All Articles How to do an epic road trip down California's Pacific Coast Highway

How to do an epic road trip down California's Pacific Coast Highway

Volkswagen van driving over the Bixby Canyon Bridge in Big Sur, CA
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Avital Andrews
By Avital AndrewsMar 12, 2021 21 minutes read

California’s Pacific Coast Highway is one of the all-time classic drives. Legendary Highway 1, winding down the Golden State’s coast from the redwood forest to the star-powered lanes of Malibu, makes for the road trip to end all road trips. It’s got wildlife, extravagance, harrowing twists and heights, bucolic oaky stretches, dazzling views, and the saline smell of seawater wafting over it all. Do it quick or take your time—either way, PCH unfolds expansive ocean scenery to spare, and standout memories that you won’t get anywhere else.

Note: Be sure to check road conditions and the latest Covid-related travel guidelines and safety protocols before departing on a road trip. For more info on travel in California, check the state's current travel alerts.

Man with glasses standing with arms spread apart under the Chandelier Tree
"The name comes from the higher lateral branches that could resemble a chandelier." - @Violette54


Kick off your journey in a destination with miles upon miles of dramatic coastline, craggy bluffs, lush redwood groves, exquisite food and drink, dog-friendly everything—and a bit of quirk.

What to do

Mendocino’s downtown is tiny—just a few blocks’ worth of shops and eateries—but its charm is outsized. Leave an afternoon or evening free just to wander and stroll it.

The term “must-do” is overused, but Fort Bragg’s Skunk Train truly is. Hop aboard this old-fashioned steamer—operating along the Noyo River since 1885—and prepare to see masses of old-growth redwood giants the likes of which you’ve only seen in photos.. Feeling adventurous? Try the train’s electric-powered, custom-built, two-person railbikes.

If you’re willing to drive 1.5 hours up the pretty coast to Leggett, you’ll arrive at Insta-worthy Drive-Thru Tree Park, home of the 315-foot-high, 2,400-year-old Chandelier Tree, which you can, yes, drive through.

Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach is a wonderful place to spend hours sifting through sand for colorful bits of sea glass softened by tumbling waves.

The 47-acre Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, the West Coast’s only oceanview botanical garden, nurtures an impressive array of rare plants, a well-known Rhododendron collection, a self-guided trail for kids, fruit and vegetable gardens where you harvest your own strawberries, and a walking path that leads onto ocean bluffs—watch for migrating whale pods.

Rent a hand-hewn redwood outrigger from Stanford Inn’s Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too to traverse Mendocino’s placid Big River. You’ll see harbor seals lazing, river otters flitting, heron and osprey winging elegantly, and other fantastic creatures.

At Fort Bragg’s remote Pacific Star Winery you can taste a progression of memorable blends seated in Adirondack chairs that overlook the vast Pacific. Pack a picnic.

Where to stay

For the organic gardener

Mendocino’s Stanford Inn by the Sea is a lush Craftsman-style property where gorgeous gardens and an educational organic farm occupy much of the land. Guestrooms are homey and comfortable with wood-burning fireplaces and peaceful balconies.

For the luxury lover

Here since 1877, Heritage House Resort gives remarkable ocean views through floor-to-ceiling windows. Other luxe touches include an infinity pool, a full-service spa, and granite bathrooms with heated floors, rainfall showers, soaking tubs, and L'Occitane amenities.

For the history buff

The historic, Victorian-style Little River Inn is a coastal resort where each of the 65 rooms have ocean views. It also has a high-end restaurant, Audubon-certified golf and tennis courts, a hiking trail leading into Van Damme State Park, and a beach across the street.

For the harvester

At Mar Vista Cottages you can harvest your own breakfast eggs and kale. Built in the 1930s, the nine-acre farm has hens and goats. Twelve Shaker-style cottages are stocked with fireplaces and full kitchens.

Where to eat

Trillium Cafe, a downtown charmer with lovely gardens, offers satisfying, creative cuisine punched up with bright flavors.

Ravens at Stanford Inn serves fancy vegan food made from organic ingredients grown right on the property.

A short walk from the Skunk Train station, Cowlick’s Ice Cream has a mix of classic and quirky flavors. Try the candy cap mushroom flavor—you won’t regret it.

