There is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned family road trip, right? It is a precious moment in time. No matter the age of your children, put them in the car with you for just a few days. Tell stories, visit roadside attractions, check into unique hotels, and just enjoy the family time together. This California coast road trip literally has it all!
Hollywood always wants to portray family road trips as messy and chaotic (think 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation). The truth is that it is totally possible to have a subdued, relaxing, or even charming road trip with kids. I should know. As a family travel blogger from Orange County, CA, I have taken my kids on a 60-day road trip across the country and ventured by road all across the state of California.
Here I put together a delightful road trip itinerary that will take you from Southern California up the California coastline. We traveled along the infamous Pacific Coast Highway to see some historic hotels, a European-inspired village, and an old-world style Castle. The castle was famous as a hangout for Hollywood and political elites throughout the mid-twentieth century.
A Charming 3-day California Coast Road Trip Itinerary
This 3-day road trip would be perfect for a romantic weekend getaway for two or would be great as an educational and fascinating family road trip with kids.
Day 1 –Santa Barbara
Whether you are leaving from San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, or Orange Counties, it will be about a 3 to 5-hour drive to arrive in the charming seaside city of Santa Barbara. Leave your home early and plan on spending the entire day exploring and dining around the city.
Things to do in Santa Barbara
Old Mission Santa Barbara: a Spanish Mission founded in 1786 with lush gardens, historic architecture, artifacts, and artwork, as well as a beautiful mission church and cemetery. Entry for adults is $9, children are just $4, and kids under 4 are FREE.
Red Tile Walking Tour: A free walking tour that centers on State Street – the gorgeous downtown district is full of quaint local restaurants, and shops. There are also museums like Casa de la Guerra, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
Where to Stay
Montecito Inn: A boutique four-star hotel founded in 1928 that was originally financed by Charlie Chaplin. It still retains that magical Golden Era vibe.
Spanish Garden Inn: A charming modern hotel that reflects the romance of Old California. It has Spanish red-tiled buildings and a gorgeous courtyard with a fountain and fire pit for a relaxing evening al fresco.
Day 2 –San Luis Obispo
Quick Stop (2-4 hrs) in Solvang
Just about 30 miles (45 mins) north of Santa Barbara you will find the quaint Danish town of Solvang. With old-world windmills and buildings reminiscent of a children’s storybook. You will appreciate the laid back atmosphere and the provincial charm of the city.
Plan on having lunch in town and spending a few hours touring the numerous local shops and bakeries. We always enjoy baked treats at Danish Mill Bakery, traditional Danish food at Red Viking Restaurant. Grab a drink at the Solvang Brewing Company (which actually has great food as well).
San Luis Obispo
Drive another 60 miles (1-1.5 hrs) north past Solvang and you will reach San Luis Obispo. It’s a laid-back college town in the heart of California’s Coastal wine region. Go wine tasting or have fun in the downtown district which has numerous distinct bars, restaurants, and shops.
Things to do in San Luis Obispo
Wine Tasting: There are dozens of small artisanal wineries in and around San Luis Obispo with tasting rooms. Some boutique hotels in the area will also have wine tasting packages to pair with your room rate.
Mission San Luis Obispo: The fifth California Mission founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra, Mission San Luis Obispo is a beautiful historic property. It’s in the heart of downtown with free entry to tour the garden, museum, church, and gift shop. This is a great place to park and start your day if you plan to explore downtown.
Where to stay
Apple Farm Inn: This cozy boutique hotel has a shabby-chic farmhouse atmosphere with super cute, distinctive rooms and impeccable hospitality. They impressively re-decorate the entire hotel and gift shop to match the season (Christmas and Spring are great times to visit).
They provide a free glass of wine upon check-in and a free nightly wine reception. Warm coffee, cookies and hot chocolate in the lobby. The on-site Apple Farm Restaurant provides comfort food for breakfast, lunch or dinner and the bakery has muffins and treats that are delectable.
