Planning your road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles? This 7-day road trip itinerary from SF to LA will show you all the highlights of the California coast!
The best way to enjoy California’s unexpected nature and unique urban centers is traveling by car, hands down. By moving on four wheels, you can cruise along the Pacific Ocean coast and dream about the waves, quickly move from one destination to the next, and carry with you all the hats, lipstick, sandals, and towels you may need!
That is why a Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary from San Francisco to Los Angeles is the quintessential Californian road trip.
So, the first thing to do is rent a car (or find a friend with one!) and start planning. In this post, I collect ideas and suggestions for a 7-day San Francisco – Los Angeles road trip along the Californian coast.
Of course, you can easily revert this itinerary and plan the opposite Los Angeles- San Francisco road trip (check out this other post I’ve written on the best stops on the LA to San Francisco drive!)
➤ 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 your rental car from San Fran to L.A.
SAN FRANCISCO TO LOS ANGELES ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
This itinerary touches on everything you may want to see on your way from San Francisco to L.A. It’s packed, that’s for sure, but doable. I suggest heading out early in the morning to make the most out of it, but if you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, feel free to skip a few destinations. After all, you’ll probably fall in love with this area anyways, and a second visit will be in the cards.
Now, for the first day, you won’t even need a car, so let’s get going!
Day 1 & 2: San Francisco
San Francisco is famous for almost anything you may imagine, and I recommend starting your trip on foot, since the core of San Francisco is best explored without the hassle of looking for parking.
Before we get started with the itinerary, I want to suggest two combos / tours that can help you save money and time during your short visit in San Francisco.
➤If you’re planning to both visit Alcatraz Island and visit the city via hop on hop off bus, you can save money with this combined premium hop-on-hop-off ticket and Alcatraz Island visit.
➤ If you have only one day at your disposal, or want to make the most of your time, check out also the City Sights, Muir Woods and Alcatraz day tour. This full day tour will bring you to 15 different destinations in one day – you’l get to see all the highlights of San Francisco including Alcatraz, Chinatown, and some of the most famous neighborhoods such as The Castro and The Mission.
Day 1: Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz & Chinatown
On the first day of your San Francisco road trip, begin your explorations up north at the Fisherman’s Wharf and get lost among the shops (like Ghirardelli Chocolate Marketplace on 900 North Point St).
By the Wharf you can also enjoy the view of the Golden Gate Bridge to your left and the colony of sea lions just in front of you, or visit one of the museums in this very busy corner of San Francisco (my favorite is the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45, featuring cool old-fashioned coin-operated games and arcade machines from a different time).
From here, stroll east on The Embarcadero. On your way you’ll encounter the famous Pier 39 (another shopping heaven) and in less than 30 minutes on foot, you’ll arrive at the Ferry Building. This is a real mecca for food lovers who also want to get a taste of good ol’ San Francisco.
⇒ From here, you’ve got two great options. You can go on a boat ride around the Alcatraz Island and listen to the histories of the criminals who tried to flee the island. You’ll also navigate under the Golden Gate Bridge for spectacular photo opportunities. You won’t visit the island itself, but this 1 hour 30 minute affordable tour is perfect for those with limited time. Book online to skip the line.
⇒ The other option is to visit Alcatraz and see the infamous prison with your own eyes. Rather than buying the ticket by itself (which you can certainly do right at the pier), I suggest checking out this full-day tour that includes Alcatraz, a visit to Muir Woods and much more, and for me provides much better value.
After you’ve come back on land, just on the other side of the street you’ll find the San Francisco Railway Museum, where you’ll have the chance to imagine how locals moved around town on the iconic street cars before car sharing apps saw the light of day. The museum’s entrance is on the opposite side of the waterfront, at 77 Steuart St.
For a lunch stop in this area, I always enjoy Boulette Larder + Balibar, an easy French-inspired café inside the Ferry Building. When you’re satisfied and happy, walk up to Washington St at Drumm St and turn west. In the horizon, you’ll see the famous tower Transamerica Pyramid (600 Montgomery St).
After a visit at the top of the pyramid-shaped building, spend your first afternoon browsing books at City Lights, San Francisco’s most well-known bookstore and publisher at 261 Columbus Ave, and losing yourself in nearby Chinatown (roughly spreading between Broadway at Bush St and Powell St at Montgomery St), the oldest Chinese community in the United States.
By night, you can cap off your first day by dining and enjoying yourself by Union Square, just a few blocks to the south. Among the many options, check out the Asian-inspired E&O Kitchen and Bar at 314 Sutter St and the Swedish-themed Sears Fine Food at 439 Powell St.
