Santa Barbara is not your typical Southern California town. And, in actual fact, this beautiful US city marks the end of Central California! However, upon visiting, one can soon be forgiven for mistaking “SB” (as the locals call it) for Southern California because it too offers sunny days, beautiful beaches and quintessential California charm. Here’s a quick guide to the best things to do in Santa Barbara, including insider tips and the perfect itinerary that you’ll want to steal!
Why you must visit Santa Barbara on your next California trip!
Santa Barbara is the perfect California-weekend destination because it has a little bit of everything. The city is just small enough to feel charming but big enough to be a cultural destination with museums and nationally ranked dining experiences that you certainly won’t want to miss!
And this is all without forgetting to mention that the former fishing town is often dubbed as the gem of the ‘American Riviera’ thanks to its picture-perfect nature. You should also know before you go that this Californian destination can easily be experienced on a highlights tour from the stunning city of Los Angeles (LA) like this one.
Due to its proximity to the University of California, the city also has the benefit of having a distinguished university close by, expanding the cultural offering and giving the city a little bit of a“college town” feeling- AKA a vibe that is pretty much quintessentially American!
Truth be told, quite possibly the best thing about a weekend in Santa Barbara is the sense of relaxation that comes with a visit. The minute I arrived I felt welcomed into the relaxed pace of life – unhurried to do anything, I was able to take my time and really get to know the wonderful city. For a wonderful and easy time, read on for some suggestions on how to enjoy the perfect weekend in this Californian city…
Best things to do in Santa Barbara
#1 Take a Boat Cruise
Hands down, one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara is to experience the city by sea. I arrived in Santa Barbara on a Friday afternoon. Immediately I felt pulled to the Santa Barbara Harbor. From there it was easy to hop on a boat for a sunset boat cruise. The Santa Barbara piers are full of boats, giving a nautical nod to the Pacific Ocean.
Sailing is an excellent way to see the California coastline for those of us less inclined to surf or paddleboard, although there are plenty of opportunities for water sports as well- just be sure to remember your wetsuit! Check here for the best of Santa Barbara waterfront activities.
#2 Go Out in the Funk Zone
Yes, you read that correctly: the Funk Zone!! This area of Santa Barbara is a great place to go for food and drinks. Stay out late enough and you too can feel like a university student again, as it is one of the favourite districts of the collegiate population.
In all seriousness, the Funk Zone offers a great selection of breweries, restaurants and bars to choose from. There is, of course. the aptly named Funk Zone Patio (220 Gray Ave) for outdoor drinks and meat-focused fare. Otherwise, head to Test Pilot (211 Helena Ave) for your favourite fancy Tiki cocktails and Seven Bar & Kitchen (224 Helena Ave) when you really want to take the night to the next level.
#3 Stroll down State Street
State Street is one of the main boulevards in SB. Along State Street, you’ll soon discover many restaurants, retail stores, antique shops and art galleries. All in all, this thoroughfare is a prime example of classic Santa Barbara architecture as most buildings were built in a uniform Spanish Colonial Revival style inspired by the old missions built by the Spanish during the colonial period.
The Old Mission and El Presidio fort are particularly famous examples of this style of architecture, though it’s worth noting that most of downtown Santa Barbara has the red roof tiles and whitewashed adobe walls that are so synonymous with the design.
#4 Take in the Art of Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has an affluent community that contributes to an ever-growing art scene. For a traditional museum experience, I visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Museum of Art was founded as early as 1941 and boasts an expansive permanent collection as well as a variety of temporary exhibits.
For a more modern experience, you can also visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara. What’s particularly interesting about this Santa Barbara attraction is that the museum is non-collecting, ensuring a thrice a year rotation of artworks, and a guarantee that no two visits will ever be the same.
Elsewhere in SB, there are also many galleries in downtown SB for a more casual viewing experience. For those Western History buffs, the Carriage and Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara offers an interesting look into the past of the Wild West.
#5 Go to the Beach!
It wouldn’t be a true trip to any coastal California town without a stop (or two) to the beach. My favourite beach of all was a visit to Hendry’s Beach, and it may or may not have been because Hendry’s BoatHouse (2981 Cliff Dr), a small restaurant on the beach, offers lobster rolls, fish tacos and Crab Louie salads for lunch!
Other great beaches in SB include East Beach, Leadbetter Beach and Arroyo Burro Beach County Park. For another perspective of Santa Barbara from the sea, then you may well consider booking this wildlife and history Kayak tour. Taking place over two hours, on the tour you’ll soon learn more about the wildlife, as well as the history, of this Californian city.
#6 Enjoy Food, Food and more mouthwateringly delicious Food all across town!
As with any trip, I like to prioritize food (and you probably will too should you take the time to explore the best of Santa Barbara). Exploring the culinary scene is a great way to get to know any new place and SB is no exception. Luckily, there’s no shortage of good food in SB!
A few of my favorites include Lilac Patisserie, 1017 State St (for gluten-free pastries so tasty that you would think there was gluten), Loquita Santa Barbara, 202 State St (for amazing tapas and paella), McConnell’s Ice Cream (for the ice cream the locals swear by) and the well-reviewed Santa Barbara Public Market, 38 W Victoria St (for an elevated food hall experience).
#7 Takes the time to explore the surrounding County
Los Padres National Forest, California
While Santa Barbara proper has more than enough to offer, there are other amazing spots close by that are worth exploring. After all, SB sits right next to Los Padres National Forest, an amazing national park with some amazing hiking and trails. Discover more about this special destination here.
Also close by is the smaller town of Montecito, which makes for the perfect day trip from Santa Barbara and can easily be explored over the course of several hours. Made popular by Oprah and other Hollywood celebrities, Montecito boasts high-end shopping and dining. Other highlights of Montecito worth checking out include the botanical garden that is Lotusland and the stunning Butterfly Beach.
Los Olivos, California
Of all the best things to do in Santa Barbara (and close by), the day trip to Los Olivos is for the wine enthusiasts! Los Olivos is a short drive over the mountains and is home to some famous wineries that will satisfy any curious nose. For those who are looking to enjoy the best of wine in the region without having to worry about car rentals, check out a guided tour like this one.