USA: Where to stop on the Californian Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

While planning how many days you should take to drive along the Californian Coast, you might be asking yourself which cities you should stop by and how long. This planning is affected by a lot of factors that are: friends, sports game schedules, limited time before a flight, concerts & events, etc!

We had many factors affecting us that was few friends along the coast we needed to catch up with and watch the Giants game in San Francisco. Below is our quick guide of the Road trip – Enjoy!

Where to start the road trip?

From where to start? South to North or North to South? We recommend driving from the North going down South so you can be driving on the right hand side, where the passenger will be able to take beautiful pictures and videos driving a long the coast. Of course, if you drive the other way, you won’t be on the coastal side.

Driving from San Francisco to San Diego

We started in San Francisco, where we spent 2 days there.

Read more about our Guide to San Francisco.

We then went to Sacramento for Mitch’s AFL game. Those 3 days were not part of the Road Trip on the Californian Coast.

Road Trip Car Rental

Everything in SF is pricey, so we recommend you to pickup your car at Oakland Int. Airport. Price of the rental is half the price per day, which makes a huge difference on the final bill. We searched everywhere on Priceline.com, Kayak.com, few others, but ended up taking the Hotwire.com one. For 65$USD/day from Thrifty.

For the whole trip from Monday morning to Friday morning, with insurance and heavy taxes, the rental cost us around 400$USD.

Our friends were pretty lucky to have found a better price driving from the South to Napa Valley.

Daily rates will vary accordingly to where you pick up and drop off the car. In our case, we did Oakland Int. Airport – San Diego Int. Airport.

Where to stop in California

Of course, other than San Francisco, many other cities shall deserve a stop! Leaving SF, if you have friends working at one of those cool tech offices like, Facebook, Google, Apple, etc –  try to fit in a stop!

Cupertino

As an urban planning, interior design and architecture lover, I enjoy good looking establishments, funky offices and edgy work spaces.

Therefore, every trip I do, I try to visit coffee shops and offices where colleagues or friends work. Silicon Valley was a must for us.

If you want to visit the Silicon Valley, fun offices in Menlo Park, Cupertino, Palo Alto, etc, make sure you have friends that work there.

Having some friends at all those Google, Facebook, Uber, Yahoo, Twitter, Apple, etc, I really wanted to make an organized schedule to go see them. As expected, it was a Monday and they work! So meetings occur and it’s hard to plan a visit. We were only able to pass by the Apple Campus to say hola, grab a quick gelato and jump back on the road heading South. Apple is one of these offices where you are very limited to where you can visit, we went to catch up with our friend in the cafeteria area.

To be honest we were also very tight in our schedule to head to Santa Cruz. Next time it is!

Before heading to Santa Cruz, if you want to do a last shopping session, at Exit 54: Camarillo Premium Outlets. Premium Outlets are very known all around the USA to have a large amount of good brands with amazing discounts.

Santa Cruz

It was a quick drive from Cupertino to Santa Cruz. Found parking quite fast at the end of the Beach Street. Perfect for the entrance to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Careful, it’s a one way!

We loved the place, a definite stop for its Boardwalk, that we reckon is the best of the Californian coast (yes, better than Santa Monica Pier) because of its old school and colourful vibe. The park is also by far more exciting for the kids!

Parking: The public parking was super cheap, a quarter for 15 minutes.

Carmen del Sur

As we were running out of time, we skipped Monterey Bay. Although, because of tiredness, we stopped in Carmen del Sur without knowing too much about this town.

The main street is filled with luxury shops, art galleries, luxurious micro hotels and hip restaurants. People in town were all dressed up and relatively older. The beach is stunning with smooth white sand. We stayed there to see the end of the sunset before choosing a random restaurant to enjoy some delicious seafood.

Carmen de Sur is a city where people come to buy art and retire. It’s a little rich city that you should stop by to see for a few hours!

Parking: The public parking is easy to find as the town is not over flooded of tourists.

Big Sur – A must

Big Sur was by far our favorite and it is the whole point of doing the Highway 1 road trip to stop at all the Big Sur sistas. Vista points all over the trip shares with you the beautiful sceneries this earth has to offer. Dramatic hills and roaring waves. The scenic drive is recommended to do around mid day so you avoid the fog. We started pretty early from Carmel del Sur and got caught with a little bit of a grey sky and fog. As soon as it was around noon, the sky cleared out and it was even more beautiful.

