Santa Barbara, framed by the Pacific Ocean and mountains, is favored by college students and lovers of luxury alike. As a result, there are loads of experiences to be had, ranging from free to very boujee. It’s a stop along the Pacific Coast Highway, so road-trippers can easily factor in a day or two of fun here.
What’s more, this gorgeous city is blessed with near-pristine weather – around 300 days of sunshine per year – so whatever you choose to do, make sure a good chunk of your time is spent outside. With that in mind: here are our picks for experiencing the best of Santa Barbara in a day.
Wander by the Water
You’re on one of the most celebrated coastlines in the world… so what better way to start your day than on the water?
Rise early, grab a coffee (if you so require) from Handlebar Coffee Roasters, and wander down to the beach. Walk along the shoreline, hit the surf, or dig your toes into the sand and watch the sun bathe the city and surrounding mountains.
Jeannine’s Cafe and Bakery
If your plan is to sightsee around downtown Santa Barbara, then don’t pass on breakfast at Jeannine’s Cafe and Bakery. This stylish local hotspot is an ideal launching point for exploring the historic inner city. Order gourmet dishes like banana kahlua french toast, hot apple and raspberry quinoa bowls, or from a selection of eggs and benedicts.
Downtown Santa Barbara
From there, you can spend your morning wandering the shops, museums, and landmarks that embody Santa Barbara’s Spanish colonial history.
Moxi (The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation) is a fun, interactive museum that will delight kids and adults alike. Walk through a giant guitar and learn about how your favourite riffs were made, and conduct test flights in the Wind Column Workshop. Santa Barbara Mission is surrounded by colourful gardens, perfect for a picnic.
Alternatively, rent bikes and cruise along the Cabrillo Beach Boulevard Bike Trail. Hike the Santa Ynez Mountains with their range of easy or difficult hikes (rock climbing involved!). Horseback ride on the beach, surf or scuba dive — just celebrate the water — with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
Take the Urban Wine Trail
For something a little more lavish, we’d recommend a tour (self-guided or otherwise) of the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail.
California is one of the most celebrated wine regions in the world, and Santa Barbara has 103 wineries around town and its surrounding valleys. Thirty alone reside within five neighbourhoods of the inner city, including the Funk Zone, whose creative residents established the trail along with art galleries, restaurants, vintage stores, and more.
The Urban Wine Trail is ideal for those with no access to a car (or simply don’t want to be stuck as the designated driver). Stash your travel bags with a luggage storage service in Santa Barbara and wander, cycle, and sip through the Funk Zone with its colourful street art, plus Goleta, Montecito, Presidio, Summerland, and Midtown. You can even stash you luggage in Los Angeles and drive up to Santa Barbara for 103 wineries around town and it’s surrounding valleys.
Pizza, Picnics, and the Public Market
Lucky Penny Pizza
If you haven’t gone further afield on a guided wine tour (and need some food to soak up the alcohol in your belly), then make friends with the folks at Lucky Penny.
This woodfired pizza restaurant is located in the Funk Zone and tiled with over 150,000 real copper pennies; a convenient beacon for the now-staggering traveler. Their pizzas are crispy and crackling, their salads large and locally-sourced, and their Frosé (frozen rosé with strawberry and lemon) refreshing as hell after a long surf or walk-and-sip.
Santa Barbara Public Market
Further up State Street and down West Victoria is the public market, where you can sample the bounty of California’s central coast. Browse artisanal produce and drinks from a number of shops and stalls, including Mexican street food from Corazon Cocina, six kinds of falafel from Fala Fare, and 41 tap beers from The Garden.
McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams
If you have any hours of daylight (or energy) left, spend it doing whatever you ran out of time to do in the morning.
Swim in the ocean at sunset, walk along Stearns Wharf, or grab a sweet treat from McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, made from scratch in their onsite dairy. Their flavors are invented using fruit, jams, cookies, coffees and more, fairly sourced from family orchards and ranches.
Picnic at Santa Barbara Mission
Take whatever treats and nibbles you’ve foraged throughout the afternoon to Santa Barbara Mission, if you didn’t visit earlier. Their lawn and gardens are lovely for exploring and picnicking as the sun goes down. Check their calendar, especially during summer. At the time of writing, there was an event listing called Drinks at Dusk: beer, wine, and appetizers with the Franciscan friars!
Drinks and Dinner Downtown
For ritzy dinner options to wrap up the day, Santa Barbara has plenty. Here are a couple of favorites.
There’s The Lark, a highly-acclaimed upscale restaurant in the Funk Zone, named after the sleek overnight train of the Southern Pacific Railroad that serviced Santa Barbara for over 50 years. Their food is locally sourced, seasonal, and inspired; think roasted rainbow carrots with whipped feta, Japanese hamachi crudo with hearts of palm, and doughnuts with spring pea ice cream.
What’s more, The Lark’s cocktail list is a visual feast in itself, and guaranteed to keep people lingering on their patio. Their “Sticky Fingers” concoction — bay laurel, mezcal, gin, wildflower blossom honey, amaro meletti and lemon — won the title of Santa Barbara’s official cocktail in 2019. Can you travel to Santa Barbara and resist trying it?
Alternatively, herbivores and omnivores alike can enjoy offerings at Mesa Verde. Another purveyor of the farm-to-table approach that’s flourishing in Santa Barbara, this fine-dining plant-based restaurant champions California’s array of beautiful, seasonal produce.
Notable menu items include “chorizo” and white bean share plates, macadamia ricotta with beetroot bacon, spring pea linguini alfredo, and cashew grilled cheese with green tahini. Their dishes are plated so exquisitely you’ll almost not want to eat them.
The Arlington Theatre
One last tip: if you’ve had your fill of delectable food, wine, and sunshine for the day, but are looking for wind-down entertainment, then check for event postings at The Arlington Theatre. Established in 1931, it’s a charming reincarnation of the old Arlington Hotel that was destroyed in an earthquake. Comedy, concerts, and classic movie screenings are scheduled regularly, so see if there’s anything on during your stay.
Source: lonelyplanet.com, afar.com, theblondeabroad.com
Gallery: unsplash, urbanwinetrailsb.com, afar.com