How to Have a Luxurious Day Trip in Santa Barbara for Under $100 — Beautiful Beaches, Charming Towns, and Wine Tasting Included

You don’t have to deplete your savings account to enjoy a bit of the high life on the American Riviera. Here's where to go and what to do in this coastal paradise.

Exterior view of building and walkway in downtown Santa Barbara

Lillian Graves

As a travel writer, people sometimes ask me about my favorite destination. Knowing they expect a far-flung place, I usually give them the name of an archipelago in South Asia, but, in truth, it always comes down to Santa Barbara, a Southern California city wedged between the Santa Ynez Mountains and Pacific Ocean. It’s not exactly far-flung, but it offers all the elements of my kind of utopia: Spanish-style charm, a lengthy palm-studded beach, hiking trails, an outstanding food scene (think sea urchins and Julia Child’s favorite tacos), and near-perfect weather.

Newcomers might find themselves asking, "Is this place real?" That’s how I felt during my first trip to Santa Barbara seven years ago, and the same thought enters my mind on every visit since — so much so that my husband and I figured out how to have a simple wedding here (hint: elope at the courthouse).

In recent years, though, Santa Barbara’s pricey reputation — not abnormal for the Golden State — has evolved to new heights with luxury resorts quoting nightly rates hovering above an average mortgage payment. That said, you can still experience Santa Barbara’s timeless elegance by having a luxurious day trip for under $100.

Get some lifestyle inspiration in Summerland.

Interior of Santa Barbara's Summerland store for home goods

Lillian Graves

Many visitors don’t realize there are two nearby towns embodying the distinct Santa Barbara lifestyle that are worth the stop. Start your morning in Summerland, a 15-minute drive south of Santa Barbara on Highway 101. With under 1,000 residents, this quaint beach town has one main road — Lillie Avenue — with sophisticated home stores selling Californian and European goods. Head first to Field + Fort, which offers "essentials for elevated living," and order an espresso and a pastry ($10) at the cafe laden with citrus trees before browsing through the store for inspiration — an enjoyable experience that's free of charge. Continue to other beautiful stores like Porch and Bōtanik, and finish at The Well, which has a spacious gravel garden where you can peruse fountains of all shapes and sizes, custom furnishings, and Portuguese textiles. All of the stores in Summerland are independently owned and some don't have websites, so this is truly a hidden gem for shoppers. 

Have lunch in Montecito. 

Exterior garden view at San Ysidro Ranch

Lillian Graves

From Summerland, travel a few miles north to Montecito, a gorgeous town with less than 10,000 residents. It's adjacent to Santa Barbara and will likely have you oohing the moment you arrive. Start on the southern end at Pierre Lafond & Co. to browse the gourmet food items and cookbooks. Then, head to the store called Upstairs at Pierre Lafond for more tasteful household goods, clothing, and gifts from around the world. Next, take a beautiful drive in the foothills past gated estates to reach San Ysidro Ranch, the best resort in California, according to Travel + Leisure readers. Make a lunch reservation at the Stonehouse in advance, and experience old-world glamour as you pull in through the sculpted lavender plants and shimmering olive trees. You’ll first be greeted by a member of security, who will confirm your reservation, and then a valet driver will meet you at the circular driveway. 

Once you’re seated in the outdoor dining area at Stonehouse, which features white tablecloths, potted flowers, and a fireplace, order a bottle of sparkling water and a main-course salad with ingredients from the on-site garden. You'll wonder whether you've been transported to the Mediterranean. After lunch ($60, including tip), walk around some of the 550-acre grounds, starting at the chef’s organic garden, and take photos of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs set against the mountainous backdrop. (The expensive salad is worth the price for this experience alone.)

Dip your toes in Butterfly Beach.

Butterfly beach midday on a sunny day

Lillian Graves

After saying goodbye to San Ysidro Ranch, take a slow drive through downtown Montecito. It's a great place for people-watching, as this is the home of celebs like Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, and former members of the British royal family. Now that you’ve spent some time in the foothills, make a stop at Butterfly Beach just below Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. This public beach is a local favorite, and you can park on the street and dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean. Say hello to the Channel Islands in the distance and keep an eye out for dolphins and whales.

Explore State Street and the courthouse.

Superior court of Santa Barbara county California. Many of the courtrooms at the county court in Santa Barbara is decorated with wall murals.

Peter Blottman Photography/Getty Images

It’s time to head into downtown Santa Barbara for some culture. There are several attractions to choose from, but many require entrance fees, like the 18th-century Old Mission church and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. To stay within budget, take a self-guided tour of the Santa Barbara Courthouse, circa 1929 — one of the most beautiful public buildings in the country — for free. Once you walk around the grounds, head inside to the Mural Room, which features wrought-iron chandeliers and four hand-painted murals. Then, climb the clock tower for 360-degree views of Santa Barbara and get a glimpse at the ceiling decorated with constellations. You can also join a free guided tour that takes place at 2 p.m. daily. 

From here, head to Santa Barbara’s newly pedestrianized street (as a result of the pandemic), called State Street Promenade. This downtown, traffic-free hub for walkers, bikers, and skateboarders is lined with Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Stop at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams (a local brand) for a scoop like earl grey tea and shortbread cookies ($5). For more home inspiration, visit Rooms & Gardens, located on the promenade, and look through the French-influenced upholstery samples. 

Go wine tasting in the Funk Zone. 

Exterior of Paradise Springs Winery

Lillian Graves

Next up is Santa Barbara’s eclectic Funk Zone. This up-and-coming, 13-block area near the waterfront has introduced a number of tasting rooms (part of the Urban Wine Trail), along with cafes, restaurants, and clothing boutiques in converted warehouses.

Have a glass of wine at one of the Santa Ynez Valley wineries ($15), like Paradise Springs, which hosts occasional events like oyster pop-ups and DJs. Nearby Hotel Californian also offers a tasting room called The Society: State & Mason, where you can people-watch. Or, simply walk around and look for street murals and contemporary art studios.

Mural and clothing rack in the Funk Zone of Santa Barbara

Lillian Graves

Stroll along East Beach.

East Beach with palm trees and mountain views in Santa Barbara

Lillian Graves

The Funk Zone is an easy walk to Santa Barbara’s extensive main beach, where a pedestrian path lined with palm trees offers the ideal way to finish the day. Stroll along the path as the sun begins to edge closer to the Pacific, and start planning your next trip here. But the day’s not over yet: With the leftover change ($10), grab a fish taco at Julia Child’s favorite local spot, La Super-Rica Taqueria, and you’ll be well within budget. 

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