Road Trip Itinerary: San Diego to San Francisco in Two Days

About 500 miles of coastline separates the sun-soaked beach lifestyle of San Diego from the progressive and artistic city vibe of San Francisco. In a perfect world, it’s an eight hour road trip, but while the word perfect applies to many things in the state of California, rarely is it used to describe driving conditions. The only way to make it that quick is to take Interstate 5 through California’s Central Valley, where you’ll only have three things to look at for five hours: yellow hills, flat farmland, and the backside of a hundred big-rig trucks.

Instead of subjecting yourself to hours of featureless traffic, take your time exploring the scenic route. By taking Highway 101 out of Los Angeles you’ll add an hour to your journey, but avoid the torturously winding hills north of Los Angeles. Better yet, you’ll skirt the Pacific and pass through Santa Barbara wine country. If you’re willing to stretch your total driving time to just over 11 hours, you’ll be rewarded with the greatest coastal drive of all: the Pacific Coast Highway, lined with lush forest and breathtaking cliff-side views of the ocean.

To get the most out of your lengthy road trip, split it into two or three days. Day One you can spend an afternoon enjoying the best of Los Angeles’ colorful beach cities. Day Two offers a scenic drive through the heart of California’s central coast, where you may choose to stop and spend the night enjoying the natural splendor, or press on to reach the cosmopolitan restaurants and nightlife of vibrant San Francisco.

View of Malibu Beach from the PCH. Photo © Simon Whitehurts/DollarPhotoClub.
View of Malibu Beach from the PCH. Photo © Simon Whitehurst/DollarPhotoClub.

Day One: San Diego to Los Angeles

Your introduction to Southern California traffic patterns begins with your departure from San Diego. If it’s a workday, every road between the two cities will be clogged full of commuters and exhaust fumes until after 9am. In other words, enjoy your morning. Head to Mission Beach and order the city’s best French toast at Mission Café (3795 Mission Blvd.; 858/488-9060), or grab a coffee and parfait on the patio of nearby artisan roaster, Swell Café (3833 Mission Blvd.; 858/539-0039). Both sit a mere block from the beach, so take that short walk for one last glance at the waves before you hit the road.

Once the traffic has cleared, make your way to Interstate 5 and head north. With a little luck, you can make it to Los Angeles in about two to three hours. Just before the city of Irvine, head northwest on Interstate 405. It won’t be pretty, but trust me–you’re better off heading straight to Venice Beach and Santa Monica. That is, right after you grab lunch. Just east of the 405, in a strip mall off Santa Monica Blvd., you’ll find an outpost of the legendary Zankou Chicken (1716 S Sepulveda Blvd.; 310/444-0550). Don’t balk at the plastic trays and Styrofoam containers, just order the chicken tarna plate and revel in the richness of the rotisserie chicken, tahini and garlic paste; then thank me forever. When you’re done, pop a mint or two and head west to the beach.

There’s nothing in the world quite like the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Its collection of tattooed oddballs, beach bums, bodybuilders, roller-dancers, hippies, performers and street vendors is always a top tourist draw, even without any specific landmarks other than the beach. The Boardwalk runs north from Washington Blvd. and connects all the way to the famous tourist-friendly pier in neighboring Santa Monica. In Venice, you’ll find plenty of shops, bars and cafes on beach-adjacent Abbot Kinney Blvd. In Santa Monica, look for Main Street. Either way you’ll marvel at how hip everyone seems to be. Remember, this is Los Angeles; any one of these beautiful waiters or waitresses may be a screen icon next year.

For a memorable sunset meal, make your way up Pacific Coast Highway 1 into Malibu to experience Neptune’s Net (42505 Pacific Coast Hwy; 310/457-3095), a regional classic where you’ll find bikers, surfers and world travelers enjoying crab cakes, lobster, and clam chowder at a casual roadside eatery with a million-dollar ocean view.

Color map of Southern California
Southern California
map of San Diego
San Diego
map of Greater Los Angeles
Greater Los Angeles

Day Two: The California Coast

If you spent the night in the Venice area, start your day by grabbing a bowl of cereal (no kidding) at Venice’s memorable Flake (513 Rose Ave.; 310/396-2333), or grab a fine cup of coffee or tea at Groundwork (671 Rose Ave.; 310/664-8830)

Once you hit the road, head north on I-405 or PCH-1 until you hit Highway 101. This will take you through a constantly changing landscape of beaches, hills, and wine country. On a drive like this, I would rather stop when I’m hungry than have a specific lunch destination in mind. Fortunately, there are several In-N-Outs to choose from. The California burger chain has near-mythical status, and no meat eater should leave the state without trying a Double Double. Fast food in name only, the drive thru may take 15 minutes, but you’ll get a lunch ten times better than anything else you’ll see on the highway. You’ll find an In-N-Out on the Turnpike Rd. exit in Santa Barbara (4865 Calle Real), again at Stowell Rd. in Santa Maria (1330 S. Bradley Rd.), and off Oak Park Rd. in Pismo Beach (1170 W. Branch St.).

If driving along Pacific cliffs appeals to you, hop on Pacific Coast Highway 1 when you hit San Luis Obispo.
If driving along Pacific cliffs appeals to you, hop on Pacific Coast Highway 1 when you hit San Luis Obispo. Photo © Rian Castillo, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

If you’re impatient to reach San Francisco, stay on the 101 all the way. However, if driving through Redwoods and along Pacific cliffs appeals to you, hop on Pacific Coast Highway 1 when you hit San Luis Obispo. This route takes you past sleepy little beach towns like Cayucos, Cambria, and San Simeon. Resist the urge to stop until you make it to the Los Padres National Forest and Big Sur, about six or so hours from LA. The road will get windier the closer you get, and the clash of emerald and sapphire more pronounced as you rise above the ocean and weave through the trees. Nature lovers may wish to camp for the night and enjoy a morning hike before moving on. But city folk content to see this majesty from their car window may press on another three hours to make San Francisco by nightfall.

Do that by taking the 156 to the 101 at Castroville, and riding that through San Jose, where you may stay on the 101 or make your way to the larger Interstate 280. Either way, the grandeur of the San Francisco skyline will appear over the horizon at last to lift your road-weary spirits with the promise of fine dining, multicultural nightlife, and classic sights including Alcatraz, Chinatown, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Color map of Northern California
Northern California
map of California's Central Coast
Central Coast

map of Big Sur
Big Sur

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Cars traveling down a twisting California canyon during sunset, San Diego freeway sign, Golden Gate Bridge in rearview mirror. Pinterest graphic.