California Road Trip: Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles

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Updated on: 29 July, 2021

The most famous (and most photographed) route runs along California’s Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey and past the pristine coastline of Big Sur. Highway 1 or Pacific Coast Highway runs through beautiful landscapes.

A road trip along the dream road is on the bucket list of many. The list of travel destinations to see. Behind every bend there is a new, fantastically beautiful view. Stopping and enjoying is a must.

Table of Contents


California Route: 2 weeks for self-drive

Day 1-5: San Francisco Day 5-6: Silicon Valley Day 6-8: Monterey Day 9-10: Santa Barbara Day 11-15: Los Angeles , Venice Beach and Orange County Day 16: Flight to Waikiki

If you feel like it, you can extend the route to San Diego or Las Vegas . I took this tour years ago on my very first road trip in California. For this trip the focus was on Hawaii. Since we still wanted to visit the west coast again, we decided to do a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles .

Since we have friends in Silicon Valley (Google) and Newport Beach or Venice, this was the logical route for us. For “first-time visitors” a visit to one of the beautiful national parks Joshua Tree NP, Yosemite National Park, Death Valley NP or Redwood NP is suitable.

Tips for your California tour

  • Stop at the “Vista Point” signs and enjoy the panoramic view.
  • Don’t forget to buckle up. Seat belts are compulsory.
  • Stick to the speed limit. Violations are severely punished. You can also see more when you leisurely drive along the Pacific Highway.
  • Don’t throw rubbish out of the window. “Littering” has fines of up to $ 1,000.
  • Take your time and don’t drive off Highway 1 in 1-2 days.

San Francisco

Who doesn’t dream of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge , visiting Alcatraz or once ridden on one of the old cable cars ?

This is not our first time exploring San Francisco. After many years it is nevertheless a discovery of a completely different city. A lot has changed. San Francisco has always been expensive, especially when it comes to hotels. But now everything has become even more expensive.

Of course we explore the highlights, take a food tour , street art tour ,  bike tour and cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge. The first time we visit Alcatraz and also the Museum of Ice Cream .

We explore culinary highlights as part of a food tour and our own exploration. A detailed report with all our tips for 3 days in San Francisco will follow soon.

Silicon Valley

Most vacationers skip Silicon Valley near San Jose. I did the same on my first road trip 17 years ago. But since a friend started working at Google, it was clear that we would pay him a visit.

Are you tech savvy, Apple, Facebook or Google fanatic and interested in the startup scene? Then you should put Silicon Valley with Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Cupertino on your to-do list.

There are fan shops at Google and Apple in the Apple Visitor Center. Here you can buy products (T-shirts) that are only available on site.

Companies you can visit:

  • Apple Visitor Center (Apple Store) and view of the new Apple Space headquarters in Sunnyvale
  • Googleplex in Mountain View
  • The sign at the entrance to Facebook at 1 Hacker Drive in Palo Alto
  • Tesla in Palo Alto
  • 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos: The address in whose garage Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tinkered with on the first Mac.

Further information and tips:

  • How long? 1 day is enough.
  • Accommodation in Sunnyvale: Aloft Sunnyvale
  • Food: DishDash (oriental with hummus, falafel, meze, …)
  • Travel time San Francisco – Sunnyvale approx. 1 – 1.5 hours depending on the time of day.

Santa Cruz

Anyone who used to skateboard may still remember the famous Santa Cruz lettering on various t-shirts and hoodies. On our way to Monterey we stopped in the secret skater and surfer capital.

Things you should see:

  • Visit a local farms market , where you can find lots of fruit and vegetables as well as very tasty food for direct consumption. You can find an overview online . We visited the Westside Market, our personal highlight was the sourdough bread with cheese.
  • Santa Cruz Beach Broadwalk . An old amusement park right on the beach that opened in 1907. Entry to the park is free. You only have to pay for the rides. You can find out which rides are closed on which day on the website .
  • The 1911 Looff Carousel , right on the Santa Cruz Beach Broadwalk
  • You will find the Lighthouse Point right on the beach . Directly at the lighthouse is the famous Steamer Lane surf spot and a surf museum.

Further information and tips:

  • How long? Half a day is enough. Anyone who wants to manage their trip in a relaxed way stays one night.
  • Parking fees near the Broadwalk are often only payable in cash and cost around $ 10.
  • Use the street right on the beach (Westcliff Drive). We discovered such a small surf contest that we normally wouldn’t have seen.
  • If you are into shopping, continue to the Gilroy Premium Outlet . Here you can find brands like Nike, Converse, Oakley, Michael Kors and many more.
  • Travel time Silicon Valley – Santa Cruz: 1.5 hours depending on the day of the week and the time of day.

Monterey

Monterey is one of the most famous whale spots in California. We spent two very relaxing days in the coastal city. The city was formerly the capital of California and was once famous for its canned fish factory. The name “Cannery Row” is a reminder of this to this day.

Things you should see:

  • Whale watching. An absolute must-see. In Monterey you have the best chances to see whales all year round. Book one of the discovery tours, preferably the first one in the morning. Then the mammals are most active. After the tour you still have time to discover the historic Fisherman’s Wharf. We decided to do the Princess Whale Watching Tour . For an extra $ 20 you can buy an upgrade to the Upper Deck on site.
  • A café tip at Fisherman’s Wharf is ” Water & Leaves “. There is delicious coffee and cake here. At the back of the café you have great seating with a view of the harbor. If you are looking for a souvenir, you can have different types of local honey bottled here.
  • 17 mile drive . A panorama route with various stops. Admission $ 10.50 per vehicle. Be sure to stop at Spanish Bay Beach (3), Fanshell Beach Overlook (9) to see seals, Cypress Point Look Out (10) and The Lone Cypress (12). There is a free app with useful information and explanations.
  • Monterey Aquarium . A famous aquarium where you can experience the mascot of Monterey, the otter, live. Especially suitable for families and as a bad weather alternative.

