I was on the last leg of a Round-the-World trip with my family. Having spent the last 2 weeks touring Australia, visiting Melbourne, Port Douglas and Sydney with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, we were now catching a very long flight to the USA where, with the time difference, we were all amused to be landing at LAX two hours before we had taken off in Sydney!
Exhausted and jet-lagged, we could have done without the usual long queues at LAX. Once through passport control and customs, we caught a taxi to our Santa Monica motel where we’d be staying the next 4 nights. Trying hard to stay awake that afternoon, we took at walk down to the beach then along Third Street Promenade where we called into a sports bar to grab some food. Back by the beach, the pier now lit up, we struggled to keep our eyes open so decided to head back to our rooms to relax and have an early night.
The next day, feeling refreshed and a bit more awake, we walked to a local cafe to grab bagels for breakfast.
With the new Santa Monica metro line yet to be opened at the time and LA’s transport system appearing a bit too complicated for my parents at least to manage, we decided to use the hop on/off bus to get us around the city. Buying a 48-hour ticket, we boarded the yellow route open air bus across the road from Santa Monica Pier and sat back to enjoy the commentary as we headed towards Beverly Hills.
Disembarking at the Rodeo Drive stop, we wandered across the road to Beverly Hills Park, taking pictures with the large Beverly Hills sign and buying lemonade to cool us down from a stand set up by some local girl scouts. We then took a stroll down Rodeo Drive itself, window shopping but not being brave enough to actually enter any of the designer stores lining the road.
After grabbing ice cream from a local parlour, we returned to the bus stop to await the red route bus which would take us to Hollywood.
As we neared Hollywood and the famous Hollywood sign came into view, my family were very excited but that excitement faded slightly when we jumped off the bus at the Pantages Theatre, at the slightly run down end of Hollywood Boulevard! Despite Hollywood Boulevard’s first impression not living up to the idea they had in their head, their enthusiasm soon returned as we walked towards the Hollywood Highland Centre and they soon got into the swing of things shouting out names of celebrities as they passed their Hollywood Stars!
Lunch was at Mel’s Drive In, a 50s style diner where everyone was impressed by the portion sizes and then it was back to sightseeing as we took the obligatory photos on the “Oscars’ steps” at the Dolby Theatre and compared the size of our hands and feet to Hollywood stars outside the Chinese Theatre. To get back to Santa Monica, we had to catch the red route bus back to Beverly Hills then transfer back to the yellow route bus to complete the journey.
It took almost 2 hours to get back with the rush hour traffic but at least we had the commentary to keep us amused along the way.
Back in Santa Monica, we spent the evening down on the pier. Still full from our late lunch, we grabbed fast food from the pier then shared a funnel cake drowned in chocolate sauce for dessert. We ended our day taking a ride on the ferris wheel.
With nothing really planned for our second day in LA, we decided to make the most of our still valid hop on/off bus tickets and head back to Hollywood.
When we reached Beverly Hills, my brother and sister-in-law decided to stick around a bit to explore more while my parents and I hopped straight on to the next Hollywood bound bus. Having to listen to the bus commentary again was a bit tedious but at least it was a hassle free way to get to Hollywood Boulevard. Once there, we hopped off at the Hollywood Highland centre grabbing a mid-morning cupcake snack from one of the stands there.
Our hop on/off bus tickets came with free tickets for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and with temperatures soaring that day, we decided to take advantage of these purely to get out of the sun and into some aircon for a bit! While I’d never pay full price to go to Madame Tussauds, it did turn out to be a fun way to spend and hour as we posed with wax statues of various celebrities.
After grabbing a sandwich from a nearby cafe, we decided to do a Star Homes Tour. With so many companies offering these tours, it’s difficult to know which one to go with and as we started to look along the boulevard, we began to be approached by the various companies each trying to get us to book with them. Playing them off against each other we managed to haggle some money off a tour leaving soon.
While I’m sceptical of whether the houses pointed out along the way on this kind of tour actually do belong to the said celebrities, it’s a great way to see the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and some of the huge mansions.
Most of the tours also make a stop along Mullholland Drive at a Hollywood overlook too and this tour was no exception.
