Located along the Central Coast between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is inarguably one of the most beautiful places on the West Coast. But beyond the picturesque scenery and stunning ocean views, Santa Barbara captivates with its historical charm, luxury accommodations, outdoor activities, and thriving wine and food scene worth exploring. Our guide to Santa Barbara breaks down everything you’ll want to experience during your first time visiting this idyllic coastal paradise.
Known as The American Riviera, Santa Barbara is situated on a south-facing stretch of coastline along the Central Coast, roughly two hours north of Los Angeles and five hours south of San Francisco. If not traveling by car, Santa Barbara is accessible by Amtrak train, which makes stops in downtown Santa Barbara and the neighboring communities of Carpinteria and Goleta, as well as via the Santa Barbara Airport — a quaint (and super charming) airport that partners with seven different airlines.
There are a few things one should definitely not miss if visiting Santa Barbara for the first time, and though they may not be insider secrets, they’re worth taking the time to explore. First on the list should be a visit to the Old Mission Santa Barbara. Founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786, Mission Santa Barbara is still an active church and is one of the area’s most beautiful landmarks — there’s a reason it’s known as the “Queen of the Missions.” Explore the church and on-site museum, including the original adobe wall, and be sure to head across the street to the impressive Mission Rose Gardens, home to over 1,500 rose bushes. To experience it the way the locals do, pack a picnic and enjoy the views from the lawn.
For a 360 degree view of Santa Barbara from above (and to admire one of the most beautiful public buildings you’ll likely ever encounter), head to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Completed in 1929, this still-active Courthouse, designed in the city’s iconic Spanish Colonial style and surrounded by lush gardens, is filled with elaborate murals, colorful tiles, and ornate details. Climb the stairs (or take the elevator) to the clock tower, where you’ll enjoy panoramic views of downtown Santa Barbara’s red-roofed, Spanish and Mediterranean-style buildings and the surrounding mountains.
Last on your list of must-dos is to head to the waterfront. Walk out along Stearns Wharf for a great vantage point of the coast from out at sea before making your way (by foot or bike) to the Santa Barbara Harbor. Bustling with sailboats, kayakers, and fishing boats carrying in fresh catches of the day, the harbor is a great place to go for a stroll or to savor fresh seafood with a view. On Saturday mornings from 6:00 – 11:00am, you can even buy fresh fish directly from the people who caught them.
Santa Barbara’s proximity to the mountains and ocean is unprecedented, which makes it easy to explore the land and sea all in one day. Throw on your hiking boots to take advantage of one of the area’s many hiking trails, including the popular Inspiration Point, Tangerine Falls, and Cold Springs Trail hikes.
For something less challenging, take your time meandering around The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to admire the plant life, blooming flowers, and towering Redwood trees. Have any furry companions with you? At Douglas Family Preserve, you can let your dogs roam free (sans leash) within this family-friendly nature preserve. The three-mile trail loops through Eucalyptus and oak trees while offering views of the ocean. Afterwards, make your way to the dog-friendly beach below (Arroyo Burro Beach), where you and Fido can enjoy running around in the sand.
For sun, sand, and sea, Santa Barbara’s got you covered. At East Beach, you’ll find plenty of tanned volleyball players making use of the sand volleyball courts, but it’s also a popular beach for families, thanks to a playground, picnic facilities, and bathrooms all located within steps of the sand. Closer to the harbor, Leadbetter Beach is a prime spot to surf, boogie board, paddle board, or just hang with friends. There’s also a grassy area with built-in grills, but since it’s first-come, first-served, you’ll have to go early to snag a picnic table or two.
Over in Montecito, Butterfly Beach doesn’t offer much in the way of facilities, but it’s a beautiful stretch of sand that looks west (rather than most of the south-facing beaches), which makes it a nice spot for a beach picnic as the sun goes down. Just be wary of the tide schedule, as there really isn’t any sand left for sitting on when it’s high tide.
For something a bit more adventurous, visit the Santa Barbara Sailing Center (located in the harbor) to rent a kayak or to charter a sailboat for a day at sea. They also offer whale watching excursions depending on the time of year, as well as sunset wine cruises. Nearby, Sunset Kidd Sailing has a 41-foot sailing yacht with spots for 16 passengers and a fully stocked bar — the makings of a fun day at sea.
Though Santa Barbara’s diverse neighborhoods each offer a different taste of Santa Barbara, there are a few main areas ideal for eating and drinking.
Right off of State Street, near the ocean, is what is known as The Funk Zone neighborhood. What was once an abandoned warehouse district is now a popular place to get your drink on, thanks to the two dozen tasting rooms and several breweries all within walking distance. At The Valley Project, you’ll find a minimalist tasting room with an impressive focal point: a floor-to-ceiling chalk art mural depicting Santa Barbara County’s winegrowing areas. Acquaint yourself with the lay of the land as you taste through the small-lot wines, then head around the corner to sister tasting room, Kunin Wines, where quality Rhône varietal wines are served within the bright and airy space. Next door, Municipal Winemakers offers a funky, retro vibe in which to enjoy a bottle or tasting, and just up the street, Riverbench Winery‘s Santa Barbara tasting room specializes in flights of sparkling wine.
