I may be biased, but I think California has the best road trips in the world. A state with nine national parks, 280 state parks, 840 miles of coastline, and the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range is hard to beat.
And among many great options, the LA to San Francisco road trip is my favorite. This route is full of charming small towns, hundreds of excellent wineries, and dramatic coastal views. But what makes it even better are the two cities that anchor this route; Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each city is so different, but both are worth a few days of exploration. Put it all together and you’ll experience California at its best.
Jason and I just returned from our LA to San Francisco road trip and did it in seven days. I wouldn’t recommend anything shorter, but you could keep busy along this route for two to three weeks if time permits. And the beauty of California is that this route is enjoyable all year long, though prices are typically lower and crowds less outside the summer season.
Start In Los Angeles
We began our trip with one night in Los Angeles, which didn’t give us much time to explore. But since we live nearby we have the privilege of visiting this city any time. If you’re new to LA, I definitely recommend two to three nights.
For this trip we stayed downtown, one of our favorite sections of LA. We immediately headed to Grand Central Market to pig out on food and beer. The market originally opened in 1917 as the largest public market on the West Coast. In 2013 it underwent a revitalization and has since become one of the city’s most interesting and successful food halls. I love the international offerings including Filipino, Thai, Mexican, Japanese, and El Salvadoran food. This time we enjoyed food from Tacos Tumbras A Tomas, Sari Sari Store, and Sticky Rice. All of it went down well with beer from Golden Road Brewery.
We opted to stay at the Omni Hotel which I definitely recommend. It’s a lovely hotel and conveniently located within walking distance of some of our favorite museums and restaurants. It also has the added advantage of being near Angel’s Flight--the world’s shortest funicular. We hopped on Angels Flight to and from Grand Central Market. The cost is just $1 per person per ride.
Downtown LA is home to The Broad Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and the DTLA Arts District. So if you enjoy art, this part of the city is a real gem. Nearby you’ll find the California Science Center and the Natural History Museum.
Lunch in Santa Barbara
Jason and I try to stop in Santa Barbara anytime we are driving north, so for this trip we decided to leave Los Angeles in the late morning and stop in our favorite seaside town for lunch. Depending on traffic, this trip will take about two hours.
Santa Barbara is a medium-sized coastal town famous for its red tiled roofs and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. It’s home to University of California Santa Barbara, and well known for its excellent resorts and restaurants.
Typically when we visit Santa Barbara we head to the water, but this time we wanted to explore the Funk Zone--a former industrial area that is now home to a neighborhood filled with wine-tasting rooms, cafes, restaurants, and boutique shops. Colorful murals decorate large cement walls and most of the restaurants feature expansive outdoor dining spaces. We grabbed lunch at The Nook, a beer at Lama Dog Tap Room, and sat outside on their patio. Afterwards we shopped and then enjoyed coffee in the garden at Dart Coffee Co.
Overnight in San Luis Obispo
We opted to spend our first night in San Luis Obispo, about an hour and a half north of Santa Barbara. Along the way we stopped in Los Olivos, a tiny town made famous by the 2004 movie, Sideways. There are over thirty wine-tasting rooms in Los Olivos, so this would make an excellent stop for wine lovers. We weren’t in the mood for wine-tasting, so we strolled the main street of town and then continued our road trip.
San Luis Obispo is a medium-sized town located about twenty minutes from the coast. It was founded in 1772 when Father Junipero Serra built the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The downtown is a collection of mostly brick buildings, many of them well preserved. While there are your usual chain stores, the downtown also houses boutique shops, cafes, and many good restaurants.
Our accommodations, Granada Hotel & Bistro, turned out to be our favorite of this trip. Located in a former brothel built in 1922, this red brick building has been beautifully refurbished as a boutique hotel. Check in included a glass of rosé which is a great start to any stay. The rooms are small, but perfectly decorated with period furniture. Continental breakfast is also included.
Since our hotel was located in the heart of downtown, walking to dinner was a breeze. We ate at Novo Restaurant which we selected in part for their location next to the creek that runs through a portion of downtown. Eating dinner outside on the deck as the sun set was perfect. This was my third time at Novo, and I definitely recommend them for any meal of the day. The menu offers a large selection of items and the prices are reasonable.
The next morning I browsed through downtown while Jason got some work done. I strolled along the creek, popped into the Mission, and enjoyed a cup of coffee at Scout Coffee Co. Then it was time to check out of the hotel and continue our journey.
While we opted to head to the coast, another option for this trip is to head to Paso Robles, just thirty minutes northeast of SLO. Since we had just visited Paso two months ago, we didn’t do this, but I highly recommend this small town for good food and great wine.
Morro Bay and San Simeon State Park
There were two parts of Morro Bay that we wanted to explore--the state park and the small town. We began at Morro Bay State Park, famous for its estuary, home to 240 species of birds. There’s a short boardwalk through the wetlands that allows visitors to get a closer view of the birds and their nesting grounds without damaging the ecosystem. The boardwalk is also a nice option for strollers, wheelchairs, or anyone looking for an easy and accessible walk.
