What to Do During a Weekend in Santa Barbara

What to Do During a Weekend in Santa Barbara

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From exploring beautiful beaches, to wandering around and appreciating stunning architecture, and enjoying some absolutely amazing food, it doesn’t get much better than a weekend in Santa Barbara. Whether you’re looking for the perfect weekend getaway from the Los Angeles area, you’re looking for the perfect city to pair with a visit to Solvang, (check out this guide!) or, you’re planning the ultimate Southern or Central California itinerary (in that case, this LA guide is for you!), Santa Barbara is a gem you won’t want to skip. If you’re not sure where to start during your weekend in Santa Barbara, you’re in the right place.

I’d recommend spending about three days here, which gives you a good amount of time to balance activities and relaxation, but you could definitely fill your time if you choose to stay longer. These recommendations balance luxury and affordability — On my last visit, I personally chose to select a more affordable accommodation, while splurging on food, but more affordable and more luxurious options are also included throughout.

This itinerary can also be adapted for the more leisurely or more adventure-seeking — but there are some key spots you won’t want to miss if you’re only making it a weekend trip. 

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What to Do in Santa Barbara

Visit Stearns Wharf

The historic Stearns Wharf is home to a number of little gift shops and restaurants, a tasting room, an ice cream shop, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Since a trip to Santa Barbara should be all about leisure, it’s worth taking a walk along the nearby East and West beaches and then wandering through this iconic landmark. It’s a beautiful view, and the perfect spot to get some photos or watch the sunset. (217 Stearns Wharf)

Stearns Wharf

Relax at Butterfly Beach

Santa Barbara has a number of beautiful beaches, and you can’t go wrong anywhere you go, but Butterfly Beach, located in the Montecito area, just a 10-minute drive from downtown, is my personal favorite. 

Unlike a lot of the other Santa Barbara-area beaches, this one is east and west facing, making it the best place to catch the sunrise or sunset. It’s also a popular option for kayaking, paddle boarding, surfing, swimming, or if you’re like me and barely go in the water (I know, I know) — sunbathing. Dogs are also allowed to be on-leash here. There are no facilities on this beach (it’s relatively small), but you’re just a 5-minute walk from an area with restaurant and retail options. (1260 Channel Drive)

Wander around the Funk Zone 

This is an artsy, and super popular area in downtown Santa Barbara where you can find lots of shops, restaurants, bars, and more, and no trip to Santa Barbara would be complete without checking it out.

A building in downtown Santa Barbara
Downtown Santa Barbara

Go on a wine tasting

It’s no secret that Santa Barbara is a wine destination. You could go all out and go on a vineyard tour — there are several all along the Santa Ynez mountain range for you to choose from. Wine Santa Barbara Wine Country Tours is a popular pick.

You could also just enjoy a tasting without straying too far away from town. Along the Funk Zone and State Street areas are a handful of winery tasting rooms where you can pop in and sample their tasting menus or get a glass of wine for a reasonable price. Margerum Winery and Carr Winery are both highly rated, but there are a ton to choose from — check out Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail for a full list.

On my most recent visit, I went to the recently opened Longoria Wines, where there were two different tastings to choose from. One was $25 per person while the other was $30, and each included samplings of five different wines. (732 State St.)

Explore the Courthouse

Visiting a courthouse isn’t a usual stop you make on vacation, I know. While it’s true that I have an extra soft spot for the Santa Barbara Courthouse because this is where I got married, this courthouse is also just exceptionally beautiful. The Spanish Colonial revival-style architecture, gardens, and entire indoors area puts other courthouses to shame. Inside, you can check out the Mural Room, and take a walk up to the clock tower, which gives you an amazing panoramic view of Santa Barbara. (1100 Anacapa St.)

Enjoy some art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Between the wine tastings and beach trips, maybe you’re looking for a bit of culture on your trip, and if so, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is the place for you. This gorgeous museum is home to ancient to contemporary art as well as my personal favorite, photography. 

Reservations ahead of time are suggested, and can be made here. Tickets are $10 for a non-member adult, except for on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8, when admission is free. 

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m, and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays, and check online for holiday scheduling. (1130 State St.)

The Santa Barbara Courthouse

Best Santa Barbara restaurants

A highlight of visiting Santa Barbara is just wandering around and stumbling upon amazing spots. While there’s no shortage of great places to eat here, these are some places that I loved on my recent visit. A couple of these suggestions are on the pricier end, so just keep that in mind. 

El Encanto at Belmond Hotel

This meal is a splurge — just getting that out of the way first. But if you’re looking for somewhere romantic, to celebrate an occasion, or just somewhere extra special, this is your spot. 

If it’s warm enough outside, definitely try to get seated on the patio. The view alone makes this place worth it. As an appetizer, we tried the Jumbo Lump Crab Luis, which came with caviar, quail egg, edamame, and ocean lettuce. For entrees, the blackened scallops, served alongside grilled garlic kale, and roasted pepper butter, and Striped Channel sea bass, which came with mushrooms, capers and tomato butter, were both delicious. We also received a complimentary fresh crudité platter, and ordered dessert. The goleta lemon, lemon curd with pistachios, white chocolate, and yuzu mousse, was presented beautifully in what looked like a real lemon, and was honestly one of the best desserts I have ever had at a restaurant.

