One of the great American road trips is the journey down the coast of California, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and time-permitting beyond to San Diego. This is the most popular direction as you drive on the right-hand side of the road and can more easily take in the coastal scenery. Try to spend a few nights in San Francisco, there is plenty to see and lots of atmosphere to soak up. From here you can head up to Napa Valley for a day to enjoy some great scenery and the local wine before heading south.
The first must-see stop on Highway 1 is Santa Cruz, a small bohemian surfing-town about an hour south of San Francisco with good beaches, a vintage boardwalk and a vibrant downtown. Monterey, with its Hispanic heritage and famous aquarium is next up - spend some time here before heading into the Big Sur. There is not much civilisation along this stretch of coastline from Monterey to Santa Maria, but the scenery is glorious - it is by far the most beautiful stretch of coastline in California with redwood forests, craggy cliff tops and long empty beaches.
Things to do on this leg of the trip include a tour of Hearst Castle, near Paso Robles; renting a 4 wheeler and riding the sand dunes at Pismo Beach, and discovering the hills and wineries around San Luis Obispo.
Situated an hour and half north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is sandwiched between the Pacific Coast and the Santa Ynez Mountains. The town has a distinctly Mediterranean feel with red-tiled rooftops and white stucco buildings. There are some great hotels and restaurants in Santa Barbara and it is a comfortable place to spend a few nights. Not far from Santa Barbara is the Danish-style village of Solvang with windmills, timer-framed buildings and the historic old Mission of Santa Ines.
The urban sprawl of LA will be a shock after the peaceful road trip down Highway 1 and a good option is to stay in Santa Monica and dip into the city to see its many sights and delights. The beaches and boardwalks are San Diego's greatest attractions and it is also popular with families, with Sea World and its world-famous zoo. For a big city, San Diego has retained a resort feel and it is a pleasant place to spend the final days of your trip.
An alternative to the coastal drive is the inland route though the Yosemite National Park and taking in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. If you have enough time, you can do this trip on the way back. The drive to and from Yosemite is long and uneventful, but the park itself is truly breathtaking and it is well worth spending a couple of days there.
Another option for those on a fly-drive is to drive on to Las Vegas - 250 miles (400km) from LA - and taking in a day-trip to the Grand Canyon from there. Locals will regard the four-and-a-half-hour drive as long and boring, but for all others the straight roads and empty desert scenery is fairly dramatic.