Santa Barbara Guide: Trip Planning Basics For The American Riviera

Red Tile Rooftops of Santa Barbara

Alan Tsai/Getty Images

Bookended by chaparral-covered mountains and the vast Pacific, brimming with red-roofed Spanish-revival architecture and palm-lined streets, and boasting a pleasing Mediterranean climate, flourishing wine industry, and endless outdoor pursuits, Santa Barbara is one of California’s best and brightest (and not just because it routinely clocks 300 days of sun a year) vacation destinations.

Less than 100 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, its appeal is as broad as its population, which ranges from the rich and/or famous to beach bums, college students, and families seemingly ripped from a Subaru commercial. People come to surf and sail, eat and drink, hike and shop, relax and resort.

Whatever is drawing you to the American Riviera, which includes neighboring Montecito and Goleta, this guide is the place to start your planning. It covers what to do and see, where to eat and drink, and the best places to stay as well as worthwhile day trips from the idyllic enclave. 

Best Things To Do

Kayaking in Channel Islands NP
Ben Herndon/Visit Santa Barbara 

Santa Barbara is no slouch in the points of interest department and thanks to the unique east-west coastline (the only one from Alaska to Cape Horn) causing year-round southern exposure and mostly pleasant temperatures, any time is a good time to come check them out. (Summer is technically the high season and therefore priciest.)

Spending time in the sand and surf should be a top priority. Some ways to accomplish this goal are: taking a sunset cruise or fishing charter, going gray whale-watching mid-February through May, scuba diving in Channel Islands National Park, kayaking to secluded coves and sea caves with Santa Barbara Adventure Company, learning to surf, biking along the beachfront, strolling down Stearns Wharf for seafood or souvenirs, or plopping down for an old-fashioned sun soak at Jalama, Butterfly, Refugio, Leadbetter, or Rincon beaches.

A trip is not complete without wandering down State Street, the shopping, dining, and entertainment hub, or hanging out in the Funk Zone. The latter was an industrial area before artists, surfboard shapers, and winemakers moved in and made it cool. Now it's home to ever-changing street art and some of SB’s best restaurants, galleries, and boutiques, and many of the 30 tasting rooms that make up the Urban Wine Trail.  

As one of the state’s oldest cities, sightseeing here is a journey through time. Start with sites related to the Chumash, the native people that predate Spanish exploration and whose settlements lined California's southern coast and islands including Painted Cave State Historic Park, the mosaic Syuxton Story Circle at West Beach, and a monument on the Syuxton village site at Cabrillo Boulevard and Chapala Street. The Spanish returned in the late 1780s and established a military fort, El Presidio, which has an interesting display on the Japanese community that resided on the site in the early 20th century, and the mission, which is still an active parish. Visit Santa Barbara curated a 17-stop walking tour to showcase downtown’s iconic architecture, 22 historic adobes, hidden passages, notable theaters, and charming courtyards. Be sure to climb the 80-foot bell tower of the county courthouse for the best red-roofs view in town. Former stagecoach stop, Cold Spring Tavern, still serves meals. Old Spanish Days Fiesta has celebrated the Spanish, Mexican, and Native American heritages every August since 1925.

It’s easy being green at the 78-acre Botanic Garden, which focuses on native plants, and Montecito's Lotusland, a magical reservation-only sustainable garden and a historical garden growing only vegetation true to the 1800s like olives and citrus.

Family fun can be had at the zoo, home to more than 500 animals and several behind-the-scenes experiences, the Museum of Natural History’s Sea Center where kids can touch live marine creatures, and at MOXI, which features interactive exhibits themed around math, science, technology, engineering, and the arts. Trek out to Goleta’s Ellwood Grove to see thousands of migrating Monarch butterflies.

Where To Stay

Ritz-Carlton Bacara
 The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara/Visit Santa Barbara

A wide range of accommodations from charming B&Bs to mega-chains is available. The Wayfarer is a cool budget option with both private rooms and hostel-style shared dorms with bunk beds. It’s also got a pool and giant Jenga. Hipsters gravitate to Kimpton’s The Goodland, an upcycled boho-chic Goleta motel with a vinyl lending library and woven rug wall art. 

If glamping is more your speed, reserve an El Capitan Canyon yurt, safari tent, or cedar cabin scattered throughout oak and sycamore groves alongside a seasonal creek. Stays are enhanced by wine tastings, concert series, and complimentary beach cruisers.

But if your bank account can swing it, check into a luxury hotel or resort because this town truly excels at high-end hospitality. A block from the sand, Hotel Californian, a mod-meets-Moroccan boutique opened in 2017, has a rooftop pool and a strong encaustic tile game. Set on a hillside that gently slopes toward two fairly secluded beaches, The Ritz-Carlton Bacara’s amenities—three infinity-edged saline pools, a 42,000 square-foot spa, and private patio fire pits with s’mores kits—help guests feel worlds away from civilization instead of 20 minutes from downtown. Set in a ritzy residential area in the hills, Belmond El Encanto oozes sophistication at every turn from its marble soaking tubs and lily pond to its personalized stationery guest gift, polo season experiences, and classic afternoon tea served in the alfresco lounge with panoramic views of the Pacific. In Montecito, the Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore, is still as glamorous as it was when Old Hollywood starlets and studio power players hid away in the Spanish colonial bungalows, lounged poolside cooled by the breeze blowing off Butterfly Beach, and danced the night away at the art deco-dent Coral Casino social club.

Where To Dine

fresh uni at Barbareno
Blake Bronstad/Visit Santa Barbara 

After a lifetime of traveling and eating the world, Julia Child made this her last home so it’s safe to say you won’t have trouble finding something good to eat. Especially if you go somewhere that makes good use of prominent local ingredients like spot prawns, uni, finger limes, strawberries, and broccoli.

