Thinking about an LA to San Diego road trip?
The distance between the two cities is short but there is a lot to do in between. After having driven this route more than 20 times and explored each single beach town, I have decided to give you my best advice on how to plan your own road trip.
The best thing is that you do not have to take vacation time to do this. A weekend is enough to explore the best spots.
Get into the car and let’s go!
About This Itinerary
The driving distance from Downtown Los Angeles to Downtown San Diego is 120 miles. In theory, you can travel from one place to another in two hours. However, even though the distance sounds small, after driving this route dozens of times, I can assure you there is a world between the two big cities. My itinerary will take you through the towns of Orange and San Diego counties.
Now, my idea is to help you discover the area in a long weekend. You will need three days. It is up to you if you want to do a Friday – Sunday or a Saturday – Monday outing. In addition, I am providing an alternate itinerary. This can help you to plan a second-weekend trip or plan a five or six days trip.
When road tripping, I like to get out of the freeways. You are going to notice my itinerary uses a combination of coastal roads and the freeway. Yes, driving the streets may take a little bit more time but it will help you to get a better understanding of how is life in coastal Southern California.
I have prepared this itinerary as budget friendly as possible. The attractions included in here are mostly free. It is up to you how much or how little you want to spend.
Best Traveling Season
The weather in California is pretty benign (some of the best in the world). Average high temperatures are 80 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and 65 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. That means you have road trip weather all year long.
Now, I need to tell you some things about the seasons. Summer sounds like the logical time to visit. However, we have a phenomenon between late May and early July called June Gloom. During that period, a marine layer covers the coastal areas all morning. That means you are going to have forecasted skies for half day. That may be a problem for some.
During winter, the days are short. Sunset is around 5:00 p.m.
Having said all that, I believe the best travel seasons are spring and fall. If you are a local, seasonality may not be a factor.
More Road Trips
If you want to explore more of California’s Coast, I recommend taking a look at my 5-day Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary. It shows gives you a lot of details about how to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco (or vice versa) through some of the most scenic roads in the state.
To get a local take on Los Angeles, I invite you to check my One Day in Los Angeles article.
LA to San Diego Drive – Itinerary
In this section, I am going to give you specific ideas on where to stop and what to do during your road trip. Get ready to have tons of fun!
Day 1 – Huntington Beach / Laguna Beach
The distance from Downtown Los Angeles to Huntington Beach is 38 miles. The drive will take you less than an hour.
Laguna Beach is located 15 miles from Huntington Beach. I recommend taking the Pacific Coast Highway (the famous CA-1) between cities (the freeway drive is boring). Overall, there is not much driving during this day.
To me, Mama’s on 39 has the best breakfast in town. Everything I have tried there is beyond delicious. The place is located a bit off the beach but I think it is well worth the deviation. Caffe Caldo is located close to Mama’s and it is a good option too.
If you want to stay in the Downtown Huntington Beach area, I recommend Sugar Shack Cafe, Bruxie or Bluegold.
After a good breakfast, it is time to check the city’s pier. From here, you can observe surfers and all sort of activity on the beach. Huntington Beach has miles of boardwalk. This provides a good opportunity to walk around and get a good vibe of California’s beach culture. It doesn’t get more tangible than in Huntington Beach.
If you prefer, you can ride a bike north to Bolsa Chica Beach or south to Huntington State Beach or even Newport Beach. You can rent a bike at Jack’s Beach Concession and Bike Rentals.
Another option is to check the action on Main Street. I love to walk around and check out the restaurants, shops, and small markets. The International Surfing Museum is located in the area.
There are so many lunch options that I do not know where to start. Places such as North Shore Poke Co. and Session Sandwiches are great. And, of course, eating at Duke’s is a classic
Hitting Pacific City, a shopping and dining complex in front of the of the water, for lunch is one of my favorite things to do. I like Simmzy’s, Bear Flag Fish and the Aussie pies.
You can spend the afternoon at Crystal Cove State Park. This park has 3.2 miles of coastline, 17 hiking trails, and a historic cottage district. It is one of the largest undeveloped coastlines in the area.
The views from the trails and viewpoints are completely gorgeous. This is a place dear and near my heart. I cannot recommend it enough.
If you are not up for walking, drive directly to the central area of Laguna Beach. In there, you can explore the Main Beach, Heisler Park, and Crescent Bay. The town itself is full of restaurants, cafes, shops, and galleries. Summer is prime time to stop by the cities famous art festivals.
There are many more impressive beaches south of town. Places such as Victoria Beach (with the famous pirate tower), Treasure Island Park and 1000 Step Beach are some of the most sought out spots.
Carmelita’s, Starfish and Brussels Bistro are good options for dinner. If you are on a budget, places such as La Sirena Grill and The Stand sell yummy food.
