California has so many road trips around the giant state that it’s hard to pick out where you want to go when you feel like getting in the car. However, going on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip lets you see some of the best parts of the California coast and is one of my personal favorite drives to do when I’m in the state.
I’ve done this drive twice and have been to the Big Sur area multiple times, and I’m always happy to stop at all these beautiful stops on the San Francisco to San Diego drive. This is rare for me because many places that I visit, I don’t feel the need to go to again. However, how can you not want to go back to a drive that has some of the most photogenic places on the west coast?
To save you time, this article covers all the tips you need to know for driving from San Francisco to San Diego, gives you 13 of my favorite spots to stop, and has not one but three different itineraries to follow based on how much time you have.
Tips for a San Francisco to San Diego Drive
Before I get into the top stops and best itinerary for your San Francisco to San Diego road trip, I’m sure you’ve got a few questions.
Don’t worry; here are some answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding the road trip from San Francisco to San Diego.
Can You Drive From San Francisco to San Diego in a Day?
In short, yes, you can. If you take the direct route from San Francisco to San Diego along the I-5, you can get there in about 10 hours with stops and traffic.
However, I recommend taking the PCH route because you can break up the journey over a few days. This will allow you to stop at a few of sunny California’s top spots. The scenery along the PCH is especially breathtaking, which is enough reason to take this route over the I-5.
How Far is the San Francisco to San Diego Drive?
This journey’s distance on the I-5 is about 502 miles and should take 8 to 10 hours. Stops along the way include Santa Clarita and the “City of Angels” — Los Angeles.
On the other hand, the distance from San Francisco to San Diego on the PCH is about 531 miles. There are countless scenic towns, cities, and other stops along the way. Some of the most famous include Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Laguna Beach, Los Angeles, and Ventura.
Where to Fly Into and Out of for Your Trip
If you’d like to start your road trip in San Francisco, you’ll need to take a flight to the San Francisco International Airport, about 13 miles from the city center.
On the other hand, if you’re starting your drive from San Diego up to San Francisco, you’ll need to fly to the San Diego International Airport. The airport is about 2 miles from downtown San Diego.
Whichever city you depart or fly into, it’s easy to rent a car from one airport and drop it off at the other. It’s a pretty simple process. You can use the alternative pick-up and drop-off option when booking a rental car.
Tip: Book your flights and rental car well early for better deals. Also, consider peak season (usually summer), as prices tend to increase around this time.
San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Map
13 Stops on a San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip
It would be criminal not to make a few stops along the PCH while driving from San Francisco to San Diego, especially seeing that there are so many Instagrammable places along the way.
Deciding which places to visit and which to skip could be overwhelming. So I’ve rounded up some of the top places for you to have a stopover while embarking on this scenic journey. Note that you can also do this backward if you want to go on a San Diego to San Francisco road trip.
Tip: Check out my guide on the most captivating road trip captions for your Instagram posts.
1. San Francisco
San Francisco is a fantastic place to start your road trip (and your endpoint if you just completed a Seattle to San Francisco road trip!). There is so much to do in this vibrant city. It’s most famous for its picturesque views, unique attractions, and bustling food scene.
Here are a few places that are worth visiting while in the Bay Area:
- Golden Gate Bridge: This is the true symbol of San Francisco, so stopping here is an absolute must. There’s a visitor center with exhibitions and guided tours where you can learn more about the bridge’s history.
- Fisherman’s Wharf: Sits on San Francisco’s northern waterfront and is one of the most visited places in the city. Here you’ll find a wealth of souvenir shops and food stalls. It also provides some of the best views of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Alcatraz Island: Alcatraz is notorious for holding prisoners like Al Capone. It’s a great place to gain insight into some thrilling American history with a guided or self-guided audio tour, which you can do at your own pace.
- Golden Gate Park: This lovely open space is famous for its various gardens. It’s a beautiful place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Want to head north? You can also go on a Portland to San Francisco road trip.