El Encanto is open from 7 a.m. to 11 for breakfast, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch, and from 5:30 p.m. until 10 for dinner. Check out the dining options at Belmond Hotel here;  El Encanto’s menus can be found under “The Dining Room and Terrace.” (800 Alvarado Place)

Toma Restaurant & Bar

This cozy Italian-inspired restaurant was another splurge with a romantic ambiance and absolutely mouth-watering menu.

Try the tuna cones, which includes Ahi Sashimi with ginger, sesame, soy, chile, and chive in crisp sesame cones. We inhaled them, along with crispy artichokes with pickled sweet peppers, lemon aioli, and gremolata as appetizers. For dinner, I tried a seasonal special, house-made pasta tagliatelle with scallops, shrimp, salmon, crispy prosciutto, oven-roasted tomatoes, and lemon butter sauce. For dessert, I’d highly recommend the phyllo crisp. It was a unique but absolutely delicious pastry-like dessert with strawberries, raspberry mousse, pistachio pastry, vanilla cream and berry sauce. 

Just reminiscing about this restaurant is making me hungry — trust me when I say that this was one of the best meals I’ve ever experienced. Toma opens daily for dinner at 5 p.m. Check out the menu here. (324 West Cabrillo Blvd.)

The Daily Grind

This hidden gem is a favorite among locals, especially for its breakfast burritos, that can be loaded with your meat of choice or spinach. I added avocado to mine, and when paired with spicy red salsa, it’s *chef’s kiss.* Apart from their burritos, they have bagel sandwiches, a robust coffee and smoothie menu, and a number of sandwiches and salads for lunch. Plus (and maybe most importantly) everything is affordably priced.

The Daily Grind is open daily. At its 2001 De La Vina location, its hours are 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. At its 2912 De La Vina spot, it’s open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Check out the menu here.

Reunion Kitchen + Drink

If you’ve spent time in Orange County, you may have visited one of Reunion’s other locations. But if you’re looking for a moderately-priced spot with classic but delicious American cuisine, their Santa Barbara location is worth a stop. You can’t go wrong with any of their sandwiches, bowls or breakfast options. 

Reunion is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Sundays. View the menu here. (1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.)

Jack’s Bistro & Famous Bagels

This place was an easy walk from our hotel, and we actually ended up eating here twice for breakfast during our recent weekend in Santa Barbara. It has an array of bagel, breakfast and lunch options available, with most options being fairly affordable. I tried the Linden Avenue bagel sandwich with cream cheese (I chose veggie cream cheese), bacon, tomato, red onion, lemon pepper and a pickle one day. The next day, I got the Carpinteria Veggie Scramble, which came with tomatoes, spinach, artichokes and mushrooms and a choice of sides — I went with a bagel and cream cheese. So filling, delicious, and under $14, which seems like a rarity in Southern California, especially for the quantity of food.

Jack’s is open daily from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. The full menu is available here. (53 S Milpas St.)

Finney’s Crafthouse – Santa Barbara

This California-based chain restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara has a high-energy, casual ambiance. It also has a large, affordable menu featuring appetizers, pizzas, burgers and sandwiches, wings, and tacos, plus over 30 craft beers.

Finney’s Crafthouse is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a happy hour menu on weekdays from 3 to 5 p.m. Check out the menu here. (35 State St., Suite A)

A bonus place that I can’t wait to try on my next trip . . . . Loquita

Located in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, Loquita is a highly-rated place I was eager to try on my last trip, as Spanish cuisine is one my favorites, but it just wasn’t in the cards. It’s a Spanish restaurant with mostly tapas and “bocaditos” or “little bites” on the menu, plus a handful of paellas. 

Loquita is open Sundays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. View the menu here. (202 State St.)

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

My pick 

Pacific Crest Hotel

This cozy local-owned 20-room hotel is in a prime location — just half a block from the gorgeous East Beach and a short walk to the famous Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara’s downtown area and the Funk Zone.

From the outside, it looks more like a typical beach motel with a heated pool, but I was pleasantly surprised by the size, cleanliness and beachy-chic style of the room. It was tucked far enough away from Downtown to still enjoy a quiet night, but close enough to easily access everything we needed. Parking was also free, which can be hard to come by! Check it out on Booking.com here.

Some other options to consider

While I like to prioritize affordable places to stay that are in good locations, if you have more in your budget, Santa Barbara has a ton of stunning accommodations to choose from. While I can’t personally attest to any of these spots, Hotel Santa Barbara is absolutely gorgeous, located right on State Street (a main street in downtown Santa Barbara), and has a number of dining options right on-site, along with a spa.

For the budget traveler, Beachside Inn is another top-pick with an oceanfront location, a free continental breakfast, and heated pool. 

Heading to Santa Barbara soon? Do you have any suggestions that I missed? Let me know in the comments, and happy travels!

Tess <3

P.S. For another Southern California town worth a stop, check out this 3-day Long Beach itinerary. This city isn’t usually on most people’s radars, but it’s full of fun things to do, amazing bars and restaurants, and lots of vintage shopping!

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