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My Solo Trip to Santa Barbara, CA | Day Trips to Solvang, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos

Summer is so fleeting in the Northeast, and over time, I’ve learned to do whatever I can to soak up every second of it. Recently, I’ve been setting aside a few extra days off in August to be ocean-side, since that’s my favorite place to be in the warmer months. This year, my plan was to take a long weekend on the Cape, but Josh told me that with all our traveling this year, he was out of vacation days, and I would be flying solo this time around. I was just about to hit “Book Room” for a hotel on the Cape when I thought to myself, Why not go somewhere you haven’t been before? Lately, I’ve had an itch to go somewhere in California, and I began to search for a coastal town that would make for a perfect long-weekend getaway from New York.

My search criteria were:
- Absolutely had to have easy access to ocean beaches, since that was the whole reason for planning this trip.
- The town to be small enough so it was manageable and not overwhelming since I was going for a short time.
- I also wanted a few opportunities to see some landmarks or sites, or take a day trip, to fill in any time I wasn’t on the beach.

I did a lot of research and some of the places I was interested in (Monterey, primarily) were pretty far out of my budget. And then, I found Santa Barbara, often referred to as the American Riviera. And I was immediately sold.

I spent four nights in Santa Barbara, and it was really nice to experience how the other side of the country does Summer. I had a really lovely time dipping my toes in the Pacific, indulging in a great book on the shore and taking in the beautiful and colorful architecture. It definitely fulfilled its purpose for me.

I will say, though, the one thing that surprised me was how Santa Barbara still felt very much like a city. For some reason, I had pictured in my head a quieter, more small town feel, and while that was somewhat accurate, I was still faced with an insane amount of traffic, masses of people everywhere, city noises such as fire trucks, police cars, bar crowds, limited parking and a general sense of more hustle and bustle than I was envisioning. None of that is bad, of course – it just wasn’t what I was expecting, which is my own fault for having those preconceptions. Despite my initial shock upon arrival, and having to change gears a bit to get into a different mindset, I really did have a wonderful time exploring this vibrant and beautiful city.

View of East Beach along Cabrillo.

The Cabrillo bike path.

Mid-August/2019. July & August are peak season for this destination, meaning that prices for accommodations were higher. But, the great thing about this area of California, and one of the reasons I was drawn to it, was that the climate was right in my sweet spot of mid-70s every single day with no rain. Even in August. While I was there, every morning was very dark and foggy, and all but one of my nights was also foggy, so I didn't get a good chance to really see a spectacular CA sunset I was hoping for. I was also there during a bit of a chilly streak where high's were around 69 degrees and water temps were just above 60. So, while I did go for a few dips in the Pacific, they were short lived. But the late mornings and afternoons were full of sunshine, and were perfect for laying out on the beach and walking along the shore.

Cabrillo bike path along East Beach.

I flew into LAX because flying direct into the SB airport was very expensive. I then rented a car using Turo to drive to Santa Barbara (SB). This was my first time using Turo, and I had an amazing experience. Quotes for cars through major rental companies from LAX were creeping into the $400s for 4 days, and I was starting to panic because it was way more than I had budgeted for. But then I found a great car on Turo after a friend of mine recommended it, and I was able to rent a hybrid for $120 for all 4 days, and the owner met me right at my terminal at LAX. This also saved me some money on gas - after driving to and from SB and LA, and taking a day trip during my stay, I only had to fill it up with half a tank of gas before returning it. 

Friends, it took me over 3 hours to drive from LAX to Santa Barbara, and Google Maps had been telling me worst case was two and a half hours during rush hour, but usually took between one and a half to two hours. Anyone from LA or CA in general is probably laughing at me for thinking I could make it in less time than that. I left LAX at 1p, and I thought I would beat rush hour. Maybe I did? I’m not sure. But yeah, this girl hates traffic with a passion, so I was a little stressed at the beginning of my trip when all I was doing was sitting on the 405. All my own doing for being ignorant, but still.

Getting around SB, you don’t necessarily need a car, but I ended up using it way more than I thought I would. My hotel offered free bikes to use, and I thought I would use those exclusively, but I ended up driving to all the beaches, except for East Beach, which is close to downtown where I was staying.

Uber and Lyft are also readily available, which I did also use a few times. There are also public buses to get around, and Amtrak stops in SB as well.

The architecture and colorful pottery everywhere was so stunning. 

Especially for a short weekend getaway, you really need to be downtown when you visit SB. It’s where everything is, and with traffic, it would really be a pain to have to drive in or take an Uber every time you want to go to a restaurant or walk around.

