The Ultimate One Week Central California Itinerary

One Week Central California Itinerary

Spending a week in central California will give visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in what is known as one of the most beautiful areas of the USA.  Our itinerary will take you through vibrant San Francisco, the relaxing wine country of Napa Valley to the north, and the dramatically beautiful area of Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur to the south.  This Central California Itinerary includes:

  • Two Days in San Francisco
  • Three Days in Napa Valley
  • Two Days in Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur

With this itinerary you’ll be taken through these three very different areas with a taste of some of the best that central California has to offer.  And in our opinion – it’s one of the best areas of the state!

Our driving route during our central California trip

When we went

We traveled to central California in October 2022.  The weather was perfect!  While exploring San Francisco, we had clear blue skies and temperatures in the 60s.  Once in Napa, which tends to be a bit warmer, we experienced lovely 60-70 sunny days.  And along the coast where it is a bit cooler, it was also sunny and beautiful with temperatures in the low 60s.  

San Francisco

Where we stayed

At the beginning of the trip we stayed at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco.  At the end of the trip we had one night before a very early morning flight so we stayed near the airport at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront.  Both were great places to stay.

Before our trip, I had heard a lot of negative reviews on San Francisco as of late.  I’m happy to report that was not our experience at all.  We found the city to be clean, vibrant, and wonderful to explore.  Our experience now was the same as when we visited in 2012:  San Francisco is a fantastic city to visit! 

DAY 1

Today is a full day of exploring in San Francisco!  Here is what is on the agenda:

  • Chinatown
  • Fisherman’s Wharf & Pier 39/Musée Mécanique
  • Great views of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Sausalito
  • Lunch:  Scoma’s
  • Alamo Park
  • Dinner:  Seven Hills

Begin the day by walking through colorful Chinatown.  The brightly colored buildings and people flitting about going about their day makes it feel as though you are transported to China!  This is one of the largest Chinese settlement outside of China and it’s spectacular.  

Chinatown | San Francisco

Kids find a visit to the Golden Gate Cookie Factory a fun stop.  When we visited in 2012, we just popped in to watch them stuffing fortunes into cookies.  We could take photos and get a “free” sample if we put money in the tip jar, which we did.  The kids loved it!

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory | San Francisco

From here it’s an easy walk down to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Once down there, be sure to look for Pier 39.  Here you’ll find the typical touristy shops but the sea lions basking in the sun are not to be missed!

Pier 39 | San Francisco 

Next, it’s time to take in some great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  We have been to the following locations for views of the Golden Gate:

  1. Baker Beach
  2. Fort Point
  3. Crissy Field
  4. Fort Baker

Let’s start with Baker Beach – I don’t recommend this one with small kids!  While the beach is enticing, it is notoriously too rough to swim in.  Also, there are sections of the beach that are clothing optional.  I had read about this ahead of time but completely forgotten about it when we first got there.  Imagine my surprise, taking my mom and my 16-year-old daughter here!?  Both of them found it absolutely hilarious and a bit eye-rolling, but thankfully they took it in stride.  They stayed close to the north end, near the entrance, while I walked the expanse of sand to get closer views of the bridge.  While I did get some great views of the bridge, I would say skip this viewpoint with younger kids!

Baker Beach | San Francisco

Fort Point is a great place to view the Golden Gate Bridge up close.  We enjoyed taking in the views here as they offered lovely up close views with a nice walking path along the way.

Fort Point | San Francisco

Crissy Field is another great spot, just east of The Golden Gate Viewpoint.  When we visited back in 2012 this is where we came.  The kids found the large expanse of sand fun to run in while viewing the bridge.  I recommend this as the best viewpoint of the Golden Gate Bridge with small kids.

Crissy Field | San Francisco

Fort Baker also provides great views of the Golden Gate, but from the other side of the bridge in Marin County.  This is a great place to stop for views on the way to Sausalito or Muir Woods.  When we were here the Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in Karl (the name of the fog!) 🙂

Foggy Fort Baker | San Francisco

Another great way to see the Golden Gate Bridge is from on it – while riding bikes!  We had wanted to do this but with my mom in tow we opted to just ride across it in an Uber on our way to Sausalito.

