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Hi ! I intend traveling around Jun 15th to California for appx 10 days. This is our first trip to the west coast and would like to plan an itinerary from LA to San Francisco or SF to LA. Please suggest places were one should stay and the area. For E.g SF, Hotels in the centre are too expensive, Can one stay a little further away and still enjoy the city ? Suggestions for day trips from SF ? Or if its a must to stay in one of the scenic locations outside the city ? Are 3 to 4 days enough to do things around SF ? As we will be hiring a car we can be quite mobile. Can we add a little adventure to this trip ? Is it worth going to lake Tahoe ? Once we complete the north part we would be driving down south and can stop at places which could be suggested on this forum. Is Santa Babara worth staying or should one do a day trip from LA. We would end our trip in LA where we can spend another 3 days. Should one stay in San Diego for a night or do a day trip from LA ? Would really appreciate if someone could help me plan this trip.

For e.g

Should SF be the base and travel around. Please suggest place or adjoining town with good connection to SF centre. I have a budget of USD 150 per night
Day 1 Take a city tour on the tram / cable car
Day 2 A day trip to Red Woods and then to Nappa ( should one stay overnight in Nappa ? )
Day 3 Visiting Google Campus with a friend who works there. Should be half a day trip from SF. Come back to the city or visit smaller place on the outskirts of SF ? Please suggest
Day 4 A day trip to Carmel ( Should one stay over night and then push off towards LA ? )
Day 5 Drive towards LA and then to Santa Barbara


Posted by
1463 posts

My first suggestion is not to refer to San Francisco as "Frisco"! I'm told the locals aren't fond of that epithet.

California is chock full of scenic places and cities with a lot to see, and ten days isn't much time to see it all. Distances are long, and traffic is notoriously bad around the major cities, especially Los Angeles. So I'm afraid there is no right or wrong answer to your questions. You could spend ten days just in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. Or you could rush and try to see more.

Personally, if I only had ten days, I'd limit myself to the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are many beautiful things to see in between, so maybe 3-4 days in San Francisco, 2-3 days for a leisurely drive down Hwy 1 with lots of stops and a few overnights, and then 3-4 days in LA.

Posted by
3336 posts

Hi Bhuvan -

You can easily do this trip in 10 days! Fly into San Francisco (don't call is Frisco when you're there - the locals HATE it put that way!) and then out of San Diego.

Here's how I would do it...
San Francisco - 4 days...3 in the city and 1 driving north to see the Redwoods (either Muir Woods or Armstrong Grove, further north, or go to Napa Valley for the wineries). Don't rent a car for the first 3 days in San Francisco if you are staying in the will be expensive to park and you don't need it. Great public transport system. Rent a car for the 4th day and then return it in San Diego.
Drive to Santa Barbara - spend the night in Santa Barbara. I would recommend taking one day to drive via Big Sur along highway 1.
Drive to Los Angeles via highway 1 through Malibu - spend 3 days in Los Angeles.
Drive to San Diego - 1 or 2 nights there.

About Lake Tahoe - it will take at least 4 hours to drive there from San Francisco and for a 10 day trip you really don't have enough time. It's beautiful but not worth the VERY long, tiring day it would be to drive there.
You can do San Diego as a day trip from the LA area but again, VERY long day trip.
Yes, San Francisco is very expensive to stay in. Try for cheaper options or stay just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County in Mill Valley or Corte Madera. You'll deal with the commuter traffic going into the city but you'll get to drive over the bridge every day. If you choose this option you'll have to deal with driving into the city and parking the car...not easy or cheap. You could also stay in the east bay in Berkley or Oakland and ride BART into San Francisco every day.
Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles - there are many wonderful places to stop along the way. If you drive down highway 1 through Big Sur there are beautiful views, secluded beaches, and restaurants. Monterey and Carmel are on the way. Past Big Sur you can stop at Hearst Castle for a tour, visit the quaint town of Cambria, or stop off in San Luis Obispo (if you're there on a Thursday they have a great farmer's market in the evening - original California mission in the center of town). Of course, Santa Barbara is not to be missed...gorgeous mission there as well!

