Top 10 Stops When Driving From San Francisco to Los Angeles
Your Road Trip Guide to a San Francisco to Los Angeles Drive: Best Stops
Taking a drive through California is one of the best ways to experience the hidden gems and lesser known coastlines of this gorgeous state. If you’re planning to make your way between California’s two most popular cities, this guide will give you practical information as well as plenty of fun insight into how to craft the best road trip for driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
From charming coastal towns to rugged landscapes, we’ll make sure your journey is not just a drive but an unforgettable adventure.
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Is It Worth Driving From San Francisco to Los Angeles?
Absolutely, taking on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles is unquestionably worth it. This iconic journey offers a plethora of experiences. You’ll bask in the stunning California coastline, discover charming towns, and have the flexibility to explore some of the best stops and sights along the way.
From the dramatic cliffs of Big Sur to the intoxicating city of Santa Barbara, the drive seamlessly blends natural beauty and attractions. The drive not only connects two major cities but also showcases California’s diverse landscapes and lifestyles, making it a must-do for any avid traveler looking for both relaxation and exploration.
Is It Better to Drive From Los Angeles to San Francisco or San Francisco to Los Angeles?
The choice between driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco or vice versa ultimately depends on your preferences and itinerary. Both directions offer unique advantages.
A San Francisco to Los Angeles drive allows you to start your trip in the vibrant city by the bay and gradually transition into some of the most picturesque coastal landscapes of California. You’ll begin with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and make your way through quaint towns like Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea before eventually arriving in the bustling city of Los Angeles.
Many people argue that this route is the best as you will be driving with the Pacific Ocean on your right hand side. You will start with (in my opinion) the best scenery and quieter beaches first before gradually amping up into bustling southern California.
On the other hand, driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco offers the reverse experience, starting in the dynamic city of Los Angeles and ending with driving through the more serene landscapes of northern California and the fascinating city of San Francisco.
This direction might be preferable if you want to end your trip with a more relaxed atmosphere.
Consider your interests and which city you’d like to spend more time exploring, and plan your route accordingly. Or, your route may also simply be dependent on which city offers the cheapest flight into either SFO or LAX.
What Route Do You Take From San Francisco to Los Angeles
When driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you have a few different route options, depending on your preferences and priorities. Here are three common routes:
- Coastal Route (Highway 1)
This is the most scenic and popular route. You’ll start in San Francisco and head south on Highway 1 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway), which runs along the California coastline. You’ll pass through adorable beach towns, see dramatic ocean views, and have the opportunity to visit attractions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hearst Castle. This route offers unparalleled beauty but can be slower due to winding roads and potential road closures.
- Inland Route (Interstate 5):
For a quicker and more direct drive, you can take Interstate 5 (I-5). This route heads south through California’s interior, bypassing the coastal towns and scenery. It’s a faster option, but it lacks the coastal charm and scenic beauty of the PCH route. However, it can be a good choice if you want to reach Los Angeles more quickly.
- Hybrid Route (Highway 101 and Highway 1):
Some travelers choose a combination of Highway 101 and Highway 1. You can start on Highway 101 in San Francisco, which offers a mix of coastal and inland scenery. Then, switch to Highway 1 at a point of your choice to enjoy the coastal beauty for a portion of the journey before returning to Highway 101 for efficiency.
Your choice of route should align with your preferences for scenery, pace, and the specific stops you want to make along the way. Each route has its own unique appeal, so consider what kind of road trip experience you’re looking for before making your decision.
Where Should I Stop on a Road Trip From San Francisco to Los Angeles?
On a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, there are several must-stop destinations to consider.
Start with Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea, known for their stunning coastal scenery and charming downtown areas. Continue south to experience the rugged beauty of Big Sur, where you can hike, enjoy breathtaking ocean views, and explore McWay Falls.
Further along, stop by the Danish-inspired village of Solvang for a taste of European charm. Santa Barbara offers a blend of culture, history, nightlife, and beautiful beaches.
As you approach LA, don’t miss the chance to explore the picturesque coastline of Malibu. Finally, dive into exploring Los Angeles itself, with its myriad of attractions, from Hollywood to Venice Beach and beyond.
Ok, let’s get into it. Here are…
Top 10 Stops When Driving From San Francisco to Los Angeles
1. Santa Cruz:
Begin your drive with this popular beach town that has an iconic boardwalk and lively surf culture.
