Your comprehensive travel manual: 36 hours in Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara California ​

Santa Barbara California

Santa Barbara California, which is adorned with fragrant climbing jasmine and purple-blossomed jacaranda trees, appears to have undergone some renovations, much like the famous people who reside in the Montecito hills nearby. The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, an inquisitive child’s dream with its rooftop garden devoted to frolicking water play, is one of the well-known additions.

Santa Barbara California ​ which has fewer than 90,000 residents, barely makes the top 100 cities in California. But the history of the state is extraordinarily important to this seaside outpost. The city and its environs, including the Santa Ynez Mountains, were founded by the Spanish as a military fort and mission in the 1780s. Both the adobe presidio (Spanish fortification) and Indigenous Chumash cave murals serve as reminders of the area’s colonial heritage.

Santa Barbara California which is adorned by purple-blossomed jacaranda and fragrant climbing jasmine, is almost too wonderful to be true in terms of its antiquity, and like the famous people who reside in the Montecito hills nearby, it has undoubtedly undergone renovations. MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, is one of the well-known additions. It is an inquisitive child’s dream with its rooftop garden dedicated to frolicking water play.

3 p.m. | Get a View From the Top

Start by stopping at LOKUM, a Turkish dessert store on State Street, Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare, for a post-travel pick-me-up. Take your $6.50 pistachio coffee for a stroll down State Street, which was converted to a pedestrian and bicycle promenade with parklets and buskers after being blocked to automobiles during the epidemic. Continue to the Spanish Colonial Santa Barbara County Courthouse, which is encircled by bunya-bunya trees, sunken gardens, and fountains. For a panoramic perspective of the city, including the so-called Queen of the Missions, Santa Barbara’s Mission, climb the courthouse’s clock tower. The 4,000-foot La Cumbre Peak and the distant Channel Islands may both be seen on a clear day. On your walk down, stop by the gilded Mural Room, where the horrific conquest of the Native Americans of California by the Spanish is portrayed as an act of grandeur.

4 p.m. | Take California Home

Is it even a trip to California if you don’t come home with a caftan? Find yours at Arlington Plaza’s Folly, which is the embodiment of the Alta California good life. Delightfully cluttered, the shop sells all kinds of goods, such as colorful enamel cups, climate-perfect linen caftans, paintings by local artists (from $36) and ephemera like a cast-iron bottle opener in the shape of a crowned frog. Domecil, located two blocks south in Victoria Court, has the vibe of the most carefreely stylish Californian you know. The store favors local suppliers from Santa Barbara County but also welcomes unusual imports: Along with hand-carved spoons made of driftwood by the local artist Ray Gabaldon and blue-hued mugs made by the local ceramist Laurie Stout, traditional indigo aprons from Japan and hand-woven Chilean lampshades are displayed.

5 p.m. | Swirl a Glass or Two

Seven different wine areas and over 275 wineries may be found in Santa Barbara County. Thankfully, Santa Barbara’s downtown offers a walking introduction with more than 20 tasting rooms. Grab the last available reservation at Frequency, a patio tasting room with citrus and palms, where $20 gets you four of the winery’s unique pours. Frequency is close to the Presidio district. Learn how differing climates, such as the valley heat of Los Alamos against the cold marine air of the Santa Rita Hills, affect flavor by contrasting two syrahs created from grapes from different farms. After that, travel six blocks south to the Funk Zone, the zany-named post-industrial nightlife area at the foot of State Street, for a sampling at the Valley Project, the independent younger sibling of the renowned and established Kunin Wines. An attraction in and of itself, the tasting room’s floor to ceiling chalk painting showcasing Santa Barbara’s wine appellations.

