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As part of a new series, Travel + Leisure is exploring America one three-day weekend at a time. Here's what to do on a short trip to Santa Barbara, California.

August 23, 2016

There's a reason Santa Barbara's been called the American Riviera. Pleasant temperatures year-round, sunny beaches, and gorgeous Spanish architecture make this sophisticated stopover a dream. Not sure how to spend three days exploring all the city has to offer? Here's an ideal itinerary, highlighting some of the best Santa Barbara attractions.

Day One

You'll need a car to best appreciate Santa Barbara, so grab a rental from the Santa Barbara airport. Hop onto the 101 and head to the Spanish Garden Inn, a boutique hotel with a great pool and lush gardens. Before dinner, stop by the 200-year-old Santa Barbara Mission, where you can take a short, self-guided tour and enjoy a rose garden.

Once you've had your fill of flowers, drive down State Street, the town's main drag. Feel free to walk around if something strikes your fancy, or head straight to Toma, a trendy, waterfront Italian spot serving up delicious tuna cones, gnocchi, and scallops.

After dinner, stretch your legs by walking Stearns Wharf, the town's pier. It's a bit touristy, but provides great views. If you want to go out afterward, head to the Good Lion for on-point cocktails or to Intermezzo for wine; both spots are walking distance from your hotel.

Day Two

Beat the crowds and get up early for breakfast at Renaud's, a French bakery that serves top-notch chocolate croissants and eggs. Then get ready for a day at the beach. While Butterfly Beach is a top pick for sunbathing, head to Leadbetter for water sports.

Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from the Paddle Sports Center and feel free to use Leadbetter's grassy areas, picnic tables, restrooms, and open-air showers. Take a quick sun break and drive five minutes for lunch at Lilly's Taqueria, an under-the-radar taco joint. Try the carne asada or the cachete (beef cheek). If you have to keep your toes in the sand, the Shoreline Café works for a cold margarita and palatable food.

Head back to the hotel to clean up, then drive 10 minutes to Montecito. Walk the shops on Coast Village Road. Don't miss K Frank, an upscale, family-run boutique.

Drive up the hill for a splurge dinner at the San Ysidro Ranch. Surrounded by twinkling lights and flowers, the Stonehouse serves guests year-round on the deck, which has ocean views, a wood-burning fireplace, and heated stone flooring. Linger over a perfectly cooked pork chop, flambéed tableside crepes, and an extensive dessert wine list.

Day Three

Your last day in Santa Barbara is all about wine. If you feel like driving, make the trek to the cute wine town of Los Olivos and catch a tri-tip sandwich at Cold Springs Tavern on your way back. 

Back in Santa Barbara, a once-industrial area called the "Funk Zone" has transformed into a walkable neighborhood full of art galleries and nearly 20 boutique wine tasting rooms. Try Corks & Crowns (on Sundays there's a sparkling wine and cupcake flight), Kunin Wines (try the 'Paper Star' Rhone Blend), and the alien-themed tasting room Area 5.1 (drink the Conspiracy Red).

Finish the day with a two-hour sunset cruise aboard the Double Dolphin sailboat. You'll get views of the Santa Barbara coastline and have a chance to see dolphins and maybe even whales. Disembark and walk over to Brophy Brothers for a late dinner at the harbor. Order the clam chowder, oyster shooters, and the cold combo.

For more long-weekend itineraries in America's best vacation destinations, click here.

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