LA to San Francisco Road Trip – Itinerary

Pacific Coast Highway

Route 1 is one of those iconic spots in California that everyone has seen pictures of. It's one of those places I've wanted to explore for such a long time, I have wanted to visit. When I got my first travel credit card, I had enough points to get a flight to somewhere awesome. I automatically thought of wanting going on a LA to San Francisco road trip!

Little plug here… I love Southwest! This was the first travel credit card I qualified for and it as not disappointed. They allow changes on your flight without a fee, boarding is in order and you can pick any seat, two free checked bags, and excellent customer service. My favorite thing is the points NEVER expire. This makes it easy to still get a free flight, even if you don’t travel as much. Plus recently, my friend had an issue where she booked her flight incorrectly and they changed her flight - free of charge which is amazing! Love my travel card with them now. Elizabeth and I began planning our next big trip together – California Road Trip! Most credit cards give you X number of points in the first three months. This is helpful because it can get somewhere for free! Yay free!

3 cities

7 nights

Big Expenses…

Flight: points

Rental Car: $126 a person

Hotels: $215 a person

Tours, Food, and Events: approx. 400

Total Cost: $741

Itinerary: 

Day 1: Malibu

Day 2: L.A.

Day 3: Santa Monica

Day 4: Road trip to Big Sur

Day 5: Big Sur to San Francisco

Day 6: San Francisco

Day 7: Wineries and Hearst Castle

Day 8: Fly Home

Shout out to my cousin who lives in Santa Monica – he let us stay there for free which was awesome!


Pro-tip: Have family or friends that live somewhere really interesting? Ask them if you can come to visit! My cousins were out-of-town and we got to stay at their apartment which was wonderful! Right in Santa Monica.


Know Before You Go...

1. The drive from LA to San Francisco can be done many different ways. Route 1 is most famous, but takes the longest and is dangerous. We only took Route 1 on the way there. On the way back, we took a less stressful drive, but were still able to stop and some beautiful places.

2. There are multiple cities to stop at between LA and San Francisco like Monterey (which I love - go to the aquarium!). Take your time.

3. Big Sur is a popular spot! Book ahead for things - when I went to book things in February, many things were already sold out for late March. Buy ahead of time! There are lots of options - camping, glamping, hotels, resorts.

4. There is so much to do in LA and in San Francisco. I feel a little silly writing this post because we barely scratched the surface! Hopefully you'll get some inspiration from it!

5. Both LA and San Francisco are pretty budget friendly! Many things are free or almost free to do. We only spent over $30 on two activities while there. The biggest expenses were food, rental car, and hotels. We didn't pay much for things to do!

6. It's not as warm in March  and April as you would think! We could wear shorts in LA, but once we got to Big Sur and north of there, it got pretty cold. We were wearing sweaters, jackets, and pants pretty much the whole time. Be prepared!

Day 1:

Venice Beach free

I found the cheapest flight I could which had me leaving a day before Elizabeth could because of work. So I had the day to explore on my own! We rented a car which made this whole trip possible and drove right to the beach from the airport. I hopped beaches and got to see some beautiful spots!

 

Venice Beach is full of eclectic and interesting spots! I had an awesome time just walking through and seeing different performers, street art and artists, watching skaters, and relaxing on the beach.

 

Malibu - El Matador Beach free

Malibu is SO PRETTY! I went to El Matador Beach which is about 30 minutes north of Santa Monica where we were staying. I loved the cliffs, soft sand, and of course watching an amazing sunset on the beach.


Pro-tip: Parking in LA near Venice Beach is not easy - there's so much traffic. I was able to find street parking and paid $2 an hour. Prepare for this if you are driving! Malibu was very easy to park in - the beaches had parking lots!


Day 2:

Easter on the Beach free

I google searched for churches that were having early morning services that I could go to on the beach. I found one on the cliffs in Santa Monica and it was just gorgeous!

Griffith Park free

Griffith Park is huge! Plan a lot of time here. We hiked (kind of) close to the sign and then went back because of time and it was hot – we were sweaty. We spent a really long time in traffic getting to the abandoned zoo which was cool, but not worth how much traffic we sat in. There was this weird moment where we were like do we turn back? But we’re in so deep, we’ve been in traffic so long! So we did it anyway. It was cool, but traffic… We also did not anticipate how terrible the traffic would be in parks because of Easter. Beware of LA if you visit on Easter!


Pro-tip: There are tons of different areas of Griffith Park - it is HUGE! Take time to look over a map of Griffith Park when planning your visit. We liked the observatory, seeing the Hollywood sign, and the abandoned zoo but it took us longer because we didn't anticipate looking over trail maps and figuring out where to go.


