5 perfect days in Northern California: San Francisco + Big Sur Itinerary

Check out my vlog of this trip here!

Planning a short & sweet trip to Northern California? If so, then I’ve got the perfect 5 day itinerary for you, which includes 3 days in San Francisco + 2 days in Big Sur. And even if you aren’t planning anything, read ahead and I guarantee you just might change your mind!

This past March for spring break, my best friend and I took a trip to San Francisco & road tripped along California State Route 1 aka Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) to Big Sur. It was an incredible trip, to say the least. Ever since I got back, I’ve been dreaming of returning. What better way to put my nostalgia to use than to blog about it?!

Anyway, here are some of the highlights of things I did, in case you need a little inspiration for your own trip:

Day 1: San Francisco 

  • We checked in the night before, so we got an early start to the day with breakfast at our hostel, Green Tortoise in North Beach (which I loved and definitely recommend for budget travelers!).
  • Checked out City Lights Bookstore, which has a long-standing history of being a beacon for beatnik culture.
  • Wandered around the area, admiring all the pretty architecture on the way to the nearest Cable Car stop, then took the Powell-Hyde Line going North2018-03-17 12.01.50-2 2018-03-17 09.40.59-2
    I quickly realized that San Francisco is a big fan of the color pink & that I was going to like it here very much.
  • Got off at Lombard Street, the “crookedest” street in the world!

    2018-03-17 10.15.02
    Looking down on Lombard Street while cars actually attempt the crazy hairpin turns!
  • Walked all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf; explored that area for a little while and tried the world-famous clam chowder at Chowders.
  • Walked over to Pier 39 to check out the famous sea lions!! I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I was giggling the whole time watching these guys.

    2018-03-17 11.29.23 HDR-2
    The famous & adorable sea lions of Pier 39’s K-Dock
  • Had lunch at In-N-Out; their only location in the actual city of SF is in Fisherman’s Wharf, so of course it was very crowded, but nonetheless amazing.
  • Made our way to Ghirardelli Square for dessert and tried the brownie, which was really good. I remember wishing I were hungrier because I would’ve loved to try one of the sundaes!
  • Rented bikes, which in retrospect was such a good idea and I strongly recommend it if you know how to ride one. San Francisco is a very bike friendly city!

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    Funny story behind this pic: a blogger asked to take a picture with our bikes and, in return, her photographer with a fancy DSLR camera got this nice photo of us!
  • Biked over to the Palace of Fine Arts which was simply JAW-DROPPING! I remember when I first saw it, I thought I had just teleported to Ancient Rome. Then, when I saw that the columns were pink I think my heart started racing (if it isn’t obvious from my URL, I love pink).
    2018-03-17 15.01.21 HDR 2018-03-17 15.15.36-2
  • Biked along a trail leading to the Golden Gate Bridge, making a few stops here and there to do things like, oh idk, take photos of cute buildings and lie in the grass to take in the scenery. The architecture & nature combo in SF is really something else; the best way I can describe the aesthetic of the city is as if a Dr. Seuss book were turned into a movie, and directed by Wes Anderson.
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  • Finally, we made it to the Golden Gate Bridge and biked across, making several photo stops. Pictures really don’t do any justice to these views. 
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  • A little while before sunset, we parked our bikes in a parking lot just off the bridge and walked up a small hill to Battery Spencer, an old military base from the early 1900s that has a really nice lookout to the Golden Gate Bridge. This was one of the most incredible golden hours I’ve ever experienced in my life. Before the sun actually set, we headed back so we wouldn’t have to bike in the dark and ended up seeing the sun set from the actual bridge.
    2018-03-17 18.42.26-2 2018-03-17 19.23.45
  • For dinner, we got pho at a place near our hostel for convenience & went out at night in the Mission District

Day 2: San Francisco

  • Woke up bright and early and headed straight over to Reveille Coffee Co. (in North Beach), a popular local coffeeshop chain, for breakfast.
  • Ubered to Alamo Square Park as our starting point to explore the other side of the city & admired the Painted Ladies, a row of seven Edwardian/Victorian houses which are famous for their appearance on the Full House opening sequence. The Painted Ladies were cool, but I was actually more intrigued by several other houses nearby, particularly this one pink princess home I took a picture with (see below). When can I move in?
    2018-03-18 10.45.40 HDR-2 2018-03-18 11.11.34-2
    2018-03-18 11.30.48 2018-03-18 10.58.27-2
  • Next, we walked over to Haight Street to explore the famous hippie neighborhood Haight-Ashbury, or simply “The Haight”, where hippie counterculture allegedly originated. Check out this fun article in case you want to learn more.

