A road trip through California and up the Pacific Coast Highway is quite possibly one of the greatest road trips you will ever take in your life.
We started our trip in San Diego, hired a car, passed through Los Angeles (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!
Before heading inland to Yosemite National Park and ending the trip in Las Vegas (which I’ve written about here) and flew home from there.
It was amazing!
We had 16 full days to explore, not long considering how much ground we covered, but I’m pretty good at packing a lot into 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 (since 2016 I’ve been doing this for a living), 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 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!
And don’t forget to create your American roadtrip playlist!
California Road Trip Itinerary: San Diego, LA, San Francisco & the Pacific Coast Highway
Our California road trip itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1 – 2: San Diego
- Day 3: San Diego to Los Angeles
- Day 4: Los Angleles
- Day 5: Los Angeles to Cambria (via Pacific Coast Highway)
- Day 6: Cambria to San Francisco (via Pacific Coast Hightway)
- Day 7 – 10: San Francisco
This excludes the full day of travel from the UK to San Diego.
We also added on:
- Day 11: San Francisco to Yosemite National Park
- Day 12: Yosemite National Park
- Day 13: Yosemite National Park to Las Vegas
- Day 14 – 16: Las Vegas
- Day 17: Home
Whilst I loved every second of our trip, I felt like we didn’t have enough time in either Yosemite or on the Pacific Coast Highway. So I’d add an extra day on to both, and probably take those days off Vegas and San Francisco.
I could also have spent another night in Los Angeles too. Although, you could spend a week in each place, easily…
If you have more time, you could add a trip to Joshua Tree National Park which lies between San Diego and Las Vegas. This could work really well if you were doing a loop, flying in and out of the same place.
Ideally, to do the full loop, you’d need at least 3 weeks or more for this California itinerary.
Car Hire for Your California Road Trip
We hired our car via US Car Hire. As there were 5 us, we had a 7-seater Ford Yukon, which fitted both us and our luggage comfortably (don’t forget to leave space for that).
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.
I hope this helps you plan an incredible California road trip itinerary and please let me know if you have any extra suggestions in the comments below.
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 1: San Diego
Head to the USS Midway, an ex warship that is now a museum.
It’s a great way to spend a few hours and having never been on a real warship 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 2: 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 nightย with cocktails at theย rooftop bar at The W San Diego Hotel.
My 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 3: 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 loved immediately.
It’s got a sleazy side, for sure. But it’s also edgy, cool and has 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 (we were still very jet-lagged).
Day 4: 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 was reserved for Hugh Hefner (he was still alive when we went).
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.
My Top Tips for Los Angeles:
- 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.
Day 5: 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.
My 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 an incredible place to stay!
Day 6: 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 because they’re SOOO nice (like in a Hallmark Christmas film). 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 famous 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 an 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 into the city to party!
My Top Tips for the Pacific Coast Highway:
- 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)!
Day 7: San Francisco
Head to Pier 39 and rent some bikes from Blazing Saddles to go on a self-guided cycle tour across the Golden Gate Bridge.
They give you a map which has a few trails, of varying lengths to choose from. … but you can go at your leisure which is great as there’s plenty to stop and see.
Another good thing about this route is that it’s mostly on a cycle path so it’s really safe.
From Pier 39, head towards the Palace of Fine Arts to look around, before making your way onto the bridge – watch out for a few hills here.
Ride across the bridge marvelling at the view and the drop below, or as we did, ride through the fog and freeze your ass off!
What was really strange, was that it was really sunny and warm either side of the bridge!
Next, you’ll arrive in the pretty town of Sausalito, a great spot for lunch, or brunch – depending on how early you are.
You can either get the ferry back to San Francisco from Sausalito, or continue on to see one of the oldest trees in Old Mill Park and then on to Tiburon and get the ferry from there (your ferry ticket is included in the cycle hire).
In the evening, grab dinner atย The Stinking Rose: A Garlic Restaurant, followed by an eveing in North Beach! Try not to breathe on anyone… but you should be safe from Vampires.
