A Californian literary road trip

By Jessica Teas for British Airways High Life magazine

Photography by Getty

Skip to Navigation

June 2016

People flock to California for sunshine and star gazing, but the state’s coast-hugging cities also have a rich literary heritage that will keep book nerds busy from LA to San Francisco.

Northern California

The literary centre of activity in California is arguably San Francisco. North Beach’s Beat Museum is a shrine to the poets and writers of the Beat Generation and San Francisco Renaissance — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Bukowski et al. The City Lights Bookstore opened in 1953 by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and acted as a haven for his compatriots. It still stands today at the crossroads of North Beach, Chinatown and the Financial District as one of the nation’s most enduring independent (and all paperback) bookstores and publishers.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was a coming-of-age book series for a generation of readers. The final instalment was recently published bringing an end to the sexual (mis)adventures of neighbourhood matriarch Anna Madrigal and the band of characters she originally housed at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco’s Russian Hill. Maupin himself has put together a Tales tour of San Francisco making it easy to find and explore the San Francisco from the pages of his book.

Find our cheapest flights to San Francisco >

  • Photo by DJ Ashton courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center

    World of peanuts

    The Charles M. Schulz Museum is home to the largest collection of original Peanuts art work in the world. Head down to the museum’s Great Hall to marvel at its mural made of 3,588 Peanuts comic strip images. Explore California with flights plus 7 days car hire from:£379 pp

    Book flights and car hire

Get on Highway 101 to Santa Rosa for a session with Charlie Brown and the gang at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. It has the largest collection of original Peanuts comic strips, creator Schulz’s studio and a room where you can try your hand at drawing comics.

Fans of Robert Louis Stevenson can also find the largest public collection of Stevensoniana on the other side of the Mayacamas at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum within a separate wing of the St. Helena Public Library Center. Stevenson and his wife Fanny took a two-month honeymoon in the Napa Valley, an experience from which he drew inspiration for The Silverado Squatters.

Heading back towards the Bay Area, the perennially popular Muir Woods and Muir Beach — named after author and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir — are tucked behind the spare Marin Headlands, out of sight of city lights. Muir was instrumental in preserving large swaths of the American West (such as Yosemite), and these two spots, while smaller, are emblematic of his work.

The East Bay has been memorialized in works such as Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon and The Game, and more recently in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, but the real literary gems lie further afield. In particular, the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site and Tao House, which was the home of America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright. O’Neill’s hillside home, where he penned The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, can be reached by foot, horseback or shuttle bus from Danville only (no private cars) — and reservations are a must.

  • Tree lover’s monument: Muir Woods © Nara Won/Getty

    Words into action

    John Muir shared his love for nature through his writing and inspired people to protect America’s wild places, including the ancient redwood forest located just north of San Francisco – known today as Muir Woods.

    Book flights to San Francisco
  • Bask in San Diego’s idyllic year round temperatures © Mitch Diamond

    Water world

    San Diego is well-known for its quintessential Californian beach lifestyle and glorious year round temperatures. Head over to Mission Bay, an incredible 4,500-acre aquatic playground dotted with surfers, sailing boats and sun-kissed shores.

    Discover things to do in San Diego

Central Coast

The Central Coast is all about Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning John Steinbeck, readily known for his Dust Bowl fiction, vividly chronicling the plight of the downtrodden agricultural migrant worker in his native California. Stop in Salinas for a bite to eat in the restored Victorian house where the literary giant was born and raised after exploring the largest American museum dedicated to a single author.

An hour south of Monterey, set back from the wind-swept bluffs of Big Sur, you’ll find the cosy cabin confines of the Henry Miller Memorial Library shrouded in the redwood trees of Los Padres National Forest. The author of the once-banned Tropic of Cancer lived in the area for 18 years, and his Memorial Library hosts intimate art shows, plays and even rock concerts with big-name bands (like the Red Hot Chili Peppers) alongside Miller’s books and memorabilia.

Further down the coast the regal Hearst Castle stands at attention atop a hillside set several miles back from the road. Built for newspaper magnate William Hearst on a spot he had previously used as a campsite, the (mostly) Mediterranean Revival mansion covers more than 90,000 square feet with opulent finishes and grounds rarely seen in America. Join the evening tour, where docents from the Living History programme in full 1930s attire, to create the atmosphere of a bygone era, when the likes of Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Greta Garbo would have been guests.

Southern California

Dubbed the ‘poet laureate of American lowlife’, hard-living and prolific writer Charles Bukowski made Los Angeles his adopted home and the city’s underbelly the backdrop for his works. While the late Bukowski’s literary archives live at The Huntington Library (1151 Oxford Road, San Marino), Esotouric’s ‘Haunts of A Dirty Old Man’ bus tour shuttle fans around what remains of his LA, with stops for drinks on Skid Row to a visit at his old place of employ — the United States Post Office in Terminal Annex.

Further south in San Diego— known for SeaWorld, Balboa Park and surfing over literary heritage — make your own literary itinerary here by visiting the landmarks in crime and mystery author Don Winslow’s novels, like surf thriller The Dawn Patrol. A stop on such a self-guided tour could include the Richard Nixon Library.

Find our cheapest flights to Los Angeles >