7 scenic stops on a California road trip from San Francisco

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Embark on a California road trip through stunning landscapes and coastal towns, from the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the sunny shores of San Diego. As you hug the scenic Pacific Coast, there are several enchanting stops to explore.

A rocky beach with yellow flowers along the California Coast between San Francisco and San Diego.
Photo credit: YayImages.

San Francisco

San Francisco is the quintessential starting point for a California road trip. The City by the Bay is a melting pot of cultural diversity, iconic landmarks and culinary delights. From the bustling piers of Fisherman’s Wharf to the bohemian streets of Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco’s neighborhoods offer a mosaic of experiences. Food enthusiasts will revel in the city’s gastronomic offerings, including being the birthplace of sourdough bread and fortune cookies.

Recommended sights and experiences in San Francisco:

  • Golden Gate Park: Explore a green oasis amidst urban hustle.
  • Cable cars: Take a ride through the city’s rolling hills.
  • Chinatown: Experience one of the largest Asian cultural enclaves in the U.S.
  • Mission District: Admire colorful murals and browse one-of-a-kind boutiques.
  • Golden Gate Bridge: Snap photos of this world-famous landmark.

Santa Cruz

Just over an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz offers the classic California coastal vibe. Known for its youthful spirit and surfing culture, Santa Cruz is a tapestry of experiences for the adventurous and those seeking a laid-back ambiance. Vegetarian eateries and vintage stores dot the town, energized by a palpable surf-city pulse and the vibrant presence of students and skateboarders from the nearby University of California Santa Cruz.

Recommended sights and experiences in Santa Cruz:

  • Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Enjoy a traditional seaside amusement park with vintage rides and games.
  • West Cliff Drive: Take in picturesque views.
  • Natural Bridges State Reserve: Marvel at stunning natural scenery and watch surfers.

“The drive from San Francisco to San Diego is one of my favorites. There are many great stops along the way, whether you want to stretch your legs for an hour or spend the night.”

— Robin Donovan, All Ways Delicious
During a California road trip, a sea otter can be seen peacefully floating in the water.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Monterey

As you cruise down Highway 1, your next California road trip stop is Monterey. Immortalized by John Steinbeck in his novel “Cannery Row,” Monterey is a nexus of culture, history and marine beauty. At the heart of Monterey’s allure is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It breathes life into Steinbeck’s tales and serves as a sanctuary for rescued sea otters and other marine animals. Nearby, Old Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row blend the thrill of whale-watching and sea lion sightings with a taste of history, modern boutiques and seafront dining.

Recommended sights and experiences in Monterey:

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: Dive into a world-class marine experience.
  • Cannery Row: Discover a blend of literary history and contemporary charm.
  • Old Fisherman’s Wharf: Ideal for spotting sea lions and embarking on whale-watching tours.

San Luis Obispo

Located in the heart of California’s Central Coast, San Luis Obispo, affectionately known as SLO, is a delightful blend of cultural richness and scenic beauty. This charming college town radiates a relaxed vibe, perfect for those seeking a leisurely pace on their California road trip. SLO’s downtown area is a picturesque scene of old-world architecture, housing an array of boutique shops and emerging stars in the craft beverage scene. 

Recommended sights and experiences in San Luis Obispo:

  • Downtown charm: Stroll through historic streets lined with unique shops and cafes.
  • Craft beverage scene: Sample locally-produced wines and artisanal brews.
  • Madonna Inn: Experience the whimsy of this iconic, vibrantly decorated inn.
  • Tri-tip barbecue: Savor this local culinary specialty at a renowned eatery like Old San Luis Barbecue Company.

Solvang

The charm of old-world Europe meets the Californian landscape in this quaint village in the Santa Ynez Valley. Founded by Danish settlers, Solvang is a delightful escape that transports visitors to the streets of Denmark, complete with windmills, Danish bakeries and traditional architecture. Stroll through the town for delicious European-inspired eateries and impressive handcrafted goods. Solvang’s authentic bakeries are a must-visit, offering tasty treats like butter cookies and kringles. You’ll also want to explore the local wine scene.

