Santa Barbara, known as the “American Riviera,” offers a variety of fun things to do on your visit. This small, elegant beach-side city is just a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, so it’s a perfect choice for a quiet weekend getaway. And if you’re driving the California coastal route, Santa Barbara is an ideal place to spend a day or two during your road trip.
Plan your itinerary to be as active or as laid back as you want. Fill your days with bicycle rides and hiking or lazing on the wide sandy beaches. Or experience a combination of activity and rest that will leave you relaxed and calm.
I had the privilege of spending a few years in Santa Barbara during my college days. And I’ve returned many times to soak in the vibrant atmosphere. On every visit I discover new things to do. Here are some of my favorites, including a few I found on a recent trip. Using this list, you can put together your own itinerary and fill your days with delightful memories.
Start with a Walk Along the Harbor and Fisherman’s Walk
With all styles of boats bobbing in the water, this is the heart of the city. Santa Barbara grew up around the fishing industry. Today, the harbor shelters recreational vessels and a “museum” of early fishing boats.
Follow the wide, paved path called The Fisherman’s Walk toward the ocean. You’ll find restaurants, a maritime museum, and kayaks for rent. Walk to the end of the land, the turn left onto the breakwater.
From the end of the breakwater, take in the view across the water to the wharf. Surfers love the cove here. The Lost at Sea Memorial commemorates those who perished. Look at the city hugging the curve of the land and the foothills framing the scene.Retrace your steps back to the harbor and you can connect to the sidewalk that leads through the sand to Stearns Wharf.
Stroll Along Iconic Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf is a symbol of Santa Barbara. It’s suffered four major fires since it opened in 1872. It’s been closed for as long as nine years. But after every disaster, the city rebuilds and reopens the destroyed restaurants and shops. Today, the Wharf thrives.
The Wharf is home to three restaurants serving fresh seafood, a handmade ice cream shop, and souvenir stores. If you want to fish, stop in the tackle shop for your gear. And the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center provides a look at the sea life beneath the Wharf using interactive exhibits.
Bike Along the Shoreline
If you are looking for a short bike ride, you’ll enjoy the paved path along the beachfront from the harbor past Stearns Wharf and on beyond along East Beach. You can rent bikes near Stearns Wharf on State Street at Wheel Fun Rentals. Surreys for the family are also available to pedal around. Electric bikes are a new offering and are a great way to venture to more of the city without tiring.
Check Out One (or More) of the Seven Beaches
Yes, Santa Barbara boasts seven beaches, each with a distinct personality. East Beach is in the center of the town in the Stearns Wharf area. Relax on the expanses of sand or the lawns further back from the water. Palm trees line the edge of the beach for a dose of atmosphere. You can also walk or ride a bike along the paved path that traces the beach.
Butterfly Beach is to the south of East Beach across from the elegant Four Seasons Resort. This is a dog-friendly beach, so if you have your pup with you, it’s a great choice for a seaside walk. Cement stairways lead from street parking down to the sand. Butterfly beach is known for spectacular sunset views.
Ledbetter Beach is most popular for stand-up paddle boarding and surfing.
Explore the Historic Downtown
Many fun things to do in Santa Barbara can be found in the bustling downtown area. Santa Barbara is compact enough that you can walk from the beach area into the downtown. If you prefer to drive, you’ll find street parking as well as parking lots that charge a small fee. You are aiming for the area bordered by East de la Guerra, Santa Barbara Street, East Sola, and De la Vina Street.
First, walk either direction on State Street, where many quaint shops and restaurants are located. Stop at a sidewalk café for lunch or a cold drink. Wander through antique stores. Or shop at name-brand stores.
What makes Santa Barbara’s downtown fascinating is all the alleyways that lead to courtyards. I love to go to La Arcada Courtyard, with its art galleries, stone fountain, and tile stairways. Sit on the bench with Ben Franklin. Notice the ship’s canon hanging high on a wall. The ambience of Santa Barbara is here.
Tour the Santa Barbara Courthouse
The lovely Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a must-see for its beauty. It is a fully functioning courthouse, built in 1929, with Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. The white adobe walls topped by red clay roofs sit amid lush gardens of palms and pines. Notice all the graceful arches. Inside, the impressive tile patterns are designed in the style of those in Italy and Spain.
The Courthouse is just two blocks off State Street on East Anapamu.
Find the Remnants of the Presidio
The remnants of one of the four forts in early California history lie in Santa Barbara. Follow the signs to this State Park just off State Street downtown. Go inside the Presidio to learn about life long past.
Trace Santa Barbara Architecture with the Red Tile Walking Tour
Santa Barbara’s Spanish architecture is on display in the downtown area. One way to see outstanding examples is to follow the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour. Download the map before your visit to check out the tour. You can cover all or part of the route. It starts at the County Courthouse and covers 12 downtown blocks, going past the Presidio to end up back at the Courthouse.
