Driving down the coast of California is a once in a lifetime, bucket list experience. As you take highway 1, out one window you’ll see the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and out of the other window the rugged California coastline. The biggest challenge? Keeping your eyes on the road as you witness the beauty of the California coast. While you can make the trip north to south or south to north, it doesn’t matter which you choose – the magic of the coast is the same either way. This is the ultimate coastal road trip from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
The Ultimate Road Trip from San Francisco to Santa Barbara
While many people drive the entire coast down to San Diego, I believe that the best part of the coast is the space between San Francisco and Santa Barbara. Quaint Danish towns, wine country, rugged coastline, what more could you possibly ask for? Below you’ll find all the information that you’ll need for a successful road trip driving from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
Monterey + Carmel + Big Sur
San Luis Obispo
Solvang + Los Olivos
Starting Point: San Francisco
Begin your California road trip north, in San Francisco. If you’re arriving in the city by plane, you can pick up a rental car from the airport and begin your drive south. However, I recommend spending time in San Francisco first! It’s such a fun and vibrant city with tons to see and do, you could spend days exploring the city or even a few hours! If you fly into San Francisco and plan to overnight, don’t rent a car from the airport right away. Because of the lack of safe and available parking, I’d recommend grabbing an Uber/Lyft instead and picking up your rental car on the way out.
If you have time to spend in San Francisco, don’t miss a few key things to see before heading out!
Highlights of San Francisco
See the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer
Walkthrough Golden Gate Park
Have a picnic at the Palace of Fine Arts
Visit the Painted Ladies
Stroll through Chinatown
Visit the Ferry Building
Renting a Car from San Francisco
If you’re flying into San Francisco (SFO) and don’t plan on heading to the city, your best bet is to pick up a rental car from the airport. Don’t forget to compare and contrast prices to get the best deal and don’t forget to put in the Santa Barbara airport (or wherever you end) as your dropoff point.
Days 1 & 2: Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo
Start your San Francisco to Santa Barbara drive down the coast, making it a priority to stop in Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. While all three places are geographically similar, they all feel worlds different. Monterey feels like a laidback, beach town. While Carmel feels fancier, exuding European vibes. And vastly different from both Monterey and Carmel is Big Sur, a stretch of rugged, coastal land between Carmel and San Simeon.
Day 1: Monterey + Carmel; Overnight in Carmel
From San Francisco take the 101 south to the 1 until you get to Monterey. Expect the drive to take about two hours until you’re on the coast. When you get to Monterey make sure to head to Lovers Point Park for views of the rugged coastline. If you have time, don’t miss visiting the impressive Monterey Bay Aquarium and walk along the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
From Monterey continue down south by taking the 17-mile drive to Carmel. The 17-mile drive is a road that weaves through Pebble Beach from Monterey to Carmel (or vice-versa). The truth is, to get to Carmel it’s only 8.5 miles, however the road loops around making it 17-miles total. You’ll enter the drive at Pacific Grove, where you’ll be expected to pay $10.50. The road is marked and easy to follow with different lookout points along the way. Make it a priority to get out as often as possible, but if you’re limited on time definitely stop at Crocker Grove and The Lone Cypress. If you want the full effect of the drive, make sure to download the “17 Mile Drive” app ahead of time. You can purchase a full tour audio guide on the app for $3.99.
Once you reach Carmel, get out and stretch your legs by walking down Ocean Avenue. Here you’ll find many high-end retail shops, boutiques, restaurants, and wine bars. For food, make your way to the cozy restaurant of La Bicyclette for French-Italian fusion food and wood-fired pizzas.
Because the drive through Big Sur is long, I recommend staying the night in Carmel before continuing on the next morning. I stayed at the Comfort Inn Carmel By The Sea and highly recommend it!
Day 2: Carmel + Big Sur + San Luis Obispo; Overnight in San Luis Obispo
As you head out of Carmel and continue your drive down the coast, first, make a pit stop at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos is frequently considered to be the “crown jewel” of the 280 California state parks. And it’s apparent when you visit! For $10 you can access the park; hike, take in the views of the rugged coastline, have a picnic, and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll even see seals, dolphins, or whales! If you’re limited on time head straight to Bird Island Trail to get out and have a look around. And if you have more time than that also head to Whalers Cove. If you have indefinite amounts of time, walk the entire 6-mile loop around the park.
Tip: Make sure to save your park pass! The pass will be valid for a day and if you go to another state park, you’ll get in for free.
After you’ve wandered around Point Lobos, get in the car and go south down the 1 to Big Sur. Big Sur is a beautiful, and expansive stretch of coastline that takes you from Carmel to San Simeon. The drive is approximately 80-miles, all down a two-lane highway. There are tons of stops along Big Sur, and opportunities to get out and stretch your legs along the way.
