Getting behind the wheel and hitting the open road might well be one of the most American things there is to do. With so much to see in the diverse nation, it is truly best-experienced overland. While you could pick up and drive anywhere in the United States and have an amazing time — seeing everything from sprawling mountain ranges, vast expanses of plains, lush pine forests, and rugged coastline — one of the most iconic road trips in the USA would have to be on the Pacific Coast of California. And embarking on a California itinerary is an experience that every traveller should have at least once in their lifetime.
California is the most visited state in the US and it packs so much into it that it isn’t hard to see why. With a population larger than those of Canada and Australia and with the world’s fifth-largest economy, California can feel like its own country. With a landscape as diverse as its people and cuisine, the perfect coastal California road trip itinerary can be incredibly difficult to plan.
If you want to see the highlights of California’s Pacific Coast Highway (also referred to as Highway 1 or the PCH), then driving from San Francisco to San Diego is the best way to do this. On this route, you’ll pass some of the most stunning natural scenery and the most charming and dynamic cities the state has to offer.
When to Go on a California Road Trip
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 up a California itinerary.
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 14ºC (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.
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, California rarely sees more than 5 days per month of rain.
Summer, obviously, 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!
California Road Trip Itinerary: 10 Days
Now that you’ve decided the time of year you want to go to California, it’s time to figure out your route! If you’re driving along the coast from San Francisco to San Diego, the ideal length of time to do this is 10 days. 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.
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 this direction ensures that you are always on the coastal side of the road rather than inland. However, we did the same route in a San Diego to San Francisco road trip itinerary (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. 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 the best deal for car hire!
No matter which direction you plan your coastal California road trip itinerary, you are sure to have an amazing time on this iconic route.
San Francisco: 3 Days
Begin your 10-day California 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.
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.
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.
Where to Stay in San Francisco
San Francisco is a notoriously expensive city, having the highest cost of living in the United States. However, you don’t need to spend your entire California travel budget on a night in this beautiful city. Opt for some budget accommodation, or stay in nearby Oakland, where the prices are (marginally) less expensive. Here are our top accommodation recommendations:
Golden Gate Hotel — This small hotel located right next to Union Square 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. Click here to see their latest prices
USA Hostels San Francisco — Located in the heart of San Francisco, this is the highest-rated hostel in the city. They have numerous dorm and private rooms available, a fantastic atmosphere for meeting other travellers, a killer staff, and free breakfast to start your day. Click here to see their latest prices
Airbnb — If you’re looking to save money, stay in a private apartment, or share a flat with a local, there are numerous Airbnb properties through the Bay Area and it can be a fantastic alternative accommodation option for travellers. For example, this private room in Oakland or this private room in Castro is a great option if you’re on a budget and want to stay with a local. Click here to see the best Airbnbs in the Bay Area.
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Francisco!
Monterey: 2 Days
After spending the first three days of this 10-day California road trip itinerary, 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.
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 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.
Spend one day in Big Sur and another day exploring the charming cities of Monterey and Carmel. 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
Both the towns of Monterey and Carmel are great places to stay when visiting the area, as they are close to one another and easy to drive between. Here are some of our top recommendations for places to stay:
Carmel Lodge — A great, romantic place for couples located in the centre of Carmel. They have a wide range of different rooms available, daily breakfast included and free parking provided. Click here to see their latest prices
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. Click here to see their latest prices
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 it’s location makes it easy and convenient to see all the sites in the Moneterey/Big Sur area. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels close to Carmel or Monterey!
Santa Barbara: 1 Day
After spending two days of your San Francisco to San Diego itinerary 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.
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 surfer 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.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is an incredibly popular place to spend one or more nights away from the hustle and bustle of the big city so, therefore, there are lots of accommodation options to choose from. Here are our favourite suggestions:
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. Click here to see their latest prices
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. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Santa Barbara!
Los Angeles: 2 Days
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 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.
On your other day in Los Angeles, I would recommend visiting some inland neighbourhoods of LA. Pasadena is an excellent choice, with it’s 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!
Where to Stay in Los Angeles
LA is a huge city and there are numerous places to stay that it can be overwhelming to choose. We would recommend figuring out you basic Los Angeles itinerary first and then picking an accommodation that is central to everything that you want to see. It is also always good to ensure that parking is included in your room rate! If you’re struggling to find the perfect place to stay, have a look at our suggestions:
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. Click here to see their latest prices
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. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Los Angeles!
San Diego: 2 Days
The final 2 days of this epic coastal California road trip itinerary 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 you 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.
Spend your second day in San Diego exploring downtown neighbourhoods like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter, and Seaport Village. Take the time to visit 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!
Where to Stay in San Diego
San Diego has a lot of great accommodation options available for those looking for a quick weekend away or a longer trip. We would recommend staying close to downtown as you can easily get anywhere else in the city from there. Here are our top recommendations:
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 to all of San Diego’s best attractions, restaurants, and nightlife. Click here to see their latest prices
USA Hostels Ocean Beach — This hostel, which is one of the highest-rated in the world, not just in San Diego, is located in cool and laid-back Ocean Beach. They have a number of both private and dorm rooms available, fantastic facilities, a great atmosphere for meeting other travellers, and clean facilities. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Diego!
California Itinerary: 2 Weeks
If you have 2 weeks to spend rather than only 10 days for your California itinerary, we would recommend extending your stay in a few of the cities. Begin your road trip 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 you San Francisco to San Diego road trip 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.
California Itinerary: 7 Days
If you only have one week, this whole trip is going a be a lot more rushed than it would be if you have the original 10 days or 2 weeks to spend on your Pacific Coast Highway road trip. This is why I would recommend beginning in San Francisco and ending in Los Angeles rather than San Diego.
If you only have one week, there just isn’t enough time to be able to really experience every stop on the 10-day California itinerary so it is best to cut off one stop altogether. You can always spend more time in San Diego at a later time…there is plenty to do!
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.
When travelling away from home, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads
Are you planning a California road trip? Have you been? Let us know in the comments!