Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway is an experience that should be on every traveller’s bucket list.
Whether it be for an hour or two in each direction, or making your way through California, the PCH is one of the United States’ most scenic routes.
After numerous trips to California, I have developed a plan for the perfect Pacific Coast Highway road trip. It includes spending 2 nights in Los Angeles, 1 night near Hearst Castle, and 3 nights in San Francisco… with an option to include two more nights in Napa Valley or near the Redwood Forrest.
Think you’re up for this week-long adventure? See for yourself:
Fly into LAX- Los Angeles, California.
After arriving into Los Angeles International Airport, make the thirty minute drive over to Santa Monica. Explore the pier there a little, walk around the 3rd Street Promenade, and enjoy an oceanside lunch at Blue Star Taco.
After that, drive over to Hollywood and walk around, seeing the Walk of Fame and famous theaters. If you have time, take in a movie at El Capitan theatre. If that isn’t your thing, take a hike (literally!) through Runyon Canyon, one of LA’s most-popular trails.
From there, head to The Grove for dinner- the fountains and lights at this outdoor mall are magnificent (and I highly recommend the Greek restaurant!) If you go at an off time, when the crowds aren’t too big, you may even see a celebrity or two.
On the way to your hotel, stop for a minute to see ‘The Lights’ installation at LACMA. It is a free outdoor exhibit, located near The Grove. It’s worth a quick visit- especially to get an amazing picture for Instagram!
For more ideas on what to see in Los Angeles, click here.
Overnight in Los Angeles
The next day is perfect for a quick day trip to San Diego. We left our hotel early, driving through Anaheim and taking some time there for breakfast. We didn’t include Disneyland, but had breakfast down the street… If you do want to include Disney in your California road-trip, do it this day! Spend the night in Anaheim, and continue your journey to San Diego in the morning.
San Diego is a must see city… From the beaches of La Jolla (which also feature an amazing hike) to the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego has unique attractions unlike any other place in the USA. Shop in the gas lamp district… get an authentic Mexican meal in Old Town…. And top off your day by watching the sunset on the beach.
Overnight in Los Angeles (if including Disney, and not returning to LA, spend the night in San Diego after your day trip- remember to then account for an extra day)
Santa Barbara, a celebrity hide-away and gorgeous coastal city, is an amazing addition to your coastal road trip. The drive to Santa Barbara is approximately 3 and a half hours from Los Angeles. Spend the day here- walk around, take a free Trolley tour, or participate in some water sports. After a late lunch or dinner, start up the Pacific Coast Highway towards Hearst Castle.
Insider tip: don’t make this drive too late, the PCH gets dark and has lots of twists and turns between Santa Barbara and Cambria.
Overnight near Hearst Castle in a small town called Cambria. We didn’t book ahead, just stopped into the first hotel with a vacancy sign!
Just twenty minutes North of Cambria is Hearst Castle. The property, which belonged to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, is now a National Historic Landmark. Spend the day at the castle, tickets cost $12 for children and $25 for adults.
After visiting the exquisite grounds, head slightly North up the highway. Watch for signs along the highway indicating Elephant Seals- stop if you see them! Watching the seals in their natural habitat is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before- there are hundreds of them!
Finish your drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. Ideally arriving between 4-5pm. Check into your hotel and get ready to explore.
I suggest having a seafood dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf. Regardless of what you enjoy, there are hundreds of restaurants to choose from.
Overnight in San Francisco
Now I’m going to be very clear- there is no correct way to see San Francisco. I could lay out 100 itineraries for you and you still may not find one you like. I’m going to write out what I did and provide you with alternate options, in case my way doesn’t float your boat.
Get on your walking shoes, pack a water bottle, and get ready to see San Francisco! Take a hop-on, hop-off tour of the city, you will get too see a bit of every area. Don’t forget your sweater though, because the top level of the busses tend to be open-air, so you will feel the ocean breeze. Ride around the route once and enjoy the tour. Then ride around a second time and hop off where you like. I chose the bus tours by Grey Line because they included a second tour of Sausalito.
After lunch, take the Sausalito tour, hop off at Golden Gate Bridge Park and take pictures, hop on again, and hop-off near the marina in Sausalito. There is an awesome ice cream place in Sausalito, Lappert’s, that I recommend to absolutely everyone. Order the rum & raisin!
At night explore near your hotel! We walked around Ghirardelli Square and even got free samples of chocolate!
Overnight in San Francisco
This is the perfect day to wake up early, rent a bike, and bike the golden gate bridge! This seems to be the thing to do in San Fran so really commit to this, you are up for it! Bike places open early and some hotels even offer the service in the lobby. Be prepared to bike uphill at points (and don’t be ashamed if you have to get off your bike and walk, like me!) We biked from Fisherman’s Wharf to the bridge and back, it took approximately 45 minutes each way and was a total of 11.5 miles.
If you are interested in seeing Alcatraz and taking a tour of the prison-island, this would be the perfect day to do it. We didn’t get a chance to do this, but I didn’t mind… it just meant I had another reason to come back to San Francisco.
What I ended up doing was taking an extremely long walk through San Francisco. We used the hop-on hop-off bus as transportation to Chinatown, where we got off and walked around. After exploring a bit, we plugged the Alamo Square into our GPS and hiked up to see the Painted Ladies. Along the way, we stopped to take pictures of the house from Mrs. Doubtfire at 2640 Steiner St. I wish we would have been a bit more prepared… it would have been very cute to have a picnic on the hill facing the painted ladies. From there we walked 45 minutes to Lombard Street, which I totally recommend seeing… by foot (driving down it can be a nightmare and possibly take hours). From there, it wasn’t too far of a walk to our hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf.
Get some rest and head out to dinner, but be sure to plan ahead. Whether you are going out or doing a night tour of San Francisco, it gets much colder in the evening than it is during the day… so dress accordingly. I recommend doing a night tour of the city if you get the chance.
*I recommend night tours everywhere you can possibly go. A city during the day is totally different than that same city at night.
Overnight in San Francisco
We had a full morning before our flight, so we did all of the little things we didn’t have time for on the other days. These included shopping and a cable car ride. If you are traveling with kids, or have never ridden a cable car before, I 100% recommend you do this. Its a unique experience that can only be had in a limited number of cities around the world.
Grab lunch in the city before heading to the airport. We asked our hotel reception for a recommendation, he sent us to a very cute suburban neighborhood. He had originally recommended a sushi place, but it was packed and too fancy for us. So we ended up stumbling into a little Russian cafe which we loved. Katia’s Russian Tea Room was authentic and tasted very homemade! We even got to see the babushkas in back cooking up a storm!
Fly out of San Francisco in the evening (I recommend a red-eye flight, so that you have a full day in San Francisco, but if that is not your thing then opt for later in the day if possible.)
If you want to extend your trip to include Napa Valley, Sedona, or Redwood National Park, I’d recommend adding at least 2 more days to your trip and driving up on Day 7 after lunch. I have yet to explore this part of the West Coast but hope to in the near future.
Have you ever driven the PCH? Do you have another favorite American road trip? Let me know in the comments below!