Located in California’s Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez Valley makes an easy weekend trip from either L.A. or San Francisco. Set, 125 miles north of Los Angeles, 300 miles south of the Bay Area, and 35 miles inland from the beaches of Santa Barbara, it’s home to more than 120 wineries, and a half dozen adorable small towns.
Wine lovers and movie buffs might remember it as the setting for the film Sideways, yet the valley remains in the shadow of its northern wine country counterparts of Napa and Sonoma. While it has just as much great food and wine and the same beautiful vine-covered hills as these more famous wine regions—plus plenty of non-wine activities like horseback riding and hiking—it costs about half as much. Here’s your budget-friendly guide to the Santa Ynez Valley.
What to Do
The Santa Ynez Valley is made up of six small towns including Solvang, Buellton, Ballard, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Los Alamos. One of the largest of these towns is Solvang, a Danish-American settlement founded in 1910.
Today the town is delightfully kitschy, with several windmills and even more Danish pastry shops serving ablsekiver (a Danish fried puffed pancake) dotting the city streets. You can easily spend a day browsing its 150 boutiques and antique shops, tasting wine, and visiting the Hans Christian Andersen museum or the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art, which showcases the town’s history and Dutch heritage.
Less than ten minutes away, the valley’s namesake town, Santa Ynez, still looks much like how you’d imagine it did when it was settled in the late 1800s. And the town plays up its frontier feel with period-style false-front buildings, horseshoes embedded in the cement of the crosswalks, and a replica stagecoach parked in front of the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum.
For a more modern feel, drive another ten minutes to the country-chic town of Los Olivos, where you’ll see as many cowboys in boots as you will wine-tasting tourists in heels. The town, and particularly the Los Olivos Cafe & Wine Merchant, had a starring role in the movie Sideways.
If you’d rather skip the city and spend more time in the outdoors, there are plenty of options that’ll put you among the vines. Head to Gypsy Studios for a two-hour painting session in a vineyard, or for more active adventure to burn off the wine, hop on horseback for a ride through the vines at Vino Vaqueros, or join an educational vineyard hike at Stolpman Vineyards. You can also hit the road on a cycling tour—the area is renowned for its great cycling conditions and several Tour de France riders have trained on these same roads.
What to Eat and Drink
With more than 120 wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, you have no shortage of options for wine tasting, and since many of the tasting rooms are located in the towns, you don’t have to worry about designating a driver or paying for an expensive chauffeur. There’s no shortage of wine varietals either. The area’s five different wine growing appellations produce more than 50 varieties of wines and many high-quality bottles cost a fraction of the price of their Napa counterparts. To taste wine on foot, head to Los Olivos or Solvang, where there are a half dozen tasting shops in each town and samples of five to six wines generally cost around $15.
If beer’s your preference, check out Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., which has outposts in Los Olivos and Buellton, or Naughty Oak Brewing in Santa Ynez. For craft cocktails, make a beeline for S.Y. Kitchen, where the bartenders whip up seasonally changing creative drinks and the grilled artichoke draws rave reviews. Stay for the housemade pasta, or walk over to Brothers at the Red Barn for classics like slow-roasted prime rib or grilled rack of Colorado lamb.
In Los Olivos, check out the “refined ranch cuisine” at Bear and Star where California meets Texas in dishes like Parker Ranch chili and a grilled Wagyu burger. Or, head to Solvang for modern California cuisine with a Danish twist—and the valley’s best happy hour—at Mad & Vin.
Where to Stay
Hotels don’t get much more romantic than the AAA-Four-Diamond Santa Ynez Inn, a 20-room boutique hotel whose rooms have have 20-foot ceilings, rich mahogany and velvet furnishings, gas fireplaces, steam showers, and whirlpool tubs. There’s nightly wine and hors d’oeuvres, and breakfast is cooked to order each morning. Plus, guests get a “tasting passport” for free tastings at several local wineries. The hotel is also a great value, with rooms starting at $240 per night.
For a hip stay in the heart of Solvang, book a room at The Landsby, a 50-room boutique property that looks like it was picked up from trendy Copenhagen and deposited in laid-back California. It’s an Instagrammer’s dream, decked out with fur, geometric prints, fuzzy throw blankets, and quirky local art. Fire pits dot the courtyard surrounding the inn, and there’s an onsite bar and restaurant, the aforementioned Mad & Vin. The best part: it costs about half of what you’d pay to stay in the posh hotels of Napa or Sonoma. Room rates start as low as $149 per night.