Santa Barbara is everything wonderful about California packaged up into one picture-perfect coastal sanctuary, a safe distance away from the chaos of greater LA and the chaos of San Francisco Bay Area.
Just a couple hours drive from LA, Santa Barbara is the perfect day trip (or weekend getaway). Highly recommend for anyone visiting (you’ll get a much better impression than LA, trust me), and highly recommend for the mental health of anyone living within the boundaries of LA (idk, it just feels like a much better oasis than the desert imo).
Something about the pristine beaches, the photogenic palm trees, the warm amber tones of the Spanish tile roofs against a cloudless blue sky… it almost feels too pretty to be in the US and not on the Mediterranean coast. It is, as I fondly call it, stupid pretty. Unnecessarily beautiful. Excessively photogenic. I mean, even their courthouse looks like a retreat. Compared to LA, SB is a little more laid back, a little more grown up (minus Isla Vista, I’m convinced you have to be retired to live here), a lot more polished. It’s smaller, sure, a little more quiet, but still carries that California charm with the cultural mix. From the mountains to the ocean, you’ll wish you lived there too.
Santa Barbara is probably best visited without much of a plan. You don’t have to do much to enjoy yourself. In fact, you’d probably enjoy yourself more if you don’t do anything at all.
As someone who grew up halfway between LA and SB (about an hour’s drive each way), I’ve always had a soft spot for Santa Barbara. Sure, everything cool and important is an hour south. But I’d much rather be stuck in traffic going north and escaping to a more comfortable, less stress-inducing city that reminds me of why California is an All-American paradise.
by car: Even the drive is lovely. As in, the 101 north between Ventura and Santa Barbara is my favorite part of any freeway. It’s the antithesis of being parked on the 405 south trying to make a 8am flight on a weekday. Anyways, it’s about 1.5-2 hours without traffic, depending on where you’re coming from in LA. During rush hour it could be upwards of 3 hours so don’t do that to yourself! You’re basically going to get yourself onto the 101 N/E and keep driving until you start seeing exit signs for Santa Barbara (exits 94-102 depending on where you’re headed).
when to go
The beauty of southern California is that the weather is almost always perfect. Santa Barbara has moderate weather year round, it doesn’t get as hot as LA, but as it’s at the northern edge of southern California (lol), it doesn’t get too cold either. Summer weekends can get a little touristy, but not to the point that it should deter you. That being said, nothing beats stealing away on a weekday.
Paradise on earth is Santa Barbara on any average day tbh. It’s hard not to romanticize things when everything looks straight out of a retirement catalogue. Is it too early to start looking forward to retiring here?
If you’re able to spend a day in this California riviera, here are some things to do.
shop along state street
You could probably spend a whole day just wandering up and down this street full of cute boutiques, restaurants, wineries and breweries. Most of the places worth visiting along or extending from this main street in the heart of the town. Walking along this street feels like being on vacation. It feels like you’re somewhere far away from home, the charm of older times but perfectly maintained, like you’re living a luxuriously leisurely lifestyle, if only for a day.
If you are only here for a day, you might not even need to venture beyond this street that leads you straight to the pier.
walk to the pier
Any coastal town worth its salt has a pier, whether it caters to tourists or provides a picturesque backdrop to a musical number. Stearn’s Wharf definitely leans toward the touristy end of the spectrum, but a lot more lovely than Santa Monica. It’s more charming though. You have your tourist trap seafood restaurants, a Museum of Natural History Sea Center for the kids, and a cute candy shop for your sweet tooth.
visit the mission
Any California town worth its salt has a mission. You could tour the entire state and its history just by mission-hopping. Santa Barbara’s mission, like everything else in this city, is beautiful. It’s probably the most popular landmark too. You can catch some amazing views along with a dose of Californian history. Even if you don’t go inside, it’s worth admiring from the front garden.
climb up the courthouse tower
When you think about courthouses, your mind might conjure up something drab and austere, or perhaps unremarkable government architecture. Courthouse weddings, after all, are practical, not glamorous. But not in Santa Barbara. The Superior Court of Santa Barbara County is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The Spanish Colonial Revival architecture is pristine enough to make it a tourist attraction in itself. The gardens are just asking to be picnicked on. I wouldn’t even be mad to spend a day or two in the jury duty waiting room or paying a traffic ticket. But the real gem is the clock tower. It’s free to climb up (check the opening hours though), and at the top you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the city. The burnt orange rooftops extending towards the horizon where they meet the deep blue ocean and sky. It’s probably my favorite place in all of Santa Barbara. I find myself making an excuse to go every time I’m in town and it never gets old.
Yes, this is their akdjfhlk courthouse. Not a villa. Not a church. Not a resort. A courthouse.
cool down at mcconnells
Sure, McConnell’s is probably available by the pint at your local grocery store, but it’s better when you go straight to the source. The homegrown ice cream establishment has creative seasonal flavors made with local ingredients. You’re already here, might as well treat yourself to a scoop (or three).
and then walk it off at one of the green spaces
Sometimes you have to admit that al fresco dining doesn’t count as an outdoor activity. Between the beautiful beaches and the botanical gardens further in, there are also a bunch of parks and gardens closer to downtown that are perfect for taking a breather. Or picnicking. The choice is yours.
chow down at la super-rica taqueria
Like most California cities, Santa Barbara has its fair share of amazing Mexican establishments. One of the popular local spots is a modest looking taco shack + covered patio serving up fresh pressed tortillas to what seems to be a perpetual line out the door. If you want to save some $$, just grab food here and then hit up one of the fancier spots in Funk Zone for a drink.
stop by Bree’osh for some pastries on your way in (or out)
Another obligatory stop if you’re driving into town is a quick drive by to Montecito. Specifically, to Bree’osh Bakery for their amazing French pastries. On a nice day you can enjoy it with coffee in their outdoor seating area. Otherwise, grab some to go on your way home. You’ll thank yourself tomorrow.
MORE PLACES TO EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY
331 Motor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
1117 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Milk & Honey
30 W Anapamu St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
1919 Cliff Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
The Good Lion
1212 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Santa Barbara Public Market
38 W Victoria St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
202 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
131 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro
1324 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Dune Coffee Roasters
528 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Handlebar Coffee Roasters
2720 De La Vina St, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
128 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101