There's good reason why the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles is considered one of the best in the world. The PCH runs from Washington to California - but the most famous and well travelled section is definitely the 454 miles along Highway 1, from San Francisco to LA. There are so many varied things to see and experience along the route and, with the ocean view to your right, there is a constant source of blue skies and perfect sunsets to behold. Read on to discover the best places to stop on California's Pacific Coast Highway.
A couple of summers back, we drove this route in 13 days. Follow the itinerary below to take in the highlights of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Firstly, some useful info...
Currency: US dollars (cash or credit card).
Transport: As this is a road trip, you'll want to be renting a car! We booked in advance with rentalcars.com. You don't need a car in San Francisco as you'll most likely get stuck in traffic! It's really easy to get around San Fran by bike or on the trams. So we only booked a car from the day we were starting the actual road trip.
Start and end points: You'll want to decide this in advance, to determine if you fly into San Francisco or Los Angeles. I recommend starting in San Francisco and driving down south to LA, as this means you're driving nearest to the coast and will have the ocean view on your right.
Travel visa for non-US citizens: If you aren't an American citizen, make sure you apply for an ESTA, to allow you entry into the US. This costs roughly £20 and takes up to 72 hours to be processed. It lasts two years (or earlier if your passport expires) - meaning you could make multiple trips! Make sure you do this in advance otherwise you won't be let in.
When to go: For the best weather, go between June and September. July and August will be the busiest months but you are also likely to have better weather. There can be quite a bit of fog whatever time you go to San Francisco, so bear in mind that your views might be obstructed. Also make sure to book your accommodation well in advance, especially if going at high season or during a holiday weekend.
Now on with the itinerary...
San Francisco Here We Come!
San Francisco is cool, eclectic and there is something for everyone! It really deserves a blog post of its own but we only spent two and a half days here, so I have a short and sweet summary below. We arrived late afternoon at San Francisco International Airport and, fighting our jet lag, checked into our hotel, borrowed the hotel's bicycles and headed to Lombard Street.
This must-see street in San Francisco is said to be the crookedest street in the world. You can walk up/down the stairs on the side, or drive down it (veryyy slowly) in your car. It gets pretty busy and welcomes about two million visitors a year! Built in 1922 (around the same time that motor cars became accessible to many people), it's a gem of an avenue and should be on any San Francisco bucket list.
The iconic San Francisco cable cars are a must-do experience for anyone touring this city! They are the only remaining manually operated cable cars in the world, so it really is quite a unique experience; they start operating at 6 in the morning and go until midnight. They are a great way to get around San Fran and there are three cable car routes (more helpful details here). We took the cable car on both mornings to find a place for breakfast. It's also a nice, quick way to see the city and cheaper than taking a taxi.
Golden Gate Bridge and Sausalito
Cycling or walking over the Golden Gate Bridge is a rite of passage when touring San Francisco. If you are able to, I recommend cycling as this is a quick method of getting around - plus you get to take in the bridge and the fantastic views, and can stop along the way. We hired bikes about a 20-minute cycle from the bridge at San Francisco Bike Rentals; helmets and padlocks included. We cycled over the bridge to Sausalito, a lovely city in Marin County. It is downhill for most of the way and an easy ride - which means the return journey is completely uphill (and very steep). You can take the ferry back to San Francisco but we chose to cycle/drag our bikes - big mistake! It's exhausting, especially in the heat, so I recommend getting the ferry back. We lunched and sunbathed in Sausalito - which, if you can - is a lovely addition to your San Francisco trip. 2023 update: Apple TV's 'The Last Thing He Told Me', starring Jennifer Garner was recently filmed here and you'll probably recognise some of the backdrop.
On our return, we strolled through the streets of San Francisco, including Chinatown. If you have more time, check out the views from Twin Peaks or Coit Tower, and pay a visit to the sea lions at Pier 39.
