First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Santa Barbara

  • Guides
  • on APRIL 16, 2022
  • 15144
  • 0

First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Santa Barbara

By Hana-Lee Sedgwick April 16, 2022

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.

Getting There

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.

Old Mission Santa Barbara | Jay Sinclair
Old Mission Santa Barbara, Photo Courtesy of Jay Sinclair

Iconic Santa Barbara Things To See

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.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse | Jay Sinclair
Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Photo Courtesy of Jay Sinclair

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.

Stearns Wharf | David Collier
Stearns Wharf, Photo Courtesy of David Collier

Get Out in Nature

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.

Elliot Hawkey
Hiking at sunrise in Santa Barbara, Photo Courtesy of Elliot Hawkey

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.

Hit the Beach

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.

Butterfly Beach | Jay Sinclair
Butterfly Beach, Photo Courtesy of Jay Sinclair

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.

Santa Barbara Sailing Center, Photo Courtesy of Blake Bronstad
Santa Barbara Sailing Center, Photo Courtesy of Blake Bronstad

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.

Where to Eat & Drink

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.

The Valley Project | Visit Santa Barbara
The Valley Project, Photo Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

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 next door to Pali Wine Co., known for chardonnay, pinot noir, and their line of natural wines under the label, Neighborhood. Nearby, Riverbench Winery‘s Santa Barbara tasting room specializes in flights of sparkling wine, and is next door to Santa Barbara’s first distillery, Cutler’s Artisan Spirits. Down the street, Municipal Winemakers offers a funky, retro vibe in which to enjoy a bottle or tasting. It’s the sister winery of Potek, an urban winery and tasting room located at The Mill.

Lama Dog Tap Room | David Collier
Lama Dog Tap Room, Photo Courtesy of David Collier

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.

Eat This Shoot That
Pizza at Lucky Penny, Photo Courtesy of Eat This Shoot That

For more eats in the Funk Zone, stop by Shalhoob Meat Co., which has a massive patio and plenty of mouthwatering grub to keep you satiated between all that beer and wine. Or pop by the new XO Burger for burgers, fries, and a wedge salad. The hospitality group behind XO Burger is also responsible for Funk Zone restaurants Lucky Penny, a casual pizza and sandwich spot covered in — you guessed it — pennies; the Spanish tapas-focused Loquita; 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. They also recently launched weekend brunch.

In downtown Santa Barbara, several eateries and watering holes have added new life to State Street in recent years, making it a worthy destination again. At Shaker Mill and Broad Street Oyster Co., pair oysters and lobster rolls with a boozy tropical concoction (they also have a fantastic burger), or head up the street to Institution Ale, where craft beers, pizzas, and pretzels 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.

Visit California | David Collier
Santa Barbara Public Market, Photo Courtesy of Visit California | David Collier

Further up State Street you’ll find the newly opened Hook & Press Donuts, a must-stop for gourmet donuts in such flavors as apple pie and earl grey tea, as well as the natural wine hot spot Satellite, which attracts a hip crowd seeking funky wines and delicious, farmers’ market-inspired vegetarian fare. Just a couple of blocks up, 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, sushi, gourmet pizza, artisanal ice cream, and more.

Carlitos Café Y Cantina | Cecilia Rossell
Enchiladas at Carlitos Café Y Cantina, Photo Courtesy of Cecilia Rossell

Of course, no visit to Santa Barbara would be complete without some 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 has been around for over 40 years, 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, if you’re looking for casual tacos, you can’t miss Corazon Cocina (in the Public Market), Mony’s (in the Funk Zone), Lily’s Taqueria, and East Beach Tacos.

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 Shellfish Co. | Blake Bronstad
Clam chowder in a bread bowl at Santa Barbara Shellfish Co., Photo Courtesy of Blake Bronstad

Where to Stay

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.

Hotel Californian
Lobby of Hotel Californian, Photo Courtesy of Hotel Californian

Also offering stunning views and easy access to the beach is Rosewood Miramar Beach, a beachfront property in Montecito that charms with Gatsby-esque glamour and an upscale, yet laid-back vibe. Offering several restaurants/bars, two pools, bocce courts, a Goop store, and guest rooms directly above the sand, it’s a seaside retreat that’s hard to beat.

Manor Pool at Rosewood Miramar Beach, Photo Courtesy of Rosewood

For those looking for a luxurious hideaway that’s a little more tucked away, Belmond El Encanto, located in the hills above Santa Barbara, is a great option. 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. Back downtown, Pali House Santa Barbara also offers a quiet place to rest your head, but is conveniently within walking distance to all the action.

The Leta
Suite at The Leta, Photo Courtesy of The Leta

In Goleta, The Leta Hotel charms with its retro California cool aesthetic, but it’s the on-site amenities that are the real draw, like the pool and full-service restaurant.


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.

Santa Barbara Zoo | Cecilia Rosell
Gibbon at the Santa Barbara Zoo, Photo Courtesy of Cecilia Rosell

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.