2. Santa Cruz
Drive 75 miles from San Francisco, and you’ll get to the colorful city of Santa Cruz.
The most visited and iconic place here is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, sometimes called the Coney Island of the West. It’s one of the U.S.’s oldest amusement parks, with rides dating back to 1911.
Whether traveling with children or considering yourself a big kid, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is worth visiting for a memorable time.
After indulging in a world of fun, you can go down to Santa Cruz’s Pacific Avenue, where you’ll find numerous trendy eateries, galleries, and vintage clothing stores.
3. Monterey Bay
Traveling a short 42 miles southeast of Santa Cruz will take you to the lovely town of Monterey.
It’s most famous for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, ranked as one of the top aquariums in the U.S. If you’ve got a keen interest in the ocean and the creatures found in the Pacific Ocean, then this is a great place to visit.
It features over 35,000 animals in one of the largest ocean exhibits. From there, you can walk down to the Old Fisherman’s Grotto for a tasty lunch and Cannery Row for shopping.
If you visit in winter or late spring, you can take a whale-watching tour, where you’ll get to see humpback whales, dolphins, and even sea lions.
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Carmel-by-the-Sea lies just 4.2 miles south of Monterey and is one of my favorite stops on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip. On your way there, you can take the 17-Mile Drive, which passes the lovely Pebble Beach. This is quite a romantic stop, so you’ll love it when looking for a road trip for couples.
Carmel is a quaint beach city famous for its spectacular wineries, beaches, cafes, restaurants, and high-end boutiques. Another thing it’s quite well known for is its fairytale cottages that look like they’ve come straight out of a children’s book.
You can take a stroll and explore them with a self-guided walking tour. Carmel also has a bustling food scene, so if you have time, you can embark on a cultural and food walking tour to enjoy the best samples of Carmel’s chefs and food vendors.
Want another adventure? Head out on a Yosemite road trip from San Francisco.
5. Big Sur
Travel another 25.8 miles, and you’ll find yourself cruising along the rugged and mountainous area of Big Sur. Its coast stretches from Carmel to San Simeon and boasts steep cliffs with pretty dramatic views, and you’ll love going on a Big Sur road trip from San Francisco.
If you’ve searched for pictures of Big Sur, no doubt the Bixby Creek Bridge will have popped up. It’s one of the most photographed bridges in the U.S. and the perfect vantage point for stunning pictures.
You’ll also find the beautiful McWay Falls, which flows out into the Pacific, along with the stunning Pfeiffer Beach and Big Sur State Park.
For another fun San Francisco trip, go on a road trip from San Francisco to Las Vegas.
6. Hearst Castle
The next stretch from Big Sur to Hearst Castle is long, spanning around 170 miles, but it’s worth it. I did this stop last minute, but it was one of my favorite places to explore.
Hearst Castle is a national treasure. Built between 1919 and 1947, a walk through this stately home will make you feel like you’re exploring a castle in Europe. You can walk through its exquisite ballrooms, indoor pool, suites, and library, among other spaces, when you book a tour.
Outside, you can explore the stunning Neptune Pool, fountains, and courtyards. You’ll want to book at least one of the tours, if not more, when you come here to hear more about the history of the castle.
This is also a good spot on your trip to reassess your car organization hacks for road trips and clean up if needed.
Make sure to reserve your rental car ahead of time! I love using Discover Cars for my trips.
7. San Luis Obispo
If you continue another 42 miles, you’ll reach the halfway mark of your San Francisco to San Diego road trip — San Luis Obispo. This colorful city was started by Spanish settlers, and you can still see their influence in the way many buildings are built.
San Luis Obispo is also a wine lover’s heaven, as there are countless wineries within a short distance from the town. It’s perfect for wine tasting and lunch if you have time.
