Imagine a leisurely stroll, coffee in hand, scanning the shoreline for dolphins and ubiquitous sea birds. The quiet sunlight trips across the gently breaking waves, rejuvenating your mind and soul. Wiggle your toes in the warm sand as the fishing boats glide through the harbor, out for a day’s work at sea.
Sunny and 75 degrees, the climate is just one of many things to love about Santa Barbara, the self-proclaimed American Riviera. Walking down Cabrillo Boulevard with the Pacific Ocean in view, the Santa Ynez Mountains providing a ruggedly beautiful backdrop, and Spanish architecture and palm trees surrounding you gives you the feeling of stepping onto a classic movie set.
From its boho chic vibe, upscale coastal cuisine, and great wine to spectacular beaches and celebrity sightings -- this is Santa Barbara. Here are the best ways to spend two days in one of vacationers’ favorite California cities.
Santa Barbara County Beaches
Santa Barbara County and the Channel Islands are home to 15 beaches. There is a Santa Barbara beach to suit everyone. From the upscale Butterfly Beach and the bustling West and East Beaches to the quietly contemplative Channel Island beaches, your sun and sand happy place is here.
Butterfly Beach, where the rich and famous play, is the perfect beach to watch the spectacular California sunsets. Located in Montecito, the beach is the best for celebrity sightings, sunbathing, surfing, and relaxing. Butterfly Beach is a popular choice for evening beach wedding ceremonies, so don’t be surprised to spy a casually chic bridal party strolling through the sand at sunset.
Santa Cruz Island’s Scorpion Beach is the easiest island beach to access. Here you can swim, dive, snorkel, and kayak. The islands are protected, have no vehicles, and are accessible only by boat or plane. The Channel Islands National Park webpage highlights activities for all five of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Santa Rosa Islands, plus Alpaca Island and San Miguel Island.
Stearns Wharf begins where State Street and Cabrillo Boulevard intersect. When you need a break from the soft sand beaches, the wharf provides a fun interlude where you can shop, eat, fish, or just enjoy the view. The wharf is the demarcation between West Beach and East Beach, and it stretches out into the harbor anchoring the city to the ocean.
West Beach is located between Stearns Wharf and the harbor. Beach volleyball nets dot the wide, soft sand, and you can join a pick-up game or watch a league match. West Beach is fairly close to the harbor which limits swimming, but there is plenty of wading room.
East Beach, on the other side of Stearns Wharf, is great for swimming, water sports, sunbathing, and exploring. Beach volleyball tournaments are regularly scheduled on more than a dozen courts. East Beach’s proximity to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge affords you the opportunity to hike along the refuge’s marshland pathways to experience the local aviary population. At East Beach Rentals you will find kayak, paddle board, boogie board, and beach gear rentals. Everything you need to make your time at East Beach a lifetime memory is within reach.
Many of Santa Barbara’s beaches are on the Cabrillo Bike Path, which runs between Butterfly Beach and University of California, Santa Barbara. This flat, three-mile, paved path is a mecca for runners, walkers, and cyclists. The inviting beaches along Cabrillo Boulevard will soothe your soul with their quiet beauty.
Check out all the Santa Barbara County Beaches and discover which beach is right for your visit.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, with its classic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and spectacular views from the clock tower, is worth the two-mile walk uptown. The exquisite Mural Room and tranquil Sunken Garden are popular wedding venues.
As you climb the stairs to the tower, the intricate clockworks are visible through a glass wall. The multitude of working gears are fascinating to watch.
The building’s murals are striking, too. A 60-foot mural outlining the history of timekeeping encircles the clockworks while the Mural Room depicts a timeline of Santa Barbara’s history. The ceiling in the Clock Gallery is a twinkling night sky.
The courthouse gardens are a beautiful place to relax and soak up the Spanish vibe and glorious California sun. Planted with tall palms, colorful birds of paradise, and other assorted tropical plants, it is an oasis in the city.
There are free tours offered every day at 2 p.m. and also at 10:30 a.m. on weekdays. The courthouse is open to the public, free of charge, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Note that the clock tower closes at 4:45 p.m.