    This photo was taken on my dear film Minolta camera. #35mm
  • Some major points of interest in the Haight include the Grateful Dead house (which is, somewhat ironically, black) and Janis Joplin’s former home (which also looks like a pink princess home). Once you’ve checked those out, it’s a really great experience to just wander down Haight Street, pop into some of the funky stores and soak up all the hippie vibes you can. Oh, and the vintage shopping here is amazing. If you’re into that, do NOT miss out on Wasteland, Static, and Held Over, to name a few. If you’re a fan of vinyl, don’t forget to check out Amoeba Records.
    2018-03-18 11.52.49 HDR 2018-03-18 11.49.23
  • Conveniently, Haight Street ends right at the entrance to Golden Gate Park. Let me start off by saying, the park is HUGE and it even has its own free shuttle bus (on weekends, only, I think). There are lots of interesting things to see within the park (see for yourself!) and most things have an admission fee. My friend and I, being totally Japan-obsessed, were most concerned with seeing the Japanese Tea Garden, so we went there, explored, took plenty of photos, and had lunch. We also passed by the Conservatory, which is beautiful and has a huge poppy flower (my favorite flower!) garden.
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  • Being exhausted after having walked about half way through the park already, we decided to take the shuttle to the other end of the park, which is right by the beach.
  • We walked along the coast to the Sutro Baths in Lands Endruins which were once the world’s largest indoor swimming complex.
    2018-03-18 17.25.23
  • Next, we made our way to Baker Beach, which is traditionally a nude beach and also has a really nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, it was too cold out for the nudists to make an appearance! 😦
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  • Afterwards, we got dinner at Tacolicious in the Marina District (which is super cute to stroll around!), after being recommended it by locals. The tacos were amazing. I definitely recommend this place to all you taco lovers out there.
    2018-03-18 19.01.38

It’s really amazing how much you can accomplish in one day of traveling. (Especially in contrast to the many days I spend lying in bed binge-watching Netflix…)

Day 3: Road Trip Part 1  – Big Sur Nature Day

  • On our way down to Big Sur, our intention was to drive along the coast, i.e. Route 1 or what is widely known as the Pacific Coast Highway, and take our time, so that’s exactly what we did! After picking up our car from the airport (SFO) around 7am, we routed the GPS to Half Moon Bay, our first stop and our starting point for getting onto Route 1.

    2018-03-19 09.48.50-2
    First pic of the road trip with our cute rental car!
  • After Half Moon Bay, we routed our GPS to Bixby Bridge, which was a 2.5 hour ride away along PCH. We sort of just went with the flow and made stops whenever we felt like admiring the views!
    2018-03-19 13.08.55
    Passing through Carmel Highlands, which is known for having lots of beautiful homes on the coastal cliffs.

    2018-03-19 13.38.57-1
    Look at that water!! I have a bit of an obsession with the way bodies of water look when the sun shines & makes the water sparkle. Who’s with me?
  • Soon enough we got to Bixby Bridge, which you might recognize if you’ve ever seen the show Big Little Lies where it makes an appearance in the opening sequence. Like the million other tourists, we parked our car just before crossing it to snap a few photos.59430024.JPG
  • Next up, we headed to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which is home to the Colonial Tree, a redwood tree measuring a whopping 31 feet in diameter (the largest in the park). There were lots of redwood trees in this park, so it’s definitely worth stopping by here if you’ve never seen a redwood before. We walked through a small forest of them called “Old Grove of Redwoods” as well and I was in awe of how tall these trees were. Apparently some of them are 800-900 years old!
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  • Next, we made our way to McWay Falls, which was a short drive from the Colonial tree. You’ve probably seen pictures of this place a thousand times, but I’m going to post it here again anyway because this place really is amazing (but, of course, photos don’t do it any justice). We hung out here for a a bit and had a small picnic as a late lunch, because picnics are my FAVORITE thing.59430019.JPG2018-03-19 16.13.15 2018-03-19 16.22.28
  • Honestly, after this, I had nothing left on my to-do list so we just kept driving South, while listening to the road trip playlist I crafted for this trip, and ended up making more random stops along the road whenever we felt like it. Isn’t that the best part of a road trip though?59430023.JPG59430021.JPG
  • We ended up at a random beach around sunset that I don’t even remember the name of. According to my iPhone, it was in Los Padres National Forest (thanks, creepy location-detecting technology!!). It was totally empty and the water was, like, reflecting the sky like a mirror. Hard to explain, but the photos we took here were insane. We also saw a cute little sea lion hanging out on the beach!59430018.JPG2018-03-19 18.04.56 2018-03-19 17.56.41-2
  • After sunset, we headed back up North and had dinner at Nepenthe, which is the best restaurant in the area and has a beautiful view of the coast. Finally, we headed to our hostel in Monterey, HI Monterey Hostel.
    2018-03-19 19.20.54

