Known as the “American Riviera” and located on the longest south-facing stretch of coastline on the West Coast, Santa Barbara is nestled between the steeply rising Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Santa Barbara has perfect weather, beautiful buildings, excellent bars and restaurants, and activities for all tastes and budgets. This makes Santa Barbara a must-see place for visitors to Southern California. Santa Barbara aspires for a casual yet fashionable elegance. Just take a look at the well-dressed pedestrians on State Street to comprehend the city’s understated indulgence. And although some of America’s budget-friendly favorites — like Motel 6 and the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin — have their origins here, Santa Barbara’s boutique shops and world-class resorts have a reputation for making a dent in your vacation savings. If you can afford the price tag, this quiet, seaside paradise might just be the ideal California retreat for you.
Santa Barbara prides itself on being a city that maintains a small-town feel, but sill maintains the refined atmosphere of a European city. The city draws from its history as a colony with Spanish revival architecture, with a mix of laid-back vibes of beachgoers, a sophisticated art scene, and a vibrant wine country.
Enjoy the many wonderful beaches of Santa Barbara, (you’ll find a list here), then come visit Santa Barbara. Start planning your trip….read on with our Santa Barbara Travel Guide!
Weather (Best Time to Go)
The best time to visit Santa Barbara is from March to May or from September to November. Temperatures are fairly mild year-round, hovering in the 60s and 70s, but traveling in early spring or fall ensures you won’t be fighting crowds and rates will be less expensive. Summer welcomes most of the city’s annual events and it’s also peak season if you’re looking for a beach vacation, but you’ll have to contend with more crowds. If you’re traveling during the winter months, make sure to pack an umbrella because Santa Barbara sees most of its rainfall between December and February. No matter when you decide to visit, pack layers as the as morning and late evening temperatures tend to be much cooler than the daytime highs.
During December – February, daytime temperatures range from highs in the mid-60s and drop to lows in the mid-40s at night, which is freezing by Santa Barbara standards. This season is also when the city sees most of its precipitation, which means it’s not ideal for sightseeing or lounging on the beach. But, this also means prices are likely the lowest. Spring (March – May), is one of the best times to see Santa Barbara, before the crowds of summer descend on the city. Temperatures are still mild with highs in the upper 60s and the city will see plenty of sun, making it ideal for seeing sights like the Santa Barbara Zoo or the botanical gardens. You’ll find pleasant temperatures during June – August averaging in the 70s and hardly any rainfall, summer is peak season in Santa Barbara. This is the time of year when most of the annual events occur in the city, bringing with them more crowds and elevated hotel prices. This is also the time of year locals call “June Gloom” — the foggy season. Crowds have thinned out by early September but high temperatures still hover in the upper 60s to mid-70s, making fall a great time to visit the city. Room rates will also have dropped from their summer highs. Just watch out for the Santa Ana winds, which can be strong this time of year.
Getting Around Santa Barbara
The best way to get around Santa Barbara is on foot. Most of the main attractions, shops and restaurants are all located within a 3-mile radius in the downtown area. Santa Barbara is also known for its green transportation options and car free program that provides walking maps and alternative means of transportation like the various bus and shuttle system around the city.
Santa Barbara prides itself on being accessible by foot. The city center is built up around the historic architecture and sites that make Santa Barbara unique, including art galleries and museums. State Street is the hub of activity with open-air shops and restaurants that you can meander through on your way to the coastline. If your feet do get tired, you’ll also find pedicabs in the downtown and waterfront areas that can accommodate two adults as well as a few small children. Prices usually vary depending on the length of the ride and number of passengers.
To explore the suburbs or the Santa Barbara Wine Country northwest of the city, you’ll need your own set of wheels. However, some tours companies do include transportation. If you decide to rent a car or drive to Santa Barbara, you’ll find plenty of public parking in the downtown area and by the waterfront. What’s even better is the first 75 minutes are free of charge (and it’s only $1.50 for each hour after that). You can also buy prepaid parking cards that are available in $30 increments.
Known for its green attitude toward transportation, the small city has multiple public transportation options. The MTD Santa Barbara operates 25 routes that run all over the city. Keeping with the city’s love of eco-friendly public transportation, MTD also offers a Downtown-Waterfront electric shuttle that takes passengers from State Street to the waterfront attractions like the zoo and Santa Barbara Harbor. Standard fare for bus routes is $1.75 one-way while the shuttle routes are only 50 cents one-way. Schedules vary depending on line, check out MTD’s website for more information. Trolley tours are also available to see the sights from the Old Santa Barbara Mission to East Beach.
