All the Ways to Go From San Diego to San Francisco
Plane, Train, or Automobile? Learn different ways to get from San Diego to San Francisco with benefits of each, so you can choose your best way to get there.
Way #1: Do a San Diego to San Francisco Road Trip
You have two main ways to get to San Francisco from San Diego in a car: The slow but scenic way and the fast way.
The slow but scenic way is taking Highway 1, aka the Pacific Coast Highway, between the two. This is the iconic road trip that California is famous for.
The Pacific Coast Highway is where you’ll find sandy-edged beach towns one after the other that eventually give way into rocky cliffside scenery that the road splices over in a dramatic fashion – providing jaw-dropping views that also might make your stomach drop on particularly elevated parts of the road.
You can drive from San Diego to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway in a day, but it’s going to be a long day. Expect at least nine hours hours and tack on another few hours for the inevitable picture stops and food joints you’ll want to try along the way.
Some of those can’t-miss sights and food joints include:
- Walking along one of the rugged beaches of Malibu, like El Matador Beach.
- Trying some Olallieberry pie in Cambria.
- Snapping a photo of the massive rock in Morro Bay.
- Doing a wine tasting flight in Avila Beach, followed by a walk along the sand.
- Dining at a farm to table restaurant in Santa Barbara
- Visiting the elephant sea lions along the coast in Central California.
- Driving across Bixby Bridge in Big Sur.
- Doing the 17-Mile Drive in Big Sur.
- Walking through the charming downtown area of Carmel.
- Visiting Cannery Row in Monterey (and the acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium if you have time).
In a hurry to get from San Diego to San Francisco? Then the 5 is the way to go — and yes, for all you Washingtonians and Oregonians doing the drive, it is the 5 in California, not I-5. 🙂
Interstate 5 is the main highway of the west coast; it connects all the way from San Diego to San Francisco and then continues up all the way up to Seattle and beyond to Canada.
The I-5 takes about eight hours to drive between San Francisco and San Diego. Along the way you’ll encounter a lot of farms and barren land. It doesn’t have any of the dips and peaks and powerful nature of the Pacific Coast Highway, but there’s a strong beauty to be found in this inland part of California that will be unfolding all around you and which feels a world away from the two cities you’re traveling between.
A fun place to stop off for a break along the way is Paso Robles where you can do a wine tasting and then eat some lunch.
Way #2: Fly from San Diego to San Francisco
Of course, an even faster way to get between San Francisco and San Diego is by taking a flight. Direct flights between the cities run all day on multiple airlines.
The flight is less than two hours, and if you’re signed up for TSA Precheck it’s a pretty painless flight – even if you’re stuck with a flight interruption or cancellation, it’s usually short-lived or easy to rebook since there are so many other flights going out later in the day.
San Diego airport is located just a couple miles from downtown and has a fun local flair to it with many local shops located inside: Look for Ballast Point Bar for a pre-flight local craft beer, Stone Brewery for locally-sourced things to eat (and more craft beer), Pannikin for coffee or tea, and Warwick’s for a book to read.
San Diego airport is reachable by public transportation since there’s a shuttle that connects with the transit station in the Gaslamp Quarter. That station is utilized by both the trolley and the coaster, and you can simply show your trolley or coaster ticket to the bus driver to continue on without paying extra for the bus to the airport.
If you’re flying to San Francisco from North County San Diego, another airport option to look into for flight prices is Orange County – Santa Ana (SNA), also referred to as John Wayne Airport, located right by Irvine, California. It may take a bit longer to get to than San Diego International Airport, but it’s a small airport that has car rental agencies right onsite and a small terminal that usually has a quick security line.
The San Francisco airport (SFO) is located outside the city center, but is connected to the BART Rapid Transit System, which makes it easy to get to where you’re staying or attending meetings since it connects with downtown San Francisco. Taxis and buses into downtown (and other neighborhoods around the county of San Francisco) are also available.
Way #3: Take the Train from San Diego to San Francisco
A relaxing way to get between San Diego and San Francisco is by taking the train. The Amtrak has a route that runs between the two…sort of. If going to San Francisco from San Diego, you’ll actually be ending your journey in Oakland, which is across the bay from San Francisco. Luckily, of all the big cities of California, San Francisco has the easiest public transportation to navigate and you can fairly effortlessly get from Oakland to San Francisco via the BART or bus routes.
As for the train ride itself between San Diego and San Francisco, the ride has views of the ocean interspersed with inland valley sights. You’ll start your journey on the Pacific Surfliner, the Amtrak train that operates between San Diego and San Luis Obispo before changing trains in Central California to continue your journey to the Bay Area.
Along the way, you’ll get to lounge in a seat with plenty of room for your elbows and knees. There is also a meal car and bar service. In addition, Amtrak has Wi-Fi available on its trains.
The train ride from San Diego to Oakland takes roughly 15 to 16 hours, plus an additional hour or so to get to downtown San Francisco. I say roughly because depending on the itinerary you choose, you’ll have train transfers in either San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara as well as in San Jose.
If you want to make a multi-day adventure out of your rail journey, get off in Santa Barbara, a gorgeous beach city that is about the mid-way point between San Diego and San Francisco. Amtrak is a quick taxi ride from Santa Barbara’s main street of State Street, which intersects with Cabrillo Boulevard on its western end, where you’ll find expansive beaches. Head south a mile or so and you’ll find the Urban Wine Trail, a series of funky and fun wine tasting rooms pouring vintages from the nearby wine valleys of California’s Central Coast.
So there you have it! All of the ways you can get between San Francisco and San Diego. Which one sounds the best to you?