Let me know if you have any specific questions - I've lived in California all my life, both in the north and the south, and will try to be as helpful as I can be!

Posted by
4 posts

Hi Lane. Thank you for such a prompt reply. So I was thinking if we could take one step at a time and first plan San Francisco. Which places would u recommend in and around ? Whether to stay in the city or on the outskirts, as SF city is super expensive ? Keep one place as the base and then do day trips or should also stay overnight at a very scenic location ? Its 2 of us and my 15 yr old son.

Posted by
247 posts

OK, first realize that CA is physically a rather large state and it has a huge variety and number of "must see" locations and activities. This means you cannot count on easily seeing even a small fraction of what CA has to offer in 10 days, especially if you must drive from SF to LA (unless the numerous sights along Highway 1 and the drive itself are a major attraction to you - which it could be). I'm sure many others will add their opinions for specific activities and sights, so I will simply say that IMO you would be better off to fly into either LA or SF and spend your 10 days in one metro area, with side trips to nearby attractions. For example: fly into SF, spend 4 days getting acquainted with that city and then in the rest of your time take side trips to Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, etc. Or a similar plan for flying into LA. If you proceed as you plan, I'm afraid you are putting yourself in for a long slog of driving with a blur of actual activities. Do yourself a favor, contact the SF Convention & Visitors Bureau or the LA equivalent or see their websites. Look at all that is offered in one those areas. Pick from those in the one area that most interests you. Plan on returning to the other metro area on your next trip. Best wishes.

Posted by
1556 posts

It is 381 miles from LA city limits to SF city limits. Driving north from LA to San Francisco on HWY 101 you could stop off in Santa Barbara for 1-2 days? A few miles north of Santa Barbara on and off Hwy 154 is the wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley. It is about an hours drive. Once you leave Santa Barbara, you can travel north on the 101 to San Luis Obispo and take the Pacific Coast HWY (PCH) AKA, Hwy 1 toward Cambria and San Simeon (Hearst Castle, you need reservations) to San Francisco with stops or staying a day in Carmel, Monterey or stay in Big Sur or keep heading to SF. There are many State Parks on HWY 1 that are beautiful to stop and take a hike or a short walk to see waterfalls or the beautiful coastal areas. The road is a two lane, narrow, winding road with spectacular views.
I like to stay near Union Square in San Francisco because I fly in and take the train from the airport. Check online hotel booking sites to get an idea of the hotels in that area or Nob Hill, Mission district, or Warf area, etc,. There are a lot. Most will charge for parking. Some motels have free parking but you will not find a motel in the Union Square Area. From San Francisco you can drive to Napa and or Sonoma for wine tours, tastings and art.

You can take the ferry to Sausalito for a day. You could drive to the Muir Woods and see the redwoods.
I don't think you have enough time to do San Diego and Tahoe if you spend any time getting to SF the way I just outlined.

If you don't care about HWY 1 and want to get to SF fast, you can take 101 all the way or Interstate 5. Interstate 5 is not scenic..
How many days are you planning on staying in LA? Once you have in mind what you might want to see, I can get pretty specific.
Not sure what you like to do, how much you want to spend on hotels, etc. San Francisco is known for being very chilly in June so bring a jacket.
It is 130 miles from LA to San Diego. LA to Santa Barbara is 98 miles. Santa Barbara to San Simeon is 127 miles.
San Simeon to San Francisco via Monterey is 212 miles, more if you add Carmel. Both are beautiful. I like Carmel better.
San Francisco to Napa is 70 miles. San Francisco to North Shore Lake Tahoe is 200 miles.
Look at a few maps, check some sites and hotels out online to get a better idea as to distances and places that you really want to see and you will get a lot of ideas from people on this forum.

