Our Californian adventure

By ani - May 24, 2019

Beginning of April

My husband and I've been planning to visit the US for a long time, but there’s always been something constraining us: limited holiday time, other travel arrangements, Vicky’s arrival… When Vicky was born, we decided to restrain ourselves from travelling long-haul until she’s at least 4. However, as you probably know, babies under 2 can travel on the lap of a parent, which usually costs about 10% of the regular fare. Thus, we began exploring the possibility to do our first US family trip before Vicky’s 2nd birthday in August.

We already had a few trips planned in May and July, so we checked all availabilities in June, but we couldn’t find anything suitable so we decided to postpone the trip…

Friday, 12th April

On the way home, I noticed 4 missed calls from my husband and a message saying: “Pls call me, it’s urgent…” I called him straightway, wondering what might be so urgent, just to find out that he’d found some bargain flights to LA for…next week. :O

You can imagine my reaction there, “You must be insane, we can’t just plan a trip (with a baby) to LA in such short notice. We’ve never done this before. It’s crazy…” 3 days later, we had flights, hotels and rental car booked. We were flying off on Friday, the 19th and coming back on Sunday, the 27th. As it was our first trip to California, we wanted to make the most of it and see as many sights as possible, so we ended up booking 1 night in Las Vegas (4hr drive from LA seemed ok) and 2 nights in San Francisco (6hr distance also seemed doable).

Friday, the 19th April – Arrival in LA

Los Angeles is 8 hours behind London and the time difference was in our favour on the way out, so we booked a morning flight from London. Thus, we arrived at noon on the same day in LA. The flight is 10.5 hours long and I was very worried how we were going to entertain Vicky during all that time, but it actually went quite well. We were sitting at the very front of the plane, where we were offered a child seat that was great because she didn’t have to share a seat with me and my husband throughout the whole flight and she even managed to nap for a couple of hours. During the rest of the time, we kept her busy with a new activity pack, food and her favourite kids series. So overall, even though we couldn’t catch on some sleep, we survived the flight.
Vicky sleeping comfortably in her child seat on the BA flight to LA
NB: Thankfully, we carried lots of snacks and extra sandwiches, because BA doesn’t provide any baby/toddler meals so we had to share ours with Vicky and we didn't starve. The LAX airport was huge and very chaotic. Unlike most London airports, there was no family line for passport control, so we had to queue for about an hour. But, besides this, we had no issues passing through.
The view from our apartment in Santa Monica

The first night, we stayed in Santa Monica, a coastal city west of downtown Los Angeles. We were planning to walk around the city in the evening. However, by the time we left the airport, got the car and arrived at our AirB&B (the traffic in LA is crazy!), it was already 4pm, so we decided to stay in and went straight to bed.

Saturday, 20th April – Sunday, 21st April – Santa Monica & Las Vegas

Due to the jet lag and our early night, we woke up around 4am on the next day. We waited until 7 and headed down to the Santa Monica’s pier for breakfast. We went to the Back on the Beach Café which had very high ratings online.

Back on the Beach Cafe in Santa Monica

The café is a typical American diner located right on the beach. It was a real shame that the weather was bloomy and quite cold so we had to sit inside. The staff were extremely polite and attentive. California is very influenced by the Mexican culture, so most of the dishes on the menu were Mexicanish: e.g tortilla chips, eggs rancheros, quesadillas. I went for eggs rancheros and my husband chose quesadillas. Unsurprisingly, the portions were typical American and huge. But the food was delicious. I also had one of the best soya lattes I’ve ever had.

Our next stop was the famous Santa Monica’s Pier. The Santa Monica Pier is a large double-jointed pier that has several attractions including an amusement park, entertainers, shops and restaurants. In a way it looks a bit like the Pier in Brighton, but much more crowded. Quick stroll and we were off to Vegas.

Santa Monica Pier

The traffic on the way to Vegas wasn’t too bad so we arrived around 4pm. We stayed at Hilton Garden Inn Las Vegas City Center, which is right off the strip (the main road with all the casinos). The hotel is very nice, clean and recently refurbished.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Quick freshen up, and we were off to the centre of the strip. The hotel provided a shuttle to the beginning of the strip which was very convenient.