Hollywood Boulevard free

This area of LA was not that exciting to me. Seeing all the stars and the Chinese Theater were pretty cool, but after that there is not much to do! This led us to go to Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum.

Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum $25

I  took about a million photos here and I couldn't make a normal face... Can I just say I am not the type to go to a wax museum and I don't really recommend it. We honestly were bored walking down Hollywood Boulevard after seeing the Chinese Theater. I had never been to one and it seemed kind of silly, but it was actually really fun because where better than in “superficial” Hollywood to see wax figures?

Tired from a day of walking and traffic, home early to a good dinner in Santa Monica and bed by 10 pm.


Pro-tip: Honestly, traffic in LA was terrible. There were people everywhere. It was a bit stressful to drive, but this is the only way around. Allow yourself extra time to account for traffic and getting from place to place.


Day 3

Santa Monica

Trapeze Lesson $40 on Groupon

We knew we wanted to go to Santa Monica Pier. It's iconic and the rides are pretty fun. We also knew we wanted to do something unique. I saw surfing lessons, paddle boarding, and trapeze lessons all available in Santa Monica. With the weather being cloudy, it got chilly that day and we decided against being in water. We ended up seeing a Groupon for $40 for a two-hour lesson. It was so much fun and so scary (at first anyway). If you've never done one, you totally should!

Santa Monica Pier Rides $10

You can get a pass for up to 3 rides for $10. We decided on this because after trapeze, we were a little adrenaline rushed out... It ended up being fun still and the view from the top of the ferris wheel was awesome!

Comedy Show errr Movie $15

We found this really funny sounding comedy show about cats in Hollywood for that night (there are so many every night – just google the date and say comedy show LA, you’ll find one worth your time). Well I forgot my ID and we ended up going to a movie in the Chinese Theater which was still fun. This is something you definitely should look into if you're visiting because there are tons of good comedy shows happening in LA! There's so much talent there - go to one!

I really did not like LA as much as I thought I would. I had never been and tried to do many of the touristy things. It ended up just being crowded and hot. Hollywood is not worth much time in my opinion and I think you are better off spending more time on a beach or pier!

Day 4

Drive to Route 1 to Big Sur

Okay so I may be behind the times, but when I first started planning the trip, I thought Big Sur was the name of the national park itself. MY BAD! It's the name of the whole area and there are many different state parks inside Big Sur. This made deciding where to go difficult because everything online looked gorgeous. We ended up deciding on one major stop – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see McWay Falls (which we did the second day through Big Sur). The rest of the stops we just made along the way. We decided to really take our time to enjoy it and spent almost the whole day on the drive, making stops at fruit stands, random pull of spots, and beaches we saw.

It is absolutely amazing. Can you believe this was just a random stop?! It ended up bringing us to an amazing view!

 

Staying anywhere in Big Sur along the coast is pretty pricey. Book far in advance or camp to save money. We ended up getting a gorgeous place right on the water with a view. There was this crazy trail that felt like it was on a cliff (mostly because it was) and we swerved back and forth until we made it down to a beach where we were greeted with a waterfall! The picture below is the beach we hiked down to as the sun came up.


Money Saving Tip: Big Sur is full of expensive hotels and only a few budget ones. There are lots of cheap camping options. If you can, camp and save. We did not have enough space to pack for that and booked a hotel that was on the cheaper end for Big Sur called Ragged Point Inn, but still felt expensive at $215 a night with a view.


Pro-tip: There are so many places to stop in Big Sur. We took our time on the drive. When we saw something beautiful, we stopped and took some time there. Big Sur is worth all the stops. Give yourself time to enjoy the road side stops.


Day 5

Route 1 stops in Big Sur

Santa Cruz


Pro-tip: Road trips are all about taking in the scenery and exploring places. Take your time as you drive through and stop whenever you feel like it!


I loved Big Sur so much! It's one place that I would love to go back and spend more time in. The beautiful blue water, awesome hikes, and sunsets were incredible!

Drive to San Francisco

San Francisco has more budget friendly hotels than I expected. We booked San Francisco Inn, it was not glamorous, but it was close to everything and included parking which was crucial for the road trip.

 

We then toured around San Francisco - seeing iconic parks (Full House houses), streets (Lombard), and my friends! It was so cool to catch up with friends who I made in DC that moved out to San Francisco. Everything in San Francisco was super easy to get to and traffic was not as bad. It's way smaller than LA and taking an Uber was much more feasible here because it didn't cost a ton of money to take one!