Traffic in Los Angeles is terrible (it is one of the worst in the entire world). You want to avoid freeways during rush hours (6:00-9:00 a.m., 4:00-7:00 p.m.). In this road trip, since you are traveling south, you are going to be driving against traffic in the morning (those are good news).
Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach are popular vacation destinations. You can base yourself in one of them and stay the entire weekend. I encourage you to get to know more of these delightful beach towns.
It is possible to find free parking in Huntington Beach’s backstreets (without restrictions). The only thing is that you may need to walk to the center.
If the lodging prices in the Laguna Beach area are too high, expand your search to San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.
Day 2 – Encinitas / Torrey Pines
The distance from Laguna Beach to Encinitas is about 55 miles. You have to drive 13 miles from Encinitas to Torrey Pines.
You can take the freeway till Oceanside. Once you see signs for the city, get out and take the Historic 101 Coast Highway. In that way, you will drive around all northern San Diego county towns.
One of my favorite Mexican restaurant on the way is located in San Juan Capistrano. It is called El Campeon and they are open since 6:00 a.m. They sell a huge variety of dishes, drinks, and sweets. We usually stop for breakfast or when coming from San Diego (to pick up food to eat at home).
Another place that I absolutely love is Beachbreak Cafe (Oceanside). I dream of their omelets, burritos and coffee cake (you have to get the coffee cake). Give this place a try and you will thanks me later.
While in Oceanside, check out the pier, one of the longest in the coast.
It is not easy to recommend only one town in northern San Diego for this itinerary. However, I have to go with my heart here and my heart chooses Encinitas.
Often overlooked for more flashier places, this is one of the places where the California beach, surfing, and relaxing vibe is more alive. While in town, check out Moonlight Beach, the Self-Realization Fellowship Garden and Swami’s, one of the more famous surfing spots.
Also, you can spend your time strolling the businesses along Highway 101. There are a lot of stores selling goods made by local artisans and artists.
Without a doubt, my favorite place in Encinitas is The Taco Stand. It is incredible how much flavor the tacos and burritos on this place pack. I always go for seconds.
If you do not feel like Mexican food, the Encinitas Fish Shop, Union Kitchen and Solace & the Moonlight Lounge are pretty good. Keep in mind Handel’s, a famous ice cream shop has a store in town.
After Encinitas, drive to the Torrey Pines State Reserve. This place is home to the rarest pine in North America, rock formations and incredible ocean views. There are 8 trails available to visitors but most people do the 1.4 mile Razor Point Trail since it affords the best views.
It is also nice to walk along the beach and see the cliffs from a different perspective. Again, this is a place not to miss due to its uniqueness. This is what California is all about!
From Torrey Pines, it is a short drive from La Jolla Shores. You can choose to eat at a place like Piatti, Shorehouse Kitchen, Galaxy Taco or Brick & Bell Cafe.
Or, you can drive directly to the Village of La Jolla and pick a place such as Duke’s, Puesto or Herringbone.
Day 3 – La Jolla / Beaches
Driving time will depend on where you stayed on Day 2. If you stayed in the La Jolla area, hopping in a car may not be needed. If you stayed somewhere else, I am assuming you will have to drive 10 to 15 miles back to La Jolla.
The longer drive would be in the late afternoon or night since it would be time to return to Los Angeles. Make sure you keep an eye on the watch if you do not want to leave too late.
There are many options for breakfast this morning. Since I have to keep it short, I would recommend eating at Sugar and Scribe Bakery, Shorehouse Kitchen and The Cottage. Those places are excellent choices for brunch (hey, it is the weekend).
Families enjoy feasting at Richard Walker’s Pancake House.
La Jolla is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in San Diego. After a couple of minutes in town, you are going to understand why. It is just a paradise full of coastal walks, sea caves, wildlife, and rock formations.
Spend the morning walking from La Jolla Cave to the tidepools area (around Nicholson Point). This route will take you through a cave full of sea lions, La Jolla Cove (where more sea lions bask in the sun), Ellen Browning Scripps Park, the Children’s Pool, the Museum of Contemporary Art and much more.
Take some time to walk around Goldfish Point (the promontory over La Jolla Cove). The views from there are some of the best. For those in search of adventure, kayaking around the sea caves is one of the top-rated activities in the state.
For lunch, you can check the places I recommended for dinner on Day 2 or breakfast on Day 3. Other options include Prep Kitchen, Cody’s and Deli-icious.
Since you probably have to go back to Los Angeles in the late afternoon, I would keep the final hours of the trip simple. Spending the rest of the day in La Jolla is a good idea.
If you want to see a bit more, you can make the short drive to Pacific Beach. This neighborhood has a pier boardwalk (extending all the way to Mission Beach), and access to Mission Bay. If you go, try to make some room in your stomach for the tacos at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood. In my opinion, this place serves some of the best tacos this side of the border.
