A road trip through California and up the Pacific Coast Highway is quite possibly one of the greatest road trips you could ever take in your life.
We started in San Diego, passed through LA (where I met a couple of super celebrities and got up close to Madonna’s shrubbery), then drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco which might just be the coolest city in the world! We then headed inland to Yosemite National Park and ended the trip in Las Vegas. It was amazing!
We had 15 days to explore, not long considering how much ground we covered, but I’m pretty good at packing a lot in to a short space of time. There’s so much stuff to do and so much to see and we went back and forth, researching, working out timings – it was confusing!
So, here’s where I come in. I love to plan road trips, and help other people plan – so just think of me as your personal road trip planner! Knowing what I know now, here’s my California road trip itinerary (with Las Vegas), with a bit of advice on what I might have done differently – hope you pick up some ideas of things to do and places to visit on your adventure. You can amend accordingly, depending on your priorities and the number of days you have!
We’d arrived in San Diego late the night before, having flown from Manchester via Philadelphia with US Airways. Our apartment was really close to the airport, in Little Italy, so after grabbing a little bit of pizza, I went straight to bed, heavily jet-lagged. Up at the crack of dawn, we headed out to explore…
Day One: San Diego
Head to the USS Midway, an ex warship which is now a museum. It’s a great way to spend a few hours and having never been on a real war ship before, it was really interesting, with all kinds of military memorabilia, aircraft and lots of things to play with.
Continuing further down the Embarcadero, you will see the Unconditional Surrender (a giant sculpture of the sailor who kissed the nurse in Times Square at the end of World War 2) and A National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military, a group of wonderful bronze statues depicting Bob Hope entertaining the troops during the war. A lovely tribute.
After lunch, get the ferry (right next to USS Midway) over to Coronado and head to Coronado Beach. It’s a good half hour walk, so if that’s not your thing in the midday sun (I managed to get burnt – oops), you can get the bus. The beach is huge – white sand, flecked with gold stretches as far as the eye can see. None of us had brought bathing suits, so we just chilled on the beach, watching dolphins swimming out in the water.
In the early evening, head back to the Unconditional Surrender in time for sunset, before having a delicious dinner at the Fish Market.
After dinner, head to the Kansas City Barbeque – the bar where Maverick and Goose sing Great Balls of Fire in Top Gun. The whole place is covered in Top Gun memorabilia and the Juke Box is filled with classic tunes, including the Top Gun soundtrack of course.
End the evening with a trip to the lively Gaslamp Quarter. There are tons of bars to choose from! Perhaps whilst you’re there, pick up some more food from Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, it’s open til 11pm!
Day Two: San Diego
First stop in the morning, Old Town San Diego, the birthplace of California. A wonderful, if touristic, Mexican influenced and utterly charming part of town. Here you can learn all about the history of California and San Diego in particular, buy tons of souvenirs, take an Old Town Trolley Tour, listen to live music and try some fantastic Mexican food. We stopped by the Baja Cantina for lunch, but there are plenty of plenty of places to choose from.
Spend the afternoon at Balboa Park, it looks amazing and is something we didn’t get to do and I really regret!
We stayed around Little Italy for dinner that evening and ate at a great little restaurant called Trattoria Fantastica which had a great menu and was pretty reasonable too! We topped off the night with cocktails at the rooftop bar at The W San Diego Hotel.
Top Tips for San Diego:
- Wear your bathing suit, you may want to swim at Coronnado Beach.
- San Diego isn’t the biggest city I’ve been to, but wear comfortable shoes, you’ll do a lot of walking!
- There is also the MTS Trolley, a modern tram that makes it easy to get around, so staying near a tram stop would make things easier!
Day Three: San Diego – Los Angeles
Pick up the hire car and make your way to La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya), around 25 minutes from San Diego. La Jolla is a nice place to spend a couple of hours or perhaps even a night if you have more time. Park up in town and walk down to Scripp’s Park and La Jolla Cove to spot the seals and sea lions out in the water (some people were snorkelling) and then walk to Casa Beach you can get right up close to them.
Back in the car, we drove another two and a half hours to Venice Beach, our base in Los Angeles for the next few days.