The Urban Wine Trail
Vacation time and wine tastings are a perfect pairing, and the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail encompasses over 30 distinct wine tasting rooms. You can download the map here or pick one up at any of the tasting rooms on the trail. California’s award-winning wines offer a wide variety suitable for novice and experienced pallets alike. Select a few or many for a coastal tasting experience.
You can purchase an Urban Wine Trail Membership Card, which entitles you to a tasting at each location, for $150. The membership card can be purchased prior to your visit or you can purchase it at most of the tasting rooms.
The Funk Zone
The hip, happening Funk Zone is home to galleries, shops, restaurants, wineries, breweries, and cool hotels. This 10-block area between Santa Barbara’s train station and the beach is replete with converted warehouses, street art, and amazing people watching.
You can gobble up McConnell’s hand-made ice cream, a Funk Zone staple. Consider trying the Olive Oil and Salted Almonds or Wild Sweet Clover flavors to tickle your taste buds, or stick to a semi-traditional flavor like Turkish Coffee or Santa Barbara Strawberry. Yum!
The Eat This Shoot That food and photography tour will both feed your tummy with culinary delights and upgrade your phone photography food shots. This three-hour tour is $99 ($89 for those who forgo libations) and begins just a few blocks from Stearns Wharf. It is an easy, casual walk through the neighborhood where you will discover inspiring art, taste sumptuous bites, and learn a few phone photography tips and tricks along the way.
Channel Islands National Park
Boat or fly out to Channel Islands National Park, where the quiet ocean views and scenic walking trails will allow you to commune with nature. There is no transportation once you reach the islands and even bikes are not allowed. The National Parks Service’s island transportation recommendations can be found here.
The Channel Islands Visitor Center, where you can learn about the island’s history and habitat, is located in Ventura, California, about 30 miles south of Santa Barbara. Visit the Island Packers website for boat tours and day trips to the five channel islands. They also offer whale watching, camping expeditions, and birding excursions.
Eating In Santa Barbara
A must-dine in Santa Barbara is Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant. For the best views of the harbor and the Santa Ynez Mountains, snag a seat at the bar or on the deck. Whether you like chowder (New England style), steamed mussels, ceviche, or a selection from the menu of the day, you will get the best casual seafood in Santa Barbara here. Landlubber meals for those less fond of seafood are also available.
Love a great pub? Finney’s Crafthouse on State Street in the Funk Zone serves up great craft beers with cool indoor pub seating and outside tables where you can watch the world go by. Try the plant-based Impossible Burger with truffle fries or tots on the side. Other popular choices include the blackened ahi sandwich with avocado, pineapple teriyaki, cabbage slaw, and wasabi mustard aioli or a prime rib cheesesteak sandwich with pepper jack, peppers and onions, and horseradish aioli. Okay, who’s hungry? Choose one of 30 draft beers to wash it all down. Stop by for happy hour, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Shopping In Santa Barbara
Shopping in the Funk Zone will entertain you with a unique blend of classic coastal Cali cool and a focus on locally made goods.
If unique home goods are your shopping pleasure, visit The Blue Door, where you can find interesting eclectic souvenir pieces. With a mix of vintage and modern furniture and decor, a stroll through the store will ignite your artistic side and have you planning your next renovation.
The Plum Goods store has handcrafted, fair trade goods that make fabulous souvenirs. With everything from kitschy license plates to unique locale-specific t-shirts, this is the shop where you will find something for everyone on your gift list.
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
Classic beachfront hotels like the Hotel Milo are reminiscent of old Hollywood movie beach scenes and run along Cabrillo Boulevard. The Milo offers complimentary full continental breakfasts and wine tastings daily from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
For a luxurious five-star accommodation, try Santa Barbara’s Four Seasons Resort, The Biltmore, which boasts Spanish Colonial villas and bungalows that exude old Hollywood charm. Room amenities may include private patios, fountains, heated plunge pools, and outdoor fireplaces.
Sunny and 75 degrees is just one of the many things to love about Santa Barbara!
Want to experience Santa Barbara? It’s one of nine amazing must-stop spots on a California PCH road trip.