First trip to California?

“California dreamin’…” sang The Mamas & The Papas in 1965. California, the American dream embodied by the city of San Francisco, is the gateway to northern California, even if the capital is Sacramento. We have in mind the Golden Gate, this famous red bridge inviting all dreams of success, and the steep streets seen in the cinema: Bullitt, the Prisoner of Alcatraz, the Lady of Shanghai. Bordered by the Pacific, by its pontoons where sea lions bask and where catamarans hoist their sails, San Francisco flirts with both Victorian architecture (in Alamo Square, it’s like being in London) and the madness of grandeur in the ‘American. After a stay in the windy city (the bay of SF rivals Chicago, the Windy City), heading for Northern California, the road trip being the only way to visit part of a state in the USA. We will cut the road to Lake Tahoe located between the State of California and Nevada then continue to the Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada with the highlight of the national park (third largest park in all of California , recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) whose granite cliffs, waterfalls and giant sequoias have built its notoriety. Then we will do the loop to San Francisco. Let’s go!

San Francisco, the film city

We pick up the rental car at SFO airport, half an hour from downtown. A tour of the megalopolis is essential, if the nine hours of jet lag are not too much felt. For vertigo, wind down Lombard Street. Beautiful panorama over the bay of San Francisco. It goes up and down in this city. Further down in the Telegraph Hill district is the Coit Tower, an Art Deco tower inaugurated in 1933, built to honor the firefighters who died in the major fires in San Francisco. It offers a panoramic view of the city and the bay. In the north of the city, between the Presidio and Lombard Street, let yourself be dazzled by the Palace of Fine Arts in Marina District. Built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, it was inspired by Greco-Roman architecture with sculpted friezes and allegorical figures. It stands out in this lively district and is mainly used today for wedding photos. Surrounded by a pond in which geese and swans swim, this site rivals in romanticism. Continuing along the Pacific to the north, we arrive at the Golden Gate Bridge, built in 1933 in an Art Deco spirit. It is the most famous monument of the Californian city and its orange color can be spotted from afar. Hitchcock showcased it in Cold Sweats. To end the day, we have dinner in China Town, not far from Union Square, the central district. The Dragon Gate serves the 41 alleys of this district with colorful pagodas. Souvenir shops have replaced brothels and opium dens, and well-known eateries are jostling. This city is criss-crossed by cable cars, those rickety wooden trams that attack the hills. For 24 dollars a day, you board at will (NB: after 8 p.m., they are rare). The visit of Alcatraz, essential, is done in the early morning. Take the boat from the Pier 33 landing stage. In this offshore penitentiary, today guarded by cormorants, the kingpins of History such as Al Capone, the Chicago gangster, served their sentences there. We will visit the blocks of cells preserved in the state. The walk around offers a moment of relaxation and the spectacle of the birds whose site is the stronghold is soothing. It was impossible to escape from Alcatraz, however, two inmates succeeded. On the way back, have a quick lunch at Pier 39 market, an area of ​​shopping and affordable restaurants. Returning to bustling Union Square, take the #5 bus to Alamo Square. From the heights of the park, the view over the rooftops is splendid. As for the houses that follow each other without looking alike, they all have a very chic London cachet. “When San Francisco lights up”, sang Maxime Le Forestier.

