A scene of Santa Barbara including the old mission.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

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.

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A photograph of food from the SuperRica.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Stop for tacos on your way into town at La Super-Rica Taqueria

The humble turquoise taco shack typically has a line out the door, and for good reason. Julia Child loved this place. So did the late, great L.A. Times food writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold. Follow his instructions:

“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.
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A photograph of the Handlebar.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Get caffeinated at Handlebar Coffee Roasters

When you’re ready for a pick-me-up to kick off your sightseeing, swing by Handlebar Coffee Roasters‘s downtown location on Canon Perdido Street. Beans are roasted in house in a German-built coffee roaster the owners dubbed “Hercules,” and the pastries are made here or locally sourced. Caffeinated options include nitro cold brew on tap, drip coffee and espresso drinks; uncaffeinated offerings include hot chocolate, tap kombucha and a turmeric latte (you can ask to add espresso). Seating is available indoors and on the side patio. The line usually winds out the door, even on a weekday afternoon, but it is worth the wait.

If you find yourself farther north, Handlebar has another location on De La Vina Street, which also has a patio.
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The view from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse’s clock tower.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Marvel at the view at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Historic landmark
Just down the street from the Canon Perdido Handlebar location is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. You would be forgiven for thinking, “Why would I visit a municipal courthouse on my vacation?” But think again. It’s a Spanish Colonial Revival giant that towers over nearby buildings and feels more like a castle or fortress than the active courthouse it is. Inside is no less impressive: There are hand-painted murals, intricate architectural touches, wrought-iron chandeliers and sunken gardens. It is also a busy working courthouse, which can lend itself to odd moments: You’ll weave around the other tourists to take a photo and realize you’re bumping into people lined up for jury duty.

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.
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A photograph of the Barbareno Dining Room
(Jestin Gaddy)

Savor a smoky, romantic meal at Barbareño

You’ll smell Barbareño before you see it. At this intimate dinner spot, the smoker has pride of place right out front. The twinkly lights over the patio make this an ideal date night place.

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.
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A photograph of Chads Cafe.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Brunch by the beach at Chad's Cafe

Chad’s Cafe is the original location and the last remaining outpost of what was at one time an 1,100-location franchise called Sambo’s. It’s a hopping brunch and lunch spot with good food and even better views of Stearns Wharf and the beach just across the street. There’s a small inside seating area, but it’s worth waiting for a table outside. Your meal begins with a basket of warm mini-muffins, but don’t fill up: The menu has a dizzying array of breakfast classics like pancakes, burritos, omelets and a surprising variety of things on top of an English muffin drizzled with Hollandaise sauce (ahi Benedict, anyone?). Portions are generous.

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.
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Two kayakers in the ocean in Santa Barbara
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Take in sun, surf and sea lions via kayak from Paddle Sports Center

Park by the Santa Barbara Harbor, walk out and turn left to find the Paddle Sports Center, which rents kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. They’re available by the hour or for a 90-minute block to complete a self-guided harbor tour.

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.
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A photograph of State Street.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Pop into shops along State Street Promenade

After your post-kayak shower, it’s time for some shopping and people-watching along Santa Barbara’s car-free promenade. At the height of the pandemic — yes, sorry to bring it up — Santa Barbara made the decision to close its main drag to cars. This allowed restaurants to expand into grand makeshift patios and created a pedestrian-friendly central artery, a decision that made the whole area feel even more European than it had before.

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.
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A photograph of Blue Door.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Treasure-hunt for antiques at the Blue Door

Antique Store
There are a million great places to check out on State Street, including antique stores. My favorite is the Blue Door, just off State and close to the beach. It’s got three stories crammed with oddities, furniture, glassware, books, jewelry, prints and other various objets d’art.

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.
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A photograph of the Funk Zone.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Get your wine-tasting fix in the Funk Zone

Wine Bars
Wine tasting is arguably the most essential Santa Barbara activity. There are numerous pricey wine country bus tours that run from Santa Barbara, but why bother when you can taste so many Central Coast wines steps from downtown? The Funk Zone, a small arts district densely populated with tasting rooms, breweries and boutiques, has become the hot destination for wine enthusiasts who want to go tasting without leaving the city limits.

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.
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A photograph of Arnoldi's.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Dive into a mountain of pasta at Arnoldi's Cafe

Nothing soaks up a long afternoon of wine drinking like a big plate of pasta. Arnoldi’s Cafe is a classic Italian joint that’s one of Santa Barbara’s oldest restaurants. Inside, expect red tablecloths and a single red rose wreathed with baby’s breath on the table. Outside, twinkling lights crisscross the patio while families play on the on-site bocce court. Popular dishes include the Bolognese, the arrabiata, spaghetti with meatballs, the carbonara and the gnocchi tricolore — three heaping servings of pasta pillows with sauces arranged to resemble the Italian flag. Come hungry.
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The Boathouse restaurant at Hendry’s Beach
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Brunch on the beach again at Boathouse at Hendry's Beach

For tasty seafood and spectacular views, motor up to the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach, where the waves crash onto shore just yards from your table. If you sit outside on a quiet morning, you might catch dolphins frolicking in the surf.

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.
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The Old Mission Santa Barbara
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

See history up close at the Old Mission Santa Barbara

Historical Landmark
The Old Mission Santa Barbara is called “Queen of the Missions” for its beauty and historical significance. If you grew up in California, you probably learned all about the missions, but it’s illuminating to see one up close.

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.
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A photograph of Chaucers Bookstore.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Find your next great read at Chaucer's Books

Don’t be fooled by the unassuming strip mall storefront. Just past the entryway at Chaucer’s Books, youngsters shriek with glee as they make beelines for the well-stocked children’s section. If you love books, you might suppress a tiny delighted scream of your own. It’s easy to get lost for hours in this bibliophile’s paradise. And when’s the last time you really let yourself get lost in a bookstore, touching covers and flipping through pages until the right book found you? The towering, quasi-organized stacks of more than 150,000 titles lend themselves to discovery in a way Amazon’s algorithm never can.

Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
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A photograph of Seaside Gardens.
(Jessica Roy / Los Angeles Times)

Stop for a souvenir at Seaside Gardens

Botanic Garden
There’s the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, sure, and if you’re there at the right time of year, Lotusland. Both are prime destinations for plant lovers. But don’t overlook Seaside Gardens, the ideal place to stop on your way in or out of town (it’s technically in Carpinteria, just off the 101.) It’s part open-air plant market, part botanical garden trail, and all an eclectic showcase of interesting things that grow, most of which you can purchase and take home with you.

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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