Recommended sights and experiences in Solvang:

  • Danish architecture: Marvel at the authentic windmills and half-timbered houses.
  • Bakeries and eateries: Indulge in traditional Danish pastries to balance out your healthy road trip snacks.
  • Wine tasting: Sample exquisite wines from the Santa Ynez Valley.
  • Cultural attractions: Visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and enjoy Danish theatrical performances.

Santa Barbara

Cradled between the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains and the glistening Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara offers an idyllic setting for relaxation and exploration. Affectionately known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara captivates visitors with its Mediterranean-style architecture, pristine beaches and vibrant arts scene. With its white stucco buildings and red-tile roofs, Santa Barbara’s downtown area is a hub of activity, featuring boutique shops, fine dining and cultural institutions. 

Recommended sights and experiences in Santa Barbara:

  • Mission Santa Barbara: Explore this iconic landmark and its beautiful grounds.
  • Urban Wine Trail: Sip your way through local wineries and tasting rooms.
  • Beaches: Relax or play at the city’s stunning beaches, from the bustling East Beach to the serene Butterfly Beach.
  • Downtown: Wander through lively streets filled with shops, restaurants and art galleries.
A sign marking the end of the iconic Route 66 road trip in Santa Monica.
Photo credit: YayImages.

Santa Monica

A breezy stop in Santa Monica infuses your California road trip with seaside glamour. This iconic beach city blends laid-back beach vibes with upscale sophistication, boasting the famous Santa Monica Pier and marking the celebrated end of legendary Route 66. The pier’s historic amusement park promises endless family fun, while the adjacent Third Street Promenade beckons shoppers with its eclectic mix of stores and lively street performers. The wide, sandy beaches of Santa Monica are perfect for relaxation, offering a picturesque backdrop for oceanfront activities.

Recommended sights and experiences in Santa Monica:

  • Santa Monica Pier: Enjoy classic amusement park rides, including the Pacific Wheel, against a stunning ocean backdrop.
  • Third Street Promenade: Shop and dine in this bustling outdoor shopping district.
  • Santa Monica Beach: Stretch out on the expansive sands or catch a volleyball game.
  • Palisades Park: Stroll through this scenic park with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis that epitomizes the California dream. It adds an eclectic mix of sun-drenched beaches, iconic landmarks and a pulsating cultural scene to your California road trip. As the world’s entertainment capital, LA is home to some of the world’s biggest stars and Hollywood hopefuls working hard to pursue their dreams. Beyond its glitz and glamor, Los Angeles boasts an array of outdoor activities, from hiking to surfing. The city’s diverse neighborhoods offer endless culinary adventures, from gourmet dining to authentic street tacos. 

Recommended sights and experiences in Los Angeles:

  • Hollywood Walk of Fame: Stroll among the stars on this famous sidewalk.
  • Griffith Observatory: Enjoy panoramic views of the city.
  • Venice Beach: Experience the eclectic vibe of this beachfront community.
  • The Getty Center: Explore world-class art in a stunning architectural setting.
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA): Immerse yourself in the largest art museum in the western United States.

San Diego

Your California road trip ends in San Diego, where pristine beaches and 365 days of nearly perfect weather await. The city is renowned for attractions like the world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, the historic USS Midway Museum and the picturesque Gaslamp Quarter. San Diego’s diverse neighborhoods offer an array of culinary delights, from fresh seafood on the waterfront to authentic Mexican cuisine in Old Town. 

Recommended sights and experiences in San Diego:

  • Balboa Park: Wander through this vast cultural park, home to museums, gardens and the San Diego Zoo.
  • USS Midway Museum: Step aboard this historic aircraft carrier for a glimpse into naval history.
  • Gaslamp Quarter: Dive into the heart of San Diego’s nightlife and dining scene.
  • La Jolla Cove: Snorkel in crystal-clear waters or simply enjoy the ocean views.
  • Old Town San Diego: Experience the history and flavors of San Diego’s Mexican heritage.

Making memories along the Pacific

As your California road trip from San Francisco ends in San Diego, the winding curves of Highway 1 and the scenic stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway are sure to create a montage of unforgettable moments — from the bustling energy of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to the serene sunsets of Laguna Beach

Sage Scott was bitten by the travel bug as a preschooler when her family moved abroad for the first time. Now settled in America’s Heartland, Sage is a travel writer, world wanderer and photographer whose favorite color is golden hour.

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