What do you think about when you think of Santa Barbara? Most people tend to picture its sandy beaches. And while there are many long stretches of beach to explore in Santa Barbara, a weekend in Santa Barbara is really so much more than a beach vacation.
Santa Barbara has a great deal of history found inside its Spanish architecture. But you’ll also see influences from both the Chumash tribes and Mexico throughout the city. Santa Barbara celebrates the many influences on its culture, which is why you’ll find many preserved historic sites here.
You’ll also discover a place that celebrates diverse palates. With over 200 wineries and tons of upscale restaurants, you may want to spend a whole day sipping and eating around the city. If you’re visiting in the summer, you may be able to do exactly that at the Santa Barbara Food + Wine Festival.
Because Santa Barbara offers so much to do outdoors, it makes sense that it’s a top summer spot. Summer is the busy season for the city, so planning a 3-day weekend in Santa Barbara in the summer may mean contending with larger crowds and more costly accommodations. Planning a trip in the spring or fall can help you avoid the crowds while still enjoying mild temperatures.
Planning a long weekend trip in Santa Barbara? With so much to do and see in this beachside city, it’s tough to know where to start. We’ve put together a 3-day Santa Barbara itinerary to help you see all that you can of the American Riviera. Follow these recommendations, from where to eat to what to do, and you’re bound to have an amazing time exploring Santa Barbara!
If you’re still deciding where to stay then make sure to check out our article on the cool boutique hotels in Santa Barbara!
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How to Spend a Weekend in Santa Barbara, California
Getting Around Santa Barbara
If you’re flying into Santa Barbara, you can fly directly into the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, which is just 10 miles from Downtown Santa Barbara. Though this option is the most convenient for getting into Santa Barbara, it is a regional airport that flies as far east as the Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport. If you’re coming any further east than Dallas, you should expect that you’ll need a layover. Also, if you’re flying internationally, you’ll need to have a layover as well.
If you’d like a direct flight into California, the closest international airport is Los Angeles International Airport. This massive airport has far more flights serving many more destinations. However, you’ll need to either get a rental car or take a shuttle from Los Angeles International Airport to Santa Barbara.
Should you decide on a shuttle, the most convenient option is the Santa Barbara Airbus. A shuttle ride would take you about two hours and 15 minutes. If you decide to drive yourself, expect the ride time to vary between an hour and 45 minutes and two and a half hours. Los Angeles traffic is notorious, and it’s better to expect the drive time to be longer than you think it will be.
Most of this Santa Barbara itinerary can be accomplished on foot or through the use of a few Uber or taxi rides. You could also rent a bike or use the bus system to get around much of Santa Barbara. Pedicabs are also usually available in the downtown and waterfront areas. However, should you decide to stay longer than your three-day weekend in Santa Barbara and decide to venture off to explore Los Angeles County to the south, you’ll likely want to rent a car.
Santa Barbara Itinerary – Day 1
For the first day of your 3 days in Santa Barbara, let’s embrace a little history. There are many wonderful historical landmarks in Santa Barbara, each with its own story to tell. But before we dive into the past, let’s dive into a delicious breakfast.
Start your day with breakfast at Alessia Patisserie, where you can find some of the best pastries in Santa Barbara. The patisserie strives to marry traditional European pastry techniques with the flavors and ingredients local to California’s Central Coast. The result is incredible pastries you can’t get anywhere else!
There are also hardier breakfast foods on the menu that are more than worth a visit. From a smoked salmon board to a blue crab crepe to a cinnamon brioche with bruléed bananas, this menu is filled with delicious finds.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Then, you’re off to your first attraction of the day: the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. This building isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill government building. When much of the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 1925, the courthouse was built and opened in 1929, covering a full square block of the downtown area. It’s earned its title as one of the most beautiful government buildings in the US.
There’s both a lot of history and art to be found here. Explore the Sunken Garden, where the 1872 courthouse once stood. Or venture inside to the Mural Room, decorated with four murals showing Santa Barbara’s Chumash, Spanish, Mexican, and immigrant cultures. For one of the best views in Santa Barbara, be sure to head up the 85-foot El Mirador clock tower.
Hungry for lunch? Pick up a sandwich from Three Pickles Subs & Sandwiches, a local favorite. Pick up one of their house specialties, like a toasty Cuban or an Italian beef with au jus on the side. Their massive menu is bound to please even the pickiest of eaters.
El Presidio de Santa Barbara
For your next stop, you’re only taking a short stroll over to El Presidio de Santa Barbara. This historic spot preserves the site of the last four military outposts built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California.
Four presidios were built by the Spanish throughout California: Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, and San Francisco. All played a strategic role in protecting the missions and settlers from attack. El Presidio de Santa Barbara was both a military and government headquarters.
There are two original sections of the presidio to explore. El Cuartel was a family residence of a soldier assigned to guard the western gate. This building is the oldest in Santa Barbara and the second-oldest in all of California.
The other section to explore is the Canedo Adobe, named for another soldier to whom the presidio was deeded when it became inactive. Also inside the presidio is the Buenaventura Pico Adobe, an example of a Mexican-period adobe, and the Rochin Adobe, an example of an American-period adobe.