Back on Hollywood Boulevard, we grabbed ice cream and met up with my brother and sister-in-law who had now also made it into Hollywood. As we sat back on the open top bus heading back to Santa Monica, they filled us in on their adventures that day – walking from Rodeo Drive up into the Hollywood Hills to see some of the mansions and the hiking from Hollywood Boulevard up towards the Hollywood sign to get a closer view!
That evening we all went for a stroll along Third Street Promenade then for dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen, planning how to spend out final full day in LA and the last full day of our entire 3-week trip.
Deciding to stay local for the last day of our trip, we headed to the beach the next morning. We soon found we were ill-prepared for the scorching sun on a beach with little to no shade, the sand too hot to walk on, never mind sit on for long, even with a beach towel beneath us.
We took to the ocean to cool down having fun in the waves on a body board gifted to us from some departing holiday makers no longer in need of it but after lunch, decided we couldn’t take sitting in the sun anymore and made other plans for the afternoon.
My brother, sister-in-law and I decided to hire bikes and take a leisurely cycle to Venice Beach and back while my parents decided to walk there, asking me how they’d know once they’d reached their. “Oh, you’ll know!” I replied. Having been to Venice Beach on a previous trip to LA, I knew the eclectic beach city couldn’t be more different from Santa Monica.
We enjoyed our bike ride along the cycle path, stopping drinks at a beach bar half way then for ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery in Venice before cycling back again. My brother and sister-in-law both liked Venice, comparing it to the London borough of Camden “but by the sea”, and analogy also used by my parents once they’d arrived back from their stroll.
For the first time all week, we were back in Santa Monica in time to watch the sun go down so after returning to our motel for a bit to cool down and freshen up, we walked to the pier to find a spot to watch the sun set over the Santa Monica hills.
That evening, we took one final stroll along Third Street Promenade, everyone more subdued than usual as we contemplated our amazing three-week adventure coming to an end. We enjoyed one final holiday meal out together at Barney’s Beanery before strolling back to our motel.
The next day, after a pancake breakfast at Denny’s, we just about had time for a final stroll along the pier before catching a taxi back to LAX ready to fly back to the UK.
It had been an epic trip, making memories we all knew we’d be talking about for many years to come.
The city of San Francisco was my first experience of the state of California and it was pretty much love at first sight – for both the city and the state. This year, I was planning my fifth visit to the city until the pandemic got in the way but I can’t wait to reschedule my trip.
Here’s my guide to how I like to spend my time in this Northern California city.
Where to stay
On each of my visits to San Francisco, I’ve stayed in very different accommodations – a luxury hotel on my first trip, a budget hotel on trip number 2, a hostel on my third visit and a roadside motel the last time – but on 3 out of 4 of my visits, I at least stuck to the same area of the city – Union Square/Nob Hill.
The area is one of the most central areas of the city, convenient for the theatres and shopping malls and with plenty of transport links – including a terminus for the famous San Francisco cable cars – to easily reach other parts of the city.
The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, perched on the top of Nob Hill near to Grace Cathedral, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – although having to walk up the city’s largest hill from the bottom of Union Square at the end of each day was not my favourite!
We won our stay there on a Priceline bid so stayed there for a fraction of the usual cost and we spent most of our evenings sat in its top floor martini bar, Top of the Mark, listening to the piano player while looking out at the city through its floor to ceiling windows.
Wherever I’m staying in the city, I try to make a return visit to the Top of the Mark bar to enjoy the city view overs a drink and watch the fog roll in over the city.
If you’re looking for something a bit more budget for your stay, I found both the Hotel Beresford and the nearby USA Hostels to offer clean and comfortable accommodation also in a convenient Union Square adjacent location.
My only reason for not staying in the Union Square area on my last visit was having a car. We were visiting the city as part of a road trip so looked for somewhere within our budget that was easily accessible without too much city driving and had free parking. The roadside motel La Luna, somewhere between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio area, was where we ended up and was a comfortable budget option for a couple of nights.
