Check out 15 spectacular stops on your LA to San Francisco drive on the Pacific Coast Highway. Ocean, wine, history, and waterfalls… you’ve got it all!
Before I started traveling the world, my California imaginary was founded on pictures of sun-kissed drivers with the breeze through their hair and the ocean by their side that I had seen in the movies. So, once I actually stepped on California soil, I was reeeeally excited to see the Pacific coast with my own eyes…and go on an epic LA to San Francisco road trip.
From experience, I can say that one of the best ways to visit California is in fact going for a drive from LA to SF on the Pacific Coast Highway.
The driving distance Los Angeles to San Francisco is approximately 410 miles, but this particular 410-mile-long ride has in store a myriad hidden gems for all tastes (sports, books, history, nature, technology…you name it!). In fact, I’ve gone on a drive Los Angeles to San Francisco (and back) multiple times over the years, and never once got bored – there’s just so much to do!
I propose here a list of the best 15 places to enjoy if you’re driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. This can easily be just a 2-day trip, a short voyage in which you glance at a couple of spots, but you also need to get going.
If do you have more time and want to make the most out this coastal road trip, I assure you that it may take a full week and a lot of fun detours.
Table of Contents
THE ABSOLUTE BEST STOPS ON THE DRIVE FROM LOS ANGELES TO SAN FRANCISCO
Before we get started – do you need to rent a car?
➤ I usually use Rentalcars.com to compare rental car prices and book the best option. You can use the box below to calculate the price of a rental car for your drive to san Francisco.
You shouldn’t leave LA unless you make a stop on the west side of town, in the glamourous beach city of Santa Monica – a must in every Los Angeles itinerary. Known for its shopping venues, enormous beaches and summer entertainment, SaMo—as the locals call it—is very easy to see on foot or with a bike rented from shops like The Santa Monica Bike Rentals (1428 4th St).
No matter how you go around, I suggest to enjoy the car-free Third Street Promenade to look for new clothes (and listen to street artists, while you’re at it), to glimpse at the Pacific Ocean across the street and see the famous Santa Monica Pier, where you can get a romantic tour on the Ferris Wheel or a trip down memory lane on the Merry-Go-Round.
Still on mainland, something not many people get to see is the beautiful Tongva Park (1615 Ocean Ave), which received the 2018 Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects. It’s all in walking distance, and before you visit the area you may park at one of the many parking lots between Pico Blvd and Santa Monica Blvd.
Escondido Falls & Point Dume
On your way out of Los Angeles, I recommend taking the State Route 1, here called Pacific Coast Highway or PCH, which runs directly next to the ocean and offers an amazing view. You will be just barely out of the city when you’ll meet the beach town of Malibu. If you have the budget and the time, a great idea would be to spend one or two nights relaxing here, and then drive from Malibu to san Francisco!
Otherwise, while Malibu’s pier and shops are surely fun, my suggestion is actually to stop about 6 miles after the Malibu Pier, at the Escondido Falls visitors parking (from the PCH, just after Old Rd, take Winding Way to your right). Here, you’ll have the chance to do a small, leisurely hike that leads to actual waterfalls. It’s pretty and secluded, as the falls’ name indicates.
Once you’re back on the PCH, drive up north for about 5 minutes, until Zumirez Dr. Take a left, then another left on Wildlife Rd until you’ll turn right on Fernhill Dr. Keep going until Cliffside Dr…and the ocean! If you turn right, you’ll find Point Dume, one of the best sightseeing spots in the area. If you stand on the very tip of the cliff, it’ll look like you’re in midair over the blue ocean (and you’ll spot Point Dume State Beach just beneath you).
The coastal city of Santa Barbara sits about 100 miles north of the LA metropolitan area, and it’s a stunning destination perfect for tourists of all kinds.
If you’re interested in history and architecture, just off the touristy artery State St you cannot miss the Courthouse (735 Anacapa St), built in Spanish-Moorish style with a tower overlooking downtown, and the Santa Barbara Mission, established by Franciscan friars in 1786.
For animal lovers, you should check out the unique Coronado Butterfly Preserve, in nearby Goleta (495 Coronado Dr). Then head to the Santa Barbara pier, where you may also find the city’s no. 1 attraction, the Stearns Warf.
