3-Week California Coast Road Trip Itinerary: From San Diego to San Francisco

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

A road trip along the California Coast is typically a high bucket list item for travelers around the world. Even the famous Great Ocean Road in Australia was created to mimic California's Pacific Coast Highway. It's a gorgeous drive with plenty of things to do. You can adjust this itinerary based on the time you have and things you're interested in. But I think this itinerary gives you an amazing taste of the best that the California coast has to offer in just 3 weeks!

Day 1: San Diego

Start your morning off in the sunny and beautiful San Diego. There are a plethora of amazing breakfast spots to choose from. Whether you're looking to just grab a donut from Donut Bar, or sit down for waffles at Atypical Waffle Company, or even sit down at the award-winning Hash House a Go Go.

After breakfast, head out to Coronado Beach to soak up the sun. There are a plethora of restaurants lining Orange Ave for lunch, whether its a quick bite from Poke 123, some delicious Mexican food at Miguel's Cocina, or the chic Parisian style bistro called Little Frenchie. No matter what, you can't go wrong!

Later in the day, head over to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park to watch the sunset. It's an amazing view with the water crashing along the beautiful cliffside.

To end your day, head over to the Gaslamp Quarter. Grab some dinner, and then head out for a night on the town! There are a plethora of awesome bars and clubs all around you, so just take a stroll around the area and go wherever calls you.

Day 2: La Jolla

Driving time: 15 minutes

Start off your morning with breakfast at Sugar & Scribe- home of Food Network Champion Chef Maeve. I can highly recommend the Norwegian Benedict, Veggie Benedict, Biscuits & Gravy, and the Charcoal Latte. You pretty much can't go wrong here.

After breakfast, head out to the gorgeous La Jolla Cove. This is a beautiful cliff lined coast filled with small beaches, great wildlife, and tide pools. There is also a walkway along the top of the cliffs that you can walk along to walk through Ellen Browning Scripps Park, La Jolla Underwater Park, and to see the seals along the cliff banks. Find a nice place either along the cliffs, or down on the sand to relax.

Once you're ready for some lunch, head over to the Public House, which specializes in a delicious variety of burgers, wine, and limited release beer. I definitely recommend the tri-trip sandwich! After you've finished eating you can head over to the Sea Caves. You can rent a kayak and go into the caves from the water, or book a walking tour here.

End your day with a sunset dinner on the rooftop of Trilogy Sanctuary- an amazing yoga studio, organic & vegan restaurant, & boutique! I highly recommend the Enticing Eggplant and Vega-Nachos. If you're looking for something sweet after your dinner, head over to Bobboi Natural Gelato. There is ALWAYS a line- that's how good this place is. Its flavors are made from local, seasonal ingredients and the menu rotates constantly to reflect what’s available and in season. I can highly recommend the Dark Chocolate and Matchatella.

Day 3: Carlsbad

Driving time: 35 minutes

Start your morning off with a nice breakfast at the Daily News Cafe. Then, just head out to the beach! Use this as a relaxing, beach day since days 1 & 2 were pretty jam packed. Every Wednesday, Carlsbad village has an amazing farmer's market with hot food vendors starting at 3pm, so you could grab either lunch or dinner there. Otherwise, you should still head to Carlsbad village to eat at Campfire or The Compass.

Also, if you're visiting between March & May, you could check out the Flower Fields for $18 per person. Check out their website for their events and other attractions.

Day 4: Laguna Beach & Crystal Cove

Driving time: 45 minutes

Start your morning off at Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna Beach. This is a fantastic beach that offers natural pools, caves and tide pools to the left of the stairs, and a secluded beach with more caves to the right.

Once you've had enough relaxing, drive up PCH to Victoria Beach to spot the famous Pirate Tower!

