Can’t-miss road trip stops between San Diego and Santa Barbara

Published Date: August 9, 2023

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It’s only about 220 miles from San Diego to Santa Barbara — roughly a 3.5- to 4-hour trip, assuming L.A. traffic isn’t bad. But as you travel between these two sunny cities, give yourself ample time to explore. Choose one or two of the following destinations, or extend your adventure and check out all seven as you make your way north. Just pack your favorite road trip snacks, buckle up, and hit the road!

Grab a Hodad’s burger in San Diego

A San Diego institution for over 50 years, Hodad’s Burgers, located in the heart of the Ocean Beach neighborhood, is the best place to chow down before you start your drive. They’re famous for their gigantic burgers, mountains of crispy onion rings and thick milkshakes, which hungry diners line up for every day in a queue that can wrap around the block if you come right at lunchtime. (These burgers are worth the wait.)

Catch some waves in Encinitas

The quintessential SoCal beach town of Encinitas is just up the road from San Diego proper, along historic Highway 101. Nearby Moonlight State Beach is the perfect place to walk the wide sandy beaches, go for a swim or play a game of beach volleyball. With gentle waves, Moonlight has multiple surf schools offering lessons for everyone, even if you’re a Barney (that’s a first-timer). Rather leave the surfing to the experts? Swami’s Beach is a great place to watch local surfers show off. 

Embrace your inner child at Legoland 

Just 10 miles north of Encinitas is Legoland California, a must-visit for families with kids or anyone who can’t get enough of those little bricks. Buy a one-day ticket to ride, build and play to your heart’s content. Or you can stay on site at the fun-filled Legoland Hotel or Legoland Castle Hotel. Choose from room themes like Knights & Dragons, Royal Princess, Ninjago or Lego Friends. And don’t forget your swimsuit to enjoy the Lego-themed water park next door. 

Get back to nature at Crystal Cove 

For an alternative to the Legoland crowds, continue driving an hour north to Laguna Beach, and discover one of Orange County’s largest open wilderness areas, Crystal Cove State Park, which boasts 2,400 acres of backcountry wilderness and 3.2 miles of pristine coastline. If you time your visit to align with low tide, you can explore the park’s well-known tidepools, spotting creatures like sea anemones, sea urchins, sea stars, hermit crabs, snails and — if you’re really lucky — octopuses. The park is also a great place to stretch your legs, with 18 miles of hiking trails that offer incredible ocean views. 

Play tourist at Santa Monica Pier 

Travel for another 60 or so miles to reach Santa Monica, just west of Los Angeles. As a National Historic Landmark and the western end of iconic Route 66, it’s no wonder Santa Monica Pier is one of California’s most photographed locations. You can stroll the pier and snap a few Instagram-worthy photos or spend a whole day in this fun-filled destination. Fish off the pier, shop for souvenirs, ride the historic merry-go-round, try your luck in the classic arcade or experience the unique talents of the area’s many street performers. 

Live the celebrity life in Malibu 

From Santa Monica, a quick 30-minute drive along a southern stretch of coastline brings you to the chic enclave of Malibu. When you arrive, keep your eyes peeled — many Hollywood celebrities call this beach town home, so you never know who you’ll spot. And while you’re in Malibu, you can embrace the laid-back luxury, no matter your celebrity status. Sink your toes into the sand during low tide at Carbon Beach (dubbed Billionaire’s Beach), treat yourself to sushi at famed Nobu, or simply shop your way through the well-known Malibu Farmers Market, happening every Sunday morning. 

Take a detour to the Channel Islands 

Due west of Malibu in the Pacific Ocean, the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park are nothing short of spectacular. Leave your car on the mainland and take a scenic one- to three-hour boat ride or a half-hour plane ride to these unspoiled islands. They offer ample opportunities for hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, bird watching and whale watching (depending on the time of year). Stay for the day or make reservations for a rustic, walk-in camping experience. 

Say cheers at a Santa Barbara winery 

Back on the mainland, and a little over an hour from Malibu, you’ll reach Santa Barbara. The town has a great reputation among wine lovers, and it’s easy to see why. Right in town, you’ll find a whopping 28 tasting rooms along the Urban Wine Trail. With all the tasting rooms located within a few blocks of each other in the downtown core, spending an afternoon sampling local wines is a great way to get the lay of the land. After your tasting experience, grab a bite to eat at one of Santa Barbara’s many beachfront restaurants. Want to explore further? Travel 45 minutes to the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys and visit the wineries themselves. 

Find your own California paradise 

If you fall in love with one of these great destinations, why not become a regular? Buy a Pacaso in Southern California or the Central Coast for as little as ⅛ the cost of full ownership, and have ample time to explore. 

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Jen Lyons

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