Our very best tips for taking a roadtrip to explore the northern California coast with kids, from San Francisco to Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur, Sausalito, Napa and more. This ultimate family vacation includes travel tips for kids and adults alike as you explore the Pacific Coast by car and enjoy the gorgeous and unique sights along the way!
Looking for other fun vacation ideas with kids? Here’s our Ultimate Travel Guide to Visiting Charleston (with or without kids) and Travel Tips for Visiting Universal Studios Florida (and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter!)
California has long been on our list of ‘dream vacations’ to take with our kids, so recently we took advantage of a 10 day long spring break to make this dream a reality! We were excited to see how the kids reacted to a state and coastline that’s so different from where we currently live, and also to spend time with family that lives in the area. After narrowing down the range of what time would allow us to visit, we came up with our California itinerary:
- fly into San Francisco
- explore San Francisco and Sausalito
- drive down the coast (rt 1) through Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz to Monterey
- stay and explore the Monterey/ Carmel-by-the-Sea/ Big Sur area
- drive northeast and visit family in the Lincoln/ Loomis area
- drive back to San Francisco via Napa and Sonoma
- fly back to NC
This did mean quite a bit of packing and unpacking, but was well worth it when you see how much we were able to do without it feeling like a total whirlwind. We used these packing cubes, which made it so much easier.
bucket list item– In-N-Out Burger! Apparently this is called ‘Protein Style’ with no bun
One last thing before we get into it, I didn’t take my fancy DSLR camera for this trip and all photos were shot on my iPhone 6 (I’ve since upgraded to a new model!) Next time I’d plan to bring my camera to capture photos in that beautiful golden light, but I wasn’t sure at the time if I could juggle the camera and my kids. Still, these photos encompass the vibe of our vacation and prove you don’t need a high-end camera to capture beautiful memories, especially in a place that’s so naturally gorgeous.
Getting to San Francisco
Getting to San Francisco was a bit of a travel nightmare because a hail storm during a layover in Dallas meant 9 hours of delays including a cancelled flight. I’ve never seen lines that long in an airport, ever. We made the best of it though and my daughter and I got manicures at the Express Spa, ha! #makinglemonade
TRAVEL TIP: if your flight gets cancelled, immediately get on the app or the phone to the airline while you hop in line– don’t depend on rebooking at the gate unless you happen to be one of the first few people in line. Also know airports around your destination– when they cancelled our San Francisco flight we rebooked into San Jose instead. It was an hour drive up to San Francisco, but we were able to get to our hotel hours before the later SF flight would have landed. We were still awake a total of 24 hours at that point, but that’s less than if we’d had to take the later flight. Other nearby airports are Oakland and further out Sacramento.
What to Wear on a California Roadtrip
One thing I love about California is that unless you’re in LA or the ritzy parts of SoCal for the most part you can dress casually. While I love dressing up for special occasions, mostly I live in yoga pants so I’m all for casual! This was also a bonus because the airline lost my luggage and I didn’t get it until day 2, so I’ve never been so happy to have chosen a comfy travel outfit that doubled as perfect for touring and a bit of hiking.
always choose a travel outfit you can wear two days in a row in case your luggage gets lost like mine; oh, and keep some makeup and a brush in your carry-on too #lessonlearnedthehardway
Since we were in what’s considered northern California, the weather changes frequently and so it was all about layers. Honestly, I mostly packed black leggings (these Zellas are a favorite of mine), yoga pants, and tanks and long sleeved tees to go over them.
I did want a few nicer shirts for going out or if we went to wineries, so I packed this gingham blouse (does ‘In N Out Burger’ count as going out?) and some statement earrings. Jeans were also a must-have, I packed my fave pair of distressed jeans and these darker wash jeans for nicer restaurants (we didn’t eat anywhere super upscale, especially with kids, so this was perfect.)
As the Mark Twain quote goes, ‘the coldest winter I ever saw was summer in San Francisco.’ In other words, pack a jacket. While the weather was nice some of the time, we were glad to have waterproof jackets for the chillier days on the coast.
Overall, I’m happy I stuck to the three ‘Cs’– comfy, casual, and (somewhat) chic!
Where to Stay in San Francisco
I’ll admit it. I’m a hotel snob. And truly it doesn’t need to be a fancy hotel, but as a life-long insomniac I need a hotel to be clean, well-maintained and the rooms quiet. I’ve stayed at lots of high-end places but I have to say the hotel we booked, The Fairmont Hotel San Francisco, was probably my favorite and to me worth every penny. I didn’t get many photos of the interior because I was shy about it, but behold these details:
The rooftop had a gorgeous garden and spectacular views of the city.
