20 Reasons to Drive to Santa Barbara, California
From wineries to restaurants, there’s something for everyone at this popular coastal destination.
Occupying a stunning stretch of Central California’s coastline and sandwiched between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is a haven for food lovers, culture buffs, and adventure seekers. It’s only about a two-hour drive from LA, and its welcoming, laid-back vibes, alongside a temperate climate, make it an ideal getaway any time of the year. Whether it’s traversing the Urban Wine Trail, kayaking through the kelp forests at Santa Cruz Island, or relaxing with a rooftop terrace massage, Santa Barbara offers an activity for every inclination. Here are 18 reasons to drive to one of California’s top vacation destinations.
The Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail extends from Summerland to Goleta, and now has a total of 40 wineries and tasting rooms. Head over to the Presidio neighborhood and knock back a glass of pinot noir at Frequency Wines, which recently moved to a historic courtyard. The Funk Zone is another haven for wine drinkers and home to new locations of the Santa Barbara Winery (the first post-prohibition commercial winery in the county) and Pali Wine Co. (with a focus on pinot noir and Chardonnays). Kunin Wines has two tasting rooms—one in downtown’s Funk Zone just a block from the beach, and another in Goleta that’s open for appointment only. Look forward to a new addition with The Society at Hotel Californian, a new tasting room for the Foley Food & Wine Society, which is set to open sometime in 2022.
From February through May 2022, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) will debut a groundbreaking exhibit, “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources.” This exhibit will celebrate 20 works from the painter, as well as his visual and literary inspirations, including artwork and artifacts from 19th century influences like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. During the month of March, Santa Barbara will launch a citywide celebration, with Van Gogh-themed programming planned. This includes events with Santa Barbara’s symphony, opera, theater company, and other cultural institutions. The public gardens of Lotusland will be hosting a series of art workshops in partnership with SBMA and there will even be Van Gogh-inspired plein air painting, which will invite participants to paint outdoors on State Street.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Stearns Wharf is California’s oldest wooden working wharf and an iconic landmark because of its history. In honor of this anniversary, Stearns Wharf merchants are hosting Wharf Wednesdays on the first Wednesday of each month. These events will feature special deals and family-friendly activities at wharf businesses, like Celebration Cruises’ 70-foot luxury yacht, Azure Seas, that disembarks from Stearns Wharf and offers a sunset, happy hour, and coastal cruise. You can also sign on for their Lil’ Toot narrated water taxi rides between Santa Barbara harbor and Stearns Wharf. While you’re there, order a clam chowder from Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, which is best served in a bread bowl.
Beginning with Earth Day in April, Santa Barbara will introduce a climate change theme that spans across more than a dozen museums, public gardens, and zoos across the county. Titled “Impact: Climate Change & the Urgency of Now,” it is the first-of-its-kind collaboration by the Environment Alliance of Santa Barbara County Museums and includes an exhibit at the Maritime Museum that explores why whales are superheroes and an exhibition of native plants at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The program will run through September 2022.
The Manor Bar at Rosewood Miramar Beach just relaunched in February, and features a new menu of literary cocktails. Indulge your inner bookworm with Fahrenheit 451, a smoke-tinged, bourbon-based concoction. Or, try Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a Sazerac with a twist of cognac. And the plot thickens… if you’re not too tipsy, check out one of the area’s charming indie bookstores. Lost Horizon Bookstore is in the upper village of Montecito, not too far from the Rosewood Miramar Beach. Another favorite is Chaucer’s Books on State Street or The Book Den, which is one of California’s oldest bookstores.
Explore the food scene
There are so many hot new restaurants in Santa Barbara that we’re not even sure where to begin. From two former Roberta’s NYC chefs, Bettina is a recent Michelin Guide addition serving Italian cuisine and standout pizzas. Sushi | Bar Montecito is an obvious choice if you’re craving a one-of-a-kind omakase experience—but get your reservation in early. If you’re in the mood for something different, Bibi Ji is a colorful, modern Indian restaurant with a stellar natural wine selection.
New and noteworthy additions to the Santa Barbara culinary scene include Bedda Mia, which opened in February and focuses on Sicilian cuisine. Rare Society, a “retro-swanky” steakhouse, will open a new location in the Funk Zone in the spring, showcasing Santa Maria-style barbecue. Known for its mouthwatering lobster rolls, sea urchin, and oysters on the shell, Broad Street Oyster Company just opened a Santa Barbara outpost in the downtown district. If you’re into healthy and heady swigging, check out Wylde Works, a maker of jun kombucha and mead, or High Seas Mead, which is set to open soon.
A bike ride along the coastline with palm tree-lined streets and a view of the Santa Ynez Mountains? Um, yes please. Wheel Fun has the largest bike rental selection in California and is located a block from the beach in The Funk Zone. Helmets are offered or you can bring your own. The city also recently established Santa Barbara BCycle, an electric bike share program that makes it easy to get around town.
The seaside restaurant on the harbor currently offers patio dining and a limited takeout menu. In addition to the seating on the upstairs patio which has been arranged six feet apart, the iconic Santa Barbara restaurant has added extra seating in front of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum to accommodate more outdoor diners. Once you’ve started to feel like you’re on vacation and ready to eat, order seafood. Don’t think about ordering anything else. The Cajun salmon or beer-battered fish & chips are both good options. So is washing it all down with Brophy’s Bloody Mary.
