer read 1127 miles for the weeklong trip.
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Trip Costs Summary/Breakdown
Average per person per day for 7 day travel including all costs is $90 USD. Details in the table below.