Wine experts and lovers will also find their gem here, thanks to the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail. Including over 30 wineries located across town, this itinerary lets you sip and enjoy wine making and tasting without leaving the city.
For a stop on your LA to SF drive slightly off the coast, I suggest a stop in the town of Solvang, in Santa Ynez Valley (about 130 miles north of LA and 35 miles from Santa Barbara).
Once you are in the “Danish capital of America,” you’ll be able to join the Solvang Stomp in October (a harvest festival featuring wine grape stomping) or the traditional Christmas festivities of Julefest in December.
For all other seasons, this little Northern-European universe is perfect for strolls and typical Danish architecture sightseeing (don’t miss the windmills!!), truly Danish baked goods in local boutiques like Mortesen’s Danish Bakery (1588 Mission Dr) or some world-class comfort food with a Danish twist at Copenhagen Sausage Garden (1660 Copenhagen Dr), and a cultural history lesson at the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art (1624 Elverhoy Way).
If you don’t feel like walking, and are into historical reenactments, the Solvang Trolley is also a great and old-fashioned option worth considering.
Avila Beach & Pismo Beach
Driving to San Francisco from Los Angeles on State Route 1, you’ll find Avila Beach and Pismo Beach nestled in the San Luis Obispo bay. About 180 miles from LA, these two cities are among the shiniest jewels of the California central coast.
In Pismo Beach, you’ll also find a geological rarity, the sand dune complex called Oceano Dunes. These are the most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California and next to humans, they host a wide range of plant and animal life.
The two beach towns are also worth a stop for the great dining you can do while gazing at the ocean (I’m sure you can already imagine the sunsets you’ll behold) and fine shopping. Slightly off the coast, the Avila Valley Barn (560 Avila Beach Dr) somehow combines the two. There, not only you can experience rustic farm life, but you can also shop for fresh fruits and vegetables cultivated with healthy practices and eat roasted corn and grilled meat at the local farmers barbeque.
San Luis Obispo
I read somewhere that Oprah once said that San Luis Obispo is her favorite town in California. While she might not have said it, I think it could be definitely true!
San Luis Obispo, or SLO, offers you a cozy and beautiful downtown, where you can visit the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (751 Palm St) dating back to 1772, rest in the quaint Mission plaza nearby (989 Chorro) while looking at the San Luis Obispo Creek, and take a walk in the Insta-famous Bubblegum Alley around the corner (733 Higuera St).
SLO, however, is also on the map thanks to the famous, kitsch, and absolutely unique Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Rd), just a couple of minutes south-west of town. This whimsical hotel/restaurant/bakery is a family-run business since 1958 and as of today, it has more than 100 very uniquely decorated rooms and diverse amenities.
What you cannot miss, in particular, is the Madonna Inn’s world-famous restroom for men on the first floor (look for the rocks…) and the Copper Café for a yummy piece of overly decorated cake. When I was a foreign exchange student at Paso Robles High School for one year, we had our prom at Maddonna Inn and it was epic!
Less than 20 minutes north of San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay is yet another seaside paradise where you can explore three distinct aquatic districts: the over 6 miles of continuous beach, the operational harbor with fishermen at work and sea otters relaxing in the sun, and the bay with the towering Morro Rock.
The latter is surely the area’s most recognizable landmark, with its 576-feet of height and 23 million years of age. You cannot climb it, but selfies with this large volcanic rock formation in the background are a must (the best shots are taken standing at the crossroad between Coleman and Embarcadero…there’s a little parking area perfect for it!).
While at Morro Bay, you should take advantage of the local sustainable fishing culture and eat some wild caught seafood at one of the local fish markets facing the bay, like Giovanni’s Fish Market (1001 Front St).
If you go north of Morro Rock, you can take a long stroll on the beach and hit another foodie destination, Taco Temple (2680 Main St), for some great California fusion food largely indebted to Mexican cuisine.
The town of Paso Robles should be on your destinations list if you want to expand your knowledge of Californian enogastronomic culture. About 220 miles north of LA and 30 miles off the ocean coast, Paso Robles has come under the spotlight in recent years for the amazing local selection of wineries, vineyards, breweries, and olive farms that surround it.
