January 1, 2015

Drive the Pacific Coast Hwy from LA to San Francisco!

This is for anyone who wants to drive California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway but can’t be bothered figuring out where to stop, shop and stay! I’ve done the work for you, all you need to do is bookmark this post and drive like the wind!

I call it the no-brainer itinerary of five glorious days starting in Los Angeles, spending two nights in beautiful Santa Barbara, one night at Big Sur and one night in Santa Cruz via Monterey and Pebble Beach before arriving in San Francisco.

Driving the PCH

First, lets allay all fears of driving in the States. It’s a doddle!

But second, make sure you have a GPS. I took mine from home and downloaded US maps before I left for about $70. Money well spent, let me tell you. However if your GPS is a smart-alec like mine, he’ll try and take you on the shortest route rather than the most scenic. Hence taking off the wrong way for the first mile inland to the Los Angeles freeway. However, once onto him, we fooled him by putting coastal destinations along our route and adding new ones as we reached them.

Fairmont Santa Monica

The view from the Fairmont Hotel over Santa Monica Beach

Ok, so starting in LA’s stunning beach town of Santa Monica for two days of R&R after our flight from New Zealand (this is still my favourite LA town. I have stayed a gazillion times and wrote this post on my 7 favourite hotels in Santa Monica >>) we shopped the pedestrianised Third Street Promenade, enjoyed cocktails at sunset (see my top picks for Best Rooftop Bars in Santa Monica >>)


WAIT! Before you book a hotel, I am running a promo at the moment with Booking.com to give you a NZ$40 discount on ANY hotel ANYWHERE in the world. Don’t book without this – it’s not often you get something for free!! Click here to get your $40 discount >>


Let’s go!

Camarillo shopping outlets

Camarillo shopping outlets

Day 1 – Santa Barbara

Pillow talk: Brisas del Mar

Don’t miss: Camarillo Shopping Outlets

From Santa Monica, Highway 1 is starts at beach level where views of the half-kilometre wide sandy beach stretches out to the ocean – perfect for sunset wine watching (although not whilst driving).

Santa Barbara motel

Brisas del Mar

Just 40 minutes north are the Camarillo Shopping Outlets. Three clusters of shops and eating places with brands like Gap, Banana Republic, Forever 21, North Face, Nine West, Calvin Klein, all at ridiculously cheap prices, although all end of summer stock when we went.

Preferring to stay on the coastal road rather than head inland over the ranges, we teased the GPS with another little out-of-the-way coastal town on our way to Santa Barbara. Clearly you need a paper map for such deception, or at least one of the visitors magazines with a California map (you don’t need anything with serious details).

Santa Barbara

Main St, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is less than an hour from the outlets and I maintain, is the prettiest city in the United States so plan to stay two nights. Thanks to strict building codes brought in after the devastating 1925 earthquake, buildings are Spanish adobe style reflecting the roots of the town, they are no more than 2 stories (in some cases you’ll see an office block at 6 floors, but certainly no high-rises). Brightly coloured bougainvillea spill from walls and the tree-lined main street is edged with shops, behind which are piazzas with more shops, fountains and lovely open spaces and check out the cycle lanes – easy peasy. Parking is cheap here – free everywhere for first 75 mins then $1 per hour.

The weather is gorgeous pretty much year round due to the city being hugged by the Santa Ynez mountains which keep much of the hot desert wind at bay while the ocean breezes are largely quelled by the Channel Islands, just off the coast. Again the sand stretches for what seems like miles.

Brisas del Mar is about 3 blocks from the ocean, is more motel than hotel, and has a free wine and cheese hour at 5pm followed by hot cookies around 7pm.

The Mission, Santa Barbara

The Mission, Santa Barbara

Day 2 – Santa Barbara

Visit the Old Mission,Santa Barbara which stands majestically overlooking the city. Founded in 1786, this is still home to Franciscan friars (although we didn’t see any when we went. I think they cloister themselves away making beer and meditating).

For $4 you can take a tour through the ancient hallows, the photogenic gardens and old cemeteries, gaze at the art and architecture and just generally take your time to marvel.

Santa Barbara roof tops

Views from the mountains to see

Another must-do is climb the steps (actually only 2 flights as there is a lift) to the rooftop of the courthouse and look down over the ‘American Riviera’. The courthouse itself is so beautiful you’d think it was a tourist attraction, except for the clip-clop of legal secretaries stilletos carrying piles of paperwork and signs above doors saying ‘In Session’.

Grab lunch at Olio Pizzeria for some authentic Italian or take the Urban Wine Trail and go tasting in the middle of the city. Wander down to the beach and out on the pier to check out the innovative beggars urging you to throw a coin into their lair. (See my pics here >>>)

San Luis Obispo

Cielo, San Luis Obispo

Day 3 – Big Sur

Pillow talk: Ventana Inn

(Check out the best price for Ventana Inn on Booking.com >>)

Don’t miss: Hearst Castle

This is the longest driving day (made even longer on our trip due to a massive slip blocking Highway 1 some three months earlier meaning a 4-hour detour inland on the 101. But you won’t have to do this.).

We started with our essential morning coffee in Santa Barbara (I’m not a Starbucks fan and am pleased to report that boutique cafes who make a decent latte are springing up over here) and headed towards San Luis Obispo for our lunch stop. Other places worthy of slowing down are Solvang (the Danish capital of the US) and more shopping outlets at Pismo Beach.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle is a must-see!

San Luis Obispo is famous for its Thursday night street market, but instead we found Cielo Cantina on Chorro Street, a Mexican restaurant with an outdoor firepit where we sat in the sun munching on twice-cooked tortilla chips and eating crab cakes and Caesar salad washed down with a cheeky Corona. Alas a parking fine also ensued. They must have watch-dogs timed to pounce the nano-second your 30 minutes is up. US$33 dollars for the privilege.

Hearst Castle is a must-see even if you have hours of driving ahead of you! Part of the Hearst publishing empire and great grand-daddy to Patty (nudge, nudge. Google her!). But seriously this is such an amazing place. What started out as a humble bungalow to be built on the family ranch at the turn of last century, became a 130+ room ‘castle’ that took 28 years to complete and entertained Hollywood glitterati in the 1930s. Ohhh if these walls could talk…

Ventana Inn, Big Sur

Ventana Inn is so gorgeous tucked away in the woods

Ventana Inn in Big Sur is worth the drive. Set in 243 acres of trees high above the ocean it’s a sanctuary/retreat and you’ll find people roaming around in their fluffy white bathrobes heading to the spa, or just sitting outside in the sun. It has divine open fire places in the rooms and a clothing optional pool (which took me by surprise as I was exploring the property next morning with my camera. Alas no pics, for fear of being arrested). There are also Japanese hot baths and a sauna, but I was a bit nervous to venture further around lest I see more portly middle-aged bottoms.

The restaurant served up a bison steak for me with a big red wine and hand-picked scallops from Maine for Kate (or we could have had Amish-raised pork) before we crashed in our room and threw an innovative sack filled with kindling and wood on the fire and all we needed to do was light the paper tag and voila – a camp fire in our room.

Keep going! >>>

About Megan Singleton


Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this blog as well as on radio every week and a few newspapers and mags from time to time. I set off on this travel blog malarkey 17 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

"Drive the Pacific Coast Hwy from LA to San Francisco!" - What do you think?

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  1. Ethan on


    This is a fantastic guide, thanks so much for sharing.

    Just a quickl question for you. What you recommend as an itinerary for a coastal California trip if you have 10 days?

    • Megan on

      Hi Ethan, depending on where you are starting I would either continue up to Portland then Seattle or go south to San Diego!


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