California’s coastal drives have been ranked as some of the best in the world.
A lot of travelers dream about driving the Pacific Coast Highway. That is why, as a long-time resident of the state, I have decided to pour my soul into a 5-day road trip itinerary for people interested in doing this trip.
My intention is to provide as many details as possible for a smooth trip planning. I hope you find this itinerary useful.
Let’s dig in!
About this Itinerary
This Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary assumes you have five full days for the road trip. So, this can be seen as a seven-day itinerary if two traveling days are included. You will need to accommodate things accordingly if this is not true.
Road trips are one of my favorite things in the entire world! It is even difficult to explain the adrenaline I feel when I am on the road. But, I do not like to be stuck in the car all the time. Consequently, this itinerary will have you driving short periods of time and enjoying the attractions.
The truth is that five days is not a lot of time to cover the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Make peace with the fact that you will need to skip some spectacular places.
I have prepared this itinerary as budget friendly as possible. The attractions included in here are mostly free. I disclose if a payment is involved.
Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary – Best Traveling Season
California is known for its good year-round weather. In theory, you can jump onto the road anytime. But, let me give you some facts.
During the months of May, June, and July, the state experiences a phenomenon called June Gloom. A thick marine layer covers the coastal areas from sunrise till about 1:00 p.m. In other words, there is not going to be plenty of opportunities for clear photos during this time.
During daylight saving time, the days darken around 5:00 p.m. This will shorten your exploration window.
After having said all of this, I think it makes more sense to do this road trip during spring or fall.
Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary – 5 Days
Day 1 – Los Angeles
There is not much of a driving time in the morning. If you are arriving in the city by plane, I recommend you stay close to the airport (Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Westchester, Culver City).
I have an article describing step by step what to see in Los Angeles in one day. I will be brief in here since there is no point in repeating myself.
Start your day by spending some time on the beach. You have two main options in here: Santa Monica or Venice Beach.
You need to pick one. Seeing both would take you most of the day. Pick Santa Monica if you prefer a sophisticated and family-oriented vibe. Pick Venice Beach if you want hipster and eclectic vibes.
In Santa Monica, park around the Third Street Promenade or on the multi-level structure of the Santa Monica Place. Check the promenade, pier, Pacific Park and the end of Route 66 (there are multiple signs on the pier).
In Venice Beach, get the insane feeling of The Boardwalk. In there, you would find people living alternative lifestyles, freak shows and plenty of marijuana shops. If you prefer to skip this, go straight to Abbot Kinney Boulevard, one of the hippest places in the United States.
Have lunch at your next stop: Beverly Hills. Grab a quick bite at places such as Le Pain Quotidien, Nate n’ Al Delicatessen, M Cafe or Mulberry Street Pizzeria.
It is time to check Rodeo Drive, the Rodeo Drive Steps, the Beverly Hills Sign, the Beverly Gardens Park and the Beverly Hills City Hall.
After this, Hollywood is waiting for you. Of course, you want to find your favorite stars at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Other than the stars, you want to take a look at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Dolby Theater (where the Oscars take place) and El Capitan Theater. There are several nice photo opportunities at the Hollywood and Highland Shopping Complex.
If you still have some energy left in you, you can end the day by visiting the Griffith Observatory. The observatory itself is gorgeous but the views of the city are even more impressive.
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.)
Parking fees are high in Hollywood. Research what lots are more affordable.
Day 2 – Santa Barbara
The driving distance between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is approximately 100 miles (depends on the starting point). If you leave Los Angeles early, the drive should take less than 2 hours.
When I say early, I am talking about 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. I know it sounds terrible but if you leave between 7:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., you will be stuck in traffic and will need to add an additional hour to your driving time. Another idea is to leave Los Angeles around 9:00 a.m.
Before arriving at Santa Barbara, stop at Montecito to eat at Jeannine’s Restaurant & Bakery. I do not think you can go wrong with anything from the menu. Plus, the coffee is good, and you are allowed to take some to go. I completely adore this place!
If you prefer to eat in Santa Barbara, you can go to Tupelo Junction Cafe, Andersen’s Danish Bakery or Savoy Cafe. Jeannine’s has a restaurant in town to (but I prefer the one in Montecito). For a Mexican breakfast, visit Lito’s.
Start our day by visiting the Santa Barbara Mission. This is a must stop in the city. You can choose to observe it from outside or pay a small fee to see the interior. Remember to take a look at the rose garden located in front of the Mission. After this, drive to the Downtown area.
If you have never been to Santa Barbara, I recommend doing the Red Tile Walking Tour. This self-guided itinerary will take you around to the most notable (and historic) structures in Downtown. You will be able to explore the Presidio, Casa de la Guerra, the County Courthouse and State Street (the main drag).