Once you're ready for some lunch, head a little further up PCH to find a plethora of great restaurants. If you're looking for something a little nicer with some ocean views, check out The Cliff, Driftwood Kitchen, or Deck. Otherwise walk around the downtown shops and grab a bite anywhere, like: Slapfish, Carmelita's, or Adonis.

After your lunch, head 15 minutes further up PCH to Crystal Cove. Go check into your campsite or hotel room, and then relax some more on the beautiful beach. (Make sure to check if the Beach Cottages are available to stay the night on the sand!) For dinner make sure to check out the Beachcomber for dine-in or Shake Shack for take-out: both options are right on the sand! Enjoy the sunset on the beach while you eat.

Day 5: Newport Beach & Huntington Beach

Driving time: 15 minutes

Wake up in the morning and head up to Newport Beach. First, grab a coffee at the insta-famous Coffee Dose, then book a whale watching tour or just relax on the beach for the day. For lunch, grab Chronic Taco to-go and eat it on the sand.

Once you're ready for some lunch, drive up PCH for 20 minutes to Huntington Beach. Walk around Pacific City- a recently built outdoor mall right on PCH with beach views. For something light, I highly recommend Lemonade: my order is always the ahi tuna poke bowl with a pistachio macaron! Absolutely delicious. Or if you prefer a heartier meal, check out Old Crow Smokehouse for some amazing BBQ. After you eat, you can walk around the mall and shop, or head back out to the sand.

Days 6-7: Los Angeles

Driving time: 1 hour

Los Angeles is a city that you could literally spend a week in and still not cover everything. But for the sake of our road trip, we're going to give you a good glimpse of my hometown in 2 days. Start your morning off at Grand Central Market for breakfast. I highly recommend either Eggslut or the Donut Man, depending on what you're in the mood for.

After breakfast, head out to The Last Bookstore. One of the most photographed bookstores in the country. Snap a few photos and browse for some good books.

Next up, head over to the Broad museum. General admission is free, you just have to reserve a day/time online beforehand. After you're done browsing through the beautiful art, head across the street to Lemonade for a healthy and delicious lunch.

After lunch, you'll make the short drive up to the Griffith Observatory. This will give you incredible views of both the Hollywood sign, and the city of Los Angeles. If you have the time, you can do a hike from here too! Either the Hollywood Sign hike that will end above the sign, or Captain's Roost which gives you a better view of the entire sign and city below (see video below).

End your day in LA's Arts District. Walk around, enjoy the beautiful art, and grab some dinner. Whether you're in the mood for a gourmet hot dog from Wurstküche, a healthy food option like Urth Caffe or Amazebowls, or even a delicious vegan meal from Cafe Gratitude... you can find it all right here!

Once you're done with dinner head over to Angel City Brewery or Arts District Brewing Company for beer, games, and good vibes. And don't forget to grab a uniquely flavored ice cream from the famous Salt & Straw.

Start off day 7 by grabbing coffee & breakfast at Alfred Coffee Beverly Hills. Don't forget to snap a photo with their insta-worthy "But first, coffee" sign.

Next, walk up and down the famous Rodeo Drive. These are pretty high-end shops so most likely you won't be doing some shopping. But window shopping and spotting all the fancy cars around you is still fun!

You can end your walk at the highly photographed Beverly Gardens Park, right at the end of Rodeo Drive. Then, grab some lunch right across the street at The Farm or anywhere else along Rodeo Drive.

After lunch, continue walking up Beverly Drive to Will Rogers Memorial Park. This is just a cute park to relax in, or take some photos surrounded by palm trees and ponds. Then, walk right across the street to snap some photos of the famous Beverly Hills Hotel.

After your Beverly Hills photo shoots, hop in your car and drive to Melrose Ave. This street is filled with shopping- primarily thrift and vintage shops. Spend some time walking around and shopping! Then, end your day by grabbing dinner at the Original Farmers Market at The Grove. This is a super cute venue with multiple food & dessert vendors. And it's attached to one of the nicest malls in LA- The Grove, so you could even walk around and shop after you've finished eating.

