The Best 8-Day California Vacation

eight days in california
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An alluring vacation destination, California has it all.  From mountains to beaches, and everything in between, it’s no surprise that people flock to the west coast to experience this once-in-a-lifetime trip.  With this 8-day itinerary expect to see the best that California offers.  Spend time in Napa Valley, a premier wine destination.  As you continue down the coast hitting major cities like San Francisco, drive through the rugged coastal landscape of Big Sur, and end up on the beautiful beaches in central California.  This 8-day trip is perfect for nurses who bundle their workdays together, working Sunday-Monday-Tuesday of week one and Thursday-Friday-Saturday of week two, giving you 8-days off with no need to take PTO.

 


This is part of my “8 Day Vacay” series!  A travel series aimed at nurses who are looking to take 8 days off from the hospital (with no need to take PTO) and travel to destinations both near and far.  For more information, read A Guide to the “8 Day Vacay” and How to Make the Most Out of Your “8 Day Vacay”


 

The Ultimate California Vacation (in 8 Days!)

For this particular trip, I highly recommend renting a car as you drive the coast.  If you don’t plan to rent a car there really isn’t a great way to navigate the California coast.  You can do this trip from south to north or north to south.  This post is written as if you’re traveling from north to south, but again, it doesn’t matter which way you go!

 

Highlights of California

  • San Francisco

  • Napa Valley

  • Carmel

  • Big Sur

  • Paso Robles

  • Pioneertown

  • Joshua Tree

  • Santa Barbara

 

WEDNESDAY – Depart for California

Depart for California with plans to fly into San Francisco (SFO).  (If you plan to do this trip South to North, you may consider flying into LAX and renting a car to drive to Santa Barbara or flying directly into Santa Barbara).

Upon arrival to SFO, I don’t think that you need to rent a car immediately considering you’ll be exploring San Francisco first, before moving onto wine country.  Parking is expensive and hard to come by in San Francisco so you don’t need a car – yet.

SFO is only about 15-miles south of the city of San Francisco.  You can easily get to the city by using rideshares such as Uber or Lyft.  Or you can take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) into the city.  If you do take the BART you can get to it by taking the free AirTrain to the garage where you’ll then need to purchase a Clipper card to board the BART.   A one-way ride is $5.35 and will take about 30-minutes to get downtown.

Assuming you arrive at the city by nightfall, check into your hotel/Airbnb and head out to a fun and swanky dinner!   Below I’ve listed the best neighborhoods to stay in and where to grab dinner!

 

WHERE TO STAY IN SAN FRANCISCO

You can find anything from luxurious hotels to cheap motels, to affordable Airbnbs in the city.  I would search for somewhere to stay in the following neighborhoods:  Cow Hollow, Russian Hill, Presidio, North Beach, or the Financial District.  At all costs, I would avoid staying in the Tenderloin.

 

WHERE TO EAT IN SAN FRANCISCO

One of my favorite things about San Francisco is the incredible food scene in the city.  The fine dining is superb, the restaurants are swanky, and you can even get fabulous takeout food!  The city is also well-known for Asian cuisine and it’s where I’ve eaten some of the best Asian food in my life.

For your first dinner in the city, I highly recommend making reservations well ahead of time at Rich Table. Rich Table is an American restaurant that serves “California” cuisine and the food is simply out of this world.  The menu is constantly changing based on seasons so there’s always something new and exciting to try.

 


Read more:  15+ of the Best Restaurants in San Francisco


 

THURSDAY – San Francisco

San Francisco is such an incredible city.  There are so many unique things to do like riding bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, spending your day at one of the many parks in the city, visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, or spending time in Chinatown.  The options for fun are endless!

Wake up early Thursday morning to spend your day walking through some of the famous San Francisco parks.  Grab pastries from the famous (and oh so delicious) Ariscault Bakery before walking through Golden Gate Park or the Presidio.  (There are more things to see and do in Golden Gate Park, but I think the Presidio is insanely beautiful and more unique).  If you have the time, I recommend strolling through both areas!

Depending on the weather, there are many different ways to spend your afternoon.  If it’s rainy, you can explore the different museums in San Francisco.  If it’s nice and sunny you can head to the beach (I like Baker Beach or Mile Rock Beach), or rent bikes and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito.  If you’d rather stay in the city and explore all of San Francisco’s famous sites, don’t miss the Palace of Fine Arts, Lombard Street, the Painted Ladies, and Pier 39.