My Top Tips for San Francisco:
- Take a warm jumper for your cycle as it can get cold across the bridge, especially if the fof descends.
- If you can pick a day when there’s no fog across the bridge, I would try to do that, but it does make for some cool pictures.
- There are a few hills though – so make sure you know how to use the gears on your bike to your advantage. I was rubbish at this.
- Carry on to Tiburon, we started our cycle later in the day and had to get the ferry back from Sausalito butย I wish we’d had much longer.
- Blazing Saddles were great, but they put a deposit hold on your credit or debit card. It took a couple of phone calls and over a week to get this back to us, which was a lttle annoying.
Day 8: San Francisco
We decided to get a two-day pass for an open-top bus which I’d highly recommend.
Touristy, yes, but also a great way to get around the city and there are stops all over town.
Where you get on and off will probably depend on where you’re staying, but I’ll tell you what we did, and you can always adjust to suit your base.
In the morning head first to Alamo Square, which was near to our apartment, to see the Painted Ladies on Steiner Street.
We’d picked up a route map for the Grayline Sightseeing Tours (the blue buses) the previous day, so we knew there was a pickup point nearby on hip Divisadero Steet so we headed that way.
Our driver was Dave, amazingly entertaining and charming!
Ride the bus all around until you reach City Hall, you’ll find the magnificent Asian Art Museum.
Get off here and have a look around.
Next stop, Chinatown, a great place to walk, take in the sights and smells and colours. I was blown away by all of the street art!
You can either hop back on the bus where you got off, or it’s just a short walk up to North Beach, San Francisco’s Italian neighbourhood which has a great cafe culture.
All that walking is hard work, so treat yourself to some gelato!!!
Head to Vesuvio, on the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley and Columbus Street, and have a drink in this historic bar, which judging by the pictures on the wall, has seen some action in its time!
Situated next to the City Lights Bookstore, it was once the local hangout of the Jack Kerouac and the Beatnik crowd as well as Dylan Thomas, Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Dylan.
Vesuvio doesn’t serve food, but you can take your own in!
Carry on up towards Washington Square Park and Saints Peter and Paul Church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were photographed after their wedding.
Hop back on the bus and continue on to Cow Street. From there, walk to Lombard Street to see one of the windiest roads in the world and watch cars snake down the ‘windy road’.
Next head to Telegraph Hill and walk up to Coit Tower to get the best views of the city!
After all those steps, it’s time to head back to rest before the evening ahead.
For dinner, I recommend that you head back to Chinatown/North Beach area to sample some of San Francisco’s famous Chinese cuisine.
We went to the AMAZING Brandy Ho’s Chinese Restaurant which is just down the street from Vesuvio, and recommended by one of their friendly staff, who actually called them to check they were still open for us and booked us a table.
Brandy Ho’s Chinese food is different from any I’ve had before as it is food from the Hunan Province of China. The food was fresh and delicious, probably the best Chinese food I’ve ever had.
Then head over to the Castro, San Francisco’s gay neighbourhood for drinks! We went to Harvey’s and Blackbird.
My Top Tips for San Francisco:
- If you don’t want to go back to Chinatown and then to the Castro, you’re in luck – Brandy Ho’s has opened another restaurant there too!
- Pick up a map for the open-top bus tours on your first day and weigh up the options and the price. It will make things easier if you know where to get on!
- Busses come around about every half an hour.
- I’ve also heard good reports about Mission Chinese and the House of Nanking if you want to try somewhere else.
Day 9: San Francisco
We hopped on the bus again in the morning on Divisedero Street and took almost the entire cicuit, passing the Golden Gate Bridge heading to Golden Gate Park to spend the morning.
The park has many different attractions including the Japanese Tea Garden, Strawberry Hill, the California Academy of Sciences, and even a herd of buffalo. Yes, really!
You can also hire bikes, surreys and segways in the park – if you want a laugh… please do this.
