The gorgeous coastal town of Santa Barbara is one of the most popular destinations in Southern California. Amazing beaches, free attractions, plenty of activities for all kinds of travelers with kids or without, history, music, food, art, and more are the reasons you’ll want to spend a weekend (or more!) in this charming oceanfront city!
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What to Do in Santa Barbara, California
Why Visit Santa Barbara, California
Year-round, Santa Barbara boasts some stellar weather. In fact, it has over 300 days of sunshine every year. So odds are in your favor that the weather will be beautiful. You can also get around town with ease and take a trolley, water taxi, or another mode of public transport. It’s such a beautiful place at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, one that has earned it the nickname “The American Riviera.” There’s just so much to do here, so what are you waiting for?
How to Get to Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara is 89 miles from Hollywood, 92 miles from LAX, 228 miles from San Diego, and 332 miles from San Francisco. Because it’s a really easy place to get around, you may enjoy it all the more if you leave your car behind and take the train! But if you do drive to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles for example, you just need to get on US 101 N and follow the signs.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara, California
The Leta Hotel – Longboards, poolside cocktails, and coastal cuisine … if this is what you are looking for in California then the Leta Hotel is the perfect fit. The renovated roadside motel offers laid-back luxury accommodations with surf-inspired, eclectic decor.
Belmond El Encanto – Just 10 minutes from downtown overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific ocean is the Belmond El Encanto. It was built in 1918 and is the oldest hotel in the city. The hotel has vintage charm embedded with modern luxury. With 98 rooms beautifully located on acres of land and an infinity pool, this is a luxurious stay!
Hotel Californian – Designed with Spanish colonial revival architecture and modern Moorish-themed interior decor, The Californian offers a beautiful pool, gardens, fountains, and a gorgeous spa. It’s also located in the center of the Funk Zone.
Palihouse Santa Barbara – If you are looking for a fresh, new hotel with vintage vibes, then this is the one. A 1920 Spanish-colonial building was renovated and reopened in March 2021 as Palihouse Santa Barbara. The location is very close to downtown.
The Waterman – This ultra-cool hotel is for young travelers. The whole vibe is very quirky and whimsical.
Hotel Milo – Hotel Milo offers a beautiful mix of laid-back and lively. There are so many ways to unwind while staying here. From swimming in the Pacific, lounging in the cabanas, to simply enjoying the charming amenities, it is an ideal place for a quintessential California getaway.
Riviera Beach House – The Riviera Beach House is a quaint boutique hotel with modern and traditional touches. The rooms offer an intimate European feel. It is just a few minutes away from the train station and the beach. The location is a hub of great restaurants and bars.
Harbor View Inn – This casually luxurious property is located on a beach overlooking the ocean. This is where the white sands of West Beach and historic Stearns Wharf meet. Perfect for a family vacation or a romantic getaway.
Haley Hotel – The hotel has 17 stylish rooms decorated by local artists in a nautical theme. The hotel is close to State street, the beach, and the Funk Zone. And, even your furry friends can enjoy a change of view here.
Kimpton Canary – One of the best boutique hotels in Santa Barbara, the Kimpton Canary offers perfect scenic views of the San Ynez Mountains as well as picturesque views of the beach. The rooms have hardwood floors and Italian linens.
Beachside Inn – At the Beachside Inn, contemporary coastal chic decor and Spanish colonial revival architecture converge. You can enjoy the beauty of spring along the coastline in this perfect location.
Mar Monte Hotel – A 1920s era hotel that has been beautifully renovated into a luxurious boutique hotel with modern touches. The Mar Monte Hotel offers numerous amenities to make your stay comfortable and luxurious. It’s an upscale and modern vibe offering a seamless experience.
Hideaway Santa Barbara – Recently renovated in 2019, Hideaway Santa Barbara is just a few blocks away from the Funk Zone. The hotel is a Kirkwood collection property and offers so many amenities.
Agave Inn – The Agave Inn is a colorful, vibrant, chic and budget-friendly option in the heart of town. The hardwood floors, poncho-style pillows, hand-painted tiles, and retro decor add a stylish touch to this boutique hotel.