Day 4: Road Trip Part 2 – Monterey, Carmel & Back to San Francisco

  • Started the day off with the amazing complementary breakfast at our hostel (pancakes, Nutella, fresh fruit, bacon, eggs, etc.!) and then checked out. We didn’t do much in Monterey besides the drive around the town and the pier for a bit, because it’s a mostly residential area. Apparently they have a pretty neat aquarium if that’s your thing.
  • We headed straight to the charming, fairytale-like town Carmel-by-the-sea, or simply, Carmel. The town not only has beautiful natural scenery, but it’s also renowned for its rich artistic history! You can tell just by looking at the historic houses, which were turned into shops and cafes. My favorites were the ones I later learned were built by the architect Hugh Comstock, who quite literally is known for his “fairy tale cottages by the sea”. My only regret is that it was so overcast when we went to Carmel; I can only imagine how much cuter this town is in the sun.
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  • After spending a few hours here & getting pastries at Carmel Bakery, we decided to head back to San Francisco and take advantage of having a car in the city. I found SF surprisingly very car-friendly and I actually wish we had it for longer.
  • The first thing we did was head up to Twin Peaks, a lookout which offers a 360 panoramic view of the city. When we first got there, there was a spooky fog covering the entire city and we couldn’t see much, but after about 15 minutes it cleared up and the view was glorious.
    2018-03-20 16.42.03 2018-03-20 16.50.54
  • Next, we decided to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and check out Sausalito on the other side. We didn’t spend much time there because it was really overcast and chilly out and it’s a seaside town, so it wasn’t the right vibe haha. We also went back to Battery Spencer since we liked it so much the first time! Totally different experience this time, though, with the fog vs sun.59430008.JPG
  • Finally, before dropping off our rental car, we made a quick stop at the Full House house, which happened to be on our way.59430007.JPG

Here’s a little overview of our road trip on a map, in case you’re into visuals:Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 7.58.39 PM.png

Day 5: San Francisco

  • Started our last day of the trip with breakfast pastries at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse in Union Square, which has the famous “I got baked in San Francisco” neon sign that you see all over social media. I got a cruffin AND a doughnut because sometimes you just need to treat yoself. The cruffin was bomb.59430006.JPG
  • Next, we headed over to explore the Mission District, which ended up being my personal favorite neighborhood in San Francisco. We were lucky enough to be visiting during the one month that Glossier was having their pop-up at Rhea’s Cafe in the Mission, so obviously we stopped by & I felt like a kid in a candy store. Even though the pop-up is over now, Rhea’s Cafe is totally worth a visit. It’s super ~aesthetic~ & their famous fried chicken sandwich is apparently delicious.59430004.JPG59430005.JPG
  • Next, me being me, I insisted we stop by a popular coffeeshop nearby, Sightglass Coffee (**heart eyes emoji**). The coffee & the space were 10/10. The photos I took here don’t do this place any justice.
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  • After fueling up with a cappuccino, I was ready to embark on a thrift shopping adventure (Mission is known for excellent thrift/vintage stores). Our first stop was Mission Thrift, an absolute must for any cheap vintage lover. You might have to do some digging, but the selection is huge and so cheap. Something cheap? In San Francisco?! YES! I bought two tops, a silk blouse from the 80s (in excellent condition) and a Bavarian crop top, for $5 a piece! At most other thrift stores, these items would’ve cost at least 3x more.2018-03-21 12.27.36-2.jpg
  • We stopped by a few other stores, too, but unfortunately the only other one I remember by name is Wallflower Boutique, which had a great selection of 60s, 70s, and 90s (my favorite eras for fashion!!!) stuff. I just remember the shops were all along Valencia Street.
  • For lunch, we had the original Mission-Style Burrito from La Taqueria on Mission Street. I got mine with chorizo. To say this was the best burrito I’ve had in my life would be an understatement. (Pro tip: you absolutely must get the burrito, but if you hate burritos or if you still have room for seconds afterwards like I did lmao, try the quesadilla. You can thank me later.)
  • For the rest of the day, we didn’t do much besides wander around the neighborhoods. We stopped by Mission Dolores Park to chill out for a bit, then walked through the Haight again, admiring all the pretty homes, and then ended up in The Castro district, known for its vibrance and for being one of the most famous gay neighborhoods in the world.
  • Sooner or later, we went back to our hostel to pick up our bags and head out to catch our flight. Pretty sure I had tears in my eyes the whole Uber ride to the airport . :,(

…Aaand those were the highlights of my trip to San Francisco & Big Sur! Did I miss anything? Do you have any questions for me? Feel free to comment or send me a message! I’d love to hear from you.


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