Sausalito, located right across the bay from San Francisco, is a great place to spend an afternoon.  Here you’ll find great waterfront shops and restaurants.  To get here, you can self-drive (finding parking might be difficult, however) or take the ferry if the ferry times work for you.  We took an Uber here as we had a lunch reservation following our time at The Golden Gate Viewpoint.  

While here, we enjoyed a great lunch at Scoma’s Sausalito, a cozy seafood restaurant right on the bay.  We watched sailboats float by, kayakers paddling, and the city of San Francisco sparkling in the distance.  Our lunch was delicious, especially if you love seafood.  I enjoyed my chicken entree although Mike and Ava raved about their seafood lunch.  Afterwards, we strolled around town, doing a little shopping, and ended our time in Sausalito with ice cream.  

Heading back to the city, we had one more stop, Alamo Park.  You might recognize this scene:

Alamo Park | San Francisco

If you’ve seen the TV show Full House then these houses, collectively known as The Painted Ladies, may look familiar as they are featured in the opening credits.  Not only are these houses a beautiful representation of Victorian architecture, but the sprawling city of San Francisco behind it makes for a beautiful view.  

While here, we enjoyed watching a commercial being filmed and of course the entertaining people watching that comes from urban parks.  We grabbed coffee from a food truck and relaxed for a bit after a busy day of sightseeing behind us.

After visiting Alamo Park, we headed back to the hotel before our dinner out.  Dinner this evening was at Seven Hills, a cozy neighborhood Italian restaurant.  In my opinion, it is better suited for older kids/teens.  I don’t recall a children’s menu but even if so, the ambiance seemed better for older ones.  We thoroughly enjoyed our meal here!  The food was delectable, service outstanding, and wines paired were perfect.  After our dinner, we enjoyed a drink in the hotel lobby to cap off our first day in San Francisco.

DAY 2

Wrapping up your last full day in San Francisco, today’s itinerary will hit the following:

  • Alcatraz
  • Lunch:  Hillstone
  • Cable Car
  • Exploratorium
  • Golden Gate Park

Today begins with an exciting adventure to a former prison!  You’ve likely heard of Alcatraz, located on a rocky outcrop in San Francisco Bay. 

Alcatraz | San Francisco

Alcatraz has quite the storied past.  The imposing fortress began as an island prison, holding many notable people over the years, such as Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone.  It finally shut its doors as a prison in 1963.  After that, it was occupied by Native Americans for two years.  The US National Park Service acquired it in 1972.  Today, visitors are ferried back and forth from the mainland to the island to walk through the prison and see this infamous place up close while listening to audio from one-time inmates, guards, and others give their commentaries.

Interior of Alcatraz | San Francisco

We recommend getting tickets to Alcatraz ahead of time on the website or it could very well be sold out for your dates.  There is only one way to get there, via ferry ran by the National Park Service.  Your ticket will include the round trip ferry ride, entrance to Alcatraz, and audio guide.  Click this link to be taken to the website.

A great place for lunch following a visit to Alcatraz is Hillstone.  

Of course what visit to San Francisco would be complete without seeing the famous cable cars clanging away as they haul up and down the hills of San Francisco?!  Cable cars were invented here about 150 years ago and were named a National Historic Site in the 1960s.  

A historic cable car | San Francisco

One can ride them still to this day, of course, but if you prefer more modern modes of transportation there is a great spot to get a photo op:  The Powell and Market Streets Turnaround.  When we visited in 2012 we saw a couple cable cars parked here and got a quick photo op approved by the driver!

The kids on a cable car | San Francisco

If with younger kids, now is a good time to visit the Exploratorium.  This interactive museum is perfect for kids as they are encouraged to touch, play with, maneuver, and experiment to their hearts content.  Definitely a museum unlike any other, it’s a great place to hang out indoors.  Our kids had a blast here.

If the weather is pleasant consider visiting Golden Gate Park.  This park features a lot of events throughout the year, so be sure to check the calendar on the website ahead of time.  Otherwise, one of the park’s most popular places to visit is the Japanese Tea Garden, a serene place to explore Japanese architecture, enjoy a cup of Japanese tea, and of course take many photos of this beautiful place.