Posted by
1878 posts

Definitely get on Google Maps and look at driving times. San Francisco is worth about three or four full days. LA as it's generally used is shorthand for a big chunk of Southern California. Hollywood is some distance from Orange County (Disneyland). For me the sights of interest in Southern California would be the great amusement parks, Getty Museum, and LA proper I think has some really good art museums. Maybe some beach sights—Santa Monica, Venice?—I have no clue about those. San Diego area is great for the zoo. Traffic is notoriously bad around LA proper, but I have always found Orange Country is not nearly as bad. Going up to Universal Studios which is on the far side of LA from Orange County, we got stuck in a big traffic jam. I went to some TV show tapings many years back and it's pretty fun especially if you know the shows. I saw a Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the early 90s. My general sense is that the whole Hollywood Walk of Fame / Beverly Hills tours would be disappointing, but I am sure some people really like that.

As someone who has lived my whole life in the S.F. Bay Area, I have to agree with the others—avoid saying Frisco at all costs. San Francisco (and any place in the Bay Area) is crazy expensive for hotel rooms, no doubt about it. You could look into an Air B&B in Redwood City, but you are looking at close to an hour train ride to get to the City. (We are doing a remodel at our house and actually slept on a sailboat for a few nights last week through Air B&B. Even that was $200 per night!).

Lake Tahoe—wonderful but way too much for this trip. Wine Country (Napa, Sonoma) is a nice visit but on weekends and at rush hours, certain areas can have major traffic jams, generally out of proportion to the enjoyment provided by the area.

Posted by
4 posts

Hi Anita. T

Thanks for your reply, Very helpful. Please help me plan the first leg of our trip which is SF. Please correct / suggest if the following itinerary look ok.

Day 1 stay in SF or adjoining area and do the city tour (Tram / Cable car ) for half a day, so its like been there done that kind of a thing since it is the first trip. If possible please suggest a town / area with good public transport connection to SF centre so that i can park my car there and then the bus or train ride to the city.
Day 2 do a day trip to Red woods and Napa ( Is it on the way and can this be a day trip or one has to stay overnight ? )
Day 3 Will visit Google campus as i know someone who can get me in. This will be half day trip and then get back to the city or drive around other smaller towns on the outskirts of SF
Day 4 a day trip to Carmel by the Bay / Beach ?
Day 5 we leave to go towards LA

Please suggest.

Posted by
5697 posts

Point one (as has been said before) "Frisco" is a town in Texas -- San Francisco is in Northern California (and not "San Fran" either, as one of the new Giants players learned.)
Assuming a car, are you interested in wine tasting in Napa/Sonoma (1-2 hours north) ? Seeing the 60's still alive in Berkeley? Driving the winding road along Highway 1 (going south you are on the side next to steep cliff dropoffs) ?
Downtown SF hotels can be mega-expensive (and come with costly parking charges) Staying across the Bay in Oakland if you are on a BART (transit) line can get you into the center of SF in about 20 minutes, and you can then walk or take public transit to many places.
And in the LA area, what do you want to see ? Disneyland? Beaches? Hollywood stars footprints? The drive from SF can be done in 5 hours on unbeautful Interstate 5, or longer on more scenic routes along the coast. Along 101 you will pass through Santa Barbara on your way, if that's a preference. If you want to look at Catmel, it's probably most efficient seeing it along the way rather than as a round-trip from SF. Don't expect public transit in LA.

There's a lot to see in California. More than you can do in 10 days. Enjoy your planning! (But note that it is your planning -- if you want someone else to choose for you, consider a travel agent.)

Posted by
4 posts

Thanks Bobbing & Diane.

Please help me plan my itinerary Day Wise, with specific driving distances / time, day trip or overnight stay, Which area to stay with a budget of usd 150 per night, Routes , Places to eat, and places to see.

I know this is a bit too much to ask, would be very thankful.

Posted by
533 posts

Hi Bhuvan,

When I was planning a trip to California last year, I got a (paper) copy of this California Vacation Guide:

It's produced by the California Travel & Tourism Commission, so it's not really an unbiased source of information, but I still found it to have a lot of helpful information about what's where, and what kind of things I'd like to see. A good guidebook would be better, but the Vacation Guide is free.

