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!
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