Simpson House Inn – The Simpson House Inn feels more like a bed and breakfast. Restored from an 1894 victorian mansion, the inn is surrounded by large English lawns. Located in the heart of Santa Barbara, but quiet enough to escape the noise of the city and give you a relaxing stay.
Blue Sands Inn – The Blue Sands Inn offers charming and modern decor and a 2-minute walk to the beach. So you can enjoy the perfect views of the blue oceans and vast stretches of sand. Several art galleries, wineries, and restaurants are a short walk away.
Circle Bar B Guest Ranch – The Circle Bar B Guest Ranch is 30 minutes from Santa Barbara on 1100 acres of land surrounded by mountains. This is both coastal and peaks. The Guest Ranch offers a relaxing stay in a beautiful setting with a ranch experience. Perfect for a unique family getaway.
Where to Eat in Santa Barbara, California
Exploring Santa Barbara will make you hungry. Thankfully, there’s plenty to eat regardless of your mood. Here are some of my favorite picks that everyone should taste!
Lucky Penny – Pizzas here are cooked in a wood-burning oven, and they have frosé you can sip while you pose in front of the penny-covered building!
McConnel’s Ice Cream – Since 1949, this place has been said to have the best ice cream in the world. Authentic and absolutely luscious, I can vouch for that. You’ve simply got to try it. There are classic flavors and original creations like Earl Grey Tea and Shortbread Cookies. And if you’re dairy-free, they’ve got you covered too.
Santa Barbara Public Market – This premium food hall has something for everyone. And there’s both indoor and outdoor seating so you can enjoy your eats and drinks just the way you like it!
The Lark – Get a taste of this chef-created menu from local and seasonal items of the land and sea!
Bouchon – A beautiful restaurant for a fine meal, you’ll love the epicurean menu full of phenomenal dishes from French onion soup to grilled rack of lamb.
The Honor Bar – Technically, it’s in Montecito, but it’s a great place to go for dinner. They offer shareable snacks and amazing sandwiches plus a wonderful array of cocktails, beers, and wines.
Jeannine’s – For over 30 years, this place has been a local legend. The food is simple and wholesome, and you will be wowed for the brunch.
Pickles and Swiss – Forget what you know about sandwiches. This place does them right with fresh ingredients grown on-site. There are many gluten-free and organic options too, making this a great lunch spot for just about everyone!
Tupolo Junction Cafe – The funky nature of this place makes you feel right at home. And the food feels right at home too with southern-style treats that will satisfy for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
La Super-Rica Taqueria was one of Julia Child’s favorite places (allegedly). This Mexican restaurant is indeed one of the best to try if this is the cuisine you’re craving.
Cold Creek Tavern – A casual yet cozy place to enjoy lunch or a more intimate dining experience at night, it was once a stagecoach stop. It still has all the Old West ambiance though which adds an extra bit of magic to your visit as you enjoy the traditional and delicious American fare.
Things to Do in Santa Barbara, California
Check out these things to do in Santa Barbara to plan your own itinerary to this beautiful town!
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Old Mission Santa Barbara has been around since 1786, making it a historic place you’ve got to see. It includes a museum, cemetery, mausoleum, and historic gardens plus it has a community of friars. Learn more about their lives and works as you check out the museum, grounds, and gift shop for neat souvenirs.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Santa Barbara County Courthouse features that amazing Spanish-Colonial style architecture. It was finished in 1929 and is one of the most iconic landmarks in Santa Barbara. You’ll notice the four-faced clock tower along with the arches, red-tiled roofs, and the sunken garden. Plus, there are hand-painted murals and all sorts of lovely things to see, though the real draw is climbing up the clock tower to get one of the best views in town.
Tour the Historic Casa del Herrero
Casa del Herrero or House of the Blacksmith as it translates to takes you back to the 1920s and 1930s. The original owner was George Fox Steedman and it is now on the National Register of Historic Places, making it yet another landmark of Santa Barbara. The gardens are another reason not to miss this place, set upon 11 acres of land with tours that allow you to explore history and architecture in one.