On my first visit to the city, we barely used public transport. In the city for 4 nights/3 days, we bought tickets for the hop on/off tour bus which lasted us for the first 2 days and used the cable car, and even a taxi, for the third day.
The hop on/off bus worked well for us on our first visit, helping us to get our bearings and to see the highlights of the city and learn a bit about it without having to navigate our way around an unfamiliar public transport system.
There were 2 routes to ride, one which took us from Union Square out past Alamo Square – home of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ houses – to Golden Gate Park then back via Fisherman’s Wharf and a second which took us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back and we decided along the way which stops to hop off and explore at.
On my subsequent visits to San Francisco, being more familiar with the city, I have made the effort to use the public transport system, usually purchasing a 1 or 3-day MUNI Visitor Passport allowing unlimited rides on the buses, metro, streetcars and cable cars and have found it to be and easy and convenient system to navigate.
The famous, historic San Francisco cable cars are, in my opinion, the most fun way of travelling across the city but the queues to ride at the terminus for these can be quite long and often, it is difficult to hop on elsewhere as there isn’t always room for new passengers when the cars reach these stops unless people are getting off there.
I try to head to the the Union Square or Hyde Street cable car terminuses either early morning or late evening/night as these are the best times to avoid long queues. If there is a queue, it is at least fun to watch the cable cars come in before swivelling around on the turntable and heading off in the opposite direction again.
When riding, I love to stand on the ledge on the outside of the cable cars, clinging on tightly as they ascend and descend the city’s huge hills but it is possible to find seats inside the cars if you prefer!
The Golden Gate Bridge
Probably the most famous of San Francisco’s sights, the suspension bridge painted the iconic shade of International Orange is a must-see on any visit to the city and there are a range of ways you can cross the bridge.
With the bridge not being visible from a lot of the more touristy areas of the city, it took to the end of my first visit to the city before we caught a glimpse of it while on a visit to the Presidio area. Later that day, we used the hop on/off buses’ Sausalito route to cross the bridge.
The bus took us from Fishermans Wharf to the Marina District where we made a stop at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts building before we drove across the bridge and see it up close. The main thing I remember about this is the wind in my face, whipping my hair into one huge tangle as we sat on the outside deck upstairs on the bus, whizzing across!
I managed to cling onto my camera long enough to take a few photos and luckily, it was a clear afternoon meaning the bridge was completely visible – which isn’t always the case!
Once across the bridge, the bus made a 10 minute stop at a nearby viewpoint where we could look back at it and at San Francisco city across the bay. The bus then continued to the pretty town of Sausalito where it was possible to hop off and explore. Being short on time, we instead stayed on the bus to return back across the bridge to the city.
On my second visit to the San Francisco, we decided to hire bikes from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city and cycle across the bridge. Our hire bikes came with a map and detailed instructions of the route to reach the bridge, Sausalito and continue further to Muir Woods should we wish to.
The cycle to the bridge was mainly easy with some on road and steep uphill sections and it was great fun then cycling across the bridge, being able to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the view.
The weather was mainly on our side with the unpredictable San Francisco fog only occasionally drifting in to obscure the peaks of the bridge. Mainly though, it was clear and sunny.
Once across, it was then down hill into Sausalito where we stopped for lunch and a look around this beautiful bay side town with its cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores before catching the ferry with our bikes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.
It was an easy walk across but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best with the fog covering the bridge for much of our walk across and only clearing occasionally.
On this trip, we also took a sunset catamaran cruise out to the bay but, as much fun as this was, the weather clouded over and the fog descended meaning we didn’t see any sunset and could hardly make out the bridge at all until we were right up close to it!
On my final visit to the city, we were on a self-drive trip where we needed to make a very early start. This meant the fog hadn’t had time to clear at all and we couldn’t see the structure of the bridge at all, it could have been any other road, which was a shame!
If possible, I would definitely recommend cycling across the bridge and including a stop in Sausalito before returning, definitely my favourite way of seeing this famous structure!
Another must-do on my first visit to San Francisco was a trip over to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison. Boats to the island leave from one of the piers near to Fisherman’s Wharf and need to be booked in advance – often well in advance! – from the official Alcatraz Cruises site. We decided on an evening visit, departing the mainland just as the sun was setting – not that we could tell as it had long clouded over.
