With stunning ocean views, mountainscapes, vineyards, and even natural hot springs, there are few places as romantic as the West Coast. Each year, thousands of couples head to the Pacific Coast to rekindle their romance or just spend some much needed time alone.
For our Ultimate West Coast Road Trip, we’ve chosen to focus on California, which despite its vast size, remains remarkably accessible and full of romantic hot spots easily reached by the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Our route stops at all the major must-sees, but also includes some of the less famous — but not less romantic — sights along the way. While we recommend at least a week to enjoy all that these romantic spots have to offer, our road trip is flexible in that many of the stops we mention can be combined into one day, or stretched out over a few days.
Begin your romantic road trip in:
Whether you’re coming from a few days spent in Los Angeles, live nearby, or have just flown in, beautiful Malibu is the perfect place to begin your romantic West Coast road trip. With 27 miles of beach and only 12,000 full-time residents (including many celebrities), Malibu is only a few miles, but a world away, from the hustle and bustle of LA. Malibu Pier is a California icon, and makes for a fun place to stroll hand-in-hand. If you can, stick around for the sunset. For something a little quieter, head to Paradise Cove, a privately owned beach resort that lives up to its name. An excellent restaurant sits right on the sand, while closer to the shoreline you’ll find clean sand and beach chairs perfect for lounging, quiet conversation, and a beautiful view of the sunset. A visit to The Getty Villa, a stroll around Malibu Cove, or a drive along the Malibu Canyon Road are other fun ways to spend time with a loved one.
Head north on US-101. After just over an hour you’ll be in:
Situated between ocean and mountains, Santa Barbara is easily one of the most charming and beautiful places you will find on the entire West Coast. The beaches are top-notch and perfect for a day of rest and relaxation (and romance!). Later, take a hand-in-hand stroll through the picturesque downtown, where local Santa Barbara region wineries like Santa Barbara Winery and Oreana have tasting rooms. Boutiques, cafes, antiques shops, and lush spas ideal for a couple’s massage can also be found downtown. For more of an adventure, rent a bicycle and ride along the Pacific Ocean. Come dinnertime, you may have trouble choosing between a number of restaurants renowned for their romantic vibe and world-class dishes. We recommend the fabulous wine and meal pairings at Stonehouse at San Ysidro Ranch, or Olio e Limone, one of the top Italian restaurants in the state. The hotels are just as numerous and just as luxurious. The Four Seasons Biltmore offers its guests a top-tier spa and gym, plus access to one of the most exclusive beaches in the area. However you choose to spend your time, and wherever you choose to sleep and eat, you won’t be disappointed by any time spent in beautiful Santa Barbara.
Whether you make it a day trip from Santa Barbara or a destination unto itself, nearby Ojai is definitely worth a stop on any romantic road trip.To get there, travel inland on CA-33 north.
Located less than an hour from both Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, Ojai (pronounced like “Oh hi!”) is a favorite getaway destination for the rich and famous (though even the most normal lovebirds will find Ojai charming and relaxing). Ojai is well-known for its olive oil, and a visit to Ojai Olive is a must-do. The ranch offers free tours every day, and couples will love just how stunning and romantic the grounds and views are. Take home a bottle of signature olive oil for cooking or a homemade olive oil face cream by which to remember your romantic trip. Restaurants in Ojai range from the chic (like the Spanish-meets-Mediterranean eatery Azu), to down home-style comfort (like Deer Lodge), but you won’t be disappointed in anything you eat here. Head to Matilija Street for all of Ojai’s unique shopping opportunities, including Bart’s Books, an outdoor bookshop that has appeared in a number of movies.
Less than an hour north is:
Sweet Solvang sometimes gets overshadowed by the larger coastal towns, but this unique place is the perfect base from which to explore the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley. It was founded in 1911 by a group of Danish-Americans from Iowa, and the whole village looks just as it would if it were back in Denmark. The schoolhouse, church, restaurants, shops, and main square are done in traditional Danish architecture, making Solvang a fascinating place for a good wander. Solvang is packed with restaurants, shops, wine tasting rooms, art galleries, and interesting sights (be sure to grab a photo by the Little Mermaid statue). Myriad inns and B&Bs are in and around Solvang. Those looking to stay right in town will love the European-inspired Peterson Village Inn, while Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn & Spa is situated near Solvang in the midst of Santa Ynez Valley wine country.