First up on our San Francisco to LA road trip is Santa Cruz. Start by exploring the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a vintage amusement park with thrilling rides and oceanfront views. Afterward, head to Natural Bridges State Beach for unique rock formations and tide pools.
There are plenty of opportunities for surfing (some of the most popular and famous spots in California are located here), hiking in the nearby redwood forests, or biking along scenic coastal paths.
Don’t miss a visit to the Santa Cruz Wharf, where you can try fresh seafood and take in panoramic views of the coastline. The town’s vibrant arts scene is showcased in its numerous galleries and studios, perfect for art enthusiasts. And there are always festivals, events, wine tastings, and lively breweries to be enjoyed.
2. Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea:
These coastal gems are most well-known for marine institutions and exceptional scenery.
Spend some time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the first institution to showcase a living kelp forest. Notably, this institution achieved a significant milestone as the first to successfully nurture and exhibit a great white shark.
Other top activities in Monterey include taking a leisurely drive along the iconic 17-Mile Drive which features breathtaking coastal vistas and iconic landmarks. Cannery Row has a lovely waterfront ambiance, offering shopping, dining, and ocean views.
The Monterey Bay Coastal Trail provides quiet opportunities for a bike ride or walk. Dive into history at the Monterey State Historic Park and lastly, don’t miss the opportunity for whale watching.
Just south of Monterey, explore the picturesque streets, art galleries, and beautiful beaches of Carmel. Don’t miss the historic Carmel Mission to get a glimpse into the area’s history. Carmel’s architectural charm extends to its whimsical fairytale cottages scattered around the town.
Nearby parks like Point Lobos State Natural Reserve provide excellent hiking opportunities. And wine enthusiasts can indulge in tastings at the wineries in Carmel Valley.
3. Big Sur:
Continue driving along Highway 1 for some of the most popular cliff views in California.
Big Sur is a breathtaking stretch of California’s coastline that includes must-see spots like Bixby Creek Bridge and McWay Falls.
There is an abundance of hiking opportunities, with trails like the McWay Waterfall Trail and the Ewoldsen Trail leading to spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and redwood groves.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a must-visit for its quiet forests and the picturesque Pfeiffer Beach. If you like art, don’t miss the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a cultural hub celebrating literature and the arts.
4. San Simeon:
Home of Hearst Castle, a historic mansion with remarkable architecture and views.
Hearst Castle is an opulent hilltop mansion built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. This architectural masterpiece provides a glimpse into the lavish lifestyles of the early 20th century elite.
Beyond the castle, you can explore the pristine beaches of San Simeon, such as William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach and Moonstone Beach, known for its striking sea rocks and sunsets.
The nearby Elephant Seal Rookery is another great stop on your drive where you can see thousands of these giant creatures during the breeding season. Finally, stop into Cambria, known for its charming Main Street and access to Moonstone Beach.
5. Morro Bay:
The iconic Morro Bay rock dominates the skyline in this quaint beach town.
Next up on our San Francisco to LA drive is Morro Bay. Situated along California’s Central Coast, Morro Bay offers numerous outdoor activities, including kayaking through the bay’s calm waters, hiking along the Morro Bay State Park trails, and birdwatching at the Morro Bay National Estuary.
The waterfront Embarcadero is lined with shops, seafood restaurants, and art galleries, making it an ideal place to try local cuisine and browse unique crafts. Make a visit to the Morro Bay Aquarium and the Morro Bay Maritime Museum for insights into the area’s rich maritime history.
6. San Luis Obispo:
Enjoy a stroll through downtown and the famous Bubblegum Alley.
San Luis Obispo (SLO) offers plenty to do, from exploring the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and admiring the colorful quirkiness of Bubblegum Alley to strolling through the bustling Farmers’ Market and main streets.
The city’s natural beauty shines through the nearby Bishop Peak Natural Reserve, perfect for hiking, and the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. Don’t miss the opportunity to relax on the nearby Avila Beach. Plus, wine lovers can taste the flavors of the Edna Valley wine region.
7. Pismo Beach:
Relax on the sandy shores and take in the natural beauty.
The town’s iconic feature is the Pismo Pier, where you can take leisurely strolls, enjoy stunning sunsets, and even try your hand at fishing. Pismo Beach is also famous for its miles of exquisite sandy shores, ideal for sunbathing, building sandcastles, or taking long walks along the surf.
