San Diego to San Francisco Road Trip

- This post may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure.

A drive along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco is one of the most stunning road trips in California. As you pass by lovely seaside towns, vibrant cities, and entertainment and tech industry hubs, you’re constantly reminded of the state’s size and diversity of landscapes. From San Diego’s sizzling beaches and Mexican-American cultural fusion to San Francisco’s tech headquarters and steep streets, you’ll pass fantastic places to stop, some hidden, some not, some large, some small.

From the Hollywood sign to the Danish-inspired town of Solvang, the magnificent Hearst Castle to Palo Alto, where the next crop of tech entrepreneurs are studying furiously, the road trip from San Diego to San Francisco is full of amazing sights. Here’s what to see as you wind your way along the Californian coast from San Diego to San Francisco.

San Diego To San Francisco

20 Places To See On A San Diego to San Francisco Road Trip

1- Coronado

how far is san diego to san francisco Summer in Coronado San Diego. South and North Bay,
One of the places to see before you leave San Diego on a San Francisco driving vacation is Coronado.

Coronado might be a wealthy neighbourhood of San Diego, but the proximity to Los Angeles makes it a fantastic destination to plan your first stop on your way to Los Angeles, which is less than a two-hour drive further north.

Coronado has a stunning white sandy beach but what you should visit for is Hotel del Coronado, which is on the beach and a famous landmark in its own right.

Coronado buzzes with excellent restaurants and bars; it also has a sizeable naval base, so you’re likely to spot the odd fighter jet or submarine too.

It’s the place to go for the best view of the San Diego skyline across the bay and is especially stunning at night when the buildings shimmer brightly on the horizon from afar.

Coronado is 6.4 miles (10.2 km) and roughly a 15-minute drive from San Diego.

2- La Jolla

train from san diego to san francisco An aerial view of La Jolla Cove, a small picturesque cove and beach surrounded by cliffs
Looking for a last swim or snorkel before heading off on a long driving trip from San Diego to San Francisco? La Jolla Cove is just the spot!

The gorgeous La Jolla Cove, flanked by impressive cliffs, is one of the most picturesque and photographed sites along the Californian coastline.

The cove is part of a marine life reserve and provides a variety of wonderful activities for all ages to enjoy.

Northwest of San Diego’s downtown, the cove and surrounding areas provide excellent spots for kayaking, snorkelling and swimming.

It is a perfect stop along your road trip from San Diego to San Francisco for photographs.

Venture slightly north of La Jolla Cove to explore sea caves, where sea lions and seals can often be spotted lounging on cliffs and rocks, enjoying the sun.

After being out on the water, head to one of the restaurants overlooking the sea to take in the fantastic scenery in a more relaxed environment.

La Jolla is 12.5 miles (20 km) and roughly a 21-minute drive from San Diego.

3- Torrey Pines

san diego to san francisco drive Coastal road trip vacations, sunset seat scenic vista view point. Roadtrip on freeway 101 along ocean.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a lovely park to stop for a hike while journeying from San Diego to San Francisco.

With so many gorgeous parks in California, deciding which ones are the best to visit can be difficult.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of California’s 16 parks with reserve status and is certainly a contender for the best park in the region.

Thanks to this reserve status, Torrey Pines remains untouched just as it was before the urban sprawl that is San Diego became the size it is today.

Hiking trails and pristine beaches beckon you to come and enjoy the park’s surroundings.

Wild and untamed, this 1,500-acre (607 ha) park is an absolute delight to visit and is well worth stopping at as you move from downtown San Diego further north on your way to Laguna Beach and beyond.

Torrey Pines is 15 miles and roughly a 20-minute drive from San Diego.

4- Laguna Beach

flights san diego to san francisco Sunset view over Laguna Beach
For galleries, boutiques and wellness experiences, make time to explore Laguna Beach when planning a San Diego to San Francisco road trip.

Laguna Beach is a beachside town about 80 miles (128 km) north of downtown San Diego that attracts thousands of visitors to its galleries, boutiques, gardens and beaches.

It’s a haven for surfers, nature enthusiasts and urban explorers with an eclectic mix of sun, surf and culture.

If you’re keen on seeing Californian art, visit the Laguna Art Museum and the JoAnne Artman Gallery or if you’d rather laze about on the beach all day, head for Laguna’s Main Beach.

Laguna Beach is 67 miles (107km) and a one-hour drive from Torrey Pines.

