Weekend Trip Guide: Where to Stay, Eat, and Drink in Santa Barbara and Big Sur

Anybody down for a road trip? 🚗

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(Image credit: Archives)

Welcome to MarieClaire.com's new series on weekend travel—a smart girl's guide to making the most of those glorious two days off.

Santa Barbara is one of the most idyllic and relaxing weekend getaways you can have. Period. From beaches to wineries to the prettiest Spanish-inspired downtown, the city boasts something for everyone. Me? I didn't want to limit myself to a two-day weekend, so with the help of Buick, I extended my vaca by a couple of days, driving down the coast from Big Sur to Santa Barbara. And Big Sur? Damn if that wasn't one of the most idyllic places, too.

Here, a guide to both spectacular spots, in case you want to try out the drive, or want to bookmark for two separate stays.

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2016 Buick Cascada in Graystone Metallic

(Image credit: Photo by author)

First things first: If you're traveling in to drive the PCH/Highway 1 and you're renting a car, you *must* get a convertible. Truly, plan it into the budget, because it is well worth it. I drove the 2016 Buick Cascada, which was great (you can put the top down in 17 seconds *while* driving, should you be so inclined, and its built-in wifi makes navigating the service-less Big Sur area muuuch less daunting). I've been driving since I was 15, but there is nothing like driving with the top down listening to your favorite songs, cruising around the curves, and seeing the coastline. NOTHING. The first time I pulled over to take some pictures, I called my dad. He thought I was high. That's how happy I was.

The Drive

Driving Highway 1 is beautiful, but do make sure you build in some time for 1) stopovers to take in the view/take a break 2) traffic. There wasn't a ton when I went, but prime time does mean more cars on the road. (There's also a lot of out-of-country tourists who do this drive, so they tend to be a bit slower around the curves.)

"I've been driving since I was 15, but there is nothing like driving with the top down listening to your favorite songs, cruising around the curves, and seeing the coastline."

I also did this as a solo trip, and I can't recommend that enough. All those articles you read about how traveling by yourself can be *amazing*? They're not wrong. I was the most content I had been in awhile, knowing I didn't have to adhere to anyone's timeline, and I could do anything and everything that I wanted to make my trip amazing. No one was controlling the music but me. No one was asking where the next rest stop is. It was, just, the best thing. I'm already planning my next solo road trip.

If you *do* go with others though (which, let's be fair, is ideal for those amazing coastline shots and driving breaks), make sure you build in even more time and that you have plenty of snacks. Nothing makes a for a worse driving companion than a hangry one.

Big Sur: Where to Stay

Big Sur has a lot of lodging options, including camping, but two of the most requested/luxurious options are Ventana Inn & Spa and Post Ranch Inn, which—funnily enough—are literally across the street from each other. I toured both but stayed at Ventana—and it was absolutely incredible. From the amazing staff who greet you upon arrival to the serene woods surrounding the entire property, you're immediately at peace. Add in the relaxing pools (including a clothing-optional one), and the Japanese Baths (which have both separate areas for women and men and also a co-ed area), and it's hard not to completely zone out/remember your other life, somewhere, out there. (My entire thought process: I never want to leave. Don't make me leave. Why am I leaving?)

There's a complimentary wine and cheese happy hour with local wines, where you can take your glass of wine (or three, let's be real) and hang out outside by the fire pit or pool, or head to your room if you don't want to mingle. Many of the rooms have their own decks and hammocks (say it with me: yassss...) so you can definitely hit that up, as well.

If you do stay here, know that you may very well never want to leave your room. Besides a deck/hammock situation, they also offer a tub that the Jolly Green Giant could fit in with ample room, and will kindly deliver any cocktail/snack/item your heart desires.

Big Sur: What to Do

There are State Parks to visit, where you can enjoy hikes, picnics, and beautiful views of the water. You can also see the Bixby Bridge, one of the most (we're guessing here) photographed bridges in the U.S. (The Instagram hashtag is a tell-tale sign.) Fun fact: Both Post Ranch Inn and Ventana Inn have shuttles/cars that will take you wherever you need to go (within about 5 miles). They'll even shuttle you over to each other's restaurants (more on that later).

Other than taking in the views and exploring, Big Sur is really just to chill out. Go camping a night if you have the time, visit the hot springs for clothing-optional dips, or hire a guide for an informed hike (check with your hotel, many have specials). Otherwise—just, you know, bliss out.

Big Sur: Where to Eat

Ventana Inn has an amazing restaurant—aptly named The Restaurant at Ventana—that you can walk to from your room if staying at the hotel, or drive right up to if not. The patio overlooks about 50 miles of coastline, making it the perfect spot for an early breakfast or dinner and drinks. (Don't worry—they also serve lunch.)