My first impression of Vegas was literally "WOW" – neon lights, gold, marble, crystals, everything was over the top, but somehow charismatic. It was full of people. Everyone was drinking, smoking, gambling and having fun…thankfully, we were not the only 'crazy' parents bringing their toddlers to Vegas. :D To our surprise, there we plenty of other babies in strollers and many families with kids.

After a short walk around, we started getting hungry and Vicky was becoming very grumpy, so we looked for a dinner place. One of the most popular restaurants in Vegas is probably the Caesars’s Buffet, Bacchanal, so we decided to give it a try. Usually, there is a long queue, but surprisingly we didn’t have to wait for too long. The price is about $65 excl. tax (bear in mind that all prices in the US are quoted excluding tax and tax is different in each state, so the actual price you’d end up paying could be much higher). The Buffet is huge and there is a great variety – for seafood fans, there’s oysters and crab, for meat lovers, there’s a whole suckling pig or BBQ ribs, there’s also all sort of Asian and Italian delicacies and lots (lots) of desserts.

Overall, the food was above the average (for a buffet), but not great. Is it worth it? Only, if you’re planning to eat a lot and especially, the seafood and Asian specialties as they’re usually very pricy. Otherwise, it’s a bit overpriced.

By the time we'd finished our dinner, it was already 11pm and we were very exhausted, so we headed back to the hotel.

In the morning, we woke up around 7am, which was good – we were already getting used to the time difference. We checked out of the hotel and drove to the Terrace Pointe Café at the Wynn hotel for breakfast.

Terrace Pointe Cafe at the Wynn Hotel, Las Vegas

The café is French style, offering panoramic views of manicured gardens and an outdoor patio facing the hotel’s pool. Their breakfast menu includes the classics, a variety of eggs, waffles, pancakes and toasts.

Overall, the food and coffee were delicious and the service was great. Another good thing about the café was that we were able to leave the car at the hotel’s parking for the rest of the day.

After the breakfast, we went for a 2-hour walk around the strip. Vegas during daytime offers a completely different experience than in the night – buzzing and full of tourists, the strip is colourful, bright and hot…but we loved it.
The Fountains of Bellagio, Las Vegas

In just over 2 hours, we managed to tick the main sights and even saw the Bellagio’s fountains show. And, we were off to LA. As it was Easter Sunday, the traffic was horrible and we ended up spending nearly 7 hours in the car, arriving in LA around 11pm.
The traffic on our way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles

Monday, 22nd April – Wednesday, 24th April – LA & San Francisco

Our plan for Monday morning included visiting Hollywood and the Walk of Fame. But first, we had brunch at Rise and Grin on Hollywood Boulevard - small, industrial-style café offering organic food and drinks. We tried their beef burger and a cheese toastie which were very tasty. The coffee was also quite good.

Walk of Fame, Hollywood, LA

Then, we walked down the boulevard, looking for our favourite 'stars'. Overall, I wasn’t very impressed by the sight. The place is very dirty and full of stalls with random people trying to sell you all kind of things and there were even homeless people sleeping on the road – so not very glamorous. It was also very crowded, so I’d suggest visiting it early in the morning.

A few snaps of the ‘stars’ and we were off to San Francisco. Again, the traffic was very heavy, so we arrived late at night at the hotel, around 9pm. For dinner, we quickly stopped by the local Taco Bell – hey, no American experience is complete without junk fast food!

We stayed at Holiday Inn San Francisco-Golden Gateway. The hotel is quite dated, but it's in a very convenient, central location.

In the morning, after a quick breakfast at the hotel, we went to explore the City. We'd planned a walk tour around the City’s main landmarks that included: Little Italy, Fisherman’s Wharf, The Palace of Art, Lombard Street, Pier 39 (facing the Alcatraz Island) and the Financial District. We managed to see all of them and ended up having dinner at a local bar kitchen on the way to the hotel.
Pier 39, San Francisco 
San Francisco, California

On the next day, we stopped by the Golden Gateway Bridge’s main viewpoint and we were back on our way to LA. On the way back, we also stopped by Stanford University and Google and Apple in Silicon Valley.

