How to Take a Santa Barbara Trip for a Day or a Weekend

Red Tile Rooftops of Santa Barbara

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If you're thinking about making a trip to Santa Barbara, you're going to one of California's oldest, most historic and most beautiful towns. The town's south-facing coastline gives it a "banana belt" climate that's more moderate and sunnier than most California coastal cities.

Red-tiled roofs, warm-colored plaster walls, arched facades, and enclosed garden courtyards characterize the local architecture.

In the early 1900s, more than 1,200 movies were made in Santa Barbara during a 10-year span, and the town was a favorite spot for legendary film stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Today's stars still plan a Santa Barbara trip for an easy getaway, and so can you.

Is a Santa Barbara Trip a Good Idea for You?

Santa Barbara is a good place for going to the beach, romantic escapes, and relaxing weekends.

  • Families enjoy walking or biking along the waterfront, going to the beach and visiting the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center.
  • History-lovers will find that Santa Barbara is one of California's oldest cities, with its Spanish mission and military Presidio still standing.
  • For those who like to shop, State Street is one of the state's great shopping streets, with lots of local boutiques and the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center.
  • If you live in Los Angeles and are sick and tired of traffic, Santa Barbara may not be your best choice for a relaxing weekend or day trip. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Highway 101 can look an awful lot like the 405 at rush hour.

If you saw the news coverage of the late 2017 Thomas Fire and the early 2018 mudslides near Montecito, you could easily conclude that there’s nothing left to see from Ventura to Santa Barbara. Despite those sensation news clips, most of US Highway 101 and all of the area’s most popular tourist attractions were untouched.

Traveling between Ventura and Santa Barbara on Highway 101, you might see some scorched hillsides and blackened trees, but if you’re driving on a clear day you’re likely to be too busy staring at the ocean and the Channel Islands offshore to notice. And the highway department did such a good job of cleaning up the mud that you’d scarcely know that it ever flowed across the highway.

Best Time to Go

Thanks to its protected, south-facing location, Santa Barbara has some of California's best weather any time of year. Nevertheless, it's more likely to be rainy in winter than at other times of the year.

Santa Barbara gets even more crowded in summer. Local hotels fill up around UCSB's orientation, homecoming, and graduation.

Fun Things to Do

There are many fun things to Do in Santa Barbara, including:

  • The Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show is held every Sunday along Cabrillo Blvd. The quality of goods is high, the vendors friendly, and the people-watching excellent. It also happens on Saturdays of major holiday weekends.
  • State Street shopping: Follow State Street away from the waterfront, and you'll find a lively street scene with good shopping, dining, and people-watching.
  • Rent some wheels: It's easy to find places for renting skates, bicycles, and surrey bikes - and everyone loves taking them along the waterfront.
  • Mission Santa Barbara: One of California's oldest and most authentic Spanish missions, this is a good place to get a look at the state's history.

Side Trips and Nearby Towns

  • Ventura is the jumping-off spot for trips to the Channel Islands, but it also has a lovely harbor and charming downtown.
  • Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang: Solvang offers Danish-style ambiance and a charming downtown full of shops of every kind. The surrounding valley and the town of Los Olivos are great places for a drive.
  • Cold Spring Tavern: People have been coming to this former stagecoach stop for a long time - and it's still a fun place for Sunday brunch or lunch. Take CA 154 north toward the mountains. When the road begins to level off, watch for a small sign on the right side of the road. If you cross the beautiful San Marcos Bridge, you've gone just a little too far. While the tavern hasn't changed much, its clientele has. You'll find everyone here from bikers to stock brokers.
  • Channel Islands National Park encompasses the islands you'll see offshore. They're each unique and home to many species found nowhere else.

Annual Events

Even if you don't have a student in school here, you may want to check the university calendar so you can avoid crowds during their big events.

You may want to plan your Santa Barbara trip to attend a special event. Some of the most popular annual events include: 

  • I Madonnari Italian Street Painting Festival is held in May. Street painters take over the pavement in Mission Plaza to create large-scale colorful masterpieces.
  • Santa Barbara Summer Solstice Celebration: The town celebrates the year's longest day with a parade and festival. To make it easier for everyone to attend, they often hold the event on the weekend closest to June 21.
  • California Wine Festival is held in July. California wine tasting at it's best, with local cheeses, artisan bread, olive oils and more.
  • Old Spanish Days Fiesta: This August event celebrates Santa Barbara's origins as a Spanish mission and fort.
  • Epicure.SB is held in October. A month-long culinary celebration that includes art, food, and music.

Tips for a Happy Trip

Santa Barbara's hotels get filled to capacity almost every weekend. If you show up without reservations, you'll wish you hadn't.

Parking in Santa Barbara can be a hassle. Leave your vehicle parked at your hotel and take the Downtown-Waterfront Shuttle that runs along State Street and the Waterfront instead.

Is It Romantic?

The glitterati has been going on romantic getaways to Santa Barbara since the early twentieth century, on and off screen. It's got plenty of places for a romantic stroll or a candlelight dinner - and you can't beat the secluded cottages at San Ysidro Ranch for a little private tryst.

Where Is Santa Barbara?

Santa Barbara is located 95 miles from Los Angeles, 219 miles from San Diego, 420 miles from Sacramento, and 337 miles from San Francisco.

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