As you drive along Big Sur, make your first pitstop at Bixby Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in California. Built-in 1931, it soars 260-feet above a canyon and as you drive from north to south there will be an area to pull off to the side for views of the bridge and the dramatic coastline. After viewing Bixby Bridge, continue down the 1 16-miles until you come to Pfeiffer Beach. Known for its keyhole rocks and purple sand, Pfeiffer is a great place to get out of the car and just relax. As you travel down a steep hill, towards the coast, the road opens up at a beautiful sandy beach. To access Pfeifer Beach you will have to pay $12.50, and because it’s a federal park and not a state park, your pass from Point Lobos won’t work here.
Once you leave Pfeiffer Beach, continue your drive through Big Sur until you hit San Simeon. Once you get to San Simeon, you will have completed the Big Sur drive and be closer to your end destination – Santa Barbara!
Before pulling into San Luis Obispo for the night, stop for lunch at Hidden Kitchen, an incredible cozy restaurant serving sweet and savory waffles amongst other things. There are two locations, one in Cayucos and one in Cambria. Both have different hours of operation so make sure to see which one will be open ahead of time!
Depending on when your day started, I recommend staying overnight in San Luis Obispo. Make sure to head downtown to walk the streets, and catch the sunset at Pismo Beach. If you need a hotel recommendation, I recommend the Apple Farm Inn.
Days 3 & 4: Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Barbara
As you continue on your San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip, the second half of your trip will take you further down the coast to Central California. As you spend time in wine country, the American Riviera, and a quintessential Dutch town in the heart of California, it becomes more apparent how beautiful and diverse this state is.
Day 3: Solvang + Los Olivos; Overnight in Solvang
From San Luis Obispo, head 90 miles south on the 101 to the Santa Ynez Valley. The Santa Ynez Valley is the heart of Santa Barbara wine country (Los Olivos), and home to the Danish town of Solvang.
With Los Olivos and Solvang being so close together, these two towns are easy to visit in one day. I recommend first stopping in downtown Los Olivos for lunch at the Wine Merchant Cafe, and to visit some of the vineyards in the area. Los Olivos isn’t as well-known as wine country up north, so reservations aren’t typically required.
If you’re looking for wineries to visit in Los Olivos, check out Wine Tasting in Los Olivos – The Best Vineyards to Visit
From Los Olivos make the short drive to Solvang, a quintessentially Danish town located in the Santa Ynez Valley. Visiting Solvang is like visiting Europe… but without having to cross the Atlantic or bring your passport. It’s a charming Danish town surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards, and adorned with classic Danish style architecture.
For more information and recommendations on Solvang, including where to stay, don’t miss The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Solvang, California
Day 4: Santa Barbara; Overnight in Santa Barbara
On the last day of your road trip, head south from Solvang, to your ending destination – Santa Barbara. Also known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is nestled between the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It’s perhaps one of California’s best-kept secrets, a town resembling that of a European village, bursting with charm and character.
When you arrive in town, walk along Cabrillo Boulevard, heading straight to Stearns Wharf. Walk down the wharf for views of Santa Barbara from the ocean. If you’re looking for things to do on Stearns Wharf I recommend visiting Deep Sea Tasting Room for a wine tasting on the patio overlooking the Pacific.
From Stearns Wharf walk a mile northeast to the Funk Zone. The Funk Zone is a hip neighborhood in Santa Barbara where you can find different wineries, cafés, restaurants, shops, and breweries. It’s best known for being home to incredible wine tasting rooms showing off Santa Barbara wines. There are 15 tasting rooms total which make up a majority of Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail.
For more information on visiting the Funk Zone, check out Santa Barbara Funk Zone Wineries – A Guide to the Wine Tasting Rooms
Before night falls, make sure to walk down State Street, the main street in town. State Street is full of boutique stores, high-end retail, yoga studios, bars, and restaurants.
For more information and recommendations on visiting Santa Barbara, don’t miss:
If you have additional time or are looking to discover more of California, there are more places along the way than previously mentioned, that are worth stopping at.
After leaving Big Sur, you’ll end up in San Simeon. If you have time, stop at Hearst Castle. Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark that was built between 1919 and 1947 by a publishing tycoon. Tour the castle and grounds to get a feel of what life was like in the roaring ’20s. Hearst Castle was a popular party spot at this time for the rich and famous.
If you’re looking to check out more wine regions in Central California, don’t miss Paso Robles. Paso Robles is located just north of San Luis Obispo, and it’s an easy drive to get between the two. When visiting Paso Robles make sure to check out Daou Winery.
This road trip down the coast is not only beautiful, but it’s fun! The distance from San Francisco to Santa Barbara is only 325 miles, allowing you to get from point A to point B in a short 5-6 hours with no stops. And while you could drive straight through, it’s worth it to take a little bit of time and discover the beauty of California along the way. Whether you choose to drive straight through or stop along the way, this California road trip is one that you don’t want to miss.
PLANNING TO ROAD TRIP THROUGH CALIFORNIA? DO IT IN STYLE!
For more on this road trip, make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel by searching #ppincalifornia or “CA Road Trip”