Explore the Funk Zone
What the funk?!? Oh, why it’s The Funk Zone ! It’s a place where arts, culture, food, wine, and shops have come together in a fully funky way. You’ll find loads to do here, so much so that your head may spin but lucky you, I’ve highlighted some of the must-try funky places below!
The Lark – Delicious chef creations from local and seasonal ingredients are what make this place a true gem. Foods from the farm, ocean, and ranch grace the menu, ensuring there’s something wonderful to discover for every kind of appetite.
Lucky Penny – If you’re a pizza connoisseur, you won’t want to miss this innovative pizza joint. They put their pies in a wood-burning oven and use locally-sourced garden ingredients. There are sandwiches and desserts too, plus beer, wine, and frosé. Make sure you snap a selfie in front of the building which is covered with real pennies!
Municipal Winemakers – Get a taste of locally-made wine at this fun place with no reservations required. You can even have beer from the neighbors at Third Window Brewery.
The Waterline – It’s like an upscale food court with this collection of local food and beverage vendors plus artists and retail thrown in too. There’s something for everyone in this unique space!
The Blue Door – Stop by The Blue Door and shop the three floors of vintage and modern interior decor and furniture!
And yes, I bought that brass unicorn stapler!
Chromatic Gate is the perfect photo op spot. It’s right along the waterfront and is a rainbow arch of sorts, featuring 6 different colors that welcome you in. You’ll love posting this one on Instagram!
Rent a Moke Electric Vehicle to Tour the Town
Wheel Fun Rentals also has you covered if you’d prefer another mode of transport to ride around in while in Santa Barbara. Try the Moke Electric Vehicle, electric bikes, or even regular bikes – tandem too – and make the most of your stay in this scenic town!
Rent a Surrey Along the Beach
Santa Barbara has fun ways to get around like with surreys. You can find them at Wheel Fun Rentals where they have surreys, double surreys, and even ones that glow up at night.
Shop at Paseo Nuevo
Paseo Nuevo is more than an outdoor mall. The cool tiled stairs give it personality and style. And speaking of style, you can shop your way through all your favorite stores from big chains to boutiques. Shop up an appetite because there are plenty of places to eat here too for every cuisine and every budget.
Shop at State Street
State Street offers a European feel in Downtown Santa Barbara. What’s great here is that they’ve converted it into a 10-block pedestrian walkway so you can wander, browse, and shop freely. Have some wine and enjoy dining while you’re in this part of town too, and enjoy the lovely architecture all around you.
Lotusland is perhaps one of the most astoundingly beautiful public gardens in the world. Although it is public, reservations are needed so don’t miss your chance to wander these glorious gardens and learn about the rich estate history in a refreshing setting.
Butterfly Beach isn’t home to butterflies, but it is a favorite for the locals. The shoreline provides ample space for sunbathing while the water is ideal for swimming or surfing. And because of its unique positioning, you can see both sunrises and sunsets from here. That’s not all to keep your eyes peeled for as plenty of celebrities come here to enjoy a day by the sea too.
1000 Steps Beach
1000 Steps Beach consists of dilapidated concrete stairs that were built in the 1920s. If you were to count them though, there are about 150 stairs. Still, this beach is the place to check out the tide pool during low tide and makes for a great place to enjoy the unique view.
Santa Barbara Zoo
Santa Barbara Zoo is a great choice if you have kids with you on your trip. But even if you’re only among adults, you’ll adore getting the chance to gawk at 146 different species of various animals. All told, there are more than 500 animals in the zoo contained in naturalistic habitats that allow them to thrive.
Stern’s Wharf will delight you in a number of ways from opportunities to fish, board a water taxi, shop, dine, or simply watch what’s happening around you. Don’t miss out on tasting fresh seafood at Brophy Bros either. The menu boasts oysters, clam chowder, and seafood specials, though if you’re a landlubber, you’ll find burgers and other items that will satisfy.
Visit a Museum
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Santa Barbara Museum of Art – In this museum, you’ll find 25,000 different works of art. That’s an impressive fact on its own considering it is comparable to museums found in cities that are far larger than the small town of Santa Barbara. Art lovers, come on out and see this!
