Santa Barbara Travel Guide
Welcome to Santa Barbara travel guide! Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is known for its Mediterranean climate, Spanish Colonial architecture, and beautiful beaches. This article provides everything you need to plan the perfect Santa Barbara vacation.
Santa Barbara Overview
Santa Barbara is a coastal city located about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It has a population of about 92,000 residents. The city enjoys a balmy Mediterranean climate year-round with an average high of 70°F.
Santa Barbara is known for its Spanish-style architecture, thriving arts scene, beautiful beaches, Channel Islands National Park, wine country, and outdoor recreation.
The city has a relaxed, upscale vibe with stylish boutiques, art galleries, gourmet restaurants, and luxury resorts.
Some of Santa Barbara’s top attractions include the historic Santa Barbara Mission, vibrant State Street shopping district, Funk Zone arts neighborhood, Santa Ynez Mountains, and miles of pristine beaches. The city also serves as gateway to the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park.
Now let’s talk about the best times of the year to visit.
Best Time to Visit Santa Barbara
One of the greatest things about Santa Barbara is that its Mediterranean climate means comfortable weather year-round. However, certain times offer better conditions for certain activities. Here’s an overview:
Advantages & Disadvantages of Summer
- Warm sunny weather with highs 75-85°F
- Beach season is in full swing
- Many outdoor concerts and events
- Peak tourist season so hotels are expensive
- Beaches can get very crowded
- Risk of morning fog and drizzle
Best for: Beach, water sports, festivals, outdoor dining
Advantages & Disadvantages of Fall
- Less crowds and lower hotel rates after Labor Day
- Pleasant 70-80°F temperatures continue
- Whale watching season begins
- More potential for rain as fall progresses
Best for: Hiking, biking, sightseeing, whale watching
Advantages & Disadvantages of Winter
- Least crowded time with best hotel deals
- Whale watching is excellent
- Chance to see annual monarch butterfly migration
- Increased rain (though still quite mild)
- Water is colder for beach
Best for: Storm watching, whale watching tours, hotel deals
Advantages & Disadvantages of Spring
- Wildflower displays in local mountains
- Transition to warmer weather by May
- Easter and spring break bring more events
- Spring break spike in crowds/prices
- Continued chance of rain in early spring
Best for: Wildflower viewing, festivals and events
Top 10 Things to Do in Santa Barbara
There’s no shortage of fun activities in Santa Barbara. Here are 10 of the most popular things to experience:
1. Visit the Santa Barbara Mission
The centerpiece of Santa Barbara is the historic Santa Barbara Mission, established by Spanish Franciscans in 1786. Visitors can tour the church, museum, and sprawling grounds which also serve as a cemetery and park. Be sure to check for docent-led tours.
Extra Tips: Come in the morning to attend Mass and hear the choir sing. Visit both the “Old Mission” and “New Mission” buildings for the full experience. The large Moreton Bay Fig tree by the cemetery is a Santa Barbara landmark.
Tours & Things to do hand-picked by our insiders
2. Shop and Dine on State Street
Stroll down bustling State Street downtown for some of the best shopping, restaurants, street performers and people watching in Santa Barbara. Popular stores include Sur la Table, Anthropologie, Paseo Nuevo mall, and more. Stop to snack at a cafe patio or sit down for a meal at an upscale eatery.
Extra Tips: Rent an electric bike to cover more ground without walking miles. Pop into the historic Arlington Theatre for upcoming show listings. Walk to Stearns Wharf afterwards for ocean views.
3. Relax on the Beaches
Santa Barbara is home to over 20 miles of beautiful beaches! The most popular strands are busy East Beach and West Beach near downtown, serene Butterfly Beach in Montecito, family-friendly Goleta Beach by the airport, and large Carpinteria State Beach. Besides swimming and sunbathing, visitors love stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and watching sunsets on the sand.
Extra Tips: Bring a picnic or stop at a nearby cafe for beach grub. Stroll along the paved beachfront path in either direction for kilometers of ocean views. Check tide charts to aim for an extra low tide reveal a bit more sand.
