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How to Spend a Weekend in Santa Barbara

Full of beautiful beaches, scenic hikes, diverse restaurants, rich history, and charming Spanish architecture, Santa Barbara is a wonderful weekend getaway. Read on for the top recommendations of how to spend 48 hours in this coastal gem (including free activities, vegan food options, and dog-friendly destinations).

Note: If you like travel guides, be sure to check out my Northern California Road Trip and San Diego Eats posts next!

Map of All Destinations

Day 1:

The Santa Barbara airport is centrally located, so skip this paragraph if that’s how you’re arriving! If you are like us and traveling from San Diego, it’s about a 3 hour trip directly up the coast.  If you are also taking this trip and eager to stretch your legs halfway through, take a pit stop in downtown Los Angeles and hit our favorite patisserie, Bottega Louie. It has the flakiest croissants I’ve ever tasted and a huge variety of eye-catching, elaborate pastries and colorful macarons. As a bonus, it’s on the same block as a Whole Foods (my ideal rest stop and road snack destination, hah). 

We’ve stayed a few different inns in the downtown area – the most important factor each time (for us) was a central location. Both La Playa and Harbor House Inn (dog-friendly) were on the more reasonable side, price-wise, while still right in the heart of everything and steps from the beach. If splurging on a hotel, we’ve heard great things about Simpson House and would love to try it someday. 

Once you get into town, walk to Lower State Street to take in numerous shops, restaurants, and cafes with a pedestrian-friendly closed street. If you’re looking for a pick-me-up beverage, lattes at Dawn Cafe are inventive and the flavors change seasonally (this was actually my inspiration for this Salted Pistachio Latte recipe). 

 On Saturdays, the Santa Barbara Farmers Market can’t be beat, so grab some snacks for the hotel room. If you’re also a sourdough bread fan, grab a loaf (maybe with a face!) from the Scandinavian Oat Bakery right nearby. 

 For an off the beaten path lunch, turn the corner and head into a bright alleyway to a vibrant blue door for Mezza Thyme Middle Eastern cuisine. We were grateful for a moment away from the bustling crowds, and the walk-up window was a convenient way to avoid waiting to be served.

If you’re feeling refreshed after eating, consider heading over to the dog-friendly Arroyo Burro beach for a quick dip and a lovely coastline walk. This is adjacent to the Douglas Family Preserve, a large swath of meandering cliffside trails for walking and biking that also have off-leash areas for pups to enjoy. 

Head back to the hotel to freshen up and get ready for dinner at Oliver’s of Montecito. This fully plant-based restaurant has a diverse menu and lovely patio with overhead lights, firepits, and many trees. Reservations are recommended.

If you’re up for a glass of wine, head back down State for a visit to the happening Funk Zone. This lively neighborhood is chock-full of unique tasting rooms and game-filled  breweries. We thoroughly enjoyed the Margerum Tasting Room, where all grapes were grown and harvested right up the road. 

Day 2:

After a good night’s rest, start your day with an early-morning walk along the waterfront at the Santa Barbara Boardwalk and Stearns Wharf Pier. This paved trail extends for a few miles and continues right along the shortline. Look out for trees filled with many types of birds. 

Coffee options are numerous in the morning – for a traditional espresso-based drink, look for the Considered Coffee van if it’s nearby. For a nourishing meal, walk over to Backyard Bowls for some acai or berry-loaded ancient grains oatmeal. 

If you’re more of a sweets person, Handlebar Coffee is very well regarded for single origin coffees and carries a rotating menu of some of the areas best morning buns (with vegan options). Alessia Patisserie, right next door, has an eye-popping lineup of traditional and inventive French pastries. 

Right across the street you’ll find the third oldest building in California, the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Tours are free for the main section, where you can learn a great deal about the first settlements in the area and the history of the region. 

If you are interested in learning more history, try an architectural walking tour through the downtown area – or feel free to pop back to the boardwalk for Sunday Art Show. 

If you’re looking to peruse the local wine offerings (to bring home) stop into Meritage Wine Market. Upon our recent visit, the knowledgeable staff recommended a bottle of Chardonnay from Tyler Wines. While I am not normally a Chardonnay drinker, this was very light and refreshing. 

If you’re in the mood for more hiking (I usually am!), drive 10 minutes back up to Montecito to the Cold Springs Trailhead. More advanced hikers will enjoy the steep ascent to Tangerine Falls, but there are plenty of family-friendly options if you’re not in the mood for anything too intense. 

After working up an appetite, head back to Montecito and try to snag a bite at the Michelin-recognized Bettina Pizzeria (reservations are essential for dinner, but lunch tends to have more openings). If pizza sounds a bit heavy, consider Buena Onda Empanadas – they have a wide range of flavors (many vegan options) and a flower-filled patio. 

After a busy day, take some time to unwind back at the hotel. If you’re celebrating a special occasion, try to get a reservation at the acclaimed San Ysidro Ranch a well-known celebrity hangout with stellar ratings for both cocktails and cuisine. Butterfly Beach is also popular with celebrities – consider heading over there to watch the sunset.

And that’s your weekend! Hopefully full of sun, surf, time outdoors, and nourishing cuisine. Comment below if you try any of these recommendations, and let me know what favorites of yours I’ve missed. 

Portrait of Emily Meyers, founder of Garlic Head

About the Author

Emily (Frigon) Meyers is the founder of Garlic Head, a plant-based recipe website for all eaters who want to easily, affordably, and sustainably incorporate more vegetables into their diets while saving time and money. She is a lifelong vegetarian and 10+ year vegan. Garlic Head does not focus on labels - it focuses on creating food that everyone can enjoy.

Emily earned a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University along with degrees in Economics, Spanish, and Global Sustainability from the University of Pittsburgh. She has been featured on numerous podcasts and websites including The Food Institute, VegNews, Buzzfeed, and the Boston Globe.

Meet Emily here.

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