Santa Barbara is everything you could ever want out of a west coast getaway–it’s coastal, close to wine country, picturesque, and the architecture everywhere you look makes you feel like you’re no longer in the US… which helps create the illusion that you’re in a much more remote destination than you actually are. In reality, Santa Barbara is just a short 2-hour (or less) drive up the coast from Los Angeles, yet somehow despite having lived in California for several years, I’d never found the time to pay this little beach town a visit until now.
Nestled in central California on a long stretch of open coastline, Santa Barbara is hard to pigeonhole into just one category. Historic Spanish architecture-meets-west coast beach town-meets wine country-meets upscale mainstay-meets road tripper’s must-stop… the list goes on.Santa Barbara is a world apart from the rest of California–literally–because the town was actually settled by Spaniards over 400 years ago, attributing to the distinctive architecture and charm you’ll experience when you’re there. Its geographic location is also incredibly unique–you can use Santa Barbara as home base to hit the beach, go for a hike, or head to the neighboring vineyards all in the same day, if you so choose. And, despite how remote the town is, there’s so much going on that there really is something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a chill, relaxing weekend a more fast-paced, active getaway, or something in between.
WHERE TO STAY
While Santa Barbara is definitely not lacking in places to stay, it’s honestly pretty easy to get pricey when looking to book something in the area (wine country problems). Stay in downtown Santa Barbara’s many beachside hotels, motels, and Airbnbs if you want to just park your car for the weekend and not touch it again until you leave. Or, move a little further out and opt for one of the (pricier but extremely luxe) secluded and more relaxing resorts in the area. There’s also neighboring towns, like Goleta and Montecito, each with their own hotels and Airbnbs that are still very close by. We stayed in Goleta at the Kimpton Goodland, which was a ridiculously cool bohemian boutique hotel just a short 10 minutes’ drive away from downtown Santa Barbara. And, it’s definitely one of the more affordable nice hotels in the area, with rooms around $160 – $200 a night.
WHAT TO DO
SHOP STATE STREET
State Street in downtown Santa Barbara is lined with tons of shops, places to eat, and eye-catching architecture. As is typical in Santa Barbara, a lot of things are crazy expensive (subtext: I didn’t buy a single thing this entire weekend), but it’s a beautiful place to walk around. This is a good starting point before you make your way over to the Funk Zone for an afternoon of wine and beer…
WALK AROUND THE FUNK ZONE
… which brings me to my next point. You cannot come to Santa Barbara without spending the afternoon getting lost (figuratively and literally?) in the infamous Funk Zone, Santa Barbara’s urban wine trail that is home to a number of boutique tasting rooms, outdoor patio wine hangouts, bars, breweries, shops, and art galleries. At the very least, head to Corks N Crowns for a perfect people-watching outdoor patio, Santa Barbara Winery for a cool hangout spot that sometimes offers local olive oil tastings, and Figueroa Mountain Brews if a pint of beer is more your style.
HIT UP A FARMER’S MARKET
Who doesn’t love a good farmer’s market? Even if you don’t feel up for buying produce during your vacation, there’s just something so refreshingly uplifting about walking around a local farmer’s market on a random Saturday morning, pretending you have your life all figured out. In Santa Barbara, the farmers markets are pretty well-known, and they are held downtown on Saturdays and in Goleta on Sundays. We went on Sunday after checking out of our hotel.
VISIT PRESIDIO PARK AND THE MISSION
One of the things that gives Santa Barbara such distinctive charm is its architecture and European history, which stems from Spaniards actually occupying the area in the 18th century. They set up missions across the region to help spread the word about Christianity–one of them being this one. The Mission is over 200 years old and is a historical landmark in Santa Barbara to this day. Go for the cool architecture and artwork, and stay for the history and a peek into California’s past.
HIT UP THE BEACH
Central California’s beaches are supposedly some of the best. If you’re downtown, head across the street to either East or West Beach (divided by the Stearns Wharf, which you should also walk down if you have time). We didn’t have time to explore other beaches outside of downtown, but I’ve heard that Butterfly Beach (a 10 minutes’ drive down to Montecito) is great, too.