Day 8: Venice Beach & Santa Monica

Driving time: 25 minutes

Grab some breakfast right on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, and then take a stroll up and down. This is one of the best people watching places in the country. It might seem pretty odd for out-of-towners, but Venice is a free-spirited place! Make sure you also snap a photo with the Venice Beach Sign.

Once you're done walking around, drive up the coast for 15 minutes to reach Santa Monica. Walk along the world-famous Santa Monica pier and even go on some rides at Pacific Park! Have lunch on the pier at one of the various restaurants, like Bubba Gump's or The Albright. Then, relax on the sand until you're ready for some dinner!

Day 9: Malibu

Driving time: 25 minutes

Start your day by grabbing breakfast on their pier either at Malibu Farm Restaurant (at the beginning of the pier) or Cafe (at the end of the pier). Then, spend the day relaxing on El Matador Beach. You've had a jam packed couple of days, so use this as a relaxing and rejuvenating day. Make sure to grab dinner at The Malibu Cafe- you'll have great food and ambience.

Day 10: Santa Barbara

Driving time: 1 hour

Start your day in Montecito, home to many stars including Oprah! Grab breakfast at Jeannine's Restaurant and Bakery on Coast Village Road, and maybe you'll spot a celebrity or two walking by.

After breakfast, head to The Funk Zone- aka the "hipster neighborhood." This area is filled with wine tasting rooms, restaurants, and boutiques. Walk around and do some shopping, and make sure to stop into either Santa Barbara Winery or Cork n' Crowns for a wine tasting. Once you're ready for lunch, stop into Lama Dog Tap Room + Bottle Shop!

After lunch, head to Arroyo Burro Beach to relax for the day. Once you're done relaxing, head up to State Street. This is the main downtown area filled with boutiques, restaurants, and bars. Grab some dinner and end your night at McConnell's Fine Ice Creams, which is made from scratch!

Image from Steve Hyman / stevescamera ©

Day 11: Solvang & Pismo Beach

Driving time: 45 minutes

Start your day by eating a huge breakfast at Paula's Pancake House in Solvang. Then, just walk around the quaint town and admire the charming, European style architecture. Even though you just ate, make sure to go to one of the various bakeries in town! You can take a box to-go if you're too stuffed from breakfast.

Once you're done walking around this cute town, drive up the coast for 1 hour to get to Pismo Beach. First, walk around the amazing sand dunes. It's even better if you have a sand board or sled to have some fun on the hills.

Next up, grab a homemade cinnamon roll from Old West Cinnamon Rolls and head to Dinosaur Caves Park and walk along the sand to find some awesome caves. End your day by relaxing on the beach or even renting a kayak before you grab dinner.

Day 12: San Luis Obispo

Driving time: 10 minutes

Start your day by grabbing breakfast at Big Sky Cafe. Then, head over to Bubblegum Alley for a photo op.

Next, head over to the Madonna Inn! Even if you don't have the opportunity to stay in this hotel, it's still awesome to see. Each room has a different theme inside, and the entire hotel is decorated over-the-top with pink, lights, and flowers. Make sure to grab some lunch at the hotel restaurant.

Spend your afternoon hiking Bishop Peak! This is a moderate trail about 3.3 miles round trip, and takes about 2 hours. After your hike, head to downtown SLO and grab some dinner at Firestone Grill or Woodstock's Pizza.

Day 13: Morro Bay

Driving time: 20 minutes

Morro Bay is a quaint, beachy town in the central coast of California. Start your morning by grabbing breakfast at Frankie & Lola's or The Hungry Fisherman. After breakfast, take a stroll along the Embarcadero where there are plenty of shops and restaurants, and will give you beautiful views of the harbor and Morro Rock.

Pop into Carousel for some salt-water taffy, The Shell Shop for awesome seashell souvenirs, and spot otters on the T Pier in front of the Great American Fish Company.