In Fort Bragg, Noyo Harbor Inn’s dog-friendly Restaurant & Tavern has a gorgeous, tented outdoor setup over the Noyo River.

Two women are posing on a trolley
"Who comes to San Francisco and doesn't take a cable car ride? Not I, every time I see one it reminds me of the Rice-a-Roni commercial, lol I'm showing my age aren't I?" - @Excursion675469

San Francisco

Whole sections of bookstores are devoted to what to do in San Francisco and why, but suffice it to say that the City by the Bay is iconic, world-class, and holds its own among any—any—of the world’s top spots.

What to do

San Francisco has major attractions on practically every street corner, but if you're just passing through, focus on the major ones. Golden Gate Bridge, the world-famous architectural marvel, is absolutely exhilarating to drive, bike, or walk over—so long as you’re not afraid of heights. Not far across it is Muir Woods, Marin’s stunning national park. Just under the bridge, on the SF side, is historic Fort Point. Climb atop it for a dizzying close-up view of the Golden Gate.

Don’t miss the unapologetically touristy Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39, home to the Aquarium of the Bay, a marvelous two-story carousel, and a colony of very vocal sea lions.

You can also ride the dinging cable cars and coasting streetcars, jaunt to Alcatraz Island (make ferry reservations well in advance), graze the gourmet heaven that is the Ferry Building, or geek out at the Presidio’s comprehensive Walt Disney Family Museum.

In Golden Gate Park, wander the dreamy Conservatory of Flowers, learn something new at the stellar Academy of Sciences, or see masterpieces at the de Young Museum.

Where to stay

For the cool kids

Opened in 2018 Virgin Hotels San Francisco sits right near Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Center. Head to the rooftop bar to take in the scene.

For puttin’ on the ritz

The Palace Hotel, built in 1875, is the grand dame of SF lodgings. The lobby boasts imperially high ceilings; the Pied Piper bar’s oak walls display significant artworks; and the Garden Court restaurant looks like it’s out of an elaborate dream—afternoon tea here is simply unforgettable. The guest rooms are equally opulent.

For the modernista

The Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel is pure modern sophistication, fitting in perfectly with this tech-industry metropolis. The Clift has been here since 1915, but it reopened after an extensive renovation in 2020.

For the wannabe seafarer

Though recently renovated, the pet-friendly Argonaut Hotel retains its original 1907 exposed-brick structure, its heavy nautical theme, and its elevated level of service. It anchors Fisherman’s Wharf, so request a unit with windows right over the bay.

Where to eat

Wayfare Tavern is chef Tyler Florence’s outpost in the Financial District, and it does feel like a tavern: Its rich decor, incorporating reclaimed wood and original brick, recalls the Barbary Coast days of yore.

Campton Place Restaurant, in the elegant Taj Campton Place, earned two Michelin stars for chef Srijith Gopinathan’s inventive creations, which weave his south Indian heritage into California cuisine.

Atelier Crenn stands out as much for its wildly artistic tasting menus as for its history-making namesake: Though she’s actually French, the charming Dominique Crenn is America’s first female chef to nab three Michelin stars.

A tourist draw and restaurant in one, Bistro Boudin is why SF is famous for its sourdough: The upscale dining room is built around a 170-year-old bakery and its museum, so you can watch as machinery whirls, churns, and cranks out the tangy bread.

For a memorable dining experience, head to Chinatown’s 30,000-square-foot cultural attraction, China Live, for the panoply of flavorful pan-Asian specialties brought to your table.

Ghirardelli Square Chocolate & Ice Cream Shop has been perfecting its sundaes for decades. You’ll get Willy Wonka flashbacks as you watch the liquid chocolate churn in the machinery at the back of the shop.

One of your few chances to get under the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz is aboard a Hornblower dining cruise, whose all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet leaves you pleasantly satiated, as does the unparalleled view. Live music and an engaging master of ceremonies preside over it all.