Day 2: Golden Gate Bridge & Golden Gate Park
On Day 2 of your San Francisco to LA road trip, it’s time to rent a car as San Francisco’s most visible attractions await you, unless you prefer to avoid the hassle and tour the city aboard the hop-on hop-off bus which will bring you to all the destinations of this day and more. I would honestly recommend it, as you’ll end up spending more by renting a car and on parking.
Your first destination of the day is the crooked stretch of Lombard St between Hyde St and Leavenworth St (in this order!!), whose tortuous path is perfect for a slow ride down.
Then it’s time to see the iconic row of colored houses, called Painted Ladies, on Steiner St by Alamo Square Park.
Head then to the Golden Gate Park, which also features more than 1,000 acres on the north-west side of town featuring the de Young Museum (an art museum dedicated to local artists), the San Francisco Botanical Garden, where you can travel the world in 55 acres, and the Stow Lake Boathouse at the heart of the park (for an easier visit, park at the Music Concourse Garage on Fulton St at 10th Ave).
Finally there’s the iconic, red Golden Gate Bridge, which you can gloriously ride across until you reach the Vista Point on the other side of the channel of water (technically in the town of Sausalito).
If you’ve got some more time, take the pedestrian path to Baker Beach – this place is off the usual tourist path, but I guarantee you that the views are absolutely gorgeous!
On your last evening in San Francisco, wander in the Castro neighborhood and the nearby Mission District. Unforgettable locals, great eateries and clubs will be the cherry on your San Francisco 2-day stay.
➤ Here are my 3 recommendations for hotels in San Francisco.
• Luxury: Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco
• Mid-Range / Boutique Hotel: Staypineapple, Union Square
• On a Budget: HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel
Day 3: Monterey, Carmel-By-The-Sea, Big Sur
Start your third day of your San Francisco to Los Angeles trip by saying goodbye to San Francisco and making your way south. Your first stop, the town of Monterey, is about 2 hours away on the I-101 or closer to 2.5 hours, if you prefer to ride along the coast on the much more panoramic State Route 1.
Just south of the Monterey Bay, this old, fishermen town is perfect for some ocean-themed shopping around the harbor or great fish sight-seeing at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row).
Another cool activity that both kids and adults will enjoy is a whale watching cruise – in fact, in Monterey Bay you can spot whales all year long! Check out this whale watching tour guided by a marine biologist or naturalist.
For lunch, you may make your way up to the local Victorian-era lighthouse, the oldest operating facility of this kind on the US West coast, situated in the Point Pinos Lighthouse reservation just 15 minutes far from Monterey downtown (and perhaps make a picnic out of it with sandwiches from the Sea Harvest Restaurant and Fish Market, at 598 Foam St).
Otherwise, drive across the peninsula and get to Carmel-By-The-Sea (another 15-minute long ride from Monterey).
In Carmel-By-The-Sea, I suggest spending time enjoying all things related to the local mission: you may hike in the Mission Trail Nature Preserve, a 34-acre park, and you may visit the Carmel Mission Basilica, built around 1777 and offering a serene place for education, religion, and art.
When you’re back in the Carmel-By-The-Sea central area, take a peek at the glorious beach and rest a bit in one of the several great restaurants this little town has to offer. I like the Mexican bistro Cultura Comida y Bibida (on Dolores St between 5th and 6th Ave) and Basil Seasonal Dining (on San Carlos St between Ocean and 7th Ave).
After the upscale environs of Monterey and Carmen-By-The-Sea, spend the remainder of your third day by driving your car down the coast in what is called Big Sur.
This stretch of California coastline going from Carmel-By-The-Sea to San Simeon offers really amazing vistas to both the driver and fellow passengers.
To do it well, you absolutely have to take the State Route 1 (not the I-101, which goes inland) and stop in a few key spots to take pictures. There is Pfeiffer Beach with its purple sand, then you should consider the spectacular McWay Falls and the Elephant Seal Vista Point.
And the end of your day, find a place to sleep in one of the campgrounds located in the Hearst San Simeon State Park or in a hotel south of the San Simeon Bay.
Day 4: Hearst Castle, Cambria, Paso Robles
No matter where you spend the night, your fourth day will start on the highest note by visiting Hearst Castle, a museum like no other sitting in the mountains above San Simeon.
First conceived by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in 1919 along with architect Julia Morgan, Hearst Castle is now a wonderful and extravagant open mansion that reminds us of what it meant to be part of the elite in the early decades of the 20th century.
After parking by the coast and hopping on a bus (the only way to reach the castle atop the hill), visitors may tour the gardens as well as the interiors (don’t forget the Roman pool!), where they’ll find historic furniture and a theater, among other wonders. If it’s a clear day, the views from the castle’s open patios are gorgeous!
About 20 minutes drive to the south, you’ll find the quaint seaside town of Cambria.
