With its location a mere 90 miles from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is a perfect day trip destination from the L.A. area. Get an early start to beat the traffic heading to the coast. I would recommend starting in Santa Monica, and heading north up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). The drive along the coast is part of the fun of a day trip to Santa Barbara. The PCH hugs the coastline for most of the trip from Santa Monica to just south of Oxnard. Along the way, you will pass numerous turn-outs and state parks/beaches at which to stop. Many of these charge for parking, so you may want to pick one at which to stop and get a “taste” of the Pacific coast beaches as you make your way to Santa Barbara. Surfers frequent many of the beaches between Malibu and Santa Barbara, so you will have plenty to see on your way up the coast. If you’re lucky, you may even see dolphins playing in the water not far from the shore.
As you get closer to Santa Barbara, your choice of routes becomes more limited, as the PCH joins with the 101 freeway in Oxnard. Once you arrive in Santa Barbara, your first stop should be the Visitor’s Center. Here, you can get maps of the local area, brochures and coupons for attractions, and any other information you may want for your visit. There are several main attractions to see in Santa Barbara, and part of the charm of this city of almost 90,000 is its walkability. The Old Mission, the County Courthouse (trust me on this one!), one of the Santa Barbara’s many wine tasting rooms, Stearn’s Wharf, and the harbor should be among your “must sees” during your day in the city.
The Old Mission was originally constructed in 1786 by the Spanish Franciscans. After an earthquake in 1812 destroyed the existing buildings, work was begun on the current Mission. It has been beautifully preserved, and is still an active parish church. Beautiful gardens in the courtyard welcome you to the mission, and a well-marked path will guide you around the highlights. A small gift shop at the end of the tour is worth a few minutes of your time as well. When you have finished touring the Mission, head across the street to Mission Park, where you can stroll among the beautiful rose gardens.
After your visit to the Mission, head to the “downtown” area of Santa Barbara, and put on your walking shoes! The Visitor’s Center map highlights the Red Tile Tour, a walking tour through the downtown area which stops at 17 historic attractions, or you can just leisurely wander on your own through the shops and historic buildings in the downtown area. Parking is plentiful, and the first 75 minutes is free in the downtown lots and garages. Be sure to visit the County Courthouse while you’re visiting the downtown area. Besides being a beautiful building architecturally, the viewing platform in the 85 foot clock tower affords striking views of the surrounding Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
From the downtown area, make your way back to the waterfront, where you can spend some time visiting one of Santa Barbara’s many wine tasting rooms along the Urban Wine Trail. There are more than a dozen tasting rooms to choose from, so it would be wise to pick one or two ahead of time that you plan to visit. Once you’ve had your fill of wine, you can walk or drive to nearby Stearn’s Wharf. Stearn’s Wharf is home to several small gift shops, and by walking to the end of the wharf, one can enjoy sweeping views of the coastline with the Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop. Be sure to stop by Mother Stearn’s Candy Company for some homemade fudge!
Your final stop in Santa Barbara should be the Santa Barbara Harbor. Here, you can walk along the breakwater, and enjoy views of the mountains and ocean while gawking at the over 1000 pleasure and fishing boats which call the harbor home. During high tide, the waves can come crashing over the breakwater, so don’t be surprised if you feel some ocean spray during you walk! There are several restaurants in the harbor area, and dining al fresco along the waterfront is a great way to end your day in Santa Barbara. From the mountaintops of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, a visit to Santa Barbara will leave you wishing you had more time to spend in this beautiful city!