People riding a gondola against a blue sky
Getty Images/Michael Marfell

Santa Cruz

Surfers, beach bums, artists, and farmers are all called to the lively seaside town of Santa Cruz for its ocean vibes, fierce waves, gorgeous forests, and progressive politics. This character-filled town atop the Central Coast also has fantastic casual eateries and hangouts lining its waterfront Victorian downtown.

What to do

At the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, visitors go on thrill rides, play carnival games, eat theme park food, bike along the water, and surf the waves. Stroll the charming vacation-village lanes of Capitola, or hike through spectacular coastal rainforest at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, growing back now after major wildfires.

You can also take a joyful ride through the woods on Felton’s Roaring Camp Railroad, and get nostalgic for college life on the woodsy UC Santa Cruz campus. Still feeling studious? Bookshop Santa Cruz is a source of great local pride; the community came together after the 1989 earthquake to save this uber-indie bookstore.

In Pescadero, pick your own berries at Swanton Berry Farm, then pick from the array of treats made on site, including jams, pies, and cakes. Also here: a fun gravitational anomaly called the Mystery Spot—you’ll almost certainly spot its ubiquitous yellow bumper sticker up and down the highway.

Where to stay

For the fitness buff

CordeValle in San Martin features bungalow-style accommodations, hiking trails, an award-winning golf course, a state-of-the-art tennis center, a spa, a sunny swimming pool, even its own winery.

For the laid-back beach bum

Family-owned Beach Street Inn & Suites looks directly over Cowell Beach and Main Beach, making for one of the coastline’s best vantage points.

For the modernista

The Hotel Paradox beautifully blends the natural and the modern. Surrounded by mountains and redwoods, rooms here are pet-friendly, high-tech, and quite restful.

For the rental regular

Looking for fully stocked oceanfront vacation homes? Watsonville’s Pajaro Dunes Resort offers wide-open views of the bay and the eponymous sand dunes. These light-filled spaces in a gated community offer easy access to 15 tennis courts and secluded beaches.

Where to eat

Charmingly old-timey, Shadowbrook is easily one of California’s most romantic restaurants. . Here since 1947, it still adheres to the dress code of that time and serves that era’s American classics.

The Crow’s Nest is a casual eatery locally famous for its harbor location, raucous social scene, and generous portions of chowder, calamari, and ribs.

Down the hill from UCSC you’ll find a spot simply called burger, with great food and craft beer Go for the grass-fed beef, patted into humorously named hamburgers and hot dogs, or a housemade black bean patty.

Saturn Cafe is a vegan eatery with Space Age-inspired decor and menu favorites that include taquitos and thick steak fries.

A photo of the Monterey Canning Company, two young girls are nearby.
"The atmosphere of the entire street is good, it's a good place to relax during lunch or breaks" - @jinito7788

Monterey and Carmel

These two adjacent seaside towns make for a highly worthwhile duo: Until 1849, Monterey was California’s capital under several flags. Today, it offers enduring historic charm and world-class attractions. For its part, Carmel-by-the-Sea is a one-square-mile village that rewards travelers with excellent restaurants, boutique shopping, inspiring art galleries, interesting historic sites, and some of the world's most magnificent marine scenery.

What to do

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is so acclaimed that many consider it to be the world’s best display of marine life: It’s home to more than 35,000 living things. Other must-sees here: Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck; the incredibly scenic 17-Mile Drive, home of the Lone Cypress; and Carmel’s upscale Ocean Avenue, which leads down to Carmel Beach.

Monterey’s Old Fisherman's Wharf is a child-friendly favorite over the water, while Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center satisfies literary types. Gardeners can tour Carmel’s organic Earthbound Farm, and history buffs can walk through 1771’s Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo—Carmel Mission—to see the Basilica Church and Junipero Serra’s shrine.

Where to stay

For the avid golfer

For exquisite service and superior golf, book a room at Pebble Beach’s Inn at Spanish Bay, then hit the links. In the evening, huddle around the property’s outdoor fire pits for the nightly bagpipe serenade; the wailing music perfectly complements these pine forests and rolling fairways.

For the seclusion-seeker

Carmel Valley’s 28-acre, Bernardus Lodge & Spa is set a bit farther back on the Monterey Peninsula, among vineyards and orchards of olive and lavender. It offers suites and villas, a signature spa, the beloved Lucia Restaurant & Bar, a hilltop infinity hot tub, plus tennis, croquet, and bocce courts.

