A few weeks ago my husband Brad and I decided we needed a getaway before the kids started back to school. Neither of us had been to Southern California and we had to plan it within two weeks to make it happen.
Some friends in our neighborhood moved to Nashville a few years ago from Los Angeles and shared great local tips with us that were extremely helpful. The best tip? They told us to go to Santa Barbara! It wasn’t even on our radar until they recommended it. After narrowing down the other areas we wanted to visit, we chose to rent a convertible and drive the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to visit Malibu, Santa Barbara, then back down to Santa Monica, Venice Beach, downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach.
I know I was supposed to be on vacation, but it’s just too hard to put down my camera when I’m in pretty places. I didn’t take photographs of everything, because I wanted to be present in the moment with Brad. I just shot whatever I could grab quickly along the way. Some of these images were taken with my Nikon DSLR and some with my iPhone… whatever I had handy at the time. Most of the iPhone images were taken on my morning runs, when I couln’t haul my big camera with me. I love to run even more while I’m on vacation, because I get up and out of the hotel early and have seen, explored and gotten the “lay of the land” before anyone else is up. I did this 4 out of the 5 mornings we were in amazing California weather, and was finished in time to meet up with Brad for breakfast. By foot or by bike is my very favorite way to explore a new city, because you see so much more than you would driving in a car the entire time. Plus, it helps work off a few vacation indulgences… (Hello Shade Hotel cake pops with our turn down service at night!!) 🙂
I used travel blogs and Pinterest to plan most of our trip. And, since blog posts were so helpful to me, I decided to blog my own trip and pay it forward. Hopefully someone else will benefit from this post for planning their own 1st trip to SoCal. I hope you enjoy!
Best decision of the trip? We rented a convertible which we picked up at L.A.X as soon as we got off the plane. From there we put the top down, put our hats on and drove. You’ll have windblown and hat hair the entire trip, but it’s so worth it!
1ST STOP: MALIBU
SHOP: Malibu Country Mart
SHOOT: Malibu pier and beach from NOBU, scenery along the PCH
Leaving L.A. from the airport, the drive is pretty unremarkable for about 25 minutes, then all of a sudden you’re driving onto the scenic Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and you see the beautiful coastline and the mountains appear in view. It’s stunning! We pinched ourselves, turned on some driving tunes and continued to our first stop in Malibu for brunch at Nobu. For most of our trip, I made reservations from blog post recommendations in advance using the Open Table app; but we weren’t exactly sure how long it would take us at the airport, so we risked not having a reservation for Nobu. Thankfully they seated us immediately outside overlooking the beach and Pacific Ocean. It was a perfect start to our trip. And their homemade pumpkin seed granola was delicious. They served small portions, but delicious food with pretty presentation.
After leaving Nobu, we drove to the Malibu Country Mart, which to me sounded like a total oxymoron. And, it was. This quaint outdoor village of high end specialty boutiques is nestled below the mountains that rise behind it. It’s anything but a “country mart”!
[Outdoor fitting rooms…not sure that would work
in Alabama or Tennessee’s humid weather!]
[My friend Debbie from L.A. told us to be sure to get coffee drinks at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and we’re so glad she did! My go-to coffee drink is a Vanilla Latte with Almond Milk, sometimes hot and sometimes iced. They were delicious here. It’s a chain in California, but so much better than Starbucks! We frequented Coffee Bean for our morning and afternoon coffees. Highly recommend! In fact, I want one right now!]
[One of our favorite stops was the Double RL shop, named for Ralph Lauren
and his wife Ricki. We loved it because of the broken in ranch looks,
offering both new reproductions and vintage clothes and boots.
We popped our heads in Ted Baker, Vince and Michael Stars too.]
2ND STOP: SANTA BARBARA (2 NIGHTS)
STAY: Kimpton Canary
EAT: Bouchon, San Ysidro Ranch The Stonehouse, McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream, Lilac Patisserie (for those looking for a dedicated Gluten Free bakery and cafe), Tupelo Junction Cafe (The brunch here is amazing! Treat yourself to the Pumpkin Oatmeal Waffle w/ Caramelized Bananas, Candied Pecans & Real Maple Syrup. It’s an indulgence that’s totally worth the extra workouts.), Los Arroyos
SHOOT: Courthouse Clock Tower view, Old Mission, San Ysidro Ranch, Stearns Wharf, State Street
We jumped back in the car and headed up the coast to spend 2 nights in beautiful Santa Barbara. With its Spanish architecture, red mediterranean tile roofs and creamy white stucco, it is a beautiful site! State Street is the main street that runs through the historic downtown area of Santa Barbara all the way to Stearns Wharf and the beach. We drove by the Santa Barbara Old Mission, but didn’t take the time to go in. We just aren’t guided tour kind of people. We like to do what the locals do more than what the tourists do. A little goes a very long way with us and we wanted to leave some down time for a nap and relaxation at the pool.