Kayaking is a popular activity in Morro Bay State Park, and normally Jason and I love to explore in this manner. However, we hadn’t allowed enough time for this, so we will have to do it next time. Rentals are available through Kayak Shack.
Next we drove into the tiny town of Morro Bay to view the famous Morro rock. This 576 foot tall rock was formed about 23 million years ago from the plugs of long-extinct volcanoes. For many years it served as a navigational tool for sailors and fishermen. It’s easy to view from anywhere along the waterfront. The town is very touristy with plenty of t-shirt shops, candy stores, and seafood restaurants. After getting the requisite pictures, we decided to move on.
From Morro Bay we headed north on Highway One, one of the most scenic routes in California, and possibly the country. We’ve done portions of this drive many times, and just never get tired of it.
Our first stop along Highway One was the Elephant Seal Rookery, located on the north end of San Simeon Beach State Beach. I appreciate that the park has placed plenty of signs directing visitors to the rookery viewpoint so it’s easy to find if you want to stop here. And you’ll know you’re in the right place when you get out of your car and hear the loud barking noises of the seals.
Unlike harbor seals with their cute, pointy faces, elephant seals appear to have a short trunk-like appendage on their face (they won’t win any beauty contests). They are massive creatures ranging in weight from 1,000-5,000 pounds. The males can be quite aggressive as you’ll likely see while observing them. You cannot approach the beach since it’s protected for the seals, but there are walkways above that offer excellent viewing. There is typically a docent on site to answer questions about the seals.
Drive Along Highway One in Big Sur
Big Sur isn’t a city or town, but a 90 mile stretch of California coast ranging from San Simeon to Carmel. After viewing the seals we were ready for lunch so we stopped at the first place we saw, Ragged Point Inn & Resort. This rustic looking resort has a drop dead gorgeous view of the ocean which isn’t obvious from the road or parking lot. But get out of the car and walk towards the ocean and be prepared to be impressed. We grabbed sandwiches and sat outside enjoying the view and beautiful weather. In addition to accommodations this resort offers a dining room, espresso bar, sandwich stand, and convenience store.
Along Highway One through Big Sur there are dozens of viewpoints to explore. I recommend stopping whenever you feel like it. We stopped at one viewpoint and walked the short trail down to the ocean. The waves crashed noisily on the rocks while the wind was whipping through our hair. But despite all the cars racing by on the highway, we had this gorgeous setting to ourselves. We took a few photos, enjoyed the beauty and returned to our car.
Our next stop was McWay Falls, probably the most popular and crowded spot in Big Sur. Even if you’re never been to these falls, you’ve seen them in photos. A slender waterfall plunges onto the sand of a secluded cove. As waterfalls go, this one isn’t that impressive, but the entire scene is beautiful. This cove is protected so it’s only possible to view it from above along the Overlook Trail which begins in the parking lot. The parking lot for the falls is located across the highway and fills up quickly. Currently they charge $10 per car and only accept cash. Since we didn’t have any cash we found a free spot along the highway instead--just be careful when getting in and out of your car.
Our final stop in Big Sur was at the Big Sur River Inn, and boy what a delightful find this was! Behind this inn is a river that ranges from rushing rapids to a small trickle depending on the season. In the summer when the water level is low dozens of wood adirondack chairs are placed in the river amongst the rocks. Visitors are welcome to sit, relax, and watch the kids and dogs playing in the water. Or do what we did and grab a cocktail at the stand just above the river. I later learned the inn is famous for their apple pie which we will have to sample next time.
We’ve been visiting Monterey for years and years. We started when our kids were little and took them to the world class Monterey Bay Aquarium, something I highly recommend if you are traveling with kids or grandkids. As our kids got older we started exploring other parts of this city and surrounding areas. There is so much to do here that it is worth many return trips.
Monterey was founded in 1770 and has been a part of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. One of it’s most famous sights is Cannery Row, once the sardine canning capital of the world. But it’s the location right on the bay that makes this city really special to us. Monterey Bay is part of a National Marine Sanctuary that protects over 6,000 square statute miles of ocean. These protected waters are home to a wide variety of fish and marine life.
We spent one night in Monterey which isn’t nearly enough, but still enjoyed every minute of it. After checking into our hotel we headed to one of our favorite restaurants, Fish Hopper. This won’t be the best restaurant you’ve ever been to, but it might just be the only place you can enjoy dinner while watching sea otters play in the ocean below. And, it just might be one of the most romantic things to do in Monterey. Most of the restaurant is built over the water making it easy to spot otters. On this night we were entertained by a mama and baby otter eating their dinner. During busy seasons like summer I definitely recommend advanced reservations.
