If you’re looking for a tipple of the local nectar while in Santa Barbara and you only have a weekend, this post is for you!
I love Santa Barbara, also known as the American Riviera sitting south facing on the Pacific Ocean, but it had been about eight years since I was last here so as you can imagine, a lot has happened to this west coast California city between drinks.
And drink we did, with too many Santa Barbara wineries to choose from!
This post covers:
• Wineries to visit in the surrounding Santa Ynez mountain range
• Where we stayed
• Shopping on State Street
You might also love my post on 12 marvelous day trips from Los Angeles which features Santa Barbara.
In two days I had to be ruthless about what I was going to focus my time on, and that meant not much time for shopping but plenty of time for tasting at local wineries and some great dining!
Where is Santa Barbara?
This beautiful Spanish styled city is just a short two-hour drive north from Los Angeles along the Pacific Coast Highway, so it makes an ideal weekend getaway or a great stopover if you’re passing through California.
Santa Barbara is actually south facing, as you can see from this map, and with the Channel Islands breaking up onshore breezes and the mountains behind, the weather in Santa Barbara is pretty much sunshine every day – well 300 days a year on average!
It doesn’t get too hot here either in the summer. Temperatures range from the mid 60s in winter to mid 70s in summer (18–24˚C)
Some fab things to do in Santa Barbara in a couple of days…
Visit surrounding Santa Barbara Wineries
Hugged by the Santa Ynez mountains, Santa Barbara is surrounded by row upon hundreds of rows of vines with over 200 wineries growing more than 50 grape varieties, most of it in chardonnay and pinot noir.
You can see that they could occupy you over several lunches and cellar door tastings for a few days!
Take a Santa Barbara winery tour!
It’s pretty much impossible to decide which ones to visit, and of course, you don’t want to drive anyway, so we went on a full day winery tour with Stage Coach Tours.
They pick up from hotels and visit three or four lovely wineries, include a picnic lunch (which the driver whisked away to collect while we were quaffing the local drop), then we sat under the trees and ate our sandwiches with another glass of wine.
Our day started with a 10am pick up at our hotel (Goodland in Goleta, see more below) and Tom drove us into the countryside and through the cute Danish town of Solvang – which I was kinda hoping we’d stop at for a bit of a shop (no!)
Note to self: come back here for at least a few hours next time to eat the pastries in the windows and shop at the little enticing boutiques.
My picks for best Santa Barbara wineries
Our first winery was Buttonwood Farm with a lovely garden to take your taste out into. They offer five wines to taste, and a couple more depending on how busy they are, for $15 (if you were just dropping in because it’s included in the tour) and they’re a generous slosh too!
Their largest varietal is Cabernet Franc and they do a tiny range of Grenache and have been fooling around with yeast and making a white wine with beer notes to impress your brew loving friends over a barbecue!
Our second winery was Brick Barn Wine Estate who also offer five tastes (for $20) and have a lovely outdoor seating area that we had our picnic in. The owner also has a couple of Ferraris parked in the former stables (with a sign saying ‘don’t touch the ponies’ :D), which is now the winery so it ticks a few boxes for wine and car lovers!
By now we were quite chatty with our small group, a young couple from Switzerland (he is a photographer and set up the wine pic below with the lighting that we all took advantage of!) and a couple and their grown up son from east LA. Group sizes are not more than 10 on these tours, and our driver Tom chatting up a storm.
The third winery was Pence Vineyards and Winery where we had a little drive through the vineyard first and didn’t go the cellar door at the entrance, but to a cute garden with a pop up bar beside a little lake. In fact they have five locations for tasting here.
This is a small California winery with a big reputation, organically producing Pinot Noir, Syrah, Gamay and Chardonnay and only open for private bookings and tours. But it is owner, Blair Pence’s, passion for sparing no expense to let the terroir speak in your glass influenced by many years of visiting and working with wine growers and makers in Burgundy with the aim to produce the best Burgundian wines in the new world.
Then our final winery was Bella Cavalli Farms & Vineyard which is all about wine and horses. In fact it might just be the horses that wins with owner Jeff Lockwood, who is in his 60s and still works the horses and breaks them in. “I was thrown just a couple of weeks ago,” he told us with a laugh.
But outside in the sun, he brought out five bottles for us to taste: his Bianco Rossa from the Cabernet Sauvignon vine, Albarino – a northern Spanish style of wine, Cortese – first mentioned in texts from 1659 and a light wine that is good paired with seafood, a Chardonnay – the bottling is so small that it is sold to members only, and a beautifully light Grenache Rosé.
