Santa Barbara may seem like a small coastal city on the Pacific Ocean, but it’s full of attractions and delicious places to eat and drink, not to mention the exciting activities and things to see.
While a short stop here on a California west coast road trip would be great, you should actually plan for a few days as there’s plenty to do that will not disappoint.
Here’s your fun 3 day itinerary for the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California.
SANTA BARBARA TRAVEL GUIDE
Santa Barbara is considered the American Riviera for its coastal vibes, fine wine, and attraction of artists and luxury travelers. It’s the perfect romantic getaway. This 3 day fun guide affords you plenty of time to explore this beachfront jewel of the Pacific Coast.
Santa Barbara is located 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles, making it easily accessible from so many southern California cities such as Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego. Also considered the southernmost city of northern California, making it easily accessible from Carmel, Sacramento and San Francisco.
How To Get To Santa Barbara
The nearest airport to Santa Barbara is Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA). Santa Barbara Airport is about 8 miles (12 km) to downtown. You can also fly into Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) and take a scenic coastal drive to get to Santa Barbara. You can book your flight from right here.
Amtrak operates a train from Burbank to Santa Barbara every 4 hours and the journey takes about 2 hours from each train station. Or Central Coast Shuttle operates a bus from Los Angeles Airport to Santa Barbara every 4 hours. The ride is also about 2 hours.
If you are doing a United States southwest road trip, Santa Barbara is easily accessible as a five hour road trip from my home base in Las Vegas and along California’s famous Highway 101.
Getting Around Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is a small seaside city which makes it easy to put on your trainers and walk to different parts of town, including the beach, cultural sites, galleries and cafes.
If you choose to drive, there’s plenty of parking and the first 90 minutes are usually free. After that, there’s a nominal hourly rate for parking.
Santa Barbara has a good number of places to where you can rent scooters, bikes, and family cruisers. I recommend Wheel Fun Rentals, which was conveniently located on property at my hotel.
When To Visit Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara’s temperature is mild all year so there isn’t really a bad time to visit. July and August are perfect for beach activities as the warmest months of the year, but be prepared to pay for it with higher prices and larger crowds.
But it’s always a good time for celebrity spotting. Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Lowe, Harry and Meghan, and Julia Childs all have called the Santa Barbara area home.
DAY 1 IN SANTA BARBARA
Start off by heading to downtown Santa Barbara. I fell in love with the whitewashed Spanish colonial style architecture amidst the looming palm trees everywhere. Coupled with the Mediterranean climate made for a good start of walking, eating and window shopping…and eating again.
Speaking of eating, Helena Avenue Bakery, on Helena Avenue near Yanonali Street, will have all the carbs (and other stuff) to get your day going! A great option is the buttermilk biscuits or the Elvis. And breakfast is served all day!
Stroll down the main street, State Street, and you’ll find unique shopping such as consignment stores, international rugs and farmer’s markets.
On Victoria Street, right off State Street, you will run right into the Santa Barbara public market. A premier food hall where you’ll find some of the best restaurants and wine bars. It’s one of the best places to experience a little of everything all in one perfect spot. There’s indoor and outdoor seating with picnic tables.
Pop in to La Arcada courtyard for additional restaurants, retail boutiques and art galleries. As you stroll, save room for heavenly delights like McConnell’s fine ice cream and Renaud’s Patisserie‘s pastries.
California was in Phase 3 of reopening when I visited. This meant that although restaurants were open, all dining had to be done outdoors. I especially enjoyed it because Santa Barbara’s Mediterranean weather was perfect AND downtown State Street was closed to vehicle traffic to make room for patio dining. Pedestrians were able to social distance in the downtown area streets.
For lunch, stop by Mizza pizza. Located right outside of La Arcada. Fresh locally sourced produce, homemade dough for pasta and pizza ingredients and homemade sauce. Pair it with suggested wine. I would also suggest the tiramisu where you can taste the layers of mascarpone and espresso drenched lady fingers. I stopped by another day and only ordered this as take away.
It’s worth it to take some time to take a small detour off State Street and head to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse on Anacapa Street. This beautiful building is complete with a sunken garden (great for weddings), mural room and free access to the clock tower that gives you the best panoramic views of Santa Barbara over the red tiled roof.