In the morning we rented kayaks so we could get even closer to the otters. Giant kelp forests found in this part of Monterey Bay are home to a variety of fish and marine life, including hundreds of otters. After paddling for about five minutes we saw our first otter. As protected animals no one is allowed to get too close to them, but even from a safe distance we could observe their movements. We then moved on to a group of several otters, wrapped in kelp leaves, still sleeping. I’ve been visiting Monterey for a long time and have never seen so many otters in the bay. It really was a remarkable sight.
Note: We recommend Adventures by the Sea for either kayak tours or rentals. An all day kayak rental is just $60.
Exploring San Francisco and Sausalito
I always find it hard to leave Monterey, but it was made easier knowing that our next stop was San Francisco. It had been two years since we visited San Francisco, so we were excited to be back.
We opted to stay near Fisherman’s Wharf at Hyatt Centric. I’ll admit this is a pretty touristy part of town, but it’s within walking distance of many of our favorite sights including the Ferry Building, North Beach, and Chinatown. And since both Jason and I are seafood lovers, we also enjoy eating at the wharf.
We spent our first full day in San Francisco exploring Chinatown. What I love about this Chinatown is that it’s not just for the tourists--it's a thriving Chinese American community that lives, shops, and socializes within these 24 square blocks. Jason and I enjoyed strolling through the streets packed with men and women shopping in the local produce, spice, tea, and homegoods markets. Between the markets are several brightly colored, historic buildings that are home to Tongs, or family associations.
A visit to a traditional Chinese bakery is practically a requirement while visiting Chinatown, so we found one and ordered a beef curry bun and an egg tart. Then we went in search of dim sum. As we walked into Imperial Palace we knew we’d found an authentic Chinese restaurant. We were the only non-Chinese guests, and after observing the other diners for a while, most were clearly regulars. The dim sum we ordered was delicious and went down well with traditional jasmine tea.
Our second day in San Francisco was much more adventurous. We rented electric bikes and rode across the Golden Gate Bridge. This eight mile route starts at the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, continues across the bridge, and concludes in the charming seaside town of Sausalito. We grabbed lunch at The Barrel Room and then boarded the ferry to cross the bay and return our bikes. After lunch we still had an hour before the ferry so we sat down at Sausalito Bakery & Cafe for a cup of coffee and a slice of blueberry bread pudding.
I’ll be honest, while I enjoyed the ride, I don’t think I’d do it again. The path across the bridge was very crowded with maintenance workers, pedestrians, and bicycles going in both directions. The road into Sausalito was a long, downhill slope shared with cars while we tried to stay in our narrow bike lane. I was pretty relieved to make the return trip on the ferry. Jason however loved every minute of this experience and would happily do it again.
There are several companies that rent these bikes in the area of Fisherman’s Wharf. We selected Bay City Bike and were very happy. An all day rental is currently $59 (including tax) when reserved in advance online. You can also purchase ferry tickets through Bay City which is definitely convenient. If you don’t want to do the ride alone, consider booking a tour instead.
For me, no trip to San Francisco is complete without dinner in North Beach. This part of town was originally a beach and later filled in to expand the city. Since the early 1900’s it’s been the home of Italian immigrants who have opened some of the city’s best restaurants. It was also the home of the Beatnik scene in the mid twentieth century. Needless to say, this is a vibrant neighborhood that attracts both locals and visitors.
We selected Baonecci for our final dinner in San Francisco. This family owned and operated restaurant is currently serving a reduced menu with a focus on Tuscan inspired pizza and pasta. The Gambiccini Family comes from Lucca, Italy, and still serve as the cooks, waiters, hosts, and busboys. The food was delicious and the service friendly. This was a lovely way to end our time in one of our favorite cities in the world.
Tips For Your LA to San Francisco Road Trip
Over the course of the past year I’ve come to appreciate road trips much more than I used to. The flexibility to stop along the way whenever the mood strikes is lovely. And the LA to San Francisco road trip provides endless opportunities for impromptu stops. But there are some considerations while driving through a state as large and populated as California. So here are some tips.
- Consider when you’ll be arriving in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Traffic in both of these cities can be awful, so try to arrive between morning and evening rush hours.
- Parking is expensive in both cities, so take this into consideration when selecting your accommodations and activities. In San Francisco we opted to park in a lot a few blocks away from our hotel which saved us over $100. For our entire stay we walked or biked everywhere. San Francisco also offers a large and affordable public transportation system. LA isn’t a very walkable city and has minimal public transportation, so consider parking once and taking Ubers to your activities.
- You are going to hit traffic along the way, that’s just the way it is in California. Hopefully your navigation system will find the best option for your trip, but be prepared for these times. Listen to music or a podcast, or just enjoy the conversation with your traveling companion. If you do have a plane to catch, always allow extra travel time while visiting California.
- California isn’t a cheap state to visit. For our road trips we often pack snacks, beverages, and sometimes lunches. This is a one way to save money, but we’ve also found many gorgeous picnic spots along the way that are much better than nearby restaurants.