Once on the island, we were handed headsets and listened to a commentary which guided us around the building while explaining the significance of each room or block and recounted stories from when it was an active prison. Night had fallen by the time we completed our tour and it was an eerie experience being on the island in the dark.
I have since been back in daylight hours and after we’d finished touring the prison, it was possible to stay on the island longer to join Ranger-led talks and find out more.
Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco and a popular area for many visitors to stay in, Fishermans Wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including Pier 39.
I love walking to the end of the pier where you will usually find the famous San Francisco sealions clambering onto pontoons in the bay, barking loudly at each other. It’s always amusing to watch if you can put up with the smell!
You’ll also find the Victorian-style carousel towards the end of the pier, notable for unusually being a double-decker carousel!
From Fishermans Wharf it is possible to walk along the bay front in one direction towards the Embarcadero area with the various piers and jetties and its striking Embarcadero Clock Tower or towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in the other direction. It’s visitor centre is free to look inside or for a fee, you can board some of the old ships docked in the bay at Hyde Street Pier or explore the Maritime Museum.
A bit further along from Hyde Street Pier but still in the Fishermans Wharf area is Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory and now home to various stores and restaurants including the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and cafe for amazing ice cream sundaes!!
A quirkier attraction of San Francisco city, this road is often referred to as ‘the crookedest street in the World’. It is walkable to the top of the street from Fishermans Wharf if you don’t mind steep uphill walks – we had to make a few stops along the way up to catch our breath! – or the cable cars stop here. From the top, you can see the street winding down and watch the cars slowly crawl their way down before walking down to the bottom end of the street for a view of it from the other end.
Feeling a bit more adventurous on our last visit to the city, we not only drove our hire car down it but also took an ‘advanced’ segway tour of the city which involved segwaying down Lombard Street as crowds of tourists videoed and photographed us!
If it’s culture you want, then San Francisco has plenty! As well as the previously mentioned Maritime Museum in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco is home to a variety of museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum – an art museum – and the science museum, The Californian Academy of Science. If art is your thing, the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park is also well worth a visit.
A small but excellent free museum that is worth a visit is the Cable Car Museum, not far from Union Square in the Nob Hill area.
As well as exhibits on the history of the city’s cable car system, the museum is housed at the powerstation for the cable car system and there is a viewing area where you can see the huge wheels whirring and cables shifting powering the cars along through the city!
My favourite San Francisco museum is the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio area of the city. The museum explores the life of Walt Disney and tracks the establishment of the Walt Disney company with plenty of clips from his early animated features and is really interesting for any Disney fan.
Golden Gate Park
Named Golden Gate Park despite it not actually being anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, this huge park – larger than Central Park in New York – is definitely worth a visit. Along with the aforementioned museums, the are plenty of other attractions in the park including the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.
If you don’t want to pay entrance fees into the attractions, there’s plenty to do and see for free. It’s possible to visit the viewing platform at the deYoung Museum without paying to go into the museum itself and there are plenty of gardens, sculpture parks, open spaces, lakes and even waterfalls to explore.
We explored the east side of the park before exiting and catching a bus down to the west end where the park reaches Ocean Beach.
San Francisco Hearts
If you’re wandering around Union Square, you might notice four heart-shaped sculptures, one on each corner of the square, each uniquely decorated. These hearts, part of an art installation and inspired by the Tony Bennett classic I Left My Heart in San Francisco, can be found all over the city.
A google search will bring up various websites listing some of the locations, some in obvious, easy to access places like at the end of Pier 39, some in harder to find places – we found one in a corner of Macy’s in Union Square and another in the foyer of a bank!
It can be fun trying to track them down and a good way to explore the city!
Exploring different areas of the city
The city of San Francisco is made up of many very distinctive areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square/Nob Hill areas which I’ve already mentioned, all of which are worth exploring.
The historic Haight-Ashbury area was made famous in the 1960s for being the birthplace of hippie culture.