A very popular Santa Barbara activity is to head out on a whale watching tour. From late December to early April, thousands of gray whales migrate past on their way from Alaska to Baja. You might also spot humpback whales, dolphins, sea lions, and more marine life. Choose from companies offering small rafts, big boats, sailboats, and kayaks.
Extra Tips: Bring binoculars and dress in layers for changeable ocean breezes. If you have motion sickness, request Dramamine or a remedy. Our favorite tours are through Blue Water Rafting and Santa Barbara Adventure Company. You can also try whale watching from a scenic overlook like Hendry’s Beach or Butterfly Beach.
5. Tour the Santa Barbara Courthouse
The impressive Santa Barbara County Courthouse is viewed by many as the most beautiful government building in the nation. This Spanish-Moorish masterpiece features hand-painted ceilings, wrought ironwork, tiles, murals, and its signature 85-foot clock tower. Visitors can climb the stairs for panoramic views or explore the Sunken Gardens on the backside.
Extra Tips: Free 60-minute docent tours run daily to learn about the artistic details. There’s a small museum on the 2nd floor. Visit around 3-5 pm to hear the Westminster chimes and watch the clockwork figures parade out when it strikes 5. Photography is allowed almost everywhere.
6. Check out the Funk Zone
Just inland from Stearns Wharf and the ocean lies the hip Funk Zone neighborhood. This revitalized warehouse district has exploded with over two dozen urban wineries, taprooms, art studios, galleries, boutiques shops, and hip bars and eateries. It’s the coolest scene in Santa Barbara with a youthful artistic vibe. Stroll and taste your way around the blocks closest to the water.
Extra Tips: Many wineries offer free tastings while others charge a small fee. Try Municipal Winemakers, Area 5.1, and Riverbench. Check event listings for open studios, music, and First Thursday gallery nights from 5-8 pm.
7. Hike in the Santa Ynez Mountains
Nature lovers should spend time hiking in the steep and rugged Santa Ynez Mountains that form the city’s scenic backdrop. Popular trails lead into the Los Padres National Forest or the many parks with ocean views, swimming holes, waterfalls, and patches of oak and sycamore trees. Pack a picnic or do an active adventure like canyoneering, rock climbing, or mountain biking.
Extra Tips: Our favorite hikes are Seven Falls, Inspiration Point, Rattlesnake Canyon, and the Santa Ynez River trail in Paradise Reserve. Outdoorsy visitors can also try camping, fishing, or stargazing away from city lights. Be prepared for poison oak, ticks, snakes and wildlife.
8. Visit the Santa Barbara Zoo
Families love spending time at the small but excellent Santa Barbara Zoo located near East Beach and the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. This compact zoo makes use of lush botanic gardens and forested canyon slopes to showcase 500+ animals. See everything from lowland gorillas to red pandas along winding paths during an intimate wildlife experience.
Extra Tips: Arrive early since the zoo isn’t very big. Check schedules for popular creature talks and feeds. Other nearby family activities include the Chase Palm Park Carousel, MOXI hands-on science museum, Natural History Museum, and family-friendly beach walk to the historic Stearns Wharf.
9. Tour the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Reopened after extensive renovations, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art holds an impressive collection of international works ranging from antiquities to modern masterpieces. Wander through for classic paintings, contemporary installations, Asian art, sculpture. Special exhibits bring in high profile shows. Also enjoy the scenic location right across from the ocean near West Beach.
Extra Tips: Admission is free on Sundays and every Thursday 5-8 pm. There’s an excellent museum store for gifts. Combine with wine tasting across the boulevard at community arts project The Waterline or seafood dinner on Stearns Wharf across the street.
10. Take a Food Tour
What better way to experience Santa Barbara’s thriving food and drink scene than on a small-group food tour? Knowledgeable local guides will take you to about 4-5 locally loved eateries around downtown or Funk Zone for tastings and VIP treatment. Between noshing on award-winning dishes, you’ll learn all about the city and its culinary culture.
Extra Tips: Our favorite companies are Santa Barbara Food Tours and Savor Santa Barbara Food Tours. Private tours are available too. Bring your appetite and walking shoes! Pro tip: Come hungry but don’t eat right before, pace yourself, and share dishes if possible.
