The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Photo: Getty Images

When it comes to America's best road trips, it's hard to beat the Pacific Coast Highway. Driving Highway 1 means hours cruising along stunning bluffs overlooking the Pacific, plus designated vista points for sparkling ocean views. And, of course, there are plenty of restaurants (Korean barbecue!), beaches (Santa Barbara!), and attractions (the Henry Miller Memorial Library!) along the way.

There's arguably something for everyone. For animal lovers there's the Elephant Seal Rookery at San Piedras Beach in San Simeon, where more than 15,000 elephant seals migrate every year. From the viewing platform, you can watch them all flop around in the sand. That's about the best roadside attraction there is.

For posh eaters, a restaurant along Big Sur offers a $75 prix fixe lunch menu and, perhaps more notably, what could be one of the most beautiful views on the planet. Further south, just outside of Santa Barbara, nosh on fish tacos, bao buns, and fried cauliflower. In L.A., eat some of the best Korean barbecue in the United States, tasting pitch-perfect Waygu beef (grilled tableside, of course) and savory kimchi pancakes — all at a no-frills restaurant in a strip mall.

For those that love nightlife, sleek bars along the route serve inventive cocktails made using ingredients like clarified lime and pandan. And in case you're tired of the speakeasy concept, keep in mind that one of L.A.'s hippest offerings has an '80s theme and private karaoke rooms.

I hit the road with the mission of plotting out the best itinerary for a weekend trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Here's my play-by-play guide, complete with stops for photos in Big Sur, antiques shopping in Solvang, and craft cocktails at one of L.A.'s coolest bars.

Looking to finally take that perfect California road trip? Read on.

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Breakfast at the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Getty Images

If you're departing from San Francisco, it's a good idea to kick-start the morning with a hearty breakfast. Welcome to the Ferry Building Marketplace on the Embarcadero, an 1898 transit hub that's something of an icon thanks to its handsome white clock tower. Inside, you'll find artisanal bakeries, cheese shops, cafes, and a mushroom shop. Grab a coffee at the Oakland-born Blue Bottle and a pastry at the Acme Bread Company. For something heartier, order an egg and cheese sandwich from Cowgirl Creamery Artisan Cheese Shop.

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Stop for photos at Bixby Bridge in Big Sur

View of Bixby bridge

Valerie de Leon/Travel + Leisure

It'll take you about three hours to reach Big Sur from San Francisco, and by then you'll be ready to stretch your legs. As soon as you hit the section of the Pacific Coast Highway connecting Carmel-by-the-Sea to Big Sur, you'll start seeing vista points where you can pull off the road and take photos. Be sure not to miss the one approaching Bixby Bridge. Sure, there will be plenty of other tourists getting out of their cars to take selfies, but with a stunning view like that, how can you blame them? Join in and snap away — you'll want to remember this landscape forever.

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Lunch in Big Sur with breathtaking views

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Ann Cecil/Getty Images

After you've taken your fill of photos, it'll be time to fill your stomach. If you feel like splurging, the Post Ranch Inn's restaurant Sierra Mar offers a $75 prix fixe lunch menu and a chance to dine at a restaurant with one of the world's best views. For more casual fare, where you can relax with equally fantastic views of the Pacific, stop at Nepenthe, which serves sandwiches and salads in a rustic lodge dating back to the 1940s.

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Visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
© Blaine Harrington III / Alamy

Big Sur has a long and storied literary history, and seeing the natural beauty of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, it's easy to understand why. Walt Whitman wrote about its charms and the Beats found endless inspiration in the landscape and bohemian way of life. Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962, and his experiences inspired his book "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch." The Henry Miller Memorial Library stands on the site of the home of Miller's friend Emil White, who dedicated it to him when Miller died.

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Spend a night in Big Sur

Ventana Big Sur
Courtesy of Ventana Big Sur

If you decide to stay overnight in Big Sur, the Post Ranch Inn is an excellent choice. There's also Ventana Big Sur, an Alila Resort, which emerged from a multi-million-dollar renovation in 2017 with new villas and glamping tents spread out over 160 acres of redwood forest, a restaurant overlooking the ocean, and a pampering spa. As you sip your morning coffee with views of the Pacific, you might never want to leave.

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Stop to see the elephant seals in San Simeon

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Don Johnston

As you continue south on Route 1, you can't miss the Elephant Seal Rookery at San Piedras Beach in San Simeon. Over 15,000 elephant seals migrate here every year. From the viewing platform, you can watch them all flop around in the sand.

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Get your retail fix in Solvang

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Getty Images

Nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley is the charmingly anomalous town of Solvang, settled in the early 20th century by Danish pioneers. Take a quick detour off of Route 1 to explore this village full of Danish architecture, antique shops, restaurants, and more. The town square features a bust of Hans Christian Andersen and there's a replica of Copenhagen's famous Little Mermaid statue. For a quick break, pop into the family-owned Mortensen's Danish bakery for strudel, butter cookies, and other treats.

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Indulge in Santa Barbara

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Silas Fallstich

After a full day of driving, you'll be ready for a good meal and some R&R. The Leta Hotel, just outside of Santa Barbara, offers both — plus cocktails and SoCal vibes to boot. The easygoing hotel centers on the pool, where bands perform live music in the evenings and people gather around fire pits with margaritas and beers. Grab a table at the restaurant and order fish tacos, bao buns, and cauliflower ceviche for an eclectic feast. After dinner, unwind with a nightcap at the bar or head up to your room, with its plush bed, coastal furnishings, and turntable.

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Breakfast at Renaud's Patisserie in Santa Barbara

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Renaud's Patisserie

In the morning, head over to Renaud's Patisserie, a Santa Barbara standby just a short drive from the Leta for excellent pastries or organic eggs prepared any style.

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Fill up on art at the Getty Center

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Sergio Pitamitz

Before heading into the heart of Los Angeles, stop at the Getty Center to get your culture fix. Oil tycoon and art collector J. Paul Getty originally built the Getty Villa in Malibu to house his collection of European art, and his foundation continues to fund the museum as well as the newer Getty Center designed by Richard Meier. Ride the tram up to the top of the hill and spend a few hours exploring the grounds — they have excellent views thanks to their lofty vantage point — and the galleries within.

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Explore Los Angeles' most dynamic neighborhood

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Courtesy of Line Hotel

Opened in 2014, the ultra-hip The Line LA is not only a great base for exploring L.A.'s hip Koreatown neighborhood, but is also a destination in and of itself. The revamped midcentury building features a raw but polished aesthetic (think exposed concrete custom furnishings and original art), two great restaurants and a café by Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin, an outdoor pool, and an '80s-themed speakeasy by the Houston brothers (complete with private karaoke chambers). Be sure to request a room with a view of the Hollywood Hills— the beds face the windows so you can wake up to a stunning vista.

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Feast on Korean barbecue at Park's BBQ

The Perfect Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip
Park's BBQ

While you could easily stay within the bounds of the LINE and dine at Openaire, you'd be remiss not to venture out and see what else the neighborhood has to offer. Beeline to Park's BBQ, a no-frills restaurant in a strip mall, for authentic Korean barbecue that draws locals and celebrities alike. Get ready to feast on shrimp or Waygu beef grilled tableside and a smorgasbord of sides, including veggies and savory kimchi pancakes.

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