Continue north on the Pacific Coast highway. The next stop, Cambria, is approximately two hours away, but we suggest timing your travels to that you can stop for the night in San Luis Obispo at:
The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo
There is perhaps no inn or hotel around San Luis Obispo more iconic than The Madonna Inn, so this is the perfect place to spend a night or two on your romantic West Coast road trip. Each of the 110 rooms is decorated in a different whimsical style, while resort amenities include a luxurious spa, horseback riding and carriage rides right on the property, boutique shopping, a terrace pool and bar, pink tennis courts, and two award-winning dining options. Stop at The Madonna Inn as you pass through town, stay for a night on your way to Cambria, or use it as a base as you explore the surrounding region — however long you make this romantic place your home, you won’t regret it!
Just over two hours north of Santa Barbara is Cambria (pronounced Cam-bree-uh), a romantic small town known for its laid-back beach vibe and quaint streets lined with one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants. The best shopping can be found on Main Street and Burton Drive, where galleries, cafes, and boutiques are sure to entertain. Cambria’s Moonstone Beach is best for strolling and admiring the crashing waves, surfers, and tide pools. Down beach a ways, but only about four miles from Hearst Castle, is an elephant seal rookery. If you are taking your road trip from December through February, be sure to stop long enough to see some of the 4,000 or so pups that are born here. Speaking of Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s stunning mansion is the area’s most popular tourist attraction and an absolute must-see. The 165-room Moorish castle is 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools, walkways, and much more. For sleeping arrangements, Cambria is chock-full of charming bed and breakfast inns, but we recommend booking your stay as early as possible, as the more desirable properties book up quickly.
Though there are plenty of potential stops beyond Cambria, the next stop on our West Coast road trip is San Francisco.
Theoretically, one could spend a week in and around San Francisco, and if you have that sort of time, we definitely recommend it. For those with just a day or two, we suggest heading straight to the Golden Gate Bridge. Yeah, it might be touristy, but walking hand-in-hand across the iconic landmark isn’t something that either of you are likely to forget. Other romantic spots for strolling, walking, or just sitting and watching the people include Golden Gate Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, and Union Square, the latter of which is also the go-to place for shopping and the fanciest of the fancy hotels. For dinner, head to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Sky Bridge, where you can enjoy both a romantic dinner and panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay.
If you have time, cross the Golden Gate Bridge to:
This small gem of a town sits just across the Bay and is the perfect place to catch a view of the city skyline. Tiburon, home to the rich and even a few famous, doesn’t need a whole lot of time. Stop here on your way out of San Francisco and head straight to the picturesque downtown. Have your picture taken next to the glittering shark fin statue (“Tiburon” means “shark” in Spanish), shop the high-end boutiques, and grab brunch on the deck of Sam’s Cafe before heading on your way.
Continue on US-101 N before catching CA-37 E towards:
Lovebirds will savor the laid-back charm of Sonoma. The entire region is beautiful, and an unplanned drive through the surrounding hill country will lead to any number of wineries and small towns worthy of a stop. We like Ravenswood, a family-owned winery known for its bold zinfandels. Tours include a close-up view of the vineyards and barrel-tasting right there in the cellar. For a romantic lunch, head to Gundlach Bunschu, another top winery with picnic grounds that overlook the entire Sonoma Valley. Spend your romantic events in Sonoma’s main downtown square. Located around Mission San Francisco Solano, the square is home to frequent festivals, a pretty park, high-end boutiques, and nationally ranked restaurants like The Girl and the Fig and LaSalette.
If you haven’t had enough of wine country yet, head to nearby Napa which is, perhaps, the most famous wine region in the country.
Wine is synonymous with romance and for years Napa has been the go-to place for wine connoisseurs. Top wineries are all over the place and include the well-known Clos du Val, a rustic French-owned winery. Unlike many Sonoma wineries, tastings in Napa cost (though some will wave the fee if you purchase a bottle). We suggest you do exactly that, and purchase a bottle of the famous cabernet or pinot noir to enjoy as you picnic in the beautiful rose garden. Also worth visits are Darioush, Robert Biale Vineyards, O’Brien Estate Winery, and Hendry Winery. After a long day of wine tasting, head to Napa Town Center, a charming pedestrian street lined with boutiques, cafes, and restaurants just perfect for a romantic dinner for two.
Find your way back to US-101 and travel north to:
About three hours from Napa is Mendocino, a charming coastal hamlet with major New England village vibes. Everything about Mendocino seems to be romantic, from the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean to the historic village center and its many shops, galleries, indie bookstores, and excellent restaurants. To take full advantage of all that Mendocino’s prime location has to offer, book a room at The Mendocino Hotel & Garden Suites, a Victorian-era converted mansion that offers its guests easy access to both seaside cliff walks and the village center. For a romantic activity other than shopping and eating, head to nearby Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park for a leisurely stroll over the bluffs to the historic lighthouse and museum.