For the dog-lover

The late Doris Day’s labor of love, Cypress Inn has been a downtown Carmel landmark since she opened it in 1929. The actress was a passionate animal-rights advocate, and her Mediterranean-styled inn still values its four-legged patrons as much as its two-legged ones.

For the whole family

Marina’s Sanctuary Beach Resort sits along 19 beachfront acres, making it the region’s only pet-friendly hotel on the beach. Its 60 cottages open to ocean views from patios and private decks.

Where to eat

A tiny Carmel nook, Dametra Cafe serves up authentic Mediterranean cuisine, live music, a festive atmosphere, and servers who are liable to break into song. Try the falafel, spanakopita, and gyros, and cap your meal off with baklava and mint tea.

Carmel’s La Balena is a small Italian bistro serving rustic Tuscan dishes. The husband-and-wife owners are big on sourcing their ingredients locally. Expect housemade salumi, delicate salads, osso buco, fresh pastas, a thought-out wine list, and, for dessert, tiramisu or gelato.

Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey is set in a stonewalled structure from the early 1900s. Servers trot out chef Todd Fisher’s massive portions of American and Italian fare plated with flair—favorites include salads, meatloaf, calamari, and anything off the wood-burning grill.

A man is standing in the forest, holding an apple.
Getty Images / Dean Blotto Gray / Design Pics

Big Sur

Nature reigns supreme and the highway gets wilder as you cross Big Sur. Fill up on gas before leaving Carmel, since stations on this stretch of the highway are scarce. Then take your time traversing these windswept cliffs, which are lined with enough pullout spots so that you can safely park to nab that epic selfie.

What to do

Bixby Creek Bridge is instantly recognizable for its distinctive arch-and-buttress design and cliffside ocean scenery. Built in 1932 at 260 feet above the beach, this single-span concrete structure has stood the test of time to become one of the world’s most photographed bridges.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, named after a local pioneer, starts down on the beach and extends up 3,000-foot mountains. Hike or camp here if you’re into landscapes that meld oak, chaparral, and redwood with saltwater breezes. A highlight on this protected land is McWay Falls, dropping a thin, steady stream of water down 80-foot cliffs onto the sand below.

Where to stay

For the special-occasion couple

Just off PCH, the 100-acre Post Ranch Inn makes the most of its dramatic cliff top location—views are either of the mountains or the Pacific. This luxe eco-friendly property gives the perfect backdrop to reconnect with your significant other.

Where to eat

At Nepenthe, you come for the magnificent view and stay for the organic beef. Everyone gets the Ambrosiaburger (ground steak on a French roll), but there’s also grilled fish, roast poultry, and decent vegetarian options.

For one of the most spectacular coastal views anywhere—be here for sunset!—Sierra Mar restaurant offers an exceptional perch high above the Pacific. Its atmosphere is serene, its service outstanding, and its seafood-heavy California cuisine sublime.

Ventana Inn’s Big Sur Bakery is a good bet for breakfast, whether or not you’re staying overnight.

A bird flies over a wooden path near the beach
Unsplash/Tim Mossholder

Cambria and San Simeon

The heart of the Highway 1 Discovery Route, Cambria and San Simeon grace California’s central coast with their sweeping views, uncrowded beaches, and teeming tide pools. Opportunities for peaceful coastal hikes abound, and the area’s top attraction is truly palatial.

What to do

William Randolph Hearst certainly had a flair for the dramatic, as evidenced by the Versailles-like abode he had built on the highest San Simeon hill he could find. The newspaper tycoon lived, worked, and entertained at the ornate Hearst Castle, and anyone who was anyone got an invitation to experience the extravagance. Today, it’s a lovingly preserved state park open for ticketed-reservation visits.

Elephant Seal Vista Point provides hours of off-screen entertainment. Watch from the elevated boardwalk as very loud soap operas play out among these gargantuan marine creatures, who serve as this state park’s namesake.

Still in the mood to see mammals frolic? Stop off at Morro Bay Dog Beach in charming Cayucos. You’ll be fully convinced that these romping, splashing, tail-wagging rascals are California’s most joyful beings. And their human counterparts pick up on those good vibes, too.