It’s on the cable car route too, so you can take that up and down the massive hill upon which it sits. 🙂
The Fairmont is pricey but wasn’t as outrageous as I expected. Valet parking is, however, astronomical so be sure to check your options before you go. We chose to park in the garage across the street for $40 a night, a bargain apparently.
We stayed in San Francisco twice, once at the beginning of the trip to enjoy the sights and once the night before we left so we could get to the airport quicker. The night before we flew home, we stayed at TownPlace Suites in Foster City and it was super clean, convenient, and gets two thumbs up from me (the hotel snob.) Plus, it had a Panera across the parking lot so the kids said it was their favorite, ha!
What to See and Do in San Francisco with Kids
It goes without saying there’s no city like San Francisco. We enjoyed our stay and let’s just say it was eye-opening for the kids! There is so much to see and do, and it’s truly one of those gorgeous and magical cities that my kids loved and enjoyed. Also they learned what the f-bomb is and also saw a man cross the street in nothing but his underwear, but I say that’s part of growing up and navigating life and learning how to handle those situations appropriately is a life skill. #adulting
If you want incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll find them at the Marin Headlands. Parking is tough but we kept driving until we found a spot to park and hike around Hawk Hill. It was absolutely spectacular and a highlight of the trip, though I did have my heart in my throat due to the high elevations and cliffs. If you have young kids, you’ll want to keep close watch on them!
This gorgeous seaside town is located after a quick drive over the Golden Gate Bridge (or bike ride) and has gorgeous views of San Francisco across the bay. We parked and explored the area, finally enjoying a delicious lunch at Napa Valley Burger.
There’s shopping there too, including a toy store called Games People Play and a candy store (named ‘Muchies’, ahem) and my husband and I have decided our dream is to retire at the candy shop and stare out at the ocean all day. Can’t see it in this photo, but the large windows look out over the bay and it’s breathtaking.
Another side trip out of the city is Muir Woods. You’ll need to get reserved parking because they limit the number of visitors, and you can also take a shuttle. This was another highlight of the trip for my daughter, who completed all the activities in the booklet to become a Junior Ranger and proudly wore her badge the entire rest of the trip.
TIP: because the redwoods are so tall, use the panorama mode on your phone’s camera vertically to get amazing photos of the towering trees!
Golden Gate Park and Japanese Tea Garden
I visited the Japanese Tea Garden back in the Jurassic period when I was in second grade, and it stuck in my mind of one of my favorite things ever. So it was a no-brainer to bring my kids back and see what it looks like now that I’m an adult. I 100% recall going over this bridge and it’s even steeper than I remembered, which is saying something because I assumed my kid-memory mind was exaggerating the slope (nope!)
The landscape is full of waterfalls, pagodas, flowers, trees, waterscapes, and even a Tea House where you can eat and sip tea. It’s fairly small, but we loved the experience and attention to detail of the garden.
Similar to Central Park in NYC, Golden Gate Park is an oasis in the middle of the city. It also houses the California Academy of Sciences, De Young Museum, a carousel, an arboretum, and even more! There was too much to see in one day, and the weather was beautiful, so we kept it to just the Tea Garden this time.
Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39/ Sea Lions
This is an extremely touristy area of the city, but we had to visit it of course! We ate dinner at Fog City Restaurant which looks out over the bay and Alcatraz. Then we ventured onto the Pier for some shopping and of course Sea Lion viewing. They were a highlight, so funny to watch.
Our ‘awwww’ moment was watching this mama sea lion put her flipper over her baby while they snoozed.
The Ferry Building Marketplace
The Ferry Building is full of food vendors for just about every taste. We chose to eat lunch here on our last day in the city and it was a bit overwhelming with kids to be honest. However, I did find a bakery that is entirely gluten-free and had my first cinnamon roll in years. The food was delish, though my son (who’s a picky eater) had a tough time getting a non-gourmet grilled cheese, ha.
The Full House House and Painted Ladies
As a fan of Full House, my daughter wanted to see the home after which the exterior was modeled (1709 Broderick Street) but it was undergoing a renovation and therefore a disappointment. We also drove past the ‘Painted Ladies’ (Steiner St & Hayes St) and wanted to run around the park that fronts them but couldn’t find a parking spot. Ah, well. There was so much else to see and do!
