*Trip sponsored by: Finnair & Visit California
The road trip on California’s Highway 1 must be one of the most memorable travel experiences of my entire life. I was excited from the moment the wheels of the plane touched the tarmac of San Francisco International Airport. I had been longing to return to this city in California since visiting it for a few days last year when Finnair opened a new direct route from Helsinki to San Francisco.
From the end of March, Finnair will also offer direct flights between Helsinki and Los Angeles. A350 aircrafts will fly the new route three times a week. The flight time from Helsinki to Los Angeles is 11 hours and the return leg of the journey 10 hours 30 minutes. During the summer Finnair also operates three non-stop flights a week from Helsinki to San Francisco. The flights are available from mid April to late October and the flight time is around 11 hours.
We started our road trip with a couple of days in San Francisco and continued on Highway 1 towards Los Angeles, from where we took our flight home.
The legendary California road trip: Highway 1 / Pacific Coast Highway
Highway 1 and Route66 must be some of the most legendary road trips you can take in California. The first of them is also known as California State Route and Pacific Coast Highway. It snakes through the state along the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
To start off our trip we spent a couple of nights in San Francisco before continuing south towards Los Angeles through Morro Bay and Ventura. It is possible to complete this route in one day, but I highly recommend taking a few days so you can make stops and stay overnight in some of the interesting places along the way. Our road trip took a week, including the nights we spent in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The sea views and natural reserve offer some breathtaking scenes for most of this route, and I managed to take close to a thousand photos just from my seat in the car. The most memorable place on the road was definitely the famous old Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, with mountains on either side and a deep canyon leading to the ocean below. This is definitely a place where you should stop for photos – but be careful, the cliffs can be surprisingly slippery.
Renting a car in California
Whether you are on a road trip or not, the United States is made for car travel. We rented a slightly bigger car as we were visiting California with a group of bloggers and journalists.
It is a good idea to book your rental car before your trip so you can have a suitable vehicle waiting for you at the airport upon arrival. For example, we rented the car at the San Francisco airport but returned it to the airport in Los Angeles.
In the United States gasoline or petrol is still considerably cheaper than for example in Finland, so renting a car and driving through a state is probably not as expensive as you might think. The most affordable rental cars cost around a hundred dollars for a week.
When renting a car in California, keep at least these considerations in mind:
- Book beforehand so you can pick your car up at the airport
- Any additional costs (for example, if you want to return the car in a different city)
- It can be more expensive to rent a car if a driver is under 25 years old
- Return the car with a full tank
- For a short journey, add GPS navigation as an extra to your booking, for a longer trip buy your own navigation system
- Make sure you are covered by an extensive rental car insurance
My favourite city in California: San Francisco
One day if I go to heaven, I’ll look around and say; it ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.
San Francisco has something that you can find in places like Paris and New York. It’s a city not everyone falls in love with immediately the first time they visit, but by your second visit, you will understand that you belong. San Francisco is a city of artists and strong feelings, where life inevitably tastes like life. Give the city a chance, and it will grow on you.
During this trip to San Francisco, we stayed at the Fairmont hotel which is one of the legendary old hotels in this city. Rumour has it that the hit song I Left My Heart in San Francisco by Tony Bennet was first sang at this very hotel.
We had the opportunity to visit the largest and most expensive suite in the hotel, which covers nearly 600 square metres and costs a whopping 18,000 euro a night. Maybe next time? All of the presidents of the United States have stayed in this suite, and it houses a library with a secret passage leading outside hidden behind one of the shelves, shh…
The view from Battery Spencer to Golden Gate Bridge is the one that reminds me that I am in San Francisco, so we had to visit there this time too. Take a taxi here if you are after that perfect Instagram-worthy picture.
Chinatown – experience something different in San Francisco
We happened to be in San Francisco during Thanksgiving when most of the restaurants and shops were closed. What a perfect excuse to explore Chinatown. It is the oldest in Northern America and also the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. We spent half a day exploring Chinatown and took part in a guided tour by All About Chinatown, which I can warmly recommend. Our guide, Linda Lee, was funny and a great storyteller with years of experience of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. After my time living in Hong Kong, I often feel somehow at home in the Chinatown of a city, but part of our group had a mild culture shock – especially watching live frogs kept in plastic boxes in the local supermarket.
We learned about the interesting history of the Chinatown and what life is like today, about the best restaurants and unusual medicines and we even visited a fortune cookie factory. At the end of the tour we got to enjoy a traditional Cantonese dim sum lunch, and for a while I felt like I was at home in Hong Kong.