Now, it’s time for dinner in a true hidden oasis. If you’re looking for a romantic spot for a date night, Zaytoon should definitely be on your Santa Barbara itinerary. This Lebanese restaurant is serving up mouth-watering food on a large outdoor garden patio in the heart of the downtown area. Sit by the fire pits on a chilly night, enjoy the twinkling lights in the trees, and listen to the water fall from the illuminated fountains.
While the ambiance is a big draw to Zaytoon, the food is just as appealing. The restaurant focuses on using healthy, fresh ingredients, often sourced from the local farmers’ market. The menu also is filled with authentic Lebanese treats.
Start your meal with cheese sambosik, fried puff pastry stuffed with onions, paprika, mozzarella, and feta. Then dive into an entree of kebabs of chicken, beef, or lamb, or get a combo of all three – every bite is perfectly flavorful.
For your last stop of the day, head to the Lobero Theatre. Originally founded in 1873 and rebuilt in 1924, this theater is California’s oldest continuously-operating theater. The Lobero is where to find all the best performing arts shows in Santa Barbara. From the State Street Ballet to the Music Academy of the West, there’s always someone putting on an incredible performance here.
Santa Barbara Itinerary – Day 2
Old Town Coffee
For the second day of your 3-day weekend in Santa Barbara, you’re going to be taking in the food and culture scene to be found here. Because today is a day filled with good food, let’s start off with a light breakfast at Old Town Coffee, a family-owned coffee shop offering fresh brews and delicious light bites. The honey lavender latte is a local favorite, made with house-made lavender syrup.
Taste of Santa Barbara Tour
Then, you don’t have far to walk to meet for your tour. Head to the corner of State Street and Figueroa Street to start your Taste of Santa Barbara Tour, hosted by Santa Barbara Tasting Tours. This tour company offers a number of private tours to help you get the most out of the diverse areas of Santa Barbara and their eclectic food scenes, but this tour is their public option that takes you all around Downtown Santa Barbara.
On this walking tour, your guide will take you to six different shops and restaurants where you’ll sample the best dishes they have to offer. What is there to eat? Expect a little bit of everything, from French pastries to noodle bowls to empanadas. And, of course, there’s plenty of local wine and craft beer to wash it all down with.
The tour runs until mid-afternoon, giving you plenty of time to explore more of Santa Barbara before dinner if you’re even hungry for dinner after all that food. Work up an appetite by heading over to the Funk Zone, one of Santa Barbara’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
The Funk Zone
Once an industrial area, this neighborhood, which is highly walkable, is now known for its creative collectives, colorful murals, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. Stroll around the neighborhood looking for murals or wander through the many galleries to be found in the Funk Zone.
If you’re a wine fan, you’ll want to pick up a map of the Urban Wine Trail, which features many wineries in the Funk Zone. Enjoy drinking with ocean views at the Deep Sea Tasting Room, sip wines inspired by the diversity of Santa Barbara County at Fox Wine Co. & Blair Fox Cellars, enjoy local favorites at Pali Wine Co., and much more. If you’re looking for something different, you can also head to Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, Santa Barbara’s first post-Prohibition distillery.
Finish off the second day of your weekend in Santa Barbara by heading to Stearns Wharf, one of Santa Barbara’s most iconic landmarks. Located at the end of State Street, it’s California’s oldest working wharf and the perfect place to watch the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean. Before the sun sets, grab dinner at one of the most iconic restaurants on the wharf, the Harbor Restaurant.
The Harbor Restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating, but wherever you sit, you’ll likely get one spectacular view. On the menu is a delightful mix of surf and turf, boasting fresh and local seafood.
Sunset Dinner Cruise
While you can watch the sunset from the wharf itself, you can also hop on a sunset dinner cruise hosted by Celebration Cruises. Disembarking from the wharf, this cruise aboard a multi-level yacht is the perfect way to end a romantic evening in Santa Barbara. But anyone, from friends to family, is bound to love seeing this stunning sight.
In addition to an amazing view, you’ll also have access to a full bar featuring signature cocktails, local beers, and Santa Barbara County wines. Departure times vary throughout the year depending on the timing of the sunset, so be sure to check your departure time when you book your cruise.
Santa Barbara Itinerary – Day 3
For the last day of your 3 days in Santa Barbara, head back near the wharf for your breakfast at Jeannine’s Restaurant and Bakery. This local gem is known for its breakfast favorites, like eggs benedict served with tri-tip or French toast made with Kahlua-glazed bananas. It also has homemade pastries every day, so be sure to save room for a sweet treat with your meal.
MOXI: The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
For your first attraction of the day, wander over to the MOXI, otherwise known as the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation. This one-of-a-kind museum features a mix of interactive exhibits focusing on the intersection of science, technology, and art. Send your own race car down a test track, learn about sound from the inside of a giant guitar, take a selfie as your face turns into a mosaic, conduct flight tests, and much more.
In addition to permanent exhibits, there are also temporary ones, all dedicated to STEAM. So you can guarantee that whenever you visit, you’ll always discover something new.