The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area offers exciting opportunities for off-roading and dune exploration. The Monarch Butterfly Grove is a unique attraction, especially during the winter months, to witness thousands of monarch butterflies as they gather in the eucalyptus trees.
Additionally, Pismo Beach is a seafood lover’s paradise, with numerous restaurants serving fresh catches of the day.
Experience the Danish-inspired architecture, bakeries, and wine tasting.
Solvang is a Danish-inspired village in the heart of California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Start your visit by exploring the village’s unique architecture, including windmills, timber-framed buildings, and cobblestone streets that mimic a European town.
Solvang’s Danish heritage comes alive in its bakeries and restaurants, where you can taste Danish pastries, open-faced sandwiches, and hearty Danish cuisine. Make sure to visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, dedicated to the famous Danish author.
Solvang is also renowned for its wine tasting rooms, showcasing the exceptional wines of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Nearby attractions include the Old Mission Santa Inés, a beautifully preserved Spanish mission, the Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch, home to adorable miniature horses, and OstrichLand USA where you can view and feed ostriches. Solvang is a great stop on your drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or as a day trip from Santa Barbara if you plan to make that popular city your home base.
9. Santa Barbara:
A stunning Spanish-style city in the “American Riviera” full of activities.
Begin by exploring the historic Santa Barbara Courthouse, a beautiful architectural piece with panoramic views from its tower. The city’s beautiful beaches, like East Beach and West Beach, are great to relax and enjoy the sun or hop in the water for surfing, kayaking, or stand up paddle boarding.
Stroll along State Street, where you’ll find shops, boutiques, and excellent dining options. The Santa Barbara Mission and El Presidio are iconic symbols of the city’s rich history and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art showcases a remarkable collection of artworks.
Nature lovers can explore Lotusland, a spectacular garden on a historic estate in Montecito, or visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Make sure to wander down Fishermans Wharf then hop over to the Funk Zone, full of wineries, breweries, and cocktail bars.
Just to the north of State Street, the smaller town of Goleta offers unique opportunities such as surfing at Sands Beach or viewing the monarch butterflies at the Goleta Butterfly Grove. Goleta also offers more affordable accommodation options than the city of Santa Barbara itself.
Enjoy the stunning Malibu coastline as you near Los Angeles.
We’re almost at the end of our road trip to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Once you’re in Malibu, start your day by lounging on the pristine beaches like Zuma Beach or El Matador Beach that are ideal for sunbathing and beach combing.
The Getty Villa offers a glimpse into ancient Roman and Greek art and architecture.
For those who want to get outdoors, explore the hiking trails in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which provide panoramic vistas of the ocean.
Dining at Malibu’s upscale restaurants with oceanfront views is a must, and don’t forget to stop by the Malibu Country Mart for shopping and local flavors.
Arriving in Los Angeles
When you reach Los Angeles, start your experience by taking a tour of Hollywood, where you can stroll the Walk of Fame and visit the iconic TCL Chinese Theatre. Make a stop at the Griffith Observatory for panoramic city views and excellent Hollywood sign photo opportunities.
Experience the Getty Center, which showcases art collections from around the world. The vibrant atmosphere of Venice Beach with its quirky boardwalk and Muscle Beach is a unique experience. Or, get a glimpse into the luxury of Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive for high-end shopping and celebrity sightings. Plus, LA’s culinary scene is diverse and delicious, with ethnic exotic cuisine and food trucks galore.
There are many hidden gems around this massive, diverse city. For one, head just south of LAX airport to find the best beach cities in the area in the South Bay LA. Here, you will find upscale dining and shopping in Manhattan Beach, nightlife in Hermosa Beach, and affordable places to stay in Redondo Beach.
Conclusion: Driving From San Francisco to Los Angeles
Taking on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles will expose you to adventure, natural beauty, cultural richness, and diverse experiences. Along the way, you’ll encounter captivating destinations like Monterey, Big Sur, San Simeon, Santa Barbara, and Malibu, each offering its own unique charm and attractions.
Whether you choose the coastal route on Highway 1 for breathtaking vistas or the inland route on Interstate 5 for efficiency, the drive promises to be a memorable adventure.
From exploring historic sites to laying in the sun on picturesque beaches and trying the local cuisine, this San Fran to LA road trip road trip captures the essence of California’s diverse landscapes and offerings.
So pack your bags, hit the open road, and discover what makes this part of America so special and one of the best places to visit in USA.
If you have any questions about this drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, be sure to let me know and I’ll be happy to help out.