On the way to Lake Tahoe

It is the Golden Gate that separates San Francisco from the city of Sausalito. We cross it to drive towards Muir Woods National Park, thirty minutes away. It is one of California’s best-known national parks, a national monument since 1908. Several marked trails are available for walkers in the forest, among the giant sequoias which are between 800 and 900 years old. A stream makes its joyful notes heard. The blue of the sky can be seen between the treetops. One to two hours of walk if you want to make a loop is possible. We then continue the road towards Point Reyes National Park for the beauty of the steep landscapes by the sea and for the view from the lookout above the lighthouse. We will spend the night in Petaluma, an hour’s drive from Reyes, in Sonoma County. Pretty town worthy of a film with its Victorian houses and its squared streets. A worthwhile stop en route to Lake Tahoe: Sonoma, wine capital of Napa Valley rich in ranches and of course, vineyards. We will stroll in the park rich in a beautiful rose garden, we will explore the Mission San Francisco Solano. Last of the Spanish missions in California, it was founded in 1823. Three hours later, the crossing of the forest decimated by fires leads us to Lake Tahoe which we see from afar in front of the chain of snow-capped peaks. Embedded in the Sierra Nevada at an altitude of 1900 m, straddling the states of California and Nevada, it is the largest high mountain lake in North America. The northern sector with its beaches (Sand Harbor, with golden sand, green waters, menhirs and forest is worth the 15 dollar entrance fee), its bike paths and its villages is very popular with families. The southern sector seduces adventurers and night owls with its casinos. In winter, at Lake Tahoe, you go skiing, in summer, hiking (hundreds of kms of marked trails accessible to families, which leave from the cable cars), paddleboarding, kayaking and crossings – wine tasting Californians aboard a vintage Venetian speedboat. For swimming, be careful, the water is fresh. This translucent lake in shades of curaçao blue and emerald green is surrounded by cedars, pines and redwoods. Many viewpoints line the zigzag road. There is even a beach below and a green island. A bath in nature and an unforgettable play of colors.

Heading to Yosemite National Park

Two hours from Lake Tahoe is Yosemite known for its green valleys, high meadows, cliffs and waterfalls. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, it is one of the most famous and photographed national parks in the USA. We will stop en route in Groveland, a far West village with its saloon and shop for boho cowgirls. Half an hour later, arrival at the entrance to Yosemite Park, on the side of El Capitan, from where we will see a vertical monolith, a paradise for experienced hikers. The park covers 3000 km2 of undergrowth dominated by redwoods, beaches, rock walls. Continuing towards Glacier Point, we will not miss Yosemite Falls, one of the highest falls in the world (740 m), Lower Fall and Upper Fall which we can approach closely if we risk doing six hours of walking. But already from a distance, it’s a beautiful sight. To see a grove of giant sequoias, and possibly come across a bear cub following its mother, head to the Mariposa Grove trail which smells of dried pine. You can push up to Wanona Point for a superb view of the park. The brave ones will camp in the park, sheltered from civilization.

Carmel and Monterey, the local Saint-Tropez

To return to San Francisco, we will make a short detour to these two seaside resorts known for the seaside lined with stone houses, cedars and flowers. The pretty shops and restaurants with rooftop terraces attract Californians for the weekend. A Mexican spirit with succulents, a patio and Spanish-style architecture characterize the San Carlos Borromeo mission in Carmel-by-the-sea, founded in 1769 by Spaniards of the Franciscan order. The chapel houses beautiful icons. We will take the 17 mile drive which connects Carmel to Monterey by the seaside. Monterey was the capital of California before Sacramento from 1777 to 1849. The city lives off tourism with its aquarium and its cruises to see the whales. On the historic Old Fisherman’s Wharf, a sort of marina with sea lions, ice cream parlors and candy vendors, we will stroll in the sun before heading back to the airport at 2 hours by car. Bye bye California dream!

Photos Brice Charton

Practical notebook


Paris-SFO, about 11 hours flight, direct flight on Delta or Air France from 650 dollars in economy class.

Stay there

  • Hotel Stratford, two stars, Union Square, San Francisco: 90 cosy, modern rooms, from 170 dollars per night without breakfast (rare are the hotels with).
  • Hotel Petaluma, three stars, Petaluma. Dating from 1923, this cathedral hotel has kept its historic character, with chandeliers, a fireplace and a ballroom. 91 rooms, night in a double room from 140 dollars. Have breakfast at Hallie’s diner, decorated with the Happy Days series.
  • Black Bear Lodge at Lake Tahoe. 9 adorable individual chalets in the middle of nature with king size bed and rock gas fireplace. From $210 per night.

To take away : California (Geoguide).

Gap : -9am

Best season to go to San Francisco : in spring and autumn. In summer, the fog descends on the city.

Change : 1 euro = 1.07 US dollars

Also read:

My 10 favorite spots in California

Book of the week: “California girls” by Simon Liberati, Editions Grasset

We fly to California

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First trip to California?

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