 

FRIDAY – Napa Valley

 

Before heading up north to Napa Valley, wake up early and walk to Twin Peaks at sunrise.  It’s an easy walk that takes you uphill through one of the most prominent areas in San Francisco and when you reach the top you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the city.

 

TRANSPORTATION TO/IN NAPA VALLEY

To get to Napa Valley you’ll need to rent a car.  I usually search on Kayak to find the cheapest car rentals in the city.  From San Francisco, you’ll drive about an hour and a half north to reach Napa Valley.  Once you’re in Napa you can drive from winery to winery, but to be safe, I suggest parking at your hotel and getting a rideshare from place to place.  Uber and Lyft are both pretty widely accessible, but you may have to reserve in advance (I usually start to look for rides about 20 minutes from the time I’m ready to leave).

 

WHERE TO STAY IN NAPA VALLEY

As for where to stay in Napa Valley, there are so many incredible hotels and Airbnbs.  You can find boutique hotels, hotel chains, luxury hotels, and even family-run hotels.  Plus there is a plethora of Airbnbs that you can rent as well.  If you want to stay in the heart of downtown Napa I recommend Andaz Napa, Archer Hotel Napa, or the Airbnb “Casa Alta” (although this is more fit for a group than one or two people).   If you want to stay further north of Napa the Lavender, A Four Sisters Inn in Yountville is a great choice.

 

HOW TO SPEND A DAY IN NAPA VALLEY

When you first get to Napa, stop at Model Bakery to grab one of Oprah’s “favorite things” – the English muffins with jam!  From Model, I suggest either dropping your car off at your hotel or driving straight to your first wine tasting.  (I suggest booking all wine tastings in advance as reservations fill up fast!).

 


For where to wine taste, make sure to read:  The Best Vineyards to Visit in Napa Valley


 

For lunch, I highly recommend stopping at the Oakville Grocery for simple sandwiches and salads.  Or you can build your own picnic with a variety of cheese and meats that are offered at the store.  And for dinner, I highly recommend making reservations at Angele Restaurant and Bar, an incredible French restaurant on the river.

 


If you need more guidance on visiting Napa, make sure to read:  The Ultimate Napa Valley Travel Guide.  And if you don’t want to stay in Napa and instead want to drive back down and spend the night in San Francisco, make sure to read:  From San Francisco:  The Perfect Day Trip to Napa Valley.

 

Lastly, if Sonoma is more up your alley, check out:

Sonoma Wine Tasting – Which Vineyards to Visit if You Only Have One Day

Spending the Day in Healdsburg – The Best Healdsburg Wineries to Visit


 

SATURDAY – Carmel + Big Sur + Paso Robles

Paso Robles

 

TRANSPORTATION TO PASO ROBLES

From Napa Valley to Paso Robles the drive is four hours south.  However, I highly recommend first stopping in Carmel for lunch and then taking the long way to Paso Robles by hopping on Highway 1 through Big Sur.  In total, this drive should take close to six hours.

 

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA

After a full day of wine tasting, make your way south down to Carmel California.  Carmel is about a 2.5-hour drive from Napa located right on the California coast.  It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and deserves a spot on your 8 day California adventure.

As you pull in towards Carmel, make sure to take the 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach from Monterrey to Carmel.  It’s one of the most beautiful drives in California!  The drive begins at Pacific Grove where you’ll pay $10.50 to begin the drive.

Once you reach the uber-cute town of Carmel, get out and walk around the downtown area.  There are tons of boutique shops and high-end retail stores to pop in and check out.  I also recommend stopping for lunch at La Bicyclette, a French-Italian fusion restaurant.

While Carmel is incredible, I don’t recommend staying for long as you still need to make your way towards Paso Robles via Big Sur.  I highly recommend making sure that you’re doing this drive during the daylight hours so that you can see the beauty of Big Sur and Highway 1.

 

BIG SUR

After lunch in Carmel, it’s time to drive one of the most incredible drives in the world – Highway 1 through Big Sur.  Big Sur is a beautiful, and expansive stretch of coastline that takes you from Carmel to San Simeon.  The drive is approximately 80-miles, all down a two-lane highway.  There are tons of stops along Big Sur, but if you’re crunched for time, enjoy the coastline from your window!  (I do, however, highly recommend stopping at Bixby Bridge!).