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History – Founded in 1916, this museum has fascinating fun for everyone. There are interactive exhibits, a planetarium, and a beautiful oak woodland to explore. You can spend hours here and it will feel like just minutes!
MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation
MOXI – The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation is one of the newest family-friendly spots in Santa Barbara. MOXI has hands-on experiences that allow everyone to explore and discover more about the world through captivating exhibits and programs.
Get a Massage at Float Spa
Float Spa will help your cares waft away. This stunning spa has such calming surrounds and offers massages, facials, and all those things that simply help you float from your troubles and renew your spirit.
Bike the Cabrillo Boulevard Biking Trail
Cabrillo Boulevard Biking Trail is a 4.5-mile bike trail that takes you by the beaches. As such, it’s one of the most popular bike trails in this town. With all that sunshine, any day is a good one for getting out on a bike!
Whale Watching gives you the opportunity to discover the majestic beauty of these giant creatures in the water. Absolutely nothing compares to this experience where boats take you right alongside for one of the most magical experiences you’ll have in your lifetime.
Kayak Rental or Kayak Tour options are the best for those that like to be in control on the water. Kayaks give you a unique way to see the coastline in Santa Barbara. Rent your kayak or take a kayak tour with a guide that will show you the best vantage points in the area.
Explore the Channel Islands
Channel Islands are often called North America’s version of the Galapagos Islands. Just 22 miles off the coast, the Channel Islands features 5 islands brimming with plants and wildlife that you can explore by boat, SCUBA, or camping out in these unusual natural surrounds.
Take a Tour
Funk Zone Food & Photo Tour – At the Funk Zone, you can take a 3-hour tour that gets you tasty food and drinks while capturing some awesome photos with the new photography tips you’ll learn…even with just a smartphone!
Santa Barbara Food Tour – Or just eat and drink your way around Downtown Santa Barbara for about 3.5 hours. You’ll get to experience 5 to 6 local eateries, get in some wine tastings, and go where the locals go. Satisfy your inner foodie!
Kayak Tour – This tour is for the outdoorsy types or anyone who wants a new adventure. It’s leisurely and lovely, and the guide will tell you all about the marine life and history of the area.
Bike Tour – Landlubbers can stay on solid ground with an electric bike tour for morning or afternoon excursions. You’ll see key landmarks and ride along the Pacific coastline for some truly breathtaking views.
Trolley Tour – This is a great quick tour that gives your feet a rest while you get 90 minutes of riding around on the trolley past all the landmarks. It’s the best way to see Santa Barbara if you’re short on time.
Santa Barbara Self-Guided Red Tile Walking Tour – Put on your comfiest walking shoes and get ready to see 17 different stops plus 22 adobes from the 1700s through the 1800s. It’s a tour for anyone that likes walking and appreciates architecture as an art form.
I didn’t always love visiting Santa Barbara, but in more recent years and the addition of The Funk Zone, it’s a town I’d love to explore more! Are you planning a visit soon? What are you most looking forward to doing? Let me know in a comment!
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Golden State Getaways wants to acknowledge that we live, operate, gather, and benefit everyday on the traditional stolen lands of several Indigenous peoples and nations including the Tongva (Gabrieleno), Kizh (Gabrieleno), Chumash, Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun), Ohlone, Awaswas, and Fernandeño Tataviam peoples who have stewarded the lands and waterways throughout their many generations in what is now the state of California.
I wanted to personally acknowledge these Indigenous people and nations and both their commitment and current contributions to the land with a donation to the American Indian College Fund because acknowledgment without action does not begin to address the systemic issues facing Indigenous people. If you feel as though you benefit from the land you’re living on or traveling to and you have the means, I kindly ask that you donate at least $1 to a Native-led organization such as the Native American Rights Fund or the American Indian College Fund.
Santa Barbara is on Chumash and Shmuwich (Barbareño) land. You can learn more about the Indigenous land you’re living on or traveling to by visiting the Native Lands website.
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