With its diversity of terrain, adventures, and cultural treasures, California is one of the absolute best places in the U.S. for a road trip – and there’s no better way to experience all the sights and flavors than by heading up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco on Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH to locals.

While the PCH stretches the entire U.S. west coast, from Mexico to Canada (and beyond), the California portion of the PCH is the most popular, covering approximately 600-ish miles and connected by a series of roads and highways. The PCH hugs the coast for much of the way and will take you around 12 hours to complete, depending on the number of stops and detours you choose to make. For this particular road trip, plan at least seven days so you can keep a relaxed and enjoyable pace. There are so many inspiring viewpoints, restaurants, shops, hiking trails, hotels, and cultural attractions that you can easily take two or more weeks to drive its length. Of course, given how much time you have, you can always just drive part of the PCH. Shorter PCH road trips from Santa Barbara to Monterey and Santa Barbara to San Diego also pack in a lot of fun if you only have a few days to spare. 

San Diego to Huntington Beach

Begin your PCH road trip by exploring Downtown San Diego and the many independent boutiques throughout the historic Gaslamp Quarter, or catch a baseball game at Petco Park. See the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Next, head to one of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village — pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom. Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighborhood bordering Balboa Park’s northeast side.

Along 30th Street and University Avenue, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine and boutique wines at Urban Solace, or wing it at local favorite Carnitas’ Snack Shack (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day). Work off lunch by heading down to San Diego’s sparkling Mission Bay to rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks. When it comes time to start winding down for the evening, make your way to Carlsbad, about a 40 minute drive north. Here you can check into one of our favorite West Coast resorts, the Omni La Costas Resort & Spa that features eight sparkling pools, two championship golf courses, and fantastic dining options.

Another posh option for overnighting can be found an hour north in Dana Point at the beachside Ritz- Carlton, Laguna Niguel overlooking the brilliant Pacific. Fusing modern luxury with playful creativity, the hotel embodies what makes Dana Point and Laguna Beach so special – a welcoming nature that caters to kids and pets, locally sourced cuisine, and direct access to the ocean. Dana Point not only makes an ideal base for further adventures throughout Orange County, but for whale-watching, surf lessons, and many more eco-adventures.

Just minutes up the highway you’ll come into Laguna Beach, a coastal paradise — from its bright hillside cottages to its downtown streets— coming together at the edge of a sparkling blue sea. This is a laid-back playground dotted with protected crescents of sand, some attracting the local surfer crowd, some family favorites, and some perfect for a peaceful escape. The town was first settled as an artist’s colony and is filled with quality galleries. Painters often perch their easels along the bluffs and you can watch them create a pretty seascape before your eyes. Or dip into the hushed galleries of the Laguna Art Museum, with its striking collection of contemporary works by California artists such as Wayne Thiebaud and David Gilhooly. Laguna Beach is also home to summertime’s remarkable Pageant of the Masters, a one-of-a-kind event where classic artworks are recreated using brilliantly painted tableaux, all populated by real people done up to replicate figures in the original paintings. The festival is wildly popular and performances always sell out, so get tickets well in advance.

From there you’ll arrive at Corona del Mar. The name of this upscale Newport Beach hamlet translates to “crown of the sea,” and it’s a fitting moniker because this is where the gilded life meets classic Southern California beach culture. Corona del Mar is loaded with coastal gems, from the popular Big Corona beach (the spot to paddle out for a surf session) to the strip of shops and eateries (head to Gulfstream for fresh oysters) lining the PCH. Check out nearby Fashion Island, a shopping, entertainment and culinary destination, and then head to Little Corona beach to wander about the tide pools. Cap your day with the epic sunset views at Inspiration Point.

When you get to Huntington Beach, be sure to plan at least a day to hang out here and catch the surf vibe in this classic beach town where the main drag heads straight to the beach. Southern California’s beach culture thrives along this city’s curving shoreline, where you can bicycle down an oceanfront path, play volleyball, and, of course, surf. Surfing definitely sets the tone in Huntington Beach, and even if you never grab aboard, there’s shopping at leading surf retailers and great viewing of some of the locals riding the waves alongside the landmark Huntington Pier.

From the Huntington pier, it’s just a short walk to Main Street’s stylish boutiques and restaurants, many with sidewalk tables or decks that let you bask in Huntington Beach’s fresh ocean breezes and sun-soaked afternoons. For a luxurious good night’s rest, check into the Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort. The resort is ideally situated and close to everything. Go for a stroll down the beach, take in the views from the Pier, explore Main Street, hit the surf, play beach volleyball, or just post up on the sand –it’s all at your doorstep.

Los Angeles

While SoCal’s beaches typically get top billing over much of the region’s other world-class attractions, the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County hold a staggering array of things to see, taste, and hear. About 12 miles inland, Downtown L.A. – DTLA – combines history, high-brow culture, and a global-village buzz. From the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, to Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and many top-notch museums, you’ll find plenty of interesting things to do. If you’re looking for a couple excursions just outside downtown, be sure to check out the world-famous Watts Towers and the impeccable Getty art museum. The JW Marriott Los Angeles hotel at L.A. LIVE makes a very comfortable home base for your stay in DTLA, and is perfectly located for catching a concert or Lakers game.

Before leaving Los Angeles, you’ll want to see one of its most iconic beach towns, Santa Monica.

