california coastal highway at sunset

Drive into the sunset on a California road trip. (Photo: Getty Images)

Road Trips

Kick Back, Relax and Road Trip Up California’s Central Coast

It’s a perfect pairing. The sizzle of Los Angeles and laid-back vibe of the Central Coast. Driving from L.A. north to Santa Barbara takes about two hours straight. But don’t hurry. Enjoy the fun of celebrity-centric hot spots, dramatic Pacific Ocean views, waterfront adventures, fine wine and cuisine, and even a bit of history.

Local’s Tip: Ask the locals what to see and do. Everyone’s here because they want to be, and they love to share their favorites with visitors.

Start: Los Angeles

So many choices! At entertainment powerhouses like Warner Bros. Studios, you can take the Deluxe Tour for lunch in the Commissary Fine Dining Room with stars and producers. Visit renowned institutions like the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens to see Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blueboy” and enjoy scones, jam and clotted cream in the Rose Garden Tea Room.

huntington library
Check your intellect at the Huntington Library and visit the botanical gardens. (Photo: Getty Images)

From Beverly Hills to Hollywood, Santa Monica to Westwood, L.A.’s communities offer distinct perspectives on cuisine, style and nightlife. Thinking luxe? Spago. Old Hollywood? Musso & Frank Grill. Beachy-chic? Manhattan Beach Post.

Be sure to see it all with a 360-degree bird’s-eye view from 70 floors up at Downtown L.A.’s OUE Skyspace LA. Take the outside, glass-enclosed Skyslide for extra thrills.

When you’ve finished driving for the day, check out the happening Tiki bar scene at spots like the Purple Orchid, Tiki Ti and Tonga Hut.

Los Angeles to Camarillo

Head for the hills — literally — on US-101 North through the Santa Monica Mountains. About an hour in you’ll cross the summit and be awed by the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and vast Oxnard Plain, ripe with fields of citrus and strawberries.

rolling green hills and vineyards in camarillo
Camarillo is pretty as a … well, picture. (Photo: Getty Images)

Camarillo is a few minutes farther, where you can hunt for bargains at Camarillo Premium Outlets (check out Lululemon, Athleta and Tory Burch) and enjoy a Pink’s hot dog if you missed the legendary Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood. Adrenaline-seekers will be happy to find Skydive Coastal California and Orbic Helicopters at the Camarillo Airport.

Camarillo to Oxnard

Follow CA-34 for eight miles to Oxnard and Heritage Square, a collection of beautifully restored vintage mansions. Take a cooking class (wine included) at La Dolce Vita 1901 restaurant, housed in a 1901 Craftsman home. Then sail in an authentic Venetian gondola with Gondola Paradiso, 10 minutes away in Channel Islands Harbor .

oxnard california waterfront
Wander the waterfront in Oxnard. (Photo: Getty Images)

Oxnard to Ventura

Ocean fun and exploration await 15 minutes north via CA-34 and CA-1 in Ventura Harbor Village, where you can take a naturalist-led cruise with Island Packers to “America’s Galapagos,” that is, five nearby uninhabited isles in Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary.

If you like old TV shows, check out the courtroom in the former Ventura County Courthouse (now City Hall) in Downtown Ventura. The courtroom in the “Perry Mason” series (1957–1966) is an exact replica. If you’re a collector, Main Street has great antiquing.

Into surfing? Ventura’s coast is loaded with famous surf breaks like Rincon Point State Beach and Port Hueneme Beach along US-101. Rent boards and wetsuits (the water’s chilly year-round) at the Ventura Surf Shop and drive a half-mile to Surfers Point for serious surf or 10 miles north for easy waves at Mondos Beach. Plan your visit in advance to be sure beaches will be open and activities available when you arrive.

surfer on wave
Surf’s up along the Ventura coast. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ventura to Santa Barbara

This is where the view gets breathtaking, as US-101 threads between the wide open Pacific and high, edgy bluffs — the coastal views California is famous for. It takes about 30 minutes to reach Montecito on the outskirts of Santa Barbara.

For garden fans, Ganna Walska LotusLand, a botanical garden of rare and exotic plants, is a must. Advance reservations are required.

As the red-tile roofs, green Santa Ynez foothills and sparkling waterfront come into view, you’ll see why Santa Barbara is nicknamed “the American Riviera.”

Old Mission Santa Barbara is a must-see, founded in 1786 as the 10th of California’s 21 Spanish missions. Also visit State Street, with its myriad restaurants, cocktail and wine bars, museums and shops. Descend downstairs to the Salt Cave Spa & Yoga and relax in the amber glow of tons of ancient Himalayan salt crystals. Have cocktails at Shaker Mill and dinner next door at Cubaneo.

santa barbara mission seen from above
Santa Barbara’s Mission is a must-see for visitors. (Photo: Getty Images)

Pick up a free Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail map (they’re everywhere) for a self-guided tour of downtown’s more than 30 wine tasting rooms, which is just a sampling of Santa Barbara County’s 175-plus wineries.

Follow State Street down to the Funk Zone, a former industrial area brimming with edgy-hip galleries, restaurants, wine bars and microbreweries. Make Jackson Pollock–like splatter art on a canvas, shoes or whatever at The Funk Factory. Sip and savor at Topa Topa Brewing Company, Pearl Social and The Lark.

State Street dead ends at Stearns Wharf, where phenomenal views of city and sea make the Deep Sea Wine Tasting Room a must. Santa Barbara Harbor is to your right with rental kayaks and guided paddleboard adventures at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center. If you’re into biking, rent one at Santa Barbara Bikes TO-GO and pedal along the seaside Cabrillo Boulevard Bike Path.

For walkers and runners, join the locals at the Douglas Family Preserve where hometown bands often practice below the bluffs. Athlete or not, walk down from the preserve to Hendry’s Beach for a meal and drinks at the Boathouse.

End: Goleta

Top off your journey in this pastoral landscape 12 miles west on US-101. Take a guided coastal kayak tour at Refugio State Beach with Santa Barbara Adventure Company (expect to see sea lions, dolphins and kelp beds) or a guided horseback ride at the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch & Stables.

From Goleta, you’ll return south on US-101 to L.A. — a great opportunity to enjoy even more of the things you can do along the Central Coast.