San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip: 10 Days in California

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by Maggie Turansky


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A San Francisco to San Diego road trip is one of the most beautiful in the entirety of the nation. Getting behind the wheel and embarking upon a Pacific Coast Highway itinerary is such a joy that it’s sure to be a trip that you won’t soon forget.

Passing by iconic sites like the Santa Monica Pier, Malibu beaches, Hearst Castle in San Simeon and McWay Falls in Big Sur, taking the scenic route along California’s coast is never really a bad idea.

On this trip, you’ll visit some of the most stunning natural scenery, the most charming towns and the most dynamic cities the state has to offer.

Best Time to Visit California

If there is one thing that people think of when they think of California, it’s sunshine. And the California coast is nearly always blessed with brilliant sunshine and mild temperatures year-round, meaning there really isn’t a bad time to embark on a trip to California.

There are, however, some seasons that are better to travel in than others. While the weather is basically sunny and warm throughout the year, the winter months obviously experience chillier temperatures and shorter days than the summer months. However, especially if you’re not venturing north of San Francisco, you shouldn’t expect high temperatures to drop much below 14°C (57°F).

While there is also more chance of rain in the winter, you can still expect a majority of sunny days while in California during this season along with a fraction of the crowds that you’ll see in the warmer months. The mild, Mediterranean climate also means that the landscape remains lush and green along the coast.

Sunset in Carmel, California
Sunset in Carmel, California

The only real downside of travelling in the winter months is if you’re keen to try out some of the watersports California is so famed for, like surfing, kayaking, or stand-up paddleboarding. While enthusiasts of these sports certainly do it year-round in the Golden State, water temperatures can be very chilly so you are going to need a good wetsuit in order to enjoy yourself properly.

If you’re looking for the best weather that California has to offer with the fewest tourist crowds, then autumn is the season to travel — particularly the months of September and October. During these months, high temperatures will still be warm, ranging from about 20-25°C (68-77°F) and the sunshine is sure to be abundant. Water temperatures are also warmest in the early fall.

Spring is the rainiest season, however, that is all relative depending on where it is you’re coming from. Typically, much of California rarely sees more than 5 days per month of rain.

Summer is the most popular time to visit California and though the temperatures are sure to be beautiful, sunny, and warm throughout the state, accommodation prices are often at their peak and popular cities, driving routes, and attractions can be packed with out-of-towners.

Basically, there are certainly pros and cons to visiting California in any season. As long you’ve packed appropriate clothes you’ll be sure to have a great trip!

A surfer about the hit the waves in Pismo Beach
A surfer about the hit the waves in Pismo Beach

Planning a California Coast Road Trip

San Diego is approximately 500 miles from San Francisco (roughly 805 kilometres) and would take around 8 hours if taking a direct route along the I-5 highway. However, if you want to see all the highlights along the Pacific Coast Highway, you should aim to spend at least 10 days driving between the two cities.

While it can certainly be done in less time, there are so many exciting cities, natural sites, and beach towns to explore that you want to make sure you give yourself an adequate amount of time to see everything.

If you only have one week, this whole trip is going a be a lot more rushed than it would be if you had the original 10 days to spend. This is why I would recommend beginning in San Francisco and ending in Los Angeles rather than San Diego.

Also, it shouldn’t matter whether you begin in San Francisco or San Diego, however, it is more popular to drive the PCH from north to south. Driving in this direction ensures that you are always on the coastal side of the road rather than inland.

However, we did a San Diego to San Francisco road trip (we also made a fantastic detour from San Diego to Ensenada, Mexico!) and didn’t feel like we missed out on coastal vistas in the slightest. Basically, beginning in both San Francisco and San Diego are decent options!

Both cities also have ample car rental opportunities if you’re visiting from abroad or out of town – we recommend searching on Rentalcars.com to find a great deal for car hire!

You can also hire an RV or campervan through Outdoorsy if you want to save on accommodation costs or are planning a longer trip such as going all the way to Portland from San Francisco.

No matter which direction you plan your coastal California road trip itinerary, you are sure to have an amazing time on this iconic route.

10-Day San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1 – San Francisco

Begin your itinerary in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful and iconic cities in the world. Though you could easily spend weeks upon weeks in San Francisco and not get bored, we recommend spending a full three days in the city in order to get a good feel for its diverse neighbourhoods.

Spend your first day in San Francisco on a free walking tour of the city in order to get your bearings. A great way to spend the rest of your day is exploring Chinatown and Little Italy while walking down Columbus Avenue to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39.

