Here’s how to plan out the ultimate San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip and enjoy one of the best routes that California, nay America, has to offer.
Why Drive From San Francisco to Santa Barbara?
Take it from me, a professional travel writer with hundreds of thousands of miles of road trip under my belt: the road trip from San Francisco to Santa Barbara is one of the most spectacular in the world.
San Fran itself is a bucket list city. Santa Barbara is one of the prettiest. But the real reason to drive between the two is the stunning, and I mean stunning, natural beauty.
A quick detour to the north to the wine country of Sonoma surrounds you with golden leaves and rolling vineyards. Inland, retrace the footsteps of Mice and Men at the Steinbeck Center. And seventeen mile drive near Carmel by the Sea serves up an ocean breeze and a view of paradise.
And, threaded through all this, you’ll find stories of independent businesses, inspiration, great food and sustainable travel.
Check out my full itinerary for San Francisco to Los Angeles road trip here. But if you don’t have time for that, buckle up, sort out your car rental and get going.
A San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip is one of the best in the world.
- Stunning Scenery: From the zig-zagging roads of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge to serene ocean landscapes.
- Wine Country Wonders: Experience the richness of California’s vineyards with wine tastings at renowned wineries.
- Unforgettable Stops: Visit charming coastal towns and explore iconic roadways like the 17 Mile Drive and the Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
How Long Does it Take to Drive From San Francisco to Santa Barbara?
The drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara spans approximately 380 miles along the iconic California coastline. You can drive it straight in around 6 to 7 hours, depending on traffic and selected routes. But that misses the point. While it’s not a long drive, the best stops make it worthwhile.
Taking the US-101 South offers a straightforward path, but consider detouring onto the Pacific Coast Highway (California State Route 1) for breathtaking ocean views. Plan for breaks in charming coastal towns like Monterey or Carmel by the Sea to explore and savour local attractions.
To make the most of your trip, start early to catch the sunrise on the coast, and be mindful of potential traffic, especially during peak travel times.
Book plenty of overnight stops. This route can easily take a week as there are so many good things to enjoy.
When is the Best Time to Drive From San Fran to Santa Barbara?
The best time to drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara largely depends on your preferences for weather and crowds. Generally, the spring (April to June) and fall/autumn (September to November) months are considered ideal for a road trip along the California coast.
- Spring (April to June): During this period, the weather is often mild, with comfortable temperatures and lush landscapes. Wildflowers bloom along the coast, providing scenic views. Additionally, the crowds are typically smaller compared to the peak summer season.
- Fall (September to November): Similar to spring, fall offers pleasant temperatures and reduced tourist congestion. You can still enjoy the coastal scenery, and the weather is generally favorable for outdoor activities.
It’s worth noting that summer (June to August) is the peak tourist season, and while the weather is warm, popular destinations may be crowded. Winter (December to February) can bring rain and cooler temperatures, but it’s also a quieter time on the roads.
Ultimately, the best time depends on your preferences for weather, crowd levels, and the overall experience you seek during your road trip.
I travelled during October, where the leaf peeping scenery in Sonoma was sublime and the beaches still warm enough to stroll along.
Preparing for Your Journey
Before you hit the road, prepare properly. Our road trip packing list walks you through every single step, but in short, start with a thorough vehicle check-up—verify the oil levels, tire pressure, and ensure all lights function correctly. You don’t want to break down alone on the road
Pack with forethought—the California coast can surprise you with its whimsical weather changes. Bring layers to accommodate the warm sun and the cool ocean breezes. Remember, comfort on the road is key, so include cozy driving shoes and sunglasses to shield your eyes from the glistening glare of the Pacific. Don’t forget your camera, and ensure your phone is ready with necessary apps for navigation and local travel tips.
Leverage the flexibility of a road trip by timing your excursions. Set out early to miss the crowds in the more popular spots. A midweek departure might offer you quieter wine tasting sessions, allowing for a more intimate exploration of the varietals and the chance to chat with knowledgeable winemakers. A well-timed journey weaves a more personal and relaxed experience, allowing you to not only see but truly absorb the beauty of the California coast.
