Santa Barbara is a charming beach town on the Central Coast of California with the Santa Ynez Mountains as a dramatic backdrop against the sparkling pacific ocean. Downtown Santa Barbara offers Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs that reflect the city’s Spanish colonial heritage.
Boutiques and restaurants offering local wines line State Street and the hip downtown Funk Zone area. Sterns Warf and Santa Barbara Pier draw tourists from all over the world who come to enjoy the beauty of Santa Barbara from these whimsical vantage points.
Santa Barbara or “SB” as the locals call it, is my favorite town, and that is saying a lot considering I’ve traveled across the world to over 70 countries. I went to college at UC Santa Barbara and after graduation, I lived here for over 10 years teaching surf lessons and enjoying this idyllic beach town.
Santa Barbara is one of the best towns on earth (in my opinion), because it is small, pristine, beautiful, and unpretentious. There are great hotels and excellent restaurants, the people are nice – and there is so much to do and see!
Here’s my Santa Barbara bucketlist guide with all my must-do activities to help you make the most of your visit to this little slice of paradise.
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
Before we get into everything there is to do and see in Santa Barbara let’s help you find an awesome hotel.
All great vacations start with excellent accommodations. There are an array of wonderful hotels to choose from in Santa Barbara – and also some that are awful. To help you make the most of your visit (and ensure you don’t get stuck in a crappy hotel), I’ve rounded up the best hotels in Santa Barbara for every budget.
You can also check out my Best Hotels In Santa Barbara Guide for more information on each hotel listed here.
Best Luxury Hotels In Santa Barbara
These are 6 of the best luxury hotels in Santa Barbara:
- Rosewood Miramar Beach
- San Ysidro Ranch
- Hotel California
- The Bacara Resort & Spa
- The Belmond El Encanto
- The Kimpton Canary Hotel
Best Mid-Range Hotels In Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is home to many great mid-range hotels. Here are 7 of the best mid-range hotels in Santa Barbara.
- Harbor View Inn – Book the newly remodeled North Wing
- Hotel Virginia
- Mason Beach Inn
- Hideaway Santa Barbara
- Hilton Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara Inn
- Hotel Milo
Best Budget Hotels In Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is not a budget destination but it is possible to find affordable hotels. Here are 4 of the best budget hotels near the beach, within walking distance to the pier, harbor, Funk Zone, and State Street.
1) Lunch At Brophy Bros
When I arrive in Santa Barbara I usually head straight to Brophy Bros for the best seafood in town with an amazing view. Nothing says Santa Barbara more than eating fresh seafood with a beautiful view of the harbor and the Santa Ynez Mountains.
If I’m by myself, I’ll snag a seat at the bar. Or I’ll meet friends and sit at a table outside on the terrace overlooking the sea. The spicy oyster shooters (with Grey Goose), are a must try and their clam chowder is hands down the best I’ve ever had.
And if you occasionally indulge in bread and butter, this is the time. The sourdough bread at Brophy’s Bros is worth it.
2) Sterns Wharf
Sterns Warf (aka the pier) is one of my favorite places to take my daughter when we visit Santa Barbara. There is a great candy shop on the pier as well as the Santa Barbara Sea Center where your child can pet sharks and stingrays and see jellyfish and seahorses up close.
There are also several good restaurants on the pier. Longboard’s Grill, above the Harbor View Restaurant, is good for a casual lunch with kids or cocktails with friends. And the Shellfish Company at the end of the pier serves up excellent seafood in a casual setting overlooking the sea.
There is also wine tasting with stunning views at Deep Sea Wine Tasting Room on the pier. Family travel tip – if you have your kids in tow, get them ice cream before you head upstairs to the tasting room and they might just let you finish an entire glass of wine in peace.
3) Shopping On State Street
No trip to Santa Barbara is complete without a day of shopping on State Street. State Street is the main street that runs through downtown where you will find great shopping as well as good restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and art galleries.
Paseo Nuevo is a beautiful open-air mall on State Street where you’ll find familiar high-end brands and local boutiques. And La Arcada Plaza, just up a few blocks, is another beautiful open-air mall that is home to locally-owned boutiques and restaurants.
My daughter (who is 6 as I type this) absolutely loves 1114 Sports Bar & Arcade in La Arcada Plaza. She loves the arcade of course but the real attraction is the water fountain pond in front that is filled with turtles!
There are at least 30 turtles, of all ages and sizes, swimming around in this fountain pond. You can sit at a table right next to them and your kids will be entertained while you eat.
My daughter always begs me to take her here and no matter how many times we go she never seems less amazing at the sheer amount of turtles happily swimming around and basking in the sunshine.
4) Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail
The Urban Wine Trail offers wine tasting in the heart of Santa Barbara, all within blocks of downtown and the beach. Yes, you read that right wine lovers, there is a wine trail all through downtown Santa Barabra and you can walk it!
The Urban Wine Trail is made up of 20+ wineries, primarily in the Funk Zone, which you can walk or bike to. Tasting fees range from $10 to $50 dollars and typically include five to eight wine tastings.