A great way to end the day is catching the sunset where State Street runs into Stearns Wharf while strolling down the boardwalk or sipping on some wines at Deep Sea Tasting Room. A great place to end the day is at dinner near here at Brophy Bros for fresh fish and oysters with ocean views.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Although Santa Barbara is known for its wine and vineyards, visitors flock here just as much for its local artisans beer and breweries. But if you are into wine, you can’t go wrong with the Urban Wine Trail. And speaking of trails, Follow the Julia Child food trail, which you can download the map here. It takes you to all her favorite spots, including her favorite place, the MUST TRY cheap eats small Mexican joint, La Super Rica!
DAY 2 IN SANTA BARBARA
Now that you’ve spent some time wine tasting, it’s time to spend the day at the sandy beaches soaking up the sun and getting salty.
First grab a cup (and a bag) of rich and flavorful coffee and pastry to go at Handlebar Coffee Roasters and head to East Beach, West Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach, Leadbetter Beach or Butterfly Beach. All these beaches are popular with locals, dog friendly and and some within walking distance of each other.
But they each have their own uniqueness, such as Arroyo Burro Beach has a dog washing station and Butterfly Beach offers craft cocktails. Leadbetter Beach is popular for surfing. So feel free to beach hop.
You can also make your way out to Channel Islands National Park for kayaking and exploring sea caves, snorkeling or even hiking. Dubbed as California’s Galapagos with its plethora of ecological diversity, no wonder its a national park.
You can also charter a private boat from Santa Barbara harbor to tour you around the coast of Santa Barbara and the surrounding area. I used Celebration Cruises, owned by a husband and wife team who have been providing tours for nearly two decades. You bring your own food and drink. Lucky Penny wood-fired pizza was our happy choice. We had a great time being ferried on the waters while Captain Fred related the history of Santa Barbara and the who’s who of celebrity boats parked in the marina.
Santa Barbara is a perfect place for whale watching, especially during migrating season from November to April. But you can take a tour year round.
Tickets usually aren’t that expensive and the tour lasts most of the day. I just wasn’t comfortable doing a group tour, so I opted to skip the whales (sadly) and charter a private boat to spend some hours on the ocean.
Then spend the rest of the day biking the coastline and head to the Funk Zone, the hipster area from Stearns Wharf to Highway 101, for dinner and late cocktails. For both, I recommend Santo Mezcal, for modern Mexican cuisine and out of this world cocktails. They observe Taco Tuesday and happy hour. Two of my favorite things.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Because of its rich Spanish history, Santa Barbara has some of the best and authentic Mexican food in California!
DAY 3 IN SANTA BARBARA
Now it’s time to head out to the vineyards. Santa Barbara has the perfect climate for wine, even better than Napa, some would argue. For this, you should head to the foothills of the Santa Ynez mountains in Santa Ynez Valley, which is about 45 minutes outside of Santa Barbara.
Two notable wine experiences are at Sunstone Winery, if you want to feel like you are in an organic rolling green landscape of Tuscany. And the famous Cupcakes and Wine Tour featured on television. The perfect time is early fall for these tours.
I threw in a private horseback riding tour at Circle Bar B to get unparalleled views of Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez mountains. If you are doing a few days of wine tours, there’s also a sprawling ranch here with private cabins.
Be sure to check out Viator for discount bookings to these activities.
If you have time, head back to downtown to eat at Sama Sama Kitchen for fresh Indonesian inspired small plates including fresh seafood, local farm offerings and live music.
WHERE TO STAY IN SANTA BARBARA
My first choice was the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara for its beauty and privacy. However, the resort is under renovation until 2021 (guess I’ll have to return), so I opted to stay pretty centrally located to downtown and the beach. Check out my review of the Hilton Santa Barbara here.
Another best option if you’re looking for romantic hotels is the secluded San Ysidro Ranch. These romantic cottages are surrounded by botanical gardens, and have private dining, wine tasting, and a spa.
I have used and suggest Booking.com to search for the best hotel prices.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SANTA BARBARA
Being so close to Santa Barbara, I’m not sure why I never visited before. Santa Barbara has some of the best views, beautiful beaches, lots of good food and is easy access from Vegas. A good reason to come back is to stay at the Four Seasons and experience the other nearby beautiful coastal cities.
I hope you enjoy this guide, I definitely under ate during my time in Santa Barbara. If you have any suggestions on where to drink and dine, including neighborhoods close by, I’d love to know in the comments below!
Find out what else to do in or around Santa Barbara:
- Why stay at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort
- How to Spend 24 Amazing Hours in Las Vegas
- Where to Find the Best Fall Foliage in the US
**NOTE: I visited in 2020 and California was under coronavirus-related restrictions and utilizing phases to reopen. Santa Barbara was in a less restrictive tier. With that said, if you do decide to travel, please be safe.
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