Other Top Santa Barbara Attractions
With so much to do in Santa Barbara, it helps to prioritize the activities and landmarks that match your interests. Here are numerous other popular attractions and things to do:
- Boating & kayaking
- Cycling & electric bike tours
- Fishing & sportfishing
- Horseback riding
- Sailing charters
- Scenic railroad trips
- Stand up paddleboarding
- Surfing & boogie boarding
- Tide pooling
Museums & Historical Sites
- Karpeles Manuscript Library
- Casa de la Guerra Adobe
- El Presidio State Historic Park
- Lotusland Botanical Garden
- MOXI hands-on museum
- Natural History Museum
- Old Mission Santa Inés
- Santa Barbara Historical Museum
- SB Maritime Museum
- UCSB Ocean & Aquarium
Arts & Entertainment
- Arlington and Lobero Theaters
- Charles Chaplin Museum
- Community arts studios
- Opera Santa Barbara
- Outdoor summer concerts
- Summer Solstice Parade
Nearby Communities & Attractions
- Farmers markets
- Montecito mansions & Butterfly Beach
- Summerland antique shops
- Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary
- Goleta beaches & pier
- Andrée Clark Bird Refuge
- Paseo Nuevo Mall
- La Arcada Plaza
- Funk Zone artisan boutiques
- Urban Wine Trail
- Pacific Surf Shop
- Heartloom Sea Glass
Spas & Wellness
- Bacara Spa
- The Ritz-Carlton Spa
- Spa del Mar
- Healing arts like yoga & meditation
- Hiking, biking & beach walks
Tours & Sightseeing
That covers the top things to see and do. Now let’s move onto the food!
Best Restaurants in Santa Barbara
Visitors quickly learn that Santa Barbara’s restaurant scene is outstanding. Downtown especially offers block after block of high quality dining options from casual cafes to Michelin-starred venues. Here are favorites in some top categories:
Breakfast & Brunch
- Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro – beloved for French pastries & croissants in funky space
- Jeannine’s Restaurant – local favorite for huge portions & homemade baked goods
- Savoy Cafe & Deli – quality breakfast & sandwiches in cozy garden setting
- Crushcakes & Café – fluffy pancakes & eggs plus tasty lunch options
- Los Agaves – nice sit-down Mexican with 200+ tequilas on State St
- La Super-Rica Taqueria – super casual counter joint famous for authentic tacos & more
- Lilly’s Tacos – popular Santa Barbara taco chain with outdoor picnic tables
- Brophy Bros – fun vibe for quality seafood & views on Stearns Wharf
- The Lark – inventive high-end plates & great cocktails in Funk Zone
- Enterprise Fish Co – stellar simply prepared fresh fish menu & oyster bar
- The Palms – charming decades-old joint for fish & chips near East Beach
- Olio e Limone – refined Italian in historic adobe near the Mission
- Tre Lune – homemade pasta, pizza, focaccia & tiramisu on State Street
- Renato’s – charming Santa Barbara institution open since 1989, Northern Italian cuisine
- Arigato Sushi – inventive rolls served in modern downtown setting
- Sushi|bar – quality traditional & modern options near Paseo Nuevo Mall
- Sushi Teri – decades-old favorite for innovative & classic sushi, Paseo Nuevo
Vegan & Vegetarian
- Mesa Verde – totally plant-based Mexican restaurant with great tacos & nachos
- Madison – popular vegan comfort food & brunch in Funk Zone since 2013
- Lotusland – healthy salads & bowls made from farm fresh local ingredients
Beyond this list, you’ll also find Thai, Vietnamese, Greek, Indian, burgers, cafes, bakeries, and pretty much any craving covered somewhere in the city. Now let’s explore accommodation options.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara offers diverse lodging choices from value motels to luxury oceanfront resorts. Here’s an overview of popular options in great neighborhood locations:
Waterfront: The best place to stay in Santa Barbara for oceanfront resort living is right on Cabrillo Boulevard overlooking East Beach and Stearns Wharf. Some favorites are Hotel Californian, Bacara Spa, The Fess Parker, and Harbor View Inn.
Downtown: For the most walking access to State Street shopping, museums and restaurants choose a full service hotel downtown like the recently renovated Hyatt Centric, Canary Hotel, Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, or historic Spanish Garden Inn.
