How charming, a finale! We’ve made it through some tips for San Francisco as well as Monterey and Big Sur and today we finish up with Santa Barbara, Malibu and Santa Monica. The format will be a little different here as there was a gap in our trip down the coast as we went inland for a few days. Instead of writing chronologically, I’m just going to highlight the other three towns listed above as well as the drive between them.
I should point out that the Pacific Coast Highway goes further than Santa Monica, actually ending just south of Laguna Beach. In the future we’ll add in a fourth part or a series of posts about different spots in Orange County. We didn’t end up coming down that far on the highway because we spent some time in LA. Having said that, we’ve gone to Laguna Beach, as well as Huntington Beach, and find it lovely. Those spots are very close to Disneyland and could be a simple day or two add-on to a trip instead of the four or five days we’ve been advocating for on this drive. Leave us a note in the comments if you’d be interested in more posts about spots around Disneyland.
The drive from Morro Bay to Santa Barbara is far different than other stretches along the highway. It runs through some hills and is mostly inland without many beaches or even views of the ocean. It’s still scenic and pretty in most parts but I’d probably pick any other section of the drive over that one. Eventually we got back to the cost and ended up in Santa Barbara. We didn’t have time to stop in Solvang, which is inland from the PCH but I’ve only read and heard good things about that Danish village.
Santa Barbara is the first city that truly feels like you’ve reached Southern California. There’s a giant, wide open beach, a pier to walk out on and has a more relaxed feel than anywhere else we’d reached so far. We spent the first hour or two there, walking up and down State Street which is a main thoroughfare. There’s a number of restaurants and shops along the street and it’s a very pleasant place to walk around. We ended up at McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream for dessert and, true to their name, it was some truly fine ice cream. I’d absolutely recommend it!
After exploring the street, we walked along the pier and enjoyed a drink while watching people reel in some fish. There’s a museum on the pier as well as a few restaurants and touristy shops. Finally, we walked along the beach for a while and put our feet in the water.
One other place we explored was the Mission, which was founded in 1786. You can sign up for tours and I’d recommend it if you have the time. Much of Santa Barbara’s architecture follows the lead of either those Mission buildings or the French Riviera. With the city pressed up against the hill and the semitropical climate, it’s easy to see why it’s often compared to the Riviera. It’s a beautiful place to explore and one that’d be fun for a weekend getaway.
Santa Barbara Highlights
- State Street
- McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream
- The beach and pier
As I mentioned, our trip turned inward toward Hollywood for couple of days before we returned to the coast and Malibu. The Getty Center and Villa are icons among LA’s exceptional scene and the Villa resides on the edge of Malibu. If you’re unaware the Getty Villa is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri which was destroyed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The Getty holds artifacts from the Roman Empire, as well as other ancient cultures. There are also beautiful gardens to explore that really steal the show. The Getty Center and Villa are both free, although you do have to pay for parking. It was an easy highlight of the beautiful Malibu.
We ate dinner at Broad Street Oyster Company in Malibu, which is just off the highway on the opposite side of the beach. The restaurant is all outside and is home to the best Lobster Roll I’ve ever had. The rest of the menu looked good, as well. I’ll definitely be returning and I’d recommend a stop there for anyone who’s near Malibu.
The rest of the evening was spent at El Matador Beach on the north side of Malibu. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic after just saying that Broad Street had the best Lobster Roll I’d ever had, but this beach might be my new favorite. After hiking down some stairs, you’re met by a sandy beach that has plenty of coves, rock formations and caves to explore. While I wouldn’t recommend the place for a day of swimming, it is the most scenic beach I’ve ever been to. Catching it at sunset was an absolute highlight of the entire week.
We barely scratched the surface of what to do in Malibu. It was one of the prettiest areas I’ve ever been and it’s no wonder so many people rave about it. Even just seeing the gigantic houses around the area was a treat but it didn’t compare to the beautiful ocean on the other side of the PCH. I look forward to experiencing more of it!
- El Matador State Beach
- Broad Street Oyster Co.
- Getty Villa
To be honest, the further south we got the less time we spent in the towns because we knew it’d be easier to get back to visit that area. This was especially true in Santa Monica! Even with only spending a few hours there, the town left a mark on us. Part of that mark was because we found this exceptional Japanese fast food restaurant called Sunny Blue that specializes in Omusubi, which are Japanese rice balls with different fillings. I’m sure some of our enjoyment was nostalgia fueled but this was a great choice, especially if you’re on a budget and looking for something different.
After we had our fill of these amazing savory treats, we made our way down to the beach and walked to Santa Monica’s historic pier. It was a Saturday and, needless to say, the pier was absolutely packed. Pacific Park is a small amusement park on the pier and looks like a good amount of fun if you’re looking for some quick thrills. There’s also restaurants and touristy stores. The beach was also packed but scenic and enjoyable to walk around. The town was large and there’s far more to experience than what we did.
Santa Monica Highlights
- Sunny Blue
- Santa Monica Pier/Pacific Park
Our trip down the Pacific Coast Highway was one I’d dreamed of for about a decade and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Not only did it feature many different sites but it gave a taste of how the north of the state differs from the south, all while driving next to the same ocean. I couldn’t recommend the trip highly enough. Grab some friends, pack snacks and take a trip enjoying California’s wonder.
There are certain moments where you feel small in just the best possible way. I think it’s safe to say that the last year and a half have taken its toll on people, where problems just have felt insurmountable at times. Certain places take that feeling away. Standing over the Pacific, high on a cliffside puts those troubles in perspective. For some it’s a feeling from God, for some it’s enjoying nature. Whatever your peace might be and wherever your version of the vast Pacific is, I hope you find it.
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Categories: Trip Reports, Vacation Tips
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