Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Located roughly 90 miles north of Los Angeles, lies the small coastal city of Santa Barbara. Thanks to its Mediterranean climate and a refined atmosphere that’s long catered to the sensibilities of well-heeled locals and the visiting Hollywood elite, it’s been nicknamed “the American Riviera.” But don’t let its patrician reputation lead you to the misconception that Santa Barbara is solely the realm of the hoity and the toity. At the end of the day, when you’re in Santa Barbara you’re squarely in Coastal California territory. That means there’s still plenty of space for a more down-to-earth weekend of hitting the beach, surfing, and exploring a food and drink scene as exciting (not to mention as delicious) as anything you’ll find back in Los Angeles.
The most direct route from Los Angeles will be via the 405 to the 101 (which will take you about an hour and a half to two hours) or you can opt for the scenic route and start on the Pacific Coast Highway, enjoy the Malibu coastline, and then hop on the 101 around Oxnard (this will add an hour or so to your travel time but it’s unlikely you’ll regret taking in such wonderful views). Santa Barbara is also an easy hour and a half to two hour Amtrak ride from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.
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Whether you took the more direct route via the 101 or opted for the longer but more scenic route via the Pacific Coast Highway, you’ll likely land in Santa Barbara in the mood for a little lunch. Stop by the Santa Barbara Public Market which plays host to a variety of vendors serving up a variety of cuisine and wine that’s been locally sourced. It’s especially well-suited to divided parties that have trouble reaching a consensus.
After you’ve reenergized, find your way to what is perhaps the city’s most famous landmark, the Mission Santa Barbara. Founded in 1786 by Spanish missionaries, the mission is an impressively scaled structure that houses an impressive set of features, including a Neoclassical façade, aqueduct system, gardens, a Moorish fountain, and a collection of colonial artwork. Consequentially, the Mission Santa Barbara has come to be regarded as “The Queen of the Missions.”
Kick off the evening in the Funk Zone with some pre-dinner cocktails at Pearl Social. This intimate spot serves up impossibly pretty cocktails and music nightly. Larger parties will also enjoy sharing one of their punch bowls.
Barbareño defines its cuisine as “Central Coast Californian”—something you might not be able to define off the top of your head. But after dining in the restaurant’s relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere on tri-tip served alongside chimichurri, grilled avocado bowls, and pinquito beans you’ll understand exactly what it means. For dessert, treat yourself to Barbareño’s delicious homemade ice cream.
Start your morning with an excellent cup of coffee from Handlebar Coffee Roasters. The café and roasting company was opened in 2011 by two former professional cyclists, and since then have focused on crafting excellent coffee. Along with your caffeine boost, you can chow down on a pastry or some next-level avocado or smoked salmon toast.
After breakfast, it’s time to turn your attention toward Santa Ynez Mountains—they’re not just a beautiful backdrop for the city—and hike your way to Inspiration Point. It’s a moderately challenging 3.5-mile trek, but once you reach the top you’ll understand how the spot got its name. You’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of the city, the ocean, and the Channel Islands.
For a hearty post-hike lunch, stop by Cold Spring Tavern. More than a BBQ spot, Cold Spring Tavern is a quintessential piece of Santa Barbara history, having served as a place for people traveling via stagecoach to stop for a break and a bite to eat. Weekends here means the restaurant will be serving up its famous tri-tip sandwiches—a delicious tradition you’ll be very glad to have taken part in.
There’s no shortage of beaches in the Santa Barbara area, which also means there’s no shortage of vantage points for basking in a Californian sunset. But for something extra special, find your way to Butterfly Beach in Montecito, which, unlike most of the areas south-facing beaches, faces the west. It’s a little more off the beaten path so, while still popular with locals, you’ll find pristine sand and a more intimate atmosphere. You might even see some dolphins to round out the day.
For dinner, find your way to the patio at Oliver’s for a vegan experience that will win over even the staunchest of carnivores. The menu is populated by such delicious and satisfying dishes like kung pao cauliflower and jackfruit tacos served in a romantic, upscale setting.
For after-dinner drinks in a space designed with Santa Barbara’s “American Riviera” rep in mind, head to The Good Lion. The cocktail menu rotates weekly so that the drinks are consistent with whatever fruits and herbs are currently in season. Rest assured though, anything you order is sure to be completely and utterly delicious.
For a hearty breakfast, head to Jeannine’s Restaurant and Bakery. This Santa Barbara institution serves up what is perhaps the platonic ideal of breakfast food: straightforward, made with natural ingredients, and served alongside a big cup of coffee—or, you know, a bottle of bubbly. Whichever you’re in the mood for.
It’s time to head north to Los Olivos, a 40-or-so minute drive that will take you past Cachuma Lake into the Santa Ynez Valley. And one of the best ways to take in all this natural beauty is on a bicycle. It’s easy enough to sign up for a guided tour or simply rent a bike and explore the picturesque countryside on your own.
Stop in for lunch at Los Olivos Wine Merchant Cafe, where you’ll find delicious salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas. But no matter what you order, you’ll be able to pair your meal with a plethora of wines. The “Wine Merchant” part of this spot features over 500 wines and specializes in wine from California’s Central Coast, naturally.
You may recognize the Santa Ynez wine country as the setting for the movie Sideways. You can opt to go very slightly afield to wineries like Beckmen Vineyards or Foxen Vineyard and Winery or any number of vineyards that populate the Santa Ynez Valley from Solvang to Santa Maria. Or you can stay put right in Los Olivos, where a staggering number of tasting rooms—such as Blair Fox Cellars, Refugio Ranch Vineyards, The Hideaway LO to truly name only a few—populate the two-or-so blocks that make up the heart of the town. Round out your afternoon at Coquelicot Estate Vineyard’s tasting room and inviting backyard space (complete with bocce ball) perusing art at Gallery Los Olivos.
WHERE TO STAY
The San Ysidro Ranch has been a fixture of the Santa Barbara area as early as 1839. This luxury resort’s guests have included everyone from Winston Churchill to Groucho Marx and is famous for having hosted Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy on their honeymoon. If you like your luxury stay to come with an oceanfront view, check in to the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore where you’ll have easy access to the resort’s pool, gardens, and Butterfly Beach. If you’re in the market for something a little more low-key, though no less central, check out The Wayfarer, a hostel that offers shared as well as private rooms, where you’ll only be mere steps away from the Funk Zone’s myriad bars and restaurants.
WHEN TO GO
Santa Barbara’s famously mild weather means there’s truly no bad time for a visit. If you want to see the city at its most festive, visit during Old Spanish Days (or simply “Fiesta”), an event that over five days each summer celebrates the area’s Spanish heritage.