How to spend a food-and-drink-filled weekend in Santa Barbara

Photo by Blake Bronstad/Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara
An aerial image of Santa Barbara with shops and houses and the beach

Often referred to as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara has sweeping coastal views, white adobe buildings, verdant mountain ranges, Mediterranean climate, and impressive wines—all of which is just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. Its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and fertile valleys of the Santa Ynez Mountains have cemented its place as a dining destination full of bounty: fresh seafood and produce are readily available at the restaurants and farmers’ markets here. In 2021, 13 of the city’s restaurants were included in the MICHELIN Guide California and Wine Enthusiast named Santa Barbara Wine Region of the Year

The city’s walkable downtown area is full of breweries, bars, and restaurants serving Spanish tapas al fresco, farm-to-table Mexican food, and more. Just steps away from State Street (downtown’s main thoroughfare) are more than 40 tasting rooms on what’s been dubbed Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail.

All of that combines to make Santa Barbara the ideal weekend destination, and this itinerary shows you how to pack it all in to do it right.

Friday, 6:30pm: Happy hour with a view 

For stellar sunset and ocean views alongside a cocktail, grab a covered terrace seat at El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel Dining Room. Perched on a hillside above the city, few places here have as good of a vantage point. The menu features a variety of top-notch cocktails such as a cucumber jalapeño gimlet, an extensive California wine selection, and small plates like avocado fries and white miso chicken wings. 

Friday, 7:30pm: A retro steakhouse dinner

Drive ten minutes to dinner at the newly opened retro steakhouse Rare Society. Chef Brad Wisee’s menu features cuts of Wagyu, tri-tip, and other dry-aged steaks grilled on an open flame in the open kitchen. Other classic steakhouse fare includes oysters Rockefeller, snow crab legs, and Caesar salad. The 166-seat space is an homage to Las Vegas steakhouses, with design elements such as a horseshoe black quartz bar with gold fixtures and wood-topped booths with cognac-colored leather seating.

Friday, 9pm: Post-dinner cocktails, with a side of backgammon 

After dinner, head a few blocks to the Roy, a hangout for local artists with strong bohemian vibes and even stronger cocktails. This no-frills downtown spot is open until midnight. Take in some of the local art on the walls or check out a backgammon tournament (or play) as you sip a moscow mule or a classic margarita. 

Saturday, 9am: Breakfast with a side of people watching

Goat Tree's interior
Goat Tree is an all-day restaurant at the Hotel Californian. Photo by Hotel Californian, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Kick off your morning with breakfast at the Hotel Californian’s Goat Tree restaurant. The casual, all-day cafe offers pastries, cold-pressed juices, coffee, and a full breakfast menu. House favorites include zesty lemon ricotta pancakes and a frittata with foraged mushrooms, piquillo peppers, and aged cheddar. Enjoy an espresso or mimosa on the patio as you look on to the bustle on State Street. 

Saturday, 10:30am: Dig into Santa Barbara’s bounty 

Every Saturday from 8am to 1pm, the Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market comes alive with vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, artisan cheeses, pies, flowers, and more. Grab a bag of strawberries or grapes and take a seat on a bench to listen to live music.

Saturday, 12pm: Bite into bao

a plate of sandwiches at the restaurant Secret Bao
The selection of baos here are the starring items on the menu. Photo by @datsufilms, courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

For lunch, look no further than Secret Bao, located on a quiet stretch of the downtown area. The star of the show is the selection of bao, with fillings such as Korean fried chicken, octopus, shrimp, and pork belly. Shareable plates at the casual cafe include hamachi tartare, seasonal dumplings, and gyoza. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, don’t miss the doughnut selection, with fillings that include vanilla ice cream and crème brûlée

Saturday, 2pm: Take in panoramic views and an art collection

Post-lunch, head to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for a free tour of the Spanish-Moorish style building, which hosts weddings and other events in large part due to its flourishing gardens and ornate interior tiles. Ride the elevator to the top of the 85-foot El Mirador clock tower, which offers views of the city and the shimmering coastline. Afterward, walk another block to the recently renovated Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which houses more than 4,000 years of Asian, American, and European art.