You can find detailed instructions for the Red Tile Tour online or at the visitors center (1 Garden Street).
There are plenty of options for lunch. If you are traveling with family and friends, it may be a good idea to check the options on State Street. There is everything from fine dining to fast food options.
I like Sama Sama (Indonesian), Lilac Patisserie, South Coast Deli, Lily’s Tacos and La Super Rica. Or, you can move to the Funk Zone (district closer to the beach) and try places such as Loquita (Spanish) or The Lark.
Make room for dessert! McConnell’s has some of the best ice cream in California (and they are originally from Santa Barbara).
For the afternoon, you have different options. You can spend some time wine tasting in the Funk Zone. This area has about 15 tasting rooms serving wines from the Santa Ynez Valley (30 miles north) and other Central Coast viticultural areas. If you do not know where to start, ask for recommendations at the visitors center (located nearby). The best part is that you may be able to grab some flyers offering 2 for 1 tastings.
If you are not into wine, use the afternoon to explore the city’s waterfront. You can explore the Stern’s Wharf (pier), Chase Palm Park, the marina and Leadbetter Beach.
For dinner, you can choose one of the options in the lunch section or follow a local’s recommendation.
Do not forget to climb to the top of the County Courthouse to see one of the best views of the city. In addition, you can visit mural rooms explaining the history of Santa Barbara. It is free to visit.
If the hotel prices in Santa Barbara look high, expand your search to Carpinteria (located 10 miles south). Prices tend to be more economical there.
Day 3 – San Luis Obispo Coast
The driving distance from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach is about 83 miles, from Pismo Beach to Morro Bay is 26 miles and Morro Bay to Cambria is 20 miles. My itinerary will take you to different coastal towns through the day.
You can start the day by having breakfast in Santa Barbara (use the recommendations from Day 2).
I would advise waiting till you make it to Pismo Beach. In there, you can have clam chowder (top it with seafood) at Splash Cafe. Sounds crazy but the chowder in there is to die for! The restaurant serves fish tacos, burgers, fish & chips, and other items as well.
If you are looking for something more “traditional,” you can stop by Mon Ami Creperie or Old West Cinnamon Rolls (another super delicious place).
If you stop at Pismo take some time to stroll the pier. It is one of the longest in the California Coast. Then, it is time to drive a little bit more to your next destination: Morro Bay.
The biggest attraction in this city is Morro Rock, an ancient volcano plug. You can observe it from the Embarcadero area or get a closer look by driving to the end of Coleman Drive.
If you want to add some action to your trip, it is a good idea to rent water equipment (kayaks, paddleboards) or do a bay cruise here (you will get close to the rock and spot wildlife). Prices are probably going to be cheaper in here in comparison to other places in the coast.
If you are a seafood lover (like me), get ready to indulge in oysters, clams, mussels, crab cakes, fish tacos, clam chowder, fish and chips in places like Dutchman’s, The Galley and Tognazzini’s.
Another idea is to drive a couple of miles north to the town of Cayucos and have some smoked tacos (albacore, tuna, salmon) at Ruddell’s. I dream about this place! Their tacos are so different from what I have had in other places. Now, this is an establishment with very limited seating. Most people order food an eat it on the beach.
For the afternoon, there are several possibilities. My top choice would be to visit Hearst Castle in San Simeon (30 miles north). The main structure in the complex (La Casa Grande) is called a castle because it has 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, and 19 sitting rooms. The property also contained guest houses, gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, a movie theater, and an airfield. It used to host the world’s largest private zoo.
This is a place I have enjoyed several times and would visit again. Now, there is not such a thing as an independent visit to the castle. Tours start at $25 per adult (half price for kids). I recognize this is not an insignificant amount of money. As a consequence, it may be out of budget for families or groups.
If a tour of the castle is not for you, you can select to visit the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Moonstone Beach, Leffingwell Landing State Park, William Randolph Heart Memorial Beach and the elephant seals of Piedras Blancas.
Cambria is one of the most charming towns in the Central Coast. It would be a delight to find something to eat at Main Street. Robin’s is one of the most popular options for global cuisine. I like to visit the French Corner Bakery and Linn’s (for the pie).
This small town has several wine tasting rooms since it is connected to Paso Robles through Hwy 46.
Cambria and San Simeon are more expensive than Morro Bay. You may consider backtracking to Morro Bay if staying there makes sense.
On day 4, you are going to be visiting the Big Sur area. Eating options are very limited in this corridor. Even if you find something to eat, get prepared to pay top dollar. I recommend getting simple groceries, snacks, and drinks in one of Morro Bay’s supermarkets.