5- Huntington Beach

flights san francisco to san diego Huntington beach Surf City USA pier view with lifeguard tower and city
Another lovely beach town to take a break while on a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco is Huntington Beach.

Known as “Surf City USA”, Huntington Beach was first placed on the international radar in the 60s by the Beach Boys and has since risen in popularity to become one of the country’s popular surfing destinations.

A pristine 10-mile (16 km) stretch of beach, with fantastic dining and shopping options throughout the town, Huntington Beach is an excellent destination to spend an entire day.

What’s more, it’s less than 40 miles (64 km) from Downtown LA.

It’s a nirvana for active travellers, with lots of activities both in and out of the ocean.

From surfing, paddleboarding and kayaking to beach volleyball, jogging and cycling, Huntington Beach is a top spot for outdoor fun under the sun.

The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve is the place for avid bird-watchers to see egrets, owls, hummingbirds and many more of the reserve’s 200-plus unique bird species.

With so much to experience, there are few destinations as synonymous with Southern California’s beach-going lifestyle, quite like Huntington Beach.

Huntington Beach is 15.5 miles (25 km) and roughly a 35-minute drive from Laguna Beach.

6- Anaheim

Anaheim is right next to Los Angeles and is one of the best places in California if you’re visiting with kids.

The vibrant city is the home of Disneyland, Adventure City and Knott’s Berry Farm.

If you’re a sporting fan, you’ll want to watch the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks or the MLB’s LA Angels play a home game in front of large crowds of fans.

Anaheim is a beautiful city that mesmerises visitors with fun activities and is well worth a stop when travelling from San Diego through Southern California’s Orange County.

Anaheim is 23 miles (37 km) and roughly a 35-minute drive from Huntington Beach.

7- Hollywood Sign

san francisco to san diego road trip Hollywood California road sign on redlight with pam trees sky photo mount
Hollywood is an iconic place to visit on a road trip.

The must-see for everyone visiting Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign on Mount Lee is one of the city’s most photographed landmarks and a beacon for the film industry ingrained in Californian pop culture.

While you can’t access the sign itself, the Griffith Observatory and the summit of Mount Lee are the two best places to see the sign up close.

An iconic sight to see and worth a stop on your way to San Francisco from San Diego, the Hollywood sign is bound to be one of the highlights of the entire road trip.

The Hollywood Sign is 34 miles (55 km) and roughly a 50-minute drive from Anaheim.

8- Santa Monica

san diego to san francisco surfers
Looking for ideas for a San Diego to San Francisco road trip? Here are 20 places you will love!

The city of Santa Monica and its illuminated pier lies just a couple of miles west of Downtown Los Angeles, but it feels like a world away with its lively beaches, carnival rides and laid-back vibe.

Santa Monica is the beating heart of LA’s surfing and skateboarding scene, home to lively rooftop bars and clubs overlooking the ocean and some of LA’s best restaurants.

It’s a fantastic stop just before you hit the road and say goodbye to the cityscapes of Los Angeles as you head north.

Stay as long as you wish, as Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and famous pier will keep you entertained for hours.

Santa Monica is 24 miles (38 km) and roughly a 45-minute drive from the Hollywood Sign.

9- Malibu

flights to san diego from san francisco Rock sea stacks at a beach near Malibu
You’ll definitely want to stretch your legs in Malibu on your way from San Diego to San Francisco.

Malibu is a popular Californian town known for its pristine coastline, a backdrop of the Santa Monica mountains and its famous residents.

As it’s only 33 miles (53 km) from downtown Los Angeles, Malibu is a very accessible yet exclusive seaside getaway bound to delight outdoor lovers and city slickers.

Malibu’s top attraction is its seemingly endless and perfect beaches which, despite being bordered by lavish private properties, are all publicly accessible from dusk to dawn.

The nearby Santa Monica Mountains are a treat for hikers and offer fantastic views of the city and the Pacific Ocean while surrounded by stunning So-Cal fauna and flora.

If the beach and mountains are not enough to entice you to stop for a day or two, for foodies, Malibu’s fabulous restaurants might just seal the deal.

Malibu is 19 miles (30 km) and roughly a 35-minute drive from Santa Monica.

10- Channel Islands

amtrak san diego to san francisco
Black sea bass (Centropristis striata) in the Channel Islands.

Covering five individual islands, California’s Channel Islands National Park is a world away from the rest of the Golden State.