Where to Stay in San Francisco

Orchard Hotel — This boutique hotel located downtown is a great place to stay in San Francisco. They have a range of clean rooms available, friendly staff available for all your questions, parking on premises, and a great breakfast included. 

Axiom Hotel — If you’re looking for a luxurious stay in San Francisco, then this chic hotel is a great option. Located right off Union Square, this hotel is ideally located and offers a range of modern rooms.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Francisco!

Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf
Pier 39 at Fisherman’s Wharf

Day 2 – San Francisco

Your second day should be spent getting to know the city even better, so take the time to explore some of the less-touristy neighbourhoods away from the waterfront.

Begin your day in the Mission District, which is traditionally home to San Francisco’s Latin American population and has now given way to the city’s hipsters. Excellent taquerías share the streets with third-wave coffee shops and craft breweries. The Mission District is also where some of San Francisco’s best street art is.

From the Mission, you can explore the centre of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ culture in the Castro neighbourhood. A vibrant borough with many cool cafes, restaurants, shops, and colourful streets, it is an excellent place to get lost or people-watch for a bit.

Now it’s time to explore the iconic counterculture of Haight-Ashbury for some vintage shopping and hippie vibes before ending your day in the massive Golden Gate Park.

Day 3 – San Francisco

On your last day in San Francisco, spend the time exploring outside of the city proper and head into trendy and vibrant Oakland. There is a lot that this area has to offer, including an amazing food scene, a beautiful redwood park, and some of the best craft beer on this side of the Pacific.

Make sure to check out Telegraph Avenue, which spans from student-centric Berkely all the way to Oakland. Here, you will find countless great eateries and cool shops to browse. This is a great place to really enjoy a bit of multicultural Bay Area.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at sunset
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at sunset

Day 4 – Monterey & Carmel

It’s time to venture a bit farther south and explore one of the most beautiful areas of the state: Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur.

Monterey is located about 2 hours south of San Francisco along the CA-1 but take your time making your way south. Some interesting stops include charming Half Moon Bay and laid-back Santa Cruz. The latter is known for its surfer culture and for the large Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a wonderful seaside amusement park that is fun for the whole family.

Once in the Monterey area, take the time to explore these towns. Visit the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, walk along Cannery Row, browse the shops, and even sample some local wines at one of Carmel’s many tasting rooms.

If you’re keen to explore more the beautiful nature in the Monterey area, you can also head to Point Lobos Natural State Reserve for some beautiful coastal walks or go on the iconic 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach.

Where to Stay in Monterey/Carmel

Carmel Green Lantern Inn – Located only a stone’s throw from Carmel Beach, this cosy B&B is a fantastic place to stay in Carmel. Their guest rooms have private entrance making this a great option for a weekend escape. Breakfast is also included in the room rate.

The Stevenson Monterey – If you prefer to stay in Monterey, then this motel is an affordable option and located just off Highway 1! Rooms have all the basic amenities, breakfast is included, and its location makes it easy and convenient to see all the sites in the Monterey/Big Sur area.

Private Rental – There are numerous options for private rentals in these two cities such as this peaceful cottage in Carmel.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels close to Carmel or Monterey!

Cannery Row in Monterey
Cannery Row in Monterey

Day 5 – Big Sur

Though the cities of Monterey and Carmel have a lot to offer visitors in and of themselves, the real highlight of spending two days in this area is the gorgeous Big Sur.

A sparsely populated area located just south of Carmel along the Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the entire state of California. A stunning rugged coastline gives way to lush, dense redwood forests with ample hiking opportunities and wildlife spotting available for everyone who decides to explore this magnificent area.

See sites like the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge and the charming McWay Falls that cascade from the cliffs onto the beach. You can also visit the various state parks that make up this area, including Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Do make sure to check the road closures before travelling down here, as this can sometimes happen due to wildfires or excessive flooding.

McWay Waterfall
McWay Waterfall

Day 6 – Central Coast & Santa Barbara

After spending two days of your San Francisco to San Diego drive exploring Monterey and Big Sur, now it’s time to embark upon the most spectacular portion of this drive and head to the lovely city of Santa Barbara.

On your way, make sure that you take the time to enjoy your final, spectacular views of Big Sur to stop just outside of Cambria to spot some Elephant Seals on the beach. Nearby, you can also stop in to visit Hearst Castle.