5) Wine Tasting In Santa Ynez Valley
If you ask my daughter, she will tell you, “Mommy loves wine,” and she’s not wrong. Santa Barbara County is home to some of the best wineries in California which is another reason SB is the best.
Many of the tasting rooms on the Urban Wine Trail have vineyards that are located about 45 minutes North-East of Santa Barbara so if you want to visit actual vineyards, I recommend booking a wine tasting tour up in Santa Ynez Valley.
This 7-hour Wine Tasting Tour is highly rated and includes a picnic lunch and pick-up at your hotel.
6) Dinner At Lucky’S
Lucky’s in Montecito is my favorite place to have dinner in Santa Barbara. They have the best martinis (with blue cheese stuffed olives), amazing steaks, and just thinking of their abalone makes my mouth water.
Make reservations in advance, and arrive early before dinner to have a drink at the bar where you’ll probably find yourself sitting next to Jack Nicholson or another famous celebrity.
7) Brunch At Jeanine’s
Jeanine’s Bakery is the place to grab breakfast or brunch in Santa Barbara. Their most popular location is on Coast Village Rd in Montecito but they also have another restaurant just off State St in downtown Santa Barbara.
Grab a table on the patio at either location to enjoy amazing weather and excellent pastries plus my favorite – eggs florentine. Jeanine’s serves up delicious French toast, and hearty pancakes, and has tons of healthy options and smoothies, plus they have great coffee.
If breakfast is not your thing, head to Flour De Maiz for lunch where you can enjoy excellent Mexican food and delicious margaritas while soaking up the sunshine on their patio.
8) Run Or Bike The Beach Path
Running the bike path along the water’s edge, from West Beach to East Beach, is one of the things I love most about my mornings in Santa Barbara.
I start my run at the entrance to the harbor and run along the beach, passing the pier and skateboard park, and then finally ending at Butterfly Beach.
There is something magical and invigorating about being out in the fresh air with palm trees swaying above, people running and biking all around you, and ending your workout with your sneakers in the sand.
You can also rent electric bikes and ride along the path which is very fun. I took my daughter on a bike ride along the beach last time we were in Santa Barbara and we had a blast!
9) Relax At Butterfly Beach
Butterfly Beach is my favorite beach in Santa Barbara County because it offers beautiful views looking up the coast at the city of Santa Barbara.
Butterfly Beach is located in Montecito in front of what was previously the Four Seasons Biltmore – I hope they reopen! It was an iconic luxury hotel across from the beach but at least there is now Rosewood Miramar Beach down the road which is arguably now the nicest luxury hotel in Santa Barbara.
Butterfly Beach is a great beach to lay out at (check to make sure it is not high tide before you go), and when there is a swell, there can be good surf down in front of the old Coral Casino.
10) Hike Inspiration Point
Inspiration Point is my favorite hike in SB because it is a relatively easy hike (if you walk fast it will take you about 45 minutes) and offers amazing views of the city, harbor, and coast from the top!
The trailhead is located up behind the Santa Barbara Mission. Warning – when parking at the trailhead make sure you stay within the white lines along the side of the road and do not block any driveways or you will get a ticket.
Also watch out for Poison Oak, which grows along the trail in the fall months.
11) Take Surf Lessons
Santa Barbara is one of the best places to learn how to surf in all of California! Protected by the Channel Islands, the beaches in Santa Barbara County offer great beginner waves in Carpinteria at Santa Claus Beach or 15 minutes south at Mondos.
In the summer months, the water is pretty warm but you’ll still need a wetsuit, which your surf teacher will provide. If you want to book a surf lesson during your stay in Santa Barbara I recommend booking a private surf lesson with me.
I teach private lessons year-round in Malibu and in Santa Barbara at Mondos because it is, in my opinion, the very best place to learn. They call Mondos the Waikiki of California because it offers a long, mellow wave and a shallow sand bottom, making it easy to paddle out and catch waves.
12) Go Sailing
There’s no better way to truly experience the beauty of Santa Barbara than taking a sailing cruise along the coastline. You can take an afternoon, or my favorite – a sunset cocktail cruise.
Be sure to bring your camera to capture stunning views of the city and coastline. I recently did this cruise and loved it. You can check out this video clip of my experience to get a feel for what the cruise is like.
How To Get To Santa Barbara & When Should I Visit?
Santa Barbara has its own small, domestic airport (SBA) that you can fly into but it can be pricy. If you’re flying in from out of state or out of the country I suggest flying into LAX and then driving up.
It is an easy, two-hour drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. If you take the Pacific Coast Highway up to Oxnard and then over to the 101 highway you will be rewarded with gorgeous ocean views the entire drive.
Santa Barbara is a great destination to visit during any season because the weather is perfect year-round. But it’s expensive and flooded with tourists in the summer so I suggest planning your trip during fall when the weather is still in the 70s and you can snag better deals on hotels.
September and early October are both great months to visit. The ocean water is warmest these months, it’s tycpally sunny and warm out, amd you can score great deals on all the best Santa Barbara hotels.
Have you been to Santa Barbara? If you have tips or questions to share with our readers please leave these in the comments below.
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