Golden Gateway Bridge, San Francisco, California
Stanford University, California

Generally, I found San Francisco to be very European-like, with a lot of open green spaces, historic buildings and healthy-oriented places to eat and drink. It also has some sort of sophisticated, high-class vibe.

Thursday, 25th April – Saturday, 27th April – LA

On Thursday, we decided to spend the whole day at Universal Studio. Initially, we were planning to visit all film studios and buy the Go City Sightseeing 3-day pass.
However, we later found out that only Universal was allowing babies and children under 8 as it's the only one that has an actual theme park. All other studios are providing just tourist-guided tours around their live filming sets.

Universal Studio Hollywood, Los Angeles

The Universal Studio’s tickets are therefore the most expensive ones, costing around $100 per person, if booked online, in advance. The studio is in Hollywood, in the outskirts of the city so it took us good 40 minutes to get there from downtown. The studio offers paid parking that costs $25 per day. After we parked, we headed straight to the attractions park. Before, entering the actual park, there was a high street-type of street full of restaurants and shops that was very lively and full of buzz and colours.

A few snaps next to the famous Universal globe and we were in. Luckily, there was no queue to enter. My first impression was – “This place is amazing”. It includes sets of all-time Hollywood favourites and classics and some theme rides and attractions such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, The Fast and Furious Supercharged, etc, as well as a guided tour around the actual live filming studio.

There is a lot to see and experience, so you'd really need a whole day to maximise your time. Also, you need to bear in mind that queues were taking around 30-40min on average. But, for parents with little children or if you don’t insist on going on the rides in a group, you can skip the main line and go through the solo rider line. For parents, there is also a ‘switch’ service that allows families to experience attractions without splitting up or waiting in line twice, which was also great.

Generally, in 5 hours we managed to do 5 rides along with the studio tour and they were all awesome. Honestly, I’ve never experienced anything like it so the ticket’s worth every penny. The rides were full of 3D and all sort of effects and were out of this world. I strongly recommend the whole experience.

Friday, our last day before take-off, was all about Beverly Hills and Downtown LA. Beverly Hills and the famous Rodeo Drive were very much like Knightsbridge and South Kensington in London - full of expensive shops and glamorous cafes and restaurants, and celebrity mansions.
Beverly Hills, Los Angeles
Hollywood Sign, Los Angeles

Downtown LA, on the other hand, surprised me quite a bit. It includes a variety of small districts dedicated to different themes: Arts, Fashion, Government, Banking, Theatre, Toys, Jewellery. Besides the Financial and Business district, which was very clean and sterile, all other areas were quite chaotic and dirty, very different than the polished and sophisticated Beverly Hills.
Downtown LA

The last three nights in LA, we stayed at the Best Western Plus LA Mid-Town Hotel, located in K-town. The hotel is in a convenient location, not too far from the main sights and downtown LA. It's recently refurbished, clean and offers a breakfast and free parking included in the rate, so it was very good value for money.

I'm also sharing links to our AirB&B flats in Santa Monica and Downtown LA, where we spent our first two LA nights.  Both flats (and their hosts) were very nice, so would strongly recommend them: 2 Bed Flat in Santa Monica and Sky Space Flat near Downtown LA.

Overall, our first Californian (and American) family adventure was very interesting and full of amazing, unique experiences. However, it was also quite tiring and stressful – Vicky had a few crises in the car and we spent more than 50 hours on the road. So, if you’re planning to do a similar trip, I’d really recommend to do it over a longer period (minimum 2 weeks).

Have you been to California or Vegas? I’d love to hear your personal impressions of the Golden State and Sin City, so please share them in the comments below. Don't miss out on any future posts. Make sure you subscribe below and follow me on Facebook and Instagram.

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