Parking: Vista points and along the road is fine, there is space specifically so you can stop the car and enjoy the view.

Simeon

We were told to go see the Hearst Castle. A must after looking for the pictures. Sadly we were running out of time and had to skip it. We stopped by Simeon very shortly to go to Sebastian’s to grab a quick lunch before hitting the road.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is a great place when you know what to do. To enjoy it fully you will want to have local friends or recommendations on which wineries to visit. Other than that, what we did was to walk around the harbour and enjoy some delicious seafood on the beach side.

Parking: Easy parking close to the pier and it’s free in the middle park.

Malibu

Some people like to stop because it’s Malibu right? We decided just to drive through very fast to enjoy the scenery and get to Santa Monica as soon as possible to avoid the worse traffic in the world… LA traffic can be terrible, be careful in your itinerary!

What we can recommend if you stop by for lunch or dinner is Nobu that is by the water.

Santa Monica

I was last there 5 years ago and wanted to absolutely go back on the pier. So some reason it was a must for me. Santa Monica has definitely a fun boardwalk with great activities during the festivals. Make sure you look them up online before. We also went briefly walk through the farmers market that was a few blocks away from the pier.

Parking: Very hard with the traffic to find parking unless you are super lucky! We thought it was a no brainer to park in the parking under the pier at only 12$ unlimited time.

Venice Beach

Love hipster coffee shops like me? Welcome to Instagram Heaven – chase for coffee shops that will enable you to snap 100 likes + photographs!

Parking: We reckon it can be hard to find parking. You can pay for parking, but we were lucky enough to find a free spot on Cabrillo Hwy N.

Marina Del Rey

No real need to stop here – we only went there to catch up with a friend and stay at his place! … and this AWESOME taco joint wow

Manhattan Beach

Well just a beach .. you know you have drove the whole coast! After La in between there and San Diego you don’t really need to stop unless you have a reason to!

Hermosa Beach

Short stop: Hermosa Beach is somehow peaceful. Avoid the beaches closer to LA if you want quality beach time… drive to Hermosa! The town itself is super cute with nice restaurants and shops. We loved HB! You don’t really need to stay in town for long. 3 hours including beach time should do.

Parking: You have the option of Public parking at around 1,25$/hour, we forgot the exact amount. We did not come across the pricing of the private parking.

Newport Beach

We wanted to stop by Newport Beach to say hola to a friend, but timing wasn’t right and we also needed to hit the road. It is said that NB is a beautiful little beach town, but after hitting so many of them, skipping Newport Beach, Huntington Beach was okay.

Laguna Beach

Laguna beach is a great town filled with boho shops, hip restaurants & bars and good looking people playing beach volleyball!

Musts if you only have a short period of time is to play a game of beach volleyball with the locals, see the lifeguard tower and have a coffee at Zinc.

Parking: To be central, park either on Forest or Broadway. We were blessed to have some recommendations from our friend that comes from LB. It costs 2$/hour for the public parking.

La Jolla

You must stop at La Jolla if you want to sea lion seals. La Jolla is also the location where you can grab beautiful pictures with the waves smashing into the cliffs in the background.

We arrived perfectly on time to observe the seals and enjoy the sunset. La Jolla is a must if you want to “walk on cliffs” to get closer to the seals and grab some great pictures! The experience itself to be close to the seals is spectacular. Be careful and enjoy the scenery! If you fancy jumping in the sea, waves are fun and can slam hard.

Parking: After 6pm, you don’t pay any parking. First loop around the cove, we found immediately a parking spots. If you’re on a budget, loop a few times and you can be lucky. Patience is key, but also, when you are travelling on a restricted time, pulling out some coin will be worth it.

San Diego

We arrived downtown SD in the evening and while looking for parking we stumbled across a Hooters. We were waiting for so long to eat there. In Vegas we were craving to eat there and watch the NBA game of the Warriors or the NHL finals that the Blackhawks won.

Parking: Arriving a late Thursday before July 4th is a rookie move. We almost decided to pay 20$ for private parking, but decided to do a last loop and ended up finding a public parking spot in Gaslamp, perfect location!

That’s it for our road trip from San Francisco to San Diego! The morning after we flew back to Montreal and jumped in the car again to drive to Boston for the fourth of July.

Read more about our USA trip for the 4th of July in Boston.

What are your favorite cities and which do you think are the “must not miss” cities along the Californian Coast? 

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