 

PASO ROBLES

Once you reach San Simeon, signaling the end of Big Sur, you have about a 45-minute drive east to get to Paso Robles.  Check into your hotel and head downtown for dinner at Fish Gaucho.

 

WHERE TO STAY IN PASO ROBLES

The great thing about Paso Robles is that it’s relatively small and easy to get around.  You can check into a hotel, there are tons of great hotels located in and around Paso Robles, or you can go the Airbnb route.  When I visited Paso Robles I stayed in this cute, centrally located Airbnb that was within walking distance of downtown.

 

SUNDAY – Paso Robles

Paso Robles is an off-the-beaten-path wine destination located south of San Francisco and north of Los Angeles.  It’s quickly gaining in popularity as winemakers in the area are making a splash standing up to big names in wine throughout France and Napa Valley.  The reason Paso Robles is on your “8-day vacay” itinerary is that it’s a beautiful, fun, and relaxing destination that is the perfect stop to break up your busy week.

 


For things to do in Paso Robles (including wineries to visit), don’t miss:  The Best Things to Do in Paso Robles to help plan your day


 

MONDAY – Pioneertown & Joshua Tree

After getting your fix of wine tasting, it’s time to head to the California desert!  Make the drive further southeast until you make it to San Bernadino County.  Before driving towards Joshua Tree, (where I recommend staying the night), stop in Pioneertown.  Pioneertown is a unique and historical town famous for being the backdrop to many movie and music videos throughout history.  You can grab lunch at one of the town restaurants – The Red Dog Saloon, a saloon-style bar that serves Mexican fare.  Or eat at the infamous Pappy and Harriet’s, a classic bar set-up with live music in the evenings.

 

WHERE TO STAY IN JOSHUA TREE

I highly recommend staying at Mojave Sands in Joshua Tree.  Mojave Sands is located right off Twentynine Palm Highway, making it a great location to explore Joshua Tree.  The motel is a modern escape from the desert heat, with twinkle lights, fountains, and a long table to gather around outside.  There are only five rooms so it’s easy to meet your neighbors, or better yet – if you’re coming with a group, rent the entire property.

 

JOSHUA TREE

After leaving Pioneertown, a 20-minute drive east will bring you to Joshua Tree.  Joshua Tree has made quite a splash as of late for its beautiful sunsets, chic desert vibes, incredibly luxurious hotel and Airbnb properties, and its rugged rock formations.  Truthfully, Joshua Tree is an art lovers’ paradise with cool thrift shops and art stores around town.

During the afternoon, spend your time around town at the different shops.  I enjoyed visiting The Station Joshua Tree, Cactus Huggers, The Mincing Mockingbird, and the Beauty Bubble Salon.  After a day of shopping make sure to head to Joshua Tree National Park for an epic sunset situation.  One of the best spots in the park for sunset views is at Cap Rock.  Make sure to arrive early enough to leave yourself with time to climb up a few rocks for good views while it’s still light out.

For dinner, I recommend the lively Joshua Tree Saloon.  (The jalapeno poppers are to die for).

 

TUESDAY – Santa Barbara

After a day in the desert, it’s time to head back to the coast and stay in one of my favorite places in all of California – Santa Barbara.  (Please note, Palm Springs is also an easy drive to make from Joshua Tree if you’d rather stay in the desert.  Read this post for all things Palm Springs to guide your travels!).

Santa Barbara is located right on the Pacific Ocean and is a beautiful, European-like town with Spanish influence.  The streets are lined with outdoor cafes and palm trees, the beaches are well-maintained, and the weather is beautiful year-round.  It’s an ideal way to end your 8-day California adventure.

 

TRANSPORTATION TO SANTA BARBARA

Keep in mind that you’ll be driving through Los Angeles on your way from Joshua Tree to Santa Barbara.  I recommend leaving at a time that won’t cause you to land in Los Angeles during people’s morning commutes.  While it’ll be hard to avoid traffic altogether, the traffic in Los Angeles is crazy and can add hours to your drive.

Without traffic, the drive from Joshua Tree to Santa Barbara should be about 3.5 hours.

 

WHERE TO STAY IN SANTA BARBARA

Unfortunately, Santa Barbara is quite expensive and I have yet to find an affordable hotel to stay in that is up to my standards.  While I’ve stayed in “affordable” places in Santa Barbara, I wouldn’t recommend them.  This might be the place where you’ll have to spend a little bit more money if you want to stay in town (which I do recommend).