How To Save Money in Santa Barbara
Take the Bus
Santa Barbara is very walkable. If you don’t want to walk, you can hop on the public shuttle which will take you from downtown to the waterfront and the zoo. The cost is only 50 cents one way.
Skip the Shopping
State Street is known for its boutique and specialty shops. The prices carry a hefty price tag though. To save some money, get your souvenirs anywhere but here.
Snack at Farmers Markets
There are a lot of farmers markets throughout Santa Barbara. So grab a fresh snack from the locals while strolling downtown.
Things Not to Miss
Santa Barbara’s most famous avenue, State Street cuts through downtown and leads right onto Stearns Wharf. It’s nearly impossible to miss with its shops, art galleries, theaters and museums like the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. You can grab a ride on the electric shuttle for 50 cents, but most travelers and locals recommend you walk to truly appreciate the ambiance.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Built in Spanish-Moorish Revival style in 1929, the courthouse features hand-painted ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers and tiles from Tunisia and Spain. On the 2nd floor, step inside the hushed mural room depicting Spanish-colonial history, then head up to El Mirador, the 85ft clock tower, for arch-framed panoramas of the city, ocean and mountains. You can explore on your own, but you’ll get a lot more out of a free, one-hour docent-guided tour: 2pm daily, plus 10:30am Monday to Friday.
Mission Santa Barbara
California’s ‘Queen of the Missions’ reigns above the city on a hilltop perch over a mile north of downtown. Its imposing Ionic facade, an architectural homage to an ancient Roman chapel, is topped by an unusual twin-bell tower. Inside the mission’s 1820 stone church, notice the striking Chumash artwork. In the cemetery the elaborate mausoleums of early California settlers stand out, while the graves of thousands of Chumash lie largely forgotten. The mission grounds also feature La Huerta, a garden that showcases Spain’s agricultural influence on the California landscape, housing plants dating back to when the mission was established.
There are three major beaches in Santa Barbara: Leadbetter, West and East. While Leadbetter has the harbor and West Beach is home to the fireworks on the Fourth of July, East Beach is the best stretch to catch some rays without being mobbed by crowds. The shoreline may still fill up more on the weekends but East Beach is a bit more removed from State Street and the downtown area than the other beaches, offering more space to stretch out or take a walk along the sandy shores. You may have to protect yourself from the occasional rogue volleyball though, as there are more than a dozen sandy courts here. Locals and visitors agree East Beach is the best strand of ocean in Santa Barbara, with its clean sands and free parking. There is also a full-service restaurant, East Beach Grill, right on the beach if you work up an appetite.
Santa Barbara Zoo
Small (so it’s perfect for young kids) Santa Barbara Zoo has 146 species covering all creatures great and small, including several not found in many other zoos. Asian elephants Little Mac and Sujatha have been together here since 1972 and are hugely popular, as are the adorable meerkats. Don’t miss the chance to see endangered California condors – probably your best bet for seeing them in the whole state – and giant anteaters. The antics of the Humboldt penguins always raise a smile.
Things to Do
Santa Barbara Adventure Company
They offer Santa Barbara kayaking & Channel Islands kayaking, surf lessons, wine country tours by van or bike, mountain biking, rock climbing and team building programs. Our knowledgeable and friendly guides offer exceptional service and share with you a side of the Santa Barbara area few visitors ever get to experience. For more information call 805-884-WAVE, or visit them on the web at Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
Lovewater Surf School
Lovewater Surf School, established in 2011, is a locally owned surf school serving Santa Barbara with surf lessons, after-school surf programs, summer travel surf camps, and international surf adventures. With a foundation of excellence and customer service, their experienced team is committed to inspiring a love for surfing through our surf lessons, after-school surf coaching and nonprofit community events. For more information call 805-636-1552, or visit them on the web at Lovewater Surf School.
Cal Coast Adventures
They offer stand up paddle board Lessons in Santa Barbara as well as Rentals, kayak rentals and tours, Santa Barbara Road Bike Rentals and Tours, Full Suspension Mountain Bike Tours in the mountains above Santa Barbara and in Santa Ynez, Mountain Bike rentals are available as well, kiteboarding lessons, boogie board rentals, surf lessons at many of Santa Barbara’s amazing beaches and surf board rentals as well. For more information call 805-628-2444, or visit them on the web at Cal Coast Adventures.