Also, in addition to exhibits, you’ll find the Innovation Workshop, which is open to all museum guests. Each month, the Innovation Workshop has a new theme. When you head to the workshop, you can get your hands on tools of all kinds to build something to tackle the theme. You never know what you might create.
Hop in a taxi or Uber and make the 20-minute drive to Cold Spring Tavern, a historic spot with much to explore. Once a stagecoach shop, the Cold Spring Tavern opened all the way back in 1868. Since then, it’s lived many different lives, but the structure has mostly stayed the same.
Stroll through the area to uncover several different historic structures. The Road Gang House still stands today, despite part of the structure being destroyed. This house was once the home of 11 Chinese immigrants while they paved the toll road through San Marcos Pass.
Across the street, you’ll find the Ojai Jail, built by Constable Andrew Van Curen in his backyard. Over in Gopherville, you’ll find a series of buildings left over from an abandoned ghost town. And the Blisshaven building once lived out its glory days as a cook shack.
This area is a bit of an outdoor museum. If you’re a history buff, you’ll love stepping back in time here. But Cold Spring Tavern is also a great place to grab lunch for the last day of your 3-day weekend in Santa Barbara. Barbecue is the tavern’s specialty, so be sure not to miss the tri-tip served in Western-style barbecue sauce. And save room for the apple cobbler for dessert!
The next stop is a little outside the city in Ojai, where you’ll find Bart’s Books. This scenic spot is the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, with a collection of over 130,000 new and used books. If anyone in your group is a book lover, this bookstore is a must-do during your Santa Barbara vacation.
You’ll find anything you could imagine at this unique shop. From 35-cent specials to out-of-print first editions, there’s something for everyone, from the avid reader to the dedicated collector.
For dinner, stroll over to Nocciola, offering Italian bistro fare in a casual, cozy setting. From homemade pasta to duck breast in a raspberry-balsamic glaze, everything tastes fresh and just like your Nonna would make. Nocciola also has an extensive wine list to go along with your dinner.
More Places to Eat & Drink in Santa Barbara
Grab a drink at Santo Mezcal:
This lively Mexican spot offers traditional Mexican flavors cooked into local fresh seafood. From crab enchiladas to octopus tacos, it’s seafood with a flavorful twist. This restaurant is also known for its mixology, so be sure to grab yourself a specialty cocktail while you’re here, like a Mula Picante, a Moscow Mule with a spicy and smoky twist, or a La Flor Ahumada, made with mezcal and honey-lavender syrup. There’s also a whole section of the menu dedicated to different types of margaritas.
Dine on Southeast Asian cuisine at Sama Sama:
This restaurant marries local farm-fresh ingredients with dishes from all over Southeast Asia. From Indonesian nasi goreng to Javenese braised chicken, a meal here allows you to travel around Asia without ever leaving Santa Barbara.
Grab a slice at Bettina:
This cozy, casual Italian restaurant is serving up some of the best pizza in Santa Barbara. Pair a pie with a bottle of wine from their extensive local wine list.
What to do if you have more than 3 days in Santa Barbara
Wander around Lotusland. This 37-acre estate was once owned by opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. Today, it’s a lush paradise comprising 25 distinct gardens, each with its own themes. Located just outside of Santa Barbara in Montecito, it’s a perfect place to explore all year round, as something is always in bloom. But if you want to see the lotuses, be sure to come between mid-to-late summer.
Go for a ride on Lil’ Toot. This water taxi offers lifts between Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf every hour on Saturdays and Sundays. This one-of-a-kind way to get around has a smile on its bow and bubbles rising up from its smokestack, which is why kids, in particular, love Lil’ Toot. The 25-minute rides are narrated by the captain and crew, who share stories about the harbor’s history and wildlife.
Sustainable Wine Tour
Sip wine the sustainable way with a Sustainable Wine Tour. This wine-touring company is dedicated to minimizing its environmental impact while providing you with intimate tasting experiences. Instead of giant tasting rooms, you’ll meet with vintners at exclusive, upscale wineries and vineyards. Sustainable Wine Tours does all the transportation for you, so you can just enjoy the ride and the tastings without worrying about how to get around.
Have a beach day. Not every time of year is ideal for getting in the ocean in Santa Barbara, but if you’re visiting between spring and fall, you may want to consider scheduling in a beach day. One of the most popular beaches is East Beach, a 1.6-mile stretch of shoreline that’s perfect for spending time on the sand or in the water. But if you’re visiting with family, head to Carpinteria State Beach, which offers a protective reef and gentle slope, giving your kids plenty to explore without over-the-top waves.
Old Spanish Days Fiesta
Enjoy the history and culture of Old Spanish Days Fiesta. Simply called “Fiesta” by locals, this massive party honors the heritage of the city every August. It’s filled with customs from Chumash, Spanish, Mexican, and early American settlers. Santa Barbara is a highly diverse area, and this festival strives to embrace its eclectic roots.
We hope you enjoy your weekend trip to Santa Barbara! Should we add something else to our 3-day Santa Barbara itinerary? Let us know in the comments.
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