7:30 p.m. | Dine in the New World

Eat on the flower-draped terrace of La Paloma Cafe, which was erected on the metaphorical ruins of not one but two of Santa Barbara’s most cherished eateries: a midcentury landmark and the neon-lit Paradise Cafe, which shut down in late 2020 to the dismay of many residents. La Paloma takes pride in its heritage and has preserved the neon as well as the paintings on the structure. The restaurant’s must-order dish also pays homage to tradition: Served with salsa, horseradish, and pinquito beans, a Wagyu tri-tip costs $35.95 and is an upgraded version of Santa Maria style, a regional barbecue popular in Santa Barbara. Take a short trip to Tondi Gelato for dessert. The store, which has the name of the proprietor who spent more than ten years living in Italy, offers both traditional tastes like salted caramel and seasonal sorbetti created with fruits from the Santa Barbara Farmers Market like guava and persimmon. From $5 for a cup or cone. 

9:30 p.m. | Cap off the night

To locate some local flavor, go from the Funk Zone to the Presidio and stop at Lovejoy’s Pickle Room, a pub housed within a former Chinese restaurant from the 1940s. The greatest time to visit this vintage hole is probably during happy hour, when it feels like the secret home of locals enjoying pastrami egg rolls and house wine, but its charms last long after the $2 off deals have passed. In the midst of the bar’s red tasseled lanterns, golden walls, and red vinyl seats, sip a traditional mai tai ($13). The Good Lion, a cocktail bar in the Arts District a few blocks up State Street, takes its name from a little-known tale by Ernest Hemingway. In a dimly lit, Art Deco-inspired setting next to the Granada Theater, it serves an excellent Coastal Negroni ($15) crafted with a Spanish herbal gin, a Corsican aperitif made with wine, amaro for sharpness, and a dash of anise.

6:30 p.m. | Splurge on seafood

The husband-and-wife partnership behind the Michelin-starred casual French restaurant Bell’s in Los Alamos established their second restaurant, Bar Le Cote, in the Santa Ynez Valley community of Los Olivos in 2021. Bar Le Cote has grass-green walls and prints by John Flaming that are ranch-inspired. The five-course tasting menu for two ($185) at the tavern is pricey. It is influenced by Spanish cuisine. However, it seems like a relative bargain in a location where some of the most staggeringly expensive restaurants in the nation are located. A bite of locally caught sea urchin, a pair of oysters and chilled, spiced peel-and-eat shrimp, a picture-perfect dayboat scallop crudo, or a dry-aged branzino with leeks can be included in the prix fixe menu. Additionally offered is a la carte. 

Key Points

In the Santa Ynez Valley, Beckmen Vineyards is a magnificently beautiful location to enjoy wine.

The seafood tasting menu at Bar Le Cote, near Los Olivos, is worth the 45-minute journey.

The 37-acre Ganna Walska Lotusland botanic garden was the four-decade labor of love of a peculiar Polish vocalist.

Take a self-guided walking tour of the Presidio district, the downtown area centered on a Spanish fortification, to learn more about Santa Barbara California ​ history.


Turkish pastries and aromatic coffee are available at LOKUM.

A patio tasting room is available at the family-run Frequency winery in the Presidio neighborhood.

Regional food is served at La Paloma Cafe and is influenced by Spanish and Mexican colonists of the past.

The gelato selection at Tondi Gelato changes frequently and has both traditional and seasonal flavors.

French-style pastries in both beautiful sweet and savory varieties may be found at Alessia Patisserie and Cafe.

A bustling eatery providing hearty fare from the Mexican highlands is called Corazon Comedor.

Coffee beverages from Caje Coffee Roasters are too elegant and lovely to be served in a take-out container.


24 acres of oceanfront land are occupied by the Hilton Santa Barbara California ​ oceanfront Resort. It provides wine tastings, a sizable resort-style pool, and on-site bicycle, beach, and fire pit rentals. Weekend rates start at $507, while midweek rates start around $200 (with a $35 resort fee).

Look in the West Beach district for a short-term rental; it’s a calm residential area close to the beach and the city center.

The New York Times published the original version of this article.

Alamo Motel is one of the few reasonably priced alternatives in Santa Barbara County. The motel is the newest addition to the Shelter Social Club, a hip hotel company with a penchant for anything vintage. Prices start at about $290 on the weekends.