Napa Valley

DAY 3

Today you’ll be leaving San Francisco and heading north to Napa.  On today’s agenda:

  • Muir Woods
  • Drive to Napa
  • Laird Family Estate
  • Dinner:  Oxbow Public Market

You’ll be heading north to Napa Valley, but have a stop first – Muir Woods!  There are a two ways to do this visit:

  1. Pack up and check out of the hotel.  You won’t need to backtrack this way as you’ll head north out of the city, stop at Muir Woods, and then continue on to Napa Valley.  This option means you’ll have to store your luggage in the car while visiting Muir Woods, however.  You need to decide if this option is best for you.  Admittedly, this is what we chose to do and all was well.  Our luggage was safely secure in our trunk and we took all valuables with us in backpacks (cameras, laptops, etc).
  2. Pack up, check out of your hotel, but have the hotel hold on to your luggage.  This option means you’ll have to come back to your hotel after visiting Muir Woods and collect your luggage, and then head back north, but it’s worth it if you want the peace of mind.

A visit to Muir Woods to see the coastal redwoods is another “must do” if visiting San Francisco.  Visitor count continues to rise so there is now a parking reservation required.  To reserve your parking check out this website.   

We loved the soft walking paths due to the fallen pine needles and the earthy, pine smell of the redwoods as we explored this park.  We opted for just a few short trails and plenty of photo ops before we were on our way.  If you can’t make it further north to the even bigger redwoods, this is perfect!

Ava, Braden, and I in a redwood tree | Muir Woods

Now it’s time to make your way to Napa Valley.  

Where we stayed

Andaz Napa | Napa Valley, California

The hotel is centrally located in downtown Napa.  The location is convenient in that it is walkable to shops and restaurants and we highly recommend staying here.

We arrived in the early afternoon and checked into the hotel.  We then set off for our first Napa Valley winery, Laird Family Estate.  

Laird Family Estate is a family-friendly winery.  The only non-alcoholic drinks they have on hand is water, however, so that is what Ava enjoyed.  But with beautiful views, anything tastes good!  

Grapes on a vine | Laird Family Estate

We adults sampled some great reds and whites along with a pre-ordered charcuterie board. 

Charcuterie and wine | Laird Family Estate

The back deck over looking the vineyards was such a beautiful way to begin our time in Napa.  We took our time during the tasting, taking in the scene in the afternoon sun. 

The afternoon sun over the vineyards | Laird Family Estate

Once back at the hotel, we walked to Oxbow Public Market for dinner, about a half mile away from The Andaz Hotel. 

Oxbow Public Market | Napa

The market has a fantastic mix of food and drink offerings.  I can’t pass up Mexican, which I ordered from C CASA Taqueria.  Mike had delicious BBQ and Ava and my mom shared pizza.  After we all had our food in hand, we headed out to the picnic tables on the back deck of the market and enjoyed dining under the string lights…and the stars!   

DAY 4

Today is all about wineries!  Here is the set up for today:

  • Darioush
  • Del Dotto
  • Far Niente
  • Dinner:  Celadon

With our three wineries lined up we hired a company called Phenomenal Limos and Wine Tours as our personal driver for the day.  We all wanted to fully enjoy ourselves and this is a very recommended part of the itinerary.  Our driver, Oz, was great and we highly recommend his company.

Oz picked us up at our hotel 30 minutes before our first tour of the day.  Soon, we arrived at Darioush, a palatial setting with a beautiful courtyard looking out onto the vineyards.

Darioush Winery | Napa

We booked the Signature Mezze Outdoors Tasting and were seated in a lovely courtyard surrounded by trees. 

The beautiful garden looking out onto the vineyard, Darioush | Napa

Our awesome sommelier, Alex, was great at sharing some history of the place as well as what we were tasting.  The founder, Darioush, immigrated to the US from Iran, bringing with him his family’s legacy of winemaking.  Settling in Napa Valley, Darioush Winery was born, a perfect marriage of winemaking rooted in Iranian culture and American opportunity!

Here, we enjoyed the wines paired with Persian food such as eggplant, pistachios, flatbread, and chicken meatballs.  It was the perfect light fare to go with the wines. 