Once you're done walking around the harbor, it's time for a hike! Hit the 2.5 mile round trip Black Hill Trail to get better views of the city, water, and Morro Rock. When you're finished you'll be ready for some lunch, so head over to Hofbrau for great views and their unbelievable roast beef dip sandwich.

Day 14: Cambria

Driving time: 30 minutes

Drive the scenic Moonstone drive, which offers great coastal views. If you prefer to walk, there are several parking lots where you can get out and walk along the Moon Beach Boardwalk as well.

For sunset, head over to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. This is a great open space area where you can walk along the cliffs and watch the sunset on the water. For dinner head over to Linn's for their chicken pot pie & slice of olallieberry pie

Day 15: Big Sur Coastline

Driving time: 1 hour & 45 minutes

Start your morning by heading to McWay Falls in Big Sur. Snap a couple photos of this beautiful 80-foot waterfall that falls onto a small beach. From here, continue up PCH through Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to Vista Point- yet another magical spot to take some photos.

Grab brunch at one of the many restaurants along PCH like Coast Big Sur, Big Sur Smokehouse, or Nepenthe. Then, head to Pfeiffer Beach, which is famous for its purple sand and natural sea arch known as Keyhole Arch. This beach is off the beaten path, so if you don't know where to look you can easily miss it. Make a sharp turn onto Sycamore Canyon Road off of PCH an continue on for 2 miles until you reach the parking lot. There's a $10 entrance fee.

Continue up the coastline for 30 minutes until you reach Hurricane Point, which will give you dramatic views of the rolling hillside, seaside cliffs, and Bixby Bridge. Then, continue up PCH another mile to get to Bixby Bridge. There are several different viewpoints in the area to get some awesome photos of the bridge, so take your time and explore them all!

Continue up PCH for only 3 minutes to find Notleys Landing Viewpoint, which will give you awesome coastal views filled with sea arches. This is just a pull-out off the main highway, so you'll need a decent camera to capture the sea arches in the distance. But it's still a beautiful view!

Head up the coast for 6 minutes to Garrapata State Park. This a rugged section of shoreline that features many trails, rocky beaches, and of course beautiful views for photos. If you're visiting from February to mid-April, you can check out the 0.5 mile roundtrip trail to Calla Lily Valley- a valley filled with blooming calla lilies.

Last, but certainly not least, you'll continue up PCH for 15 minutes to reach China Cove. This is a small, emerald green cove in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. To get here, you'll need to take the 0.8 mile roundtrip Bird Island Trail which loops around China Cove, Gibson Beach, and Pelican Point. There's a $10 parking fee.

Day 16: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Driving time: 20 minutes

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a tiny village, only 1 square mile. But, it is known for it's charming European style buildings and white sand beaches. Start your morning by grabbing breakfast at the charming Tuck Box or the 34-year-old restaurant Katy's Place (both are cash only). After breakfast, head down 8th Avenue (either on foot or rent a bike!) to Scenic Road and you'll arrive at the gorgeous Carmel Beach. From here, continue on down Scenic Road to pass by quaint cottages and beautiful beach views the entire way. Spend the day relaxing and soaking in these uniquely gorgeous views.

Image from www.aureliarosepaquette.com ©

Day 17: Monterey

Driving time: 15 minutes-1 hour (depending on how many stops you want to make!)

Take the scenic 17 mile drive to get there- it's known as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, so take your time and take advantage of all the photo ops! Once you're in Monterey, go check out the world-famous aquarium, and then take a beautiful stroll along the coast on the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail- be sure to stop off at Lover's Point!

Once you're ready for some dinner, head to Cannery Row. This is a super cute waterfront street filled with hotels, shops, and restaurants. I can highly recommend Lalla Oceanside Grill- it has great food and amazing views through their floor to ceiling windows.

Day 18: Santa Cruz

Driving time: 50 minutes