8. Pismo Beach
Once you’re done exploring, it’s time to make your way to gorgeous Pismo Beach. It lies 12 miles from San Luis Obispo. This stunning seaside city has some of the most magnificent scenery along the Pacific, with a long stretch of golden sand beaches.
Downtown Pismo Beach features a range of colorful buildings lining quaint streets. You’ll find numerous cafes and restaurants, as well as quirky shops. From there, you can make your way to the Pismo Beach Pier, where you can take in some lovely views of the sea.
It’s best to visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun colors the area with deep orange, pink, and purple hues when driving from San Diego to San Francisco.
53 miles south of Pismo Beach, you’ll find Solvang. It’s probably the most unique spot on this list because while every other place was a seaside city or town — Solvang gives you small slivers of Europe.
Solvang is a small town in the Santa Ynez Valley with a heavy Danish influence. It’s easily recognizable because of its European-style windmill and Danish architecture.
This charming town features the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, which explores Solvang’s Danish heritage through personal stories and photographs. You’ll also find the Solvang Vintage Motorcycle Museum, with numerous exhibits of classic American, Japanese, and European motorbikes.
10. Santa Barbara
After exploring the cute town of Solvang, 34 miles and 44 minutes later, you’ll find yourself in one of California’s most famous cities — Santa Barbara.
It’s often called the “American Riviera,” with its Mediterranean climate and deep turquoise waters. Santa Barbara offers many activities, including kayaking, food tours, and wine-tasting tours in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.
It’s also the gateway to the Channel Islands National Park, known for its rugged landscape and unbelievable views. If you have space on your itinerary, consider venturing to the park to enjoy activities like hiking.
11. Los Angeles
You’re edging ever closer to your final destination on your San Francisco to San Diego road trip. Next stop? The West Coast’s most famous city — Los Angeles. The drive from Santa Barbara to California is about 95 miles and takes about 1.5 hours.
There’s an endless list of things to do in LA, and you’ll need a lot of time here, but here are a few places you can visit:
- Hollywood Boulevard: This long strip of the walkway is world famous for having the names of the biggest actors imprinted on it.
- Rodeo Drive: This is one of the most famous places in California. While it is lined with expensive designer shops, walking down Rodeo Drive and soaking up the atmosphere is quite an experience.
- Hollywood Sign: This landmark is very hard to miss, so if you have time, hike up to it and take in the stunning views of L.A.
The city is also a jumping-off point for many other road trips if you want to extend your drive, so here are some ideas:
- LA to Joshua Tree road trip
- California to Arizona road trip
- LA to Grand Canyon drive
- Los Angeles to Yosemite road trip
- LA to Tahoe road trip
- Los Angeles to San Francisco road trip
12. Huntington Beach
Drive 39 miles south of Los Angeles, and you’ll get to the charming coastal city of Huntington Beach. It’s one of the top spots for surfers but has other attractions. You can visit the International Surfing Museum, where you’ll see all sorts of surfing memorabilia.
You can also hang out in Huntington Central Park, which features fields, gardens, lakes, and an equestrian center.
13. San Diego
506 miles later, and you’ve finally made it to San Diego! This is another city where you’ll need quite a bit of time, but here are a few places to add to your list:
- Coronado Island: Coronado sits near downtown San Diego but feels like a world away, even though a bridge connects it. You can hang out on the beach or explore the vintage shops for a laidback afternoon or evening.
- Sea World: This iconic waterpark has a range of activities and one of the largest aquariums where you can explore the creatures of the Pacific.
- Legoland California: A visit to Legoland promises thrills and fun times with over 60 rides and Lego-based activities. A must-visit if you’re a Lego geek.
San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Itinerary: 5 Days
There are many (almost too many) stops along the PCH, so here’s a rough overview of what you can expect.
Tip: To keep yourself and your friends entertained, why not test each other’s knowledge with fun road trip trivia questions?
Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz
Travel Distance: 1 hour 21 minutes (75,6 miles)
This itinerary is jam-packed with activities and stops. Luckily, most of the stops are close to each other, so you can spend a decent amount of time at each one.