For this trip, I decided I wanted it to be as relaxing as possible, and decided to cash in quite a few credit card points for a bit of luxury, which I pretty much never do. To save a little money, I stayed at a less expensive hotel for my first night – the Holiday Inn Express. For my other three nights, I had enough points to cover a room at the Kimpton Canary. Josh and I stay at Kimpton hotels a lot more now that we've started traveling with Emma (Kimptons allow you to bring your dog, no questions asked, and no additional fees). While most Kimpton hotels are really nice and more upscale, the Canary was probably the most fancy and luxurious place I have ever stayed.

Amazing staircase inside the Kimpton Canary hotel.

The rooms were stunning with beautiful star pendant lights in the bathrooms, the most comfortable hotel beds I’ve ever used (including the Westin heavenly beds), impeccable service (everyone referred to me as Miss My Last Name and opened doors for me), and the furnishings in the rooms were beautiful and totally enhanced the Spanish Colonial vibe of the city. The location was also great right in downtown, a block from State Street where so many shops and restaurants were, and a close-enough walk to the waterfront/Stearns Wharf. They also have an amazing rooftop pool and terrace area that had beautiful views of the entire downtown area. I feel so lucky to have gotten to stay at such an upscale hotel because I know it’ll be a while before I have enough points to cover another stay like that again.

Rooftop pool at the Kimpton Canary.

Rooftop lounging area at the Kimpton Canary.

Parking is not easy. It's not as tough as, say, Manhattan. But it was more difficult than I thought. Thankfully, my hotel had parking available, and I just sucked it up and paid the nightly valet fee (but I got a discount for driving a hybrid, so that helped). The city lots were very confusing for overnight parking, street parking was very do-or-die to find a spot, and overall, it was more stressful than I planned. So, once I decided to use the hotel valet service, I was actually kind of relieved. 

For beaches near town, there is street parking on the main road along the water called Cabrillo. There are also small lots by the beaches where you can pay for parking, and when I drove by, I usually saw empty spots. I never used city lot parking, so I can't say how much they are. I was also there during peak season, so I imagine after Labor Day, it may calm down some and not be a stressful. I could be wrong though (someone please chime in below in the comments section if you have insight!).

My main reason for this getaway! I really did spend most of my time at the beaches, and visited three during my stay. East Beach, which is walkable from downtown, Butterfly Beach, which is technically in Montecito, and Arroyo State Park/Hendry’s Beach. The actual closest beach to town is West Beach, which is where Stearn’s Wharf and the marina are located. I didn’t spend any time there because it was a little too busy with boats and the nearby restaurants on the water for my taste.

East Beach is further down, and while still busy, there was way more room for everyone to stretch out so you didn’t feel like you were on top of people.

East Beach in the early morning.

East Beach in the early morning.

Butterfly and Arroyo were my favorites. Arroyo offered beautiful sunsets over the water and was framed by gorgeous cliffs in the background. It also had a really nice restaurant right on the beach, and parking in their lot is free.

The Boathouse Restaurant overlooking Arroyo Beach.

Butterfly Beach can technically be reached by bike from downtown SB. I almost attempted it, but then I realized than once I rented an umbrella (more on that in a sec), there was no way I could tote around that sucker, in addition to a backpack, on a bike. It would have been about a 20-25 min ride, and while most of it was easy on the Cabrillo Bike Path, I just didn’t want to risk it being more than I bargained for. So, I drove. Butterfly was also beautiful, and never really crowded. There was plenty of free street parking on the road, and even on days where all the spots were taken, the beach still felt really calm with lots of room to breathe. And there's was usually someone leaving the parking spots so you could snatch up a place for your car.

Cabrillo bike path during sunset.

Butterfly Beach cliffs.

A few days before leaving, I realized I needed to rent a beach umbrella because this fair-skinned New Yorker burns easily in the sun (plus, you know, melanoma). I used East Beach Rentals, very conveniently located right by the parking lot on East Beach, and they rented me an umbrella for $20 for three days (and allowed me to take it with me each day so I didn’t have to keep coming back to drop it off/pick it up). It was very easy and the umbrella was great quality, and came with a sand anchor.

Quite literally spent a whole day in this glorious spot and finished a book. Is there a better kind of day?

Visit Sites & Landmarks Downtown
I didn’t see them all, but I did visit the old Courthouse building downtown, which was beautiful. Even though it’s right in the middle of downtown, it felt more serene and calm with all the beautiful foliage and stunning architecture.  The Chromatic Gate is that perfect spot for a really cool social media pic. The Moreton Bay Fig Tree is located downtown as well, and is said to be the oldest Ficus tree in the country. I didn't get a chance to see this, but it's fairly close to Stearn's Wharf, so it should be easy to pop over. Old Mission was one place on my list to see, but I ran out of time to visit. I would have loved to see the beautiful pink columns on the building in person.