Funk Zone: To stay right in Santa Barbara’s trendiest urban wine tasting and arts district, book a room at the Hotel Indigo, Presidio Inn, or Inn On Summer Hill.
Bed & Breakfasts
Intimate bed and breakfasts and small inns provide a peaceful respite from busy areas. Recommended B&Bs near downtown are Agave Inn, Brisas del Mar, Eagle Inn, and Simpson House Inn. The plushest celebrity-favorite options are San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito and Belmond El Encanto.
Santa Barbara has every type of vacation rental imaginable from private guest houses to multi-bedroom mansions. Rentals offer more space for families or groups and add amenities like kitchens. Check companies like Vacasa, TurnKey, HomeAway, and Airbnb for deals. Focus your search in neighborhoods like The Mesa, Samarkand, and Hidden Valley if you want some peace.
Nature lovers can camp right in Santa Barbara at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area or 45 minutes inland at Los Padres National Forest. Brochures also list private campgrounds around the region. If traveling in an RV, try Wheel Fun Rentals.
Next up: transportation around town.
Getting Around Santa Barbara
Once settled, visitors have these main options for getting around:
The Santa Barbara MTD provides public bus transit all across the city and to adjacent communities. Routes converge on downtown with stops every few blocks along State Street. The electric Downtown Shuttle runs every 10-15 minutes between Stearns Wharf and the Mission for easy access to attractions. Other public transport includes the scenic Wine Country Express buses and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains.
Taxis and rideshares like Uber and Lyft offer point-to-point rides across the city. Fares run $15-25 for most trips. Pedicabs roll down State Street offering fun local interaction during short rides. These options are especially useful for nights out drinking when you shouldn’t drive.
Scenic beachfront bike paths connecting each seaside neighborhood make cycling a breeze. Many hotels provide bikes for guests. Rent speedy electric bikes if you don’t want to pedal up hills. Get all geared up for wine tasting at numerous “Urban Wine Trail” stops allowing bikes.
Hoofing it on foot is one of the best ways to properly see Santa Barbara. Downtown and the Funk Zone are extremely walkable along mostly flat streets. Just expect some elevation changes and stairs exploring hilly districts like the Mission and Mesa. Make sure to bring comfy shoes!
Now let’s explore some popular day trips nearby.
Day Trips from Santa Barbara
One benefit of Santa Barbara’s central location on the California coast is easy access to surrounding destinations. Here are some favorite side excursions:
Just 40 minutes north lies the charming Danish village of Solvang. This wine country town transports visitors to Europe with its windmills, bakeries and distinctive architecture. Come for boutique shopping, abundant wine tasting rooms, and cozy Scandinavian cuisine. We recommend the Solvang Restaurant for classic dishes like meatballs and aebelskiver pancake balls.
Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country
The roads connecting Santa Barbara to Solvang pass countless vineyards and wineries dotting the scenic Santa Ynez Valley. Throughout Los Olivos, Solvang, and Ballard, you’ll find over 100 boutique wineries and tasting rooms beckoning oenophiles. Sip your way along Foxen Canyon Wine Trail or contentedly pick a handful of favorites for the day. This region produces some of California’s finest Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Known as a haven for artists, free spirits and nature lovers, the bohemian community of Ojai offers a complete change of pace from Santa Barbara. Make the hour drive inland to stroll this peaceful village, meditate at the Pink Moment at dusk, hike waterfalls and hot springs, try olive oil tastings, browse galleries, and unwind at a luxury spa resort.
Channel Islands National Park
Getting out on the water to the rugged northern Channel Islands means world-class nature and wildlife experiences. Visitors can snorkel with seals and sea lions, kayak sea caves, camp overnight, and explore wild landscapes home to 145 animal species and 600 types of plants. Bookboat shuttles and adventures from Ventura or Oxnard harbors for full or half day trips from SB. Popular islands to visit are Anacapa, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa. Just be ready for changeable island weather and seas.
That sums up our Santa Barbara travel guide! Hopefully this gives you all the best things to see, do, eat and experience in this idyllic SoCal escapes. Let us know if you have any other Santa Barbara travel questions.