After you’ve had your fill of the park, walk to the nearby Haight-Ashbury to grab a late lunch, visit Hippie Hill, pick up some cool, unique souvenirs in the shops and take in more of the amazing San Francisco architecture.
For the evening, head out to the Mission District early whilst there’s still plenty of daylight so you can see the Mission Delores, have a relax in Delores Park, and take in some of the amazing street art, especially the Women’s Building Mural.
When the sun goes down, head to Valencia Street for dinner.
There are tons of cool bars and restaurants, as well as Four Barrel Coffee, which rumour has it, serves the best coffee in San Francisco!
We ate at Thai House 530 which I’d highly recommend, but if Thai food isn’t your thing, head to one of the other hundreds of restaurants in the area – with practically every cuisine you can imagine on offer.
We then visted a couple of nice bars called Elbo Room and Skylark. The Mission District was my favourite area of San Francisco as far as nightlife goes.
Day 10: San Francisco
Today, go and seeย Alcatraz aka ‘The Rock’. Head down to Pier 33, if youย have time, catch a Cable Car (I loved doing this and we rode them a couple of times during the trip – but if you’re worried about time, grab a cab so you don’t miss it) from Union Square all the way down to Pier 39, and then it’s just a few minutes walk to Pier 33, where the ferry leaves from.
You’ll probably spend at least a couple of hours on Alcatraz.
They have a great audio tour that guides you through the various rooms and cell blocks of the prison, with commentary from ex-prisoners and guards.
Alcatraz is a crazy, haunting place, with a remarkable history, having homed some of the world’s most notorious criminals including Al Capone and the Robert Stroud – the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ (who actually didn’t keep any birds in this particular prison).
Back on the mainland, stroll towards Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch. Walk past Pier 39 for now, and take your pick from famous In-N-Out Burger (they have a ‘secret’ menu with animal fries – yum) or Boudin (the famous bakery).
Once fed, stroll back along toward Pier 39, and take a look around. It’s really pretty and there are lots of things to do, great for families and you can spot sea lions being lazy near the end of the pier.
Catch the cable car back to Union Square, take a walk around, soak in the atmosphere and see the gorgeous Hearts in San Francisco art installation. The sculptures are auctioned off for charity each year and then replaced by new ones.
Union Square has some of the best boutique and department store shopping in San Francisco (maybe even the world), so if that’s your thing – you can knock yourself out! I’m not really into shopping, but I did head into Macy’s with a very specific mission.
To have a piece of cheesecake in The Cheesecake Factory as recommended by bus driver Dave, who even though there were a few blue bus drivers, randomly picked us up every time. He felt like an old friend by the end of it.
We don’t have these in the UK, so I was very excited. There are so many to choose from, but whichever you go for, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Bus driver Dave recommends the Vanilla Cream Pie. They also have an outdoor seating area overlooking Union Square.
With a long drive the following day, we made it a quiet one and visited Bourban and Branch, a secret, speakeasy bar in the Tenderloin District.
You ring the buzzer next to the unnamed door. The glamorous hostess answers and asks you the password.
You answer: BOOKS
She, lets you in and leads you through the dimly lit bar to a bookcase. The bookcase opens and you walk through a secret passageway and into the secret bar… you’ll feel as though you’ve travelled back in time. ENJOY!
My Top Tips for San Francisco:
- Tickets for Alcatraz sell out in advance, so buy them a week or two in advance if you can and I’d recommend going early(ish) in the morning.
- Cable cars can get busy in the middle of the day, so many went past us because they were full, so it’s best to get on at the beginning or the end of a journey route, or early in the morning when they’re less busy.
- The conductors allow you to hang off the outside of the cable cars – this was a lot of fun!
- 4 days was a good amount of time for a taster of San Francisco, but I definitely want to go back for more.
- As we weren’t staying in the city centre, we found it really hard to grab cabs on the street on the weekdays. If you need to get cabs, as your apartment provider for a list of reliable ones. If in a hotel, they should be able to call for one.
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