Obviously, if you plan on wine tasting then do not drink and drive. Alternate your driving days with your drinking days and use the many tours and taxis to help you get around.
Finally, pack an assortment of snacks and water to sustain your energy levels. Delays can happen, and having provisions on hand keeps spirits high. With the car humming in top condition, your bags smartly packed, and the anticipation of unforgettable experiences ahead of you, you’re all set to start this iconic road trip.
For more information, check our our Road Trip Planner and Toolkit.
Starting in San Francisco: City Landmarks
Before you zoom out of town, you can’t miss the basics.
First, try to see the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Not just a crossing, this bridge is a marvel of engineering and a magnificent introduction to the city’s landscape. If you can see it, that is. For me, it was constantly shrouded in fog. But you may have better luck. And if not, it’s one of the world’s most photographed bridges so you can always take a look at someone else’s snapshot…
Meanwhile, roam the bustling piers of Fisherman’s Wharf, where the aroma of fresh seafood blends with the salty sea breeze, with Alcatraz on the horizon, just beyond the elephant seals.
Drive down the crooked contours of Lombard Street, famed as one of the most winding streets in the world, bordered by vibrant flower beds and buzzing tourists trying to capture the perfect shot. These landmarks offer a glimpse into the heart of the city and the eclectic mix that defines it, setting the perfect stage for the adventures that lie ahead on your coastal journey to Santa Barbara.
Wine Enthusiast’s Dream: Sonoma Valley
While technically, Sonoma is in the opposite direction to Santa Barbara, it’s a worthy detour.
Imagine a landscape dotted with lush vineyards and sun-dappled valleys — that’s Sonoma Valley, a wine enthusiast’s haven.
On my trip, I visited Beltane Ranch and Kivelstadt Wineries through Bohemian Highway.
Other recommendations include Gundlach Bundschu Winery, with its family heritage and inviting tasting room, Ravenswood Winery, where the bold flavours of Zinfandel command attention. For an immersive experience, the serene gardens and tasting terraces of Chateau St. Jean offer an idyllic setting to appreciate the complex notes of each glass. And at Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, you’ll learn how each bottle tells the story of Sonoma’s rich winemaking culture.
No matter which wineries you choose to visit, enjoy the rows of vines and gentle California breezes, before heading towards the coast.
Carmel by the Sea
Make a gorgeous pit stop at Carmel by the Sea, home to Clint Eastwood and a picture perfect grid of white houses, art galleries and tasting rooms that spill down to a perfectly white sand beach.
Explore the hidden alleyways and courtyards by taking a tour with Staci from Carmel Food Tours. If you don’t have time for the full tour, make sure to visit the Carmel Honey Company and hear Jacob’s story.
At the age of eleven, Jacob embarked on this journey that eventually evolved from a school project to a profound passion, and now, a thriving livelihood at just twenty-one.
You can taste a “honey flight” where gleaming small golden dishes accompany intricate snacks. Much like a wine tasting, you progress from light to dark, savouring sage honey (ideal for tea), versatile orange blossom honey, robust wildflower honey (perfect for a salmon or chicken glaze), and meadow foam honey (an excellent match for port wine, ice cream, or popcorn).
Behind the fun lies a purpose. The world is grappling with bee shortages, leading to declines in pollination and biodiversity. Bees, crucial for our ecosystem, face a crisis in many regions. Supporting small, sustainable beekeepers and honey producers is a sweet and easy solution to contribute to the well-being of these essential pollinators.
17 Mile Drive
Seventeen Mile Drive is one of California’s most spectacular stretches of coastline, where each viewpoints surpasses the last. Framed by the majestic Pacific Ocean on one side and stately Monterey pines on the other, it’s an absolute highlight of any San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip.
Be sure to pull over at the Lone Cypress, an enduring symbol of resilience perched on its rocky outpost, ceaselessly weathering the ocean’s embrace. This solitary tree has been standing guard over the coast for more than 250 years, offering a moment of reflection and a perfect snapshot to preserve the memory. Then, there’s the Ghost Tree, its pale and intricate bark providing a stark yet beautiful contrast against the deep blues of the ocean beyond.