Where to stay

For parents with children in tow

Oceanpoint Ranch in Cambria has character, comfort, and style. Expect subtle cowboy decor, lawn games, and fire pits perfect for roasting s’mores with your little ones. It’s also a five-minute stroll from uncrowded Moonstone Beach.

For the beach-lover

If you’re going to stay in San Simeon, you may as well stay seaside, and the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort is just about as seaside as it gets. The lovely rooms’ private patios and balconies open right over the beach.

Where to eat

Cambria’s La Terraza serves appetizing Mexican food on a balcony in the middle of town. Friendly servers, unpretentious dishes, and strong margaritas make eating here a wholly enjoyable experience.

Follow the abundant red-and-white signs to Red Moose Cookie Co., tucked away in a nondescript warehouse center, and you’ll be rewarded with what very well could be the tastiest pastries on the coast.

A field of multicolored lights that are part of an art installation
"We were so surprised to stumble on this fabulous art installation." - @JBMD1

San Luis Obispo

The road gets sportier here, and the locals skew younger, since San Luis Obispo is a beachy college town. Its energetic downtown is packed with fun things to do—restaurants, bars, theaters, trendy boutiques—all housed in turn-of-the-century mercantile buildings. SLO County lays claim to 80 miles of Highway 1, upwards of 230 wineries, and 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).

What to do

San Luis Obispo boasts California's longest running farmer’s market, which is saying a lot in a state that prides itself on its produce. Downtown’s Bubblegum Alley is just what it sounds like: an narrow alleyway where everyone contributes their chewed-up gum to the wall, making #bubblegumalley an eccentric and slightly disgusting Instagram hashtag. Also in the heart of town, 1772’s Mission San Luis de Tolosa is so well-preserved that it looks as though it’s frozen in time.

California Polytechnic University, aka Cal Poly, is a big reason this fun town is what it is, and strolling its campus can be nostalgic and enjoyable.

A bit farther afield, artist Bruce Munro’s expansive “Field of Light” at Sensorio makes for pure nighttime magic; Morro Rock is a natural wonder that’s perfect at sunset; rustic Avila Valley Barn provides hours of animal and you-pick-it fun for little ones; and the excellent wineries of Paso Robles—Justin, Eberle, Hollyhock, and Robert Hall among them—supply the adult merriment.

Where to stay

For the Cali socialite

Hotel San Luis Obispo opened in 2019 and remains a buzzy spot where SLO’s cool kids mix and mingle. Hip, comfortable, and centrally located, its modern, bright rooms feature playful art, white oak floors, and handmade Nani Marquina rugs.

For country folk

Affordable and homey, Apple Farm Inn is a quaint country lodging where guests snuggle into robes and reading nooks in cozy rooms. There are also fireplaces, lush gardens, and a hot tub to laze in. The onsite diner serves down-home specialties, greasy American breakfasts, and hot apple dumplings.

For the sophisticated wayfarer

Set in a former auto-repair garage, The Butler Hotel makes the most of its historic 1950s façade, belying a hip-as-all-get-out interior, mixing industrial and modern design. Rooms are luxurious, appointed with curated artwork and mid-century modern furnishings.

For the eccentric

Even if you don’t stay at the Madonna Inn, you should at least walk in to see it. Quirky and bold to the max, its lobby and restaurant are intensely colorful. Each of the 110 rooms is outfitted with unique, uh, themes. Think animal prints, pink carpets, giant flowers, waterfalls and rock showers.

For oenophiles

At Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles, you’ll feel as though you’ve landed in an Italian vineyard estate. Its Tuscan architecture holds hundreds of antiques, plus 171 rooms and suites surrounded by 20 acres of vineyards. The onsite wine bar features the resort’s private label and many other wines as well.

Where to eat

In the heart of downtown SLO, Novo is an acclaimed local favorite that serves global cuisine on a romantically lit patio over a creek.

At Hotel SLO’s Piadina, Ryan Fancher, a Thomas Keller protege, puts creative California twists on traditional Italian recipes.