Kickstart your road trip off bright and early in San Francisco. Select a few attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Alcatraz Island to maximize time.
From there, make a stop at Half Moon Bay for lunch and a walk on the beach, as it’s only 29 miles from San Francisco. From Half Moon Bay, you’ll drive another hour before reaching Santa Cruz — your first overnight stop.
Where to Stay: The Hilton Santa Cruz Scotts Valley is just minutes away from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (rates start at $162 per night).
Day 2: Santa Cruz to Carmel
Travel Distance: 50 minutes (46,1 miles)
The distance between Santa Cruz and Carmel-by-the-Sea is short, meaning more time for exploring. Again, I recommend starting the day early and heading to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk after breakfast.
After that, take a stroll down Santa Cruz Avenue. From there, go to Monterey Bay for lunch at the Fisherman’s Grotto and explore the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Then make your way down to your next overnight stop, Carmel-by-the-Sea, by taking the scenic 17-Mile Drive, passing Pebble Beach along the way.
Where to Stay: Carmel Mission is a stunning hotel only 3 miles from the city center (rates start at $193 per night).
Day 3: Big Sur to San Luis Obispo
Travel Distance: 2 hours 53 minutes (169,9 miles)
This is one of the longest stretches on the journey, so again, start early to do the trip in good time.
Big Sur is only 25.8 miles from Carmel-by-the-Sea, which is excellent, seeing that you will only spend a little time traveling. From there, check out the Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls, and hang out at Pfeiffer Beach.
You can stop at Hearst Castle from there or shoot straight to San Luis Obispo.
Where to Stay: Quality Suite Downtown San Luis Obispo sits in the heart of SLO and is near many attractions (rates start at $184 per night).
Day 4: San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara
Travel Distance: 1 hour 36 minutes (94,3 miles)
This is another relatively short journey. After exploring the morning in San Luis Obispo, head to the gorgeous Pismo Beach for lunch and a walk down to the Pismo Beach Pier.
From there, stop at the Danish-inspired town, Solvang, for a change of scenery from coastal views. Next, make the short 33-mile drive from Solvang to sunny Santa Barbara for your last overnight stay.
Where to Stay: Hotel Santa Barbara features Spanish Flair and is only a few miles away from downtown (rates start at $244 per night).
Day 5: Santa Barbara to San Diego
Travel Distance: 3 hours 48 minutes (216,9 miles)
The last leg of the journey is the longest. After an early start, you’ll travel 1.5 hours to Los Angeles, where you’ll most likely want to spend a lot of time. If not, along the way, you can make brief stops in the stunning coastal cities of Ventura, Laguna Beach, and Malibu for some quick sightseeing.
From there, stop over in Huntington Beach. This will be your last pitstop; from there, it’s another 1.5 hours to San Diego. And voila – just like that, five days are complete.
Where to Stay: The Guild Hotel is a gorgeous 4-star hotel in the heart of the city center (rates start at $199 per night).
San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Itinerary: 3 Days
For a shorter 3-day itinerary, follow this guide:
- Day 1: San Francisco – Carmel-by-the-Sea (121 miles)
- Day 2: Carmel by the Sea – Santa Barbara (239 miles)
- Day 3: Santa Barbara – San Diego (218 miles)
San Francisco to San Diego Road Trip Itinerary: 7 Days
For a longer itinerary, try this one:
- Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz (75,6 miles)
- Day 2: Santa Cruz to Carmel (46,1 miles)
- Day 3: Big Sur to San Luis Obispo (69,9 miles)
- Day 4: San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara (94,3 miles)
- Day 5: Santa Barbara to Los Angeles (95 miles)
- Day 6: Los Angeles to Huntington Beach (36 miles)
- Day 7: Huntington Beach to San Diego (92 miles)
However long you spend on your trip, you’ll love going on a San Francisco to San Diego road trip!