The Ultimate Guide to California: Unveiling the Best of the West Coast

If you travel from Europe towards California, after approximately 14 hours of flight, you will land in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. These are the two most important international airports in the area. Both cities are distinct in many ways. They differ in size and the variety of offerings for visitors.

For this reason, two weeks spent here will fly by without a moment of boredom. However, as attractive as these cities are, we advise not to spend more than 5 to 7 days in them. Instead, dare to embrace your adventurous spirit, get behind the wheel of a car, and explore the beautiful sights outside the metropolis, as we have done.

We rented a car in San Francisco and headed along the coast towards Los Angeles, using the Cabrillo Highway that runs up to Santa Barbara and covers a total distance of approximately 600 km. This stretch of California’s coastline is beautiful, diverse, and a sight to behold.

However, it’s essential to be cautious while driving on the highway and avoid speeding. The speed limits are strictly enforced, and the fines can be expensive. On a two-lane state road, the speed limit is between 55 and 75 km/h.

The beaches of Santa Cruz are the most famous in the world among surfers because the configuration of the seabed is very favorable and is considered one of the best places where you can learn the skills of riding the waves.

After San Francisco, the first significant town we came across was Santa Cruz. The city’s population is 56,000, and it is one of the first cities in California where the law allows the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The beaches of Santa Cruz are world-renowned among surfers because the seabed configuration is exceptionally favorable, making it one of the best places to learn the skills of riding the waves. Professional surfers perform stunts on waves higher than 8 meters just 150 meters from the shore. These are the reasons why most tourists come here for surfing and acrobatics on the water, while others come just to watch the surfers in action.

Many passionate surfers journey to the sacred grounds of surfers with their well-worn campers full of rust and graffiti. Despite their unconventional appearance, the campers serve a purpose. The atmosphere is distinctive and laid-back. The campers are parked in front of the beaches, where people drink beer, smoke, play, and dance until the arrival of big waves. When the waves arrive, everyone heads into the water to catch a ride on their wave.

In the evening, they head to Santa Cruz Downtown, a part of the town where people gather to perform various acts to earn a few dollars for a decent life. Despite facing financial difficulties, they seem to find joy in their way of living.

On the other hand, we encounter wealthy tourists who can easily afford expensive accommodation, food, and other luxuries. For them, spending up to $75 per night for a motel room is not a problem, and some of the more expensive options are even pricier.

70 km from Santa Cruz is Monterey, once a fishing village that eventually turned into an elite settlement. Here, we were suprised by the impeccably landscaped promenade, located along a rocky and inaccessible beach.

70 km from Santa Cruz is Monterey, once a fishing village that eventually turned into an elite settlement. Here we were surprised by the impeccably landscaped promenade, located along a rocky and inaccessible beach. In the first row to the beach are single-story family houses mostly made of wood. The diversity in the style of decoration also is shown by the fact that it was difficult for us to decide which of them is the most beautiful. Since nature along the California coast offers all its splendor, our biggest problem was planning where to stop and spend the night, because we did not know how many miles we would be able to walk during the day. Seeing everything is almost impossible, but it would be a real shame to spend all your time driving without stopping and enjoying what is on offer.

After Monterey, we pass through Carmel-By-the-Sea. It is mostly a newer tourist resort with a large beautiful sandy beach that is a real rarity in this rocky part of the coast. As nothing but the sandy beach attracts our attention, we continue our journey to the south. We arrive at a mountainous area of the California coast called Big Sur. Here the road climbs to 1500 m above sea level, so even though you get the impression that you are in the Alps, you are only 4 km away from the Pacific. The coast carved in a hilly landscape. The rocks rise from the depths of the Pacific and rise about twenty meters above the sea. At the very top, meadows are overlooking the ocean. Imagine a very vivid scene, full of contrasts – black, red, and yellow rocks, white waves, crashing against the rocks, and climbing over the peaks to the grassy meadows. 


The next 150-180 km, you can enjoy only nature because the only two settlements are San Simeon and Cambria. Cambria is a slightly larger tourist resort where you will not find cheap motels, only luxury, and relatively expensive apartments and hotels. So if you want to sleep nearby, we advise you to continue another 50 kilometers to Morro Bay, where you can find much cheaper accommodation. Speaking of which, here are some tips on accommodation and food. Motels are the best variant of accommodation but, do not be fooled by the name Motel because it exclusively means a facility that does not have a restaurant but, in terms of comfort, luxury, and even price, it can be equal to a hotel.

