Known as the Pacific Coast Highway, California U.S. Route 101 (or 1 in some stretches) runs directly along the Pacific Ocean for 790 miles, from San Diego all the way to the Oregon border. In San Diego, 70 miles of Highway 101 features some of the coolest beach towns and most beautiful scenery anywhere in California. Cement slabs, chain restaurants and strip malls have not found their way here, but rather surf shops and funky boutiques housed in everything from Victorian homes to an old 1950s gas station, local cafes and coffee houses, friendly locals and miles of sandy beaches and beautiful cliffs make this stretch of highway a bucket list adventure. The entire 935-mile route of Highway 101 in California was given historic designation by the State of California in 1998.
When Fr. Junipero Serra began building his string of missions up the California coastline in the late 1700s, he needed a wagon road to connect them and so he constructed California’s first highway. He called it El Camino Real, a term used at the time to describe primitive wagon roads, which translates to “King’s Highway” or “the Royal Road.” For nearly two centuries this road, later officially known as U.S. Highway 101, was the principal north-south route in California.
With the construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s, most of Highway 101 was bypassed, leaving much of the original route lightly affected by California’s explosive growth. Because of this, historic U.S. 101 provides a look back at California in its early days.
The entire 935-mile route of Highway 101 in California was given historic designation by the State of California in 1998.
In San Diego County, Oceanside marks the beginning of the 101 in the north. From I-5, take the Coast Highway exit and begin travelling south along Historic Highway 101.
A classic beach community, Oceanside has some of California’s widest and sandiest beaches.
• Look for the old iron bells that dot the highway. They are the El Camino Bells, erected in 1906 to signal to travelers that a California Mission was nearby. Mission San Luis Rey, the largest of the California Missions, is just 3 miles east of the highway in Oceanside.
• The California Surf Museum is a great homage to the fervent surf culture of Southern California; antique surfboards, historic photos, and exhibits on early pioneer surfers line the walls.
• Specializing in “comfort food,” the 101 Café is the oldest continuously operating restaurant on the 101 in California. Visitors and locals alike enjoy this 50s-style diner complete with old-fashioned jukebox and historic photos, including those of Highway 101.
• The Star Theater, still home to live theater performances, is a perfect example of “Googie” architecture (Space-Age themed styles) that was popular in the 1950s.
• The Oceanside Pier is the longest over-water wooden pier on the West Coast. Enjoy the 360-degree scenic view of the Pacific Ocean and coastline to the north and south.
• Fun local eateries and watering holes include Hello Betty Fish House, Stone Company Store, a tasting room for the famed local brewery, the Privateer Marketplace for gourmet sandwiches and a wine bar, and Masters Kitchen & Cocktails for comfort food and innovative libations.
Carlsbad is home to beautiful sandy beaches, three unique lagoons, outstanding shopping and world-class sporting events.
• Enjoy an elegant spa treatment at Alt Karlsbad, which gave Carlsbad its name. This historic landmark is where water was found in 1882 that had similar qualities to the water found at a famous European spa called Karlsbad in Bohemia (Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic today).
• Carlsbad Village is walking distance from Highway 101 and Carlsbad’s beautiful beaches. The Village is home to many fine restaurants, cafes and lots of antique shopping.
• On the east side of Highway 101 in the elegant Victorian mansion that was built in 1887, savor sushi and modern cuisine by talented chef Rob Ruiz at Land & Water Company.
• Just inland on the east side of Interstate 5 is LEGOLAND® California Resort, where kids power their way through rides, shows and Lego sculptures. The Resort is also home to the world’s first LEGOLAND® Water Park and SEA LIFE® Carlsbad Aquarium, providing a kids-eye view of the undersea world.
• Flower lovers are drawn to The Flower Fields of Carlsbad California where from early March to early May they can walk among nearly 50 acres of flowering giant tecolote ranunculus that grow in spectacular brilliance across rolling hills along the east side of Interstate 5.
Known as both the surf and flower capital of the world, Encinitas is also a hip beach community. Here, you’ll discover casual restaurants, beaches, boutique shops, galleries and coffeehouses along Historic Highway 101.
• The downtown Encinitas portion of Highway 101 is lined with interesting shops and cafes. Explorers will delight in poking through trunks of treasures housed in everything from funky store fronts to artsy cottages.
• The La Paloma Theater, still operating, has a rich Hollywood history. The gala event in 1928 was attended by Hollywood starlet and soon-to-be Academy Award winner Mary Pickford. It has been rumored that she rode her bicycle all the way from Fairbanks Ranch, where she lived, for the event.
• Encinitas offers great out-of-the-way beach spots as well as popular beaches that include Moonlight, which is perfect for families. Swami’s Beach, made famous by the Beach Boys’ hit song, “Surfin’ USA,” is one of San Diego County’s prime surf spots and Beacons which is a little more off-the-beaten path.
