48 Hours in the Santa Ynez Valley: Unlocking California’s Central Coast Serenity

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If a destination is written up in Conde Nast Traveler, Vogue, Bon Appetit, The Wall Street Journal, Eater, The Los Angeles Times (and dozens more influential publications) — all in less than two years — is it over-hyped and ruined at this point? Or is it worth the acclaim?

Please ignore the (fair) instinct that the Santa Ynez Valley — specifically the combo of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos and Los Alamos — has lost its authenticity and allure just because you’ve seen a dozen Instagram influencers sip wine from Story of Soil or bite into Bell’s egg salad sandwich.

The reality: It’s as special and worthwhile as ever.

This region has rightfully blown up because it’s doing a variety of things exceptionally well: 

  • The food and wine — are one-of-a-kind. While it’s not a competition, the Central Coast isn’t just a ‘smaller Napa’ or ‘cuter Paso Robles.’ The quality and variety set it apart. Also, just remember that in 2022, the Michelin Guide added 37 California restaurants to its list, and nine were on the Central Coast alone. NBD.
  • The people — are warm, hospitable, and creative. They’ve transformed humble farm country into a cultural phenomenon by doubling down on its natural resources, not making it a replica of somewhere else. The care these folks put into their work is mirrored in how they treat their guests. Their pride is both palpable and magnetic.  
  • The nature — is stunning and varied. Oak trees and vineyards for miles. Sun-dappled Lake Cachuma. Soothing sunsets that paint the hills and valleys to end each day. And the cool, coastal air streaming in from miles away.

I only know this by accident. 

In 2021, I planned a California road trip with my girlfriend exploring the Central Coast, and a trusted friend suggested adding Los Alamos. What started as worry quickly became wonder after we arrived for our dinner at Bell’s, which brands itself “Franch-style” for French and ranch-inspired cooking. Bell’s would prove a microcosm of the region — a warm, thorough staff that created a rhythm for the meal that made us feel like we were among friends. Food bursting with flavor, meticulously prepared, but not pretentious, and like the wine, all local to the region. Adorned with the region’s gorgeous flowers, antiques and art, all in a humble building, on a street that looks like a scene out of Back to the Future.

It was our gateway to the region, and my favorite meal (in the U.S. and maybe the world too;  Bell’s got its Michelin star the day after our meal).  

Then it kept happening. Hit after hit after hit. An unsuspecting wine bar (Cafe Dumetz) that rivaled anything we’d had in Napa. A charming coffee shop (Leftys) with coffee (and vibes) to battle any Blue Bottle. Hikes with mesmerizing views (around Lake Cachuma). This dose of the Central Coast restored our sense of wonder; grateful and trying to make sense of this feeling of surprise mingled with admiration. 

More than 10 trips later — solo, with friends, and most recently for our wedding — this region only gets better every time we visit. Here’s some ways to experience the best of the Central Coast.

Wait, where is it?

The Santa Ynez Valley is a gorgeous region of California about 45 minutes north-east of Santa Barbara, and has some of the best wine and food in the world, framed by rolling hills, farmland and vineyards. It’s made up of charming towns like Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Ballard, Solvang, Buellton and Santa Ynez. It’s farm and wine country, and even as its star rises, it remains steadfast in humble confidence.

How long should I spend there?

Two to three days gives you a snapshot of the Central Coast’s beauty and variety. You’ll find tons of folks from LA making this type of trip, which is about two and a half hours driving (with no traffic). But if you have the time and resources, spend five to seven days. This region is best explored in a car, so pick a single home base (would suggest in Los Olivos, Ballard or Los Alamos), and explore the array of towns, vineyards, restaurants and natural beauty that are all within 20-45 minutes driving.