The old Courthouse building downtown. I got serious Vertigo movie vibes!

I got up super early my first morning and went for a walk, and had the Chromatic Gate all to myself. 

I will never, ever remember to take hair ties off my wrist. I'm shocked I didn't leave one on at our wedding.

Stearn's Wharf
You don't need a ton of time here unless you plan to eat at one of the restaurants, but it's very centrally located at the waterfront area, and therefore, a must-see. It's not the most epic pier in the world, but it is really pretty, and has a few shops, and mostly restaurants. Also, pop underneath for a different perspective.

The dolphin fountain is at the start of your Stearn's Wharf experience.

You get some really great views of the SB coastline from Stearn's Wharf. You can see the
really thick fog setting in that night right around sunset.

Don't make fun of me for not knowing, but I was so happily surprised by the insanely gorgeous mountains surrounding SB.
I found myself just looking at them all the time while walking around. 

Santa Barbara Zoo
This was something I had every intention of visiting, but just wasn’t feeling it once I was there because I was really into the beach scene. It’s very highly rated for its exhibits and conversation efforts, and something to consider setting aside a few hours for. It’s pretty accessible from downtown, which is also nice, but a bike or car is probably the way to go.

Day Trips to Solvang, Santa Ynez & Los Olivos
I spent one day driving around the other side of the mountains and visited these really cool destinations. The drive through the mountains was beautiful and offered different scenery for the afternoon, and my furthest destination that day was only 45 mins outside SB.

Solvang was adorable. I loved walking around this little dutch-inspired town, tasting all the pastries, popping into the shops and just enjoying the atmosphere. It was pretty busy on a Saturday afternoon, but I was able to find street parking a few mins after driving around town.

Downtown Solvang, CA. 

I stood staring at this for about 5 whole minutes. I can pretty much always make super fast decisions,
but I had a hard time choosing this time for obvious reasons.

When I told my hotel front desk person that I was heading to Solvang for the day, he seemed pretty excited to suggest that I visit the ostrich farm, which was only a few mins outside the main village area. I passed by it on my way to a winery, so I did a quick pull over, and decided What the heck, I'm going to feed some ostriches! It was definitely a more unique experience. When you put the food bowls in front of them, they peck at it pretty aggressively, and I honestly thought I was going to lose a finger. I left with all 10 of them, thankfully, as well as the ability to say, Yeah, I've fed an ostrich, it was pretty cool.

I really wanted to visit a couple of wineries in Santa Ynez since I was so close by, and because I love the movie Sideways. I had a bit of a fan moment when I drove by the Hitching Post restaurant on my way there. I visited Presqu’ile Winery first because it offered really nice views from their tasting room at the top of the hill. Lots of people were bringing in their own coolers packed with lunches and snacks, and it seemed like a popular afternoon hangout. I got a glass of wine and enjoyed the views, but I will say, this was the first time during my solo adventures that I actually felt lonely because there wasn’t much to do but drink my wine at stare at the landscape (my cell service wasn’t great there, so phone distractions weren't really an option). But, my glass of wine was really good, the bartenders were very friendly and I was able to chat with them a little, so I'm really glad I stopped by.

When I got to the second winery I picked out beforehand, it was closed for a private event, so I made a last-minute decision to visit the small town of Los Olivos. This was such a fun little place to explore. It’s very, very small, and busy on a Saturday afternoon, but parking was pretty easy if you go into with patience. The shops were really cute here, and it was just very nice to walk up and down the sidewalks to enjoy the surroundings. There are tasting rooms in pretty much every other building you pass, and it’s packed with dining options, too. I especially loved the Los Olivos General Store – I was tempted to buy so many things, but had to pass since my suitcase space was limited. This was a great way to slowly stroll and meander on a beautiful, sunny day.

Downtown Los Olivos.

Inside the Los Olivos General Store.

Yes, a lemon-shaped lemonade stand. I felt like I was on the set of a movie.

I forget which store this was, but it was so inspiring inside. 

Downtown Shopping
There are quite a few shopping opportunities in downtown SB. Paseo Nuevo is an outdoor mall with more franchised stores. State Street is a mix of chains as well as local boutiques. La Arcada was the most beautiful little side street/courtyard with restaurants, hanging street lights, and boutiques (it was magical at night). My favorite shops downtown were Plum Goods, Santa Barbara Company and The Shopkeepers. These stores also carry a selection of products from Santa Barbara Soaps, a natural and hand-crafted body care company based in SB. Some of the scents are named after the local beaches and destinations, making it a great souvenir to bring home.