They also sent me a copy of this booklet of ideas for road trips:

Although I wasn't planning a road trip (I was just spending a few days in Los Angeles and a few days in San Diego, and making the trip between them by train), I still thought it was fun to read. There's a chart at the beginning with driving distances between various places that you might find helpful.

Posted by
6869 posts

Don't expect public transit in LA.

That's not technically true - they've invested tons of money in transit and they have a new metro. Although as a tourist, it is more efficient to travel with a rental car if you are picking one at the airport already.

Posted by
3110 posts

Since your budget is so tight I'm going to mention some free and not to miss things in the area you've listed I think a family of 3 would enjoy (15 year old boy).

San Francisco 4 nights: use Airbnb and try to stay in an area near Golden Gate Park/Haight OR stay in the East Bay and take BART into the city. Take the excellent buses to the Golden Gate Bridge and walk across and back-- great views in the right weather.

Walk or bicycle through GG Park.

Walk the downtown area and wander through the Embarcadero, China Town, Pier 39, Coit tower and climb to the top for great views.

Spend your half day with a friend at Google.

Monterey 1 night: Rent a car and drive south on highway 1 to Monterey. A do not miss highlight here is the Aquarium (budget for this).

Cambria 1 night:
Drive down highway 1 and stop to see the elephant seals on the beach at Piedras Blancos--free. Spend the night in Cambria. On the drive to Santa Barbara the next day drive on highway 154 and stop at a western town Santa Ynez, Cold Springs Tavern a former stagecoach stop, or one of the 100+ wineries in the valley.

Santa Barbara 1 night: Enjoy the great beaches, parks, mission, State Street people watching and views from the historic courthouse tower, all free.

Los Angeles 3 nights: our out of town visitors all want to see the Hollywood sign and Walk of Fame-- free. Sometime they want to go to Venice Beach or Santa Monica--free.

If any of you like architecture and movies you can take a downtown walking tour (download a map) that includes Union Station, Olvera St., Gehry/Disney concert hall, LA city hall, Grand Park, etc. When I'm in downtown LA I often times see a movie being shot somewhere or a building that reminds me of a movie or tv show--free. Visit the Getty Museum, free but with $10 parking.

EDIT: A day in LA that our family enjoys is a trip to the LA County Art Museum (LACMA) or the La Brea Tar Pits-- they are next door to each other-- followed by a meal at the many food booths at the historic Farmer's Market and a little bit of shopping at the adjacent Grove outdoor shopping mall.

If your teen wants to go to a theme park in the area, Universal Studios or Disneyland both have new features this summer but both are very expensive so plan accordingly.

I don't know if your $150 budget is for lodging only or everything per day but no matter which it will be a challenge. But with advance reservations for lodging and inexpensive sightseeing/memory making along the way you could have a wonderful vacation.

TIP: if you can come a week earlier to California less people will be traveling because the majority of schools don't get out for the summer until the 2nd week of June. City hotels are often cheaper on weekends when less business travelers are in town. Coastal hotels are often cheaper during the week when more people are working. Theme parks are always crowded no matter what day you go.

Posted by
1556 posts

I would get a guide book and read it for the places you want to see. Look for motels with free parking in SF. I would stay there 4 days to do day trips and touring then head south toward Santa Barbara on HWY 1. The views going south are nicer in my opinion.
Stop in Monterey and or Carmel or San Simeon for Hearst Castle for a day if you want then head to Santa Barbara and LA.
I don't think the metro is going to be much help for your stay in LA as it is not extensive enough. Parking is much easier to find in LA than SF. Just remember, it can be very cool along the coast so bring a light jacket.


Posted by
533 posts

The metro in LA doesn't come close to covering the whole city, but the buses do. Depending on where exactly you're going and how much of a hurry you're in, they could be a good option. Personally, I found LA's public transportation to be nowhere near as dire as I'd been led to believe.

