California‘s biggest signifiers are maybe the biggest stereotypes in the travel world — beaches, sunshine, movie stars. It’s a state known for its summer climate, but as a lifetime resident of the state, I can say that the best time to travel is often when the tourism starts to wane and the weather cools down. The fall-winter and winter-spring “shoulder seasons” might not be the best times to work on your tan in California, but they’re my favorite pockets to hit the road and experience some of the gems of the Golden State.
A few weeks back, I traveled by car from Los Angeles to San Francisco, spending a week visiting three of the most special offerings of the state: Monterey/Carmel-By-The-Sea, Santa Cruz, and The Bay Area. I discovered destinations that were a little quieter than during the height of summer, but the crisp air and the bevy of cold(er) weather activities made for a special experience without some of the crowds that you have to contend with between Memorial and Labor Day.
Check out the best places to eat, drink, visit, and stay on an epic shoulder season Cali road trip below.
Where To Stay
Located right in the edge of the adorable downtown of Carmel, The Getaway‘s boutique hotel is a cozy and intimate spot that puts you close to everything you’d want to do in the area. Some of the highlights include nightly wine and cheese offerings, wood fireplaces in the room, and light breakfasts delivered right to your room. Walk across the street to shops and restaurants, or simply grab a bike and explore the greater area.
Where To Eat
Dutch Door Donuts
We’ve all had a doughnut, but you’ve probably never had a doughnut like this. Instead of frying a batch at 4 am and letting them slowly deteriorate over the course of the day, all the doughnuts at Dutch Door Donuts are made to order, for a warm, comforting, and flavorful experience. They offer both regular varieties as well as seasonal, but we recommend the classic-feeling “vanilla bean glaze.”
Pair with a latte to start your day right.
Rise + Roam Bakery
Of course, there is more than one great day-starting spot in Carmel and this quaint bakery is stocked with a display case of mouth-watering offerings. Using organic ingredients and naturally-fermented sourdough, Rise + Roam Bakery is a place you can sit down for a meal and a chat, or grab something quick on the go.
We highly recommend the brioche with egg and cheese stuffed inside, a low-key decadent choice that turns the concept of breakfast sandwiches on its head.
Alvarado Street Brewery & Bistro
You’ll hear a lot of praise about what Alvarado Street is doing in the beer game, but their restaurant in Carmel-By-The-Sea expands that spotlight to cuisine, as well. Sure, you can enjoy yourself plenty by tasting from the variety of beers they offer, but the crispy cauliflower in a Chinese master sauce was legit one of the best bites of food I had all week.
With indoor and outdoor seating options, this proved to be an essential spot that can impress in all weather conditions.
Big reveal: I’m a vegetarian. And like most places in California, Monterey and the surrounding area are full of options without meat. Still, I’m often a bit suspicious of restaurants built around vegan and vegetarian concepts. El Cantaro does it right. Located walking distance from Cannery Row and featuring options with both fake meat and dishes using potatoes and rice/bean combos as their protein, this spot shines.
The tacos here were the stars, with the potato ones satisfying enough to not miss a more traditional meat filling.
Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant
Another solely veggie restaurant that isn’t going to make you miss meat. Julia’s is a lovely spot that knows what it does well: tamales, pizza, and mushrooms. Sure, those might not sound completely related, but Julia’s is possibly the most fully realized concept I tasted on this trip. Opt for the exotic mushroom suggestions on virtually everything (and particularly the pizza), and definitely get at least one tamale with jackfruit filling for the table to try. You can’t leave here without sampling both of those signature offerings, but they also impress with the three most beautiful words in the English language: breakfast all day.
Where To Drink
Carmel and Monterey aren’t exactly known for nightlife, but there are still plenty of places to get a great drink in a fun atmosphere. Maybe tops is Hula’s, with its island theme informing a cocktail menu that definitely qualifies as robust. Opt for a traditional Mai Tai, or go wild with a Pink Bikini Martini, which infuses vodka with pineapple and watermelon.
If you want something of a traditional beach town bar experience, look no further than Sly McFlys. With live music every night of the week, this is the kind of spot that draws in young people, tourists, and locals in coastal communities across the state. If you’re looking to let out some legitimate steam, this is the spot.
Even less of a nightlife town is Carmel, but Barmel is the spot for strong drink and people watching. In such an idiosyncratic community, this is the location to sit among the locals and have conversations while learning a bit about the real Carmel.
This is the kind of local spot that is essential to look out for as a traveler, where you actually get to know the place you are visiting. Catch live music on the weekends.
What To Do
17 Mile Drive
What’s advertised as one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the world does not disappoint. Set against the backdrop of the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course and the rugged Central Calfornia coast, don’t let the short distance of 17 Mile Drive fool you: this is absolutely something you want to allow several hours for, to stop at the numerous sightseeing markers and really enjoy everything it has to offer.
