One of my favorite trips ever was when I spent 2 weeks traveling from San Francisco to San Diego down the Pacific Coast Highway. You can fly into San Francisco to do this but I actually flew into LA, however instead of doing a short version of the trip, we drove to San Francisco on the highway. I’ll outline my trip, going through each stop and how long we stayed so that you can get an idea of how you guys may want to plan your trips!
1. San Francisco
This was actually my first trip to California, so I knew I was going to want to spend a decent chunk of time in San Francisco. We stayed 4 nights at the exquisite Chancellor Hotel at Union Square, which is central to almost everything in San Francisco.
Don’t panic if a hotel is a little out of your price range! There is a wide variety of AirBnbs in San Francisco that you can stay at!
We spent our first day across the Golden Gate bridge in a little town called Sausalito. Right on the coast of Richardson Bay, Sausalito has many small restaurants and is surrounded by beautiful views! I highly recommend visiting the area for at least an afternoon to explore and take it all in.
On our second day in San Francisco, we took a nice, fun bike tour. We explored the city thoroughly with Dylan’s Tours. By the end, we had biked 23 miles! Don’t stress if you think you’re not quite athletic enough to do this. The bikes have a motor on them, so if you get tired at any point, you can simply activate the motor and the bike does the work for you! Some popular destinations we visited on this tour were the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, and a viewpoint of Alcatraz.
In our third day of San Francisco, we visited the Muir Woods, which is essentially a smaller scale version of the world-renowned Redwood National Park. It has a wide spread of Redwood trees and is filled with different hikes, so make sure to take a day and truly explore the area!
Our last day in San Francisco was a half day which we filled with a couple of museums: The MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) and the Walt Disney Family Museum. However, if those don’t quite interest you, don’t limit yourself there! There are many other museums in San Francisco that you can visit.
As for food in San Francisco, this is the perfect place to explore and find your inner foodie. For example, some classics that people commonly recommend visiting are Bob’s Donuts and Pastries, Mama’s, and Ghiradelli. You could take a chance and eat at a lesser known place as well! The area has a little something for everyone!
2. Santa Cruz
After having a great time in San Francisco, we moved on to Santa Cruz! Santa Cruz isn’t too far from San Francisco (a little over an hour drive), and if you’re going along the Pacific Coast Highway, there are a lot of great places to stop and enjoy the view as well.
One of the best parts of the Pacific Coast Highway is all of the hidden beaches along the way that are nearly deserted. This gives you a great opportunity to take some awesome pictures and enjoy the less crowded central California beaches! A word of warning however, we went at the beginning of summer and it was still too cold to wear a bathing suit to the beaches in this area.
Our time in Santa Cruz was brief. We only spent one night at a Holiday Inn. Santa Cruz has a great beach and an awesome boardwalk, which we spent both half days exploring. If you like theme park rides, the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is the place for you as it has a small amusement park built on the actual boardwalk!
One of my favorite places to visit in California was Monterey, a scenic coastal town. We only stayed in Monterey for one night as well, but wished we had stayed longer! The first thing we did in Monterey was stroll down Cannery Row, which is a historic part of the city, filled with shops, restaurants, and hotels. As the name suggests, it used to be the home to a cannery. We ate lunch at Monterey’s Fish House and if you eat seafood, it is an essential visit!
After we finished stuffing ourselves with fish and exploring the Cannery Row to our heart’s content, we drove to the 17 Mile Drive in Monterey. This trail of sorts is essentially 17 miles of pristine coastline that you pay a small fee ($10.50 per vehicle) to go through. It is home to the Lone Cypress and is filled with lots of fascinating places to explore! I would highly recommend going on this drive as it was one of our favorite parts of the trip.
4. Moonstone Beach
Even though we didn’t want to leave Monterey, our next destination was waiting. We drove from Monterey to Moonstone Beach, which was about 2½ hours of the most beautiful, scenic drive on the Pacific Coast Highway. During this leg of the trip, you go through Big Sur which is widely known for its beautiful and rugged coastline.
It took us about 4 hours to actually get to Moonstone Beach, as we stopped so many times for different viewpoints and to climb down and explore some of the untouched beaches. On this leg of the trip, you go by the famous McWay Falls, the 80-foot waterfall which cascades onto the beach. Although it’s almost always busy, it is definitely worth stopping to see the waterfall.