Wines paired with Persian food, Darioush | Napa

Next, came  Del Dotto, a beautiful Venetian style estate.  From fountains and statues outside to a marbled interior with painted frescoes, Del Dotto makes you feel as though you are on an Italian estate. 

Del Dotto | Napa

We booked the Cave Experience & Barrel Tasting, which was a unique experience.  Our guide thieved wine directly from the barrels into our glasses as we made our way through the cave. 

The wine caves and thieving right out of the barrel, Del Dotto | Napa

Far Niente was our last winery of the day and it had the most beautiful grounds that looked to be from a movie.  

The beautiful grounds at Far Niente | Napa

We booked the Estate Tour and Tasting and we were seated outdoors with this beautiful scenery surrounding us while tasting delicious wines and small plates.  The experience felt as though we were in a friend’s backyard, however, as it was so peaceful and relaxing.

A lovely outdoor setting, Far Niente | Napa

We finished this final winery of the day and Oz brought us back to our hotel.  We walked to Celadon for dinner, a cool setting with delicious food near the Napa River.

DAY 5

Today’s itinerary:

  • Domaine Caneros Winery
  • Lunch:  Napkins Bar and Grill
  • Castello di Amorosa
  • Dinner:  Copia at the CIA

We had one more adult-only winery booked, this time one that specializes in sparkling wines.  Right up my alley!

We drove about 10 minutes to Domaine Caneros and took in the beautiful ambiance.  The large estate house is set high up above the vineyards below.  The massive stone deck, where we enjoyed our tasting, looked like a European manor.  

Beautiful Domaine Caneros | Napa

We sat outside in the lovely mid-morning sun and enjoyed a sparkling wine tasting coupled with a charcuterie board.  This was a lovely way to spend the morning!

My sparkling flight | Napa

After this lovely mid-morning tasting, we headed back to the hotel to meet Ava and walk to our lunch spot, Napkins Bar and Grill.  Again, we sat outside in the beautiful weather.  The food was delicious and we highly recommend this restaurant in Napa.

Our last winery in Napa was the family-friendly Castello di Amorosa, located in Calistoga, also known as “the castle”.

Castello di Amorosa | Napa

Castello di Amorosa is modeled after an actual Tuscan Castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge! 

The drawbridge of Castello di Amorosa | Napa

The developer had a vision, as the land he patiently waited for and bought resembled that of the Tuscan countryside.  He spent 15 years building this authentic castle, with many materials coming directly from Europe.  It was then that he was able to combine his passion project, the castle, with his family’s legacy of winemaking in the area and Castello di Amorosa was born in 2007.

After having explored many European castles, this felt exactly like we were in a real European castle!  Truthfully, the wine was fine, but we came for the ambiance.  We really liked exploring this unique winery.  This is a great one for kids as well, as they do allow kids and offer them grape juice while the adults do their wine tasting.

Dinner tonight was also pretty unique.  We walked from our hotel to Copia at The CIA, The Culinary Institute of America.  Our meal was prepared by amazing student chefs. The ingredients for our meals included herbs, vegetables, and fruit which all grow in the grove in the front of CIA.  This was one of the best meals we had in Napa.

Tips for a great trip to Napa:

  • Book a transportation company.  As mentioned above, this is a must to add on to a Napa itinerary.  You want to be able to fully enjoy yourself and do all the tastings safely, so let someone else do the driving.  Many of the wineries have something called a “limo lounge”, where the drivers can hang out while you are doing your tasting.
  • Build your itinerary and book the tastings ahead of time.  I booked almost all of the winery visits a few months out.  I started with a list of wineries after getting recommendations from a friend and doing some research myself.  Then, I mapped them out to see where they all were in relation to one another.  Next came checking availability.  Some were not open the day we would be in Napa so they were eliminated.  I checked into length of each tour, added in driving time via Google Maps, and gave an extra bit of time around each tour and tasting so we could explore the grounds a bit and account for a tasting running over.  I felt three tours and tastings in one day was perfect.  All the wineries were so different from one another, which was another reason I came up with the itinerary I did.  
  • Book dining reservations ahead of time.  Napa is a popular place and even though we visited in October, restaurants were still full.  