Condor Express Whale Watching
There is no better way to see marine wildlife in Southern California than to see it in the ocean from our spectacular boat! The eco-friendly Condor Express gives you a unique opportunity to see Southern California marine wildlife from a completely different angle. Since 1973 the Condor and more recently the Condor Express has been a part of the Santa Barbara waterfront cruising the Santa Barbara Channel. They offer a wide variety of cruises. For more information call 805-882-0088, or visit them on the web at Condor Express Whale Watching.
Captain Jack’s Santa Barbara Tours
Voted #1 Wine Tasting Tour in the Santa Barbara News Press “Readers Choice Award” two years in a row. They also offer Sunset Cruises, Whale Watching, Beer Tasting Tours, Kayak Tours, Horseback Riding and much more. For more information call 805-564-1819, or visit them on the web at Captain Jack’s Santa Barbara Tours.
Best Rated Restaurants
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Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant
Brophy Bros. has been a Santa Barbara institution since opening in 1986. The picturesque waterfront setting is definitely a major part of the appeal. You can’t beat the harbor and mountain views and there’s not a bad seat in the seafood-centric house. Brophy’s is always packed during peak hours but given it’s open from 11:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. daily you can usually get in without a wait if you time your visit strategically. For more information call 805-966-4418, or visit them on the web at Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant.
Bouchon Santa Barbara
If you’re seeking an intimate, fine dining experience and access to some of the region’s best wines, look no further than Bouchon Santa Barbara. Established in 1998, bouchon (no relation to Thomas Keller’s) helped to put Santa Barbara’s wine country cuisine on the map with its French-accented, seasonal California fare. You’ll always feel like a VIP here, thanks to proprietor Mitchell Sjerven’s warm hospitality. For more information call 805-730-1160, or visit them on the web at Bouchon Santa Barbara.
The Lark instantly became a “new classic” when it opened in the Funk Zone in a converted, historic fish market building. Busy and buzzy since day one, this expansive farm-to-fork restaurant is stylish, relaxed and 100% delicious. The seasonal menu changes frequently enough to keep it interesting month after month. Family-style portion sizes are excellent value for the price point and their craft cocktail program is another tasty draw. For more information call 805-284-0370, or visit them on the web at The Lark.
La Super Rica Taqueria
The most casual and budget-friendly eatery on our list is La Super Rica Taqueria. This humble taqueria on Milpas Street was beloved by the late Julia Child, who couldn’t get enough of the authentic, flavorful Mexican fare. She raved about it in national media interviews and took her visiting food critic and chef friends to taste the goodness for themselves. The consistent lines out the door are a testament to her endorsement and the quality of the food, which is indeed worthy of a pilgrimage. For more information call 805-963-4940, or visit them on the web at La Super Rica Taqueria.
Arigato is Santa Barbara’s premier sushi spot. Locals are crazy about it and you don’t have to be a sushi or seafood fan to appreciate the elevated cuisine—the menu also features a variety of meat and poultry entrees and they work serious magic with vegetables, too. Arigato doesn’t take reservations so plan accordingly and trust it’s well worth the wait! For more information call 805-965-6074, or visit them on the web at Arigato.
Best Beach Bars
Padaro Beach Grill
Overlooking Santa Claus beach, a local favorite, the Padaro Beach Grill boasts a park-like outdoor dining room. A large sandbox encourages the kids to play while grownups indulge in refreshing beers and local wines. Enjoy fresh salads, savory burgers and sinfully rich milkshakes that are blended by hand only after you place your order. Try the shrimp salad or one of the 100% prime chuck burgers. Live bands are common on the weekends. For more information call 805-566-9800, or visit them on the web at Padaro Beach Grill.
Shoreline Beach Cafe
The Shoreline Cafe is one of the very few places in Santa Barbara, perhaps the only in fact, where you can sit at a table and be served breakfast, lunch or dinner with your feet in the sand – right on the beach! Order some fish tacos and a cocktail or bucket of Coronas and watch the waves. The Shoreline is family and group friendly, but be prepared for a wait at peak eating times on warm days. Tables on the sand usually have the longest wait, but there are patio and bar seats too. There is also a walk-up window with a limited menu for shakes and to-go bites. Paid and free parking in the lot right out front. For more information call 805-568-0064, or visit them on the web at Shoreline Beach Café.