Hey 17 Mile Drive, hold my beer. The stretch of Highway 1 through Big Sur is also one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world, with tons of hikes and views to take in along the way. A couple of personal favorites are the iconic Bixby Bridge, whose renown is even greater than the Death Cab For Cutie song that shares its name, and the Henry Miller Library, with its wonderful bookstore and artwork curiosities.
Go on the right day, and you’ll see a great band perform.
Earthbound Farms Farmstand
Heirloom pumpkins? Count us in! The Central Valley and Coast is known for its farming and this scenic stop at Earthbound Farms Farmstand celebrates all the seasonal goodness the fall has to offer. Shop for fresh, seasonal produce to cook at a BnB or enjoy as snacks on the drive.
The grounds offer much to explore, from flowers and berries to a full slate of events and activities.
Where To Stay
The Dream Inn
Located directly between the Santa Cruz wharf and lighthouse, there isn’t a better location to stay in SC than The Dream Inn. Every room features an ocean view, and through the magic of being located on the tip of a bay, you can see sunrise and sunset over the water during the fall. Lounge at the pool or be on the beach in just a couple of minutes, and be sure to grab a Verve coffee from the shop in the lobby.
If it’s good enough for Patti Smith, it’s good enough for us.
Where To Eat
A breakfast legacy loved by locals and students alike, Zachary’s is a Santa Cruz institution located in the heart of downtown, featuring the must-try Mike’s Mess, which is basically as all-encompassing as it sounds. Think about the best hash you’ve ever had, multiply it by ten, and you are getting close.
Soif is both a wine shop and a restaurant but thrives in both capacities. But for the latter, a focused menu with options for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike belies the restaurant’s focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. We happened to visit during Restaurant Week, so the menu will likely be different, but can speak highly of everything from the steak frites to the seasonal delight that was the mushroom and squash risotto.
Pizza My Heart
This local chain has more than 20 locations now in the area, stretching to the Silicon Valley and Bay Area, but its roots are in Capitola and Santa Cruz. Pizza My Heart exemplifies that idea of a nostalgia-inducing college town pie. The surf theme adds to the local appeal, and its late hours make it a prime destination before, during, or after a bar crawl.
The Parish Publick House
With two locations — Santa Cruz and just south in Aptos — this local favorite finds the sweet spot between great food and great drink. An extensive beer list and creative cocktail menu balance the elevated pub fare — raning from wings (with five varieties) to burgers (traditional meat or less traditional Impossible). They also have a menu for your pup, so bring that furry bad boy with you.
Where To Drink
Brady’s Yacht Club/The Jury Room/The Rush Inn
Santa Cruz has a variety of nightlife on offer, but it’s in the neighborhood bar scene that the town’s culture really thrives. In an area full of tourism and transient students, it’s easy to forget that the local culture still thrives, and you’d be surprised at how welcoming and diverse these places really are. Bring your thirst with you, because you are gonna want more than one beverage at these spots.
This local legend packs the best of college town energy with a neighborhood feel. It’s dark, it gets crowded, and it’s a load of fun on a swinging weekend night. Or you can stop by on a weekday and enjoy the atmosphere of local service industry professionals blowing off some steam. If you want to get fancy, the more upscale incarnation resides upstairs, but we like to keep it real with the original.
The best live music venue in Santa Cruz is also a great local spot for a late-night drink. This isn’t about a cocktail program, this is about strong drink and billiards. But if something happens to be playing on either their main stage or their smaller atrium room, this is an iconic location to catch great bands — either local faves or major touring groups.
What To Do
The Santa Cruz Farmers Market
Held in Downtown Santa Cruz on Wednesdays, there’s no better place to experience the fall bounty of the Central Valley and Coast than here. Apples, squash, and tomatoes are all plentiful, and some favorites that need to be experienced include the dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes of Groundswell Farms and the custom flower bouquets of Flowers At The Sea. There’s also a dedicated food court of sorts that features a wealth of booths offering cuisine from around the world, so be sure to bring your appetite.
Walking West Cliff
It’s not quite 17 Mile Drive, but this stretch from the Santa Cruz wharf to Natural Bridges is a wonderful walk to take in the natural beauty of the Santa Cruz shore. My personal favorite highlights are the wharf, where a hot cup of chowder can keep you warm as you catch majestic views of the shoreline to the north and the boardwalk to the south, and Lighthouse Point, where you can watch surfers catch waves at the world-renowned Steamers Lane surf break.
Oh, plus there are the monarch butterflies of Natural Bridges State Beach And Park, who end their migration and hibernate in the park’s eucalyptus groves during the fall.