Where to Eat: 

  • Bell’s: If you ate the food alone, you’d be mesmerized. But the truth is, Bell’s is an experience, and it rivals some of the best in the world (sorry, that’s not an understatement). If you go for lunch, dive deep into that mouth-watering egg salad sandy alongside the luscious Santa Barbara uni, and a glass of really anything from the local Santa Rita Hills. Finish with an espresso and the gateau briton, which may just be what heaven tastes like. If you go for dinner (and you should, maybe same day as lunch even), it’s a prix fixe menu designed to show the versatility of the region and creative intersection of French meets ranch styles. Oh, and if you eat meat, please experience the steak au poivre, featuring a homey, but somehow still light, sauce that’s just asking to be dipped with fries in between bites of tender meat (paired super well with local Kings Carey wine). 
  • Bar Le Cote – This seafood spot is inspired by seaside taverns in Portugal and Spain, and brings big, bold local ingredients and flavors of the west coast (and is a sister restaurant to Bell’s). Go for the amazing happy hour deals from 4:00 – 5:30 PM (half off wine, oysters, and more). This menu knows how to show-off the pure quality of its ingredients — like the Peel and Eat Shrimp — and also gets creative, especially with the Paella de Mejillones (Hope Ranch Mussels, Bomba Rice, Saffron, Aioli). And don’t forget about the BLC Spiced Fries!  What I love almost as much as the food at Bar Le Cote is the design of the space, highlighted by deep, vibrant green walls, and one wall with three massive, vertical abstract paintings. From the vibe in the room to the fresh seafood and the FableRune products (the candles are second to none), this place is a gem.
  • Priedite BBQ: What started as a couple of barbecue-obsessed buddies experimenting during the pandemic now has its own food truck outpost at Bodega in Los Alamos, plus a line around the block every weekend. From beef ribs to spicy sausage, Priedite rivals any Texan bbq, and be sure to follow their schedule to see if you can score their coveted brisket and/or pork tacos, alongside home-made flour tortillas.
  • SY Kitchen — If you felt like maybe there was some Tuscan vibes in Santa Ynez, you can fully realize that dream at SY Kitchen, a truly outstanding Italian restaurant making delicious hand-made pastas. 
  • Bob’s Well Bread – With two locations in Los Alamos and Ballard, Bob's Well Bread has the best bread, pastries and breakfast in the Santa Ynez Valley. Grab a sesame sourdough for noshes between wine tastings.  
  • Industrial Eats – Industrial Eats is pumping out both craft sandwiches and wood-fired pizzas, all in a renovated warehouse in Buellton. 
  • Na Na Thai: Another Bells-inspired spot, Na Na Thai packs a punch in every bite. Located in a tiny strip mall off the freeway (am I setting the mood), Na Na Thai could not be a more fun, flavorful, well executed, and still casual meal. Pad Thai. Tom Kha Gai soup. Kao Soi. Repeat. The menu is stacked, and will leave you wanting to try it all.
  • Lefty’s Coffee – This cute coffee shop in Los Olivos will give you the buzz you need to recover from a day of heavy eating and drinking. Start your day here with an espresso and post up in the lush backyard. Don’t sleep on the granola!
  • Scarlett Bogonia: If you’ve got time and don’t mind a 45-min drive, take Route 154 (a  into Santa Barbara to Scarlett Bogonia for breakfast. Grab a spot outside (the cafe-feel in the back is beautiful and bright), and be sure to order a cinnamon roll (warmed up). Then, after breakfast, get another cinnamon roll (because they’re insane) and drive Arroyo Burro Beach 10 minutes away, one of the only dog friendly beaches around.