Downtown’s rustic Eureka! does in fact feel like a revelation. Its tasty all-American food is all made from scratch, from locally sourced produce. A rotating craft beer program, plus a whiskey club, add to the indulgence.

Firestone Grill is a tourist favorite, serving crave-worthy barbecue in casual, college-y digs. Go for the beloved tri-tip sandwich and pair it with a refreshing salad.

Photo of restaurant called La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara
"Love the Quezo Fundido & Alhambres. AMAZING tamale verduras" - @Fabgg77

Santa Barbara

You’ll feel it when you drive into Santa Barbara County—the climate gets more Mediterannean, the scenery gets noticeably oakier and hillier, and the towns have an elevated summery feel. It’s this distinctive American Riviera flavor that makes people love this area so much, including Solvang, Santa Ynez, Summerland, and the Santa Maria Valley. If you’re into food, wine, and California history, you can’t go wrong here.

What to do

Santa Barbara’s bustling heart is State Street, where European influences meld with SoCal chill. This walkable main street’s boutiques, restaurants, bars, and Spanish Revival architecture make for a visit not soon forgotten.

Old Mission Santa Barbara is arguably the most beautiful of California’s 21 missions, while El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park does an entertaining job of bringing California’s Native American and colonial history to vivid life.

The Santa Barbara Zoo is excellent for kids, with cute train rides, a giraffe-feeding deck, and 145 other species of earthlings to gawk at. Also good for kids, and not far away, is Solvang, an adorable Dutch-themed village with excellent restaurants and interesting shops. Over in quaint Nipomo, the quirky Luffa Farm teaches that luffas are gourds that grow on vines. Tour the farm and take home a scrubby souvenir.

Where to stay

For privacy-seekers

John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned at San Ysidro Ranch, a deeply romantic getaway in the Santa Ynez foothills. Its 500 acres open to views of the Channel Islands, 17 miles of hiking trails, and meticulously tended gardens bursting with lavender and rosemary.

For fans of old-time glamour

Since 1918, El Encanto has been the luxury hotel in the Santa Barbara hills. Every sort of luminary has come to rejuvenate in this bucolic scenery—or to have an elegant brunch onitsa fantastic outdoor patio with views over all of Santa Barbara.

For the outdoorsy type

Just north of Santa Barbara, El Capitán State Beach is a wonderful place to camp. Set up your tent, then await sunset—these cliffs provide an incredible ocean view, often punctuated by leaping dolphins and whales. During daylight hours, take the stairs down the bluff to explore the sandy beach and its tidepools, or to swim or surf.

Where to eat

La Super-Rica Taqueria is a taco stand with a cult following—Angelenos are known to drive an hour and a half north just for these tortilla-wrapped wonders. Even Julia Child was a regular.

At S.Y. Kitchen, the letters stand for Santa Ynez, and the menu stands for delicious, particularly the wild mushroom pappardelle and the truffle sliders. The Italian food here is beyond, the service expert, and the ambiance inviting.

Stonehouse, one of the two restaurants at San Ysidro Ranch, is set in a 19th century citrus packing house enveloped by beautiful gardens. Eat alfresco to take in the exceptional service, exquisite food, and highly romantic environs.

Casmalia’s Hitching Post embodies Santa Maria-style barbecue. These Old West flavors come from the indoor barbecue pit and the high-quality beef fired up over local red oak wood.

Photo of family in the garden at Getty Villa
"The villa is truly the jewel to see in LA" - @jm77777


Everyone has heard of Malibu and probably knows exactly what it looks like. Whether from seeing those red bathing suits run in slow motion on Baywatch or watching Swayze and Keanu play tousled cops and robbers in Point Break, this town straddling the PCH possesses extreme star power. But as locals know, the beachy borough is also graced with quieter, less-famed spots, many of them just as great as the well-known ones.

What to do

There are so many great attractions in Malibu, you’ll want to pack it in. Hunt for the little creatures hiding in Leo Carrillo State Park’s active tide pools. Take the easy boardwalk stroll to the sand at Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Experience popular Zuma, the quintessential California beach. Shop and dine at open-air Malibu Country Mart, keeping an eye open for celebrities and their little ones at the playground.