We arrived in LA mid-afternoon. Knowing we only had a couple of days, we dropped our stuff off, changed and headed toward Venice Boardwalk.
I’d heard mixed reports about it, but there was something about Venice that I kind of loved. It’s got a sleazy side, for sure. But it’s also got a lot of character. A people watchers dream. Starting at the very famous Muscle Beach, you can walk the hour or so to Santa Monica Pier as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean.
After a quick look around the Pier (and perhaps take on a ride or two at Pacific Park – opening times vary), head inland for dinner and drinks!
Santa Monica has lots of nice bars and eateries to choose from. We went to Barney’s Beanery for food. It has a great atmosphere and a large menu! We then headed to The Misfit for a drink, before calling it a night. For other great bars to try, see this article on LA Weekly.
Day Four: Los Angeles
Get up early and make your way to Hollywood Boulevard and head to the Chinese Theatre. Here you can book a tour of the stars homes. The tours take you through Downtown Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, Bel Air and up into the Hollywood Hills.
Before or after your tour, take a bit of time to find your favourite stars on the Walk of Fame and put your hands in handprints of legends such as Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Keep your eyes peeled for celebrities… we saw two!
After the tour, still on the search for celebrities, we picked up a ‘Map of the Stars Homes’ and went on our own trip around LA to find some more celebrities. First stop was the Holmby Hills, to see the Playboy Mansion.
Later in the afternoon, we perhaps did, what I would class as our most unusual activity of the trip. We visited the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. This is the final resting place of stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Dean Martin and Farrah Fawcett. Marilyn’s was decorated with fresh flowers from fans and there was a space next to it, which I believe is reserved for Hugh Hefner. The cemetery is a quiet, reflective, peaceful and beautiful place, set amongst the craziness of Hollywood.
In the evening, head out to the bars in Venice Beach. We had an early start the next day, so we just went to The Other Room, a great bar for couples or friends. For other great bars to try, see this article on LA Weekly.
- We found the Venice Beach/Santa Monica area a great place to stay and I would recommend it!
- I could easily have stayed an extra day (or two) in LA, to perhaps window shop on Rodeo Drive, take a trip to The Ivy or even just spend a day at the beach or go horseback riding in the mountains, followed by a night out in Hollywood, if that’s your thing. In the words of the former Governor of California – I’ll be back…
Day Five: LA – Cambria (the Pacific Coast Highway)
You’ll be sad to leave LA, however a trip to Venice High School on the way out will perk you up – well it did for me anyway. Why? I hear you ask! Because Venice High School is… Rydell High from Grease! And wouldn’t you know it, I was wearing my Grease t-shirt for the occasion.
Drive to Malibu. We decided not to stop here, but if you have time… it looks gorgeous and I can see why so many celebrities call it home. Our first stop was Santa Barbara, which took just under 2 hours. Santa Barbara is a lovely town with great street art and tasty fish and chips on the pier.
From Santa Barbara, head to Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo to spend some time in the afternoon. We stayed the night in the small town of Cambria at a lovely little place called The Creekside Inn. It was just a short walk into town, where we had dinner at Linn’s Fruit Bin Restaurant. I can recommend the local Ollalaberry Pie! We finished off with a quick drink at Mozzi’s Saloon over the road.
Top Tips for the Pacific Coast Highway:
- Petrol (gas) is EXPENSIVE on PCH and gas stations are few and far between, so fill up before you head out of LA.
- You can do the drive from LA to San Francisco in a day, however I strongly advise that you take it slow along the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most scenic drives in the world – 3 days would be a nice amount of time.
- With all the stops, it takes a lot longer than you’d think, so set off as early as you can.
- I would have liked to have visited Solvang, a Danish village near to Santa Barbara.
- And if you’re not on a tight budget, The Madonna Inn looks like a really fun place to stay!
Day Six : Cambria – San Francisco (via the Pacific Coast Highway)
Have hearty breakfast at the Cambria Cafe (or Linn’s again), pick up road trip supplies at Bob & Jan’s Bottle Shop and hit the road. You will be sad to leave, as Cambria might just be the friendliest place in the world. Seriously, you know when you want to cuddle everyone you meet. Yeah, it’s like that.