Wine (and other booze)

  • Casa Dumetz: I hit this boutique winery on every trip to the Central Coast. The combination of the quality of the wine, the super charming indoor-outdoor tasting room, and the kindness of the winemaker, Sonja Magdevski, who is usually on-site, draws me back (and also made me a member of the wine club). Not to mention, it’s incredibly affordable given the high quality of the various varietals. 
  • Foxen Vineyard — Not only are the array of wines (tons of Pinot Noir) delicious, but the drive there along Foxen Canyon Road is stunning. Give yourself enough time to drink, hang out, and explore.
  • Demetria – Another beautiful venue, this time known for its Biodynamic Rhône and Burgundy-style wines. Pack a picnic with groceries from Lucky Hen Larder — because you’ll want to linger to take in the views.
  • Carhartt – Family-owned and run, Carhartt’s tasting room in Los Olivos is always packed, with a super fun patio.
  • Story of Soil – Another cozy tasting room in Los Olivos with incredible female-made wines (focus in on the Syrahs and Pinots).
  • The Other Room – Not everybody drinks wine apparently, and maybe that’s a good thing when you try one of the many local beers on tap at The Other Room (also connected to the Bell’s owners). 
  • Bodega – Just down the street from Bell’s in Los Alamos is Bodega, the open-air wine & beer garden featuring natural and organic wines. Grab a drink here before your dinner at Bell’s or come through with your crew and enjoy a local wine under the shade of Bodega’s big oak tree.

What To Do + Shopping

  • Ostrich Land – You read that right. This place is super random, and surprisingly fun, even if just for a brief stop to feed the ostriches and emus.  It’s wild and weird and worth it!
  • Take a Hike! – From the Manza trail loop to the Davy Brown trailhead, there are some stellar hikes in Los Olivos. Venture a bit further out to La Purisima Mission State Historic Park in Lompoc, which includes 25 miles of hiking trails over 2,000 acres, connecting to the backcountry. Soak up the oak trees and bring lots of water.
  • Horseback Riding – Vino Vaqueros are the folks to see about going out for a ride! They offer private 75-90 minute rides around the rolling hills and scenery that defines this region. 
  • Lake Cachuma: The drive along Route 154 to the sun-dappled Lake Cachuma is soothing and scenic from start to finish. Once you're there, its options galore: rowing on the lake, tons of hiking, disc golf, fishing, grabbing a drink at Hook’d bar and grill, or even camping.
  • Lucky Hen Larder — This is your go-to spot to pick up picnic ingredients or groceries, and you can bet everything will be from nearby, like the lettuces from Finley Farms, which were unforgettably fresh and flavorful. 
  • Los Olivos General Store — I’m a sucker for a general story, and while this one is small (since it's located in a refurbished garage), it packs a punch. It carries mostly home and kitchen boutique items, as well as an array of local jewelry, artwork, and gourmet foods.

Where to Stay

Skyview Los Alamos

Skyview Hotel -This was the first place we stayed on our first visit, an unsuspecting, chic spot that clearly got the makeover of all makeovers — and it’s working. Just over from and above the 101, this old school motel feels refined as soon as you make your way on to the beautifully landscaped grounds and look off into the 360 views of sheer beauty. 

The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern - Let’s face it — this is a bougie spot. It’s an Auberge hotel, and gorgeous. It’s built around the original tavern, dates back to 1886, when a Swiss immigrant named Felix Mattei built the tavern as the primary stagecoach stop between San Francisco and Los Angeles. If you have the means for Mattei’s, go for it and never look back. Everything is wonderfully thought through here – from the lo-fi beats at the pool to the farmhouse gym to the vegetables growing in the garden.

More Places to Stay

Don’t overlook Airbnb or VRBO, especially if you’re traveling with a group. There’s phenomenal ranch style homes in secluded, serene parts of the valley that are special. 

The Santa Ynez Valley is unsuspecting. You can drive right past it, like I did countless times growing up, and not even know it's there. But then, after experiencing it — learning about the cool coastal climate that fuels the wine, hearing from the families of farmers who tend the land, exploring its rugged beauty — you can’t help but feeling like typing into Zillow “Santa Ynez Valley” and hoping and praying.  If nothing else, know that in this part of the world, kindness and attention to detail is built into the DNA of its people. 

And that no matter how many publications write a story or Michelin stars come its way, the Santa Ynez Valley will never succumb to the hype.

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