Wander in the historic downtown, relax on Moonstone Beach, and grab some lunch at Hidden Kitchen (2164 Center St), serving only organic food, or at The Sow’s Ear (2248 Main St), a locals’ favorite.
Both restaurants are a couple of minutes away both from the Old Santa Rosa Chapel, the oldest church in the county, and the Moonstone Redwood Gallery, if you are yearning for local art (the lucky you, ’cause you’ll find tons of art shops in town!).
Just a 40-minute drive inland, Paso Robles is your third and last destination of day 4. Now, I might be a little biased since I’ve spent here a whole year as a foreign exchange student in high school, but Paso Robles is definitely worth a stop. It’s a mix of wine country, hipster restaurants and boutique hotels, and would be a real pity to skip it.
The town of Paso Robles hosts the military aviation museum Estrella Warbird Museum (4251 Dry Creek Rd), the art installation Field of Light at Sensorio by Bruce Munro, just north of the I-46, and the Pioneer Museum (2010 Riverside Ave), where local history from the early 19th century is presented.
However, your visit in Paso Robles will be really worth it only if you make it to a winery. Vineyards, wineries, and wine cellars abound in the area and in any tour you find, you’ll have the opportunity to be driven around in a convenient bus (so you can keep enjoying the wine with not a worry in the world), taste from 3 to 8 different locally made wines, and of course purchase one or two bottles of that same wine you liked so much.
If you’re going to visit on your own, for an eco-friendly option (you know I care!), I recommend Tablas Creek Vineyard (9339 Adelaida Rd).
Day 5: Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach
After a quiet night in the Paso Robles countryside, start your fifth day of your road trip to Los Angeles from San Francisco by driving to Morro Bay, which is about 30 miles from Paso Robles. You’re back on the ocean coast, after what was hopefully an excellent wine tour.
Morro Bay is famous for its namesake, the 581-foot Morro Rock – a large amount of–guess what–rock that sits right on the coast as if a giant had just plopped it there. It’s quite a view! The surrounding entertainment area with candy corn and souvenirs is also worth a walk around it.
A few things to do in Morro Bay are enjoying the beach just north of Morro Rock (perhaps by renting a kayak), spot otters by the pier, hike in the nearby Elfin Forest (an amazing bush-made forest with a view of Morro Bay estuary). A great place for lunch is Taco Temple (2680 Main St) for Mexican American food fare, or check out this list of best restaurants in Morro Bay.
San Luis Obispo
Your next stop will be San Luis Obispo (about 20 minutes away), a lively university town with yet another cute walkable historic downtown and a catholic mission. According to Oprah Winfrey, this is the happiest place in America! To test the truth to this statement, park by downtown and take a stroll all around.
You shouldn’t miss Bubblegum Alley (a narrow street between Higuera St and Garden Alley lined with chewing gum, a real Instagram-friendly place), the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (751 Palm St), which gives the town its name, and the Historical Jack House and Gardens, a Victorian house where free guided tours are available if you want to jump into Victorian-era furniture and living.
Last but not least, if you jump back in your car a must-see destination in the area is the Madonna Inn (100 Madonna Rd). In this over-the-top restaurant, hotel and entertainment all around, not only you can find great dining (don’t let those pies escape you) but a once-in-a-lifetime visual experience. Back when I was an exchange student at Paso Robles High School, our prom was hosted here and it was really unforgettable.
The last stop for the day will be Pismo Beach, 20-minutes away from San Luis Obispo and right on the coast.
There are plenty of things to do in Pismo Beach, but since you’ll arrive later in the day, enjoy the sunset and late-timer surfers by walking down the pier gazing at the ocean and having a cocktail at Puffers of Pismo at 781 Price St (choose if you love live music) or a locally-crafted beer at the Pismo Brewing Company (500 Cypress St).
READ ALSO: Best Restaurants and Cafes in Pismo Beach
➤ After dinner, there are many places here where you can spend the night and my favorite is The Cliffs Hotel and Spa (2757 Shell Beach Rd), if you want to treat yourself.
➤ In case you are looking for something more central, I recommend the Inn at the Pier (601 Cypress St). They also have a great rooftop bar and restaurant you may enjoy.
Here are 3 other recommendations for hotels in Pismo Beach:
• Luxury: Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, Autograph Collection
• Mid-Range / Boutique Hotel: SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel
• On a Budget: Ocean Palms Motel
The next morning, make sure not to leave Pismo Beach before you tried a donut and freshly brewed coffee at Surfside Donuts and Coffee – yummy!(603 Dolliver St).
Day 6: Solvang and Santa Barbara
Leave the central coast on the one before the last day and head to Solvang, about 62 miles from Pismo Beach. This is truly a unique place in California, and perhaps in the United States.
