I recently made the extremely difficult decision to move from Seattle back to my hometown of San Diego, leaving behind my loved ones and the life I had built in Washington. However, this choice came with a new realization—that I could take this opportunity to explore the West Coast like I never had before. Living on the West Coast my entire life, I had already been to many of the spots that I planned to revisit on my roadtrip, but I felt that my experiences and understanding of these places have changed since entering adulthood. I was excited to see Crater Lake, a National Park I visited as a child, with fresh eyes, and couldn’t wait to cruise the coast of Big Sur, a place I was sure had been hyped way out of proportion. For me, this trip was a way to let go of Seattle and become excited about the unknown opportunities that lie ahead. While your current life choices may not immediately urge you south on the California coast, I recommend a stop in some or all of these cities and landmarks at some point in your life.
While living in Seattle, I made the trek to Portland many times; however, this time I was going through Portland as a gateway to the rest of my journey. After a three-hour drive, the city is the perfect place to make a stop for coffee, stretch your legs and switch drivers before making your way towards Bend. One of my favorite places for snacks and coffee is Milk Glass Mrkt (2150 N Killingsworth St). The beautiful space is artfully arranged, and has a mercantile vibe. There’s no espresso to be found (yeah, I know), but it’s worth the stop for their delicious pastries and biscuits. Snacks range from buttermilk biscuits with sheep’s milk cheese and tomato marmalade to fig and anise bread pudding with blackberry jam and mascarpone.
Everything about this quiet college town is quaint and beautiful. On the night that we stopped in, the sidewalks were packed with people headed to dinner, drinks or the theater. My top pick for dinner in Bend, whether you’re starving or just searching for a quick bite, has to be Drake (801 NW Wall Street). Located in the downtown heart of Bend, Drake features a “tradition-with-a-twist” take on classic and nostalgic flavors. The comfortable environment is perfect for locals who want to sit back and take in the game, but still has a modern and elevated edge. If you’re stopping by Drake for dinner, I’d highly recommend the Heirloom Tomato Toast. This scrumptious appetizer features thick, artisan bread layered with whipped goat cheese, smoked olive oil, Jacobsen sea salt and, of course, the freshest heirloom tomatoes you can find.
Crater Lake National Park
From Bend, Crater Lake National Park is about a two-hour drive through the Deschutes National Forest. As the lake rises into view, it is easy to understand why it became a National Park in 1902; the juxtaposition of icy blue waters beneath the sheer rocks walls is a beautiful shock to the system, and the geological, historical and spiritual significance of the site makes it that much more enticing to explore. Crater Lake was formed over 7,000 years ago when a volcano exploded, creating a crater and sending shock waves across North America. Since then, Crater Lake has a been a favorite spot for travelers and naturalists. Summer is the most popular time to explore, as many of roads and trails are closed during winter, but the snow covered hills make for an even more breathtaking sight. After cruising the rim and checking out the view from the various viewpoints, be sure to grab a hot chocolate or adult beverage from the Crater Lake Lodge (1211 Ave C, White City)—a long-time favorite, currently celebrating its 100th anniversary. (It’s only open May through mid-October, so plan accordingly.)
San Francisco, California
This city by the bay has so much to offer that it is hard to choose just a few options. Everyone’s guide will be different, and many have been written, but take my word for it: whether you’re stopping for a day, or staying for a few, be sure to make a visit to the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr) a priority. Located in Golden Gate Park, the de Young Museum opened in 1895 and shares a collection with Legion of Honor (100 34th Ave), another fine arts museum located in the San Francisco area.
When visiting the de Young Museum, make your first stop the Hamon Tower and take in the amazing 360 degree view of San Francisco. After soaking in the cityscape, move on to the art galleries, which include an American art collection of over 1,000 paintings, 800 sculptures and 3,000 decorative art objects. In March 2016, the de Young Museum will open a special exhibition celebrating the life and designs of Oscar de la Renta, and in July 2016, Ed Ruscha and the Great American West will go on display. Both these special exhibitions will surely not disappoint.
After exhausting yourself with a wander through the museum, head down to The Mill (736 Divisadero Street), a local coffee shop that has become “Insta-famous” for its shop design and decadent breads. The Mill is a joint venture between Four Barrel Coffee and Josey Baker Bread, two companies synonymous with artisanal deliciousness in the Bay Area. The interior space is beautifully crafted and engulfed with light—unique, asymmetrical bookshelves filled with hand thrown mugs take up the entirety of the left side of the space. Loaves of bread sit beside a record player spinning cool tunes. If you can pull yourself away from all of this, take your coffee up the hill to Alamo Square, just a block away. This picturesque park has gorgeous views of the city and of the famous “Painted Ladies.” San Francisco really has so much to offer, but it is a city that is easy to explore on your own, without dictates, on foot or by car.