The Channel Islands’ unblemished landscapes and majestic views of the Pacific Ocean make the islands a popular destination for those looking to slow down and enjoy the sun and ocean breeze far away from the crowds.

Each island offers visitors something unique, so you may want to stop at multiple islands on your way to San Francisco from San Diego.

Accessible via ferries from coastal cities in California, the Channel Islands provide camping opportunities and outdoor fun around every corner, making it a fantastic option if you love nature.

Channel Islands National Park is roughly halfway between Malibu and Santa Barbara.

For more California ideas, see:

11- Santa Barbara

san francisco to san diego drive street with trees in santa barbara
Santa Barbara is one of the places you’ll want to spend time in when driving from San Diego to San Francisco.

Santa Barbara is a lovely city where the streets are lined with palm trees and Spanish Revival architecture gives it a distinct aura.

It’s also a popular destination where Hollywood celebrities and socialites hang out.

With Spanish Missions, top-notch restaurants and a city where you’ll find outdoor activities on its beaches to scenic hiking trails, it’s easy to fall in love with Santa Barbara.

For the best views in Santa Barbara, take a tour to the top of the Santa Barbara courthouse for unrivalled 360-degree views of the town and the Pacific Ocean.

If you’re visiting with kids, go to Stearns Wharf to watch the boats bobbing up and down off the coastline.

Santa Barbara is 67 miles (107 km) and roughly an 80-minute drive from Malibu.

12- Solvang

train from san francisco to san diego windmill
One of the windmills in Solvang, a unique town in California and a worthy milestone to visit on your San Diego to San Francisco driving trip.

Who would have thought you’d find an authentic Danish-themed town in sunny California?

Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley is an unusual place that will enchant you.

Solvang was founded by Danish immigrants who fled the cold winters of the Midwest to settle in the Golden State, bringing their wooden windmills and charming houses along with them.

Few Danes still live in Solvang today, however, the town’s replica Copenhagen Round Tower, quaint Christmas shops, Danish bakeries and Danish cottages still exist.

Stop at the Solvang Brewery, Paula’s Pancake House and the fascinating Elverhøj Museum to learn more about the town’s history, former residents and unique traditions and culture.

Solvang is 33 miles (53 km) and roughly a 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara.

13- Pismo Beach

san francisco to san diego flights
It’s time for another swim! Pismo Beach is the halfway mark on a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco.

About halfway between San Diego and San Francisco, Pismo Beach is one of central California’s best beachside towns.

It’s filled with fantastic eateries, chic boutiques and shops, and beautiful stretches of golden sandy beach that are perfect for lounging around all day long.

Pismo Beach is very much a destination that should be discovered, enjoyed and explored at a slow pace, so plan an overnight stay here on your way to San Francisco

Pismo Beach is 54 miles (86 km) and roughly a one-hour drive from Solvang.

14- Hearst Castle

Designed by architect Julia Morgan, the first female architect in the United States, and completed in 1947, Hearst Castle is one of California’s most visited historical landmarks.

The 165-room monument is a memorial to the affluent and extravagant lifestyle of its former owner, William Randolph Hearst and covers a sprawling area of 127 acres (51 ha).

Hearst Castle is an unmissable Californian landmark on any road trip from San Diego to San Francisco and it’s such a fascinating place, you’ll probably want to spend at least half a day.

Hearst Castle is 54 miles (86 km) and roughly a one-hour drive from Pismo Beach.

15- Big Sur

san diego to san francisco flights Long exposure
The Bixby Bridge is an iconic landmark along Pacific Coast Highway and driving across it is a memorable experience on a San Diego to San Francisco road trip.

The most well-known section of the Pacific coast driving route is the Big Sur and its most famous landmark is its Bixby Bridge, which is an engineering marvel soaring 260 feet (79 m) above a rocky canyon.

The Big Sur region stretches between Carmel and Hearst Castle, stretching for over 90 miles (145 km).

The Bixby Bridge was constructed in 1932 and is one of the world’s most photographed and largest concrete span bridges.

More than 5.8 million people visit the bridge each year to see the landmark and admire a 360-degree view of the coast.

Big Sur is 67 miles (107 km) and roughly a 90-minute drive from Hearst Castle.

16- Carmel-by-the-Sea

distance from san diego to san francisco
Carmel Beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea is a lovely beach and seaside town to stop for lunch or for a few days while on a San Diego to San Francisco driving trip.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is one of the Golden State’s most romantic destinations and is famous for its fantastic white-sand beach and proximity to Pebble Beach.

