Even though it’s a fairly short distance from LA to San Diego, there are still many great stops to make along the way. If you’re looking for a great Southern California drive, I would definitely say this is one of the most breathtaking and exciting parts of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Need a little more planning advice? Start with our San Diego Trip Planner, then be sure to check out these 26 fun things to do in the city, some easy hikes in San Diego, as well as which beaches are great for families. Then head out on a few days trips or see which national parks are nearby.
Start your journey in LA and make your way down to San Diego, stopping at some of the most iconic beaches in Southern California. From Santa Monica to Huntington Beach, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to soak up the sun and enjoy the ocean breeze.
Whether you’re looking to splurge or save, you can do this drive any way you need to. Do it all in a couple of hours, or spend a few days meandering down the coast. Pack your bags, grab your map, and get ready for an unforgettable road trip from LA to San Diego.
Best Stops on an LA to San Diego Drive
Laguna Beach is a must-visit stop on an LA to San Diego drive. This charming coastal town is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Southern California, as well as a thriving art scene and excellent dining options.
The Pacific Coast Highway runs right through Laguna Beach, offering stunning views of the ocean and the town’s rugged coastline. Be sure to take a leisurely drive along this iconic road, stopping at lookout points along the way to take in the views.
The town boasts several stunning stretches of sand, including Main Beach, Crescent Bay Beach, and Victoria Beach. Main Beach is the most popular, with its iconic boardwalk and volleyball courts. Crescent Bay Beach is a quieter, more secluded option, with crystal-clear waters and excellent snorkeling opportunities. Victoria Beach is known for its picturesque pirate tower, which makes for a great photo opportunity.
Laguna Beach is home to over 100 art galleries, making it a haven for art enthusiasts. The town is particularly famous for its plein air painting, a style that involves painting outdoors in natural light. Some of the best galleries to check out include the Laguna Art Museum, the Peter Blake Gallery, and the JoAnne Artman Gallery.
Pier and Harbor
Laguna Beach’s pier and harbor are both worth a visit. The pier offers great views of the ocean and the town, while the harbor is home to several excellent seafood restaurants and a bustling marina.
Things to Do
Check out our full guide to the many things to do in Laguna Beach. You can go hiking in the beautiful Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, go whale watching with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, or take a stroll through the town’s charming downtown area. There are tons of tidepools to check out, and of course, beaches to visit.
Coffee and Restaurants
For a quick caffeine fix, check out the Laguna Coffee Company or the Zinc Cafe & Market. For a more substantial meal, head to The Deck on Laguna Beach for fresh seafood with an ocean view, or Nick’s Laguna Beach for classic American fare. We also love visiting Ruby’s Diner in Laguna Beach.
Laguna Beach can be a pricey destination. For a luxurious stay in Laguna Beach, Montage Laguna Beach is a five-star resort with stunning ocean views, while the Surf and Sand Resort offers direct beach access and a full-service spa.
Newport Beach is a beautiful seaside city located in Orange County, California. It is one of the most popular destinations on the LA to San Diego drive, offering a wide range of activities and attractions for visitors of all ages. Here are some of the top things to do in Newport Beach:
Newport Beach is famous for its beautiful beaches, with miles of pristine coastline and crystal-clear waters. Some of the most popular beaches in Newport Beach include Balboa Beach, Corona del Mar State Beach, and Newport Municipal Beach. Visitors can enjoy swimming, surfing, sunbathing, and other water activities.
Balboa Island is a charming community located in Newport Beach, known for its picturesque scenery and quaint shops and restaurants. Visitors can take a ferry ride to the island and explore its many attractions, including the Balboa Island Museum, the Balboa Island Ferry, and the Balboa Fun Zone.
Newport Beach is home to many art galleries, showcasing the works of local and international artists. Some of the top galleries in Newport Beach include the Peter Blake Gallery, the Orange County Museum of Art, and the Balboa Island Artwalk.
Restaurants & Coffee Shops
Newport Beach is a foodie’s paradise, with a wide range of restaurants offering everything from seafood to Italian cuisine. Some of the best restaurants are The Winery, The Cannery, and The Beachcomber Cafe.
There’s also a thriving coffee scene, with many cafes and coffee shops offering a wide range of delicious brews. Some of the best coffee shops in Newport Beach include Kean Coffee, Alta Coffee, and Portola Coffee Lab.
Newport Beach has a wide range of hotels to choose from, ranging from luxury resorts to budget-friendly options. Some of the top hotels in Newport Beach include the Balboa Bay Resort, the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, and the VEA Newport Beach, a Marriott Hotel and Spa.