We’ve talked about apples, tomatoes, and pumpkins, but let’s not forget one of the region’s most iconic crops, the artichoke. In nearby Castroville, Pezzini Farms is a glorious spot to celebrate all things ‘choke. Sure, you can check out the variety of heirloom artichokes they offer, but if you really want to be adventurous, seek out the artichoke cupcakes or visit the adjacent food truck for some artichoke tacos. The farm stand exudes love for the crops that are grown on the premise, and you can even trot into town for a picture with the world’s largest artichoke.
The Bay Area
Where To Stay
Palihotel San Francisco
San Francisco has no shortage of hotels, but this little slice of heaven located near Union Square feels like the intersection between the boutique hotels of the city and the continental offerings of Paris. Featuring a cozy bar/lounge area, along with Fisher Loft restaurant, you don’t need to leave the premises for a nice drink and meal, but the location also puts visitors at the doorstep of much of what San Francisco has to offer.
A few other little things I loved: the hypoallergenic bedding was maybe the best I’ve experienced at a hotel (and so welcoming to chronic allergy sufferers like myself!), the adorable SMEG fridge in the room, and the little bucket of umbrellas for usage on the many rainy days in SF. At hotels, it is very much the little things that matter, and Palihotel gets those details perfectly right.
Where To Eat
As I mentioned earlier, I have a healthy amount of skepticism for completely plant-based concepts, but BAIA near Union Square puts the vast majority of restaurants in this lane to shame. Featuring upscale, comforting Italian fare, the two-story space will wow with Impossible meatballs and delectable garlic knots, but let me tell you about their absolute all-star: the Milanese. This only happens occasionally, but it is one of those experiences for a vegetarian where a dish that you haven’t had in a decade brings you back to the times before you stopped eating meat, where you remember how satisfying and perfect a well-executed dish can be.
That’s how BAIA treats their Milanese, and I’ll be going back as soon as I’m in SF again.
Brenda’s Meat And Three
I’m a sucker for great Southern cuisine, but admit I’m largely unfamiliar with the “meat and three” concept, which sounds like exactly what it is, a meat and three sides. This comes more into play at Brenda’s Divisadero location for dinner, but I’m here to advocate for Brenda‘s terrific brunch options. Cheesy grits, beignets, and a pulled pork hash are just some of the Southern faves that make appearances, making for a down-home experience in a city that couldn’t be further from that atmosphere.
What happens when you combine the first two entries in this food list? You get something like Vegan Mob, the Oakland-based vegan soul food spot that also has a food truck that runs in the city. The gumbo is out of this world, while their take on fake meat is often worth the plunge. And of course, there are the sides, with the coleslaw and BBQ beans both hiding their vegan lineage well.
An impressive take on the vegan concept that I’m praying comes to Southern California in the future.
Where To Drink
Latin American Club
If you want to hear someone talk at you for several hours, ask a local how the tech boom has affected their city. The Mission is an area that has maybe been most changed by the skyrocketing rents, but some old-school favorites still survive. I’ve always loved the humble vibe of the Latin American Club, where reasonable prices and strong margs give a glimpse into the past, when SF was full of places like this.
I guess I just like clubs! This is also a place for a strong drink with reasonable prices, while the 500 Club thrives as an ideal spot to watch a local Niners or Warriors game. Just remember to root for the right team when you come here, as this local spot won’t take too kindly to antagonism.
Live music. Karaoke. Sports. Billiards. Pinball. And, oh yeah, plenty of beer. Blackthorn in the Inner Sunset isn’t just a good spot for after a local music festival (shouts to Outside Lands) but is also the paradigm of a little bit of everything bar. It’s a nice reminder that bars are meant to be fun, and with an unpretentious spot like this, how could you ever forget?
What To Do
Whether it’s a music festival like Outside Lands or a show at a local venue, San Francisco is one of the best live music cities in the world. The Fillmore is an essential stop whose history is featured on concert posters throughout the venue, while The Independent and Great American Music Hall are ideal spots for a smaller touring band. And if early enough in the fall, the Greek in Berkeley is a lovely outdoor spot to catch a larger act in the cool fall air.
The Marin Headlands
The area surrounding the city is full of natural beauty, and the Marin Headlands is probably the quickest and easiest to visit. If you’re looking for a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge without the insane crowds, this is the spot, and then explore the local beaches when you are done.
As San Francisco changes rapidly thanks to the tech boom, travelers might look for the things that remain the same. For me, that’s Dolores Park in the Mission, a place to gather with friends, take a nap in the grass, or for some light physical activity. Anyone who’s ever lived in the city knows how special this park is, less about any majestic beauty (though it has a stunning view of downtown that looks great on IG) and more about the community it draws. If anything, that’s maybe the thing that strikes me about California in the shoulder season… or any time of year. Each of these places evokes so much pride from the locals because of the community they’ve cultivated. These aren’t just places to visit, they are places to experience and places to live. Remembering to explore traveling like a local is crucial, and will make a California fall road trip a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
This trip was partially hosted by Visit California. You can learn more about the Uproxx press trip policy here.