Sustainable, modern working wineries such as organic Castoro Cellars (1315 N Bethel Rd) and Oso Libre (7383 Vineyard Dr) are worth exploring, while Mt. Olive Organic Farm (3445 Adelaida Rd) is a local venue where you can do olive tasting along with fresh farmed food shopping.
If you visit Alta Colina (2825 Adelaida Rd), on the other hand, you might be able to spend the night in one of their vintage trailers.
Are you not into wine and olive tasting but are trying instead to escape the beach? Paso Robles won’t let you down with the Studios on the Park, a nonprofit open studios art center perfect for art lovers, and with Margarita Adventures (22720 El Camino Real), offering zipline over vines for adventure seekers.
Just 30 miles from Morro Bay and 40 miles from Paso Robles, Hearst Castle is a museum like no other (the precise address is 750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon).
The millionaire media magnate William R. Hearst (on which Orson Wells’ film Citizen Kane is famously based) first ordered its construction in 1919 under the supervision of architect Julia Morgan. By 1947, the complex included the towered main building (figuring as Hearst’s home or Casa Grande), 3 guesthouses, and 127 acres of land designed with gardens, fountains, and pools. At the peak of Hearst’s fame and success, in the castle you could also find a private zoo, an airstrip, and a stunning blue-tiled indoor pool with 8 Roman statues.
Today, the castle’s management offers daily tours in day and nighttime starting from $25 per person, during which you can visit the lavishly furnished rooms and stroll on the property surrounded by ancient Roman and Greek-inspired architecture. I promise you, dreaming of being a philanthropic millionaire has never been that easy.
Big Sur is where you can finally feel the breeze through your hair and the sun’s warmth on your skin. Going from San Simeon to Carmel-by-the-Sea, Big Sur is a 71-mile-long stretch of coastal land with no specific boundaries that, thanks to the abrupt rise of Santa Lucia Mountains, offers dramatic vistas to those driving on the State Route 1.
Both the interior and the coastal areas are relatively unpopulated, thus the rugged and scenic Big Sur remains perfect for camping and hiking. Next to state campgrounds, great places to stay are this secluded eco-friendly camping near the town of Lucia and the pricey but special Treebones Resort just south of San Martin cape.
During the day, I recommend finding hiking trails in one of the many local state parks, such as the Limekiln State Park (2 miles south of Lucia) or in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park (26 miles south of Carmel).
And if you’re here but you’re not into the outdoors, you cannot miss the Henry Miller Library for books for sale by the author, on Big Sur, or just great editions.
Sitting on the northern edge of Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a luxurious seaside California little town with quaint architecture and very welcoming vendors.
My suggestion is to visit it by bike (you can rent one at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, for instance, at the south-west corner of Ocean Ave and Mission St) or on foot, after parking your car at the Carmel Public Parking Lot on San Carlos St and 8th Ave.
When ready, start your tour from Carmel Plaza, where upscale shopping can happen as well as casual wine tasting, then move to the 1797 Carmel Mission Basilica (3080 Rio Rd). If you’re up for it, you should also leave downtown and take 17 Mile Dr until Pebble Beach Lodge (and don’t forget to take pictures, the view is really stunning!).
Finally, if you have more time to spend here, and are looking for something different to do, I suggest a trip to the WeatherTech Raceway in Laguna Seca (about 14 miles north-east of Carmel-by-the-Sea).
Monterey & Salinas
About 100 miles south of San Francisco you’ll find Monterey and the nearby Salinas, small touristy destinations for those who are taking it easy. In Monterey, you must stop by Cannery Row (where John Steinbeck based his 1945 eponymous novel and where you can now have the ultimate shopping venture), walk around and do some browsing at the Cannery Row Antique Mall (471 Wave St).
Just next to it, the Old Fisherman’s Wharf will also grant you a view of the bay and the opportunity to book a whale watching tour.
