Epic Day Trip to Santa Barbara
Located 90 minutes away from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is a perfect stop between LA and San Francisco. While a stop would be great, I highly recommend spending a full day or a weekend in this charming city. Famously dubbed as the American Riviera for it’s Spanish colonial architecture and beach side charm, Santa Barbara is an ideal getaway for couples, families with kids and families like us with dogs. Buildings wrapped with bougainvilleas, side walks adorned with cacti and breathtaking sunsets along the beaches make Santa Barbara a lovely place to visit. Here is everything you need to know for a day or weekend trip to Santa Barbara including places to stay, best restaurants to eat, getting around, things to do in Santa Barbara and nearby places to explore.
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Table of Contents
Quick facts about Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara’s history dates back to 13,000 years with Chumash Indians being the first inhabitants and people of Spanish-Mexican origin in the 1800s. The Chumash Indians thrived in the region before the Spanish arrived. They even coexisted in the 1800s during the days of the Mission but unfortunately, the Chumash population dwindled due to the diseases brought by the European settlers and war in latter years.
- The downtown and the neighboring architecture you see today was rebuilt in the 1920s. Santa Barbara’s downtown and infrastructure were destroyed in the 1920s due to a devastating earthquake. The council decided to rebuild it in Spanish colonial style architecture as an homage to their Spanish heritage.
- Many celebrities use Santa Barbara as a getaway from the hustle of LA. Some stars like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez also own homes in the area.
- Santa Barbara’s laid back lifestyle makes it one of the best cities to live in the US. The semi-mediterranean climate also makes it a great city to visit anytime of the year.
- With craft breweries and wineries, Santa Barbara appeals to wine and beer lovers alike.
- Thanks to it’s rich Mexican heritage, Santa Barbara boasts some of the best and authentic Mexican restaurants in California.
- While there is a lot of old world charm surrounding Santa Barbara, new hip neighborhoods like the Funk Zone and trendy cafés and bars have also emerged in recent years.
Where to stay?
You could technically visit a lot of the attractions in a day but I love staying the night in Santa Barbara to enjoy the late evening sunset or take a quiet morning walk. I have listed great places to stay right near the beach and a few miles off the downtown if you prefer privacy and solitude.
Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort
We stayed here during our most recent visit and could not recommend it enough, especially if you have a pet. The newly renovated Hilton is right across the beach on Cabrillo Blvd and a mile away from Stern’s Wharf and State Street. As part of the resort fee, they offer daily free wine tastings for two, free water bottles and more. Their grounds are also perfect to walk your dog.
This cute boutique hotel is right at the corner of State Street and Cabrillo Blvd. It is a boutique style hotel with unique decor and is a great place to stay if you prefer to be within walking distance of all the action.
This historic Spanish style hotel was built by Charlie Chaplin in 1928 and is about 4 miles from the center. It is a great boutique hotel in a quiet neighborhood.
If you prefer solitude, beautiful grounds and peaceful setting, Four Seasons Santa Barbara is an impressive resort to stay. It is a bit of a splurge but the well curated gardens and incredible rooms make up for it. With everything from a great restaurant with an ocean view to a pool and an incredible spa, this is a perfect hotel to stay in and enjoy the amenities. This 5- star resort is exactly that – a five star experience!
Santa Barbara is a small enough city to walk and most of the tourist attractions are within walking distance from the center of the town. Having a car would be nice to drive around though. Bike rentals are also available at various hotels that make getting around easy and affordable. E-bikery, Wheel Fun Rentals offer electric bike rentals as well.
Is a day trip enough to see Santa Barbara?
If you optimize your time, one day is enough to see the most popular attractions in Santa Barbara. Two days or a weekend is ideal to enjoy and see all that Santa Barbara has to offer.
Where to eat in Santa Barbara?
The list of my favorite restaurants in Santa Barbara is heavily biased featuring a lot of Mexican restaurants. The Mexican food in Santa Barbara is second only to San Diego and is one of the best I have had. I have dined at most of these restaurants multiple times and highly recommend them. I hope you give them a chance and visit one of these!
A new and trendy café with some of the most innovative coffee drinks I have seen. We make it a point to stop by this place every time we visit SB. While you are there, you must try their “Burnout” – a bourbon pecan infused coffee with activated charcoal. Their toasts like the avocado toast, caprese toast are pretty good as well! Note that they do not use single use plastic to go cups. Instead, they charge for bamboo cups that can be returned for a refund or reused as a take out cup.
Another trendy café with good coffee drinks and healthy drinks like the matcha latté, turmeric latté. They also have baked goods like croissants and muffins for a quick bite.
If you prefer a more traditional Mexican inspired breakfast, visit Rose Café. A local favorite and one of the longest standing Mexican restaurants in Santa Barbara, this café is a perfect way to start your day in Santa Barbara. It has been consistently voted as the best Mexican restaurant in SB and it is well deserved. Try the huevos rancheros, chili verde omelette or a burrito. You won’t be disappointed.
You MUST try this place if you are like me and sometimes prefer to start your day with a healthy juice or smoothie. I loved their celery juice and wellness shots.