Then it was time for Tom to drive us the hour back to our various hotels and pull ourselves together enough to go to dinner!
Where to eat in Santa Barbara
Have dinner in the Funk Zone
Check out Stearns Wharf
At the end of State Street, if you keep walking across the beach you’d be on Stearn’s Wharf. I have to admit I haven’t walked all the way to the end, but I have stood on it and attempted to throw coins into the small buckets of the guys begging below. A smart way for them to making to be honest as the challenge was clever – and I missed every time!
Built in 1872, this enormous wharf is 2,300 feet long (just over 700 metres) and is held up by thousands of pilings into the deep water. It’s a popular spot for throwing a fishing line over and also has a few restaurants.
Harbor Restaurants has steaks, ribs and fine wines, but you’ll also find a couple of burger restaurants and a seafood.
Visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara
Another one of the iconic and best things to do in Santa Barbara is drive to the Santa Barbara Mission.
We drove there on our final day, before we headed south to Malibu (you might like to read my 24 Hours in Malibu post here for where we stayed, ate and what to do), we checked out of our hotel and headed to the Mission Santa Barbara for an hour.
Founded in 1786 on the celebration of the Feast of St Barbara, it was the 10th mission of 21 California missions to be established by the Spanish Franciscans.
It sits high over the city and the building is open to the public (for a small fee) to tour through, but even just sitting outside on the sprawling front lawn with views over the city, it’s a lovely place to come and take a moment.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
This popular place to visit is more interesting than it sounds! Yes, it’s a working government building where court officials with clipboards and fast walks totter past on the tiled floors, but the Spanish-Colonial style architecture is what people like you and me visit for.
One of the best things to do is climb (or take the elevator) to the four-sided bell tower at the top for stunning 360˚ views over the adobe style rooftops below and all the way out to sea, with the mountain range behind you.
When the courthouse buildings are open to the public, take in the intricate painted details on the walls and ceilings and especially the Mural Room.
There is a car park adjacent – and the first 75 minutes are free in Santa Barbara.
Where we stayed in Santa Barbara
On my previous two visits to Santa Barbara I have stayed quite close to the main street, but this time we were hosted by the Goodland Hotel, a Kimpton property.
I’m a bit of a Kimpton fan as they are hip hotels with a local vibe. No two are the same and I appreciate that.
In this case the Goodland, located in Goleta, a sister town nine miles (14.5km) from Santa Barbara and about 15 minutes drive into the CBD, was a motel that has been trendified (if that’s a word) into a laid back hotel with a surf vibe, a bar and a restaurant. There is a turn table in each room with vinyl you can borrow from the little record booth in the main lobby.
In 2017 Conde Nast voted it the #3 hotel in Southern California and as with all Kimpton hotels, there is a free wine and beer hour at 5pm to come and get social with your fellow guests.
The Goodland has complimentary s’mores kits at the front desk for you to grab a spot by the fire pit and toast your marshmallow and chocolate then slam it between the Graham crackers to get your American summer nights groove on.
We didn’t stay for dinner, preferring to get an Uber for the 15-minute drive into Santa Barbara to check out the dining scene, but the smashed avocado on toast with an egg and a side of crispy roasted potatoes was just the fortification we needed for breakfast before our winery tour the next day.
Shop on State Street
Downtown Santa Barbara’s main street runs perpendicular to the beach and is where you’ll want to bring the car and spend a couple of hours. Parking is free, but tricky to find as curbs are painted red or green and woe betide you if you park beside the red!
But once you do get a car park, wander around the shops, pop into the old courthouse and admire the tiles and even climb up to the bell tower if you’re feeling energetic enough to take in the views of the Spanish tiled rooftops and the Santa Ynez mountains hugging the city.
Down at the ocean end the 5-star Hotel Californian has transformed the original 1925 hotel with 121 rooms since I was here last and wine tasting in the city in a plethora of tasting rooms is a real focus now, without having to traipse into the mountains to a cellar door.
If you want to find out more things to do in Santa Barbara California, click here on the Visit Santa Barbara website for everything you need to know.
And if you’re planning a Pacific Coast Highway road trip you might like my hugely popular and helpful 5-day itinerary from LA to San Francisco (with 2 of those days spent here in Santa Barbara).