San Diego to San Francisco Road Trip – 9 Days on the California Coast

categories: Central Coast, Northern California, Southern California

I was challenged recently with what I would recommend for people to see and do on a week-long road trip from San Diego to San Francisco with a weekend on either side. That is not an easy challenge. Let’s get it out of the way right now that you won’t see everything that California can offer. I am going to skip the deserts and most of the national parks. But I can promise some amazing cities, some great food, some California wine and some great scenery along the way.

Pismo Beach - California's Central Coast

Pismo Beach – California’s Central Coast

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How far is it from San Diego to San Francisco

It is a little over 500 miles or 800 km from San Diego to San Francisco on the fastest route which is Interstate 5. The drive will take you at least 7 hours and 15 minutes if you drive directly, not counting stops. And you should absolutely not do it. The fastest way is up the Central Valley of California which is hot and not at all scenic from the Grapevine to Tracy. That is the route to take if you want to get there but don’t have time to see anything along the way. I am going to take you up the coast instead. It will be longer, but we will break it up into shorter drives.

Friday Night – San Diego

I am assuming with this itinerary that you are flying into San Diego on Friday and won’t have a lot of time to do something the day you arrive. If you arrive before dinner time there are two great San Diego spots that are near the airport and can be a great option for your first evening. So pick up your rental car and head to Old Town or Little Italy.

Old Town San Diego, San Diego, California (27)

Old Town

The heart of old Spanish San Diego can be seen in Old Town which bills itself as the birthplace of California. It is the first place that Europeans settled in what is now the state of California. The Spanish founded the presidio (fort) on May 14, 1769. No original structures still stand from the presidio but the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park preserves buildings from the 1800s. This part of town is also filled with the sound of mariachi bands and has an assortment of Mexican restaurants. The busiest day of the year to visit Old Town is Cinco de Mayo.

If you stay near Old Town, one option for getting around is to leave your car parked and take the Old Town Hop-on Hop-off Trolley. The trolly stops at Old Town, the Maritime Museum & Star of India, the Embarcadero Marina near the USS Midway Museum, Seaport Village, the Marina, Horton Plaza Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park, Barrio Logan, Coronado, Balboa Park, and Little Italy.

Welcome to Little Italy, San Diego!

Little Italy

Little Italy in San Diego is all of 2-3 blocks long. The best day of the year to visit Little Italy is Columbus Day when the streets fill with food carts, chalk art, and bands, but any night in Little Italy is festive. My favorite spot for dinner is Filippi’s Pizza Grotto. The food is good and very reasonably priced. Kids will love it also. This restaurant is a San Diego institution.

Where to Stay in San Diego

Just up the hill from Old Town are a number of Victorian-style buildings that were relocated to Heritage Park when the freeways were built. One of these is the Heritage Park Inn which is a lovely B&B. There are also some lovely Airbnb options in the same neighborhood. If you are looking for a budget hotel, there are a number of options in nearby Hotel Circle. For people who want to sample the nightlife then I would recommend the Gaslamp Quarter instead. Of course, if you are looking for a luxury beach stay then you might think of the classic Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island.


Booking.com

Saturday – San Diego

If you want a beach day in California, this will be one of your best options. I would recommend Pacific Beach if you are looking for a great California beach town vibe or Coronado Beach on Coronado Island.

If instead, you are a “see as much as possible” kind of person then the Go San Diego City Pass can save you money. This pass can get you into 55+ attractions including some of the best like the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Birch Aquarium, and the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier. It also includes bike rentals, kayak rentals, stand-up paddleboard rentals, or surfboard rentals. It even includes entrance to Knott’s Berry Farm further north.

LEGOLAND and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park I am saving for Sunday as they are between San Diego and Los Angeles. The San Diego Zoo is world-class but I think the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is even better so you might skip it unless you have the pass.

San Diego has a great maritime connection so consider the tour of the USS Midway if you are a history buff.

Mkhaya - San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Sunday – San Diego

We have saved LEGOLAND or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for Sunday as you drive north. If you have young kids LEGOLAND may be the place for you but don’t underestimate the Safari Park. This is as close as many people will get to an African safari as you get in a vehicle and head out into a scaled-down savanna.

If neither park appeals to you there are other things to do in north county San Diego including seeing the Cardiff flower fields.

