Looking to knock California off your bucket list? Have you always dreamed of driving a convertible along California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and don’t know where to start?
Look no further.
California has one of America’s best road trips. Read on to learn about the nine “must-see” stops on the drive from San Francisco to San Diego along with what each destination has to offer.
Editor’s Note: We updated this article in October, 2022 to keep it fresh.
CONTENTS: In this article, you will learn the best places to stop on a scenic drive from San Francisco to San Diego, along with the best things to do and see.
- Planning a California Road Trip
- Stop 1: San Francisco
- Stop 2: Half Moon Bay
- Stop 3: Santa Cruz
- Stop 4: Big Sur
- Stop 5: Hearst Castle
- Stop 6: Malibu
- Stop 7: Santa Monica
- Stop 8: Laguna Beach
- Stop 9: San Diego
- Final Thoughts
How to Plan a California Road Trip
The Pacific Coast Highway homes some of California’s most magnificent gems.
Driving Highway 1–also known as the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH–allows you to cross multiple destinations off your bucket list, including some of California’s biggest cities like San Francisco and San Diego.
Between peaceful nature, delightful food, and hip nightlife, there is something for everyone to love.
The best part about driving is that you’re able to decide how little or how much time you want to spend at each stop. You’re the driver!
To get the most out of the trip, you’ll want to head south when you drive from San Francisco to San Diego
Heading south ensures you’ll cruise right beside the coast which means you’ll get the best views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean and steep cliffs.
Related: Make sure you know the pros and cons of car travel before you begin.
Stop 1: San Francisco
Starting in San Francisco is extremely convenient because you can fly into the San Francisco International Airport and get a one-way car rental.
San Francisco has an abundance of sights to see so staying two or three nights would be feasible if you want to fit everything in before hitting the road.
Here are some San Francisco highlights you’ll want to see:
- Golden Gate Bridge
- Alcatraz Island
- Angel Island
- Pier 39
- Fisherman’s Wharf
- Ferry Building Marketplace
One way to maximize your time is to charter or rent a boat in San Fransisco while you’re there.
You could sail San Fransisco Bay, cruise the islands, or even just putter around in a dinghy.
Not only is this an efficient way to experience San Fransisco attractions, but so memorable!
Or, if you want to trail inland from the highway, Yosemite National Park is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco.
Yosemite has a plethora of waterfalls, animals, and hiking that nature lovers will enjoy. It’s worth the detour if you have the time to spare.
Stop 2: Half Moon Bay
After wrapping up the first few days in San Francisco, it’s time to head forty minutes south to Half Moon Bay.
Though quaint, this town is very lively and is a perfect destination to explore for a few hours when you drive from San Francisco to San Diego.
If you wish to splurge and stay in luxury, Ritz Carlton has a resort and golf-course overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Check out these Half Moon Bay Highlights:
- Pigeon Point Lighthouse
- Año Nuevo State Reserve
- California Coastal Trail
Stop 3: Santa Cruz
Next stop on the highway, about an hour from Half Moon Bay, is Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz has much to offer.
Aside from the beautiful beaches, the town is full of vintage stores, cafes, and galleries.
This is one of my favorite stops on a drive from San Francisco to San Diego!
Santa Cruz highlights include:
- Natural Bridges State Park
- Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
- Santa Cruz Beach
- Santa Cruz Wharf
- Center Street Antiques
Stop 4: Big Sur
You can’t drive the Pacific Coast Highway without dedicating time to stop at Big Sur.
Big Sur is about an hour and thirty minutes south of Santa Cruz.
It’s home to one of the most iconic bridges photographed in California: Bigsby Canyon Bridge.
After driving across the bridge, you can stop in the park for hikes through towering redwood trees or look to the coast for majestic coves.
You might even consider a few luxurious days of glamping in Big Sur if you have the time on your drive from San Francisco to San Diego.
Be sure to visit some these Big Sur highlights:
- Bigsby Canyon Bridge
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur has countless Instagram worthy photography spots. Check out some of the Top 10 Adventure Photographers for your Instagram photo inspiration.
Stop 5: Hearst Castle (San Simeon)
Ever seen the greatest movie of all time?
Regardless of whether you have, or haven’t, you can travel an hour and forty minutes south of Big Sur to see Citizen Kane’s Xanadu inspiration, the Hearst Castle.
With 46 rooms, artifacts, two swimming pools that hold a total of 550,000 gallons of water, a private zoo, and a private runway, there’s plenty of history and splendor to capture your attention.
Stop 6: Malibu
After exploring the Hearst Castle, you’ll find yourself back on Highway 1 traveling three and a half hours south to Malibu.
Aside from being known as home to Hollywood movie stars, Malibu offers incredible beaches and views.
Don’t fret either, you don’t need to be a Hollywood movie star to be able to stay and enjoy the luxuries Malibu has to offer.
A few Malibu highlights you might enjoy are:
- Malibu Celebrity Homes Tour
- Wine Hikes
- Relaxing on the beaches
Stop 7: Santa Monica
Once you’ve indulged and splurged in Malibu, it’s time to head to Santa Monica.
It’s just an hour and thirty minutes from Malibu.
Santa Monica homes some of the iconic destinations along the California coast.
Don’t miss these Santa Monica highlights:
- Santa Monica Pier
- Venice Beach Boardwalk
- Venice Canals
If you want to trail inland from the highway again, the bustling City of Los Angeles is only forty-five minutes away from Santa Monica.