Alcatraz Island, just off San Francisco Bay, houses one of the world's most famous prisons, which operated from 1934 until 1963. The tour begins at Pier 33, where an Alcatraz Cruise vessel takes you to Alcatraz Island (it gets very windy on the ferry ride over, so be sure to wear a coat or jumper, even in summer). This tour was so well organised and informative; it is one of the best tours I've done anywhere! It's an audio tour which you do at your own pace - walking around the Cellhouse, listening to firsthand experiences from prisoners themselves (including stories of famous attempted escapes!). There are also lovely views of San Francisco from the Island, so be sure to take it all in. Tip: You need to book this tour a good few months in advance as it sells out quickly! In fact, the tour time we wanted to book was sold out - so we had to go with the joint Alcatraz and Angel Island tour, in order to see Alcatraz. Make sure to book via the official Alcatraz Cruises website.
We opted for the joint Alcatraz and Angel Island tour - purely because, as mentioned above, the one for Alcatraz by itself was completely sold out the morning we wanted to go. So we did both and were so happy we did! The weather was beautiful and the sky was clear and blue - allowing for glorious views of San Francisco. Your ticket includes a one-hour narrated tram tour around the island (with stops in a few places). The history of the island is really interesting and also deeply sad - immigrants entering the USA were detained and interrogated here between 1910-1940. Most people come to San Fran and don't visit Angel Island at all - but if you have time, it's definitely one to add to your itinerary.
Days 4 - 6
Yosemite National Park
The next stop for us was 3 days in Yosemite. Whilst not strictly on the Pacific Coast Highway route, being so nearby, we couldn't miss out on the opportunity! After returning to Pier 33 from Angel Island, we collected our rental car (we booked with rentalcars.com), picked up supper and set out for the nearly four hour drive to Yosemite National Park. Although I'd read up loads about Yosemite and thought I knew what to expect, nothing quite prepared me for its magnificence and sheer enormity. It is one of the most beautiful places I've visited and I strongly encourage you to include it in your road trip for an injection of nature and the epitome of being outdoors (you can read my two-day guide to Yosemite here). You'll experience spectacular heights, glorious sunsets, and maybe even see a bear! 🐻
Days 7 - 9
We then made our way back towards the coast, rejoining the Pacific Coast Highway, and stayed at an Airbnb in Monterey for the weekend. You don't need to spend long in Monterey at all but we chose to stop here for a couple of days, for a quiet weekend. Monterey is a lovely little coastal city most famous for its strip of shops and restaurants - Cannery Row. Whale watching is very popular here, as well as a visit to the aquarium.
We signed up in advance for a 9am whale watching tour with www.gowhales.com (otherwise known as Monterey Bay Whale Watch). The tour is run by marine biologists who are super passionate about their job and there is a big focus on respecting the whales' habitat; the guides are keen to teach and their knowledge is astounding. The tour lasted about 3.5 hours and it was truly amazing being so up-close to enormous creatures of the deep! I suffered from severe sea sickness 😂🤢 so didn't see much but my friends had a jolly good time and spotted humpback whales, orcas, seals and dolphins. Tip: If you think there's a chance you could be seasick, take pills in advance! The guides explained that the boat is a catamaran and it therefore bobs around much more than usual. Believe me, I wasn't the only invalid onboard!
A visit to Monterey is incomplete without a stop at Cannery Row. This lovely waterfront street, once famous for its sardine-canning industry, now houses luxury hotels, restaurants, shops and galleries. Parking is super easy here and everything is within walking distance!
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Just off Cannery Row, Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to a spectacular array of fish and all kinds of creatures of the deep. It is situated just by the ocean and offers beautiful views of the sea. The ticket price is quite steep though, at $39.95 per adult and $24.95 for kids ages 3 to 12. It was voted 4th top aquarium in the world in 2018, so it's well worth a visit!
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway/Route 1
And so the actual drive begins!
This lovely private road runs from the coast at Monterey to Carmel-by-the-Sea, with beautiful sights along the way. There is a $10.50 charge per vehicle to drive along 17-Mile Drive (motorbikes not allowed). This entrance fee can be paid at any of the four entrances into Pebble Beach, and they'll give you a helpful map of the area. There are some great sights, such as Point Joe, The Lone Cypress and the lovely white sands of Carmel Beach. You may even see some seals and sea lions along the way! It gets very foggy here in summer - so if the day is overcast, give this a miss as you won't be able to see anything. The best time of year for 17-Mile Drive is probably autumn or spring (in summer, there's a lot of morning fog which sometimes hangs around all day).