This idyllic oceanfront city, bounded by a 3.5 mile-long beach, feels more like a weekend getaway spot than a city just a few minutes west of DTLA. Hang out on the city’s broad beach or lively Santa Monica Pier (complete with its own amusement park). Or rent cruiser bikes to follow the Marvin Braude Coastal Bike Trail, aka “The Strand.” The paved, multi-use path follows the oceanfront for roughly 22 miles, from Santa Monica south to Torrance. Along the path you’ll pass the off-beat Venice Beach and its famous boardwalk and Manhattan Beach. If you want to soak up the SoCal life, both the Ritz-Carlton Marina Del Ray and westdrift Manhattan Beach hotels will give you a great location with the laid-back vibe of coastal California.

Santa Barbara to Monterey

Heading northward on the PCH for a scenic two-hour drive leads you to postcard-worthy Santa Barbara. “The American Riviera” enjoys a dreamy Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunny days and mild winters. Add wine country award-winning vintages, outdoor adventures on land and sea, big-city arts and entertainment, and you have a city that’s a poster child for the California good life. Stroll State Street for wonderful shops and dining, launch a kayak from East Beach to paddle under Stearns Wharf, visit the classic Old Mission Santa Barbara, and tour the 1782 Presidio for a look at original adobes like El Cuartel, the second oldest surviving building in the state. Then explore the city’s forward-looking neighborhood — the rehabbed warehouses of The Funk Zone, now home to urban wine-tasting rooms, artist’s studios, and cool boutiques.

Next up is San Simeon. Mansions are a dime a dozen in California, but nothing comes close to Hearst Castle. Completed in 1947, this extraordinary temple to opulence served as the private residence of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Now one of California’s most visited state historical monuments, the 165-room castle is an eye-popping extravaganza with 127 acres of terraced gardens, sparkling fountains, and wraparound views of the sunny Central Coast. Start your visit with one of Hearst Castle’s daily tours of the main house, or special tours of the cottages; come in November or December to see the estate dressed up in its very-festive holiday decor. Every tour provides visitors with an opportunity to spend time marveling at the residence’s two lavish pools.

As you make your way towards Carmel-by-the-Sea and then Monterey, you’ll take in the majestic views of Big Sur, including one of its most Instagrammed sights, Bixby Bridge, Big Sur’s version of the Golden Gate. It’s a must-see road trip spot for many and probably the most Instagrammed feature along the Highway 1 coastline. And rightly so. Pull over at one of the numerous turnouts to get amazing views, particularly from the bridge’s south end at sunset; from here, the mind reels at not only the natural beauty but the engineering feat in front of you.

Arriving into Carmel-by-the-Sea, the charms of this small Monterey County town are many. Carmel Beach, a crescent of pale sand that gives way to turquoise Pacific, is only the beginning. Garden cottages here look plucked from the Brothers Grimm; they sit next to Mediterranean estates and modern ranches. Exceptional dining, wine-tasting rooms, boutiques, and nearly 100 art galleries line the town’s orderly grid of streets, and a Spanish mission sits at the southern end of it all. But it’s the larger environs that best represent this stretch of California, and that means venturing out. Book a surf lesson or make for Point Lobos State Reserve, where scuba divers and kayakers share the water with harbor seals and sea otters. When the day is almost done, hit the sand to admire the sunset over the Pacific and ponder why you don’t live here

From Carmel-by-the-Sea, the PCH will take you straight to the coastal town of Monterey. One of the most popular attractions here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Another “must” is teeing off at Pebble Beach and taking a leisurely joyride along its dramatic 17 Mile Drive. Depending on the time of day you stroll into town, you’ll want to grab some lunch or an early dinner. It’s probably time to get some hearty grub and a couple of cold ones so, swing by Cannery Row Brewing Company for a beer or two and a burger or a short rib grilled cheese.

San Francisco

Now it’s time to tackle that last stretch of picturesque highway into San Francisco. The roughly two-and-a-half-hour journey will give you the opportunity to admire the redwood forests and more gorgeous views. Plan on spending a few days exploring all the timeless charm and joyful quirkiness throughout the city’s many diverse neighborhoods and know you’re definitely bound to see and experience something you didn’t expect. Both the Palace Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel and Hotel Nia, Autograph Collection are two excellent choices to choose from as your new luxury home away from home.

It may measure less than 50 square miles and have a population that doesn’t even crack a million, but San Francisco justly ranks as one of the greatest cities in the world. Famous for grand-dame Victorians, cable cars, a dynamic waterfront, and a soaring golden bridge, this city truly has it all. With trend-defining cuisine ranging from Michelin-starred dining to outrageous food trucks; world-renowned symphony, ballet, theater, and opera; plus almost boundless outdoor adventures, San Francisco justifiably stands out as one of the ultimate must-visit cities on any traveler’s wish list.

Near the top of everyone’s list should be crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and checking out Golden Gate Park. Or maybe it’s hopping on the city’s cable cars. But, what about Fisherman’s Wharf or Alcatraz or the Mission District? As you can see, there is so much to do, so give yourself the time to experience it all.

You can also take a few trips outside of San Francisco to experience the surrounding area. Go to Oakland to catch a baseball game, taste wine in Sonoma County, or go to Half Moon Bay to catch a glimpse of the magnificent redwoods or a spectacular sunset.

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