Just over the hill from the coast, the Santa Ynez Valley is the center of Santa Barbara's wine country, its agricultural heart. From the sun-baked one-horse town of Santa Ynez, to the foggy, windy city of Lompoc, there's a lot to discover. Leaving Santa Barbara, the old stagecoach route, now Highway 154, climbs over San Marcos Pass. Old California is just off the highway at Cold Spring Tavern. Above, the picturesque span of Cold Spring Bridge used to be in nearly every car commercial. Now, it's ugly and sad, because of the anti-suicide fence clinging to its spine like a necrophiliac caterpillar. Further on your descent, you'll see the once empty, but now rapidly-filling Lake Cachuma; source of most of the valley's water.
The poppies carpet the hill for a brief, but glorious time every spring and the views are fantastic.
There are two main tourist towns in the valley- Solvang and Los Olivos. I really can't recommend the semi-Danish town of Solvang for its charm, but it does have some decent places to stay and eat. Beware of tourist buses full of octogenarians wearing ugly white sneakers and baggy jeans. Los Olivos seems to be all tasting rooms, but it can be a convenient spot to slake your thirst. From Los Olivos, you can head up Figueroa Mt. Road, past Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch, and up toward the peak. The poppies carpet the hill for a brief, but glorious time every spring and the views are fantastic. I like the tiny town of Santa Ynez more; it's quaint and quiet with excellent places to eat. Los Alamos is a throwback Western town, just add tumbleweeds. The service towns of Buellton and Lompoc have a lot of wineries nearby and tasting rooms galore. If you have a bike, the ride from Los Olivos to Buellton on Ballard Canyon Rd. is recommended; pretty and not heavily trafficked. Another comely country road is Foxen Canyon which will eventually lead you all the way to Santa Maria, which looks like every other crappy, sprawling, suburbanized horror in the US. They have great strawberries, though! Whether a hipster or a cowpoke, you will find what you're looking for in The Valley.
Figueroa Mt.- Fields of poppies and wildflowers, views of the whole valley.
Gaviota Peak- Nice view of the Channel Islands from the top of a fire road hike.
Gaviota Wind Caves- Caves scoured into the sandstone. Imagine banditos.
Surf Beach- You can take Amtrak to this windy outlet of the Santa Ynez River.
Jalama Beach- Windswept and isolated campsite and surf spot. People like the burger stand.
Happy Cyn. Rd.- Twisty country road passes vineyards and horse ranches. Can loop this all the way back to Figueroa Mt. Road.
Foxen Cyn. Rd.- Nice drive with plenty of wineries to visit. See remnants of the old oil fields and the abandoned town of Sisquoc.
Ballard Cyn. Rd.- Great bike route in the heart of the valley, leads from Los Olivos to Buellton.
Jedlicka's Saddlery- Get yourself a Stetson here when you're tired of tasting wine.
Hamlet Inn- Updated motel in Solvang; very nice design and tidy.
Alamo Inn- Another retro turned modern motel. Municipal Winemakers has a cool tasting "cabin" on the property.
Skyview Motel- On top of a small hill, the views of the surrounding vineyards are nice at this spot.
Firestone Walker Barrel House- Try the inventive barrel-aged beers of this larger brewery in Buellton.
Babi's Beer Emporium- Nice selection of bottled beers in LA (Los Alamos.)
1880 Union Hotel- Drinks and free shuffleboard in the saloon of this old hotel.
Casa Dumetz- Sonja is the nicest host and winemaker you'll meet. Lovely Grenache.
Taste of Sta. Rita Hills- Ask Antonio if he has some Weatherborne to pour!
Transcendence- Sara and Joey will take care of you; nice Grenache and Sangiovese; new pizza place opening next door soon.
Lutum- Gavin Chanin makes great wines, crisp Chardonnay and spicy Pinots; appointment only.
Presqu'ile Winery- If you get up to Santa Maria, you won't want to miss this pretty winery with nice views and great wines; nice Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and zippy Syrah.
Cold Spring Tavern- A rustic breakfast spot; they make a nice tri-tip sandwich on the weekends, too.
Trattoria Grappolo- Tasty pastas and warm atmosphere.
SY Kitchen- Delicious pizzas and inventive Italian at this tasteful spot.
Dos Carlitos- Wonderful chiles rellenos en brodo and good margaritas.
Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe- Nice seasonal menu and a great local wine list, including Weatherborne.
Panino- They make nice sandwiches here; good for a quick bite.
Olsen's Danish Bakery- Best bakery in Solvang with Danish specialties.
Succulent Cafe- Nice brunch and lunch spot with outdoor seating.
Cecco Ristorante- Good pizzas.
Industrial Eats- Caterers turned brick and mortar. Handmade salumi, good sandwiches, pizzas and fresh salads in a lively spot. You can listen to winemakers talking shop.
Bell Street Farm- Jamie knows everyone in the valley, and their cold case and soups are fantastic.
Full of Life Flatbread- Super popular locals' spot with good pizzas. (Oh, and they catered our wedding!)
Pico- New place in Los Alamos with a creative menu.
Bob's Well Bread- Nice pastries and hearty breads in a homey setting.
Los Gorrudos- The best Mexican spot in Lompoc.
Jocko's- Legendary tri-tip done in the traditional oak-grilled Santa Maria style. Huge portions and a good value.