Let me show you where to stop on a San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip – so good, I’ve done the route twice!
The San Francisco to Los Angeles drive is still one of my absolute favourite I’ve ever done. In fact, it’s so good I’ve done the Pacific Coast Highway road trip twice. Wouldn’t mind driving the California coast again TBH.
The San Francisco to LA drive is well known as one of the prettiest and most scenic routes in the world, never mind America. It’s the ultimate California coastal road trip.
Highway 1, as it’s also known, actually starts as soon as you arrive in California. It begins at the northern border with Oregon and stretches all the way down to finish in San Diego. If you steamed ahead the whole route would take ten hours to do, but then you’d miss out on all the joys of the 1000km of impressive roads, views, and cool places to stop along the way.
Road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you’ll enjoy stunning coastal views, Californian sunshine villages, epic forests, cool towns and a wine making district or two, too.
Of course you can do Highway 1 the other way, and drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on a road trip, but this way is generally considered the best. And it’s the only way I’ve ever done it!
Where to stop on the San Francisco to Los Angeles drive
Drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles and you’re in for an incredible trip!
1. San Francisco
San Francisco is a great city, and an excellent place to start your trip driving the California Coast. There’s a good reason why it’s used in so many films as a backdrop, and why it’s on the dream list for so many people to visit.
The Golden Gate Park is an absolute must do while you’re in the city. Have a few days to explore Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz Island and just relaxing with a coffee in Union Square. Get around via the famous San Francisco tram and make sure to walk down crazy Lombard Street too – don’t attempt to drive it!
Pick up your rental car and drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to get off to a memorable start to your San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip. It’s the most recognisable bridge in the world, and is actually surprisingly long. A great opportunity to get used to the glory of those wide lanes in the USA.
Distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles
Here’s a map of the drive from San Francisco to LA.
The San Francisco to Los Angeles drive is 6 h 16 mins (383.1 mi) via I-5 S – the most direct route.
If you want to drive from SF to LA the scenic route, as described here, then you’re looking at around 9 h 19 mins (454 miles) via Highway 1.
ACCOMMODATION IN SAN FRANCISCO
After landing in San Francisco we went straight to the Hotel Zephyr in Fisherman’s Wharf to freshen up. It had only opened a week before and is in a great location right on the waterfront – it was easy to walk to the famous Pier 39 sea lions and the Golden Gate Bridge viewing point from the front desk.
For dinner I’d recommend the Boudin Bakery over the road for chowder in bread bowls, fish and chips and their signature sourdough bread and butter pudding for dessert. I pretty much carb coma’d into bed that night.
2. San Jose
San Jose could be described as the centre of the western world right now, thanks to the huge companies that now call Silicon Valley home. Facebook and Google HQs are here, and the famous Hewlett Packard Garage from where it all began.
There’s a lot of money floating about in San Jose and if you can get an invite into any of the head offices, take up the offer.
As well as possibly controlling all of our futures, San Jose also has a fascinating past. Galleries, museums, an open air market and a lively downtown make San Jose a must on your road trip from San Francisco to LA.
Also, make sure to swing by the famous Winchester Mystery House. It’s full of curiosities, including dead end hallways, staircases that run up to the ceiling and 165 rooms. The late Sarah Winchester built the place at a cost of over $20m, as instructed by her Medium. Imagine having the money to just follow that advice on a whim – joyful!
You NEED to stop here on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles – to really say you’ve done a coast of California road trip.
3. Santa Cruz
Look out the window to see the stunning Half Moon Bay as you pass from San Jose, Santa Cruz bound. Even better, pull over and snap a moody pic from the cliff edge before you rush away.
Put “Ano Nuevo State Park” into your sat nav where you can visit the Elephant Seals in the marine park, and take a look at a San Francisco Garter Snake too.
Seriously, don’t miss the Elephant Seals when you’re driving the California Coast. I’ve never seen so many in one place, it was amazing. Definitely one of the highlights of the San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip.
Ninety minutes from San Jose in your rental car (with no stops) you’ll find yourself in Santa Cruz. The 60s live on here, especially along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with its old-school Americana vibe. Explore the lighthouse on the beautiful beach, and the Big Dipper along the boardwalk. The Mystery Spot – a collection of strange phenomena from the last 70 years – also makes for an entertaining few hours.
On Pacific Avenue you’ll find all kinds of vintage goodies, visit Palomar for night time salsa dancing, Wilder Ranch State Park for hiking and the Rio Theatre for local music. The Wharf is a great place to start for restaurants and shops and if you have the time you can go on a whale watching boat or fishing expedition too.
