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!
Santa Barbara Weather – When to Visit
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 high.
Santa Barbara Attractions
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.
Santa Barbara Tours & Activities
Private Kayak Tour of Santa Barbara
This private Santa Barbara kayaking tour lets you explore the marine life and landmarks of Santa Barbara Harbor and the spectacular coastline on the ‘American Riviera’ along one of four different routes. Take in views of rugged shoreline cliffs and the Santa Ynez Mountains, and be on the lookout for dolphins and seals. This 1.5- to 2.5-hour tour is led by an experienced kayak guide who points out natural features and customizes the speed of the ride according to your skill level. Read more about Santa Barbara Harbor Private Kayak Tour
Santa Barbara Trolley Tour
All Aboard Santa Barbara’s Original & Longest Running Trolley Tour and Charter Services See the American Riviera in 90 minutes or jump off and on ALL DAY! Santa Barbara sightseeing at its finest on the original, fully narrated Santa Barbara Trolley Tour. Read more about Santa Barbara Trolley Tour
Santa Barbara Electric Bike Tour
Explore Santa Barbara by electric bike, covering plenty of ground on a morning or afternoon excursion. Ride your easy-to-use beach cruiser to key landmarks such as State Street and the Santa Barbara Mission as your knowledgeable guide shares the city’s history during this Santa Barbara bike tour. Have your camera ready as you glide along the renowned Pacific coastline. Numbers are limited to five people, ensuring personalized attention and a small-group experience. Read more about Santa Barbara Electric Bike History and Sightseeing Tour
Santa Barbara Wine Tour with Picnic Lunch
See and taste the best the Santa Barbara coast has to offer on this leisurely paced wine tour and picnic lunch. You’ll sip on a variety of wines and visit at four local wineries in the area. Knowledgeable local guide will pick you up anywhere in the Santa Barbara area to begin the tour. Feast on a delicious picnic lunch at one of the wineries while enjoying the scenery of the rolling coastal mountains. Read more about Santa Barbara Wine Tasting Tour, Picnic Lunch
Downtown Santa Barbara Food Tour
Walk right past the crowds on this food tour in Downtown Santa Barbara. Your guide leads the way as you pop into seven different restaurants and two wine tasting rooms. Savor dishes and drinks locals have made a staple in their everyday lives, and learn about other places to eat and drink during your stay. If you’re a gluten-free eater or a vegetarian, this tour can also easily cater to your needs. Read more about Santa Barbara Downtown Food Walking Tour with Wine Tasting
Best Santa Barbara Restaurants
Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant $11 – 30
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 $31 – 60
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 $31 – 60
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 Under $10
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 $31 – 60
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 Santa Barbara 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.
Best Santa Barbara Hotels
Harbor House Inn
17 One-of-a-kind studios with kitchens located one short block from West Beach nestled between Stearn’s Wharf & the Santa Barbara Harbor. Room amenities include free wireless internet access and complimentary use of 3-speed cruising bicycles. Beach chairs, towels & umbrellas are also available at no charge. For guests enjoying 2 or more nights, a complimentary Welcome Breakfast Basket is included upon arrival.
Simpson House Inn
Simpson House Inn offers guests an array of room amenities including a flat screen TV, a refrigerator, and air conditioning, and getting online is possible, as free wifi is available. The hotel offers a 24 hour front desk, a concierge, and room service, to make your visit even more pleasant. The property also features free breakfast. Guests arriving by vehicle have access to free parking. At Simpson House Inn, your comfort and satisfaction come first, and they look forward to welcoming you to Santa Barbara.
Spanish Garden Inn
Experience the jewel of luxury boutique Santa Barbara hotels. Spanish Garden Inn offers a sophisticated Spanish-Mediterranean inspired design, quality amenities and close attention to personal service. The hotel epitomizes the vitality of the City and honors its tradition by recreating the history, romance and intrigue of Spanish Colonial Santa Barbara.
Featuring Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and modern Moorish themed interior décor from celebrity designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, the Hotel Californian is the new center of the Santa Barbara waterfront. Located in the heart of the Funk Zone, the Hotel Californian features paseos, gardens, fountains, open plazas and a unique rooftop pool and event deck.
Belmond El Canto
Belmond El Encanto, a Forbes Five-Star luxury hotel, has been meticulously restored to capture all the romance and glamour that endeared it to both the local Santa Barbara community and visitors alike. As part of Belmond, this is the company’s first excursion to the American west coast. Ninety-two quintessential, California-styled suites and bungalows dot the lush, terraced grounds featuring seven-acres of gloriously landscaped gardens with sweeping views of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean. Original architectural features have been lovingly restored, including the historic, trellis-lined Arbor and Lily Pond. Modern additions to the expansive outdoor zero-edge pool and a new beautifully appointed boutique spa enhance the journey for today’s luxury-seeking guest.