Posted by
1000 posts

As a tourist to California, here's my two cents. I've been to SF many times (my company's headquarters is there), and to LA and San Diego once each. I'd enjoy SF and environs for 5 days, then take the scenic drive to San Diego for the second half and skip LA. There was nothing for me in LA that came close to the other two cities and the areas around them.

Posted by
6869 posts

I have to respectfully disagree with the prior poster, especially based on a sample of one visit. Skipping Los Angeles on a trip to CA would be a big mistake as it has a huge influence on the Southern California culture, as well as being the largest and most diverse county with > 10 million people and an incredible variety of things to do and neighborhoods to visit (that's why there are entire travel books devoted just to LA and adjacent areas/neighborhoods). While many people have a preference for certain cities like San Francisco and San Diego (and indeed there is an unproductive rivalry between Northern and Southern California and no lack of "haters" of LA that love to bash it), each of these cities are all very different and very much worth experiencing. Yes, the traffic is going to stink but no way I would skip some of the sites - beaches, Santa Monica, Venice, museums, markets, ethnic restaurants and neighborhoods, too much to mention. As a caveat, I am biased as having lived there for over 20 years. The diversity in the area is unbeatable (ethnic, ecology/landscape, attractions) and that's what makes it an interesting place to visit. The hard part is to narrow down a few sites given a very short trip. My favorite sites include The Huntington Library and Gardens and the Getty Museums and the Wilshire District/Museum Mile, among others.

I would also recommend visiting at least one of the California Missions set up by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. They are truly a window into old California. I liked the Carmel Mission and San Juan Capistrano Mission the best, although there are 21 in total spread throughout the state (south to north).

Posted by
1804 posts

For $150 a night you would need to go further out into the suburbs to get a hotel with parking, but you really want to make sure you are close enough to either BART or a Caltrain station so you can get in and out of the city via public transit and avoid the parking costs and the traffic. $150 a night will not get you into one of the motels with parking in downtown San Francisco. It most definitely won't get you a hotel room in some of the neighborhoods mentioned by others (Union Square, Nob Hill, Mission District) unless said hotel is a total dump.

If you are willing to consider a private room in an AirBnb rental in some of the neighborhoods that are further away from the center (you won't get the whole apartment to yourself at that price), you can probably get something around $150. When I did a search on Airbnb for a recent week long trip I took to San Francisco, it was around $175-$200/night for a very small private room (shared bathroom) for places like the Mission District and Nob Hill and a couple places in the Castro. $150/night was similar but for rooms in Outer Richmond, Sunset, Dog Patch and parts of Potrero Hill that bordered closer to Dog Patch. Outer Richmond is not a bad part of the city. It's residential with much easier chance at getting parking, but still has enough small stores and restaurants. You can take public transit (buses) into the more touristy parts of SF, but it's just that it takes a really long time (about 45 mins to an hour) with all the stops if you want to get to the core downtown area. I did not stay out there, but did take public transit to get to Land's End and the Legion of Honor. I would not recommend staying near Haight-Ashbury. It's ok to take a few hours to walk around there, but it's not all happy stoners strumming guitars or playing drums on the sidewalks for spare change. The area also tends to attract a lot of young meth heads who loiter in that part and aggressively panhandle and it's nothing I'd want to have to walk past all the time.

I definitely disagree with skipping LA. LA and SF are very different from each other, but equally terrific for someone who wants to experience some of California. But again, it's not a cheap city to find lodging. Not sure if you would consider trying to get a private room in a hostel, but it may be something you want to look into for both LA and SF. As you are doing a 10 day trip, the hostel could also help you save some money since you would have access to a kitchen to make a few basic meals for yourself and you'd be able to pack lighter and use their laundry rooms to wash your clothes. I stayed in LA without a car and took public transit around (both subway and bus system), so it can be done, but it does take longer and it limits what sightseeing opportunities you have.

Posted by
533 posts

There's a lot to hate about LA, but there's a lot to like as well, and for a city as large as it is, there's something for every taste, I think. I really enjoyed its food culture (including three of the tastiest restaurant meals I've ever had, none of them over $20), heading out to Santa Monica for a morning, and then to the Getty Center for the afternoon.