We chose the Kimpton Canary, a boutique hotel conveniently located just one block off State Street, which also offered complimentary bikes for us to ride around and explore the city. We like to stay in boutique hotels vs. big chain hotels when we travel, because it just adds to the local flavor and experience, with better customer service. I also always look for hotels are within walking or biking distance of shops and restaurants. Kimpton Canary offered all of this, and was also the only hotel in the area boasting a rooftop pool with a view. It was beautiful, in a perfect location to walk and ride our bikes everywhere, and the service was impeccable. Again, highly recommend. Also, be sure to eat at Bouchon, which is walking distance from the hotel.
We did visit the Old Historic Santa Barbara Courthouse, which is definitely a must see, with its hand painted ceilings, walls and beams, Spanish tiles and amazing old lanterns. We walked to the top of the clocktower for an incredible view over Santa Barbara and then stepped inside the old ornate courtrooms. It is also a wedding venue!
[Apparently all we have in our wardrobe is black, white, denim, khaki and gray, which means on occasion we get dressed, walk out the door and are twinning without realizing it…until we see ourselves in pictures (sigh…eye roll). And for the record…I branched out for our trip and my shorts in this photo are actually blush pink, so we aren’t totally twinning, even though you can’t tell.
But check out that birds eye view behind us from the top of the Courthouse Clocktower!]
One morning I ran down State Street to Stearns Wharf to check it out. Not much I really wanted to do there, but it was worth seeing. There’s a few touristy shops, a restaurant, a sea center and people fishing off the pier. There is a pretty view of Santa Barbara beach, and the marina. Looking back at the town of Santa Barbara from that vantage point is really nice.
[State Street is full of shopping, cafés and restaurants, but I will say,
they roll up the carpets around 10:00 PM at night.
It’s a sleepy little town from 10:00 PM until about 9:00 AM every day…
or it least it was while we were there.]
[I enjoyed seeing the La Tavola’s showroom, which I didn’t realize was in Santa Barbara. We used their beautiful table linens in a wedding inspiration shoot at Springhouse Restaurant at Lake Martin a few years back.
You can see that post here.]
[Admiring Panache Bridal’s gowns in the window.]
[I had read about McConnell’s and since my hubby’s favorite treat is ice cream,
we had to stop in. He said it was delicious!]
[If you are traveling with kids, stop in Rocket Fizz to check out
their crazy soda bottles and flavors. They can also get a candy fix.]
[If you have a teenage daughter, Brandy Melville is the place to shop!]
The flowers and plants in California were amazing. Native palm trees, prolific oleander, huge succulents and interesting varieties of cactus plants were everywhere.
My very favorite thing we did while we were in Santa Barbara was drive about 15 minutes to the quaint village of Montecito and visit San Ysidro Ranch. It was the highlight of the trip for me and one of the prettiest places I’ve seen in the U.S. …a picturesque resort with two restaurants, lush gardens and quaint cottages scattered all over the property, that sits nestled below the mountains. It’s truly breathtaking! The San Ysidro Ranch has been voted America’s #1 Best Wine Restaurants by Wine Enthusiast, America’s #1 Best Resort by Travel + Leisure, America’s #1 Best Hotel by Forbes Traveler and the Grand Award by Wine Spectator. Don’t miss it. Trust me. And, if you can afford to stay there, just do it! When you look at the prices, keep in mind you are paying for cottages tucked all along the property, not just a hotel room. It’s an experience. Or, you can choose to visit the gardens and eat dinner at The Stonehouse restaurant on property, like we did and arrive early to meander around the property. We ate under string lights on the terrace as the sun went down. And to our surprise, we were able to watch a fireworks show in the distance. It was perfect. On our way out of town our last day in Santa Barbara, we drove back to the ranch to visit again in better daylight and eat lunch in Montecito Village.