Day 4 – Big Sur / Monterey
Get ready because this is going to be the most scenic day of the trip!
The drive between Cambria and Monterey takes about 2 hours (100 miles) trough Highway 1. However, since this stretch is full of gorgeous vistas, I recommend to take it slow and stop as many times as you want.
If you are staying in Morro Bay, Carla’s Country Kitchen is your best option. Everything tastes good in there. Another option is Frankie and Lola’ Cafe.
In Cambria, stop by Lily’s Coffee House or Cambria Cafe.
Here are some places to stop during your drive around Big Sur:
Ragged Point – for the Million Dollar View and a waterfall
Jade Cove – for the hiking and views
Sand Dollar Beach – day-use area and campground
Gamboa Point and Big Creek Bridge
McWay Falls – for famous creek falling into a beach, part of the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Pfeiffer Beach – for famous rock formation and purple sand
Point Sur Lighthouse
Little Sur River Beach
Hurricane Point – for views of the famous Bixby Creek Bridge
Bixby Creek Bridge
If you didn’t bring your lunch, you can eat at the Big Sur Roadhouse, Big Sur Bakery, Nepenthe or The Sur House.
Continue exploring the stops listed in the morning section for this day.
In the late afternoon, depending on the number of stops, you will arrive to the Carmel area. I recommend stopping by this town since many have called it “The Most Beautiful in California.”
Depending on your accommodation plans, you may skip Carmel and head directly to Monterey. You may have some time to visit the Cannery Row or the Fishermen’s Wharf.
Carmel is full of restaurants serving excellent food. The options may be overwhelming. You can gather recommendation from the visitor’s center or the locals. Dametra Cafe, Il Tegamino and La Bicyclette are some of the most regarded spots in town.
In Monterey, you can choose one of the many seafood restaurants located in Cannery Row. Tricycle Pizza is a good place to visit with the family. For more seafood and plenty of clam chowder, visit the wharf.
The Big Sur stretch of Highway 1 is gorgeous but dangerous. Do not get distracted. This is a road without railings.
The most popular spots get crowded and available parking facilities are not enough to accommodate. When parking lots get full, people start to develop their own solutions (parking on the side of the road, etc.). Do not endanger yourself to “secure” a parking space.
You may lose cell reception along the road. It is a good idea to bring a map (to have an idea of where you are located).
Day 5 – San Francisco
The driving distance between Monterey and San Francisco is about 120 miles. You can decide to reach San Francisco using Highway 1 or CA-1.
CA- 1 is a more scenic route but, as a consequence, a more distracting route. You may want to arrive at San Francisco as soon as possible to make the most of your time.
If in Monterey, stop by Loulou’s Griddle in the Middle or Old Monterey Cafe for breakfast. In Carmel, locals, and visitors seem to love The Cottage.
Since you have limited time to explore San Francisco, I would recommend exploring the waterfront. I believe it is a good idea to walk from the Embarcadero to the Fisherman’s Wharf. You will be able to see the Ferry Building Marketplace, views of the Bay Bridge, Pier 43, the Musee Mecanique and USS Pampanito. You can keep walking to Ghiradelli Square and the Maritime National Historic Park.
While at the Embarcadero, you may want to detour to check out Chinatown.
On this part of San Francisco, seafood dominates the food offerings. You are going to find clam chowder, oysters, fish & chips, Dungeness crab, lobster bisque and much more. A lot of the dishes are served with the city’s famous sourdough bread. I recommend trying one of these specialties.
If you want something different, go to the Ferry Building Marketplace (The Slanted Door is very good) or Chinatown.
I would dedicate my afternoon to chasing as many views as possible of the Golden Gate Bridge.
You can start by visiting Crissy Field or the Golden Gate Welcome Center (there are many trails in the area). Then, it is time to cross the bridge and take a look from the other side. Some people continue driving to Sausalito or the Marin Headlands.
Another idea is to cross the bridge by bike. There are several rental places along the waterfront. The best part is that you can rent an electric bike in order to pedal with less effort.
San Francisco has a huge variety of good places to eat. I will refrain to recommend a place to dine since this will depend on where you are spending the night. This may be your last meal of the trip so, make it memorable!
The parking situation in San Francisco is dire. First of all, it is difficult to find a spot and, if you find it, be prepared to pay flat fees as high as $25. I recommend you check how much you will pay for parking before visiting a place. I will try to avoid paying $25 in one spot and then another $25 in a second spot. In that case, it will be more cost effective to use public transportation to move between attractions.
Check if a hotel includes parking before booking. Several hotels in the city will not include it and may not have their own lot. You may end looking for a public lot and paying a fee.
More of 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 Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary in 5 days? What are your recommendations?
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