If a cold brewski is all you’re after, take advantage of the sunny patio, regular live music, and beer selection at Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., a casual brewery in the heart of the Funk Zone. Or, head a block away to The Waterline, where you’ll find two beer drinking spots under one roof: Topa Topa Brewing Co. and Lama Dog Tap Room + Bottle Shop — the latter of which offers 20 revolving beers on tap and many more to-go. For tasty fare to nibble on while you sip, order a burger or lobster mac n’ cheese from Nook, also inside The Waterline, where comfort food is both creative and delicious.
For more eats in the Funk Zone, stop by Tyger Tyger, which serves up Thai and Vietnamese-inspired dishes in a casual and colorful space (you can’t miss the hot pink lanterns that line the ceiling or the tiger mural on the exterior of the building). The hospitality group behind Tyger Tyger is also responsible for Funk Zone restaurants Lucky Penny, a casual pizza and sandwich spot covered in — you guessed it — pennies, and the uber-popular The Lark, which specializes in family-style, globally-inspired dishes using local and seasonal ingredients. While it’s best to make a reservation at The Lark, the restaurant has a 24-seat communal table available for walk-ins, or you can always pop by for a cocktail and snack during their pre-dinner service “cocktail hour” from 4 – 5pm.
In downtown Santa Barbara, several eateries and watering holes have recently opened up, adding new life to State Street. At Shaker Mill and Cubaneo, pair a Cuban sandwich with a boozy tropical concoction, or head up the street to Institution Ale, where craft beers are served in a lively, open space. Also found along downtown’s main drag is Joe’s Cafe, a Santa Barbara institution for dining and drinking since 1928, known for its old school atmosphere and classic American fare. Nearby, Bibi Ji attracts locals and tourists for its approachable and modern twist on traditional Indian cuisine and exciting list of hard-to-find wine and craft beer, served in the playfully exotic atmosphere.
Further up State Street in the Arts and Theater District is the Santa Barbara Public Market, a dining destination that will appeal to every budget and taste. Inside, you’ll find vendors churning out market-driven tacos, curry noodle bowls, gourmet pizza, artisanal ice cream, and more.
Of course, no visit to Santa Barbara would be complete without Mexican food. At Santo Mezcal, you’ll find a menu of modern Mexican cuisine, including a large selection of seafood-influenced fare, and thoughtfully composed cocktails. Carlitos Café Y Cantina, which is celebrating its 41st anniversary, also specializes in flavorful Mexican food, along with handcrafted margaritas that are best enjoyed on the spacious outdoor patio. Julia Child’s love for La Super-Rica Taqueria may have popularized this no-frills establishment (to the point where it’s hard to find a time where there isn’t a line out the door), but the sizzling meat and charred pasilla peppers folded into warm tortillas keep everyone coming back for more.
Lastly, when all you crave is fresh seafood with a view, you can’t beat a visit to the happenin’ Brophy Bros. in the harbor. It’s always busy, so if you don’t feel like braving the crowds for a table, hop aboard the Lil’ Toot water taxi over to Stearns Wharf to enjoy lobster rolls and clam chowder at Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. It may not have stiff drinks (just wine and beer), but it does have equally lovely ocean views and a casual vibe.
Santa Barbara makes for a wonderful family-friendly vacation, and while you could easily spend your time frolicking on the beach or exploring downtown, there are a couple of places tailor-made for kids. Near the train station in downtown Santa Barbara is MOXI: The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, home to three floors of interactive science and technological experiences for hands-on learning.
Every kid (and adult) who loves to see animals will thoroughly enjoy a visit to the charming Santa Barbara Zoo, where you’ll find monkeys, sea otters, gorillas, elephants, and more. Feeding the giraffes is an activity the kiddos will adore, which makes for an especially nice photo opp. Also worth exploring with the family is the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, offering a glimpse into the natural history of the region, from birds to mammals, marine life to Native American life.
When it comes to places to stay in Santa Barbara, luxury is the name of the game. Conveniently located across from Stearns Wharf is the Hotel Californian, a 121-room hotel featuring Spanish Colonial Revival architecture with Moorish accents. A rooftop pool, exclusive spa, and panoramic views of the ocean are sure to impress.
Also offering stunning views and easy access to the beach is Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, and while it’s located in Montecito just south of Santa Barbara, a stay at this classy resort is a treat. Here, you’ll find quality dining options, lush landscaping, a spa, and a picturesque oceanfront pool reserved for guests and club members only. Nearby in Montecito is the brand new Rosewood Miramar Beach, a beachfront property that charms with Gatsby-esque glamour and an upscale, yet laid back vibe. Offering several restaurants, two pools, bocce courts, a Goop store, and guest rooms directly above the sand, it’s a seaside retreat that’s hard to beat.
Also catering to those looking for a luxurious hideaway is Belmond El Encanto, located in the hills above Santa Barbara. Walk around the lush property, sip Champagne from the outdoor terrace overlooking the city, or treat yourself to a day of serenity at the spa — whatever you choose to do, Belmond is a lovely escape from the everyday hustle and bustle.
Of course, not everyone can afford to drop the big bucks on a hotel, so those sticking to a budget will adore the hip boutique hotel, Kimpton The Goodland, located in the neighboring city of Goleta, where evening social hours, a chic eatery, and a lively pool hosts regular events and live music to keep things interesting.
Back in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, The Wayfarer offers both dorm-style shared rooms and private rooms, with a youthful, social vibe that’s perfect for groups and outgoing travelers. Make new friends while cooking in the community kitchen or partaking in one of The Wayfarer’s pool parties, which take place on weekends in the warmer months.