Sunday Night – Anaheim or Los Angeles

Sunday night complete your drive to the LA area. Where you stay will depend on what you plan to do in LA for a couple of days. If you promised the kids or your sweetie that you would take them to Disneyland then stay near the park for both Sunday and Monday night. Plan on getting a good night sleep and being in the park for the rope drop when it opens in the morning. Get your tickets ahead of time to minimize your time spent in line.


Booking.com

If you are not visiting Disneyland then you have some options for where to base yourself in Los Angeles. Downtown Los Angeles is most centrally located for many of the other LA sites and has a more interesting nightlife these days.

Although if you plan on spending the whole day at LEGOLAND, you could just plan on getting as far as Newport Beach or Long Beach and not fight the traffic all the way back to LA on a Sunday night. Both Newport Beach and Long Beach are great beach towns with some nice restaurants on the harbor.

Disneyland

Monday – Los Angeles

If you plan to see Disneyland then today is your day. While I prefer a couple of days at the park, you can see and do a lot in one day. I prefer a park hopper pass so you can visit both Disneyland and California Adventure which are adjacent. I intentionally planned this day for a non-weekday when the crowds will be smaller, but if you are visiting Disneyland during the holidays then prepare for long lines.

If you are not seeing Disneyland on this trip and it is your first time getting to Los Angeles then I would recommend spending some time learning the movie business. You can and should get to Hollywood, but that part of town is not the most interesting. I would recommend a studio tour instead. If you have teenagers who love rollercoasters then you can do Universal Studios which is both a theme park and a movie set. While I love Universal, I also love the Paramount Studios tour or the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. Fun fact, my son proposed on the Warner Brothers Studio Tour on the set for Gilmore Girls.

Los Angeles also has a Go Los Angeles pass which will allow you access to a 40+ attractions. Interestingly, some of the attractions included are San Deigo attractions like the San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND, so if you are not doing Disneyland on this trip you might want to get this pass and use it starting on the weekend. It includes Six Flags Magic Mountain (north of LA for real rollercoaster fans), the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, the Santa Monica Pier, the Sony Pictures Studio Tour, the Queen Mary in Long Beach, the La Brea Tar Pits, celebrity home tours and more.

Tuesday – Los Angeles

There are lots of things to do in Los Angeles that we have written about elsewhere.

This is your second and last best day for a beach option as the water will get colder as we head north. I like the beach at Manhattan Beach or one of the neighboring towns or the beach town of Santa Monica.

If I had to pick a perfect Los Angeles day I would consider the La Brae Tarpits, lunch at the Grand Central Market downtown, or the Original Farmers Market. And then I would do a walking tour of one of LA’s more interesting neighborhoods or better yet a food tour.

For great ideas what to do downtown listen to Travel to Los Angeles, California – Amateur Traveler Episode 624

Wednesday – Central Coast

Most of the driving we will do will happen over the next two days as we get from Los Angeles to Monterey. The total trip is about 5 and a quarter hours not counting stops so we will have time to stop along the way. On Wednesday I am planning that you will get from LA to around San Luis Obispo or about 3 hours of driving.

Along the way, there are 4 places I would recommend you stop depending on your interests. I would suggest you pick at least 2.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is a beautiful city on a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea. It can be a great spot to stop and see one of California’s missions or to take a boat cruise or just enjoy the shoreline. You are never far from it in Santa Barbara. It is not always the best spot to enjoy a beach as there are often tar balls on the beach in this area because of offshore oil. Did you know you can get oil off your feet by dissolving it with lighter fluid? I did not know that until a visit to this area.

Solvang

Santa Ynez Valley

Santa Ynez Valley is one of California’s many wine regions. You can exit highway 101 at Santa Barbara to get on highway 154 over the hills to the valley. The Santa Ynez Valley has a number of nice wineries, most of which have a tasting room. You will have an option for more wine on Thursday so let your plans for Thursday inform your decision to stop on Wednesday. The area was featured in the movie Sideways (2004). If you are a BBQ fan this part of California (from here to Santa Maria) is known for its tri-tip.

The Santa Ynez Valley is also the home to Solvang which is a Danish community. You should at least stop long enough to take pictures of some of the windmills, but I would also recommend picking up something in one of the Danish bakeries. I am half Danish and not a huge fan of Danish cooking but a big fan of Danish baking.

