It's hard to tire of Santa Barbara's historic architecture and easy-to-stroll downtown, but the adorable towns, vineyard-filled valleys, and impressive state and national parks that literally surround the city shouldn't be missed.
Leave plenty of time in your itinerary to explore Santa Barbara and its immediate surrounds, but also save some time for a couple of day trips in the region. There is a lot here, from deserted beaches to extraordinary vineyards, the renowned paradise of Ojai and off-shore islands that seem a world away. You can even go on an adventure by train to LA.
Enjoy the rich landscapes and varied nature of Channel Islands National Park
Why go?: Raw nature on nearby islands.
Just visible on the horizon off Santa Barbara, this seemingly remote national park is part of an eight-island chain of offshore islands that stretch along a swath of the Southern California coast. Imagine hiking, kayaking, scuba diving, camping, whale-watching or even just lounging on a deserted beach, and doing it all amid a raw, edge-of-the-world landscape. Rich in unique flora and fauna, tide pools and kelp forests, the islands are home to over 150 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world, earning them the nickname "California’s Galapagos." Daytrips to two of the five islands in the national park run almost daily.
How to get to Channel Islands National Park: Anacapa and Santa Cruz, the park’s most popular islands, are an hour’s boat ride from Ventura Harbor, about 30 miles by car southeast of Santa Barbara. Round-trip excursions, with plenty of time on shore to explore an island, cost under $70 for an adult.
Admire the beauty of Santa Barbara Wine Country
Why go?: Some of Southern California’s best wineries, set amidst lovely rural scenery.
Amber-colored hills striated with grapevines and shaded by oaks, two-lane roads wending through endless beauty, and wineries aplenty offering tastings, it’s easy to pile on the praise about Santa Barbara's wine country. More than 100 local wineries make choices seem daunting, so simplify life and focus on the Santa Ynez Valley’s small towns, which include Los Olivos, Buellton, Santa Ynez, and Ballard. All are clustered within 10 miles of one another, making it easy to stop, taste, shop, and eat.
The wine country northwest of Santa Barbara is made for do-it-yourself exploring. Vintners include longtime landowners and farmers who are enjoying the optimal climate, as well as recent vineyard owners who are following their passion. They will all happily share their knowledge and intriguing personal histories.
A half-day trip will allow you to see one winery or tasting room, have lunch and return to Santa Barbara. Otherwise, make it a full day and plan to have lunch and make a few stops before returning to the city. Full-day wine-tasting tours from Santa Barbara average $100 to $200 per person. For inspiration, watch Sideways (2004), a film about misadventures while wine-tasting in this region.
How to get to Santa Barbara Wine Country: From Santa Barbara, you can drive to Wine Country in less than an hour via rural Hwy 154.
Gaviota is a wild stretch of the Pacific coast
Why go?: Raw Pacific beauty, a great beach, and an awesome landmark.
Leave the upscale hubbub of Santa Barbara behind and in barely half an hour, you can enjoy a wild stretch of the Pacific coast, including an excellent beach and a soaring landmark of California history. Successor to the Central Pacific Railroad, which built the first transcontinental railroad east from the state, the Southern Pacific Railroad developed the state from north to south for decades in the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of the company’s greatest achievements was the coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles. And the railroad trestle at Gaviota was a crowning achievement when it was completed in 1900. Over 800ft long and 75ft tall, the bridge soars over Gaviota State Park, which has a wide beach isolated from the rest of the coast. Spend a few hours here lazing the day away, swimming, hiking, and surfing. The action stops as everybody watches trains thunder over the trestle.
How to get to Gaviota: The state beach and trestle are a straight-shot 33 miles by car due west of Santa Barbara on Hwy 101.
Ojai is the best day trip for foodies
Why go?: A paradisical place with a fab vibe and great eats.
Hollywood director Frank Capra chose the Ojai Valley to represent the mythical Shangri-La in his 1937 film Lost Horizon. Today Ojai (pronounced "OH-hi," from the Chumash word for "moon") remains a bit of SoCal paradise, especially if you’re into fine organic food, new age beliefs, art, BoHo chic, or just ready to luxe out at a day spa. Ojai Avenue (the town’s main drag), is lined with galleries, boutiques – many selling the region’s extraordinary food and wine – and vegetarian bistros. The year-round farmers' market (Sunday mornings) is a utopia for foodies.
Vestiges of Ojai’s hippie roots can be found in whole-grain bakeries, organic old oil producers, and the like. If you’re up for more than a stroll around town, enormous Los Padres National Forest is immediately north and has hiking trails of every kind.
How to get to Ojai: Ojai is a 34-mile drive from Santa Barbara by car. Give yourself about an hour for the journey as the section on meandering Hwy 150 is slow and scenic. There are good bike rides once there.
Explore Danish heritage in Solvang
Why go?: Fudge and kitsch.
Lovers of kitsch can OD at Solvang, a fantasyland dedicated to a mythical version of Denmark that may baffle actual Danes. Statues of the Little Mermaid and Hans Christian Andersen are possibly the most reality-based attractions in this village, which entertains throngs of day-trippers lured in off Hwy 101.
But if you’ve got a hankering for fudge, taffy, pastries, snow-globe tableaus, bubble-gum-flavored ice cream, out-of-season Christmas ornaments and much, much more, then you’ll love wandering the gingerbready streets. Keep the whole family happy by combining a stop in Solvang with visits to the nearby Santa Ynes Valley’s wineries.
How to get to Solvang: Solvang is 35 miles from Santa Barbara, and the drive time is around 45 minutes.
Downtown Los Angeles is the best day trip by train
Why go?: See the heart of LA without getting lost in traffic.
Take an early morning train to one of LA’s top sights, LA Union Station, and then spend a few hours exploring Downtown LA, which is all easily reached by foot from the station. Start in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, where LA’s first colonists settled in 1781. The namesake state park offers info on the preserved and restored buildings. Nearby, the 1928 City Hall is the phallic-shaped landmark made famous by the old Dragnet TV shows and myriad other productions. A modern landmark is the Walt Disney Concert Hall with its wild and soaring stainless-steel exterior by architect Frank Gehry. Broad is the enormous modern art museum with thousands of works by big names. For lunch, choose between the old-time Mexican places on Olvera St; Grand Central Market, the buzzing bazaar with some of LA’s top vendors; or the famous French dip sandwiches at decades-old Phillippe’s.
How to get to Downtown LA: Don’t drive – the journey might be quicker, but the traffic will end any vacation good-vibes you were feeling. Instead take Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which offers commuter-style service on comfortable trains. Enjoy glimpses of coast, fertile fields, weird rock formations near Simi Valley and the endless fascinating sprawl that is LA from the big train windows. A morning departure from Santa Barbara will get you into LA’s lovely and historic Union Station in under 3 hours, just in time for lunch. Make the most of your tour of DTLA and catch an evening train back for some late-night cocktails in Santa Barbara.
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