Brunch, beach, wine, repeat. How to do Santa Barbara right
It seems like everyone spent their summer vacation in Italy this year. Call it “The White Lotus” effect, lumped in with pent-up travel demand. Like all vacation destinations that go viral on TikTok, once too many American tourists get there, it’s not fun or cool anymore.
But great news for those of us whose passports didn’t process in time or couldn’t shell out for the plane ticket: You can get a taste of the Mediterranean without having to do battle with the LAX Tom Bradley International terminal. Yes, I’m talking about Santa Barbara, also known as the American Riviera. Scarcely 90 minutes from L.A., it’s the ideal destination for a relaxing weekend trip.
Santa Barbara is a daytime place: unless you venture close to the undergrad-friendly spots near UCSB, you won’t find much open after 9 p.m. But that’s fine. It just means you need to spend more time out and about during the day, in the glorious sunshine.
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And there’s lots to do. The grueling order of business upon your arrival must include wine tasting, great food and beach time. You’re going to have a lot on your plate, metaphorically and literally. To save you some time, we’ve rounded up the best things to do and spots to visit to get the most from your weekend trip, presented here in a three-day weekend agenda.
Here’s our guide to the ultimate weekend in Santa Barbara.
Stop for tacos on your way into town at La Super-Rica Taqueria
“You wait in the line, which is no shorter than it was when Reagan was president, and you ask for a couple of tacos de rajas, because it is the right thing to do. And then somebody hands you the tacos, maybe five, maybe 20 minutes after you order them, and the masses of cheese, onions and sauteed chiles overwhelms the hot, freshly made tortillas, and it seems for the next minute or so to be the most delicious thing you have ever eaten in your life. Are there mushrooms in there too? I believe so. Are the tacos authentic? It doesn’t matter. They taste purely of Santa Barbara, and on a warm October afternoon, it is enough.”
You can eat inside or in the park outside, or take the whole thing to go and eat it after you check in to your hotel or vacation rental.
Open Thursday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Get caffeinated at Handlebar Coffee Roasters
If you find yourself farther north, Handlebar has another location on De La Vina Street, which also has a patio.
Marvel at the view at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Make sure you take the stairs or the elevator to the top of El Mirador clock tower. It’s the ultimate Santa Barbara selfie spot, with a 360-degree view of mountains and ocean and red tile roofs. Plan to duck out of the way of wedding photo shoots.
Free docent tours start in the mural room at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on weekends, although it’s also fine to explore it all at your own pace. Tour reservations are not required. The courthouse is free to visit. Downtown Santa Barbara offers a number of nearby public parking lots where you get 75 minutes free and pay $3 an hour after that.
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and court holidays, Visitors are not admitted after 4:30 p.m.
Savor a smoky, romantic meal at Barbareño
When I ate here for the first time, the waiter presented us with a bowl full of smoky wood chips and herbs so that we could examine it with our eyes and nose at close range. Divine. The waiter was also quite knowledgeable about the restaurant’s wine list, which highlights many local wineries, and he was very nice about it when we sent back his first suggestion. (Its replacement was a hit.) The cuisine is elevated Californian with loads of fresh ingredients, starring things that benefit from being smoked. I had a Santa Maria tri-tip crisped to crusty perfection.
Barbareño accepts reservations from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Tuesdays.
Brunch by the beach at Chad's Cafe
The owner responded to a petition to change the name to something that wasn’t a racial slur in 2020. But it has not completely divorced itself from the name: A large plaque on the outside declares it “Sambo’s Birthplace.”
Open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily.
Take in sun, surf and sea lions via kayak from Paddle Sports Center
You’ll paddle a one-mile self-guided loop that takes you through the marina, under Stearns Wharf and past a buoy heaving under a raft of sea lions sunning themselves. A harbor paddle costs $30 for a single kayak or $45 for a tandem kayak or single stand-up paddle board.
The loop takes about an hour and is appropriate for first-timers. It’s a surprisingly vigorous workout: Be prepared for sore shoulders and triceps.