The whole town of Solvang is dedicated to Danish culture. Check out the Solvang Windmill and the Little Marmaid Fountain, have a perfectly themed breakfast at Danish Mill Bakery (1682 Copenhagen Dr) on your way in or your way out, and replenish your dessert stock at Ingeborg’s Danish Chocolates (1679 Copenhagen Dr).
For lunch, enjoy the all-you-can eat offering at Bit O’Denmark Restaurant (473 Alisal Rd) or eat light with a sandwich from one of the numerous local cafes.
But are you still thinking about your wine tasting experience in Paso Robles? Check out the offering around this area on day 6 as they are as famous for wine lovers. Already in downtown Solvang, you can visit Casa Cassara Winery and Vineyard (1607 Mission Dr), otherwise consider a visit to Sunstone Winery to the east on 125 N Refugio Road (technically in the town of Santa Ynez).
If you go back to your car and ride it 45 minutes south, you’ll be in downtown Santa Barbara. In this sun-kissed charming small city, places like Jaffurs Wine Cellars (819 E Montecito St) and Witchcraft Winery (36 S Calle Cesar Chavez) will offer you a similar a wine-tasting experience with the benefit of already being in the Santa Barbara central area.
Besides its locally grown grapes, Santa Barbara is known for its beach and pier with the historic Stearns Wharf, the Coronado Butterfly Reserve in nearby Goleta , and the 1786 Old Mission.
➤ Renting a room at the Hotel Milo Santa Barbara (202 W Cabrillo Rd), which sits right on the ocean next to the main shopping artery State St, has parking spots for its guests and offers free bike rides, will assure your experience is top notch.
Day 7: Los Angeles
About 100 miles separate Santa Barbara from Los Angeles but the environment couldn’t be more different. I’ve written a lot about LA in this blog, but I always like to remind you guys about a couple of not-to-miss things to do in one day in this crazy Californian metropolis.
Of course, these are just a few suggestions. There’s a lot more that you can do based on your interests, for example visiting the coastal cities of Santa Monica and Venice Beach, or exploring L.A.’s buzzing downtown with a self-guided walking tour.
⇒ If it’s your first time in LA and you only have one day, I highly suggest checking out the LA Grand Tour, a full-day tour that will bring you to Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Beach and Griffith Observatory all in one day.
⇒ Another good option to move around the city with ease is to take the hop on hop off bus that completes two routes with 20 different stops of Los Angeles’ top landmarks. I’m suggesting this option because although L.A. is super car friendly, traffic can be a nightmare and parking can be more expensive than the ticket for the hop on hop off bus.
But if you prefer visiting on your own, this is my suggested itinerary. After your drive from Santa Barbara in the morning, visit the Getty Center, a free art museum on the west side offering the public a view of the artworks collected by J. Paul Getty.
Later, make an IG post with pictures from the art installation Urban Light, in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd).
Dedicate you afternoon to a short hike to the Griffith Observatory , where you’ll have the chance to gaze at the city turning dark with flickering lights at sundown (if you look to your right, you’ll also see the famed Hollywood sign).
⇒ Want to meet some new people? You can join a guided hike that will bring you to the Hollywood Sign and Griffith Observatory. Book it here.
Afterwards, for a different type of night, watch a film on the big screen in the open air cinema Cinespia, hosted by the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (6000 Santa Monic Blvd) and spend the night at The Bissell House Bed and Breakfast (201 Orange Grove Ave, in South Pasadena) between the up and coming Highland Park neighborhood and more classic Pasadena.
➤ Looking for something different? Here are my 3 recommendations for hotels in Los Angeles. Keep in mind that the city is biiig!
• Luxury: The Beverly Hills Hotel
• Mid-Range / Boutique Hotel: The Hoxton – Downtown LA
• On a Budget: Banana Bungalow
If your car is a rental and you’re on your way out of California by plane, you can probably drop off the car by the Los Angeles International Airport (check out your car rental company!). Otherwise, I’m jealous of you with your owned car…there are so many more road trips in store for you in California!
I hope this post was useful to organize your SF to LA road trip (or LA to San Francisco road trip if you’re going the opposite way) – if you have any questions, please leave them in the comments!
FAQ: Road Trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles
It can be as long or as short as you want it to be. You could drive from San Fran to L.A. in as little as one day, but plan at least 3 days to see some of the attractions and sights on the way. One week or even 10 days would be the perfect time to enjoy your road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The best route according to me is along the Pacific Coast Highway, that allows you see incre3dible views of the coast, and explore all the coastal charming towns.
The distance from San Francisco to L.A. is 383 miles. It takes approximately 6 hours to drive without any stops… but what’s the fun in that?