If there ever was a quintessential beach town (well technically city) in California, Santa Barbara is it. The weather hovers around mid-60s to mid-70s year round, with a nice sea breeze keeping the area temperate. Add in a laid-back beach vibe, beautiful white stucco Mediterranean-style buildings, and wine tastings featuring locally grown grapes, and you will understand why it’s nicknamed the American Rivera. It’s an easy two-hour drive or scenic train ride next to the Pacific Ocean from Los Angeles. Coming from the north, it’s an ideal halfway stop along Highway 1. Here’s a complete 2-day Santa Barbara itinerary to make the most out of your stay.
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A 2-Day Santa Barbara Itinerary
Santa Barbara is a pretty compact city, which makes it quite walkable, especially the downtown core. State Street is the main throughfare and is a great starting point for your 2-day Santa Barbara itinerary. For orientation purposes, if you walk all the way down State Street, you’ll reach Stearns Wharf and East Beach.
First things first: brunch. Make your way to Garrett’s Old Fashioned Restaurant for a hearty diner-style breakfast. This no-frills diner has been a long-time local favorite and although the interior is small, the line goes pretty quickly. Order the California eggs benedict with avocado, the chorizo and egg omelet, or incredibly fluffy blueberry pancakes that they are known for. It’s located on busy State Street, so parking is limited, but sometimes you can find it on side streets.
Afterward, walk off breakfast by heading toward the Old Mission Santa Barbara, one of the prettiest of all the California missions. Pay the $12 adult entrance fee, and take a self-guided tour of the grounds, including the picturesque gardens. When you’re done, make your way over to the park across the street to rest in the shade and admire the mission from afar.
Walk back to State Street and make your way towards the beach, stopping at Pickles and Swiss to pick up sandwiches for lunch. The namesake sandwich is a solid choice with ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. There are also veggie and vegan sandwiches available. A couple of seats are available outside, but I recommend taking your sandwiches to the beach instead to get lunch with a hard-to-beat view.
With your sandwiches in hand, make a beeline for East Beach, which is quieter and cleaner than most of the beaches in the area. If you feel like wandering, there’s a scenic walking path to take a leisurely afternoon stroll. Though if you just want to stay put in the soft sand and take a post-lunch nap that’s completely understandable too.
In the late afternoon, slowly make your way to the far end of East Beach, where there’s Stearns Wharf, one of the oldest working piers in California. It’s a great spot to people-watch and walk out to the end of the pier for panoramic views of the city behind you.
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For dinner, Los Agaves is a local staple for delicious Mexican food. Try the Agaves burrito with the fish of the day, shrimp, and fresh guacamole, or for something a bit lighter the tacos del mar with either your choice of halibut or shrimp. Whatever you do, make sure to take advantage of their homemade salsa bar.
Hope you saved room for dessert! A visit to Santa Barbara is not complete without a visit to McConnell’s with its innovative flavors like Turkish Coffee or Eureka Lemon and Marionberries.
For the second day of your Santa Barbara itinerary, get a taste of France at Renaud’s for almond croissants and a European breakfast with a toasted baguette, croissants, and jam. Grab a sweet treat for the road in the form of an apple tart or a box of macaroons. I recommend getting there before before 10am to avoid a long line and to get first pick of the baked goods.
Make your way to neighboring Montecito, where Ganna Walska Lotusland, one of the area’s most impressive botanical gardens sits on the former estate of a famed Polish singer. Get lost in a grove of dragon blood trees, cactus gardens, lily ponds, and numerous succulents. Note that tour reservations need to be made in advance over the phone for a two-hour guided tour of the property.
After building up an appetite for lunch, head back to Santa Barbara and go to The Natural Café for a healthy midday meal. Clean eats include soups, salads, and sandwiches. This restaurant does a great job catering to all kinds of dietary needs, including vegetarian and vegan. Try the Zen Burger, a veggie burger with garlic mayo that doesn’t disappoint.