The California road trip continues to Morro Bay
Our trip continued along the scenic coast route through Monterey and towards our first stop at Morro Bay, which is a small city on the coast in San Luis Obispo in California. The city is best known for Morro Rock, a protected volcanic plug and its birds and adorable sea otters. We spent one night in Morro Bay and stayed at Embarcadero Inn & Suites, which had one of the most comfortable beds I have slept in for a while. When we arrived, we enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Windows on the Water restaurant, which specialises in seafood.
Morro Bay is worth a visit during the day. After a perfect American pancake breakfast at Dorn’s Original Breakers Café, we headed out for a morning walk towards Morro Rock. On the way, we had to stop to buy some salt water toffee as a snack. The fresh wind from the sea and friendly locals turned this into a perfectly relaxing sunny day.
From Morro Bay, we continued towards Ventura and stopped at this Premium Outlet for some shopping on the way.
Along the Highway 1: Surf dreams in Venture
Ventura is a lively and relaxed small town focused around surfing, which tempts stressed city dwellers from Los Angeles to calmer surroundings. I don’t think you could write a much better description of Ventura than our tour programme: “its artistic culture, enduring history, and privileged locale is crazy-inviting, very much alive, and refreshingly human”.
We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach hotel, which was nothing too special, but perfect for a beachside location with a view of the rising sun that I could enjoy from my private balcony each morning.
Downtown Ventura is the livelier part of town with its delicious restaurants and cute little boutiques aimed at anyone enjoying their own version of a surfer life. We had dinner at Rumfish y Vino, and I can recommend the restaurant with all my heart if you stop in Ventura during your Highway 1 road trip.
It’s artistic culture, enduring history and privileged locale is crazy-inviting, very much alive, and refreshingly human
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park consists of five small islands in the Pacific Ocean located a short ferry ride away from Ventura. This national park is still one of the least visited national parks in the United States, but the views it offers are worth a visit.
Isolation of thousands of years has given rise to the wonderful nature and unique wildlife as well as archeological sights.
You can get to Channel Islands National Park from Ventura by sea. Island Packers organises boat tours to the islands, and you can find out more about them here.
You can also go camping and stay overnight in the national park, but one day is enough time to hike and take a canoeing tour. The views from on top of the hills are worth the trouble of hiking there, trust me on this one. Possibly the most amazing view of the hiking trail opens from Potato Harbour on the Santa Cruz island. On my way there I got lost, and I have a strange story about how I found my way to Potato Harbour that you should read on my Instagram account.
There are no restaurants on the island, so bring some snacks. Channel Islands Provisioners had prepared a perfect breakfast and lunch for us for the day, and I can recommend their services warmly, in case you want to enjoy quality food that is also healthy either in the national park or while camping nearby. CIP ensures that their food leaves as little plastic waste as possible and our food was served in glass containers that we handed back at the end of the day in a box available at the harbour. All the meals were cooked with great focus on every detail taking into account the nutrient content as well as taste. Read more about CIP and book your own food experiences for the road here.
Final destination of the Highway 1 road trip: Los Angeles
From Ventura, we continued on to the final destination of our trip, Los Angeles. This trip was my first time in the city so you could see the excitement on my face on the backseat of the car dozens of kilometres before we entered Los Angeles.
I always knew Los Angeles was big, but now I realise it is huge – you could almost call it a state rather than a city. Our accommodation for the last nights of the trip was Santa Monica Shangri-La, and we were also able to visit downtown Los Angeles, West Hollywood, and Venice Beach.
My best memory from Los Angeles is definitely the bike trip we took from Santa Monica to Venice Beach. We rented the bicycles from Perry’s Café and Beach Rentals and were accompanied by a lovely guide from Blazing Saddles Bike Tour, who told us about the history of the area on the way. Riding a bike along the coastline is the perfect way to enjoy the beach life in Los Angeles because the roads are easy and smooth, so it is easy to go on for long distances. Santa Monica is definitely calmer than for example Venice Beach, which is filled with more eccentric artistic people doing their own thing.
West Hollywood is part of the more cliché Los Angeles. We got there from Santa Monica by getting an Über, and it took us a little over half an hour without bad traffic. Downtown Los Angeles has a little more edge and feels more like a city of its own, most tourists will not like to spend long there. When we got out of the subway, it felt a lot like arriving in New York (yes, Los Angeles Metro exists – it just doesn’t go everywhere). When in Downtown, you should have dinner at Grand Central Market.
Make use of some of my best tips for Santa Monica:
- Dinner at: Élephante Beach House restaurant
- Rooftop cocktails: Shangri-La -hotel
- Cycling to Venice Beach: Perry’s Café & Beach Rental
- Brunch: The Gables
- Cooking class: The Gourmandise School of Sweets & Savories
Now I am dreaming of more Californian road trips. Next time I want to drive through the state to enjoy its mountains and deserts among the national parks. Have you ever done a road trip in California?