There are several routes to take when driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco depending on how much travel time you have or want to endure.
The quickest and most popular route will be to take the Interstate 5 Freeway which would be the most boring and less hurdle route. Although there are several scenic views between Lebec and Castaic when you drive Southbound towards Los Angeles, don’t miss Pyramid Lake on your right side as you drive past.
The distance using this route would be 382 miles / 615 kms (from Downtown LA to Downtown SF) and would take approximately 5.5 hours to 6 hours depending on traffic.
Interstate 5 Freeway – Southbound Interstate 5 Freeway – Southbound Pyramid Lake on Interstate 5 Freeway – Southbound
If you want a more memorable road trip, taking the Pacific Coast Highway through Highway 1 would be the route you want to take at least once in your lifetime. This route was voted as one of the Best American Road Trips by National Geographic. California Route 1 is stretched at 442 miles / 711 kms and would take approximately 8 to 9 hours non-stop depending on traffic and how fast you drive.
The best way to take this route is to really take your time and stretch your drive into 2 or 3 days with a couple of overnight stays so you can take it all in. Here are the best spots to stop, rest, eat, drink and take photos (guaranteed to be instagrammable).
1. Santa Monica (Los Angeles)
Santa Monica Pier (thinglink.com)
While I’m not a huge fan of the Santa Monica Pier thanks to the overcrowding tourists and Pokemon Go hunters, Santa Monica actually has some great beachside spots that are not as crazy as the Pier if you’re looking to chill in the morning or afternoon.
Perry’s Cafe Santa Monica (Perryscafe.com)
2. Malibu, CA
Malibu is often exaggerated and highly overrated thanks to a large population of Hollywood celebrities who live or spend a lot of their time in this coastal town.
You will find some of the beaches in Malibu are actually quite similar to other beaches in California unless it’s a closed private beach right off of your beach house (which most of us regular people don’t have access to).
But if you know which spots to pick, Malibu does have its’ charm.Some great spots worth checking out:
- Malibu Farm Cafe
- Paradise Cove Malibu
- Nobu Malibu
- The Sunset Restaurant Malibu
- Malibu Cafe at Calamigos Ranch
Malibu Farm Cafe (californiabeaches.com)
3. Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is definitely worth the visit or to spend one night in. Visit Santa Barbara Waterfront, Santa Barbara Public Market and take a stroll around Downtown SB. You can also rent bikes and ride around town up to the beaches.
If you were to drive from LA to Santa Barbara via the non-scenic route via 101 Freeway it should take you 1.5 to 2 hours. Distance between the two cities are 95 miles / 153 kms. Via coastal (Highway 1) would be an extra 45 minute to 1 hour drive.
4. Solvang (Alternative)
Being based in Los Angeles, we decided to skip Santa Monica, Malibu and Santa Barbara because these are the places we could easily visit on any weekend.Instead we took 101 North and drove to Solvang, a historic Danish village in Santa Barbara County. Distance from LA to Solvang is 135 miles / 218 kms which should take a little over 2 hours to drive from central LA to Downtown Solvang.
101 Route to Solvang
Solvang is home to over 35 local restaurants and bakeries, a great pit stop for lunch before continuing your journey through the coast.
Solvang – Danish Village
Driving out of Solvang
5. Pismo Beach
Pismo Beach is a classic beach town in the San Luis Obispo County with a number of outdoor activities offered in the town including horseback riding, surfing, body boarding, fishing and riding in the dunes in a four-wheel ATV.
Driving to Pismo Beach should take about 1.5 hour from Santa Barbara or 1 hour from Solvang.
6. Cambria / Moonstone Beach
Cambria is a seaside village in San Luis Obispo County and home to Moonstone Beach. Nearby is the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse if you decide to have a pitstop in this little town.
Moonstone Beach (californiabeaches.com)
7. San Simeon
The main attraction in San Simeon would be the Hearst Castle, a National Historic Landmark formerly owned by a newspaper magnate William Hearst and was used as his private residence in the 1920s. The estate was formerly known as “La Cuesta Encantada” or “The Enchanted Hill”. There are also hotels and ocean view lodging around San Simeon if you plan to have an overnight stay in this town.
This would be the last stop before Big Sur where it is not cliffside and you can easily step on the beach.
Hearst Castle (californiabeaches.com)
Driving away from San Simeon
8. Big Sur
Stretching on the central coast between San Simeon and Carmel By The Sea, Big Sur is a 2-lane winding road on a seaside cliff on Route 1 Pacific Coast Highway. This was the most scenic and the highlight of our road trip because every corner was simply breathtaking.
There are numerous spots along the drive where you can stop and park your car if you want to spend some time just to embrace the views. We could see some people even brought folding chairs and just sat by the cliff to watch the sunset.
9. Carmel By The Sea / Monterey
Finally after 9 hours on the road (including a 1 hour break we took in Solvang, 30 minutes at Morro Bay and several other stops for snacks and toilet breaks along the way) we had finally reach Monterey to spend the night at Intercontinental The Clement Monterey before continuing our drive to San Francisco. My review of the hotel can be found here.
Monterey – Cannery Row at Night
Intercontinental The Clement Monterey
Monterey is a town located in Monterey Peninsula neighboring to Pacific Grove, Carmel and world’s renowned PGA Golf Course at the Pebble Beach. The 17-mile drive along the Peninsula is very popular if you want to see the coastline of Monterey County.
The main attraction in Monterey is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and activities such as golfing, sailing, biking and wine tasting.We’re glad we got to spend the night in Monterey and after spending one night in this charming town, we drove straight to San Francisco for another 2-hour journey.
A two-hour drive doesn’t seem so bad anymore!
10. Santa Cruz
If you’re not tired of seeing the ocean by now, Santa Cruz is only a 1-hour drive away north of Monterey. Santa Cruz is a vibrant city home to redwood forests, beautiful coastlines, numerous outdoor activities and the University of California Santa Cruz. From Santa Cruz it will only take another 1 to 1.5 hour to reach San Francisco.
Santa Cruz Lighthouse (trover.com)
Santa Cruz Boardwalk at Night (hilton.com)
And…. FINALLY San Francisco!
Have you ever taken California Highway 1 before?