Updated: Jan 5
A Calfornia road trip is something everyone needs to experience. The coast is beautiful, the food is amazing, and the activities are endless! This California road trip itinerary (7 days) will help you see the best the state has to offer.
There are so many road trip options in California. An LA to San Fransisco road trip with the perfect option when thinking about booking cheap flights. Both LA and San Fransisco have cheap, frequent flights from DC, and when I got my first travel credit card, I had enough points for a flight to LA. I automatically thought of going on this trip. Here is my 7 day California road trip itinerary!
· Day 1
· Day 2
· Day 3
· Day 4
· Day 5
· Day 6
· Day 7
· Day 8
Flight — travel points
Rental Car — $126 a person
Hotels — $215 a person
Tours, Food, and Events — approx. 400
Total Cost — $741
7 Day California Road Trip Itinerary:
Day 1: Malibu
Day 2: Los Angeles
Day 3: Santa Monica
Day 4: 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 wonderful apartment—right in Santa Monica!
Know Before You Go…
1. Your 7-day California road trip itinerary can easily change depending on how long you want to spend in different places. I optimized this itinerary for a little of everything.
2. The drive from LA to San Francisco can be done in many different ways. Route 1 is the most iconic 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 at some beautiful places.
3. There are multiple cities to stop at between LA and San Francisco like Monterey (which I love — go to the aquarium!). Take your time.
4. Big Sur is a popular spot! Book ahead—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.
5. There is so much to do in LA and San Francisco. This 7-day California road trip itinerary will barely scratch the surface! Just know that you can’t see everything, but you can see a lot.
6. Both LA and San Francisco are pretty budget-friendly! Many things are free or almost free to do. We only spent a little over $30 on two activities while there. The biggest expenses were food, rental car, and hotels. We didn’t pay much for the things we did!
7. 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!
Venice Beach — free
I found the cheapest flight I could, which meant 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 I drove right to the beach from the airport. I hopped from beach to beach and got to see some beautiful spots!
Venice Beach is full of eclectic and interesting sites! I had an awesome time just walking through and seeing different performers, enjoying the 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.
I’ve been to LA three times now and the beaches have to be one of my favorite parts. Read more about beaches in and around LA that are my favorite!
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 their own parking lots.
Easter on the Beach — free
Since it was Easter weekend, I Googled churches that were having early morning services 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 Hollywood sign and then went back because of time, and it was hot—we were uncomfortable. There are some incredible hikes in Southern California though worth checking out! Just bring water and don’t go during the hottest part of the day!
We spent a long time in traffic getting to the abandoned zoo, which was cool but not worth how much traffic we endured. 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. The zoo was cool, but the traffic… We also did not anticipate how terrible the traffic would be around the parks because of Easter. Beware of LA if you visit on Easter day!
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.
If you have time, consider hiking to the Hollywood sign! It can be a great option to see an incredible view of LA.
Hollywood Boulevard — free
This area of LA was not that exciting to me. Seeing all the stars and the Chinese Theater was pretty cool, but after that, there is not much to do! This led us to visiting Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum!
Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum — $25
I took about a million photos here, and I couldn’t make a normal face in any of them… Can I just say I am not the type to go to a wax museum and I don’t recommend it? We honestly were bored walking down Hollywood Boulevard after seeing the Chinese Theater. I had never been to a wax museum, and it seemed kind of silly, but it was fun because where else but in “superficial” Hollywood to see wax figures?
Tired from a day of walking and traffic, we went home early to a good dinner in Santa Monica and bed by 10 pm.
Pro-tip: Honestly, traffic in LA is terrible. There are 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.
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 finding a Groupon for $40 for a two-hour trapeze 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 the trapeze, we were kind of adrenaline rushed-out… It ended up still being fun, and the view from the top of the Ferris wheel was awesome!
Comedy Show or Movie — $15
We found this funny-sounding comedy show about cats in Hollywood for that night (there are so many every night—just Google the date and “comedy show LA” and you’ll find one worth your time). Well, I forgot my ID so 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 did not like Los Angeles as much as I thought I would on this trip, but after a second trip for 3 days in LA, I liked it a lot better. Don’t spend much time in Hollywood! There’s so much more to do in LA. 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!
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 actually the name of the whole area, and there are many different state parks inside Big Sur.
As you drive north from LA, make stops in different towns. Malibu, Avila Beach, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo are all towns worth stopping in before getting to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
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 our stops were just chosen along the way! We decided to take our time to enjoy it and spent almost the whole day on the drive, making stops at fruit stands, random roadside views, and the 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 intense 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 it still felt expensive at $215 a night, even 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 roadside stops.
Route 1 stops in Big Sur
Pro-tip: Road trips are all about taking in the scenery and exploring places, and this 7-day California road trip itinerary is no different. 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! There are lots of PCH road trip stops off the beaten path. Make sure you check them out.
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 (including the Full House houses), streets (Lombard), and my friends! It was so cool to catch up with friends that I made in DC who have moved out to San Francisco. Everything in San Francisco was super easy to get to and traffic was not that 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!
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 very informative, and we saw all the different parts of Alcatraz. I’m really glad we did this because I feel like I learned a lot about the infamous prison and the criminals that were held there, which is 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 random, but I posted a picture on Facebook in San Francisco, and it just so happened that 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 and made it easy. This area is touristy, but you get to see pretty boats, lounging seals, and lots of restaurants.
Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, Facebook tour — free
We drove up north and checked out Muir Woods, stopping at the Golden Gate Bridge. I wish we had time to visit a different spot to see it a bit better, but we did get to walk along the bridge, 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 headquarters. It was 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 redwood trees in Big Sur. Muir Woods was unique because the redwood trees were massive. It was worth a visit all in itself.
Route 1 to LA
Hearst Castle — $25
We thought about going up to Napa, which would have been fun, but we realized that if we did that we would need to take a day away from San Francisco because of time. We decided to take the long drive back and make a stop at Hearst Castle instead. This is something I didn’t find on the web when researching, but I was so glad we changed our plans and stopped here!
The owner was a newspaper owner and a 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 filled with 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 the day of. We bought day-of tickets 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!
On the way back to Los Angeles, you’ll be passing an entire winery region in the Central California Coast. I’d honestly recommend extending your trip and staying here longer if at all possible! It’s so beautiful and has some really amazing wineries. I have a lot of suggestions, but if you only have a day on your drive for a quick stop, I’d choose somewhere in San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara as a stop. You can also extend your trip by heading up to Napa Valley from San Fransisco.
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?! It was a long day of driving back from San Francisco.
We woke up and headed to the airport. This was a whirlwind of a quick tour of the California coast.
Have you done any good road trips? Done a 7-day Calfornia road trip itinerary? I would love to hear about other people’s adventures, too!
This 7-day California road trip itinerary will not disappoint! I know you’ll love your trip no matter what route you choose to take. It’s always an incredible adventure when you take a road trip.
Ideas to Extend your Trip
Spend time on California's Central Coast checking out the wineries!
Head to Joshua Tree for a few days
Spend a day on Catalina Island