In Los Angeles, you can spend time shopping, visiting celebrity Beverly Hills homes, or hiking up to the Hollywood sign to see magnificent views of Los Angeles.
Stopping to stay for a day or two would allow you to sightsee in both Santa Monica and Los Angeles.
Stop 8: Laguna Beach
Ready to get out of the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles and Santa Monica?
Then head an hour and ten minutes south to Laguna Beach.
That’s where you’ll find yourself relaxing on some of California’s finest beaches.
Here are some highlights you’ll love at Laguna Beach:
- Main Beach
- Crystal Cove Park
- Laguna Art Museum
Stop 9: San Diego
After Laguna Beach, you’ll be heading to your last stop on your drive from San Francisco to San Diego.
San Diego is an hour and 15 minutes from Laguna Beach and has many activities for you to enjoy.
It’s is the perfect place to spend the last days of your trip exploring more beautiful beaches, learning about United States history, and reflecting on the wonderful trip you’ve had.
Visit these San Diego highlights while you’re there:
- Seal Watching at La Jolla Cove
- San Diego Zoo
- USS Midway Visits
- Coronado Beach
San Diego is also the perfect last stop because you’re able to turn in your one-way car rental and fly home out of the San Diego International Airport.
Final Thoughts on the Drive from San Francisco to San Diego
California is calling your name, so what are you waiting for?
You’re sure to have a great time on this San Francisco to San Diogo drive.
With so many destinations and activities along Highway 1, you may not even know where to start with packing.
You can check out the Top 15 Best Fashion Blogs on Instagram for the best outfit inspiration so you look and feel your best on one of America’s best road trips.
And if you’re new to road-tripping altogether, we’ve put together this beginners guide to road trips for you.
Let us know your thoughts on this California road trip in the comments below!
Don’t forget to save this article for later on Pinterest!
20 thoughts on “A Dreamy Drive from San Francisco to San Diego [9 Must-See Stops on the PCH]”
I agree with you that this is definitely a fun drive. Unfortunately, we only did a few stops last time. We’d love to stop in Big Sur next time too as we haven’t had the chance to take some photos at the bridge.
Actually, I am bookmarking this post for future reference. If we have enough time, we’d make all the stops you recommended.
Great! I hope this article guides you along your next PCH drive, Clarice!
These 9 stops on California’s Pacific coast highway are amazing and relaxing for a perfect road trip full of beach towns and celebrity homes. We have driven along the PCH and covered most of these places like Malibu, Santa Monica pier, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and the Coronado beach in San Diego, but didn’t get to visit the Hearst castle and Big Sur. It sure is a wonderful road trip!
There is so much to do on the PCH! Glad you got to see so many of the attractions. Hope you return to see Hearst Castle and Big Sur!
Half Moon looks so picturesque, I would definitely like to stop there when I’ll go on a road trip from San Francisco to San Diego. Big Sur is such a classic, unmissable. I would also love to explore Hearst Castle, what a great find on this route. I can imagine that spending the evening in Santa Monica would be so much fun, especially around the Pier area.
Yes to all of these stops! You’d definitely enjoy each of them, Joanna.
I haven’t been in the west coast of US yet, even though San Fran is such a popular destination to go, and for good reason. It’s close proximity to Big Sur and that amazing costal drive is on everyone’s bucket list. Great options I haven’t heard giving me 9 reasons to go!
Thanks, Renée! I hope you get the chance to drive the PCH soon. It truly is amazing!
I have done a road trip from Sacramento to San Diago. It was an awesome experience. I think you should include Santa Barbra and Long Beach. They are iconic places on the way. Santa Cruz is a beautiful place that has a breathtaking beach. I experienced my first boogie boarding there.
Yes, Santa Barbara and Long Beach are both great takes. And boogie boarding — so fun!
Wow. Loved reading the entire article, you have covered each place under California and the 9 stops are must-doable places. Saved your post for my trip to California and these amazing stops.
I am reading now your top 15 fashion blogs on instagram 🙂
So glad you enjoyed this piece, Pamela! You will love taking this road trip (and the fashion ideas)!
We have done the drive from San Francisco to San Diego a few times – in both directions. The PCH is one of our favourite road trip routes. We have stopped at all of your great spots except Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. But Half Moon Bay has been on my list to stay for a long time. You know we want to stay at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay! Glamping in Big sure sounds like another great stop we might have to plan.
How wonderful to have enjoyed this trip several times, Linda! Drop us a note to let us know when you finally get to enjoy Half Moon Bay (at the Ritz, I hope!) and Big Sur.
These nine stunning stops on the journey from San Francisco to San Diego show just how much there is to see. Because of its serene atmosphere, Half Moon Bay seems to be a perfect area to relax and calm. Big Sur is so breathtaking that I am at a loss for words! Due to its lively vistas at night, Santa Monica appears to be an excellent place to explore. Of course, visitors shouldn’t overlook Malibu’s beautiful beaches!
Yes to all of these thoughts! Thanks for your comment, Maria!
We have been dreaming of a US road trip for ages and driving from San Francisco to San Diego looks like a perfect route. As we have Iran and Sudan stamps in our passport we are no longer eligible for the waiver and waiting time at the embassy in German for a visa application is long. But maybe we should just apply for a visa at some point. I think it is valid for 10 years.
Applying for a visa might be a good option, Natascha. The California coastline is just beautiful, so I hope you get a chance to enjoy this route for yourself!
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