This is my absolute favorite restaurant in Santa Barbara for authentic Mexican food. Get there early as the line gets really long later in the day. Some of my favorites include the Molcajete, seafood tacos, pollo in mole sauce, shrimp diablo and their tamarind and mango margaritas. but honestly, any dish at Los Agaves is delicious and yummy!
Ever since we got a dog, we are always in search of dog friendly restaurants. And sometimes, we incidentally find hidden gems like East Beach tacos. Most of the menu is taco based with some creative ones like Korean inspired tacos, poké tacos and traditional ones like shrimp, fish and chicken tacos. I loved all of them including their spicy salsa and citrusy ceviche.
This restaurant on State Street is Los Agaves’ fancier cousin. The food is still amazing but with interesting twists and latin inspiration. As the name suggests, they are known for their Mezcal based cocktails made of with ingredients like lavender, hibiscus and more. I thoroughly enjoyed their pulpo (octopus) tacos, empañadas and guacamole. The ambience and service is outstanding as well!
If you are looking for an upscale dining experience with local, organic ingredients and unique flavors, visit Bella Vista at The Four Seasons. We had visited this restaurant during my birthday last year and enjoyed the ambience, food and drinks. Their menu is seasonal but salad and any seafood items are delicious year round.
What to do in Santa Barbara?
For a one day itinerary to Santa Barbara, scroll down to the itinerary section which includes scheduling and places of interest in a pdf. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I have only listed what can be covered in a day and also added more places to explore if you make it a weekend or 2 day trip.
After stopping at one of the cafés listed above for breakfast, start your day in Santa Barbara at the Old Mission. This is one of the oldest missions in California built in 1786. The Mission consists of a church, museum, cemetery, gift shop and acres of beautifully tended gardens with cacti and more indigenous plants. Take a self guided tour to experience the old way of living at the Mission. It was interesting to see how the Chumash Americans and the Spanish missionaries coexisted amicably learning and evolving. Some of the objects and utensils used by the people in the Mission during the 1800s are still on display and provide an insight into their lives at that time.
Santa Barbara Courthouse
The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a testament to the Spanish colonial architecture that the architects tried to emulate after the earthquake. This is widely considered as one of the most beautiful courthouses in the US. It’s exterior, the outdoor gardens, the interiors with paintings depicting the history of Santa Barbara and stunning architectural details are all impressive. The most popular spot in the courthouse is the clock tower. Climb the clock tower for an amazing view of the red roof tiles of Santa Barbara. This courthouse is fully functional so on weekdays you might see court in session!
Take a stroll on State Street
The most popular area in Santa Barbara is the State Street. State Street is a stretch of boutique stores, art galleries, restaurants and wine bars in the downtown of Santa Barbara. With Spanish colonial style buildings, outdoor patios, bars and boutiques, State Street reminds me of the European street markets. Shop, stop and stroll is the best way to explore State Street. Some of my favorite stops along the street are:
- Moxi Museum (A fun interactive museum with activities for both kids and adults)
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Small but great collection including Monet, Chagall and space art exhibits)
- Melville Winery (One of the best Santa Barbara wineries with a tasting room in downtown)
- Santo Mezcal (Stop for a cocktail and stay for dinner or lunch)
Stearn’s Wharf is one of the oldest piers in California. It is a fun place to people watch, walk around, watch the sunset and enjoy great seafood.
Sunset at butterfly beach
A day trip to Santa Barbara is not complete without watching the sunset at the beach. An amazing place to watch the sunset is the butterfly beach across the Four Seasons Santa Barbara. End the day with dinner at Bella Vista restaurant inside the hotel.
Other places that are worth checking out
If you have the time, here are a few other places worth checking out in Santa Barbara.
- Lotusland (Only open on Wed and Sat and by tour only)
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
- Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens
- Paseo Nuevo Mall
Nearby places to explore on a Santa Barbara weekend getaway
If you have another day to spare in Santa Barbara and are interesting in exploring the nearby areas, add one of these trips to your list.
Wine tasting in Los Olivos
Santa Barbara has a unique micro climate that is ideal for growing grapes for wine. Most wineries are focused on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah. Pick a few wineries along the wine trail in Los Olivos and Santa Ynez valley or take a wine tasting tour with one of the companies that offers them from Santa Barbara.
Visit Channel Island National Park
Take the ferry from Santa Barbara Harbor and spend the day at one of the islands in Channel Islands National Park. I have a detailed blog post on a day trip itinerary and things to do on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park.
Day trip to Solvang
Solvang is a cute little Danish village in the Santa Ynez valley. The village is known for Danish architecture, boutiques, Danish bakeries and restaurants. Christmas is a great time to visit Solvang to check out all the festivities.
I enjoy visiting Santa Barbara because it is great anytime of the year and there are lots of things to do nearby. Hope you visit this charming city! Did you already visit Santa Barbara and think I missed something? Let me know in the comments below about your favorite thing about Santa Barbara.
ITINERARY: DAY TRIP TO SANTA BARBARA
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I am Aswani Kurra. I am an engineer, dreamer and part-time wanderlust, writer and wine lover. I always had an urge to write, create and travel. So I created this space to satisfy my creative itch and combine all my skills to help you plan your Charming Escape.