North of Santa Barbara is the charming surfer town of Pismo Beach, which is an excellent stop for lunch and to stretch your legs. There is a long pier and a massive, white sand beach where you can watch surfers vie for the perfect wave.

After stopping in Pismo Beach, take a detour off the coast road and drive inland until you reach Santa Barbara. This will take you through some beautiful rolling hills in the countryside and through wine country so picturesque you will think you’re in Tuscany.

Once you arrive at your final destination, there are many ways that you could spend one day in Santa Barbara. It is a popular destination for day trips from Los Angeles and weekends away and has a lot to offer visitors.

One of the best things to do would be to walk from wine tasting room to tasting room in the Funk Zone neighbourhood. This is a super enjoyable activity that is made even more so because there is no need to get behind the wheel!

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

The Presidio Hotel – This boutique hotel in downtown Santa Barbara is the perfect place to rest your head for a weekend away. They have a range of clean and comfortable rooms available, a friendly staff, and an excellent location to ensure you have the best stay possible.

Cheshire Cat Inn – This quaint bed and breakfast in a great location is the perfect place to stay for a romantic weekend away in Santa Barbara. They have a wonderful staff, a range of cosy and clean rooms available, and a fantastic breakfast is included in the room rate.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Santa Barbara!

State Street is the main drag in Santa Barbara
State Street is the main drag in Santa Barbara

Day 7 – Los Angeles

After enjoying some sun, sand, and some excellent wine and beer in Santa Barbara, it is time to continue your way down the California coast from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles — the largest city in California and the second-largest city in the United States.

Los Angeles may be famous for Hollywood and the Walk of Fame, for movie stars and the Oscars and all of that, but there is a lot more to the city than just the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

LA is best discovered, like San Francisco, through exploring its eclectic neighbourhoods. As someone who used to live in the Los Angeles area, I can tell you first-hand that LA is not a city that you can really get to know in 2 days, therefore I would recommend finding a way to fill your days in Los Angeles that interests you.

I would recommend spending the first day exploring the beach areas of West LA. Start in eclectic and quirky Venice Beach, with its famous boardwalk, kitschy shops and stalls, and excellent people-watching. There are also some truly fantastic restaurants in Venice that are worth checking out.

Then I would recommend driving up to Santa Monica, with its famous pier amusement park (a great option if visiting LA with kids!), beautiful beach, and great vibes. Santa Monica is very popular amongst tourists and locals alike and there is always something cool going on there.

Where to Stay in Los Angeles

Hollywood Inn Suites Hotel – This hotel, located in the heart of Hollywood, has an excellent central location perfect for sightseeing in Los Angeles. They have a friendly staff, a range of clean and comfortable rooms to choose from, and a swimming pool on site.

Freehand Los Angeles – This hostel, located in downtown Los Angeles, is an excellent place to stay if you’re travelling solo or on a tight budget. They come very highly rated, have a range of both dorm and private rooms available, and clean facilities. 

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Los Angeles!

Vibrant Venice Beach in Los Angeles
Vibrant Venice Beach in Los Angeles

Day 8 – Los Angeles

On your other day in Los Angeles, I would recommend visiting some inland neighbourhoods of LA. Pasadena is an excellent choice, with its great Old Town area and beautiful houses (many of which have been used in iconic movies over the decades!). Silver Lake is a cool neighbourhood to explore as well, especially if you like trendy, hipster areas of cities.

Keep in mind that you pretty much need to drive everywhere in LA and that traffic can be an absolute nightmare in the city, where there are times that a 20-minute drive can take up to 2 hours. Be sure to keep that in mind when planning what to do in Los Angeles in two days.

All in all, it is impossible to experience all of LA in this short California itinerary, but you should definitely leave wanting to see more!

Day 9 – San Diego

The final 2 days of this epic coastal California road trip will see you driving from Los Angeles to sunny San Diego. As the southernmost city in California, San Diego is a thriving metropolis and has a lot to offer visitors no matter the season.

Though you could spend a week or more in the city and not run out of things to do, spending 2 days in San Diego will give you a decent feel for the city and allow you to hit the highlights.

Spend your first day exploring the beach areas of San Diego, including Mission Bay, Pacific Beach, and my personal favourite, Ocean Beach. Mission Bay is home to the seaside amusement park known as Belmont Park, which is always a hit amongst the young and young at heart with its wooden roller coaster and numerous other rides.

Pacific Beach is a surfer’s paradise with a wide expanse of white sand and a laid-back town to match. Ocean Beach and nearby Sunset Cliffs are the least touristy of the three beach areas I’ve mentioned as has a chilled-out vibe that seems rooted in the 1970s.