First stop, Hearst Castle in San Simeon, a beautiful castle set up on a hill which has now become a historial park. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive along… I thought I had Africa on the brain when I saw a herd of zebra running around in the distance. But no my eyes weren’t deceiving me, an actual herd of zebra live on the grounds. You need 2 – 3 hours to explore, so get up and out as early as you can. San Simeon is also the beginning of Big Sur, a ninety mile stretch of scenic beauty!
Back in the car, continue along Big Sur stopping at some of the viewpoints on the way, spotting California Condors circling overhead, or seals casually basking in the sun on the beaches below.
Stop for an hour or so at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and take in a view of McWay Cove and waterfall (parking costs $10). It’s also a great place to hike if you have more time. My advice – don’t skip this. It’s one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.
Continuing north, you pass over the Bixby Creek Bridge. Next head to pretty Carmel-by-the-Sea, park up and take a look around. There are lots of pretty shops and eateries, plus it’s super dog-friendly if you have a pooch in tow! Just don’t wear your high heels, they’re not allowed in Carmel!
Back in the car take the 17-Mile Drive and see things such as The Lone Cypress and the world famous Pebble Beach Golf Course ($10 entry – which can be off-set if you eat at a Pebble Beach restaurant). Warning: Serious envy alert. People actually live here!
Next head to Monterey to look around. If we’d had more time, I would have liked to have taken a hike or cycle along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, which stretches from Pacific Grove (near the 17-mile drive), all the way to Castroville, but c’est la vie!
From Monterey continue down the coast to colourful Santa Cruz where you can park up and take a walk on the beach, have a ride on the fair and grab and ice cream.
Next stop, San Francisco. As we drove in, it seemed the world and his wife were heading there too, but it was Friday night and everyone was coming in to party!
- Sat Nav is your friend on this trip. We may still have been driving round the maze that is the 17-mile drive to this day if it hadn’t been for our Sat Nav.
- You can’t do the 17-mile drive on a motorbike.
- You could easily spread this day over two days as there’s so much to see! If I could do it again, I would have stayed in either Carmel or Monterey and taken a trip whale watching in the morning and spent more time in Santa Cruz!
- Try not to arrive in San Francisco at rush hour on a Friday – it ain’t fun!
One thing I will stress is this – be responsible when drinking. There are loads of great bars to try, but remember you have to do a lot of driving the next day and I want you, your passengers and other drivers on the road to be safe (lecture over)!
- My California Road Trip Itinerary: San Francisco
- My California Road Trip Itinerary: Yosemite (and Las Vegas)
- My California & Las Vegas Road Trip Budget
Plan Your Trip to California
Our route: San Diego – Los Angeles – Pacific Coast Highway – San Francisco – Yosemite National Park – Las Vegas.
Getting there: I always search for my flights on Skyscanner. We flew into San Diego and out of Las Vegas.
Car hire: We hired our car via US Car Hire. As there were 5 us us, we had a 7-seater Ford Yukon, which fitted us and our luggage comfortably (don’t forget your luggage). We picked the car up as we left San Diego. Dropped it off when we reached San Francisco. Picked up another when we left San Fran and dropped it off when we arrived in Las Vegas.
Visa waiver programme: Most nationalities need to apply for the visa waiver programme called ESTA – don’t forget to apply before you go, as they won’t let you in otherwise. Once approved, it lasts for 2 years. Just ensure that you are covered for your entire stay.
Travel insurance: Travel insurance is super important anyway, but especially in the US where medical bills are outrageously expensive. I usually get my travel insurance from World Nomads.
Where to stay: As there were 5 of us, we stayed in a mix of hotels, apartments and camps throughout our trip. If you’re new to Airbnb, you’ll get a £30 credit if you sign up using this this link.
- San Diego: Little Italy Apartment
- Los Angeles: Venice Beach Apartment
- Cambria (PCH): Creekside Inn
- San Francisco: Lower Haight Apartment
- Yosemite National Park: Housekeeping Camp
- Las Vegas: The Mirage
Like this post? Pin It For Later!
Have an amazing trip to California!
Please Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which will earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend products/services I really love. Affiliate sales help with the running costs of this site, so thank you for your support!