Lots to do in Santa Cruz so don’t skip it on your Pacific Coast Highway trip!
READ MORE on US Road Trips
4. Monterey Bay
Just an hour from Santa Cruz you’ll find Monterey Bay on the curve of the coast. Lots to do here, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, and the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
Don’t miss the scenic ’17 Mile Drive’ and have a mooch around Carmel-by-the-Sea – a cute seaside village with shops, cafes and restaurants. Whale watching, sailing, kayaking, golfing and biking are also popular in Monterey.
A gentle uphill drive from here takes you out to the Big Sur, where the fun really begins on your San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip.
If you want to spend two days in Monterey, check out this post from California Crossroads.
5. Big Sur
The Bixby Bridge is your best route into the Big Sur, well, pretty much the only one from Highway 1 TBH. It’s one of the tallest single span concrete bridges in the world and one of the most photographed bridges on the West Coast – bar the Golden Gate that you’ll have already driven over. The Bixby Bridge is 714 feet long and 280 feet high.
There are many beautiful sights along the Big Sur driving from San Fran to LA – Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, Point Sur State Historic Park, Ragged Point – lap them up by stopping often. If you have time, take a few days to relax along the route, soak up some of the scenery and just generally chill out.
The journey is as important as the destination, right?
The Big Sur holds an arty, hippy community that, in my experience were quite unwelcoming to anyone who wasn’t in it. We tried to visit the Esalen Institute for the views and natural hot spring baths. Two of my friends were wearing baseball caps and I saw them eye them up before refusing our entry.
If you’re part of the said hippy / arty community then go along and enjoy. If not, just soak up the views and take your money elsewhere!
If this is your vibe you might want to mark out a few nights on your San Fran to LA road trip to stay here.
ACCOMMODATION IN BIG SUR
I stayed at the Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur and had a hot tub, and a hammock on my balcony and life was all kinds of amazing. After a delicious dinner looking out over the Big Sur countryside we had a hot tub party and made the most of the mini bar. This was a real luxury trip for us and this place was incredible!
Big Sur also has several campgrounds with coastal access and views, and given the climate and setting it can be a great place to camp. If you are the adventurous type who carries a small tent along on your roadtrips, that could be a more primitive lodging option.
6. San Simeon
Ok, next stop on the San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip is San Simeon. The highlight of San Simeon is Hearst Castle high up on The Enchanted Hill. More than 1 million people visit every year – it’s the number one attraction in San Simeon. Lady Gaga filmed a video here, and you can explore the 250,000 acres of rooms, suites, cottages, kitchens and grounds.
Moonstone Beach is also a popular spot in San Simeon, as is the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and shopping at Cambria Village too. All three are great stops on your California coastal road trip.
7. San Luis Obispo
Right, this is actually kinda absolutely disgusting but in San Luis Obispo there’s a 15-foot high, 70-foot long alley lined with bubblegum. Like, on purpose. You can go and add your mark on the world, if you like.
If you’ve got time to spare in San Luis Obispo hike up Black Hill, Islay Hill, Bishop Peak and round theSan Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. The Fremont Theatre is also worth a visit, if only for the awesome facade in the evening. Soda Lake is an awesome sight too, especially for anyone with an eye for design.
Pismo Beach is a close enough walk and you can enjoy the tasty restaurants, ATV rentals, wine tasting, fishing, surfing, skydiving, bowling and mineral springs there. Also, they like to feed you clams.
We went sand dune buggying – ever tried it? It’s a lot harder than I thought, and at times pretty damn scary too. It’s perfectly safe as you’re in a roll car and the guys from Sun Buggy in Oceano said there’d never been an accident, but as I was stuck in the sand trying to traverse the huge dunes I was sure I’d be the first.
ACCOMMODATION AT PISMO BEACH
We finally arrived at Cottage Inn by the Sea, right on Pismo Beach in a sea view room in San Luis Obispo County. It was straight out again ready for the wine tasting with the the Adelaida Winery. Reds, whites and an 11% cider later and we went off to the famous Madonna Inn for chicken, rice and their famous creamy cakes.
On your way to the famous Santa Barbara you’ll travel on the 101 with great views of the area’s picturesque mountains and vineyards. It’s totally worth a detour here to visit Solvang – a pretty town that will take you back to Europe, but you’re in Cali.
You need to see it to believe. Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who wanted to feel at home in the USA. Nowadays it’s a great tourist attraction, as well as a place where people actually live.
Visit and you can expect Northern European architecture and shops, and lots of replicas of iconic spots in Copenhagen. Keep an eye out for the Little Mermaid Statue and the Hans Christian Anderson Museum.
