California road trip

Movie Atlas: Driving the California Coast

While we don’t usually promote armchair traveling over the real thing, there’s nothing quite like watching a movie that captures the beauty and spirit of a location. For this new series of articles, we are looking at movies made on location, films that feature their settings front and center. The best of them are set in real time too – providing time-capsule footage of bygone days. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re starting with that old screen siren, California, which has appeared in countless films, both as itself and in disguise. Join us as we take a classic California road trip, slowing the pace a little as we journey back in time through some movies of old.

Here are five films that immortalize the coastline – in glorious Technicolor.

The Birds (1963)


When Hitchchock was looking for a remote coastal location in which to film his adaptation of a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, he headed north of San Francisco to Bodega Bay, a quiet fishing village in northernmost Marin County, surrounded by bleak hills and fog. The movie, starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, includes shots of Hedren driving her Aston Martin into Bodega Bay (filmed on Bay Hill Road), the 150-year-old Potter Schoolhouse in Bodega, the Catholic Church, and the Tides Restaurant.

The Sandpiper (1965)


The Sandpiper, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, is one of only a few major studio motion pictures filmed at Big Sur, and one of the very few to have used local spots as intrinsic parts of its plot. Locations include Pfeiffer Beach, Point Lobos State Reserve, Bixby Creek Bridge, and the Coast Gallery. The movie was never a great critical success, and owes its popularity more to its fascinating star pairing and its breathtaking backdrops.

Play Misty for Me (1971)


Many films have been shot in Monterey County, on the central stretch of coastal California. Over 190, to be exact. And it’s not surprising. If you’ve ever driven along 17 Mile Drive, you’ve probably wanted to make a movie there too. The definitive Monterey movie, however, has to be Play Misty for Me, the directorial debut of Carmel’s most famous resident, local tycoon, and one-time mayor, Clint Eastwood, which was filmed entirely on location in Carmel, Monterey, Big Sur and along Highway 1.

Vertigo (1958)


The famous Hitchcock psychological thriller is set in San Francisco, and while much of the movie was shot in studios, there are some great location scenes as well. Watch out for the summit of Nob Hill, the very grand Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, a small cemetery behind Mission Dolores in the Mission District, and a house at the top of the famously crooked Lombard Street. There are also guest appearances by 17 Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula and the Old Mission of San Juan Bautista.

Bullitt (1968)


The Peter Yates-directed detective thriller is undoubtedly best remembered for its seminal tire-screeching car chase through the streets, hills and valleys of San Francisco. With no disrespect to the onscreen chemistry between Steve McQueen and his Mustang, the city of San Francisco may have as much to do with the film’s success as they do. The hilly streets, bay views and architecture that frame much of the car chase are really what give it its cachet.

Want to reproduce our California road trip in real life? You’ll need some places to stay. Here are a few great California Coast Properties for pit stops.

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