Saturday, 5pm: Enjoy some inventive cocktails

A selection of cocktails at Finch & Fork
The cocktails are the main attraction at Finch & Fork. Photo by Steve Legato, courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Before you settle into dinner, grab a cocktail or two at the newly renovated Finch & Fork at the Kimpton Canary. Helmed by executive chef Craig Riker, the California-inspired menu focuses on locally grown and sustainable food. The airy space has multiple turquoise-colored dining rooms with wooden tables and chairs. It’s the cocktails you want to get a hold of here. At Finch & Fork, an old fashioned gets a twist with maple syrup and black lemon bitters, and the refreshing Canary includes rum, coconut water, and pineapple juice.

Saturday, 7 pm: Dine at a Santa Barbara favorite 

A dish at Barbareño
Barbareño celebrates Santa Barbara’s myriad foodways. Photo by Blake Bronstad/Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Head to Santa Barbara’s favorite Barbareño next, located just a five-minute walk from Finch & Fork, where the seasonal, shareable plates celebrate Santa Barbara’s foodways. The Santa Maria barbecue pays tribute to the eponymous barbecue style—invented by ranchers in the region—which typically features beef tri-tip seasoned with black pepper, salt, and garlic that’s cooked over red oak coals. The acorn tagliatelle uses local charred oak as well as acorns, which were a staple of the California indigenous coastal community, the Chumash tribe. The wine list celebrates the best of the Central Coast’s varietals, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Grab a seat on the cozy patio set up with string lights and draped in succulents.

Saturday, 9pm: Top-notch cocktails to end the night

a selection of drinks and food at
More than 35 vodkas serve as bases for the various martini options at Opal. Photo by Andreina Diaz, courtesy of Opal Restaurant and Bar and Visit Santa Barbara

Wind down for the night with a cocktail at the nearby Opal Restaurant & Bar, where more than 35 vodkas serve as bases for the various martini options. The award winning-wine list celebrates Central Coast options such as a zippy Margerum Sauvignon Blanc by the bottle or glass. 

Sunday, 10am: Support local artists

Explore the Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show along Cabrillo Boulevard. The year-round event features fine and contemporary arts and crafts from more than 150 artists. It was established in 1965 as a way for artists to sell their original drawings, paintings, sculptures, pottery and photography.

Sunday, 11am: Have a farm fresh brunch

a pancake with strawberries at Coast and Olive
A weekend brunch at Coast & Olive is a Santa Barbara must. Photo by Coast & Olive, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Brunch is a must at Coast & Olive, located on the ground floor of the quaint Montecito Inn, which was built in 1928 by Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin. At the restaurant, chef Vincent Torres focuses on farmers’ market picks in dishes such as a summer stone fruit salad with butter lettuce, apricot, and a honey thyme vinaigrette, as well as buttery scallops on top of an earthy saffron risotto. For cocktails, try the refreshing Mamba, which features purple gin, lemon, simple syrup, and passion fruit foam

Sunday, 12pm: Coast along the city 

End your getaway in Santa Barbara with a bike ride courtesy Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The 2-hour coastal tour takes riders through Santa Barbara’s iconic coastline, including stops at Butterfly Beach, celebrity-owned estates, and other noteworthy locations around the city. 

Recommended hotels

The Hotel Californian's swimming pool
The Hotel Californian is ideal to access downtown’s restaurants and bars. Photo by Blake Bronstad/Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

For an ultimate retreat nestled above the city, check into El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel. The 92-room resort features bungalows and suites set on seven acres of historic gardens with panoramic views of Santa Barbara.

The 61-room Hotel Virginia Santa Barbara, Tapestry Collection by Hilton just opened in the heart of downtown after an extensive renovation. An on-site restaurant Brisa Café + Bar serves Californian cuisine and the property is just steps away from the city’s arts community, called Funk Zone. 

For proximity to downtown’s tasting rooms, restaurants, and shopping, Hotel Californian is ideal. The 121-room property has a rooftop pool deck overlooking the coastline, a Moroccan spa, and two restaurants.

Kristin Braswell is a journalist and founder of CrushGlobal Travel, a company that customizes travel guides and authentic experiences around the world. 

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