Opens at 8 a.m. daily; closing time varies by season. Walk-ins are welcome, though reservations are recommended. The Paddle Sports Center also rents surfboards and inflatable and multi-person stand-up paddle boards.
Pop into shops along State Street Promenade
Some changes during the pandemic were good ones, like virtual doctor visits and working from home. This was another of them, and one the city has made permanent (at least through 2026). The first few blocks from the Pacific to Haley Street have car traffic again, but starting at Haley, you can walk or bike down the middle of the road if you like. Start with a visit to Stearns Wharf, if you’re in the mood for classic boardwalk sightseeing, then stroll up and down State Street and take in restaurants, shops, hotels, ice cream parlors, souvenir stores and more.
Treasure-hunt for antiques at the Blue Door
Items I have personally purchased from the Blue Door: A hand-carved wooden chess set. A bronze bell with a handle in the shape of a unicorn. Prints of patents for original “Star Wars” toys. A copy of “Ozma of Oz” with an inscription that reads, “To Jeannette — from Mommy + Daddy — Xmas 1946.”
Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Get your wine-tasting fix in the Funk Zone
Most tasting rooms offer glasses of wine for $8 to $12 and flights for about $15. The wineries do a bustling business on weekend afternoons, but typically not so busy that you can’t find a seat. Hours vary by tasting room, but all are open between noon and 6 p.m.
For a break between tastings, pop into the shops that dot the area, like the Shopkeepers at 137 Anacapa St., which sells things like brightly colored geometric jewelry, scented candles in upcycled whiskey glasses and a broad selection of crystals; or the Dylan Star Boutique at 110 Anacapa St., which has an array of funky clothing and accessories, like fruit-shaped hair clips, vintage beaded purses and embroidered headbands with llamas or mushrooms on them.
Dive into a mountain of pasta at Arnoldi's Cafe
Brunch on the beach again at Boathouse at Hendry's Beach
This is also a great place for dinner and the sunset, if that fits your vacation schedule better. The cocktail menu is creative and the concoctions tasty, but it’s tough to beat the value of the $8 house Cabernet or Chardonnay. The dinner menu has a raw bar and largely seafood-centric entrees, though there are land-based meat and vegetarian options as well as a kid’s menu.
This place is very popular, so consider calling to make reservations in advance, especially for dinner and busy weekend mornings. Reserve a table for one hour before sunset for maximum Instagramability.
See history up close at the Old Mission Santa Barbara
California’s missions have a rich and complicated history; Santa Barbara’s was at one time the headquarters of all the missions and the home of the state’s first bishop. It has been continuously operated since its founding in 1786 and is still an active parish, which means if you go during Mass (after 3:15 p.m. on Saturdays and between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Sundays) or when a wedding or funeral is taking place, the church and cemetery sections will be off-limits.
The self-guided tour included in the ticket price ($15 for adults) offers extensive information about the buildings and the Spanish Franciscan missionaries and Chumash people who lived and worked here.
Across the street is the A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden in Mission Historical Park. It has more than 1,500 plants, including many award winners named by the All-American Rose Selections committee. Sit on one of the benches and take a few minutes to breathe deeply.
Open for self-guided tours from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; the last ticket of the day is sold at 4 p.m. One-hour guided tours are available at 12:30 p.m. most Fridays, 10:30 a.m. Saturdays, and 12:30 p.m. Sundays.
Find your next great read at Chaucer's Books
Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Stop for a souvenir at Seaside Gardens
When you enter the seven-acre shop and garden, you’ll see pyramids of potted plants from around the world. Head left to see larger trees and a ton of funky succulents. In the back, there’s a trail that winds through a native wetlands bioswale, past Seuss-esque xeriscaping, and around peaceful vignettes made up of seating areas and small water features. End at the small plants sale area, where you can pick up rare specimens like an oompah loompah cactus (Cereus peruvianus monstrose mini) or a delicate kalanchoe that looks like it has hundreds of pink butterflies perching on its limbs (Kalanchoe delagoensis x daigremontiana).
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