Once you’ve paid the small admission fee to Pebble Beach staff, allow yourself to take your time, soaking in the panoramic views at Spanish Bay and the restless waves at Bird Rock. Don’t rush—give these moments the attention they deserve. This is surely one of the best places in the world. And the perfect place to propose.
Agricultural Heartland: Salinas
Drive through the patchwork of crops and fields in Salinas, and you immerse yourself in California’s agricultural heartland. This region, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” boasts a bounty of farms that grow everything from leafy greens to sweet strawberries.
For a true taste of the area’s farm-fresh offerings, visit one of the lively local markets. The vibrant colours and earthy smells of freshly picked produce await you, offering not just food, but an experience. Delight in the juicy burst of a ripe tomato or the crisp snap of a just-harvested carrot.
Seek out farm-to-table restaurants scattered throughout Salinas to indulge in meals where chefs work wonders with the local harvests, bringing the flavors of the fields straight to your plate. These eateries pride themselves on menus that change with the seasons, guaranteeing a meal that’s both fresh and flavourful.
The Steinbeck Center
A visit to the Steinbeck Center in Salinas is a literary pilgrimage for one of America’s greatest authors, John Steinbeck. Exhibits showcase rare artefacts, manuscripts, and interactive displays that bring Steinbeck’s characters to life. As you wander through the museum, you gain insights into the social, economic, and environmental themes that shaped Steinbeck’s writing through a multimedia display. Depending on your level of fandom, you can whizz through in an hour or spend half a day here.
The Winery with the Wind Turbine
I’d recommend stopping off at the Scheid Winery, famous locally for its wind turbine.
Constructed in 2017, this installation not only generates power for the winery but also provides energy for approximately 150 neighbouring households. Apparently, the coastal fog and road dust rendered solar panels impractical, so instead the team ensured that wind turbine blades posed no threat to the endangered Californian condor that frequents the area – and installed them.
Certified as sustainable by CSWA, the winery produces a diverse range of wines, each with a name that reflects its unique character. Indulge in Closing Bell, a dessert wine boasting flavours of blackberry, plum, and fig, or savour Odd Lot White, featuring delightful notes of yellow apple and honeysuckle.
Other Highlights on the Road to Santa Barbara
For months in 2023, the road to Big Sur was closed and I had to plan my visit accordingly.
However, no article on a road trip from San Francisco to Santa Barbara would be complete without mentioning the following highlights.
And, who knows, I certainly hope to return and see them all one day.
Situated between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur offers rugged cliffs, pristine beaches, and ancient redwood forests. Hike through McWay Falls, where a waterfall cascades onto the beach, or explore Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park’s diverse trails.
Located along the central coast of California, Pismo Beach is a straightforward and worthwhile stop on a road trip. Known for its wide sandy beaches and laid-back atmosphere, Pismo Beach offers a relaxed break from driving along the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a great spot for beachgoers and surf enthusiasts.
The famous Pismo Pier provides scenic views and a chance to stretch your legs. The town itself has a casual vibe with various shops and eateries.
Paso Robles is a solid stop for those seeking a blend of wine country charm and rural simplicity. Known for its thriving wine region, Paso Robles offers numerous wineries where you can sample local vintages. The town itself is unpretentious, with a relaxed vibe that contrasts with the more famous Napa Valley.
In Paso Robles, you can enjoy the slower pace, explore the downtown area, and savour some excellent local wines.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium is renowned for its stunning exhibits and commitment to marine conservation. Located on Cannery Row in Monterey, it provides a fascinating look into the diverse marine life of the Pacific Ocean. From mesmerizing jellyfish displays to playful sea otters, the aquarium appeals to visitors of all ages. Beyond the engaging exhibits, the surrounding area offers charming coastal views and the chance to explore Cannery Row’s shops and restaurants.