Belmont Park in Mission Bay
Belmont Park in Mission Bay

Where to Stay in San Diego

Urban Boutique Hotel – This boutique hotel, located in the ultra-cool Little Italy area of Downtown San Diego, is an excellent place to stay in the city. They have a range of cool, clean, and comfortable rooms available and a fantastic location for all of San Diego’s best attractions, restaurants, and nightlife. 

California Dreams Hostel – This hostel, which is one of the highest-rated in San Diego, is located in cool and laid-back Pacific Beach. They have several private and dorm rooms available, fantastic facilities, a great atmosphere for meeting other travellers, and clean facilities. 

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Diego!

Day 10 – San Diego

Spend your second day in San Diego exploring downtown neighbourhoods like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter, and Seaport Village. Take the time to visit the Maritime Museum and the USS Midway, both really interesting stops to help you learn more about San Diego’s seafaring history.

If you have more time or it interests you more, head over to Coronado Island which is home to the famous Hotel Del Coronado and one of the best beaches in San Diego. It also has a lot of great restaurants and shops worth checking out.

If you’re sick of California and want to be a bit adventurous, it is incredibly easy to visit Tijuana as a day trip from San Diego. Just take the trolley to San Ysidro and walk across the border and you’ll be enjoying some of the best street tacos of your life in no time!

San Diego Skyline
San Diego Skyline

Have More Time?

If you have 2 weeks to spend rather than only 10 days for your California trip, we would recommend extending your stay in a few of the cities. Begin your time with four days in San Francisco, which will allow you to see and do more and truly experience the city.

To round it off, either add another day on one of the stops in the middle and one more day in San Diego or keep the rest of the itinerary as is and finish your time with four days in San Diego.

If you have even more than 2 weeks, it’s worth considering driving north from San Francisco towards Portland and Seattle and seeing the entirety of the west coast!

Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur
Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur

Planning the perfect California coast itinerary doesn’t have to be difficult, especially considering all there is to see and do in this beautiful state.

Are you planning to visit California? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

Comments

  1. Hello!
    I am planning a trip May 28 to June 6th with 3 other adults and 1 child. We are wanting to visit LA, San Diego, and San Francisco. We are thinking of flying into one city first either san diego and san francisco and using public transportation to get around and then either using the pacific surfliner to get from san diego to LAX (or vice versa) or flying down from San Francisco to LAX(or vice versa). do you have any recommendations on where we should start, stay, and do? we are not on a budget but would like to save as much as possible.

    Reply
  2. thank you so much for all your great information ,I’m will be traveling with my son in September ,we are from scotland and looking forward to our trip, your blog has been so helpful thanks,George

    Reply
  3. Hi,
    Is this drive all along the ocean for the most part? How safe/dangerous is it? I mean the part where you drive by the ocean with no rails?

    Thank you,
    Tina

    Reply
    • Hi Tina! Yes, this route is mostly coastal. The road is generally as safe as any other road and countless people drive it every single day with no issues. If there are any safety concerns at all, parts of the road will generally be closed in order to protect motorists from harm. Hope you have a great trip!

      Reply
  4. Hi Maggie,
    Loved your suggestions , will definetly go by what you have planned, starting 12 day trip to san diego from san francisco but planningg to go to yosemite in between can you suggest where to leave pacific coast road for yosemite and upon leaving yosemite getting back on coastal road without missing anything on coastal road,
    Also where we should hire car
    Thankyou in advance
    Deirdre

    Reply
    • Hi Deirdre, thanks for your comment! In order not to miss anything, I would recommend heading to Yosemite first from San Francisco before heading toward Monterey and then go down the coast from there. You will end up missing places like Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, but these aren’t nearly as spectacular as the stretch after Monterey. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  5. Loved reading your info.
    I have a few questions;
    Looking at coming from the UK for hubby’s 40th bday next year – 2 adults and 2 kids ages 6 and 10. Want to do San Fran to San Diego…maybe Yosemite national park…and defo Disney parks.
    Hope we will have 19-21 days.
    Any suggestions firstly on itinerary and no. Of days in which places?
    Is it best to do north to south? Flight prices are a little cheaper to do it in the other way but I don’t want to lose out on a better experience.
    Also, what’s the best time of year? Hubby is Mediterranean so doesn’t like rain! He’s fine with cooler temperatures but rain is a pet hate. As this is a surprise for him, I can’t consult with him and so I feel a little stressed about the where, and when!
    Any advice appreciated
    Thank you
    Jenny

