We fell in love with Santa Barbara. While it’s a nationally known city, it’s also off the radar. With LA 70 miles South, I feel like Santa Barbara is often overlooked. For everyone who writes this city off, you are missing out on one hell of a gem! Small town feels, beautiful beaches, top-notch food, sunshine and an award-winning wine region next door… my Santa Barbara Travel Guide is sure to help you also fall in love with this city!
Santa Barbara is a college town. It takes no longer than 10 minutes to drive anywhere you’ll want to go, and parking is easy, plentiful and usually free. As with most Southern California cities, Santa Barbara is chill. But unlike Venice Beach or even San Diego, it’s slower, in a great way. I think you’ll love it there, too.
*a star means we ate at this restaurant, did this activity or stay at this hotel. Basically, this means we put our personal stamp of approval on it!
Hotels In Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is home to a variety of hotels ranging from luxury, boutique lodges or even vacation homes. We found that most of the places we wanted to get to were easily reached within 10 minutes by car. Unlike other cities where staying in a particular neighborhood is a must, there are neighborhoods in Santa Barbara that make great places to find lodging.
We loved our stay at the Goodland. When we can, we love staying at Kimpton Hotels because we find they always have great charm, cool decor (check out that airstream in the front!) and a free happy hour in the lobby each night (score!) The downside of the Woodland is that it’s in Goleta, not Santa Barbara proper. You’ll need a car if you stay here and drive 15ish minutes to and from the Santa Barbara center. With that in mind, I think the “commute” is worth the trade-off for a cute space.
I think you’ll find yourself out all day exploring, beachside or wine tasting during your time in Santa Barbara. If you’re someone who loves to eat and go all out on activities during travel (bike rentals, sunset sail, etc) and are looking cut down on your lodging cost, I recommend booking at a cheap motel like the Sandpiper Lodge or the Orange Tree Inn.
Santa Barbara is home to a lot of beautiful vacation rentals with chic beachy decor. There are also some beautiful retreats in the hillside. If you have a big group, or are staying more than a few days and want access to a kitchen, head to Airbnb. Use THIS link for $40 off your first stay!
Fancy staying a night in an Airstream? Live out your Instagram dreams at Autocamp!
Best Restaurants In Santa Barbara
A cash-only authentic Mexican joint that always seems to have a line because it’s a popular lunch spot among the locals.
Another local favorite for tacos and Mexican food closer to the Downtown area.
This is such a charming hidden restaurant that serves Lebanese cuisine. Most of the tables are outdoors under string lights and around fire pits. Every Friday and Saturday night there will be a belly dancer mingling among the diners. Order the Strawberry Lemonade for a unique flavor punch! Note – you need to make reservations ahead of time on their site + put outdoor seating in the comments to ensure a table.
Craving sandwiches? Head here!
A trendy ice cream shop with some of the best strawberry ice cream I’ve had in ages!
A Danish restaurant serving all three meals, so it’s a favorite for brunch. This spot is a landmark on State Street.
An Australian coffee house with dlsou pasties and baked goods for those who like to start their day off on the sweet side! They have a small but cute back garden you can dine in.
Mexican food on State with a beautiful patio and fire. It’s dog friendly and has great people watching! It’s best when you sit outside on the patio instead of inside, which can be crowded, loud and dark.
It’s inside the Kimpton, so eat here if you stay at the Goodland. It has an adorable back patio with murals and string lights. Make sure to attend their Wednesday night trivia night, which is so much fun! Plus, you can win a $50 gift card.
A minimal American diner that’s been a local hotspot since the 50’s. The food is affordable (easily can grab breakfast for two with coffee each under $25) and the portions are huge.
A silly-boozy brunch is the best way to describe Derfs. It’s an old local favorite with a slight divey feel, which comes with the divey prices (aka very cheap!) You can grab breakfast for under $7 here. On a sunny day, sit no the porch, order a Dirty Diane. It’s champagne and vodka – it hits you hard and is a great bang for your buck!
Where To Grab Drinks & Coffee
On the edge of the Funk Zone. If you need a break from wine, pop onto their back patio, order a flight of beers (4 for $10) and soak up sun. Or pet a dog, it’s dog friendly!
A favorite in the Funk Zone. Cool decor. We loved their trendy decor and open-air seating. I personally loved their Grenache.
Got a loud friend who likes to drink and sing songs? Take them to this piano bar. It looked like a lot of fun (from far away, I don’t sing so I didn’t get close!)
A a cute little tiki bar! The bartenders go all out on prevention of their cocktails.