The Boathouse is a Santa Barbara seafood restaurant and bar with the best location in town… it’s right on the beach. Tucked away in a quiet part of town and facing Hendry’s beach, this is a great place to go for a romantic date, family dinner or birthday celebration. Enjoy fresh surf and turf on a beautiful patio that’s sunny during the day and nicely heated at night. Local seafood is served whenever possible. Fresh Santa Barbara catches include Spiny lobster and Dungeness crab. Brunch, lunch and dinner served daily. Happy hour is from 3 p.m. to close Sunday through Thursday, 8 p.m. to close on Fridays. For more information call 805-898-2628, or visit them on the web at Boathouse.
The bar at Brophy Bros.’ incessantly busy seafood restaurant is two-sided. One side faces the bartenders, looking across the romantic balcony tables and out into the harbor. This is where you ideally want to be, but it may require a wait of an hour or more. The other side gives you only occasional access to the person making your drink, looks out over the interior dining room, and places your back squarely opposed to the almost-panoramic ocean view. For more information call 805-966-4418, or visit them on the web at Brophy Bros.
If you’re looking to indulge in a nibble and a cocktail somewhere exceedingly beautiful and a little bit fancy, look no further than the Ty Lounge in the Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore Santa Barbara. This elegant bar boasts high ceilings and sweeping ocean views. Classic cocktails, seasonal specialty drinks and hard-to-find wines by the glass comprise the beverage menu. The delightful patio overlooks the Coral Casino and Butterfly Beach – truly one of the finest cocktail hour views in Santa Barbara. For more information call 805-969-2261, or visit them on the web at TY Lounge.
Blue Sands Inn
Located just steps from Santa Barbara’s famous East Beach and within walking distance to great restaurants, the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Wharf, and the famed Funk Zone, the Blue Sands Inn is centrally located in one of Santa Barbara’s most sought after neighborhoods. Bike rental is available at this inn and the area is popular for biking. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Blue Sands Inn.
The Hotel Californian is the new center of the Santa Barbara waterfront. Incorporating the façade of the original 1925 Hotel Californian, this 121 room seaside destination features a rooftop pool and event deck providing panoramic views of the coastline and the Santa Ynez Mountains. Located steps from the beach, one block from Santa Barbara Amtrak Station and adjacent to Santa Barbara’s vibrant Funk Zone, the Hotel Californian includes a luxurious Turkish-inspired spa, fashion boutique and fresh and distinctive dining options, together with a best-in-class ballroom, event lawns and decks and unique meeting spaces for weddings and group events. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit Hotel Californian.
The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara
This property is a 10-minute walk from the beach. Located in Santa Barbara in the region of California, 17 miles from Solvang, The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara features an outdoor pool and spa center. The hotel has a hot tub and sauna, and guests can enjoy a meal at the restaurant. Private parking is available on site. There is a 24-hour front desk, an ATM, a hairdresser’s, and a gift shop at the property. Guests can enjoy various activities in the area, including biking and hiking. The hotel also provides bike rental and car rental. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Inn
The newly re-imagined Spanish Mediterranean boutique merges classic elegance and coastal luxury with 70 beautifully appointed rooms. Sink into a lounge chair by the heated outdoor pool and enjoy flickering gas lanterns and a fire pit. The oceanfront terrace is great for enjoying cocktails, Italian fare and the Pacific Coast sunset. Included is a modern fitness center and a comfortable event venue accommodating up to 80 guests. You are just moments from downtown Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Mountains, white sand beaches, wine tours, fashionable boutiques and world-class dining — beginning with the hotels Convivo Restaurant. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit the Santa Barbara Inn.
Harbor View Inn
This property is 1 minute walk from the beach. Spa Beaumontia, a full-service spa experience, is available on site at this hotel. Rooms feature a flat-screen TV and a minibar. Stearn’s Wharf is less than a 5 minute walk away. The modern rooms include terry cloth robes and free WiFi. A safe and a work desk are also provided. A swimming pool and fitness center, including a sauna, are available for guest relaxation at the Harbor View Inn. A business center and concierge service is both featured for maximum convenience. Shops are in the hotel. Several on site dining options are available at the Harbor View Inn. A poolside bar and grill and State Street Coffee are both featured to give guests quick and easy dining options. Eladios Restaurant and Bar, offering intimate and comfortable dining, features sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For more information, pricing, or to reserve your room, visit The Harbor View Inn.