Morro Bay is home to a key Californian landmark: Morro Rock, a volcanic plug that rises dramatically from the water. Explore the bay’s diverse marine life through kayaking or embark on a scenic hike along the Morro Bay State Park trails. The estuary, home to a rich array of bird species, provides a tranquil backdrop for wildlife enthusiasts. Don’t miss the picturesque Embarcadero, lined with shops and eateries, offering a perfect blend of coastal beauty and small-town charm.
In the heart of California’s Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang beckons with its Danish-inspired charm. Surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards, the town’s half-timbered buildings, windmills, and cobblestone streets transport visitors to a European village.
Stroll through the quaint streets, exploring boutique shops and bakeries offering authentic Danish pastries. Solvang is also a gateway to the Santa Ynez Wine Country, where you can sample local wines and enjoy picturesque vineyard landscapes. Visit the Old Mission Santa Inés for a taste of history or take a scenic drive through the valley’s countryside. It’s a great place to relax and unwind.
Situated near San Simeon on the central coast, Hearst Castle is a grand estate commissioned by William Randolph Hearst and designed by Julia Morgan.The castle offers views of the Pacific Ocean, ornate interiors filled with European art and antiques, and well-maintained gardens. It provides a glimpse into the opulence of the early 20th century. The stop is recommended for those interested in history and architecture, providing a break with scenic views along the way.
San Luis Obispo
Back in the centre, San Luis Obispo (SLO) is surrounded by rolling hills and located just miles from the Pacific.
Hike the trails of Bishop Peak for panoramic views of the city and beyond, or stroll through the serene landscapes of the San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens.
And, of course, you can continue on from Santa Barbara to Malibua, Santa Monica, Venice Beach the heart of Los Angeles or San Diego through southern California. Note that if you want to visit Yosemite National Park from San Francisco, you’ll need to head about four hours east. It’s not part of this itinerary at all.
Reaching Santa Barbara
You’ve journeyed through rolling vineyards, hugged the curves of the Pacific Coast Highway, and explored enchanting coastal towns. And now you’re in Santa Barbara.
Find Mediterranean-style buildings, adorned with red-tiled roofs and surrounded by palm-lined streets. Take a tour with Totally Cali Tours to dig deep into the Funk Zone, an artsy neighbourhood, with murals, galleries, and boutique wine and chocolate tasting spots, while the historic State Street beckons with diverse shopping and dining options.
Don’t miss the iconic Stearns Wharf, a picturesque pier offering sweeping views of the coastline. Santa Barbara combines natural beauty, cultural richness, and a relaxed vibe, making it a must-visit destination on the California coast.
Highlights of Santa Barbara:
- Mediterranean-style architecture and charming streets
- Pristine beaches for relaxation and water activities
- The vibrant arts scene in the Funk Zone
- Diverse shopping and dining on historic State Street
- Proximity to the Santa Ynez Valley wine region
- Picturesque Stearns Wharf with stunning coastal views.
How to book a road trip with Audley
Take the hassle out of arranging the trip by having someone do all the legwork for you.
A nine-day tailor-made trip to California costs from £3,260 per person (based on two travelling). The price includes flights, fully insured rental car, accommodation and excursions. Call 01993 838861 for more details or check out the website on www.audleytravel.com/usa
Other Great American Road Trips
The United States was made for road trips! Here are the routes we’ve hand tested.
- The best US road trips for couples
- How to plan a road trip along the West Florida coast
- Your one week Alabama road trip itinerary
- A New England itinerary and a road trip from Boston
- A New Orleans road trip through Louisiana
- The best road trips for couples in the US
How to Plan the Perfect Road Trip
Use the resources below to help plan your San Francisco to Santa Barbara road trip. Then, book your car rental and you’re ready to hit the road.
- The road trip essentials you need to know about
- The Ultimate Road Trip Planner with printables and handbook
- 101 fun road trip questions for your next drive
- Inspiring road trip quotes for your instagram caption ideas.
Disclosure – We took part in this road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of a project with Audley Travel, supported by some tourist boards. As ever, as always, we retained the right to write what we like. Otherwise, there’s no point.