I can recommend this as a pleasant, comfortable place to stay for under $150: The catch is that they have just the two rooms, and if they're both booked for the nights you want to stay, you're out of luck.

Posted by
6869 posts

Try for hotels - they heavily discount unsold rooms in primarily business type (and some boutique) hotels and you can get really lucky sometimes. I've used it throughout the US in some expensive cities and have been happy with the results (the main downsides is you have to prepay and it's nonrefundable, so your plans have to be set ahead of time).

Posted by
3336 posts

Hi again Bhuvan -

Day 1 stay in SF or adjoining area and do the city tour (Tram / Cable car ) for half a day, so its like been there done that kind of a thing since it is the first trip. If possible please suggest a town / area with good public transport connection to SF centre so that i can park my car there and then the bus or train ride to the city.
- This sounds like a good day - if you want to have a car then I would stay in either Oakland or Berkeley and ride BART into San Francisco. It's a metro system that goes from the towns in the east bay and into parts of San Francisco. Once there you can use the bus and tram system to navigate the city. Here is the link to the San Francisco Muni system.

Day 2 do a day trip to Red woods and Napa ( Is it on the way and can this be a day trip or one has to stay overnight ? )
- It would be difficult to do both of these in a single day. My suggestion would be to visit Armstrong Grove which is in the town of Gueneville in Sonoma County - it's very uncrowded compared to some of the groves closer to San Francisco but just as grand. While there you are very close to the Russian River Valley which, in my opinion, is much better than the Napa Valley for wine tasting. There are many wineries with tasting rooms that are family owned and beautiful. Many of the wineries in Napa are now corporate owned and very over rated in my opinion.

Day 3 Will visit Google campus as i know someone who can get me in. This will be half day trip and then get back to the city or drive around other smaller towns on the outskirts of SF.
- Lucky! This will be a great day!

Day 4 a day trip to Carmel by the Bay / Beach ?
- That's a little far for a day trip but if you get an early start you can certainly do it. It takes about 2 or 2 1/2 hours to drive there. Know that driving in and out of the SF bay area you will encounter a lot of commuter traffic from about 6 - 9 AM and from 4 - 8 PM.

Day 5 we leave to go towards LA

Posted by
8 posts

Great suggestions from everyone. I would agree that you don't need a car in San Francisco. My suggestion is that when you are done at Google, keep driving south to Monterey/Carmel or south to LA don't head back North, you are back tracking. Also, no matter where you are in a major city in CA, if you aren't on the road to your destination by 3pm, stay put until 6pm. You will just be wasting your time in stand-still traffic. Plan your days so that you leave major cities (i.e. SF, LA, San Diego, San Jose) before or after rush hours or plan to stay for dinner.

Posted by
518 posts

Ditto on LA, it gets a lot of hate due to a bunch of things, such as the horrendous traffic, smog, drivers, etc., but it truly is an incredibly diverse area in terms of culture. With such diversity comes great food and great neighborhoods to explore. You will of course need a car for much of that exploration though (and there enters the horrendous traffic). It also has several great museums (LA Museum of Modern Art, Getty Center, to name a couple).

As for SF (note: either "SF," "San Francisco," or "The City" will do fine...I have heard it referred to as "'Frisco," but interestingly only from my Mexican friends). Places that you could easily visit without a long drive that are unique to San Francisco and the surrounding are are: The San Francisco Presidio + Golden Gate Bridge, Ocean Beach, Marin Headlands, Union Square, Ferry Building, Fisherman's Wharf, Golden Gate Park, these are just a few of the "essentials."

As others have noted, the fastest drive between SF and LA is along I-5, a relatively flat road right down the middle of the state. Before you enter into LA you will go over some mountains. While there isn't much to look at or is worth stopping for on this drive, it is a quintessential part of the California road trip. I would recommend a restaurant called Andersen's Pea Soup ( in Santa Nella. They serve, of course, a split pea soup. It's a bit kitschy but I just love the place and you won't miss it as you're on your way down (or up).