I have lived in California for a majority of my life, but still have to pinch myself when I drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. There is nothing more quintessentially California than a highway winding right along the coast, the Pacific on one side and rugged cliffs rising on the other. Now that I live in Southern California, I am making it a priority to explore the southern portion of the highway from Santa Barbara to Dana Point (it’s a hard task, but someone’s gotta do it). Here’s are a few of my favorite stops along the way on a Southern California Pacific Coast Highway road trip.
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The Ultimate Southern California Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
There is no better place to start your Southern California Pacific Coast Highway road trip than this beautiful seaside city. With its signature Spanish red-tiled clay roofs to local wineries offering some of California’s best wine, you could easily spend a few days in Santa Barbara exploring. One of my favorite things to do is to wander down State Street and just people watch.
What to see
Sip local wines on the Urban Wine Trail, including the Funk Zone, which is a revitalized industrial area of town that has numerous wine tastings, cafés and galleries. Get some sun at the city’s East Beach, while enjoying panoramic views of the Pacific. Wander around Ganna Walska Lotusland, a botanical garden located on the Montecito estate of a Polish singer.
Where to eat
Grab lunch at the Natural Cafe on State Street, which has a great selection of sandwiches, soups and salads. A long time local favorite, Los Agaves is great for solid Mexican food. Get a scoop or two of ice cream at McConnell’s on State Street.
Where to stay
- Sunset Motel – located close to downtown, is spotless and comes with a complementary breakfast.
- The Lavender Inn by the Sea is a cozy boutique hotel that is a few blocks from the beach and includes a free continental breakfast.
This small beach city is a great alternative for those that want to avoid the tourists or the college student crowds of Santa Barbara. It has a special place in my heart because it’s the hometown of one of my close high school friends. I love how it has a strong community feel with beach town vibes.
What to see
Take a walk on Carpinteria State Beach, where you can spot seals and sea lions from December through May, as well as the occasional gray whale that is en route to the warmer waters of Mexico. If you want to stay inland, Seaside Gardens, a nursery/botanical garden hybrid boasts an extensive and unusual plant selection.
Where to eat
The Spot has been serving up no-frills hamburgers for 50 years and is a great spot to grab a casual lunch. For something sweet, Crushcakes & Cafe has a lovely Carpinteria location that serves up fresh baked goods (try their cupcakes!), as well as breakfast items and hearty salads.
Where to stay
- Best Western Plus Carpinteria – one of the few hotels in town, this is an excellent option with an on-site restaurant and is close to the beach.
- Carpinteria State Beach Campground – for budget lodging with beachfront views, make sure to reserve a spot early, especially in the summertime.
This coastal city is a great stopping point on your Southern California Pacific Coast Highway road trip to stretch your legs and has plenty to see and do, including the Ventura Pier, and a little ways down the San Buenaventura State Beach, which boasts less crowds with beautiful views. If you want to take a day trip to the Channel Island, hop on a boat from Ventura Harbor to the closest island, Anacapa, which is easily explorable in half a day. Afterward, grab a bite to eat at Cafe Nouveau, which serves both traditional American brunch items and those with a Creole twist, like their maple bacon beignets.
This is my favorite stretch of PCH to get out and admire those stunning ocean views. There are plenty of places to pull over for photo opts, just be careful when pulling in and out of the highway shoulders. Malibu is spoiled with stunning beaches, including Point Dume, a classic Malibu beach and the more rugged El Matador. Stop for fresh seafood at Malibu Seafood and eat your fish and chips al fresco with a view of the ocean right across the street.
If you want to experience a Los Angeles beach city, this is the place to stop with its beautiful people, healthy food options, and iconic pier. Santa Monica is a very walkable city, and one of my favorite things to do is walk around the quiet neighborhoods to admire the million-dollar homes, wander around Main Street and then head to the beach a few blocks away.
Things to do in Santa Monica
Stroll along the Santa Monica Pier and the adjacent beach, for prime people-watching and stunning views. Shop at the Third Street Promenade, a huge outdoor mall that has every store you could ever dream of. Visit one of the four Santa Monica Farmers Markets, where some of the city’s top chiefs get their produce.
Where to eat in Santa Monica
Bay Cities Italian Deli – two words: the Godmother, a sandwich that is piled high with various meats and the bread is heavenly. Satdha Plant Based Thai Kitchen – in true Westside fashion, this health-conscious spot does Thai food very well.
Where to stay in Santa Monica
- The Gateway Hotel – mid-range hotel less than two miles from the beach and Santa Monica Pier, free parking.
- Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel – luxury hotel right on the beach with a pool that has a front row seat to sunsets over the Pacific.
Venice, a neighbor to Santa Monica, has a more boho vibe, with its beach boardwalk and art scene. Recently, it has become known as Silicon Beach with companies like Google moving in to local office spaces. Now more than ever the contrast between the wealthy and the homeless is more apparent, where you can walk down one street filled with tents and the next street is filled with expensive juice bars.