Madonna Inn: The Madonna Inn is a colorful hotel built in 1958 with a gothic 19th-century style with notes of a Swiss Chalet. It has over 100 quirky and distinctive guestrooms such as the “Caveman.” This room is constructed almost exclusively from hard rock including an overhead stone waterfall shower!
They have a variety of creative economy rooms up to luxury 2 and 3 bedroom suites with enormous stone fireplaces. You must have dinner in Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse with its glamorous Pink leather booths and Gaudy gold décor.
Day 3 –Day Trip to Hearst Castle
The Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark located about 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo, and about 10 miles north of the nearby city of Cambria. This historic structure was designed by Julia Morgan. It was famously was the residence of William Randolph Hearst from 1919 to 1947.
The ornamentation and design of the castle is borrowed from historical Europe. It has over 160 rooms and expansive grounds. It once featured over a hundred acres of gardens, several swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theatre, airfield, and the world’s largest private zoo.
For art lovers, Hearst castle is home to an immense collection of antiquities from around the world. It includes Egyptian, Greek and Roman paintings and sculptures, as well as painted ceilings from Spain and Italy.
Things to do at Hearst Castle
Hearst Castle is open for a variety of guided day tours and is only accessible by bus from the Visitor’s Center with a paid tour ticket. Tours start at around $36 per person and include the Grand Rooms, the Upstairs Suites, Hearst and Hollywood tour, and the Art Lover’s tour.
Hot Tip: For families with young children, be aware that due to the number of stairs on the property, they do not allow strollers on the tours. If you are comfortable using a baby carrier, they will actually lend you one at the Visitor’s Center for no extra charge on a first-come basis.
Alternatives to Hearst Castle
If you decide that Hearst Castle is not a good fit for your family, there are some nice alternatives for spending your third day in the area.
Wine Tasting: You can go wine tasting in Paso Robles, for example, at Tablas Creek, Cass, or Ancient Peaks wineries (among many others).
Avila Beach: Or you can spend a lazy beach day at nearby Avila Beach. It has beautiful views of the rugged Pacific coast and a handful of quaint shops and eateries.
Resort Pool: If you get a room at the Madonna Inn, you might just spend the day lounging at their hilltop pool. It’s a heated infinity pool and overlooks the stunning valley below.
Where to Stay
Hearst Castle is just over an hour away from San Luis Obispo. One option would be to stay at the same hotel for another night, or take the opportunity to try out the Madonna Inn & Apple Farm Inn on different nights of the same road trip!
If you want to stay a little closer to Hearst Castle and experience another town with interesting history, try one of the seaside inns in Cambria, which is just 9 miles south of Hearst Castle visitor’s center.
The Rigdon House: This is a cute teal-colored Landmark in Cambria. It was originally built in the 1880s and was later converted to an inn in the 1970s. With a chic modern-farmhouse vibe and recently renovated rooms, The Rigdon House is sure to delight, especially since they also have complimentary coffee, pastries, wine, and spirits!
That’s a Wrap on this California Coast Road Trip
Charm, excitement, quirks, and history – this California coast road trip literally has it all! Sample the Spanish and Native American history of Santa Barbara while soaking in its authentic, laid-back beach culture. Delight in the European charm of the Danish town of Solvang while snacking on Danish pastries and locally roasted coffee. Experience the colorful quirks of Madonna Inn or the country farmhouse appeal of Apple Farm Inn. Tour the great wineries of San Luis Obispo’s wine country. Finally, set out on a fascinating tour of California’s very own Hearst Castle. Witness the ornate, old-world style architecture, artifacts and classic pieces of art. One thing is for certain – this 3-day road trip is one that you and your family will not soon forget.
About the author: Amanda Keeley-Thurman is a mother of 3 delicious babies, bartender, travel and leisure writer for Cigar & Spirits Magazine, and the creator of hotmamatravel.com, a family travel blog with a twist that seeks out unique and historical travel experiences and takes kids to just about anywhere they are allowed.