Near to the east end of Golden Gate Park, the area has the quirkiness of Camden in London and Venice Beach in LA with its colourful houses, brightly painted murals and eclectic array of mainly independent stores.
If you are in the are, it is also possible to walk to Alamo Square from the main street to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’, a row of colourful Victorian houses. There’s also great views of the city from the top of the hill in Alamo Square Park!
Not far from the Union Square/Nob Hill area, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It’s always fun to walk down its bustling streets with the many market stalls and souvenir stores but my favourite place to visit there is the the Fortune Cookie Factory.
It’s free to enter and watch the fortune cookies being made, although if you want to take photos or videos you are asked to leave a donation, and it is even possible to write your own message to be put into a fortune cookie to give to someone!
Right next to Chinatown is the North Beach area which, confusingly, is not actually anywhere near a beach! This is actually the Italian district of the city and a great place to head to in the evening to find a nice Italian restaurant to eat out at.
Apart from the many Italian restaurants other points of interest in the area include the City Lights Bookstore, a large independent bookstore founded in the early 1950s; The Stinking Rose restaurant – the original garlic restaurant where it’s even possible to order a dessert made with garlic! – The Beat Museum which traces the history of The Beats generation from the 1950s onwards; the pretty Washington Square overlooked by Saints Peter and Paul Church (famous for being the site of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos) and Telegraph Hill where you’ll find San Francisco’s Coit Tower.
Often said to resemble a firefighter’s hose, and coincidentally a monument to San Francisco’s firefighters, the Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill and can be seen from many points in the city.
Walking up to Telegraph Hill there are views of San Francisco bay in one direction and the financial district with the distinct pyramid-shaped TransAmerica building on the other direction. It is possible for a small fee to go up to the top of the Coit Tower to a small observation deck but there’s not lot of room up there and I found the views to be slightly obscured by scratched windows in need of a clean!
There are many other areas of the city worth a visit, the Mission area is a great place to head to for a night out with its many bars and on my next visit I’m planning to visit its Delores Park which is supposed to have great views of the city skyline. Japantown offers many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style spas and I’m yet to visit Treasure Island, an artificial island across the Bay Bridge.
Beyond the city, its also possible to take a trip out to Yosemite National Park to see the highlights – although I would argue that a day there really isn’t enough! – or to the closer Muir Woods which is on my ‘to do list for my next visit. Or head across the bay to visit the cities Oakland and Berkley.
However you spend your time in San Francisco, you’re bound to have a great time in this eclectic, beautiful city.
As American Independence Day approaches, I thought it a good time to look back at my own experience of spending the 4th of July in the USA.
After booking a coast to coast tour of the USA finishing in Los Angeles at the very end of June, it seemed like the perfect excuse to stay a few extra days in order to experience the 4th of July celebrations in the USA. Seeing as I would be travelling alone, I wanted somewhere that would have plenty going on, preferably including a parade and fireworks.
I couldn’t find much information about things going on in Los Angeles itself other than an event at Hollywood Bowl, so I started to look elsewhere, researching the best places to spend the American holiday.
Eventually, I settled on the city of Huntington Beach, Orange County, just a couple of hours south of LA which seemed to have plenty going on over the holiday weekend.
Having decided where I wanted to spend the holiday, there were still a few hurdles to overcome. First of all, how to reach my destination without a car and secondly, where to stay seeing as even early on, hotels were either pretty booked out or had hiked prices to way out of my budget.
I would be staying at an AirBnB in Hollywood at the end of my tour, the first time I had used the service so I was unsure of how it would go but with hotel prices in Huntington Beach being so high, I decided that maybe this would be the best option, the only other affordable one really being a room at a Best Western a few miles out. In Hollywood, I would have my own private bedsit just off Hollywood Boulevard but I was struggling again to find anything similar in my price range for those dates in Huntington Beach so instead, I decided to look at people offering private rooms within their homes. After narrowing my search down, I eventually settled on staying with a retired teacher who lived in a gated community on the south edge of town, from where it was a 5-10 minute walk to the beach and a half hour walk along the board walk to the main part of the city. Having mentioned in my email that I had chosen Huntington Beach because I was looking for a traditional Fourth of July experience and had heard they had a parade and fireworks, my host told me that all the residences in the gated community held a party around the pool in the afternoon which I was welcome to attend while staying with her. An American pool party and BBQ?! – this completely sold it to me that this was the right choice of places to stay!