Often breakfast is included in the price of the night but, breakfast becomes scarce towards southern California, where it goes to the point of serving you for breakfast a thermos with hot coffee and packaged croissants on a table with a reception desk of only 5-10 square meters. In these motels, the price of a double room averages from $40 to $60. Often even the cheapest motels have free internet access, but this varies from city to city, so by approaching larger centers, you can rarely meet free internet. But a little resourcefulness, as in our case, is not out of the question. We would often stop in the parking lot of a larger motel and use their internet connection to find accommodation that suits us, because wandering the roads in search of cheap motels takes too much time, and in the end usually ends without results.

The classic American Dinner is the best option for breakfast, which we used whenever we had the opportunity, where we were comfortably seated at a table or bar, enjoying huge portions and a variety of dishes on offer. American coffee for our taste is like dirty water that you can drink in liters and liters, but in some places, you will be pleasantly surprised how such kind of coffee can be delicious. What is interesting to us when drinking coffee is that you only pay for the first cup of coffee, and everything that is poured for you afterward, even without questions, is included in the price of that first cup. Unlike coffee, milk is delicious. Although if you do not like to drink milk, you would love it. Pancakes were our favorite breakfast. They serve them with salted margarine, wild berries, bananas, or strawberries. The usual price of breakfast for two people ranges from 10 to 25 dollars, depending on the city in which you are. 

After 500 km of nature and modest towns, we enter in Santa Barbara… Luxury villas on the top of the hills overlooking the ocean at first glance show us that they are not for everyone’s pocket. 

The next destination is Pismo Beach. Here you can rent a buggy or quad to ride on the dunes. It is the last major settlement in which the proximity of Los Angeles you can not feel. It is not as tidy and abundantly as the upcoming series of cities that you have probably already heard of. After 500 km of nature itself and modest towns, we enter Santa Barbara, the first wealthy settlement in the mentioned upcoming series. Luxury villas on the tops of hills overlooking the ocean at first glance show us that they are not for everyone’s pocket. What surprises us is that there are a lot of flowers along the entire length of the highway we have not seen in any city so far. But all this unusual tidiness gives a bit of a sense of plasticity or unreality. What will most catch your attention are the long sandy beaches and large marinas. 

For Malibu Beach, we could say it is the right entrance to Los Angeles County. Unlike Santa Barbara, there is a more relaxed atmosphere, there are more tourists, and not everything is so perfect, so it looks much more realistic. The city stretches along 34 km of coastline and is known for its long sandy beaches that often appear in American movies.

Santa Monica is a beach you have probably heard of before. There you can spend time in many ways, from going to the beach, surfing, shopping, nightclubs, watching outstanding performers who amaze passers-by and with a lot of things we did not even get to see. At the very entrance to the city, we were astonished by the tall palm trees, crowds on the roads like in the middle of summer, and finally the high price of parking. After several attempts to find a cheaper parking space, we just gave up and paid $10 for parking for one hour. From Santa Monica stretches a beach 35 km long, which is divided by several names into smaller ones.

Each of them is different in its way. For example, Venice Beach is known for bodybuilders who lift weights on the beach. Then others are known for punkers, skaters, homeless people, surfers. Mostly quite different from all the beaches we have seen before. But we must say that when we mention the homeless, it is not about poor people who were left homeless by a twist of fate, but about people who like this way of life. They live in vintage campers, bought for a few hundred dollars, decorate it with graffiti, and usually parked in one place from which they do not move.

The prime means of transportation for most is the longboard skate, which is like a regular skateboard but twice as long. Bikes with a low seat and a steering wheel that resemble a chopper are also popular. On the road, you often can meet people who carry a sign that says – medical marijuana doctor. So if you feel unwell, they will be willing to help you heal, whatever that means. Although the beaches are full of people, everything is tidy and clean, and there are rescue towers every 300-400 m, but the lifeguards are not as handsome as the ones you could see in the “Baywatch” series. Alcohol consumption on all beaches is strictly prohibited.

The prime sport on the beaches is riding the waves, but if that doesn’t work for you, you can try beach volleyball. We advise you not to compete with locals who train there all day and, among other things, participate in tournaments, where the main prizes are $300,000. You can also throw a ball or frisbee on the beach, or play games in the shallows.

A half-hour drive is West Hollywood. We were a little disappointed by the fact that the famous Avenue of Fame is nothing but 800 meters of the road with slightly more illuminated advertisements and large billboards, while the rest of the avenue is in semi-darkness. 