You’ll only need an hour or two here, but it’s a cute stop along the San Francisco to LA road trip route.
And if you have even longer to spend, check out the Santa Ynez Valley here too.
9. Santa Barbara
Next up on your California coast drive is Santa Barbara. It’s the perfect stop off before you hit up the craziness of LA. Hug the coastline here and you’ll get to see Stearns Wharf and East Beach too. Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Lotusland are all popular things to do in Santa Barbara, while culture vultures can hone in on the Lobero Theatre, the Arlington Theatre and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
Keep an eye on the road markings and signs, rather than the sat nav, to be in the right lane for Ventura on the Pacific Coast Highway to carry on with your drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Do the San Francisco to LA road trip right and you’ll end up on Ventura Beach, right in front of the pier. This is the spot if you want to do some surfing. If not, take a look around the historic Downtown Ventura and make the most of the vintage boutiques and second hand stores.
On a typically sunny day, Ventura really is an amazing stop to enjoy – beautiful sunsets too.
Oh Malibu – not the Barbie, or the drink, but the destination. The drive from Ventura to Malibu is stunning. Follow signs to Point Dume and you’ll find a beautiful sandy beach, headlands, cliffs and rocky coves. Wander around Malibu and you’ll find piers, sickeningly beautiful weekend homes and super healthy restaurants – and maybe even the odd celebrity or two.
Stay on Route 27 and you’ll come across offbeat stores, diners and ramshackle saloons along the roadside. Get out at the top for an awesome view over the San Fernando Valley at the top of Topanga Overlook.
You just can’t get a bad view on a San Francisco to LA road trip.
12. Los Angeles
And you’ve made it!
Your LA to San Francisco road trip is done. In LA you can visit the Kodak Theatre, walk along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, check out the Santa Monica Pier, drive down Sunset Boulevard and stroll down Rodeo Drive. You could check out the awesome views of the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory, or go on a stars homes tour.
Universal Studios is awesome.
They’ve got a whole Springfield area set up where you can drink at Moe’s Tavern, eat a Krusty Burger and go on the new Simpsons simulator ride. I also thoroughly enjoyed being turned into a minion on the Despicable Me simulator and screaming when the bugs came to get me on the Mummy Returns ride.
We also got to go on a Movie Set tour and saw them filming Home and Family (yeah, never heard of it either) and Access Hollywood, we saw the set for Jaws and the stages they used for Jurassic Park 3 and Pitch Perfect 2 too.
LA is such an exciting place, with so much to do in Los Angeles on a budget – you can enjoy the people watching when the inevitable city traffic stops play!
Los Angeles accommodation
How about booking an apartment for your time in LA? Once you’ve done the road trip San Francisco to Los Angeles, you’ll want somewhere comfortable to stay.
Bonus stop: San Diego
If you have time after your San Fran to LA road trip, I’d definitely recommend going to San Diego – loved it there! Check out the San Diego Zoo (one of the largest zoos in the world) and Coronada Island too.
Visas for the USA
If you need an ESTA visa for the USA you can order one on that link. Sort your visas for the USA before you go to make sure you’re ready for your trip and don’t have any last minute worries. You don’t want to be worrying about getting one in the airport!
Q&A on the SF to LA road trip
What do you need to know driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
Everything you need to know for your California road trip route is above. Other road trip tips include making sure you’re not travelling with annoying people, having enough money for snacks and petrol, knowing where the gas stations are, and making sure you stick to the correct side of the road and know the local laws.
That should do it!
I’d strongly recommend booking your car hire in advance, so you can get the best deals. Use the price checker below to get an idea of price for your journey.
How long to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles?
The San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip time is approximately 6 hours direct, but that’d be missing all these great California attractions along the way. You don’t want that!
You can do this San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip itinerary in 3 days, to an infinite amount. There’ll be more cool spots to stop along the way that aren’t listed too.
How many times should I stop on the San Fran to LA drive?
Your California road trip itinerary is totally up to you! There’s no golden ratio of the perfect amount of times to stop on the SF to LA drive, it depends how long you have, how long you want to take, and whether you have some place to be or not.
When’s the best time to drive from San Fran to LA?
The first time I did the Pacific Coast Highway road trip I did it in April, just before Coachella Festival. This was a beautiful time of year, and there was still a fresh chill in the air.
The second time I drove from San to LA, I did it in July, in a Mustang soft top. Gawd it was incredible. It was definitely warmer, but with the breeze from the fresh coastal air in my air, it was great!
I can recommend spring or summer, and I’m sure autumn would be a pretty sweet time too. Maybe spend winter saving up your pennies / cents, for a better time of year for this California road trip.
More tips for your coastal road trip California
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