So with my accommodation sorted, I continued to look into transport options. While it would be less than an hour’s drive there, public transport wise, there were very few options available. Or at least, no straight forward ones as they all involved taking multiple subways and buses, not ideal when lugging a huge suitcase and bag along!
I eventually decided to get the FlyAway bus from Hollywood to LAX then a shared shuttle service straight to the door of my AirBnB accommodation, a bit pricier but worth it to save a lot of time and effort.
Everything ran according to plan and after leaving Hollywood, I arrived in Huntington Beach early afternoon on July 3rd. After meeting my AirBnB host and settling into my room, I took a walk down to the beach and into town. It was already busy and buzzing with an atmosphere of excitement.
Bikes decked out with American flags raced past along the boardwalk all honking their horns, ringing their bells and trailing red, white and blue ribbons. Crowds on the beach regularly broke out into chants of U-S-A, U-S-A, getting louder and louder as more and more people across the beach heard and joined in with them before they petered out again.
As I neared the Huntington Beach Pier, the beach got more crowded. From the Pier, I could see that a surfing competition was being held. Surfers rode the huge waves, scoreboards awarded them points, crowds cheered, TV cameras rolled. Surfing is a huge deal here, even earning Huntington Beach the nickname ‘Surf City’.
I stood and watched for a while before making my way along the pier through the crowds, taking in the atmosphere, browsing in the gift stores and stopping to take in the beautiful views along the coast.
Carrying on into town, I came across an outdoor market also set up for the Fourth of July weekend. I weaved my way around stopping to buy a corn on the cob from one of the stalls before walking away the from the beachfront to find Main Street. This is the liveliest street in Huntington Beach with its restaurants, bars and shops and it would also be the site of tomorrow’s parade.
Having checked out where I would need to head to in the morning, and after grabbing an ice cream!, I returned to the beach and began a slow walk back to my accommodation continuing to drink in the atmosphere around me.
The next day, I was greeted by my host with a ‘Happy Fourth’, the house decorated with red, white and blue decorations. After grabbing some breakfast, I headed back into town ready to watch the big parade.
Main Street was already extremely busy as everyone tried to grab a spot along the pavement. It was possible to book spaces on the bleachers for a price but as I was by myself, I figured it would be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere and sure enough, I soon found a spot right by a stone bollard to perch on when my feet became tired!
While the main parade wasn’t due to start for another 40 minutes, many of the decorated bikes I had witnessed riding back and forth along the boardwalk yesterday were now parading up and down Main Street in a pre-parade ritual. Eventually, they were cleared to make way for the main event.
As the parade began, so did the hollering and the flag waving, the patriotic cheers barely letting up as a seemingly never-ending line of marching bands, highly decorated floats and well-trained horses drifted past and getting noticeably louder at the sight of heroic firefighters and members of the armed forces. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement and goodwill.
As the parade began to come to an end, I ducked out early to beat the crowds and go and grab brunch at the IHOP then I made my way back along the boardwalk and to my accommodation. The earlier cloud had now cleared to be replaced with glorious sunshine – perfect weather for a pool party.
Everyone was really welcoming and it was great to experience an authentic typically American 4th of July celebration complete with hot dogs, burgers and home made potato salad!
That evening, I was already planning on heading to the beach to watch the fireworks but was invited by my AirBnb host to go with her and some friends rather than watch them alone. The beach was even busier than it had been during the day with everyone continuing their parties, singing the national anthem and once again breaking out into regular chants of “U-S-A!”
When the fireworks started they were breath-taking. Probably the most spectacular- and definitely the longest – display I have ever seen and, unlike in the UK where they’re greeted with traditional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, they were greeted with rapturous cheers and applause.
Fireworks over, we packed away our blankets, food and drinks and returned home. I still had a few days left to spend in the OC before flying back to the UK but there was no way they were going to top today. Spending a traditional Fourth of July stateside had been an amazing experience and one I would definitely recommend!