In addition to the wild beauty of Big Sur, there are some amazing animals native to the area as well! If you’ve never seen seals before, this part of the journey is the perfect spot to visit some. As you’re driving down the coast, you’ll eventually hit a spot where there are TONS of seals. You can see them in the water and sunbathing on the beach.
After finishing that beautiful drive, we arrived in Moonstone Beach, which is a little known town with an amazing beach. We stayed here for just one night but had an amazing time. The beach is all pebbles and rocks and is super fun to explore. Beware though, closed toed shoes are a must on the beach as it isn’t the most comfortable to walk barefoot on!
In addition to their amazing beach, Moonstone Beach also has a strip of small businesses and restaurants, which you can spend your evening exploring when it is too dark out for the beach!
One of the main reasons we stayed in Moonstone Beach, however, was because it is near Hearst Castle. If you haven’t heard of it, Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark. It was built by William Randolph Hearst, however, he tragically died before it was finished. There are a couple of different tours you can go on for the castle, with each tour costing you $25. We chose to do the Grand Rooms tour. TIP: Don’t leave once the tour is finished! You’re allowed to explore the grounds and the gardens which are both beautiful and well worth the time!
5. Santa Barbara
I don’t know if any of you watched the TV show Psych, but if you have, you know the show is supposed to be located in Santa Barbara. That is funnily enough part of the reason why I really wanted to make sure we stopped there on our way down the Pacific Coast Highway.
In Santa Barbara, we stayed one night at a beautiful Airbnb near Mesa Lane Beach. The first thing we did was go down to the beach, but beware! The beach is essentially at the bottom of a cliff, so you have to go down A LOT of steps in order to reach the bottom. It doesn’t seem like a big deal until you have to go back up! However, the beach was incredible and I would still highly recommend going if you can.
In addition to the beach in Santa Barbara, we also ventured over to eat at Stearns Wharf and explored Mission Santa Barbara (an 18th-century mission & Catholic church). To close our night out, we went off and saw a movie at Santa Barbara’s drive-in movie theater, which was a lot of fun and a unique little experience!
6. Los Angeles/Long Beach
After hearing the horror stories about Los Angeles traffic, we knew we didn’t want to stay in the heart of LA. Instead, we chose to stay in Long Beach at another Airbnb. We stayed there for two nights which was just long enough to explore LA without getting annoyed at how busy it was there!
All in all, our time in LA was actually one of my least favorite part of the trips. After spending so much time relaxing on beaches and taking in pristine scenery, LA was simply too busy. However, we did have some fun there!
Our first day there, we went to the touristy spots of LA (Hollywood, Santa Monica, and the TCL Chinese Theatre). While it was very busy and admittedly a little overrated, we did still have a good time! Santa Monica is very beautiful and has an awesome pier where you can get a quick bite to eat while taking in the great view of the ocean.
On our second day, we explored Long Beach. We went to both Bolsa Chica State Beach and Sunset Beach on this day and both were absolutely wondrous. I’d highly recommend checking them out if you have the time.
7. San Diego
Our last stop on our Pacific Coast Highway adventure was San Diego where we stayed 2 nights at a wonderful & comfortable Airbnb. Even though we only stayed a couple of nights, our days in San Diego were jam-packed. We spent a lot of time relaxing at the beach as it was so far south that it was actually warm enough for us to wear our bathing suits!
The beach we spent most of our time at was La Jolla beach which is very scenic and beautiful. We also spent some time at Sunset Cliffs, where there are some breathtaking views of the ocean.
When we weren’t sunbathing, we went to the San Diego Zoo! This legendary zoo is one of the rare locations that has Giant Pandas. The pandas were a sight to see, but their other exhibits are fantastic as well! However, if zoos aren’t quite your thing, there are plenty of other things to do in the city. We highly recommend you visit the other museums of Balboa Park or even simply explore the grounds.
If you’re going on your own Pacific Coast Highway trip, I hope my itinerary helps make the planning stages a little bit more bearable for you. The things I would consider “Do Not Miss” aspects are the few days we spent in San Diego, the leg of the road trip on the PCH in Big Sur, and visiting Moonstone Beach & Hearst Castle. Even if you don’t do a trip all the way from San Francisco to San Diego, I highly recommend including central California in your plans. Happy exploring!