Bixby Creek Bridge
NO ONE TOLD US ABOUT THE FOG! Apparently fog is rampant in August. So, Bixby Bridge - which I'd dreamed of seeing (it's often heralded as one of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway) - was covered in a heavy white mist and the views were... non-existent. Still, it made for cool photos! This spot was recently made even more famous in the hit series Big Little Lies which is filmed in and around Monterey and Big Sur. If this is something you'd like to see, I'd suggest a visit in autumn/spring - or allow a few days where you are nearby, so you can always come back if it's fogged over one day.
The same goes for McWay Falls! This was barely visible for us and we had a good laugh about the detour we took to get to it - but it would make a lovely stop along the way if the weather is clear.
There are so many beaches to stop at along the way. We hopped out at Avila Beach to catch the sunset. The beach was basically empty; the sky was alive with colour and we enjoyed watching the day fade over the Pacific Ocean in peace. There is actually whale watching available at Avila Beach during the day. We'd already seen the whales at Monterey but this could be a nice activity along this part of the coast if you prefer.
Other notable beaches along Highway 1:
- Pismo Beach
- Santa Barbara
- Point Dume State Beach
This place - wow! 😂 It is the quirkiest hotel I've ever stayed in. It's like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Professor Umbridge's office. There's lots of pink and velvet and eclectic things. Each hotel room has a different theme (ours was Italy) and they are all equally weird and wonderful! Book a night's stay here or just pop in for a drink - I really rate it as one of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway!
Go go go! This place is magnificent and another one of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway. W.R Hearst (who built this "castle" with the help of architect Julia Morgan) was a tad extravagant - importing ceilings from Spain and Italy, building glorious indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and purchasing beautiful artwork. Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is nothing like the English stately homes I'm used to visiting - it is gaudy, loud, a tad unbelievable and really quite crazily wonderful! Excellent views of the surrounding landscape as well 👌 There are a number of tours available; we did the Grand Rooms Tour, as well as the Upstairs Suite Tour. If you're not interested in seeing everything, I would say just one tour is plenty (all tours include the garden and swimming pools) and I would recommend the Grand Rooms Tour if you're just doing one. Also bear in mind that this tour is very guided (I'm used to UK homes where you wander off by yourself) and there is a lot of listening to do. You can book tickets here; believe me, you don't want to miss this museum of a home!
We could have stayed in San Luis Obispo and therefore been nearer to Hearst Castle that morning but we wanted to stay at the Madonna Inn and this just made more sense for us timing-wise. So we had to drive back on ourselves a bit to get to Hearst Castle, and then back again towards LA.
Nothing like a Malibu sunset! Below: Sycamore Cove Beach and Zuma Beach.
Arriving in LA, we made a beeline for the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Hollywood Boulevard) before stopping off for supper. There are over 2,690 stars embedded into the pavement, showcasing famous people, shows, fictional characters - all from the entertainment industry. It's a must-do when you're in LA - either by day or night, and to be honest, we just wanted to tick this off our list, so we did it first 😉 Other notable things to do in LA are get as close as possible to the Hollywood sign, a trip to Universal Studios, a visit to the Griffith Observatory, and of course the Getty Centre. There are also miles of beaches to explore.
This was the most perfect day and one of my fondest travel memories to date. It was our last full day before flying home and, with no pressure to be anywhere else, we whiled most of it away on the beautiful sands of Santa Monica. It's often voted LA's best beach, and with good reason - the water is clear, the sand is hot and there's miles of it!
As well as having lovely sand and sea, Venice Beach has a 4km long pedestrian promenade, filled with stalls, artists and some fantastic street performers! We enjoyed strolling along and then nipped in the car for supper and sunset on Zuma Beach.
Off we went in search of the Hollywood sign before heading to the airport. Finding the sign required lots of Googling and even watching a couple of YouTube videos! Despite the letters being 50ft high, they don't make it easy to find. The locals get frustrated with all the tourists, so a lot of the roads are closed or blocked off. Check out this video for good directions to the sign.
And that's a wrap! Tip: Road trips need to be relaxed and allow for changes. There were definitely more things we could have seen but we kept things chilled and had a fantastic time.
Know any other places that you'd recommend as one of the best places to stop on the Pacific Coast Highway? Let me know in the comments below!