San Francisco to Los Angeles
The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most astounding scenic roads in the world. Be prepared to make slow progress along this 100km stretch of coastline as you’ll be pulling over often to admire the steep cliffs, crashing waves, and seaside towns. There are many opportunities to swim at untouched beaches, stop for farm-fresh foods, try unique local wines, and hike among redwoods. You can drive the route from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a day or spend a few days, a week, or even longer meandering its length. All of the recommendations are based on my personal experiences and opinion!
1. First, San Francisco
There is so much to discover in San Francisco. Even though the hills are tough, consider renting a bike downtown and taking a trip to Sausalito over the Golden Gate Bridge. The views are extraordinary as you bike along the winding road through the Presidio, across the bridge and down a steep path to the small seaside town of Sausalito where you can catch the ferry.
For a brief stop in San Fran try one of the many free walking tours of downtown to get your bearings. The Fisherman’s Wharf is quite touristy so instead visit the Ferry Building – it is a true foodie-paradise. Take a walk through the largest Chinatown in the world (outside of China, of course!) and be sure to visit Alcatraz, the infamous and now closed federal prison. For an outdoor excursion take a hike in Muir Woods to see some of California’s sky-high redwood trees. Don’t forget to stop in the Mission District on your way out of town: this area has a vibe with authentic Mexican ambiance. Be sure to check out a local hole in the wall for some great eats and peruse the interesting murals.
Hotel recommendation: Golden Gate Hotel
Golden Gate is a boutique hotel near Union Square. It is a bit old and creaky but I quickly forgot about this after being welcomed by the friendly manager, trying the warm croissants in the morning and meeting the adorable resident tabby cat. The staff is eager for you to have the best experience in San Fran and they are happy to give recommendations for restaurants and the best sightseeing in the city.
2. Santa Cruz
Although not typically mentioned on a PCH road trip this stop is not to be missed – Main Street is alive with many shops, vegan restaurants, bars, yoga studios, whatever you’re into, you’ll find it here! It doesn’t have the same small town charm you might find in Monterey or Carmel-by-the-Sea but it’s the perfect place to spend the night or enjoy a delicious meal. Definitely check out Laili’s for Mediterranean or Mumbai Delights for delicious and moderately-priced Indian food.
3. Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea
These two small towns are a little overrated in my opinion – a little bit touristy with fudge shops, high-end designer stores, and overpriced ice cream. They are perfect for a short walk to stretch your legs, a coffee or a meal. Monterey is well known for its marina, restaurants, and aquarium. Be sure to check out the local old-timer Paris Bakery and Cafe for coffee and a yummy treat. Carmel is another charming town with a similar array of shops, attractions, and restaurants.
4. Bixby Bridge
One of the most photogenic spots on the PCH, Bixby Bridge is an unforgettable stop on a Pacific Coast Highway road trip. The vast landscape and steep cliffs will take your breath away. I sat here with my mom taking photos at different angles for a good 20 minutes, and then another 20 just staring to take it all in.
5. Andrew Molera State Park
This park is located along the coast side of the highway. Access is free if you park along the road just south of the turnoff to the official lot. Walk down the access road, pass the parking lot and visitor information on your right, and walk along the flat track with a house immediately on the left. After reaching the coastline after about 20 minutes walking, there is a ridge track or a coastline track. Both are open and gorgeous with unobstructed views, although the ridge-line walk is a bit more hilly.
6. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Big Sur has a range of hikes suitable for different levels, durations and ages. Sky-high redwood trees litter the park and nearby mountains. This park is east of the highway so shorter hikes don’t have the same coastal views that can be found at Andrew Molera just 15 minutes north.
Hotel recommendation: Deetjen’s Inn
In the 1930s Castro Canyon was once just a stopover along the Wagon Road: now it is a converted hotel and historic site. This charming inn has gorgeous gardens, an award-winning restaurant and luxury accommodations in a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. Our room was cozy, located in a converted barn with a shared bathroom (there was no service or wifi, just a heads up!). Reception offered excellent hiking recommendations and although we didn’t have time before our early morning hike, their breakfasts were raved about by other guests and even mentioned in the New York Times.
7. San Luis Obispo
We only stopped here for a quick coffee but this town has lots to offer! You can tour quirky attractions like the colorful Bubblegum Alley, sample local wines at over 30 wineries, or hike to Point San Luis Lighthouse. If you like the outdoors consider hiking Black Hill, Islay Hill, or Bishop Peak.
Unlike other towns along the way, San Luis Obispo is a bit bigger with larger stores like H&M, department stores and pharmacies in addition to bars and restaurants. The perfect stop to pick up anything you’ve forgotten or run out of along the drive.
Solvang is a mini-Denmark smack in the middle of California. Settled by Danish pioneers in 1911 this town is home to artisan restaurants, Danish bakeries, and the world famous Paula’s Pancake House. Wander among traditional architecture, check out the Hans Christian Andersen Museum, and drive to local vineyards.
9. Los Padres National Forest
Located just 15 minutes from Santa Barbara, California’s 2nd largest national forest comprises 10 wilderness areas designed for hiking, camping, biking, fishing, swimming, horseback riding, and rock climbing. The best way to see the park is through dozens of tracks suitable for hiking and mountain biking, all with varying durations and elevations.
10. Santa Barbara
This little city has something for everyone: wildlife and plant lovers will appreciate the Santa Barbara Zoo, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Lotusland. Culture seekers should go to the Lobero Theatre, the Arlington Theatre, and the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. There are a variety of cuisines from a quick pizza slice to middle eastern, as well as zillions of yoga studios, hipster coffee shops, and designer and vintage clothing stores
11. Los Angeles
First-timer in LA? Be sure to visit the Kodak Theatre, walk the Hollywood Walk of Fame, listen to outdoor musicians on the Santa Monica Pier, stroll through Rodeo Drive and drive along legendary Sunset Boulevard. Discover superlative views of the Hollywood sign from Griffith Observatory.
Did you enjoy one of these unforgettable stops on the Pacific Coast Highway? Did you stop someplace even more special? Let me know in the comments!