Big Sur, California
As I said earlier, I was sure Big Sur’s beauty had to have been blown out of proportion—but in fact, all the hype I had heard about this rugged stretch of the Central Coast was entirely accurate. When leaving San Francisco you have a few options in terms of routes; I decided to take Highway 1 for the entirety of the coast, instead of the 101. Although your cruising speed is slightly slower, the scenery is amazing and the one-lane highway makes it simple (no chance of getting lost here!). The drive from San Francisco to the beginning of Big Sur is about three hours, but it seems to pass much more quickly given the gorgeous coastline views. Cell phone reception is notoriously spotty along Highway 1, so be prepared to go “off-the-grid.” Do not fear though, the region is incredibly simple to navigate. You can easily pull off at various lookout points and turn-offs to snap a few pictures or take in the breathtaking seas as they crash against the rocks below.
The icy water was like nothing I had ever seen before, filled with a million shades of blue and green. Big Sur has long been the muse of many authors, poets and artists—most famously Jack Kerouac, who penned the novel Big Sur. Looking down at the crashing waves, it is easy to see why; the jagged cliffs abruptly ending in the Pacific Ocean are one of the most unique landscapes on the West Coast.
You will surely work up quite an appetite after cruising the winding coast. Pull off for a delicious lunch at Nepenthe (48510 Highway One), long known for its relaxed atmosphere, exceptional food and incredible views. Open since 1949, Nepenthe has been a staple for Big Sur visitors for many years. If you are looking for a quicker (and more cost-efficient option), visit their bistro, Café Kevah—located just below, with the same spectacular views and a similar but simpler menu. After lunch, hit the road again and finish up the remainder of Big Sur. Trust me—there’s more beauty to come.
San Luis Obispo, California
San Luis Obispo city is located about two hours south of Big Sur and is the seat of San Luis Obispo County, known for its agriculture and barbecue. It’s a quiet but vibrant college town, home of California Polytechnic State University and Cuesta, and set among rolling hills that offer scenic hikes. If you’re feeling up for it after the drive, head to to Mount Bishop. The climb is steep, but the 360 degree view is worth it.
After your hike, fuel up with a stop at Mo’s BBQ (1005 Monterey Street). This eccentric, local favorite has some of the best barbecue sauces around—and lots to choose from. If you’re looking for a slower pace, visit Scout Coffee Co. (1130 Garden Street). This cafe occupies an historic building, but it is relatively new to the neighborhood. The atmosphere crafted by owners Jon and Sara Peterson is welcoming and energetic, and has quickly become a local favorite. My favorite aspect has to be the windows framing a wall of ferns. The coffee is beyond smooth and the pastries are delicious—try one of their cookies! Scout Coffee is a must-stop in San Luis Obispo, even if you aren’t a coffee drinker, as they have delicious shakes as well. Grab a treat and head towards Pismo Beach for a walk or a drive. This state beach is one of the few in California where cars are permitted. It extends over four miles, with dunes running along the rear.
If your travels bring you to San Luis Obispo on a Thursday night (between 6 PM to 9 PM), don’t miss out on the weekly Downtown Farmers’ Market—known as one of the greatest weekly events in California. Over 120 vendors participate and provide goods and grub ranging from ribs, sausage, “ramen” burgers, flowers, fresh produce and other treats. The Farmers’ Market is described as an event that “brings the community together to shop for fresh produce, sample San Luis Obispo’s delectable and varied cuisine, browse local shops, listen to live music and interact with local entertainers.” With so many options, and so much to explore, you’ll surely want to stay more than just one day. (I stayed four.)
Los Angeles, California
Growing up in San Diego, I’d visited Los Angeles many of times. But in recent years, Los Angeles has undergone an enormous period of growth and change—transforming it into one of the “trendiest” cities in our nation today. As I wandered Venice, I felt as though there was a cactus (or succulent) on every block and a fresh, new cafe on every corner. This repetition of the same vibe can be dispiriting in some respects, but I felt inspired by the crowd and the many twists that each restaurant, store and coffeeshop put on these trends.
