'Staycations' for my family were always planned around fresh air, great food and spending the least amount of time in Southern California traffic. I grew up smack-dab in between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, both of which have endless amounts of entertainment, beauty and culture. But when deciding between driving the 60 miles on the 405 freeway to L.A. versus the 60 miles of coastal serenity to Santa Barbara, my family chose the latter. That gorgeous drive up the 101 freeway never gets old--thousands of acres of California's farms ultimately give way to majestic mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Between the years of family trips to Santa Barbara and the years of driving through the Santa Ynez Mountains on my way to and from college, I came to master the 24-hour "must do's" in Santa Barbara County.
Whether you are extending your stay before or after any of the Southern California Backroads trips or just planning a California road trip, I highly recommend exploring the history, beauty and tranquility Santa Barbara County has to offer. Here are some of my local favorites.
Santa Barbara's Culinary Highlights
I cannot not start a "must do" list without food recommendations.
La Super-Rica Taqueria • 622 N. Milpas Street, Santa Barbara 93103
La Super-Rica is a casual and family-run dining experience. You will almost always find a queue that stretches out the door, partially because the food is just that good and partially because Julia Child told Bon Appétit Magazine, The New Yorker and Good Morning America that La Super-Rica was her favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara. While some people argue with Child that La Super-Rica is good but not the best Mexican food choice in Santa Barbara, it certainly dishes up some wonderfully authentic and tasty homemade cuisine.
Olio e Limone Ristorante • 11 West Victoria Street, Suite 17, Santa Barbara 93101
Olio e Limone is an Italian fine-dining experience right in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Sip on a glass of one of their imported Italian or local wines before diving into an authentically rich traditional dish. For a more casual night, move next door to Olio Pizzeria for a slice of their famous wood fired pizzas. After dinner, check out the schedule at Arlington Theater just a few doors down for an old-time theater experience and/or to explore this architectural masterpiece.
McConnell's Fine Ice Creams • 728 State Street, Santa Barbara 93101
Start, finish or snack your day right with what I honestly believe is the best ice cream I've ever had. McConnell's was established in Santa Barbara in 1949, and has maintained its local and fresh character ever since. Each one of their unique flavors is made from scratch in small batches, using only Central Coast grass-grazed milk and cream. My favorite flavor? Churros Con Leche. But their summer seasonal fruit cobblers are pretty amazing, too.
Downtown Santa Barbara & Beyond
Weekend Arts & Crafts Show • Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara
If you are anywhere near the ocean on a Sunday in downtown Santa Barbara, you cannot and should not
miss the art walk. Over 200 Santa Barbara County artists display their original work in the open air, just steps away from the beach. If you feel like taking a spin after a Backroads trip, I highly recommend renting a bike and cruising on the adjacent bike path.
Lotusland Botanic Gardens • Cold Springs Road, Montecito 93108
At the foothills of Santa Barbara County's spectacular Montecito, Lotusland is a botanical garden that
displays several hundred plant species, gardens, statues and water fixtures. Tours are about 2 hours long and docent-led, which can be a pro or a con depending on your own taste. The estate is now accessible to the public but reservations are required.
Moreton Bay Fig Tree • 100 West Montecito Street (corner of Montecito and Chapala Streets)
This will take just a few minutes to visit, but it is fun to marvel at this natural phenomenon which was designated as a historic landmark in 1970. The tree's roots alone are nearly five feet high--take your kids there for a larger-than-life experience!
Drives Worth Taking
Santa Barbara is at the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and a drive on Highway 154 in and of itself is pretty breathtaking (particularly on a clear day). It is no wonder this was the preferred mountain pass route during the stagecoach era! Fun fact: Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch is tucked away in the Santa Ynez Mountains just off Highway 154. The ranch is not worth visiting because you can't see any of the property past the giant fence, but it's an interesting tidbit nonetheless.
Cold Spring Tavern • 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
A 20-minute drive out of Santa Barbara on Highway 154 will take you back about 130 years into some incredible California old western history. Cold Spring Tavern was established in 1865 and still maintains its rustic, lamp-lit ambiance. Visit the tavern on the weekend for world-famous tri-tip sandwiches, live music and the company of a few hundred motorcyclists under the shade of beautiful California oaks.
Los Olivos, California
Just a bit past Cold Spring Tavern is Los Olivos, a charming mountain town that I used to look at longingly every time I drove to and from college. Los Olivos has a population just barely over 1,000 people, and while it absolutely feels like a small town, there is no shortage of fine dining, shopping and wine tasting. One of my favorite spots is Coquelicot Estate Vineyard for a casual tasting and seating in a peaceful barn-like backyard. Bocce ball and other outdoor games are available.
It's a bit of a drive from Santa Barbara (about 45 minutes), but Solvang is the best taste of Denmark you
will find in California. This historic village was founded in 1911 by a group of Danes looking to establish a colony away from the bitter cold winters. Today, Solvang's bakeries, restaurants, architecture and festivals reflect their culture and customs.
Backroads offers trips in Santa Barbara and Ojai for a reason: there is no denying the unforgettable views and cool vibes of the California coast. I highly recommend spending time before or after your trip in this area. And I'm confident that this "must do" list will keep you busy and satisfied and might even make you consider moving to Santa Barbara permanently.