Up for more? Gaze at some of the world’s most important treasures at the Getty Villa; ride the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier; tip a busker on bustling Third Street Promenade; or tool down Venice Beach Boardwalk to spot the skaters, artists, and musclemen.

Adventurous hikers can take on the Backbone Trail, which stretches for 67 miles along the Santa Monica Mountains. Or head to Will Rogers State Park to hike, ride horses, or explore the Hollywood legend’s classic home.

Keep in mind, too, that all of the attractions of greater Los Angeles and Anaheim, too numerous to list here, are now within a reasonable drive, from Disneyland to the Griffith Observatory (although you’ll have to be mindful of traffic).

On your way down to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara, you might consider stopping off in Ventura, the beachy, laid-back hometown of the Patagonia apparel company.

Where to stay

For the comfort-seeker

Shutters on the Beach, true to its name, does sit right on the Santa Monica Bay. Its rooms, elegant and intimate, provide amazingly generous views over the Pacific.

For the surfer

Surfrider Malibu features intelligently curated modern beach house decor and California surf culture inspirations. Built in 1958 as a standard motel, a complete redesign transformed it into chic, contemporary boutique lodgings.

For the mid-century modernist

Originally built in 1947, Native Hotel has an au courant look and feel, albeit retaining heavy mid-century modern elements. Its 13 individually decorated king-size rooms sit among acres of lush greenery.

For the Japanophile

Nobu Ryokan Malibu is a collaboration between star chef Nobu Matsuhisa and actor Rober De Niro. The duo turned the former Casa Malibu into a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), complete with teak soaking tubs and indoor-outdoor fireplaces.

Where to eat

The flavors at Taverna Tony are just as lively as its people. It’s Greek through and through, so expect live music and dance, traditional delicacies (you can’t buy hummus like this at the grocery store), and a pervasive joie de vivre.

Named after the Olympic gold-medal surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Duke’s Malibu is casual and heavily Hawaii-flavored. It serves up huge portions and classic SoCal ocean views, so request a table near a window.

Inn of the Seventh Ray is set back a bit in earthy Topanga, on a woodsy creek. Drawing an artsy, ethereal crowd, these garden environs are full of romance. Chef Bradley Miller’s avant-garde fare is mostly organic and vegetarian.

Tourists walking on a walkway in Balboa Park
Getty Images/Medioimages/Photodisc

San Diego

San Diego anchors the PCH’s southern strand, with 70 miles of U.S. Route 101 lining the coastal county and its laid-back towns. But this region of California, a sun-dappled stretch of perpetual summer, offers more than just ideal weather and perfect beaches. The city also puts forth world-class cultural experiences, a booming culinary and craft beer scene, exciting nightlife, and rich opportunities for outdoor adventures.

What to do

Balboa Park is America’s largest urban cultural park and one of its top attractions. It has a diverse collection of museums, a beautiful Japanese Friendship Garden, performing arts spaces, and much more.

Another major draw is the century-old San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where 3,500 animals are on view, either on foot or during an engaging double-decker bus tour. For more rides, head to Carlsbad’s Legoland, a 128-acre amusement park themed around the popular toy bricks. Adding to the SoCal theme park scene is SeaWorld San Diego, known for its orca and dolphin shows, aquariums and animal exhibits, and Sesame Street-themed kids’ area.

When you’re ready to eat or shop, head to the Gaslamp Quarter, a buzzy 16-block district packed with restaurants, nightlife, and boutiques.

For epic ocean views, the cove town of La Jolla never disappoints. On Pacific Beach, party people sunbathe, socialize, and surf. And Cabrillo National Monument, run by the National Park Service, marks the spot where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to land on the U.S. West Coast in 1542.

Where to stay

For the architecture aficionado

La Jolla’s Lodge at Torrey Pines is an elegant example of California’s warm, distinctive Craftsman-building style. The service here is refined, and the elegant suites come with fireplaces and elaborate bathrooms.

For the glamorista

Since its opening in 1926, La Valencia has been a getaway for celebrities drawn here for the “pink lady’s” old-fashioned charm and elegance. Original art and mosaics grace much of this beachfront resort, as do wide, resplendent views over the bay.