The first stop I made was to Abbott Kinney Drive to wander around and window shop. This street takes about two hours to fully peruse but it’s worth it, as it has so much to offer. Storefronts for established brands (such as rag & bone) sit alongside less familiar ones, such as Illesteva (1329 Abbot Kinney Blvd) and Flannel (1223 Abbot Kinney Blvd), the first storefront for this brand outside of its home country, Australia.
After cruising the streets of Venice Beach, head inland towards Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd), where you will be welcomed by Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation. In the next months LACMA will present Random International’s famous Rain Room (November 1-March 6, 2016), an immersive installation that streams water downward from spouts that pause when an object is detected underneath, allowing one to walk through the shower without getting wet. In March 2016, LACMA will exhibit Robert Mapplethorpe—a show that “explores Mapplethorpe’s body of work through early drawings, collages, sculptures, and Polaroid photography.”
After a long day of shopping and strolling through the galleries of LACMA, treat yourself to a unique sweet at HONEYMEE (3377 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 116), located just a few blocks east of the museum. Savor smooth and thick vanilla soft serve drizzled in delicious, sticky honey (or topped with a piece of honeycomb). Apparently, honey increases antioxidant levels, promotes digestive health and has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. There’s nothing to feel guilty about when indulging in this sweet treat, right?
San Diego, California
It is hard for me to pick just a few things to say about my hometown. With nearly perfect weather and laid-back residents, it is easy to see why the city has been lovingly nicknamed “America’s finest city” for over forty years. Whether you’re staying for a few days or just one, make sure to hit at least a couple of these great spots.
Located in “North County,” about thirty minutes north of downtown San Diego, be sure to stop in the adjacent beach cities Encinitas and Leucadia, which seem to flow seamlessly into one another. Follow Coast Highway 101 to take in all the sights. After your long drive, grab a cup of coffee at Pannikin Coffee and Tea (510 N. Coast Highway 101), located in the renovated and historic Santa Fe Railroad Station. Continue cruising down the coast and stop in at Home (629 S. Coast Highway 101), a fantastic thrift store, and UNIV (1053 S. Coast Highway 101), a great spot for men’s apparel. If you’re looking to check out emerging and local brands in San Diego, don’t forget to check out Swenyo (1053 S. Coast Highway). This company is doing new and innovative things for San Diego and the furniture design world. Even if you’re not looking to update your space, it is worth a stop into their showroom.
Make a pit stop at Grandview or Moonlight Beach before heading south towards the city of San Diego. Another top spot to hit is, of course, Balboa Park, which includes the “World Famous” San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr). The San Diego Zoo truly is fantastic, with sprawling and lush environments for the animals. One incredibly special highlight to see is the exhibit of Giant Pandas, on a long-term loan from China. The San Diego Zoo is one of four zoos in the United States to have giant pandas on display, and has been most successful in their breeding efforts.
Originally developed as a park in 1915 in preparation for the Panama-California Exposition, Balboa Park has much more to offer than just the zoo. It houses sixteen different museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum and the Air and Space Museum. Other popular attractions within Balboa Park include the Old Globe Theatre, Organ Pavilion, Japanese Friendship Garden, Botanical Building and Reflection Pond.
After wandering through Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, head towards North Park—a neighborhood that in recent years has gone through a revival. The main thoroughfare, University Avenue, is lined with cute shops and restaurants to peek your head into. My recommendation for a tasty lunch (or dinner) is Underbelly (3000 Upas St). Underbelly is a walk-up-and-order ramen house in an open-air, industrial style space, offering ramen and yakitori, dumplings and buns. A second location in Little Italy (750 W Fir St) is considerably smaller but just as delicious.
After you’re good and full, walk up 30th Street, where you will come across Pigment (3801 30th St). Known for its lush array of succulents and colorful display of products, Pigment is the perfect place to pick up a gift for your loved ones: a small piece of jewelry, a sweet treat or a terrarium. The space is beautifully designed and changes frequently, with multiple spaces to peruse.
There are many other worthy stops along University Ave and throughout North Park, but another I recommend is Gym Standard (2903 El Cajon Blvd). Gym Standard features “footwear and everyday design goods” in a space that begs you to stay a while. The carefully curated store is ultra-trendy (in the best way) and you’ll leave feeling inspired.
San Diego’s arts and culture communities are growing and expanding, and these local favorites are just a snippet of all the city has to offer. I miss Seattle, but it’s good to be back.