If you’re looking to go all out, Hotel Californian is a beautiful property in an excellent location.

 

SPENDING A DAY IN SANTA BARBARA

There are so many fun things to see and do in Santa Barbara!  I highly recommend starting your day on State Street, where you can walk by all the outdoor cafes, wine shops, and boutique stores.  I would also walk down to Stearns Wharf and visit the Deep Sea Tasting Room, a rooftop wine tasting experience overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean.

From there, make your way towards the Funk Zone, a small neighborhood in Santa Barbara that was converted into a wine tasting area with 15 different tasting rooms.  (Check out this post for a guide to the Funk Zone and which wineries to visit!).

For dinner, I highly recommend making reservations at Loquita or The Lark.

 


For more on visiting Santa Barbara, don’t miss:

California’s Best Kept Secret – Santa Barbara, the American Riviera

Places to Eat in Santa Barbara – 10 Restaurants You MUST Try

Spending 2 Days in Santa Barbara; The Ultimate Santa Barbara Itinerary


 

WEDNESDAY – Depart California

On your last day in California, f you have time before your flight, I recommend heading to Hendry’s Beach to eat breakfast at the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach.

To fly home, you can either fly out of Santa Babara or Los Angeles.  Flying out of Santa Barbara might cost more money but is much more convenient than driving to LAX.  If you do decide to fly out of LAX keep in mind that you’ll need to budget more time for traffic!

And just like that your “8-Day Vacay” is over!  Allowing you to arrive back for your last three shifts of the week renewed, refreshed, and ready to take on whatever the hospital throws at you!

 

Trip Additions

Solvang

If you have more than eight days to spend and you’re looking to explore more of California, other amazing places deserve a visit.  Head north to Tahoe to hike in the summer and ski in the winter.  Spend extra time in wine country exploring Healdsburg, a beautiful wine region in Sonoma.  Go south to Temecula for more wine tasting.  And even visit the European-style town of Solvang.  Read the following posts to be inspired by more California destinations that are waiting to be explored!

 


Wine Tasting in Los Olivos – The Best Vineyards to Visit

The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Solvang, California

From San Francisco:  Hiking Mt Tamalpais

A Wintery Escape from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe

How to Plan An Epic Wine Trip Through 5 Different California Wine Regions


 

Best Time to Visit California

Because the north and the south of California experience very different climates, the best time to take this trip is in the spring, summer, or fall.  I’d particularly suggest the spring and fall for cooler temperatures as you make your way south and with fewer crowds.  However, if you can’t swing it then summer or winter is also perfectly acceptable!  Just bear in mind that you may need to pack warmer weather clothes for San Francisco and Napa and cooler clothes once you start to head south.

 

How Much to Budget for a California Road Trip

California is a relatively expensive state.  Expect hotel stays, Airbnb stays, food, and drink to be a bit more expensive than you may be used to.  I recommend budgeting more money than you’d think to just to be safe.  Know that you can also make this trip as cheap as you want (staying in motels, your car, etc) or as luxurious as you want by staying in five-star hotels and dining at expensive restaurants.

The other thing to keep in mind, especially when visiting Napa, is that prices are on the much higher end there too.  While you can find vineyards that charge $30 for a tasting, more often the vineyards will charge up to $75 per tasting.  Keep that in mind when making wine tasting reservations.

 

WHAT TO BUDGET FOR

  • Car rental ($80/day)
  • Hotel/Airbnb stays ($80-$200/day)
  • Food & drink ($40-$150/day)
  • Activities – Museums, bike rentals, wine tastings, etc ($100/day [varies on activity])

Total:  $2,000-$3,600 for a single traveler (again, this trip is what you make it and if you want to make it cheaper or more expensive you certainly can!)

 


If you need help budgeting for travel, make sure to check out How I Save Money to Travel and Build a Hefty “Travel Savings” Each Year


 

*Please note that all prices are subject to change.  These prices are approximations based on my previous experience traveling through California

 

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passportsandpreemies
passportsandpreemies

Kylee is a traveling Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) nurse with a love for solo travel, wine, and Taylor Swift. Inspiring nurses to travel both near and far, Kylee began Passports and Preemies in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia. Passports and Preemies was created as a way to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee is the original creator of the “8 Day Vacay” – a vacation geared towards nurses who aim to take advantage of the potentially 8 days off between work weeks with no need to use PTO.

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