Another option is to check Ocean Beach. This is the hip neighborhood of San Diego (equivalent to Venice Beach in Los Angeles). There is not a lot to do in term of attraction bug people go to enjoy the unique atmosphere. You can continue exploring the Sunset Cliffs or Cabrillo National Monument. Both places are great spots to watch the sunset.
If you need to refuel before driving back to Los Angeles, you can grab something quickly at Board & Brew, Rubicon Deli and OB Noodle House.
Hodad’s, in Ocean Beach, serves the most famous burgers in San Diego. The line to get in is more than an hour long. If you do want your food to go, skip the line and go directly to the counter. A lot of people get confused and make the line even though they do not intend sitting down at the restaurant.
LA to San Diego Drive – Alternate Itinerary
This alternate itinerary gives you different stops on Day 1 and 2. As I mentioned, this will help you customize your trip according to your likes, plan multiple trips or extend a trip.
Day 1 – Newport Beach / Laguna Beach
The distance from Downtown Los Angeles to Newport Beach is 45 miles. There are 10 miles from Newport Beach to Laguna Beach.
There are many good places to eat in Newport Beach but I am going with Tupelo Junction Cafe, The Broken Yolk Cafe, and Wilma’s Patio Restaurant.
Like Huntington Beach, Newport is a destination with a huge number of attractions. For this itinerary, I would invite you to check out the Balboa Peninsula. You can take a look at the pier, the Balboa Fun, the gorgeous houses towards the end of the peninsula and the West Jetty View Park.
Or, take the ferry (ride last a couple of minutes) to the Balboa Island, a small piece of land full of mansions, boats, and canals. If you go, you have to try a Balboa bar.
In winter, you can take a whale watching excursion from the area. You can find discounts for this activity on websites such as Groupon and Travel Zoo.
For lunch, I think True Food Kitchen, Bosscat Kitchen, and Provenance would be a hit with everybody in your party.
On my first itinerary, I included Laguna Beach and am including the city in here too. Why? Because I believe this is the most beautiful city in Orange County and a must-see for visitors. Therefore, you can follow my recommendations on the itinerary specified above.
If you have seen Laguna before, you can check out Salt Creek Beach, Doheny State Beach or the Dana Point Marina area (excellent place to walk).
Or, you can visit San Clement, another town with a pier, great main street, and a relaxed vibe.
To end the day, have a bite in Laguna Beach or San Clemente.
For Laguna, follow the recommendations outlined in the first itinerary. In San Clemente, Vine Restaurant, Nick’s and MRK Public are good options.
Day 2 – Oceanside / Carlsbad / Solana Beach
Oceanside is located 35 miles from Laguna Beach (closer to San Clemente). Oceanside to Carlsbad is 3 miles and Carlsbad to Solana Beach is 14 miles.
Remember to drive from one town to another using Hwy 101. You do not want to take the freeway (boring!) for this part of the road trip.
I encourage you to follow my recommendations from my first itinerary: El Campeon in San Juan Capistrano or Beachbreak Cafe in Oceanside.
Or, Cafe Topes serves the most delicious food ever!
In Oceanside, you can check the harbor, pier (and town) and Buccaneer Beach Park. Carlsbad has a beautiful village, miles of beaches, three lagoons, the Museum of Making Music, the flower fields (spring) and the Premium Outlets.
Carlsbad gets its name from the Czech spa town Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad is the German name). In the city, you can get alkaline water from the natural springs (in the Village area).
Board& Brew and Shorehouse Kitchen are good lunch option.
However, the place to go is Campfire, a new concept where you feel like you are getting food cooked over a fire.
If you feel like visiting one more town in San Diego County, make it Solana Beach. This is a small place. I bet a lot of Southern California residents do not know it even exists.
Well, come here for Fletcher Cove and the Cerros Design District. The later is full of galleries, stores, cafes, and even a wine tasting room. You are not going to find the things you see at the Cedros Design District anywhere else. This place completely surpassed my expectations and I felt like staying there the entire day. Go and see for yourself!
Read More: Things to Do in Solana Beach
Solana Beach has a great selection of restaurants. You can visit the Solana Beach Fish House, Pamplemousse Grille and Crush.
The entire town seems to hang out at Pizza Port. I personally think the food here is mediocre but it is a great place to sample San Diego’s craft beer scene.
Day 3 – La Jolla / Beaches
For Day 3, follow the suggestions given on my first itinerary.
I hope you have enjoyed this itinerary. I had tons of fun writing it. I even feel like hitting the road right now. If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to reach out.
More of Southern California
- Los Angeles Ultimate Bucket List
- Ultimate San Diego Bucket List
- 150+ Places to Go in Orange County
- Orange County Beach Towns
What do you like the most about this LA to San Diego Drive? What are your recommendations?
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