If you go from the beach to the mainland, east of Santa Monica, you will first come across Beverly hills, which we think is not necessary to spend too many words because everything has seen in the movies. It is an extremely wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, which can be seen by the luxury houses and shops in the center of the resort. A half-hour drive is West Hollywood. We were a little disappointed by the fact that the famous Avenue of Fame is nothing but 800 meters of the road with slightly more illuminated advertisements and large billboards, while the rest of the avenue is in semi-darkness. 

All those resorts and beaches we mentioned gravitate around Los Angeles, the second-largest American metropolis. The city covers 1290.6 km2. The center has a population of 3.8 million, and together with the suburbs has 14.8 million people, which gives it the status of the megacity. Los Angeles has no beginning and no end, driving miles from settlement to settlement it was not clear to us how the city could be so big. Los Angeles makes many smaller towns/villages that have expanded and merged. It is impossible to guess where the city center is, and when you get to it, you realize that the center is composed of a small group of skyscrapers and buildings. We say small because, judging by the suburban areas, we expected to view something more than we saw. One morning was enough for us to sightsee the center, see the Financial District, Walt Disney Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, and some other casual curiosities. In the city center are considerable differences from street to street so at a distance of 100 meters you can find dirty streets dominated by Africans and Mexicans, and a little further clean streets with tourists and business people in suits. 

Leaving behind all this diversity, we head to the south of Los Angeles and pass through the Long Beach area, where it is interesting to stop and see the anchored luxury passenger steamer Queen Marry from 1936. Half of the ship has been turned into a museum, while the other half is a hotel in which you will pay $110 per night. 

From Los Angeles to San Diego is about a 150 km drive, and attractive places worth visiting along the way are Newport Beach, Orange County, and Dana Point. Although we initially thought that San Diego was not worth too much attention, after visiting it, we were pleasantly surprised. The second-largest city in California is among the top five cities in the U.S. in terms of quality of life, and it also ranks high on the list as a city where U.S. citizens would love to live. The most important branches of the economy are agriculture, industry, tourism, and the defense industry. Namely, the navy is located there, which is called the defense navy.

This military base is considered one of the largest in the world and certainly more important in the United States since it is in the very south of California, near the Mexican border. What you should not miss is a visit to the warship aircraft carrier USS Midway, the largest ship of its kind in the U.S. Navy, built after World War II. He participated in the Vietnam War and the Sandstorm in the Persian Gulf and today serves as a museum. What impressed us was the 25 different types of warplanes parked on deck. Guides on board are mostly ex-soldiers and officers working as volunteers. Since they sailed on that ship, they know best how to recount what life was like on this floating island. The ticket price is $25, and you need to set aside at least four hours to visit. 

In the very center of the city is Balboa Park, full of museums, attractions, and cultural events, so it is worth taking a look. The atmosphere on the beaches of San Diego, unlike the beaches of Los Angeles, is much more relaxed. Although the beaches are not so tidy, you will not miss anything to feel comfortable in that environment. Just like on the northern beaches, one of the primary hobbies for people is surfing the waves, so the streets along the coast are full of shops with surfing equipment. What impressed us the most was that even firefighters have surfboards on their official vehicles that they use when rescuing.

Surfing is as popular in California as football is in our country. But when it comes to surfing, we would like to give you a bit of advice. Local surfers can be quite rude if foreigners occupy their favorite places to surf, so in each guide, you will find instructions on where to find beaches for beginners, beaches for professionals, and beaches for locals. For example, La Hoya, a rocky beach in the tourist resort of La Jola, half an hour’s drive from San Diego, is a place where professionals gather at sunset in the evening and show their skills on waves 4 to 9 meters high. Spectators gather on the beach and watch the stunts with their mouths open. A real spectacle! La Jola is a suburb of San Diego full of luxury shops, restaurants, and romantic walks by the sea.

The main beach of San Diego is Mission Beach, which abounds in events, but if you want to relax on a slightly secluded (and untidy) beach, then be sure to visit Ocean Beach. There are no crowds or noise, and on the main street leading to that beach, you will still find plenty of great restaurants and cute shops. The last resort and beach before the Mexican border is Imperial Beach, but even if you don’t get there, you haven’t missed anything, because it doesn’t offer anything special that hasn’t been seen before. 

Traveling to California can be an exciting experience, offering stunning natural landscapes, bustling cities, and a mix of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

While many come to chase the American Dream and seek financial gain, there are still many people for whom this remains unattainable. The stark contrast between the rich and the poor is evident, making it essential to remember that not everyone who dreams of a better life in California can achieve it.

TEXT & PHOTO – Lovro Barbalich