San Francisco to Los Angeles is such a classic road trip; completely incredible scenery along the coast, the cutest seaside towns to explore and, of course, delicious food to eat.
The road trip: Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, LA
We flew into San Francisco on a Friday afternoon, and jumped straight in our hire car.
I’d spent a long time researching and trying to find out the best places to stop off on this trip. So our first was Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is a very cute seaside town, with an incredible boardwalk. We arrived at the beginning of October, so a bit out of season and on a Friday evening everything was very quiet and a lot of places weren’t open.
However, Saturday morning the boardwalk was teeming with families and people enjoying themselves on all the rides and arcade games.
After a bit of fun in the arcades we got back in the car and drove about an hour or so along the road to Monterey.
Monterey is possibly even cuter than Santa Cruz. It’s more of a fishing town, with hundreds of boats in the harbour. We did a whistle stop tour of the main Monterey sites: Fishermans Wharf, Cannery Row (of the Steinbeck novel), Pacific House and Custom House, and we even managed to see some sea lions sunning themselves.
We continued along Highway one for another half hour before turning off to drive through Carmel by the sea. Part of me wishes we had stopped off at Carmel instead, it’s idyllic Main Street is lined with shops down to a stunning beach.
After Carmel we carried on down the coast for another couple of hours, through Big Sur. The scenery is breathtaking along this way, big endless cliffs and miles of ocean before driving through the greenery of Big Sur.
Just after it got dark we arrived in San Luis Obispo for the night. Originally we had intended on driving all the way down to Santa Barbara that first night, but we definitely started off too late and there was too much to explore on the way.
San Luis Obispo seemed to be a fairly quiet town, a good stopping place for the night.
Sunday morning we got up, went for an amazing breakfast and headed off again.
It took us just over two hours to get to Santa Barbara, driving past Pismo Beach and then away from the coast through Lompoc. The landscape was very different for this part, lots of farm land, green and mountains.
Santa Barbara is definitely somewhere worth stopping. We parked up in the Funk Zone, just off of State Street. This area is full of bars, places to eat and some cool shops.
Along State Street you can find your way to the pier, and then up towards lots more shops and restaurants.
We spent a good couple of hours in Santa Barbara, though we thought we would just stop off for half an hour! From Santa Barbara to Los Angeles the route is fairly simple, we went along the 101 instead of the 1, they’re fairly similar but we wanted to save some time.
We eventually found our way to our AirBnB in Los Angeles’s arts district at about 8pm.
San Francisco to Los Angeles Road trip tips
- Driving along Highway 1 is definitely the way to go, but it does go along some high, twisty cliffs and some narrow bridges. It’s completely safe, but a little nerve wracking if you’re not a fan of heights, plus you can’t really do it in a hurry.
- Book places to stay in advance, especially if you’re travelling in the summer. Places will book up and get expensive.
- That being said, you probably won’t drive as far as you think you would each day – don’t stretch yourself by booking a motel further away.
- Also, there are some great stops, but it doesn’t really matter where you sleep – you’ll probably be pretty tired anyway and can just get up and drive to the next interesting place. I spent way too much time trying to figure out the best places to spend our nights, and we were really just there to crash for a few hours.
- Most of the towns will have signposts for the landmarks/ sites you want to see right from the highway. It’s very easy to find them.
- Also parking centrally was simple in all of these places – Santa Cruz you can park along the seafront on meters, and there’s a car park next to the harbour in Monterey. Just make sure you have some dollar coins (there was a change machine in Santa Cruz so we changed $20).
- Big Sur looked like it would have been an amazing place to spend the night. There were lots of cabins and camp grounds. We didn’t realise as we’d mainly used Airbnb and booking.com etc to search for accommodation. At the very least, leave a couple of hours to get out and explore Big Sur.