Monterey | Carmel-by-the-sea | Big Sur

DAY 6

Today’s itinerary:

  • Hot Air Balloon Ride, Napa
  • Brunch:  The hotel before checking out
  • Drive to Monterey
  • Walk the Monterey Coastal Path
  • Dinner:  Schooner’s, Monterey Plaza Hotel

We had one more adventure before we left Napa.  This experience is one that is as ubiquitous with visiting Napa Valley as visiting wineries.  Mike, Ava, and I went on a hot air balloon ride!  We have an entire article posted about the experience including some amazing photos from the ride.  Be sure to check it out:  A Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Napa Valley.

Such a magical experience! | Napa

The balloon ride took off at 6:30 am from a nearby golf course.  We had our alarms set for 5 am so we could get ready, stop at Starbucks for a quick coffee and breakfast to go, and get to the golf course on time.  

We were back at the hotel by 9:45 so we had plenty of time to pack up and check out before moving on to Monterey.

Where we stayed

Monterey Marriott | Monterey, California

Monterey was our home base while we were in this area.  We spent the first afternoon and evening walking along the winding coastal path, visiting Old Fisherman’s Wharf, and enjoying a lovely evening meal overlooking the ocean at Schooner’s, at the Monterey Plaza Hotel.

Sights around Monterey

DAY 7 

  • Carmel Beach
  • Carmel-by-the-sea
  • Lunch:  Basil, Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Drive Pacific Coast Highway
  • Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel-by-the-Sea
  • Bixby Bridge, Big Sur

From Monterey, we took scenic Highway 1 south towards Carmel-by-the-Sea.  We checked out Carmel Beach, a beautiful expanse of white sand and rough blue seas with surfers riding the waves.  While in Carmel-by-the-Sea we explored the adorable town.  We had a lovely lunch at Basil, with amazing bellinis and northern Italian cuisine.  Shops, cafes, and plentiful art galleries all reside here.  The cottage-style homes here look like they came straight from a fairytale!

Carmel-by-the-sea is so charming

After our time in Carmel-by-the-Sea, we continued south on Highway 1.   The scenery is spectacular!

Point Lobos State Reserve is worth a stop.  There is an entrance fee to get in and we paid $11 in October 2022.  We drove the short road from the pay booth to the parking area .  There are two paths here – one to the right and one to the left.  We took the path to the left and had fabulous views of the cliffs, ocean, and seals bobbing in the water below.  

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

Continuing on for about 10 miles south on Highway 1, the cliffs became increasingly more dramatic.  We stopped at a pull out where we could view Rocky Creek Bridge.  This looks similar to the famous Bixby Creek Bridge, but that is still about 1/4 mile ahead.  This viewpoint offered amazing views and was worth the stop as well.     

View at Rocky Creek Bridge

From here, it is a very short drive to Castle Rock Viewpoint, a pull out on the right to take in the west views of Bixby Creek Bridge.  The dramatic cliffs and ocean below were incredible!

Views from Bixby Creek Bridge | Castle Rock Viewpoint

After taking in the views here, we crossed the road and parked for a few minutes while I captured photos of the east side of Bixby Creek Bridge in the afternoon sun. 

The other side of Bixby Creek Bridge 

We then turned around to head north on Highway 1, taking in the gorgeous views on the way back to Monterey.

Once back in Monterey, we packed up and headed back to San Francisco for one more night, staying at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront.  We had a very early morning flight the next day, so we went for a run on the path along the water at the hotel, watching planes landing at nearby SFO.  We had a lovely dinner at the hotel and hit the hay early!

This itinerary takes you through three fabulous areas of Central California, all offering different things to see and do.  From the city sights of San Francisco, to the relaxing ambiance of wine country, to the gorgeous scenery of the coast, you’ll see some of California’s best!

Read More!

We have more in depth guides posted from Central California:

A Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Napa Valley, California – A full review of our experience taking a hot air balloon ride in Napa.

Sipping Our Way Through Napa Valley:  Three Day Itinerary – Our in depth guide takes you through all the wineries we visited.

Two Days in San Francisco, California:  Family Friendly Itinerary – A two day itinerary taking you through the best things to see in San Francisco.

Monterey, Carmel-by-the-sea, & Big Sur, California:  A Photo Journey – A beautiful area of California, we take you through our time here on a photo journey.

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