Carmel offers a wide array of activities and things to see for the entire family, packed with whimsical cottages, fabulous restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries.

Carmel and Monterey are two stopover destinations you simply cannot pass up on as you travel further north to San Francisco.

Carmel-by-the-Sea is 26 miles and roughly a 40-minute drive from Big Sur.

17- Monterey

flights from san francisco to san diego Crashing Surf in Monterey with houses.
If you don’t have time to stay overnight in Monterey, make sure you stop to watch the waves crashing onto the rocks. It’s a sight that will envigorate you on your San Diego to San Francisco driving vacation.

Charming, low-key and spectacularly beautiful, Monterey has a temperate climate, award-winning culinary scene and staggering cliffs.

It’s a world away from the urban sprawls of the Bay Area and Southern California.

Close to Carmel-by-the-Sea, Pebble Beach and Big Sur, Monterey is the epicentre of some of the Golden State’s most popular events.

Golfing enthusiasts are entertained by the professional golfing championships held at Pebble Beach annually, while motorsports fans enjoy catching a race or two at the Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey.

Monterey is four miles (6.4 km) and roughly a 12-minute drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea.

18- San Jose

san diego to san francisco train aerial view of San jose
The view of the north side of downtown of San Jose, California, the capital of Silicon Valley, and a high tech stop of on your drive from San Diego to San Francisco.

San Jose is a thriving metropolis and the financial and political hub of Silicon Valley. Some of the world’s most influential tech companies have their headquarters here.

The Bay area’s largest city blends traditional and modern and is jam-packed with things to do, including an excellent art museum (the San Jose Museum of Art), and the intriguing Winchester House (built in the 19th century by Sarah Winchester) and the lovely Japanese Friendship garden.

San Jose is 72 miles (115 km) and roughly an 80-minute drive from Monterey.

19- Palo Alto

san diego to san francisco Stanford Campus in Palo Alto
On your road trip from San Diego to San Francisco, you might want to pop into the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto to soak up the vibe.

Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley is our last stop before entering San Francisco.

The home of Stanford University, Palo Alto is the birthplace of Silicon Valley and draws thousands of curious tourists, jobseekers and tech corporations to its tree-lined streets annually.

Exploring the campus of Stanford University is one of the highlights of any trip to Palo Alto, while the Palo Alto Art Center and the Baylands Nature Preserve prove that there’s more to see in Palo Alto than just Stanford.

Whether it’s to cruise around its streets trying to spot as many famous tech companies as possible or to tour the grounds of the town’s famous university, Palo Alto has a vibe you have to be there to experience.

Palo Alto is 18 miles (29 km) and roughly a 22-minute drive from San Jose.

20- Golden Gate Bridge

flights from san diego to san francisco Image of San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge on foggy morning
The first thing you’ll want to see when you arrive in San Francisco is the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

Drawing over 10 million visitors annually, the Golden Gate Bridge and its 746-foot tall (227 m) iron towers, Art Deco design, and famous orange colour is the last stop on our journey from San Diego to San Francisco.

Opened in 1933, the Golden Gate Bridge spans the length of the San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Marin County, a distance of over 8,980 ft (2,737 metres).

Open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center operates guided tours of the bridge and also has a souvenir shop and fantastic vantage points to get the best views of this mighty wonder of the modern world.

The Golden Gate Bridge is 40 miles (64 km) and roughly a one-hour drive from Palo Alto.
Drawing over 10 million visitors annually, the Golden Gate Bridge and its 746-foot tall (227 m) iron towers, Art Deco design, and famous orange colour is the last stop on our journey from San Diego to San Francisco.

Opened in 1933, the Golden Gate Bridge spans the length of the San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Marin County, a distance of over 8,980 ft (2,737 metres).

Open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center operates guided tours of the bridge and also has a souvenir shop and fantastic vantage points to get the best views of this mighty wonder of the modern world.

The Golden Gate Bridge is 40 miles (64 km) and roughly a one-hour drive from Palo Alto.

Previous article20 Things To Do In Santa Cruz
Next article20 Things To Do In Beverly Hills
Christina Pfeiffer Travel Writer
Christina Pfeiffer is a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia. She has lived in three continents and her career as a travel journalist has taken her to all seven continents. Since 2003, she has contributed travel stories and photographs to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. She has won many travel writing awards and is a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.