    Reply
    • Hi Jenny, sounds like you’ve got quite the trip planned! With all of the places you want to go, ~3 weeks is an excellent length of time. In general, I would always recommend spending more time in San Diego and San Francisco if you can (there are so many things to see and do in both cities!). And driving north to south vs south to north doesn’t make too much of a difference. It is more popular to go the north to south route because you will be on the side closest to the ocean, however, it really doesn’t make too much of a difference.
      One of the great things about California (especially the coast) is that the weather is pretty much spectacular all year round. The only reason I wouldn’t recommend going in winter is if you end up going to Yosemite because it can get quite cold there. Otherwise, there isn’t a good or bad time to do this trip (summer will be very busy, though!). Hope this helps with your planning!

      Reply
      • Thank you!
        What do you class as winter? Mid-end feb? Are there any other areas around San Fran and/or San Diego you would recommend?
        Would April or feb be better to visit? We don’t like it too busy…but don’t like rain either.
        Thanks for your suggestions!
        Jenny

        Reply
  6. Hi! I loved this! Im planing to go on September of this year, but with the current situation, i was wondering if your plan would change? Like maybe going places were there aren’t a lot of tourists, like maybe in LA or San Francisco?

    And another question, are there places were you can just park and sleep in your car? And if there are, is that to dangerous?

    Thank you very much, I also want to say how much this helps!

    Reply
    • Hi Fernanda – as you really don’t know what the situation is going to be like in September, I would hold off on doing any hard planning of this trip. California is pretty hard hit at the moment and I don’t think it’s safe to be travelling around the cities at all right now. If you are able to go, I would recommend that you plan to stick to some national parks or more rural areas where there is more space for social distancing.

      As per sleeping in your car — I honestly don’t know but I believe that it’s illegal in most areas of the state. I would recommend bringing a tent and looking for some campsites if you’re after cheap accommodation.

      Reply
    • Thanks for your comment and your kind words, Mariana! I’m so happy you’ve found this article helpful and I hope you have a great trip to CA 🙂

      Reply
  7. Hi

    We are hoping to do a self drive in california in September/October this year. Four adults 2 drivers we definitely want to do San Francisco and a winery. We will have two weeks. Any suggestions?

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Hi Ann, I have some suggestions on what to do if you have 2 weeks at the end of this article 🙂 Hope you have a great trip!

      Reply
  8. My husband and I took this trip in October and followed your itinerary for the most part. It was one of the most amazing trips we have taken. In addition, we saw things we would have never known about if not for your blog (that I stumbled upon accidentally). I am now reading your Phoenix to Las Vegas blog for our trip in February. Thank you and Happy New Year! Wishing you a year of good health, safe travels and many wonderful memories! Karen and Tom Rolland

    Reply
    • Hi Karen, thanks for much for your comment! I am so happy that you found this article helpful in planning your trip and that you had such a great time 🙂 Wishing you a wonderful 2020, as well

      Reply
  9. Kia ora from NZ Maggie,

    Thanks for your great post. I’ll be there next year in May and will be leaving Los Angeles on a Monday and heading north along the PCF before flying out from SF on Friday night. Considering a relocation SUV camper (dependent on availability) to cut down on accomodation costs, otherwise will look at motels, Air BnB or even a hostel (here theyre fun!). Small towns and coastal vs. large towns but open to ideas. Ideally would like to arrive in SF Thursday morning and spend the next two days exploring. Your thoughts?

    Henare

    Reply
  10. Hi Maggie,
    I am planning a short 5.5 days trip to California. The plan is: Nov 13-15 San Fran; 16-17 Scenic drive from San Fran to LA, arrive to LA at the end of the 17th; 18th in LA and 19th head back to Miami. Please advise where should I prioritize to visit and in which town to sleep during the 16 and 17th.
    Love what you wrote! Thanks!
    Best regards, ELP

    Reply
    • Hi Eldar, if you’re only planning on driving the PCH over 2 days, I would recommend that you find somewhere to stay in the Central Coast area — Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo are good choices. Hope you have a great trip!

      Reply
  11. Dear Maggie Turansky,
    Your Blog is really cool and comprehensive with lots of info, l loved it !
    I can’t wait to go on a ride from San Francisco to San Diego, a friend of mine is just on this tour next month.
    California is really Amazing and Thanks a bunch, Rbt.

    Reply

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