5-Day San Francisco and Pacific Coast Highway Itinerary

It’s impossible not to have a soft spot for California. The variety in scenery, culture, food, and activities makes the state a paradise for any type of visitor. Both of us have visited various parts of California before but for this trip we chose to focus on San Francisco and the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo.

Prior to our vacation we attempted researching things to do before realizing there were just too many possibilities for this trip; so instead of creating a daily itinerary, we opted to be more spontaneous and just have a list of potential stops. We did have hotel reservations and an adorable Ford Fiesta rented, but other than that we had no specific plans. Below is how our trip turned out!

Day 1 

We actually arrived in San Francisco a little past midnight and spent the night in a seedy motel. The only silver lining was the free continental breakfast and the proximity to the rental car place. Come morning we picked up our rental car and immediately got on the highway. Our first stop was Half Moon Bay – a charming town with plenty of cute restaurants and cafes to enjoy a meal or snack.

We then continued south and stopped at San Gregorio Beach. It was an overcast day so the park was pretty much deserted. We hiked around a bit and soaked up the coastal breeze. After leaving San Gregorio, we ended up at Pescadero Beach. This beach was also deserted and we were able to kick back and enjoy the waves.

Continuing south we arrived at Santa Cruz. We decided to stay on the Boardwalk and enjoy the afternoon indulging in boardwalk food. It was a weekday so thankfully the boardwalk was fairly quiet.

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Afterwards, we headed to Point Lobos State Reserve where we drove around before parking and taking a couple short hikes. In our excitement to explore, I accidentally turned the car engine off before switching to ‘Park’. When we returned to the car and tried to back out, the car lurched forward and we almost rolled off the cliff. PSA to all you eager beavers out there to take your time (and to probably not let me drive).

We finally checked in to our hotel in Monterey after a long but fantastic day. We figured Monterey was a good base for exploring the area – even if we wandered too far south it was fairly easy to work our way back to the coastal town.

Day 2

Today was Big Sur Day! We headed out early so that we could spend as much time as possible exploring the coast. This day was extremely foggy which made for interesting driving and even more interesting scenery. Notable morning stops included Garapata State Park and Bixby Bridge. We also got a bee trapped in the car and spent a solid 15 minutes trying to coax it out. I think our Ford Fiesta deserved a special shoutout for surviving this trip.

We made several other stops that weren’t ‘real stops’ but just looked like interesting places to wander before making it to Hearst Castle. At this point, I want to say this castle is LEGIT; it was absolutely stunning and massive. This William Hearst dude kept the best artifacts in his home and the best company. The man hosted celebs and politicians such as Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Winston Churchill. He also had the largest private zoo of anyone at the time. Basically he was living the dream life and this castle definitely showed it.

Next we visited Elephant Seal Vista Point where you guessed it – we see A LOT of seals and it was wonderful. Seals were sleeping, swimming, fighting and overall living their best lives. After staring at them for way too long, we headed back north towards Monterey. We continued making miscellaneous stops, the most notable of which was Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We then caught the sunset at Carmel Beach and got a late dinner at one of Carmel’s mediterranean restaurants.

Day 3

We sadly left Monterey and headed back north towards San Francisco. Along the way we made any stops we had previously missed including Big Basin Redwood State Beach (where we watched the surfers), Pigeon Point Lighthouse, and most importantly Pie Ranch. Oh yes, there was a ranch that also had a specialty pie shop and were huge advocates for food education. Amazing.

We arrived in San Francisco and grabbed lunch in the Mission District. We then headed to Golden Gate Park where we walked around and enjoyed some quality people watching. Next, we drove to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Marin Headlands for views of the bridge and of the city. Traffic to the lookout areas were brutal so if anyone has suggestions for avoiding the cars please let us know!

Day 4

Most of our fourth day was spent in the Napa Valley. In an attempt to beat the crowds, we woke early and headed straight to Napa. In Napa Valley we did one winery tour at Castello di Amorosa. Many people said this wass a more touristy winery but since it was our first time in Napa, it was perfect for us! Also, we learned that it was built to resemble an Italian castle so the architecture and decor was stunning. They even have a dungeon which is pretty hilarious.

We did a picnic lunch at a different winery and then headed to the actual town of Napa for some shopping and exploring. We also visited the Oxbow Public Market where we encountered sensory overload with all the great food options. We spent the rest of our time driving around before heading back to San Francisco. Our evening was spent exploring Chinatown and the downtown area on foot.

Day 5

Sadly this was the last day of our vacation. We spent the morning at Fisherman’s Wharf (where we saw more seals!!) and ended our trip with more shopping and eating. 🙂

This was a jam-packed trip but it still felt like we missed a lot! Special thank you to all of our lovely California friends who took the time to meet up with us and give us great suggestions! Let us know what other things we should check out the next time we’re in the area.

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