Watch my vlog of my Fourth of July USA experience here:
It was the last full day of our trip and after beginning the day with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, we started to make our way down the California coast towards our final destination of Los Angeles. Too far to travel in a day, we would be spending the night at a motel around the half way point in the city of San Luis Obispo and today’s drive would include plenty of stop offs along the way at various view points along the famous Pacific Coast Highway.
Our first stop was for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a fast food chain which mainly exists in California and had been requested by some group members. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about!
After we’d all eaten, we continued on to our main stop of the day at Santa Cruz Boardwalk. This was a really fun stop off and although we didn’t have time to queue for some of the bigger rides, some of us did have lots fun trying out the spooky walk-through Haunted House before spending the rest of our time in the many souvenir stores, amusement arcades and on the beautiful, sandy beach.
Before leaving we all indulged in some of the many unhealthy snacks on offer – huge Texas doughnuts, funnel cake and various other fried or sugar-filled treats!
From Santa Cruz, we continued our drive down PCH stopping at various breathtakingly-pretty overlooks along the rugged Big Sur coastline.
Our final stop before we reached San Luis Obispo was to see the Elephant Seals at a beach in San Simeon.
Once at our motel and settled in, it was off into San Luis Obispo town for dinner at a local BBQ/diner before returning to our motel for last night drinks.
Our adventure wasn’t over just yet and we began the final day of the tour with a stop at the upmarket coastal city of Santa Barbara. Here we spent some time walking along the pier, souvenir shopping and enjoying the views.
Continuing on to Los Angeles, we avoided the city itself and instead stopped at the beach city of Santa Monica, one of my favourite places in LA. After taking a walk along the beach and yet another pier, a group of us headed inland to Third Street Promenade for some last minute shopping.
Short on time with some of the group having evening flights to make, our original plan to walk from Santa Monica to Venice had to be abandoned and instead we hopped back on the bus to be driven the short distance along the coast.
Venice is always a fun place to visit with it’s quirky shops and stalls lining the boardwalk, fun to watch street performers and the always busy skate park where skateboarded impress onlookers with an array of stunts. We maybe didn’t enjoy or make the most of our visit as much as we should have as the impending goodbyes at the end of our tour loomed over us and we all sat in silence on the van as we left the beach cities behind to make our way to the gateway hotel near LAX airport.
Once there, the tears soon started as the first few group members started to drift away, some making their way to the airport for flights home, some, like myself, off to hotels or AirBnBs elsewhere in the city while others were remaining at the gateway hotel for another night before going home or starting another tour through the Southern states. It had been one of those groups that just really gelled from the outset. We’d all had the time of our lives travelling together across the country and were devastated it was now over but at the same time immensely happy that it had happened to start with and we’d all be leaving with amazing memories to last a lifetime!
Day 2 in California, the last state we’d be visiting on our tour, and we would be leaving the shores of Lake Tahoe to travel to the last National Park of our trip, Yosemite.
Making a few stops along the way at Bridgetown to pick up a few snacks and then Lee Vining for a delicious diner lunch, we still made it to the park for early afternoon. Our first stop was going to be at the highest altitude alpine lake in the park, Tenaya Lake. Some of the group had their swimming suits handy so they could take a dip while the rest of us strolled along its shores enjoying the beautiful views across the lake.
From here, we drove along Tioga Pass, the road winding across the east side of the park, stopping every now and then to enjoy the sweeping views across the park. Our next stop was at Tuolumne Grove where we followed the trail to hike down and see the impressive giant sequoias.
From here we drove out of the park towards our KOA in Mariposa, stopping at a lodge along the way to grab some dinner. Once at our cabins, we were provided with Yosemite National Park maps and the options for the next day were outlined for us. We had the choice of various longer hikes in the park or of spending time in Yosemite Valley where a shuttle bus ran to take us to different points of the park and there were a few shorter hikes available. Deciding to sleep on the decision we all took ourselves back to our cabins.