Things to do in Venice
People-watch on the colorful Venice Beach Boardwalk. Browse boutique shops on Abbot Kinney Boulevard including Toms Venice for shoes and Burro for gifts. Take a break from city life among the beautiful homes along the Venice Canal, that were modeled after the canals in Venice, Italy.
Where to eat in Venice
Grab fuel in the form of a lox bagel or egg sandwich from Gjusta, where braving the wait and the confusing ordering system is worth it. For a light casual lunch or dinner, Wurstkuche has delicious sausages (including veggie), as well as an assortment of German beers.
Where to stay in Venice
- Su Casa at Venice Beach – on the beach 3.5 star property that is reasonably priced and is a quick walk to the boardwalk.
- Hotel Erwin – a trendy four-star hotel that is stepped away from the beach and has one of the best rooftop bars in the area.
Located in Los Angeles’s South Bay, this beach town is definitely worth stopping by to wander around the Redondo Beach Pier, and watch the surfers do their thing. Afterward, explore the lively dining and entertainment area nearby. For lunch make sure to stop by Jus’ Poke, for some of the freshest Hawaiian poke (get the shoyu).
This city has gone through a lot in the past few decades, from a port city to a city know for its lively waterfront scene. The docked Queen Mary, a British ocean liner from the 1930s, is where you can dine in one of their restaurants or sleep in one of the cabins, or just take a tour of the impressive grounds. The Aquarium of the Pacific is a must for everyone both young and old, with over 11,000 animals to view. Walk along (or bike) Belmont Shore Beach walking paths, and take in the classic SoCal beach views. For lunch go to Phnom Penh Noodle Shack for Cambodian noodle soup.
Make sure to stop at this lively beach city that is located in northern Orange County. Stop by the Huntington Beach Pier, where you can watch surfers do their thing in the ocean below. Speaking of surfers, this beach city is nicknamed “Surf City USA,” and the Huntington Beach International Surf Museum is worth checking out to learn more about the history and culture of surfing. A personal favorite is the Huntington Dog Beach right off of Highway 1, where you can see some of the happiest pups running around and some hard-to-beat views of the coast. Check out Pacific City, an open-air mall, which is walking distance from the pier, and has an upscale food court.
Things to do in Newport Beach
Take a stroll on the popular Balboa Pier, amid regulars fishing and surfers catching the perfect wave below. Located just two miles from Balboa Pier, Newport Pier is the other municipal pier within Newport Beach. It’s a great place for prime people-watching. Keep your eyes out for dolphin and whale sightings. Escape to Balboa Island on the ferry and walk around the town with a frozen banana in hand from Sugar ‘N Spice.
Where to eat in Newport Beach
Head to Mama D’s Italian Kitchen for homemade spinach ravioli and their famous pink sauce.
Where to stay in Newport Beach
- Newport Beach Hotel – casual 3 star hotel that is located right on the beach and includes a continental breakfast.
- Hyatt Regency Newport Beach – luxury hotel with tennis courts, golf, three pools and an on-site restaurant.
Things to do in Laguna Beach
Spend a day at Main Beach, steps away from the center of town or head to Crystal Cove State Park if you want a more secluded beach. Learn how injured sea lions are nursed back to health at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Spend an afternoon at the Laguna Art Museum which features exclusively art created in California.
Where to eat in Laguna Beach
Head over to Nick’s Laguna Beach for a classic brunch that features things like short rib benedict and warm butter cake for dessert. For a casual brunch, head over to Zinc Cafe & Market, where you can get options like avocado toast and healthy bowls stuffed with veggies and an egg. Gelato Paradiso is an excellent way to end the day, with some of the best gelato in the OC.
Where to stay in Laguna Beach
- Laguna Beach Inn -a central and affordable option that is located steps from the beach and includes a complementary breakfast
- Laguna Beach House – a short walk away from the beach and the center of town, complementary coffee to start the day
For a quieter, but equally as beautiful beachside city, Dana Point is a great way to end your Southern California Pacific Coast Highway road trip. Walk along Dana Harbor, past Baby Beach and stop by the Ocean Institute and then continue onto Dana Cove Park for some of the best ocean views with towering cliffs. The Doris Walker Overlook is a great option for an aerial view of the harbor. The Shwack Beach Grill is perfect for a beer and burger (I’m a big fan of their turkey burgers with cranberry sauce).
What is the best time for a Southern California Pacific Coast Highway road trip?
Contrary to popular belief it’s not always sunny in California. The best time to go is in September or October, when the summer crowds have gone home, and the weather is still warm. If you do decide to plan a Pacific Coast Highway trip in the late spring/early summer there’s a good chance the coastline will be foggy, especially in Southern California, which the locals lovingly refer to as June Gloom. Winter and spring can also be an option, if the weather is sunny, but be forewarned that if it’s rainy there can be road closures due to dangers like mudslides.
Which Pacific Coast Highway route is the best?
Going from north to south is ideal, since you’ll be in the lane closest to the ocean, and therefore have the best view without having a lane of traffic in the way. Of course, going the opposite way is not bad as well, and it all depends on what works best for your personal travel plans.