Santa Barbara Harbor from Paddle Sports Center. (Photo credit: Karen Chazanovsky)
Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, charming Santa Barbara exemplifies the Mediterranean lifestyle to the degree that it's often referred to as the “American Riviera.” Santa Barbara is the ultimate seaside town for those seeking a balance between leisure and adventure.
Here’s how to spend a weekend in paradise!
How to get there
I’m partial to road tripping from San Diego, which takes about 3.5 hours. If you prefer to fly, there are direct flights from Los Angeles. Insider tip: direct flights from San Diego will begin in June 2021.
Where to stay
View from Mar Monte Hotel room. (Photo credit: Karen Chazanovsky)
Treat yourself to a few nights at the Mar Monte hotel, which prides itself on its beachfront location, beautiful Spanish architecture and upscale renovations. The staff goes above and beyond to ensure guest safety during the pandemic.
Jumpstart your morning with beach yoga, rent a beach cruiser and explore the neighborhood, and wind down with live music on the terrace.
Where to eat and drink
Supporting local farms, fish markets, wineries, and breweries is a way of life in Santa Barbara. Fresh seafood and farm-to-table fare define the vibrant culinary scene.
Scallop risotto at FisHouse.
FisHouse is the place to be for fresh seafood. I highly recommend their rockfish ceviche and scallop risotto. The pan-fried chicken is an excellent alternative. Start your meal with an order of the cauliflower frito misto and a “berry good” mojito or lavender lemonade spritz. Finish strong with crème brûlée or tiramisu for dessert.
Calling all pizza lovers: Lucky Penny offers wood-fired pizza, rustic salads, and artisanal sandwiches to your heart’s content. Enjoy your pie and glass of frosé (frozen rosé) with live entertainment on the expansive picnic patio. Check out the 150,000+ pennies that tile the building’s exterior.
The strip steak at La Paloma.
You can’t miss La Paloma Café’s iconic neon sign. The restaurant represents the cuisine of Baja, Mexico and their barbecue reflects the ranchero history of the region. Start light with roasted brussels sprouts, garlic bread, and the Caesar salad. Then, order the pozole, tri-tip steak, or Mission chicken. Savor homemade cocktails and save the cactus-themed stir sticks as a souvenir.
Walk around the arts district (a.k.a. the Funk Zone) and go wine tasting on the urban wine trail. Kunin Wines’ tasting room is my favorite place to people watch. Kunin focuses on Syrah, Zinfandel, Viognier, and varietals from the Rhône and Loire valleys. Phoebe, their rosé, is Santa Barbara in a bottle. To experience all of Santa Barbara’s viticulture’s areas, pay a visit to The Valley Project. They’ll introduce you to them all, one glass at a time.
Head over to Santa Barbara Harbor and have lunch at Salty at the Beach. Admire the coastal views from their heated patio and partake in California-style cuisine and refreshing cocktails. You’ll need to roll up your sleeves for Salty’s fried chicken sandwich, and their calamari salad and soup of the day are delicious. Most dishes can be modified to accommodate vegan and vegetarian diets.
What to do
Downtown Santa Barbara is a shopper’s dream come true. Along the promenade, you’ll find unique boutiques, consignment stores, and open-air markets. Carrying your newfound treasures is a workout, so don’t forget to pamper yourself with a massage at one of the luxurious spas. If shopping isn’t your scene, tour a variety of museums and cultural venues.
Check out the Funk Zone and get a feel for Santa Barbara’s contemporary side. This neighborhood is home to an eclectic mix of warehouses that have been converted into tasting rooms, cafés, galleries, and vendor spaces. Each building has its own identity and independent spirit. Set aside a few hours to walk the urban wine trail and sample wine from 20+ tasting rooms.
Feeding the Masai giraffes at S.B. Zoo.
Bring the family to the Santa Barbara Zoo and spend the day with lions, leopards and apes. Board the zoo train to learn about the park’s ongoing exhibits and conservation efforts. Invest in your vacation, and purchase tickets to hand-feed the Masai giraffes. There’s nothing quite like watching their long purple tongues wrap around the slices of lettuce in your hand.
Rent a kayak, paddleboard, or surfboard at Paddle Sports Center at Santa Barbara Harbor. For maximum fun, reserve a tandem kayak with a friend and cruise around the marina. The harbor seals will happily swim alongside you as the seagulls hover overhead. Paddle Sports Center also offers group tours and surfing, stand-up paddling and kayaking classes.
Horse ride with Summerland Beach Rides.
Book a trail riding adventure with Summerland Beach Rides and explore Santa Barbara’s coastline on horseback. The outfitter company hosts private and group rides for beginners and seasoned equestrians alike. As you mosey along Summerland beach, keep an eye out for dolphins and whales. Admire the breathtaking views of the ocean, rugged bluffs and hillside groves.
Santa Barbara’s warm climate, welcoming vibe, and vibrant community have earned the destination a top spot on travel wish lists. In true Riviera style, there is something for everyone in this dreamy town. Be sure to add Santa Barbara to your next itinerary.