Have Fun in the Funk Zone
The Funk Zone lies between lower State Street and the waterfront and is fast becoming one of Santa Barbara’s most fascinating neighborhoods. What once was a manufacturing and industrial area is now filled with artists and winemakers. This 13-block zone is home to restaurants, boutiques, galleries, hotels, and wine tasting rooms. From goat yoga to craft classes to surfboards for sale, you’ll find it in the Funk Zone.
Indulge in Wine Tasting
Speaking of wine tasting, Santa Barbara is a wine connoisseur’s delight. Vineyards line the hills around the city, and wineries make it possible for you to sample the fruits of their labors as you sightsee. The Funk Zone is a center for wine tasting. Downtown, the historic El Paseo courtyard is home to the Grassini Family Vineyards tasting room as well as Jamie Slone Wines, which specializes in small-production, handcrafted wines.
Get Your Nature Fix at the Botanic Garden
Venture up into the foothills just three miles from downtown, and you’ll find the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. This 78-acre preserve will surprise you with the wonders of nature.This place is at the top of my list of fun things to do in Santa Barbara, and I only just recently went here for the first time. I was missing out!
Enter through a meadow filled with flowers and continue on the path to the redwood grove. Explore the winding trails shaded by tall trees. The grove, planted 95 years ago, is relatively young for a stand of redwoods. It’s a successful experiment in growing these trees outside their native habitat, which lies further north.
The Botanic Garden contains more than 1,000 plants, trees, and flowers, and all are native to the State of California. Features of the gardens include an authentic Japanese Teahouse and Garden and the historic Mission Dam, built here in 1807 to divert water to the nearby Santa Barbara Mission.
As you wander, be sure to admire the views at different places in the gardens, especially on the Porter Trail. Take in the Santa Ynez Mountains in one direction, then look out to the ocean and on a clear day you can see the Channel Islands.
Allow a half day to explore the gardens. And dogs are welcome here!
Stop at the Old Mission Santa Barbara
Travel back in time to the early days of Spanish settlements here when you visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara. This is one of a string of missions founded by Spanish Franciscans along the California coast. It’s known as the “Queen of the Missions” due to its beauty. Founded in 1786, it features double bell towers and an expansive front lawn, set against a backdrop of foothills. Look out from the front for a view of the nearby ocean.
Where to Stay
Santa Barbara welcomes visitors and offers an abundance of accommodations. I’ll point out two that I recommend because they are one-of-a-kind hotels rather than part of a chain. The friendliness of the proprietors and the family-like ambience appeal to me. And they are both in a neighborhood where locals walk their dogs and stop to say hello. These are a block apart, near the harbor. You can walk to the waterfront, Stearns Wharf, and downtown from these hotels.
The Beach House Inn
The Beach House Inn is a cozy hotel that boasts a welcoming garden with lots of chairs and tables scattered about. In the evening, we sat outside and visited with other guests as the sun set. Some rooms have full kitchens and others have a microwave and refrigerator. If you are traveling with a larger group or meeting other families in Santa Barbara, the suite options make this a great choice.
The Mason Beach Inn
Newly redecorated, the Mason Beach Inn is ideal as a base for exploring the city. It offers some suites, plus a pool. This Spanish architecture is appealing, with white stucco buildings and red tile roofs. Palm trees and other greenery surround the hotel. A patio with colorful umbrellas provides a place to relax outside your room.
Where to Eat
Here are two of my favorite restaurants to frequent when I’m in Santa Barbara.
Chad’s for Breakfast
Chad’s somehow snagged a prime location right across from the waterfront with amazing views. And the breakfast foods, especially the pancakes, are yummy. Sit outside on the patio under a perky yellow umbrella and savor your food and morning coffee as you gaze at the beach. You can’t go wrong with a breakfast at Chad’s.
Los Agaves for Dinner
Mexican food restaurants are so popular in Santa Barbara, and this is the best! Los Agaves cooks up contemporary Mexican dishes such as their enchiladas filled with fresh halibut and shrimp, red pepper, onions, and topped with smoky chipotle sauce. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.
And an Ice Cream Treat
Top off your day with an ice cream from McConnell’s. You’ll easily find the shop because a line of people will be coming out the door. And the wait is worth it. McConnell’s has served handmade ice cream for 70 years, and it’s a creamy delight. No preservatives or fillers, just flavors like salted caramel and Dutchman’s chocolate.
Two locations in Santa Barbara scoop up the goodness: 120 State Street and 728 State Street.
THESE BOOKS AND GUIDES WILL HELP YOU PLAN A FANTASTIC TRIP!
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