[Cheers to 20 Years with dinner at The Stonehouse]
[The photos of Brad and me below were taken by L.A. based film director, writer and actor, Jason Hall, who wrote and directed the movie American Sniper. He happened to be staying at the ranch and was kind enough to grab some photos of us when we went back the next day to take another look at the gardens and cottages.]
We booked our hotel for the rest of our stay in Manhattan Beach since it’s only a 30 minute drive to the Venice/Santa Monica area, making it easy to go back and forth. On the drive down from Santa Barbara, you come to Santa Monica Beach first, but we chose to do that another day since we needed a little more time for what we wanted to do there. Plus, we had been told to only do Venice Beach during the day and be out of there by dark, so based on our arriving in the afternoon, we decided to do Venice first. The drive back down the coast was even more beautiful than on the way up, because we were on the side of the road closest to the ocean and able to stop a few times to take photographs.
3RD STOP: VENICE BEACH (Afternoon)
SHOOT: Muscle Beach, Venice Beach sign over the street, boardwalk scene, Abbot Kinney shops
Once we arrived at Venice Beach, we walked the boardwalk to see the famous Muscle Beach, where Arnold Schwarzenegger worked out at the beginning of his competitive body building career. People still work out there today on the rusty, salt and sand worn weight lifting machines. Then, we made our way to see the classic Venice Beach sign over the street. Honestly, the Venice boardwalk just wasn’t our scene, so we came, we saw, we left. On our way to Santa Monica the next day, we made a quick stop to check out a few shops in Venice on Abbott Kinney. Great street for boutique shopping!
[Venice Beach Boardwalk]
[Had to see the MUMU flagship store (of course) and
Light in the Attic is right next door, if you are into vinyl.]
[I’ve followed The Piece Collective on Instagram and its beachy boho vibe for a while now. Do yourself a favor and follow them too.
I got a little excited to actually set foot in their Venice store.]
We also hit James Perse, which originated in L.A. I love his minimalistic and simple, yet sophisticated approach to high quality basics in amazing fabrics. Great travel bags too! Next door is The Stronghold, which is a must for specialty denim, leather jackets and vintage reproduction boots. They’ll custom make anything you want too! Cool spot. If you’re traveling with your guy, don’t miss it. And, they also have women’s. Win-win.
4TH STOP: MANHATTEN BEACH (3 NIGHTS)
+ HERMOSA BEACH + REDONDO BEACH
EAT & DRINK: Love & Salt, The Strand House, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (These are in every city), Uncle Bill’s Pancake House (The turkey burger and sweet potato fries here were a real treat for lunch, but I wish we had tried their breakfast too. Every time I ran by I craved everyone’s pancakes!)
SHOOT: Houses along The Strand, beach volleyball tournaments, Manhattan Beach Pier, surfers carrying their surfboards overhead, on their bikes or in their convertibles, surfing town scenes, Hermosa Beach Pier surfer sculpture, ocean surfers
We chose to stay in another boutique hotel, Shade Manhattan Beach. Again, I always look for hotels that include breakfast and are within walking distance of shops and restaurants. This one did include breakfast as well as complimentary bikes and was convenient to everything…just one block from Manhattan Beach Blvd and a 3 short block walk or bike rid down to the beach. There’s also a small rooftop pool. And, did I mention the cake pops they left each night on our bedside tables? We liked the chilled vibe of Manhattan Beach, which is a clean, high end beach town with lots of surfers and beach volleyball enthusiasts.
Every morning I would wake up early and run down to the boardwalk along The Strand from Manhattan Beach through Hermosa Beach to Redondo Beach and back to the hotel. There were lots of people on the boardwalk running, biking, skating and strolling babies. One side of The Strand boardwalk is lined with beautiful beach homes of all different architecture styles (very close together), which also provided nice shade that time of day. The other side of the boardwalk is the beach, volleyball games and ocean.
[Waterleaf home interiors shop right by Shade Hotel Great looking pillows!]
[Eat at Love & Salt.]
[Our path down to the beach and boardwalk from our hotel.]
[Manhatten Beach Pier]
[Homes and boardwalk along the Strand]
[The SEC was represented and my alma mater’s flag was
flying high in Southern California! Roll Tide.]
