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Explore Southern California this Year: A How-To Guide

Explore Southern California this Year: A How-To Guide

As COVID-19 restrictions and recommendations continuously change, many aspects of life have become fluid, in a seemingly perpetual state of motion. Nowhere is this more true than the travel landscape. You (fortunately!) don’t have to give up traveling completely, but it’s absolutely essential to follow the guidelines put forth by the government and local health authorities. Please keep yourself and others safe by being sure your travel plans align with these directives.

Having said that, there are certain types of travel and even certain trips that are ideal for this unusual and unpredictable time. One of them is Southern California and in particular, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. You can road trip between them, and although they’re just a couple hours from one another, there’s a ton to do along the way. Make a long weekend out of it, set up a late-summer SoCal bucket list, and start checking things off.

The heavy-hitting combination of ideal weather, a convenient-to-everything location, and landscapes that include pristine coastline, mountains, and just about everything in between make Southern California the perfect year-round exploration basecamp.

white, sandy beach near Santa Barbara, CA

Los Angeles County

There’s no arguing that Los Angeles is synonymous with glitz and glamour. There’s Sunset Boulevard, the shopping, and of course, the scores of A-list celebrities spotted on any given day. However, there’s much, much more to L.A. For one thing, it’s tremendous – it’s the biggest county in the United States in terms of population, by a lot – so based on sheer size, there’s more than enough to keep you busy. Those seeking refined culture will certainly find a healthy dose of it here, but you can also fill your days with laid-back hiking, eating from food trucks, and being enchanted by historic architecture all while maintaining social distancing practices.

Griffith Park and Observatory – For a great workout, choose one of the many hiking or biking trails that brings you up to the Griffith Observatory, which faces south on Mount Hollywood and offers unparalleled views of L.A. that include downtown and the Pacific Ocean.

Taste your way through L.A. – Los Angeles is a mecca for foodies of all levels. Pick a genre or a neighborhood and set out on foot or a bicycle for a self-guided food tour. Aim for 4-6 stops where you get a drink and small plate or something shareable. Many restaurants in L.A. have outdoor seating or quaint patios which make following CDC guidelines that much easier.

Walk it out – Walk the 4.5-mile path that connects Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Manhattan Beach. Each beach town has a distinct, yet quintessentially SoCal vibe and the scenery is spectacular.

Topanga State Park – Located in the Santa Monica Mountains, a hike in Topanga State Park offers winding Pacific Ocean-view trails that traverse canyons and mountains.

Live like a local in Burbank – Burbank is in the heart of L.A., but has a charm all its own. You could easily spend an entire weekend here, touring Warner Bros. Studio, getting your thrills at Universal Studios, shopping in Magnolia Park, and more.

Where to stay

If you want to be in the middle of all the action, there’s no better choice than staying in Burbank. The boutique Coast Anabelle Hotel provides complimentary shuttles to the airport and nearby amusement parks, while its adjacent sister property, the historic and pet-friendly Safari Inn, gives a nod to retro Hollywood with its spacious sundeck and pool.

Santa Barbara

santa barbara sunset

90 miles up the coast from L.A. you’ll find legendary Santa Barbara, also known as the “American Riviera.” Its broad sandy beaches are unlike any others found in Southern California, primarily because they face south as opposed to west. This shelters Santa Barbara’s beaches from ocean winds, making for warmer on-shore conditions and calmer waters ideal for surfing and other water sports. The sweeping Santa Ynez mountain range also serves as a breathtaking backdrop to the area’s beaches, providing a unique terrain that contributes to both Santa Barbara’s active outdoor lifestyle and its vibrant farm-to-table food and wine scene.

Stearn’s Wharf – Unquestionably one of Santa Barbara’s most iconic landmarks, Stearn’s Wharf is the oldest working wharf in California. Today, there are three restaurants and several cafes, as well as shops to explore.

Waterfront view of Stearn's Wharf, in Santa Barbara, California.

Be a beach bum – Santa Barbara has a beach for every taste, from the rocky Thousand Steps Beach with tide pools to explore to the family-friendly East Beach, adjacent to Stearn’s Wharf. There are several dog-friendly beaches also!

Get on the water – If sea is more your thing than sand, not to worry – Santa Barbara’s got you covered there too. Try surfing, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), or take a kayak out for a relaxing yet physically stimulating day.

rolling hills behind santa barbara

Take a hike – The city offers a number of spectacular hikes in the Santa Ynez Mountains, most of which offer panoramic ocean views. You don’t have to be an experienced hiker to enjoy the trails here, as there are some rated for every experience level.

Summerland – This getaway-within-a-getaway is a tiny and ultra-charming town in Santa Barbara. Though it’s tiny, it’s mighty, offering loads of local shops, dining, antiquing, and hiking, biking, and horseback riding paths.

Where to stay

exterior view of lush West Beach Inn with pool view

West Beach Inn, a Coast Hotel is ideally situated to let you enjoy everything Santa Barbara has to offer. It’s across from the harbor, within walking distance of eateries and shops, and guests get complimentary bike rentals and paddleboarding sessions.

Stops to hit along the way

They say that the journey is the destination, and if you’re judging it based on the road between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, that seems to ring true. Take your time and visit one or all of these stops, or, even better, pick one or two on the way, then visit the others on your return trip.

Santa Monica Pier – There is no more iconic or historic pier in all of California. This one has a 100-plus-year-old amusement park on it, which includes an antique carousel, a roller coaster, and old-school carnival games.

santa monica pier

Malibu – Even if you don’t have much time to spare, the drive along Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to Malibu is well worth it. If you have the time, visit the aptly-named Surfrider Beach and grab lunch from a seaside shack or food truck.

Ventura – Just beyond L.A. is Ventura, which oozes old SoCal charm. It has a truly laid-back vibe, broad sandy beaches, and is notoriously dog-friendly. Check out the beaches, of course, but don’t skip shopping on Main Street.

Carpinteria – Affectionately called “Carp” by locals, this area just south of Santa Barbara offers everything from a walkable main street and pristine beaches to antiquing and horseback riding.