For location, location, location

The two glass towers that comprise the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina define San Diego’s skyline. Many of its 1,360 rooms have balconies, so request one on the highest possible floor to get outstanding views. Its location puts you right on the boardwalk, adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter, and right on the trolley line.

For the rock star

The Hard Rock Hotel is all about its stylish vibe and hip nightlife. Rooms are modern and sleek, especially the 17 Rock Star Suites. Dine in style at the hotel’s excellent Nobu restaurant, its trendy Bar 207, or in one of the private cabanas at the rooftop pool.

For the kids (or kids at heart)

Colorful Legoland Castle Hotel is your Lego-maniac dream come true. It’s got three themed floors, ocean views, and yes, 2,100 models made from more than 3 million Lego pieces. Bonus: a stay here will get you early-bird park entry.

Where to eat

Little Italy’s Herb & Wood is a loft-like space with plush blue booths, bold art, and an upbeat vibe. Its creative farm-to-table fare and craft cocktails draw an in-the-know crowd.

Also in Little Italy, celebrity chef Richard Blais’s vibrant Juniper & Ivy is a self-described “left coast cookery” with a daily menu of adventurous small plates and signature cocktails. Reserve a counter seat to watch the cooks work.

Formerly a food truck, Salud got so popular that it’s now a brick-and-mortar staple in Barrio Logan, SD's oldest Mexican-American neighborhood. Locals queue up for delicioso street-style tacos, carne asada, and carnitas.

Salt and Straw’s two SD locations (one in Del Mar, the other in Little Italy) make for quirky scoop shops serving up wonderfully wacky ice cream flavors like "freckled chocolate zucchini bread" and "amaro candied herb seeds."

Advice From Tripadvisor's Forums

Photo of an indoor reflecting pool at Hearst Castle
Unsplash/Vidar Nordli Mathisen

Getting on the road

Map it out

As far west as you can get on the West Coast, the PCH firmly signals the left end of this country and continent. Up and down, it spans pretty much the whole Golden State.

Get there

If you’re taking PCH north to south, flying into SFO, then driving to Mendocino is your best bet. Starting in the south? Land at LAX or Burbank.

How to go

RV, SUV, EV—there’s really no wrong way to get yourself down this road. If you’re renting and want to feel the wind and sun on your skin, consider a convertible or even a motorcycle (though you'd need a motorcycle license for the latter). Whatever your vehicle, make sure that you take the time to stop, get out, walk, look, and breathe.

Best stop en route

If this highway is California's crown, Hearst Castle is its shining jewel. It’s a dreamlike palace that best embodies what this stretch of land represents: sweeping beauty, chilled-out glamour, high drama, and yes, occasional scandal.

The soundtrack

There are so many California coast-themed songs to listen to while you cruise. Here are a few to consider for your playlist:

  • Almost anything by the Beach Boys
  • “Californication,” Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • “California Dreamin,” The Mamas & The Papas
  • “Going Back to Cali,” Notorious B.I.G.
  • “Pacific Coast Highway,” Hole
  • “Heading South,” Luke Bryan
  • “Pacific Coast Highway,” Sonic Youth
  • “PCH,” Sublime with Rome
  • “Ventura Highway,” America
  • "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," Otis Redding
  • “California Love,” 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre
  • “Pacific Coast Highway in the Movies,” Awolnation

Photo of Ashley Rossi, stepping out of an RV
Ashley Rossi, Pacific Coast Highway expert

Ask an expert

“Don't miss a sunset meal at Moss Beach Distillery, about 35 minutes south of San Francisco., The historic property is worth a visit in its own right—ask about its speakeasy history and resident ghost, the Blue Lady—but also stands out for its coastal California cuisine and ocean views. The dog-friendly patio, complete with fire pits, is one of the West Coast’s best places to view the sunset and watch whales. Also, [for a]unique place to stay, I'd recommend the “human nest” or “twig hut” at Treebones Resort.
Ashley Rossi, managing editor at Togo Group (Roadtrippers and Togo RV)

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Avital Andrews
Avital Andrews is a journalist covering travel, home, food, and technology. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb, and read more of her writing at