Day 6

San Francisco

Alcatraz $35

I was so glad we had two days in San Francisco. We woke up and went straight to Alcatraz. The audio tour was actually very informative and we saw all different parts of Alcatraz. I'm really glad we did this because I feel like I learned a lot about Alcatraz and the criminals that were held there which is really crazy! Also the views are gorgeous from there!


Pro-Tip: Book ahead for Alcatraz. You must have a boat ticket and at a preset time to see it and tickets will most likely sell out. Also, it's chilly in San Francisco this time of year! You won't get much time outside on the boat with cold winds.


This ended up being totally random, but I posted a picture on Facebook in San Francisco and it ended up my cousins were in town visiting from Zambia and Northern California! So we met up at Pier 39 which is right next to the boats for Alcatraz which made it easy. This area is definitely touristy, but you get to see pretty boats, seals, and find lots of restaurants.

 

San Francisco Bridge, Muir Woods, Facebook free

We drove up north and checked out Muir Woods and stopped at the bridge. I wish we had time to visit a different spot to see the bridge better, but we did get to walk along it which was very cool!

Did she say Facebook? Yes, yes I did! My friend Brady works at Facebook and offered to show us around the campus and head quarters. It was really awesome. Unfortunately, there were many secret things so we were advised not to take too many pictures. I did get one of the street inside Facebook!


Pro-tip: If you do this road trip, you'll also see Redwoods in Big Sur. Muir Woods was unique because the Redwood trees were so large. It was worth a visit all in itself.


Day 7

Route 1 to LA

 

Hearst Castle $25

We thought about going up to Napa which would have been really fun, but we realized that if we did that, we would need to take a day from San Francisco because of time. We decided to choose to take the longer drive back and make a stop at Hearst Castle instead.  This is something I didn’t really find on the web when researching, but I was so glad we changed our plans and stopped here! The owner was a news paper owner and huge fan of Hollywood. He had multiple mansions built-in addition to his castle that many famous people came to visit on weekends. There was even a zoo of exotic animals and rare plants. The castle is amazing! It was such a fun place to visit and has a beautiful view.


Pro-tip: The castle is located right off Route 1, but you have to buy timed tickets. You can buy tickets ahead of time or you can buy them day of. We bought day of and it ended up being fine, but we did try to stop on the way to San Francisco and all times were full. Plan ahead if you have a schedule to keep!


One of my favorite things about this trip is how many different friends and family I got to see. We ended our trip with dinner with my friend Ricardo who was in grad school at the time. So good to see old friends! Also - can you tell how tired I was?! Long day of driving back from San Francisco.

Day 8

We woke up and headed to the airport. This was a whirl wind of a quick tour of the California coast. It was so much fun!

Have you done any good road trips? Done a LA to San Francisco trip? Would love to hear about other people's adventures too!

 

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  • Anisa Alhilali

    This is something that has been on my bucketlist for awhile. I want to drive highway one in a convertible! You did a great job of outlining everything, so I am pinning this for when I finally make the trip. Also impressed you did so well with your budget.

    • Driving in a convertible would be so fun – and scary! Thanks, budget is important for me any time I plan a trip so I appreciate that!

  • This looks like such an awesome itinerary! I haven’t been to LA in forever so next time I’m in SF I’ll reference this when I drive down! I love CA because of all the beaches.

  • Leigh

    I love road trips and this one looks super fun! I have driven from San Francisco to Seattle, and that was pretty awesome, too! Good that you did this trip already, as the road at Big Sur is now closed from mud slides – I think I heard it will be closed all summer!

    • They’ve already opened up parts of it again and it should be open through summer! There are portions that will be closed sadly, but luckily the highway does connect to others so a road trip is still possible through the summer.

  • Jamie

    All the tips you provided are very helpful! I lived in Southern California for 15 years and didn’t ever once go to Venice Beach or Santa Monica Pier – funny how you don’t ‘visit’ the place where you live!

    • Thank you! That is too funny. I live in DC and that’s how I feel about some places. It’s taken people coming to visit me to see spots! Haha

  • Exactly! That is just motivation to go back! 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Kelsey

    I just found your blog and it’s awesome! I’m also a teacher and love to travel! Great post, California is on my list!

    • The Traveling Teacher

      Ah! Thanks Kelsey for reading and I’m so glad you liked my post. It’s an awesome place – you will love it!

    • Ah! Thanks Kelsey! There’s lots of us teachers out here – love when others read my blog. 🙂 So glad you liked the post. If you have any questions let me know – happy to help!

  • Eliana Ozan

    Hi Meg! Just stop by to say that I found very useful tips in this blog to my trip from the foggy San Francisco to the sunshine LA. Hope to continue traveling! Thanks from Argentina 🇦🇷 Eli