[Water conditions and a summer camp for surfers]
[Redondo Beach Marina]
5TH STOP: SANTA MONICA (Afternoon/evening)
EAT & DRINK: Shutters on the Beach,(Eat any meal or appetizers and drinks), Water Grill (Amazing Chilean Sea Bass, Polenta, etc. Entire menu was fabulous and excellent service. Right on Ocean Avenue by the Santa Monica Pier), Rustic Canyon
SHOOT: Santa Monica Pier, View of Santa Monica Pier from Shutters on the Beach
We spent the morning on the beach in Manhattan Beach then drove over to Santa Monica for the afternoon and evening. I wanted to have a bite and a drink on the breezy terrace at Shutters on the Beach, so we stopped there first. It’s just lovely. So happy I was finally able to experience it!
[Feeling pretty inspired.]
The Santa Monica Pier is extremely crowded and touristy, but you just have to do it. So, we decided to ride the ferris wheel and roller coaster at sunset, and have a few good laughs from watching the street/pier entertainers. At dark, we headed off the pier and down the street to eat dinner at Water Grill. This was one of our favorite meals on our trip, with a varied menu and excellent service. We ordered the Chilean Sea Bass (our favorite) and polenta. It was delicious. We sat at a booth, by the open windows overlooking Ocean Ave and the Pier.
6TH STOP: DOWNTOWN L.A., & BEVERLY HILLS
EAT & DRINK: The Farm of Beverly Hills (Hint: Get a table outside facing the sidewalk for lunch. It’s a great spot to see celebrities walk by. We saw two very well known celebrities while we were there.)
SHOOT: Beverly Hills sign, Rodeo Drive, storefronts
Honestly, we hadn’t planned on doing this part of the trip at all. We knew how touristy this part of L.A is and we just didn’t care about doing tours and seeing the movie sets, etc. But, we were so close and had the time one day to do a VERY abbreviated (sometimes drive by) look at these areas. We drove through Beverly Hills and ate lunch at The Farm of Beverly Hills. As I mentioned in the Snapshot of Recommendations above, be sure to get an outdoor table by the sidewalk. Two high profile celebrities walked right beside our table. After lunch, we walked around the corner to Rodeo Drive and strolled down the street admiring opulent storefronts and peeked into a few. The only store we actually went in was Ralph Lauren because is the epitome of true Americana and timeless fashion. And, the Rodeo Drive store did not disappoint. My favorite part of visiting stores in L.A. and New York is the styling, display, props and presentation. It’s truly incredible. I’m going to have to go back on a girls trip so I can peruse every store just for the eye candy. I was trying to spare Brad of complete shopping boredom since this was an anniversary trip of sorts.
[My green-eyed hubby looked handsome sitting in the cafe light
while we were waiting on lunch, so I had to grab a shot of him,
since I don’t do that very often.]
[Our 11 year old son is really into cars right now and would have loved seeing the Mazaratis lined up for sale on Rodeo Drive (which is closed off and for pedestrians only).]
7TH STOP: HOLLYWOOD (1/2 DAY)
SHOOT: Hollywood Sign from Griffith Observatory, Downtown L.A. from Griffith Observatory, James Dean sculpture with Hollywood hills at Griffith Observatory, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Chinese Theatre, Kodak Theatre
From there, we drove to an L.A. favorite, Fred Segal, then made our way past the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where Brad literally pulled over to the curb for 1 minute, while I jumped out took a shot or two of the sidewalk stars that were right in front of me and jumped back in the car. We seriously can’t handle all of the tourists hanging out on there and a street entertainer with a huge snake around his neck about scared me to death when he got too close! Since we were in a convertible, I held my camera up when I suddenly realized we were driving right by the Kodak and Chinese Theaters (a little drive by shooting). We made our way past the Hollywood Bowl to the Griffith Park and Observatory to see the Hollywood sign and downtown L.A. at sunset. If you’ve seen the movie La La Land (movie locations to visit), then you’ve seen Griffith Observatory. You don’t want to miss this! It has best views of all of L.A.’s landscape. There’s a reason it’s called the Hollywood Hills, and you’ll definitely experience them as you wind your way up to the top of Griffith Park.
LAST DAY: MANHATTEN BEACH (1/2 Day)
We were given great advice to spend our last day in Manhattan Beach, because we could enjoy a little more time there relaxing before our flight out, since it is only 15 minutes from L.A.X. After a morning run, Brad and I rode bikes down The Strand, then packed up and grabbed lunch at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, (which we had walked by every day right near our hotel), before heading out to catch our flight.
What a fun trip! We were able to see so much of Southern California in just 6 days. Next up… Napa, San Diego, or San Francisco…there’s more I want to experience. Why have I waited so long to Visit California? I love any state who’s tourism tagline is “Dream Big”.