Pismo Beach Sunset

Pismo Beach

For a road trip, you should consider a stop at Pismo Beach. Pismo Beach is the only beach in California where you can drive on the beach. You can enter the beach from the Oceano Beach Access on Pier Avenue in Oceano.

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo has another one of the best-preserved of the California Missions and a lovely downtown, although I don’t love the parking situation there.

Wednesday Night

On Thursday you are going to have to make a choice. Do you want to drive the beautiful California Highway 1 or do you want to see more of California’s great wineries and hike in some caves at a National Park? If you choose the Coast and Castle option then spend the night in Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, or San Luis Obispo. The quirkiest hotel in the San Luis Obispo area is the Mount Madonna Inn where no two rooms are the same. Morro Bay and Pismo will give you a chance to stay within the sound of the breakers.

If you choose the Pinot and Pinnacles option below then spend the night in Paso Robles but plan on getting to the area by around 3 pm so that you can enjoy some of the wines in this up and coming wine region. The area is known for its Pinot Noir and tasting fees are much cheaper than in Napa or Sonoma (think $5 not $20). I would suggest Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ in the cute downtown near the Downtown City Park.

Thursday – Central Coast to Monterey

Read more about both options in Things to do on a Central Coast of California Road Trip – Pinnacles, Parks, Pinot, and Paddling.

Option 1 – Coast and Castle

If you want to drive the most quintessential California coastal route, Highway 1 through Big Sur is the route for you. We are driving it south to north so that you are a bit further from the cliffs on this scenic drive.

Sea Otters Morro Bay

Morro Bay

If you stay in Morro Bay and make an early start you might be able to get out on the Bay for a very sheltered sea kayak paddle. This is one of the easiest places in the world to try sea kayaking for the first time because the water is usually pretty flat. Watch for sea Otters.

Hearst’s Castle – San Simeon

William Randolph Hearst built one of the most impressive mansions in the U.S. high on the hills above the town of San Simeon. The complex is now known as Hearst’s Castle.  It is worth a stop but don’t even bother to stop unless you have advanced reservations.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

It only takes a few minutes to stop and see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas as it is right off Highway 1. The shot above was taken in May when the beach was filled with seals including young males doing mock battles.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Take a stop at Pfeiffer Big Sur and take the short hike up to the Pfeiffer waterfall in this great California state park.

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park

Option 2 – Pinot and Pinnacles

Pinnacles National Park

You had a chance to try the wine near Paso Robles last night and we will stop at at least one more winery this afternoon, but first, you will drive to Pinnacles National Park near Soledad. There is no point in heading this way unless you want to go for a hike. Pinnacles gets warm in the summer months so bring water and get there as early as your schedule permits. Also, bring a flashlight because I am going to recommend the Balconies Cave Loop (2.4-mile) which will take you through a series of caves. The caves are harder to access in spring when they can flood. Central California gets no rain from roughly May to October so the caves will be dry at that time.

Santa Lucia Highlands

Also near Soledad are about 100 wineries in the hills west of the city. These are known as the Santa Lucia Highlands. I recommend a stop at Hahn Family Winery or at one of the smaller wineries on Aroyo Secco Rd west of Greenfield.

Monterey California

Thursday Night Monterey Penninsula

I am going to recommend one night in the Monterey Penninsula area. This is one of my favorite parts of California, but we only have so much time on this itinerary.

There are some (not many) Hotels on the Beach on the Monterey Peninsula from Carmel to Marina. There are some nice hotels in Downtown Monterey or cheaper hotels on Alverado or Fremont Avenue. I personally love staying at one of the B&Bs in Pacific Grove like the Centrella or the Martine Inn but those are harder to book for a one night stay.


Booking.com

Friday – Monterey

There are 2 things you should see in Monterey if you only have one day there.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Since it’s openingm the Monterey Bay Aquarium has quickly become the premier attraction in the area. It is a world-class aquarium even if you think you are someone who does not like aquariums. My favorite spots are the great big kelp forest tank, the otters, and the jellyfish.

Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

Monterey Bay Coastal Trail

The other attraction that deserves your attention is free. The Monterey Bay Coastal Trail runs along the coast across the length of Pacific Grove, Monterey, and on north to Seaside and Marina. It includes Lover’s Point, Cannery Row (and the aquarium), and Fisherman’s Wharf. You can rent a bike or a surrey or just walk it and take the time to look for otters, watch the harbor seals and sea lions.

Some people would recommend the lovely 17 Mile Drive instead, but it is the same gorgeous coastline without the entrance fee. However, if you want to see mansions and golf courses like Pebble Beach then you might do 17 Mile Drive instead.

Friday Night – San Francisco

I would suggest getting to San Francisco Friday night and spending Friday and Saturday night there. San Francisco hotels are not cheap or at least be suspicious when they are and check the reviews carefully. I would recommend staying near Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf.

Many hotels downtown will charge something like $40 a day for parking. Driving in the city can be challenging and parking is even harder so you may just want to turn in your rental car as you get to the city and get around as the locals do by Uber and public transportation. The only reason to have a car in San Francisco is to drive down Lombard Street. Union Square connects to the ariport via BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).


Booking.com

Golden Gate Bridge

Saturday – San Francisco

If you are flying out Sunday then you have one full day in San Francisco. This probably is a day to focus on the best of San Francisco. If you have more time I would love to steer you to some of San Francisco’s hidden gems.

If I only had one day in the city, I would ride a cable car, watch a street performer on the stage at Pier 39 (and see the sea lions), eat something like a walk away shrimp cocktail at Fisherman’s wharf and walk out on the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco has the San Francisco CityPass. It lets you get into 4 of the top 6 attractions:

  • California Academy of Sciences
  • Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure
  • Aquarium of the Bay   OR   The Walt Disney Family Museum
  • Exploratorium   OR   San Francisco Zoo & Gardens

The California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium are two of my favorite hands-on science museums. I also love the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure which does a sightseeing cruise around the bay. But… I think this pass might work better for a longer stay.

San Francisco

I could make an argument that history buffs should prioritize getting a tour of Alcatraz Island instead. This legendary prison has some great views of San Francisco and the tour is one of my favorites. Make a reservation weeks in advance.

If the Giants are playing and you are a baseball fan, then I would argue that Oracle Park is one of the best ballparks in the U.S. and you should definitely take in a game. Get the cheap seats up in view level where you can see the bay. Have a Cha-Cha bowl or the tri-tip from Orlando Cepeda’s “Orlando’s BBQ”.

If you are a foodie then you might think about a food tour. North Beach which is the old Italian Neighborhood or Mission which is the original neighborhood of San Francisco and the home of Mission Delores are both great places for sampling the local fare.

Sunday – San Francisco

Our trip is starting to wind down. Depending on when you are leaving you may have another day in the city. You have not yet seen Golden Gate Park where my two favorite sites are the California Academy of Sciences and the Japanese Tea Garden. Or you can take the optional suggestions (Alcatraz, Oracle Park, or a food tour).

We talk about other suggestions of things to do in San Francisco in this episode of the Amateur Traveler podcast: Travel to San Francisco, California – Episode 622.

Other popular side-trips from San Francisco are Muir Woods or the Napa or Sonoma wine region, but I would probably not add them on until I had at least 2 full days in the city.

Lover's Point Pacific Grove

Lover’s Point Pacific Grove

Conclusion

The more time you have in California the better. California is a stunning state with rain forests in the north and deserts in the south. It has the highest spot in the lower 48 states at Mount Whitney and the lowest spot in nearby Death Valley. It has the tallest trees in the world (Coastal Redwood), the largest trees in the world (Sequoia Redwood), and the oldest trees in the world (Bristle Cone Pine). It has the tallest waterfall in the continental U.S. in Yosemite. It has active volcanos (Lassen National Park). It has 10% of the population of the USA. If California were a separate nation, it would have the world’s 5th largest economy because of the strength of its agriculture, high tech, and entertainment industries.

You can’t possibly see all that California has to offer in 9 days. But, 9 days is long enough to fall in love with the Golden State.

San Diego to San Francisco Road Trip - 9 Days on the California Coast #california #travel #trip #vacation #road-trip #san-diego #los-angeles #san-francisco #monterey #wine #itinerary #planning #tips

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast, and a co-host for This Week in Travel podcast.

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