If you’re looking at what to do in Santa Barbara and you only have a weekend, this post is for you!
I love Santa Barbara, also known as the American Riviera, but it’s 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!
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!
It’s pretty much impossible to decide which ones to visit, and of course, you don’t want to drive anyway, so we organised a full day winery tour with Stage Coach Tours. They pick up from hotels and visit three or four 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.
The 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.
The 4 wineries we visited:
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 a small 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!
Have dinner in the Funk Zone
The Funk Zone neighbourhood is located in a three block radius between the highway (101) and the beach in downtown Santa Barbara and has been transformed from the “funky” smelling fish warehouses into an area decorated with murals and filled with wine tasting rooms and restaurants… award-winning restaurants.
Our concierge suggested we try The Lark and as luck would have it our Uber dropped us off just across the road (we hadn’t asked him to take us any where specific preferring to have a look around first.)
We were actually lucky we got into The Lark without a booking and enjoyed their famous shared plates and copied what our neighbours were eating – and recommended – as their plates looked delicious! Think crispy fried brussel sprouts with medjool dates, chilli and lime. We also had a fish dish that our new friends had eaten and loved with lobster roe, fingerling potatoes and asparagus. Amazing! And “from the ranch” we had the pork rillettes which was a smoked pork belly and ham hock terrine style of dip in a jar served with crispy focaccia bread.
When we went to pay our bill, our neighbours – who had gone by now – had paid for our drinks and starters without saying a word! The Lark was recognised a week later with a Plate award in the Michelin Guide.
The next night we felt like Mexican and joined Karna, the PR for Visit Santa Barbara who was on hand to help me see the city and answer all my questions. She suggested Santo Mezcal, back in the Funk Zone, but this time on the newly transformed ocean end of State Street.
It was Tuesday night but tables were full so she left her number to text us when it was ready and we wandered down State Street. The newest hotel makeover in town, the Hotel Californian is opposite a new wine tasting room, Margerum where one of the brothers who owns it told us of his plan to get permission to paint a monstrous two-story mural on the warehouse across the road.
They do a fantastic cocktail and the food was good, but The Lark was still my favourite!
Visit the Santa Barbara Mission
A drive to the Santa Barbara Mission is well worth it and on Day 3, the day we were heading 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 here 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.
Where we stayed in Santa Barbara
On my previous two visits 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.
Shopping on State Street
This is the main street that 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 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.
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, 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).