Downtown and craving local beer? Head here! We had dinner here one night. I found the food to be good, but average. It’s affordable so not a bad choice to grab a bite to eat along with our pint.
A beachy bar in the heart of downtown. It’s all open-air seating. Make sure to grab a seat by the fire pit and order Pepino Diablo margarita!
A speakeasy-style upscale cocktail bar to quench your craft cocktail cravings.
Looking for an Instagramble coffee shop in Santa Barbara? This place has pastel lattes. *Mic drop*
Things To Do In Santa Barbara
A crazy-cool art installation that looks like the rainbow. The best time to visit to take photos is before 10am so you can use the palm trees and ocean as your backdrop.
It’s a no-brainer that Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches! Some spots have nets so you can play volleyball. Others rent out surfboards. I recommend having your beach day on the section near the Chromatic Gate. There is tons of parking that is free, unlike the lots near the Wharf which are paid.
A romantic sunset walk must be had on Butterfly Beach.
This is THE spot for wine tasting, beer, food, cool decor.. pretty much industrial meets chic meets alcohol. If you can’t make it out to Santa Ynez for a day trip, come here to try local wines and beers!
There is a surprising surpassing amount of murals and wall art around Santa Barbara. You could spend a whole day mural hunting!
*Moreton Bay Fig Tree
There’s a huge Ficus Fig in downtown Santa Barbara that boats being the largest fig tree in the United States. It’s over 150 years old and a stunning feat of nature.
In Wisconsin, we call these “ducks”. They’re part bus part boat that makes for a unique and fun tour no matter what city you ride one in. You can also rent a Land Shark out privately for a boozy tour. Great for wedding parties, bachelorette birthdays, etc.
I love touring Missions, Basically and churches. The Santa Barbara Mission is $9 and a beautiful property behind those church steeples. I appreciated the number of installations with historical photos and information, which helps you leave feeling educated.
Probably the best view in the entire city. You can see the mountains all the way down to the ocean. Best part? It’s totally FREE! Make sure to set aside time to look at the art on each floor and wander the gardens. If you like tours, each weekday at 10:30am and 2pm free docent tours are available. They are an hour long and meet in the mural room on the 2nd floor. A weekend has only one tour, at 2pm.
Fishing off Stearn’s Wharf
Do something unique and fish off the Stearn Wharf pier! The bait and tackle shop at the end of the pier rents out bait and poles so you can cast out, relax in the sun and maybe catch something.
The whole city is very bike friendly. I personally love biking around SoCal cities… the palm trees, the sunshine, the boardwalks all make for a fun bike ride. Many hotels offer free bike use to guests. If your hotel doesn’t offer bikes, I recommend Santa Barbara Bike To-Go near the Chromatic Gate. They have a cute shop dog and a large array of bikes that you can rent for just an hour or as long as the whole day.
Day Trip To Santa Ynez
No Santa Barbara trip is complete without a day trip into Santa Ynez Valley for some wine tasting! This area has award-winning wines and makes for a relaxing day in the sunshine if the fog has rolled into Santa Barbara.
When you’re craving some wine on a patio, head here! We loved their outdoor seating area and the huge statement fireplace. It was hard to pick a favorite in wine, but we love their Chardonnay. You can reserve a picnic table, Bring your own food and hang out all afternoon. Pst – ask your sommelier for a 2 for 1 coupons for Epiphany, their sister winery.
They’re known for wine and cupcake pairings! The tasting room has great attention to detail in terms of decor and offers outdoor seating.
Gainey offers the most unique wine tasting experience in the valley with their jeep tour! The jeep will take you from the tasting bar down to the Old Barn, a rustic barn surrounded by plains and oak trees. Here, you’ll taste 5 wines in the peace and quiet of nature. Pst – jeep tours are only offered on weekends.
Fun fact – you’ll recognize this barn from Of Mice And Men!
Wineries aren’t allowed to serve food, so you’ll see food trucks dotted along the valley. They’re your chance to fuel up between tastings!
Downtown Los Olivos
Or, head into Los Olivos, a charming town in Santa Ynez Valley to grab a more formal meal. Bear and Star is the place to grab an American style brunch, complete with outdoor seating. Sides Hardware and Shoes does meat so well. Plus, there are more tasting rooms down there!
WHAT TO PACK
Santa Barbara can be very warm but when the fog rolls in, it gets chilly. Pack dresses, skirts, shorts with jackets that you can throw on if it gets cold. Don’t forget your sunscreen and swimsuit!