EXPLORE WINE COUNTRY
Santa Barbara is the best base if you’re a fellow wino and want to explore the nearby wineries. Santa Ynez wine country is home to tons of wineries, wine tasteries, and wine tours you can experience all within a 30 to 45 minute drive from downtown.
DAY TRIP TO SOLVANG
Piggybacking off of the whole wine country thing, there really is no cooler spot to add to your list than Solvang. Wine, Danish food, and more distinctive European architecture. Read all about day-tripping to Solvang here! Pro tip: Solvang is the BEST during the holidays in my personal opinion if Christmas is your jam, but it’s great year-round for wine tasting, too.
WHERE TO EAT
HANDLEBAR COFFEE ROASTERS
We didn’t have enough time to explore all of the coastally inspired restaurants and seafood joints in Santa Barbara (and trust me, there are tons to choose from), but we did visit this coffee shop, and we loved it so much we came back the next day. You probably wouldn’t expect a coffee shop to be recommended first when it comes to where to eat in Santa Barbara (or in any city for that matter), but put aside your preconceived notions for a moment and stay with me. The food at Handlebar Coffee Roasters, particularly in their Goleta location, is unreal by any brunch restaurant’s standards, and remember–we’re talking about a coffee shop here, not a brunch restaurant. Inspired by fresh, local ingredients and world-renowned culinary techniques, Handlebar offers up ridiculously tasty (and visually stunning) avocado tahini toasts, soft scrambled eggs, seasonal specialties like chive potato pancakes with soft poached eggs and salmon lox, and meticulously crafted pastries. We had a salted caramel donut that was out of this WORLD, and I’m not even that big of a donut person.
Oh, right. Coffee. Handlebar also serves up everything from your standard cappuccino to more… unexpected offerings, like turmeric, beet, charcoal, and matcha lattes (we tried all 4… twice), nitro cold brew, and spicy chai. Everything is poured to perfection, and we left extremely stuffed and fully caffeinated both times we stopped by.
Fresh seafood, tasty drinks, and the view. The view!! Come to Bluewater Grill before sunset and nab one of the tables on the upstairs patio. It’s small, so there aren’t that many tables to begin with, but if you’re lucky enough to sit outside, you can spend the late hours of the afternoon soaking up the last moments of sunshine with a front-row view of the beach, the palm trees, and the people strolling down Cabrillo Boulevard. And, if you’re just coming for the drinks, be sure to at least grab some bread. So simple, but so good!
If you can’t decide whether you want seafood or pizza, head straight towards the Public Market. This hip food-centric marketplace is home to a large selection of food and drink joints, from pizza, cupcakes, and coffee to wine, poke, and ceviche. We ate at Big Eye Raw Bar, which prides itself on handcrafted, locally sourced seafood and produce. As someone who’s not too keen on poke (you may be thinking “what the hell, Rachel. You’re from Hawaii!!” I know I have a problem. I may or may not seek therapy for my distaste for large pieces of raw fish, but until then, more poke for you, right?), I decided to be partially adventurous by ordering nigiri (hamachi sashimi over crispy rice) and a tofu bowl. The restaurant lets you choose your protein (fish or tofu), your base (brown/white rice, salad, or cauliflower rice), and then a “style” for how you’d like it made–each style features different sauces, flavor profiles, and add-ins. I did my tofu bowl up ‘Hollister’ style, with chile de arbol, jicama, roasted corn, pasilla peppers, and fried shallots, and oh my GOD it was good. Who knew tofu could be that exciting? I definitely didn’t, but I’m a believer (cue music).
From tasty coastal cuisine and wine everywhere you look, to beautiful sprawling beaches and a distinctive laid-back charm, Santa Barbara lives up to the hype. Spend a weekend here and you won’t be sorry.
Have you been to Santa Barbara before, or is it on your bucket list? Tell me in the comments below!
A special thank you to Aaron Handlebar Coffee Roasters and Joe at Big Eye Raw Bar for the hospitality, and for making sure we left Santa Barbara as full as we’ve ever been in our entire lives. The food definitely did NOT disappoint!
Originally published in Rachel Off Duty Blog