Further information and tips:

  • How long? 2 nights, a full day for morning whale watching.
  • Accommodation in Monerey: Airbnb in Del Ray Oaks
  • 10 minutes from 17-Mile-Drive is Carmel-by-the-sea : the city in which Clint Eastwood was once mayor looks like a single film set. Everything is so small and cute. Fun fact: There are no house numbers so that the residents are “forced” to pick up their mail at the local post office once a week. A short walk through the streets is enough in our opinion.

Big Sur and other stops between Monterey and Santa Barbara

The highlight is waiting between Monterey and Santa Barbara: From Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Simeon, you drive over the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Big Sur along the most beautiful stretch of coast.

Stops we recommend:

  • Soberanes Point (walk up the path up the hill and enjoy the view. Maybe even you whales?)
  • Bixby Creek Bridge
  • Nepenthe (food with a view, the shop on the lower floor is much nicer)
  • MyWay Falls (THE motif of Highway 101 par excellence. Sunk next to us)
  • Elephant Seal Vista Point
  • Morro Bay (long, wide sandy beach)
  • Pismo Beach (eat at Mo’s SmokeHouse BBQ) and walk along the pier
  • Travel time Monterey – Santa Barbara: 3.5 hours pure travel time. Plan the whole day with stops.

Hints:

  • Refuel in Monterey or from the other direction in Pismo Beach. There are small petrol stations in the further course, but these are remote and more expensive.
  • Download our map in Google offline to your mobile phone. On the way you have no reception and cannot find the next highlights of our map without the Internet.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is our last stop before heading to Venice in Los Angeles. The city lies between the ocean and the Santa Ynes Mountains and we like it straight away.

We start the day with smoothie bowls at Backyard Bowls, visit the Mission in Santa Barbara and look for street art. It’s quite hidden, but it is everywhere. Then we drive along the long and beautiful beach to the Chromatic Gate, Santa Barbara’s Instagram hotspot.

We especially like the new hipster district of Santa Barbaras: Funk Zone. Park your car and stroll through the streets. You can find street art, cafés, restaurants and great shops here!

Santa Barbara is one of the most expensive residential areas in the United States. In eastern Montecito, according to information, the median income is three times higher than the rest of the United States.

Further information and tips:

  • Stay:  This cozy place to stay through Airbnb ,
  • Breakfast at Backyard Bowls
  • Burger eat at Oliver’s
  • Mission Santa Barbara, only as part of a self-guided tour for $ 12
  • Explore the Funk Zone district

Los Angeles

The “City of Angels” is an absolute dream destination for many vacationers. As the location of many films and the home of the stars, Los Angeles attracts more than 6 million tourists annually.

The city polarizes. You love them or you hate them. The latter definitely applies to the daily traffic chaos.

We visit the highlights like the Hollywood Sign , Walk of Fame , Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach .

We visit Universal Studios Hollywood for a whole day  with a VIP Experience . The advantage is obvious: no queues, exclusive locations where you can stop and get off. This was the only way we could test all the rides. Brilliant!

Take a food tour through Venice , stroll downtown and eat through the Grand Central Market . See the street art, ride bikes from Venice to Santa Monica, and watch the Los Angeles Lakers basketball game at the Staples Center.

As a highlight , we take a helicopter ride over Los Angeles at sunset . Hannah takes the Hip Hop Tour of Compton to see key locations from films and her favorite songs live.

Philip visits friends in Newport Beach . He spends the early morning on Huntington Beach to watch the surfers.

California is ideal for a road trip by rental car

Apart from California, there is hardly a city on the west coast of the USA where you can go exploring by public transport. For transfers between cities, there are comfortable trains that I used on a previous trip to San Diego.

But: These don’t stop where the most beautiful views are.
That is why California is ideal to be explored by rental car.

Before our road trip, we checked what conditions the rental car providers offer. 

How many days do you plan for the Pacific Coast Highway?

We only planned five days for the road trip on the first visit and 14 days on the second trip. We spent several days in San Francisco and Los Angeles .

The trip to Silicon Valley is only worthwhile if you have friends who work in one of the well-known companies or you are “hardcore” nerds.

Definitely more time could be spent around Newport Beach , Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach . We love this corner. But have already been here and have therefore spent more time in places that are not so well known to us.

Cost of a California road trip

When I made the booking, I noticed that California (or USA in general?) Had become more expensive since my last visit. The region around San Francisco in particular has become a lot more expensive in terms of accommodation.

One consolation: The most expensive place was then also San Francisco. After that it got cheaper.

The cheapest of all is gasoline: refueling is the cheapest of all. We needed about xx US dollars for our xx mile route. A piece of cake measured German gasoline prices, right?

Cost for 3 people:

  • Rental car from San Francisco to Los Angeles 14 days, category IFAR: 451.20 euros (one-way rental free of charge)
  • Will be added

Have you ever been to California? What were your highlights and experiences?

We appreciate a comment at the end of the article.

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