Less than a half an hour drive from Monterey, the small town of Salinas is the perfect destination for book geeks and museums lovers, thanks to the National Steinbeck Center (1 Main St), opened since 1998 and hosting the largest archives dedicated to the novelist as well as lectures and live music festivals. And if you can’t get enough of the California-native writer, check out The Steinbeck House at 132 Central Ave for a tour and very unique restaurant.
San Juan Bautista
History lovers anyone? The village of San Juan Bautista, located 25 miles off the coast and only 1 hour and a half south-east of San Francisco, has to be among your stops on the Los Angeles to San Francisco drive if you want to learn more about California past and present.
You can start from the Old Mission San Juan Bautista (406 2nd St), founded in 1797 and one of the best preserved and largest missions in the state (so much so that Alfred Hitchcock used it to shoot a few scenes for his 1958 film Vertigo). Visiting the mission will also grant you the opportunity to know about the relationship between the first European colonizers and local native peoples, some of whom are buried in the Mission’s cemetery.
Then, thanks to a self-guided walking tour (it’s free!), you may browse through the most recent San Juan Bautista’s urban history. The Plaza Stables, the Blacksmith Shop, and the Plaza Hotel are among the highlights.
Santa Cruz sits and shines at the northern end of Monterey Bay, only 1 hour south of San Francisco. I recommend a stop here if you are looking for some relaxing strolls by the beach.
In particular, check out the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—a vintage-looking amusement park with arcade games, rides, and fried food…yes, exactly like your childhood memories—and the long Santa Cruz Wharf for shopping and dining above those foamy waves.
Santa Cruz is also known for its laid-back surfing culture, which you can explore by visiting the local Surfing Museum, located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse (701 W Cliff Dr). Surely, you can also take an actual surfing lesson at Surf School Santa Cruz (3548 Portola Dr, east of the wharf) or at the Santa Cruz Surf Academy (510 Erret Cir, on the west side).
Last but not least, why not combine a visit to the ocean with a visit to a river. The Santa Cruz River Riverwalk follows both sides of the San Lorenzo river and has many pedestrian bridges that allow crossing as well as a park, just north of Soquel Ave, where you can have the perfect picnic.
Unofficially named Silicon Valley for its role in high-tech innovation and development, the sprawling metropolitan area at the southern border of the San Francisco Bay is worth a stop even if you aren’t into start-ups (and you’ll be less than 1 hour away from San Francisco!).
You will spot the oldest standing building in the entire Silicon Valley by visiting the Peralta Adobe (175 E St John St, San Jose), probably built in 1797 by Manuel Gonzales, an Apache Indian who traveled to the area with his family and a Spanish expedition.
At the Winchester Mystery House (525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose), a more recent side of Silicon Valley’s history will unveil to you through daily guided tours. This huge mansion was under continuous construction between 1884 and 1922 and is now believed to be haunted.
At the Intel Museum (2200 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara), you will dive into the much more recent history of computers and will have access to tech demonstration and interactive exhibits. Finally, at the Apple Infinite Loop (1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino), you will have the chance to purchase unique Apple products and high-end accessories unavailable anywhere else.
And that’s it. You’ve got to your final destination: San Francisco! You surely won’t get bored there, there’s so much to see and do. I hope this post was useful to plan your Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them in the comment section below!
What about going on a San Francisco to Los Angeles drive?
I’ve originally written about the opposite drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a detailed, thorough itinerary for the most epic road trip (if I can say so myself!). You can find it here below:
FAQ: LA to San Francisco Drive on the Pacific Coast Highway
The driving distance from LA to San Francisco is approximately 382 miles if you go the fastest route, or 455 miles if you choose the scenic route from LA to San Francisco (highly recommended!).
An approximate LA to San Francisco drive time is 5 hours 35 minutes – of course, without counting any stops and choosing the fastest route. And where’s the fun in that?! I recommend choosing the prettier, coastal route – that will take you approximately 8 hours with no stops.
Otherwise, if you’re landing in LA, the LAX to San Francisco drive will take about 8 hours drive if you go through the Pacific Coast Highway.
It really depends on the duration of your trip to be honest! If you’re planning to drive LA to San Francisco in just 2 days, I recommend stopping either in San Luis Obispo or on the California Central Coast (Pismo Beach or Morro Bay are lovely places to spend one night).