Post Ranch Inn has one of the most picturesque settings for a meal at Sierra Mar, where floor-to-ceiling glass panels give diners an unobstructed view of the coastline. There are even little "decks" with slider doors that you can open for the perfect picture. I dined here for dinner, and man, what a treat. There are tasting menus (highly recommended) with a four-course option or a nine-course option. With a "casual elegant" dress code (i.e. no shorts or t-shirts) means that everyone looks pretty damn good to go along with the amazing food—all prepared with inspiration from the chef. Seriously—the four-course dinner changes *daily*.

If you're looking for a more casual spot, head to Nepenthe for a great view and some brews and a classic Cali menu (though, be forewarned, that view will cost you a bit more than your usual burger and fries). Big Sur Roadhouse and Big Sur Bakery are also area favorites not to be missed.

"There's a four-course dinner option or a nine-course option, with the four-course menu changing daily."

Santa Barbara: Where to Stay

Driving to the Belmond El Encanto, Santa Barbara is a serene AF drive—and the beautiful resort features villas that are like little homes instead of your traditional hotel rooms—think back *and* front porches and pathways from the main lobby/restaurant/pool. A friendly Uber driver told me that it used to be housing for UCSB professors, which totally makes sense.

Santa Barbara: What to Do

There's *so* much to do in Santa Barbara, but half the fun/draw is not doing anything at all. Lay by the pool or beach or enjoy some water sports. A must-see is the Santa Barbara courthouse, which gives you great views of the city.

Head just outside the city to the wineries for a fun day trip, or do the Urban Wine Trail, a selection of 29 tasting rooms that let you stroll through Santa Barbara and taste wines (for a very reasonable price). Recommended wineries: Sanford Winery (in the heart of downtown, very knowledgeable), Santa Barbara Winery (OG status and hugely popular), Oreana Winery (hipster vibes in an old tire shop), Municipal Winemakers (cute and low-key with plenty of seating), and Deep Sea (right on the beach with amazing views and wine).

"Recommended wineries: Sanford Winery (in the heart of downtown, very knowledgeable), Santa Barbara Winery (OG status and hugely popular), Oreana Winery (hipster vibes in an old tire shop), Municipal Winemakers (cute and low-key with plenty of seating), and Deep Sea (right on the beach with amazing views and wine)."

If you come during their Old Spanish Days Fiesta—their annual and biggest celebration—you'll get to partake in watching fun parades, hopping around food stands, and seeing outdoor markets all dedicated to the Spanish and Mexican history of Santa Barbara. Don't miss the fun performances.

Santa Barbara: Where to Eat

For a great meal that often has live entertainment (think: jazzy singers and acoustic sets), head to The Dining Room at Belmond El Encanto. For some great food (order the brussels sprouts!), try The Lark—but as it's super popular, make sure to not make the mistake of being *so hungry* when you arrive, like I did, because you will be sad/have to wait. For a quick bite downtown—with paninis, salads, and of course sweet treats—head to Crushcakes & Cafe.

Helpful Tips:

1. If you're doing the road trip, you'll most likely be booking a flight with a connection. Make sure not to lose track of your stuff by packing carry-on only. I love the Away carry-on, which holds *so much* and is so, so light. (Plus, it comes with a built-in charging dock to charge your phone or tablet, etc.)

2. "The Funk Zone" is a 12-square-block area of Santa Barbara's waterfront (where The Lark is located) that used to be old warehouses and manufacturing plants—it's now filled with tasting rooms, restaurants, breweries, and street art. Walk around and explore—and be sure to stop by the wineries!

3. Be sure to check out the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden for a look at native California wildlife and flora. The Botanic Garden is 65 acres and has guided tours at 2 p.m., with self-guided tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

4. Make sure you pack for warm and cold temperatures, even in summer. Both Big Sur and Santa Barbara can get quite chilly, even in the summer. And be sure to pack closed-toe shoes for hiking or even just walking around parts of the resorts. You'll be thankful you did.

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Samantha Leal
Senior Editor

Samantha Leal is the Deputy Editor at Well+Good, where she spends most of her day thinking of new ideas across platforms, bringing on new writers, overseeing the day-to-day of the website, and working with the awesome team to produce the best stories and packages. Before W+G, she was the Senior Web Editor for Marie Claire and the Deputy Editor for Latina.com, with bylines all over the internet. Graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University with a minor in African history, she’s written everything from travel guides to political op-eds to wine explainers (currently enrolled in the WSET program) to celebrity profiles. Find her online pretty much everywhere @samanthajoleal.