If you’re feeling adventurous, hit up Santa Barbara Adventure Company and explore the sea caves around Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island on the Adventure Sea Cave kayak tour. (The other snorkeling and kayak tours are scheduled to open beginning in March 2022.) Living up to its name, the company also offers surfing and SUP, biking, and wine tours. Channel Islands Expeditions offers whale watching and scuba diving trips, in addition to kayaking tours. For a luxurious excursion, check out Santa Barbara Sailing Center, which welcomes you on its cruising yacht for a private Channel Islands cruise that lasts anywhere from two days to a week.
This boho-chic hotel is just steps away from the sand and a 20-minute walk from The Funk Zone. Lounge by the pool or go for a run on the beach across the street. Just steps from the hotel is Convivo Restaurant, which offers Mediterranean cuisine and wood-fired pizzas, in addition to an excellent happy hour.
The family-owned shop originated in Santa Barbara, and has been serving creamy scoops since 1949. Order a scoop of Sweet Cream Caramel Brownie or better yet, go for a pint.
McConnell’s has two locations in Santa Barbara (one on State Street and one in The Funk Zone) which are both open for curbside pickup, walk-up, or third-party delivery.
Your family-style dinner at this lauded New American restaurant will wow you with its artfully presented dishes, made with farm-to-table, local ingredients. The cocktail program (which uses seasonal fruits and veggies) is on point, too. The Lark offers outdoor seating on the newly extended patio in the parking lot which shares space with their sister restaurant The Lucky Penny, best known for wood-fired specialty pizzas. Reservations are highly recommended as this place can get busy.
You can’t go to Santa Barbara without having at least one clam chowder sourdough bread bowl or a chill-out session on the pier, so why not kill two birds with one stone? The bread bowl at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is probably the closest you’ll get to the real New England deal without a plane ticket (which you probably won’t be booking these days anyway). Sit outside on their limited outdoor patio, or order takeout to enjoy your meal on the beach and while you’re there, you can watch the sailboats set sail and wish you were on one... except then, you wouldn’t be eating clam chowder. So you’re winning anyways.
This lesser-known hiking trail in Goleta is a protected land that attracts hikers, horseback riders, and 100,000 Monarch butterflies every fall. The 230-acre Ellwood Mesa Sperling Preserve is an open space with 78 acres of eucalyptus groves on the north side. It’s free to visit and hike the trails and don’t forget your pup, dogs are allowed on a leash. And so is alcohol.
Santa Barbara’s mile-long State Street pedestrian promenade, which extends from Sola to Gutierrez streets, has revitalized the downtown corridor and instilled the city with a festive European atmosphere. In response to COVID, in May 2020 the city’s leaders moved to temporarily close down the area to car traffic and fill it with designated dining areas on the streets. It has recently been extended for another two years, and will hopefully become a permanent feature in the future. Visit the State Street Promenade on Thursday afternoons, when the city hosts a street market where you’ll find local businesses and artisans showcasing their wares in pop-up tents along the street.
Cold Spring Tavern is a little saloon off the beaten path that looks like Little Red Riding Hood’s cabin from the outside and a taxidermist’s dream on the inside. The famous tri-tip barbecue sandwich is served up on the weekends, accompanied by local bands. Also on the menu is a Wild Game Black Bean Chili and a Grilled Salmon Salad. A former stagecoach stop, you’ll find Cold Spring Tavern off Highway 154 between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez.
Book one of the 92 private cottages at Belmond El Encanto and then make a dinner reservation for a seat on the outdoor dining terrace, order yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy the killer sunset and panoramic views of Santa Barbara. In response to COVID, the hotel also crafted a menu of unique experiences to add to your stay like a private gourmet sail with executive chef Johan Denizot or an al fresco movie screening on your private terrace. It’s just like having a home on the French Riviera (err, American Riviera).
The hike starts off with a relatively easy uphill climb. When you see the fork in the road, steer to the right for Tangerine Falls. The path becomes moderate and rocky (i.e. not for beginners), but is packed with scenic views and poison oak -- be careful!
If you’re looking for a little R&R, escape to the The Ritz-Carlton Bacara for its open-air rooftop terrace massage or facial. You’ll get a full-body deep-tissue rubdown while overlooking the pool and enjoying the cool sea breeze. Lap swimming is also available at the spa pool with limited hours. Sound luxurious? It is (and so are the prices).
Opened in July 2021, this cozy bakery and cafe in the Presidio neighborhood serves up European-inspired pastries and fresh breads along with a full breakfast and lunch menu. Alessia Patisserie is the brainchild of Santa Barbara native Alessia Guehr, who hails from a culinary family. (Her parents are longtime local restaurateurs.) After a decadent Duck Confit sandwich, browse a glass case that is filled with delicacies. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a croissant filled with pistachio cream? Or, take home an assortment of chocolates or a specialty cake.
The best way to do Santa Barbara is on a whim! Leila does it so often, she now has a Santa Barbara playlist, just ask nicely on Instagram or Twitter @leilaslist.