In the afternoon, head over to the Funk Zone and check out the Arts Fund Gallery, where local artists show off their stuff. Afterwards embark on one of the largest parts of the Urban Wine Trail and stop in working wineries like Whitcraft Winery, where you can sample small-production chardonnays and pinot noirs. A few other notable wineries in the Funk Zone include Santa Barbara Winery, Deep Sea Tasting Room, Area 5.1 Winery and Carr Winery. For an on point sparkling wine tasting menu, head to Riverbench Winery.
For dinner stay in the Funk Zone, and make your way to Lucky Penny for some outstanding pizza pies. You will know you’re there when you see a building covered in shinny copper pennies. Try the OG with fennel sausage, smoked mozzarella, arugula, chili peppers and roasted tomatoes. If it’s a hot day, cool off with a glass of their refreshing frose.
For dessert head back towards State Street to Rori’s Artisanal Creamery, since this is vacation and it’s your duty to try all the best ice cream spots in town. Try their all-organic ice cream in inventive flavors like brown sugar banana or malted milk ball.
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Alternative Activities For Your 2-Day Santa Barbara Itinerary
- Breakwater at Santa Barbara Harbor – wander out on the long curved walkway that stretches out into the sea for some serious views of the Pacific, the city, and the harbor. The breakwater was created to protect the boats (including all those fancy yachts) from the waves. Anytime of day you’ll be treated to spectacular views, but sunset is especially memorable.
- Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show – for a truly Santa Barbara experience, head down to the beachfront where you can browse art and crafts made by 200 local artists. This art show was inspired by the sidewalk art shows in Europe and Mexico City, and has been running since 1965.
- Santa Barbara County Courthouse – this Spanish-Colonial style building and gardens is not only stunning and rich with history, but it offers numerous free activities year-round, including summer movies, and flamenco shows. The courthouse is still in working order, and is the site of many local weddings.
- 1st Thursday – on the 1st Thursday of every month, select art galleries and venues open up their doors to the public for free access to visual and performing arts events. Wander between galleries as you listen to live music, watch street performances, and drop in for wine tastings.
When To Go
To avoid the high summertime prices, go during the shoulder seasons of spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November). Santa Barbara has dry summers and mild winters, with occasional rain. If you do plan to go during early summer, the mornings can be foggy due to the Californian coastal phenomenon June Gloom. Sometimes these fog-filled morning begins as early as May Gray and can extend into No Sky July and Fogust. Early autumn is my personal favorite time to go to Santa Barbara, before the rainy season, when the weather is still warm, but the summer crowds have gone home.
Getting Around Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has its own airport that is easily accessible to downtown, located near the University of California, Santa Barbara. If you’re coming from Los Angeles, as mentioned above the train ride is highly recommended if you have the time, since it goes right along the ocean. For getting around, renting a car is your best bet, which will allow you to easily zip around the city. If you prefer to just use ride sharing, Uber and Lyft are plentiful and is useful when going to wineries or out at night. The city itself is pretty compact, so prices should be reasonable.
Other car-free options include bike rentals, public transportation, and the electric downtown shuttle that serves spots like the Funk Zone. Check out the Santa Barbara Car Free website, for more ideas to explore Santa Barbara sans car.
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
Staying in Santa Barbara can cost a pretty penny, but there are mid-range lodging options if you know where to look. For those who want to be near the action, staying on State Street is the best choice.
This beautiful hotel is only a few blocks from the beach and a quick walk to sights like the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and Sterns Wharf. Amenities include spotless rooms, scenic gardens, an outdoor pool, complementary bike rentals, and cheese and wine tastings. A free continental breakfast is included. Great value for the area.
A centrally located hotel that boasts historical charm, with modern comforts. Located right on lively State Street, this hotel is walking distance to numerous restaurants, theaters, and shops. Walking distance to sights like Sterns Wharf. A continental breakfast is included.
A four-star hotel that has an impressive rooftop pool, a health club and Finch & Fork, an excellent on-site restaurant serving American comfort food with local ingredients. Locate right off of State Street, there are an excellent selection of restaurants, bars and shops nearby. A short 1.5 mile walk takes you to the beach.
What is on your 2-day Santa Barbary itinerary?
Updated: December 6, 2019