Dana Point is a charming coastal city located in Orange County, California, and is a popular stop on the LA to San Diego drive. The city is known for its beautiful beaches, world-class harbor, and incredible surfing opportunities. Here are some of the top things to do in Dana Point:
Dana Point Harbor
The harbor is home to over 2,500 boats and is a hub for water activities such as fishing, whale watching, and sailing. Visitors can also enjoy a variety of restaurants, shops, and galleries located around the harbor. One of the most popular activities in the harbor is renting a paddleboard or kayak and exploring the calm waters of the harbor.
Dana Point is home to several beautiful beaches, including Doheny State Beach and Salt Creek Beach. Doheny State Beach is a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. The beach also has a large picnic area and campsites available for visitors. Salt Creek Beach is a more secluded beach and is known for its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
This is a world-renowned surfing destination, and visitors can find some of the best waves in the area at Salt Creek Beach and Doheny State Beach. The city also hosts several surfing competitions throughout the year, including the annual Surfing Santa Competition.
One of the most popular restaurants in the city is The Shwack Beach Grill, which offers delicious burgers, tacos, and salads in a laid-back atmosphere. We also like Wind and Sea Restaurant, which has Pacific Rim fusion cuisine and a great view of the harbor.
You can save money by choosing a budget hotel such as the Best Western Plus Marina Shores Hotel. Another great choice is the Dana Point One of the most popular hotels in the city is the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, which offers stunning ocean views and world-class amenities.
San Clemente is the perfect stop on your LA to San Diego drive, offering a variety of activities and attractions for visitors of all ages, from the San Clemente Pier, beaches, and surfing opportunities, to the great downtown strip of shops and restaurants.
San Clemente State Beach
San Clemente State Beach is a must-visit spot for beach lovers and surfers. The beach offers a long stretch of sand, perfect for sunbathing and swimming. The waves are also ideal for surfing, making it a popular spot among locals and tourists alike. The beach is well-maintained and offers plenty of amenities, including restrooms, showers, and picnic areas.
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano is a historic landmark located in San Juan Capistrano, just a short drive from San Clemente. The mission was founded in 1776 and is one of the oldest buildings in California. Visitors can take a guided tour of the mission and learn about its history and significance. The mission also hosts a variety of events and activities throughout the year, including concerts, art exhibits, and cultural festivals.
If you’re looking for something unique, we love the Brussels Bistro right in the center of town, serving mussels and other Belgium specialties. Right next door is the San Clemente Wine Company where you can grab a glass of wine and some cheese. Around the corner is The Vine Restaurant & Bar, which is very popular. And don’t miss The Lost Inferno speakeasy just a few doors down.
Oceanside is a charming coastal town located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. It is a popular stop for those traveling along the Pacific Coast Highway. Oceanside has a lot to offer visitors, including a long stretch of sandy beach, a historic pier, and a vibrant downtown area with plenty of restaurants and shops.
The Oceanside Pier is a must-visit attraction for anyone visiting the town. It is one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast, stretching out 1,942 feet over the ocean. Visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the pier, enjoy the stunning ocean views, and even do some fishing.
Oceanside Beach is a wide, sandy beach that stretches for miles. It is a popular spot for sunbathing, swimming, and surfing. The waves at Oceanside Beach are known to be some of the best in the area, making it a popular spot for surfers of all skill levels. There are plenty of beach amenities available, including restrooms, showers, and picnic tables.
The waves at Oceanside Beach are known to be some of the best in the area, making it a popular spot for surfers of all skill levels. The town also hosts several surfing competitions throughout the year, including the Supergirl Pro.
Restaurants & Bars
Oceanside has a vibrant dining scene. We always eat at Toasted Gastrobrunch or Swami’s Cafe for breakfast, Craft Coast Brewery & Tacos for lunch, and never miss an opportunity to have dinner at The Lab Collaborative. For cocktail lovers, there is Pacific Coast Spirits and Master’s Kitchen & Cocktails. Breweries are also in abundance, with a Stone Brewing Taproom, Kilowatt Brewing, and Breakwater Brewing Co.
Encinitas is a small city located about 25 miles north of San Diego. It is a popular stop on the LA to San Diego drive, known for its beautiful beaches, surfing spots, and relaxed atmosphere. Here are some of the best things to do and see in Encinitas:
Encinitas has several stunning beaches that are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing. Moonlight Beach is the most popular beach in the area, with a wide stretch of sand, volleyball courts, and a playground. Swami’s Beach is another popular spot, known for its excellent surfing conditions and stunning views.
Encinitas is a surfer’s paradise, with some of the best surfing spots in Southern California. Swami’s Beach is one of the most famous surfing spots in the area, with consistent waves and a challenging break. Other popular surfing spots in Encinitas include Cardiff Reef, D Street, and Beacon’s Beach.