As one should expect, quality Mexican food is easy to find. Child was partial to La Super Rica, a tiny taqueria with a permanent huge line that's also name-dropped in a Katy Perry song. Another tasty hole-in-the-wall is Mony’s, renowned for its salsa bar. Flor de Maiz is a sit-down affair with a cocktail menu, pretty patio, and even prettier food presentation. For instance, octopus ceviche comes inside a coconut. Not to be outdone, Santo Mezcal has five different ceviche starters.

Where you go for the most important meal of the day depends on your breakfast mood. Feeling healthy, head to Backyard Bowls for an acai, chia seed, kale, and spirulina fix. Wanna indulge? Scarlett Begonia’s adult beverages and house-baked goods are in order. Looking for liquid breakfast? Handlebar Coffee Roasters.

Not having a lot of time doesn’t preclude you from finding a satisfying nosh. Santa Barbara Public Market can fulfill many types of cravings in one food hall. Lucky Penny’s got wood-fired pizza and Tyger Tyger puts a SoCal spin on southeast Asian street food.

It’s easy to think global, beyond Mexico, and eat local. Mollie’s, an Oprah favorite run by an Ethiopian immigrant who trained in Roman kitchens, excels at fresh pasta and risotto. Bibi Ji offers modern Indian. Take your taste buds to the West Indies at Embermill, the vegetarian-leaning brainchild of a Barbadian transplant, or to Spain at the striking Loquita, where tapas all-stars like pan con tomate, patatas bravas, carpaccio, and a jamón trio are enjoyed under bougainvillea blooms.

Even upscale restaurants like Barbareño, named after an extinct Chumash language and inspired by the region's culinary history and traditions, Michelin-recognized Sama Sama Kitchen, and The Lark tend to be lively but casual hangs where jeans and sharing are perfectly acceptable.

Always leave room for a scoop, or three, from McConnell's, a homegrown gourmet ice cream institution founded in 1949.

Best Nightlife

Test Pilot
Rob Tran/Visit Santa Barbara 

SB is sleepy after sunset. Much of town is in bed by 10 so a majority of evening options revolve around drinking. Even then, last call at wine tasting rooms like The Valley Project, Deep Sea (has ocean views), or Pali Wine Co. and craft breweries like Night Lizard or Figueroa Mountain is long before midnight.

Slinging sophisticated sips are Pearl Social, a swanky lounge with fab wallpaper and negronis, and The Good Lion, a certified green business whose menu rotates weekly to utilize the freshest local fruits, herbs, and produce. Test Pilot is the go-to for tiki tipplers. Catch the game while imbibing at Patxi's Pizza or Camarillo’s Institution Ale. Shaker Mill’s Cuban-inspired concoctions and airy atmosphere are hard to beat.

If your heart is set on dancing or DJs, see what’s scheduled at downtown’s Indochine or tri-level nightclub Matrix SB. SOhO regularly books live music and appeals to an older crowd. Zaytoon pairs Lebanese cuisine and fire pits with hookahs and world music/jazz/ bands. National acts put on shows at Santa Barbara Bowl, a cozy outdoor amphitheater, and at the three historic theaters: Lobero, Granada, and Arlington. Get a theater fix at The New Vic, home of the Ensemble Theatre Company.

Popular Day Trips

Santa Maria Valley Wine Trolley
 Blake Bronstad/Visit Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara proper provides plenty of options to fill out an extended itinerary, but exploring farther afield can add adventure. Popular day trips in the region include:

• Wine Country: With every year, the region’s six federally-sanctioned AVAs found in Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, and Los Alamos Valleys seem to grow in production size and prestige. Besides winery tours and tasting rooms, cities like Los Olivos, Buellton, and Santa Ynez offer great shopping, farm-to-table eats, lavender and other farms, and kid-friendly stops like OstrichLand. The Chumash run an elegant resort and casino here.

Solvang: It’s part of wine country, but worth a separate mention. Founded in the early 1900s by Danish immigrants, the village is now chock full of windmills, traditional bakeries, gabled roofs, and Christmas shoppes. There’s even a Little Mermaid statue and a Hans Christian Andersen Museum. Danish Days is held in September.

Ventura: A bigger beach town that is the gateway to Channel Islands National Park and has a taco trail.

• Santa Maria BBQ: The central coast’s signature style of barbecue was developed at mid-19th century ranch feasts. Dry-rubbed meat, especially the unique tri-tip cut of cow, cooked over hot oak coals in earthen pits. Things are a tad more civilized these days at restaurants, many of which have been around for decades, in Santa Maria (Shaw’s) and neighboring towns like Nipomo (Jocko’s) and Orcutt (Far Western Tavern). If available, get linguica links, a type of sausage introduced by Portuguese immigrants. Score dry-rubbed delights without hitting the road at Mylestone BBQ, which pops up Sundays at Goleta’s Draughtsmen Brewing Company. 

Lompoc: Less-crowded coastal community with its own burgeoning wine scene, flower fields, a festival celebrating said blooms, and a 40-strong mural project. It’s the place to watch West Coast rocket launches given its proximity to Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

Pismo Beach: Classic seaside boardwalk town known for long white beaches, dune buggy-ing, and all the clams you (or Bugs Bunny) can eat. Don’t skip chowder in a bread bowl at Splash Café.

Ojai: Popular with the new bohemian crowd, this foothills town has art galleries, great hikes, agri-tourism, wellness experiences, and the world’s largest independently owned outdoor bookstore, Bart’s.

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