Drive or Walk Down Lombard Street
Our mini driving tour also included a drive down the famous ‘world’s crookedest street’, Lombard Street. The exact address to GPS is 1070 Lombard Street. This is another attraction I remember as a child. Driving down is fun, but you don’t realize just how crazy it is until you look back up! There are long lines to drive down the street, so you can avoid those by taking a cable car to the top and walking down instead.
Take a Cable Car Ride
This was one thing on our list we didn’t get to do, unfortunately. We did try, but the cable car ahead was stuck and so they put us on the slowest moving bus in the world. 🙂 Time didn’t allow us to ride one again during this trip, so it’s on our list for next time.
Alcatraz is truly a site to see, whether you venture over by ferry to see it up close or view it from land. I’ve toured it before (even gotten a behind-the-scenes tour which was incredibly spooky and amazing) but since one of my kids tends to get spooked easily we skipped it this time. We did bring along this book which they found fascinating, so if (when?!) we go back I hope to include Alcatraz on our must-see list.
Coastal Drive from San Francisco to Carmel
Depending on traffic and how much you want to stop and explore, this can take several hours. There are lots of places to pull over and view and visit, the scenery is breathtaking! A few sights along the way:
- Half Moon Bay
- Pescadero State Beach
- Natural Bridges State Beach
- Santa Cruz Surfing Museum
- Santa Cruz Wharf & Boardwalk
- Walton Lighthouse
- Capitola (can I retire here?!)
- beaches all along the route, too many to list!
Unfortunately it was raining during our drive which put a wrench in our plans to explore all day, so we left a little later from San Francisco and got into our hotel in Monterey around dinner time.
Where to Stay in Monterey and Carmel
Hello again, remember me, the hotel snob? There’s lots of places to stay in the area but I was looking for something really special. We originally booked at The Carmel Highlands (it sits on the highlands overlooking the Pacific, incredible views!) but ultimately decided to stay somewhere we could walk to dinner, coffee, beaches, and shopping.
So I booked at the Monterey Plaza hotel, which is right down the street from the Monterey Aquarium and it fit the bill. My kids couldn’t wait to hit the beach, even in the rain, and we watched otters play just a few feet in front of us.
The weather cleared and it was sunny skies from then on out, fortunately for us!
TRAVEL TIP: I nicely asked if they had any complimentary room upgrades, and they didn’t have any 2 queen bed room upgrades in the building that goes over the ocean but she DID put me in the only room on our side of the building with a view of the water. This photo doesn’t do it justice, we enjoyed the balcony and sounds and views of the ocean all night long! The moral of the story is: it never hurts to (nicely) ask for a complimentary upgrade.
Things to Do with Kids in Monterey and Carmel
This is perhaps one of the best known aquariums in the United States (even making an appearance in the movie Finding Dory) and located on Cannery Row so we could walk to it from our hotel. The kids especially loved all the hands-on activities and the sea otters, penguins, and kelp forest exhibits. We only spent a few hours here but could certainly have spent much longer if we’d had the time.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Hands-down, this was our favorite sight-seeing activity of the entire trip! Point Lobos is a smaller nature reserve with limited parking but there is SO much to see and do. From amazing geology to tidepools to sealife (otters and sea lions), we loved every minute!
There’s a hiking trail along the coast, and it’s full of various spots to pull off and explore. We enjoyed the mile-long walk and felt we saw an incredible amount in just that small area. Each beach was unique and had it’s own treasures to discover.
Tip: parking can be limited, so the earlier you get there, the better. Also, there was poison ivy along the side of the trail so we made sure to show the kids and tried our best to stay in the middle and away from it!
Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row
This is where you’ll find tons of shopping and dining options. We didn’t spend much time here, but it’s a popular area to stroll and purchase gifts and souvenirs.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is a charming and slightly quirky town (apparently, heels above a certain height are against the law due to the cobblestones!). There’s ‘fairy tale homes’ tucked between stores, and so many places to shop and discover. We enjoyed grabbing a coffee and some treats and strolling around the stores for a bit, but it’s definitely not my husband’s favorite thing to do so after a quick trip to the ‘Cottage of Sweets’ we left to explore other places. I could have spent several more hours here, though!
The legendary 17-mile drive is a must for golf enthusiasts so they can check out Pebble Beach. It also has the iconic lone cypress and places to pull over and view wildlife and coastal vistas. Since we were able to explore Point Lobos and really get close to the ocean and scramble around the rocks, we skipped 17-Mile Drive this time. The cost is $10 to drive the road, so it’s a good option if you’re not heading down to Big Sur and want to see gorgeous scenery close-by.