• Encinitas is home to the San Diego Botanic Garden. The gardens feature 37 acres of unusual plants from all over the world, including the largest bamboo collection in the United States.
• Fun eateries include global cuisine and music at La Papagayo, craft beer and gourmet sausages at Regal Seagull, ahi poke and plate lunches at The Lanai, craft coffee and homemade pastries at Pannikin Coffee & Tea, set in a converted train station, and fresh catch and farm fresh veggies at Fish 101.
This small coastal community lures surfers, joggers and beach walkers as well as designers, art lovers and savvy shoppers. Sprinkled along Highway 101, you’ll also find cozy cafes, sushi joints, pizza pubs and Mexican authentic eats.
• Cedros Design District with its 2½ blocks of brightly painted industrial buildings has attracted a vibrant community of merchants, fashion designers, importers, artists and craftsmen. Its more than 85 unique shops include art galleries, home decor imports, boutiques, spas, cafes and restaurants.
• Located in the Cedros Design District and called one of the hottest clubs on the West Coast by Rolling Stone magazine, the legendary Belly-Up Tavern features some of America’s finest live music performances in an intimate setting.
• The city’s main beach, Fletcher Cove, features excellent surfing, swimming, a giant grassy lawn for picnicking, a playground and free parking.
• Creativity is a passion in Solana Beach, expressed in its architecture and public art. Here are a few examples to see when in Solana Beach:
• The Solana Beach Train Station is an award-winning structure designed by leading San Diego architect Rob Quigley, and next to the train station you’ll see the “Star” sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
• Look for the grand entrance and artistic touches throughout the Solana Beach portion of the Coastal Rail Trail, a 12-foot-wide, 33-mile trail that borders the train tracks in San Diego’s North County Coastal. For train watchers, the San Diego Coastal Rail Trail is a real thrill, and for joggers, bicyclists, and skaters, it has become a recreational destination.
Since the legendary days of Hollywood’s golden years, Del Mar has been the destination of choice for many a movie star, as well as those with a taste for fast horses, beautiful beaches and award-winning cuisine. The historic and charming Del Mar Village offers a variety of unique shops and renowned restaurants.
• Bing Crosby was instrumental in founding the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club to indulge a passion to race horses by the sea. Today, people still swarm to the Del Mar Races from mid-July to early September at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, “where the turf meets the surf.” A second Bing Crosby season brings horse racing the fairgrounds during fall as well.
• The Del Mar Fairgrounds plays host to the San Diego County Fair from mid-June through early July each year. It is one of the largest county fairs in the country.
• If you enjoy shopping in elegant boutiques, head up the hill to the Del Mar Plaza. Having a drink and relaxing on the top-level patio is worth the trip for a scenic ocean view.
• Stroll along miles of rocky shoreline or either of Del Mar’s beautiful beaches where you can take a spontaneous dip or settle into your favorite book.
• For coastal dining, head to Jake’s for fish tacos and mai tais or try Poseidon for an oceanfront brunch of eggs Benedict or surf-and-turf omelets.
Spanish for “The Jewel,” La Jolla is a picturesque coastal community. The cliffs and La Jolla Cove form a dramatic frame to the Pacific Ocean, and the beaches are an excellent spot for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, diving and surfing. Enjoy La Jolla’s array of fine and historic hotels, downtown boutique shopping, award-winning restaurants and theater, and art galleries.
• Along the beautiful coastline you’ll see Torrey Pines State Beach, a popular beach for families, and Torrey Pines State Park, featuring eight miles of walking trails with fabulous ocean views below and paragliders from the nearby glider port soaring above.
• Just up the road, witness the famed Torrey Pines Golf Course, home to the annual Farmers Insurance Open and the 2008 U.S. Open.
• Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the renowned Birch Aquarium at Scripps presents aspects of oceanography through interactive exhibits, a hands-on touch tank, and kayaking and whale watching tours with its naturalists.
• The Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, founded by actors Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer, is a regional theater with a national reputation.
• Continue on to the upscale Village of La Jolla, called the “Rodeo Drive” of San Diego. You’ll discover shopping and dining on a whole new level, just steps from the Pacific.
• The La Jolla Ecological Reserve is a popular place for kayaking, snorkeling and scuba. Families get a kick out of Seal Beach, where these lackadaisical sunbathing sea creatures ran the humans out years ago.
• You’ll also find interesting architecture by a local innovator, Irving Gill. His simple designs include the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego – La Jolla and the Bed and Breakfast Inn at La Jolla.
While each of these coastal communities has its own unique character, they all share San Diego’s laid-back, welcoming surf culture vibe. So the next time you’re in San Diego, rent a car, roll down the windows, merge on to Highway 101 and lean into a true SoCal lifestyle.