When planning a classic California road trip, remember that Los Angeles is almost always the ideal starting point — think of it as a springboard to the countless destinations that lie just a few hours’ drive away.
One of those nearby getaways is Santa Barbara, a small but active city nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. At only 90 miles from LA, it makes for the ideal day-trip destination. So, if you’re wondering how to make the most of a single day in the coastal city, here’s everything you need to know.
- Nickname: The American Riviera
- Incorporated: April 9, 1850
- Population: 88,410
- Architectural style: Spanish Colonial Style
- Climate: Mediterranean
Making your way to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles opens up a few different options.
Greyhound offers bus trips from LA to Santa Barbara for very reasonable prices. For about $15, you can sit back and enjoy free WiFi on the two-hour drive north. Also note that LAX offers a shuttle service directly to Santa Barbara, but for a much steeper price.
Built in 1939, LA’s Union Station continues to present travelers with an alternative and historic mode of transportation. Located just north of the city’s downtown area, Union Station hosts a variety of trains that leave periodically throughout the day, with ticket prices for the scenic trip north floating around $30.
One of the best drives on the West Coast — and possibly the world — is California State Route 1, or Highway 1 for short. Although the quickest way to reach Santa Barbara from LA by car is via U.S. 101 North, Highway 1 intimately follows the state’s sharp coastline, which winds up mountains, through gorges, and over bridges, surrendering its drivers to views that leave them searching for words. Needless to say, it’s worth the added time.
If you’re interested in renting a car in LA, you won’t have to look far, as companies like Hertz, Budget, and Enterprise are scattered across all pockets of the city, including the airport.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Because of its close proximity to LA, you can expect much of the same temperatures in Santa Barbara, making it enjoyable to visit year round (though winter can bring bouts of rain).
When constructing a game plan for your trip, be aware that visiting in early spring and fall ensures fewer crowds and cheaper rates for both accommodation and transportation. Each season hosts its own events and gatherings, so plan accordingly if you want to attend or avoid draws such as the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (April to May) and Old Spanish Days Fiesta (August).
When leaving Los Angeles, we suggest hitting the road as early as possible to maximize your time up north. Buses and trains leave as early as 5:45 a.m. or, if you’re traveling by car, try hitting the road before dawn for golden views of the mountains and coastline as the sun rises over the horizon in the east.
There’s a lot to do in Santa Barbara, so planning efficiently to make the most of your day is crucial.
WHAT TO DO
One of the city’s defining fixtures is Shoreline Park, a 14.6-acre green space that shoulders the coastline along a tall bluff just south of Santa Barbara’s downtown area. The park offers a place for leisurely strolls, picnics, and some of the best views of the city and surrounding mountains. There is also beach access through the park, for those wishing to test the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Old Mission House and Park
An iconic structure that opens a door to the city’s past, the Mission House is a must-see while visiting Santa Barbara. Located a few blocks from the city’s main drag of State Street, this historic location (which dates back to the 18th century) is also home to a 10-acre park complete with grassy fields, trails, oak trees, and an olive grove that commemorates World War I veterans.
Douglas Family Preserve Hike
Encompassing an area of 70 acres, the Douglas Family Reserve is home to one of the easiest but most rewarding hikes in the area. The trail is only three miles long (round trip), but when you reach the top, you’ll be treated to stunning views of the natural beauty that surrounds Santa Barbara, including the Arroyo Burro Beach below. The reserve is also a popular area for wildlife spotting, so be sure to see if you can catch a glimpse of a few whales and dolphins in the distance.
Built in 1872, Stearns Wharf continues to stand strong as one of the city’s busiest attractions. The wharf stretches out over the water and plays host to a number of restaurants that are great for a drink or a quick bite to eat while you enjoy the coastal views, as well as the area’s museum of natural history.
There are a handful of sea kayaking companies in Santa Barbara that offer half or full-day trips along the shoreline and into Channel Islands National Park. This is a great way to see the city and its overarching mountain range from a new vantage point, and to get some exercise on the warm Pacific waters, too.
Although this Spanish-Colonial style structure was built in 1929, it still functions as the city’s courthouse. Despite the daily legal activity, visitors are still able to explore the facility. It’s undoubtedly one of the nicest in the area, with both self-guided and formal tours available every day. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
One of this 78- acre garden’s top bragging rights has to be that it’s entirely made up of California-native plants. The vegetation impressively stretches across 10 different “plant communities” such as canyon, meadow, and prairie — and, to top it off, it also includes a section of towering redwood trees. Within the garden, you can find miles of trails, an authentic Japanese teahouse, and a garden-style gift shop. Admission to the garden is relatively cheap at $12, but it’s best to check their website before visiting because of seasonal hours.
A day-trip in California isn’t complete without a pit-stop at the beach. Luckily, you won’t have to look far to find a strip of sundrenched sand where you can slap a towel down and relax. The Santa Barbara area is littered with golden coves, including Butterfly Beach, East Beach, and Arroyo Burro Beach — so take your pick!