For a casual meal, head to Pizza Port, a local favorite known for its delicious pizza and craft beer. If you’re in the mood for seafood, try Fish 101, a seafood restaurant that serves fresh and sustainable seafood dishes. For a more upscale dining experience, check out Pacific Coast Grill, an oceanfront restaurant that serves delicious seafood and steak dishes.
Encinitas can be a bit pricey, especially if you’re looking for accommodation near the beach. One of the most popular hotels in the area is the Inn at Moonlight Beach, a boutique hotel that offers luxurious rooms, a rooftop deck, and easy access to the beach. Another great option is the Cardiff by the Sea Lodge, a charming hotel that offers cozy rooms and a relaxing atmosphere.
La Jolla is a prestigious coastal community located just north of San Diego. It is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, offering a wide range of activities, including beachgoing, surfing, shopping, dining, and more.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a beautiful beach that is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The beach is surrounded by cliffs and rock formations, making it a picturesque spot for taking photos. The water is clear and calm, making it an ideal place for families with children. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes nearby where you can grab a bite to eat or a drink.
For those who are interested in surfing, La Jolla Cove is a great spot to catch some waves. There are several surf schools and rental shops in the area that can provide you with all the equipment and instruction you need to get started.
If you’re interested in taking a scenic drive, the La Jolla Cove area is a great place to start. The drive will take you past some of the most beautiful beaches and scenic spots in the area, including Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
Finally, La Jolla is known as the “Whale Capital of the West,” and there are several whale-watching tours available in the area. These tours are a great way to see these majestic creatures up close and in their natural habitat.
San Diego is the southernmost city in California and is known for its beautiful beaches, vibrant nightlife, and world-class attractions. There are tons of things to do in San Diego, including breweries and food tours. If you run out of things to do in the city, you can take one of many great day trips.
SeaWorld is a popular marine park that offers visitors the chance to see a variety of aquatic animals up close. The park features shows with dolphins, sea lions, and killer whales, as well as exhibits with sharks, penguins, and other marine life. Visitors can also ride roller coasters and other thrill rides at the park.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is one of the most famous zoos in the world and is home to over 3,500 animals from more than 650 species. The zoo is known for its innovative animal habitats, such as the Giant Panda Research Station and the Elephant Odyssey exhibit. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the zoo or ride the Skyfari aerial tram for a bird’s-eye view of the animals.
Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban park in the heart of San Diego that features museums, gardens, and cultural attractions. The park is home to over 15 museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts. Visitors can also explore the Japanese Friendship Garden or take a stroll through the Botanical Building and Lily Pond.
The Gaslamp Quarter is a historic neighborhood in downtown San Diego that is known for its Victorian architecture, nightlife, and dining scene. The area is home to over 100 restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, as well as a variety of shops and galleries. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the Gaslamp Quarter to learn about the area’s history and architecture.
Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego is a historic district that showcases the city’s early Mexican and American heritage. The area is home to a variety of museums, shops, and restaurants, as well as the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Visitors can explore the park’s preserved buildings and learn about the area’s history and culture.
Coronado Island is a scenic peninsula that is located across the San Diego Bay from downtown. The area is known for its beautiful beaches, historic Hotel del Coronado, and charming downtown district. Visitors can take a stroll along the beach or explore the island’s shops and restaurants.
Mission Bay is a man-made aquatic park that offers a variety of water activities, including swimming, boating, and fishing. The park features over 27 miles of shoreline, as well as several parks and picnic areas. Visitors can also rent kayaks, paddleboards, and other watercraft at the park.
I think you probably have enough to do with the options we’ve just given, but I’d suggest always keeping room in your road trip itinerary to find something awesome and be able to spend time there. We always find gems and hidden treats on this road trip.
Travel Planning Guide
🚙💨 Where should I book my rental car?
Renting a car is one of the best ways to get around in California, no matter where you’re visiting. Public transportation can only get your so far, even in big cities. I always rent with Discover Cars, which checks the prices of all major rental car companies, so you get the best rates.
🛌 What’s the best way to book my accommodations?
For hotels and vacation rentals, Booking.com or Expedia.com are the best sites, but you can also book through TripAdvisor. If you’re considering renting a house instead, don’t forget to also check VRBO, which is often cheaper than Airbnb.
🧳 What do I pack for California?
✈️ What’s the best site to buy flights to California?
Laura is a travel fanatic who loves seeing and doing new things. She lives in Ventura, CA, and spends a lot of time exploring California’s cities, beaches, and national parks.