Bixby Bridge and Big Sur
We didn’t get to fully drive down to Big Sur, just to the very northern start of it, but I wanted my kids to drive over the legendary Bixby Bridge and at least see a little of the area since there’s truly nowhere on the east coast like it. There’s several small areas to park around the bridge for photos, but we were in a post-lunch haze with a bit of jetlag so we opted to stay in the car.
One of the hidden gems in the area is the Rocky Point Restaurant, located south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Yes, that’s the actual view out the window. They also have seating on their deck which is amazing as well, but we needed a break from the sun after hiking that morning in Point Lobos. The kids found things they loved on the menu and we enjoyed delicious food with stunning views!
this is through the window during lunch!
Exploring the Lincoln and Loomis Area
The second half of our trip was spent visiting our beloved family in the Lincoln/Loomis area. This is northeast of San Francisco, and another gem we wouldn’t have known about if we didn’t have family in the area. In a way, it reminded me of where we live here in North Carolina– it’s located not far from the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other, so truly a nice place to live and retire. While it’s probably not going to be on your itinerary, I wanted to share about it in case you happen to be in that area or heading out to Tahoe.
I was under the weather a bit when we arrived (I had laryngitis), so we had to skip our trip to the Seven-Up Ranch in Fair Play which was sad. But it gives us something new to see the next time we go. And Tahoe is close by as well, another place we’d love to explore.
We did sneak off to a winery, where we enjoyed a bottle of bubbly outside looking over the grape vines. It was one of my happiest and most relaxing memories!
If you’re in the area, High-Hand Nursery is a special place to visit. They have a cafe, nursery, and several gift shops to enjoy. Abby found a vintage book she wanted, and we purchased a few things to tuck into my aunt’s fairy garden back at her house. I had to resist the urge to buy all the succulents and lemon and olive trees… California has the BEST plants, I’m so envious!
Napa and Sonoma (with Kids?!)
Admittedly, we didn’t spend much time in Napa and Sonoma on this trip because the kids were with us. We did, however, take the scenic route through the area on our way back to San Francisco from Loomis and I’m so happy we did! The views were beautiful and you can see why this area is so special. These photos were taken from a moving car, I couldn’t stop snapping pics, everything was so pretty and of course these blurry shots don’t do it justice at all.
While driving through, we stopped at Oxbow Market in Napa for lunch. It’s similar to the Ferry Building but smaller, lots of vendors and shops serving food, drinks, and things related to that. It’s overwhelming with kids but they got pizza (Abby’s had vegan cheese since she can’t have dairy, gotta love California!) and I got fish tacos. It was all delicious.
Tips for Traveling with Kids
Taking a roadtrip with kiddos is a unique experience every time, and obviously varies greatly by age level. We’ve taken long roadtrips since they were infants so they’re used to long stretches in the car. Sometimes we allow screentime, but for this trip we really tried to limit it since the scenery was so spectacular. Here’s a few ways we passed the time in the car:
- kid friendly podcasts (WOW in the World is great)
- audiobooks (the Harry Potter series is a favorite, Jim Dale is an incredible narrator!)
- Wikki Stix (mess-free!)
- taking photos with the iPad or iPod
- listening to music (when they were younger Kids Bop but now they love the Hamilton soundtrack even though some words are a tad bit inappropriate… it’s worth it for the history lesson!)
- books– they seem to be able to do this without getting carsick, but it’s a gamble if you’re not sure!!
- mess-free activity books
One thing I’m strict about is behavior in restaurants, so they’ve grown up with the expectation they’ll behave when we’re eating out. Every family needs to do what’s right for them, but for us, most of the time we don’t allow screens at the table because we want to encourage conversation, finding fun ways to pass the time, and being present.
TIP: We try to always have a deck of card on hand for this purpose, and if we forget usually gift shops will have them for about $5 and you have an inexpensive souvenir of the trip.
Oxbow Market in Napa had a bookstore, and my son bought the latest version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and we’re totally okay with that. Plus, it gave time for my husband and I to talk while the kids enjoyed the book.
We’ve already made our wishlist of places to see the next time we visit: Tahoe. Yosemite. Monterey/Carmel again. Big Sur and the Hearst Castle. Santa Barbara. LA/ Disneyland/ Universal Hollywood. San Diego. I could go on and on.
California dreaming is an understatement!
Apparently we left our hearts in California.
Guess we’ll just have to go back soon and get ’em.
Have you visited northern California or have any ideas for our next California roadtrip? Any hidden gems that we missed?