The next morning, we were up early to get into Yosemite Valley before all the parking spaces disappeared. The group had all decided on different activities for in the park, some had decided to do a long hike up to a waterfall, one had decided to go even further and do a longer, more strenuous hike and the rest of us had decided to have a more relaxing day in the valley area.
After enjoying our horse riding trail so much in Wyoming a few days earlier, a few of us caught the free shuttle bus to the Valley stables to see if there were any slots available that day. Unsuprisingly, they were all booked out so instead we hired bikes and followed the cycle path around the valley area. This was a great way to see the valley area of the park quickly although with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, we had to make a lot of stops along the way!
We parked our bikes up and met up with the rest of the group who had chosen to stay in the valley to hike out to Mirror Lakes, one of the short, easy hikes available in the area but with it being summer, the lakes had pretty much dried up so the mirror effect wasn’t really visible.
After lunch at Yosemite Village and some souvenir shopping at the visitor centre, some of us decided to cool down on the river so after returning our bikes, hired a raft to spend our afternoon floating along. This was a really fun way to spend time in the valley! Once we reached the end of the float, we were returned to the starting point by a shuttle bus and we met up with the rest of the group including those who had spent the day hiking.
Next we grabbed some pizza in Curry Village before making our way back to the Trek van in time to head to a park view point for sunset then returning to our KOA site.
We’d all really enjoyed our time exploring Yosemite National Park and I definitely hoped to return some day in the future.
After our early morning horse ride though the hills of Jackson, it was time to wave a sad goodbye to the beautiful state of Wyoming as we continued on our adventure. It was nearing te end of our epic journey now and tomorrow we would be reaching the final state of our trip, California. But first, we had a long drive day to our overnight stop at Elko, Nevada, the halfway point between our current location and tomorrow’s destination of Lake Tahoe.
After leaving our KOA, we crossed the border from Wyoming into Idaho. We’d just be clipping a corner of this state without really having time to see anything but straight away I could tell it would be a state worth returning to at some point in the future as we passed more beautiful mountainous scenery.
We made a stop just off the highway in the city of Idaho Falls for lunch at an Applebees and then another quick stop at an Idaho tourist centre so those of us collecting souvenirs at each state could grab a magnet/pin or some other Idaho-emblazened item then continued on towards the state of Nevada.
The day was pretty uneventful as we chatted and sang along to cheesy pop and Disney songs in the van, occasionally pulling over for a rest stop. Eventually we reached our motel in the city of Elko. After causing numerous problems for the receptionist after checking in to find we’d been allocated smoking rooms or in some cases, rooms without enough beds and therefore asking to move rooms, we eventually got ourselves settled and met back up to go out for a group dinner.
We ate at a family dining restaurant which basically means you individually order your main item – steak, chops etc – but the sides such as potatoes, vegetables, bread etc are placed in huge portions on the table for the group to share. When the biggest pork chop I’ve ever seen arrived in front of me, I wished I’d got one of those to share too but managed to plough through it.
The next morning was an early start to ensure we had plenty of time at Lake Tahoe. We made a quick stop at a neighbouring casino (when in Nevada…!) to grab breakfast at its Starbucks before continuing on our way.
It was a beautiful day so when we arrived at California’s South Lake Tahoe in the early afternoon, we were dropped off straight at the beach and spent the afternoon walking along the shore, swimming in the crystal clear waters and generally relaxing on the beach.
After the previous night’s not-so-great accommodation, we were delighted to find we were staying in a lovely little B&B that night. We made a quick stop off to drop off our luggage and get showered and changed before catching a shuttle bus to Zephyr Cove, back on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe where we had all signed up for a sunset cruise on the lake.
The cruise included unlimited drinks – champagne or soft drinks and plenty of nibbles and we all had a really fantastic evening hanging out together watching the sun go down over the lake.
After the cruise, we were dropped back in South Lake Tahoe where the town is split across the states of Nevada and California. We wandered through the casino on the Nevada side before crossing the road into California and finding a bar with live music which was still serving food. Pizza’s ordered and eaten, we took the short walk back to our motel to enjoy a night of relative luxury before the next 2 nights in a hostel!