Stairway at Paseo Nuevo.

State Street, great for shopping.

I can't remember where this was, but there was just some beautiful tile on the sidewalk while walking around.

State Street.

La Arcada.

Entrance to La Arcada.

Whale Watching
This was one thing I wish I had gotten the chance to do. There’s one company in particular, Condor Express, that is incredibly well-rated, and I would recommend taking a look into it. It seems almost guaranteed you’ll get amazing views of whales on this tour, and if I'd have stayed for longer than 4 days, this definitely would have been at the top of the agenda. 

Shoreline Park
If I’d had just one more day, I would have wanted to take a bike ride out to Shoreline. Everyone recommended it to me for beautiful views, but I just ran out of time.

I ate so many tacos on this trip and have zero regrets. My favorite place for tacos was East Beach Tacos, which was pretty close to, you guessed it, East Beach (and also the Chromatic Gate). It’s also right next door to a batting cage, and it was kind of entertaining to watch people practice their swings while eating. It felt very CA to me for some reason. I tried to go to Los Agaves for tacos one day, which is the most highly-rated taco place in SB, but when I got there on a Saturday at like 4:30p, the line was out the door and around the block. And, I was starving, so I went back to East Beach Tacos for a second time. I was really okay with that decision.

I also ate at Lucky Penny for pizza one night, and I will say, it wasn’t a highlight for me. The pizza was loaded with sauce and had very little cheese (I got the three cheese pizza), and I prefer my pizzas just the opposite. But I will say, the crust was really good. But I wasn't able to finish it because it wasn't up my alley. One really cool thing about the building is that it's completely covered with pennies, which was something I've never seen before.

My last night, I decided to get a table at The Boathouse, which sits right on the beach at Arroyo State Park. I don’t usually go for getting a table for one at restaurants when I'm by myself, but I walked in, and they had one table available overlooking the water, and I just felt like it was meant to be. I got a really great drink and fish ‘n chips and watched the sun begin to set over the water. Then, I stayed a while on the beach with my book and it was a really nice evening. The fish ‘n chips was also really, really good. It was so crispy on the outside, and super tender on the inside. I would recommend it in a heartbeat.

For beach lunches, I can’t recommend Pickles and Swiss enough. It’s located in Paseo Nuevo, and I could not stop thinking about the veggie boom sandwich and chocolate chip cookie I got here for a beach picnic. It was seriously one of my favorite sandwiches of all time.

For ice cream (because, well, you know me), I loved McConnells, which seemed to be the place to go in SB. My favorite flavor here was Chocolate Covered Strawberries. I also popped over to the Public Market to try a cone from Rory’s, and it was also excellent.

For breakfast one morning, I wanted something fast and indulgent, so I got a Berry & Lemon doughnut from Hook & Press Doughnuts. Oh.My.God, it was incredible. They make everything on the premises, including their toppings, fillings and glazes, with fresh and natural ingredients, and you could really taste the difference. They also serve beer, and this was one of the moments I wished Josh was with me because he loves doughnuts more than I do, and he loves beer. It was like his dream come true.

- I loved, loved, loved that the beaches here were all dog-friendly. And Arroyo Beach even had an off-leash area, and a doggie wash station near the parking lot. One of the biggest downsides to a lot of the beaches on the East coast is that most of them do not allow dogs during peak season (between Memorial Day and Labor Day). I got to say hello to so many dogs and get lots of kisses, which made up for the fact that I was away from my own for a few days.

- I'm so used to having to arrive at beaches really early while visiting the Cape, and the beaches in SB didn't start to get busy until around noon time. On the Cape, if you don't get to a beach by 10a, you might not get parking, or a spot on the sand. Here, arrival times were much later.

- I had a great time on my own, but I would say that this is a great destination for a romantic weekend escape, for sure. I saw so many couples on vacation, and a lot of the restaurants at night had beautiful outdoor patios with candles on the tables and string lights everywhere. Definitely a great couples getaway destination. La Arcada, especially, was so romantic with the Mariachi bands playing and string lights twinkling.

- Guys, just plan for traffic. That's all I can say about that. I came home and told Josh that when/if we ever get lucky enough to take a Pacific Coast Highway road trip, we have to know to go with the flow of traffic, or try to avoid any kind of peak times on of the highways.

Yellow Skirt: Anthropologie, and very sadly, no longer available. It's called the Vineland Midi Skirt, in case you'd like to go hunting on eBay. I got a size Medium, and it was probably my favorite clothing purchase from the whole year.


Red Beach DressTarget (I got a size M)

Open CardiganLL Bean (I have a size M)

SuitcaseMark & Graham.There's also a similar style from Target that you can likely see in-store before buying here.

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