Santa Barbara is a coastal town sandwiched between the steep hills of Santa Ynez mountains and the pacific ocean.
The Spanish Colonial architecture, white buildings with courtyards, homes terraced on the hills overlooking the ocean, and the inviting sandy beaches – all gave Santa Barbara its nickname "The American Riviera".
There is plenty to do at the American Riviera. During my visits to Santa Barbara, I went on walks on the beach, hikes in the mountains, Biking, Whale Watching, kayaking.
I also visited the Botanic Garden, the Zoo, a historic building, and dined at State Street. Here are my favorite places to see and things to do.
A walk on the beach
Santa Barabra has a long shoreline with many beaches, a harbor and a Wharf. You can walk through most of it with an easy walk starting from Shoreline Park on the West end, through SB Harbor, passing through East Beach, and ending at the Andree Clark Bird Refuge.
Along the way, you can stop for a snack at the Harbor, Sterns Wharf, or the restaurants dotting Cabrillo street.
Right after the Wharf, as you go east, you will find another unofficial bird sanctuary. It is fun to watch all birds gathering at Mission Creek – right at the beach.
The Wharf is an excellent place to catch some good view and enjoy a meal. There are several restaurants to choose from, a wine tasting bar, and several snacks and treats shops.
Both Harbor and Moby Dick restaurants offer good seafood and excellent views. The food is just average, but you are paying for the views.
The Deep Sea Tasting Room is an excellent choice for wine lovers. They offer great food and drinks with second-floor balcony seats.
The Wharf allows cars in, which makes a bustling and noisy place, but once you pass the main road, you can escape the noise by going behind the restaurants and shops on the sides overlooking the water.
State Street is probably the most popular destination for visitors and residents alike. It cuts through downtown Santa Barbara and extends to Sterns Wharf.
It is a very lively place with lots of restaurants, bars, and shops. It is also historic. The old Stagecoach route ran through this street.
Due to the Covid pandemic in 2020, long sections of this street were converted to pedestrians only. Most of the restaurants added an outdoors seating area extending into the street. This gives it a more European vibe.
State street is long, so expect to walk a lot. While walking, you can admire the Spanish colonial buildings, theaters and museums, and hidden courtyards.
Santa Barbara Car-Free offers good self-guided walking tours. Try the Red Tile Walking Tour that includes stops at historic landmarks.
This walk starts and ends at the Courthouse – another beautiful historic site. This is a functioning courthouse with a large courtyard, a clock tower, and a statue fountain.
Santa Barbara Harbor
Renting a berth at the harbor will cost you an arm and a leg, but you don't have to be rich to enjoy some water adventure.
You can rent a boat, jet skis, kayaks, or take surfing lessons. You can also enjoy a nice meal with a view at one of the restaurants.
From the harbor, you can also go on a whale and dolphin watching trip. You can also visit the Maritime Museum.
Do you feel like splurging a little? You can hire a yacht with a full crew and a live bad.
Santa Barbara is also a springboard to the Channel Islands National Park where you can hike and explore the pristine wilderness. Read about Channel Islands National Park here. /content/channel-islands-national-park
The botanic garden is an excellent way to get introduced to California's diverse habitats - from the redwood forest to desert sands.
The garden is divided into several sections based on environment. You can visit the Arroyo section with plants that thrive around creeks, or the Canyon section, which takes you through a lush shaded wood on the banks of Mission Creek. In the desert section, explore the hearty plants that survive with minimal water. See more garden sections here.
The garden is currently leading an effort by citizen scientists to reclaim and restore local trails after the recent wildfires.
Get more info about garden sections, guided tours and events here.
Museum of Natural History
This museum is tucked away in the hills above Santa Barbara and provides a great way to learn about the history of the region.
Indoor and outdoor exhibits showcase the plants and animals who make this area home - and native American tribes that thrived here.
I especially enjoyed the Chumash life exhibit. It is full of artifacts and dioramas showing the daily lives of the tribe.
Another exhibit worth mentioning is the Mammal Hall with large dioramas depicting mammal in their natural habitats.
It is not the largest or the best museum in the country, but it is worth a visit if you have a few hours to kill. It is also a big hit with the kids.
The Santa Barbara area, with its long coast and surrounding mountains, offers a lot of hikes for every level. You can take a leisurely stroll on the waterfront, or you can follow one of the trails through the canyons. You can also head to the Santa Ynez mountains for a more strenuous hike with amazing views.
Some of my favorite hikes:
For an easy hike with a picnic area, head to Lizard's Mouth. From West Camino Cielo Road, you can take a half-mile roundtrip hike to a rock formation that resembles a Lizard's mouth. At the top, you can set up for a picnic and enjoy the ocean views.
This is a moderate hike to a seasonal waterfall and three pools. Don't expect to see running water during the summer months.
The round trip is only about 2.5 miles long with an elevation gain of 800 ft.
The hike is not easy. Make sure to wear hiking boots and be ready to do some rock hopping. But your reward at the end is nice cool pools to splash in.
Parking is limited and strictly enforced. Get there very early to guarantee a spot or take a Lyft or Uber.
Trailhead: End of Tunnel Road
La Cumbre Peak and Inspiration Point Loop
This hike is longer and more strenuous, but it is worth the effort. The 10-mile hike takes up 1000 ft with stunning views Santa Barbara, Channel Islands.
This is not an easy hike. Be prepared with hiking boots and gloves. You will be doing a lot of rock scrambling.
Trailhead: End of Tunnel Road
You can also get to the summit via E Camino Cielo.
It is hard to find a secluded area in Southern California to step away from civilization and commune with nature. But luckily for us, the Channel Islands are a short boat ride away with beautiful nature and great adventures.
The 8 islands making up the Channel Islands are only a few miles away from Santa Barbara but they might as well be worlds away. So you can make Santa Barbara your basecamp for your adventure.
Those islands have never been connected to the mainland, so they have their own species of animals and plants.
The island are full of hiking trails, campgrounds, and adventures. You can spend a day hiking, kayaking, or snorkeling. Read the full Channel Islands Guide here.
Electric Bike Tour
We recently went on a private electric bike tour with the Cal Coast Adventures and loved every minute of it. The e-bikes were very steady and comfortable, and the electric assist helped us climb some steep hills. Read the full article about this tour here.
Santa Barbara adapted quickly to the pandemic and converted long sections of State Street to pedestrians only use.
Most of the restaurants added an outdoors seating area extending into the street. This gives State Street a more European vibe.
But also, due to the pandemic, you can't just walk in and expect to find a table. Plan ahead and make reservations days in advance. A Few restaurants don't offer reservations, but you can check in ahead of time via Yelp or by calling the restaurant.
State Street does not have a monopoly on good restaurants. You can find great places close to State or even further away.
Santa Ynez Wine Tours
During a recent visit to Santa Barbara, we decide to check out wine country in the Santa Ynez valley. We booked a full-day tour with Sustainable Wine Tours.
During this tour, we visited 3 wineries that only cater to private tours and wine club members. All three were very gracious and generous with their samples.