My love for Santa Barbara California is unending, so much so that I had to make a city guide for it! I created this guide originally for a website called On the Grid, but I’m posting an updated version here as some spots on my original guide have permanently closed. If you go visit, I hope you can find this guide helpful and enjoy your visit there!
Need time away from the city? Leave the smog and crowds behind and head up the coast to Santa Barbara. Ideally situated between the mountains and the sea, rich in history and culture, with beautiful vistas in every direction, it’s the quintessential Southern California escape. Spanish revival architecture surrounded by dozens of varieties of exotic and fragrantly blooming vegetation, create a timeless serenity that will have you wishing you could make the weekend permanent. Rewarding anytime you can make the drive, but visit March through May after a rainy February and the fragrance will linger with you for days. Beaches fill up on summer weekends, but can be remarkably uncrowded midweek. Quieter solitude, consistent temperatures and clear skies follow October through November.
Backyard Bowls: One of the best acai bowls around, using only organic, sustainable, and locally produced ingredients in all of their menu items. I recommend Diego’s Power Bowl, but you really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. The regular bowl size is definitely enough to fill you up, and if you want a smaller portion, the Berry or Island Bowl in the kids size are a great option!
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach: Breakfast with a lovely view of the beach. Come here for a bite then walk it off along the shoreline after. A little on the spendier side, but worth it! Treat yo self.
Bree’Osh: A cute little French bakery located on Coast Village Road in downtown Montecito. They’re named for their signature brioches, but they’ve got a slew of other brilliant french pastries on their menu that offer just the right amount of sweetness. Open from 7am to 3pm, they offer a variety of savory breakfast and lunch items to choose from in addition to their pastries.
The Shop Café: Home style eats and great coffee, and a nice big outdoor patio. Everyone talks about “The Tugboat” (their eggs benedict) and for a good reason! They are also open for lunch, so stop on by for breakfast or lunch, try something new!
Dune Coffee: Formerly known as The French Press, a trendy little cafe with two locations in SB and one in Goleta, serving up their house roasted coffees and baked goods.
Handlebar Coffee: Handlebar’s name comes from it’s founders shared love for cycling – they spent 10+ years as professional cyclists before joining the artisanal coffee movement. They opened Handlebar in 2011, providing Santa Barbara with a quality, sustainable artisanal coffee bar in an area of town that has become a hotspot for foodies. As with most eating establishments in Santa Barbara, they have a lovely outdoor patio that you should definitely take advantage of while you enjoy your coffee.
Lucky Llama Coffee: Don’t blow up the spot. A nice little spot just outside of SB in Carpinteria, stop by here on your way to a surf session at Rincon Beach. Super laid back atmosphere, a nice place to grab some food and get out of SB (sometimes you have to!)
C’est Cheese: Cheese is not the only thing you can get from here – they also have a wide offering of jams and other treats, and have a Bakery & Cafe! If you’re looking to impress your friends at your next wine & cheese party, definitely stop by C’est Cheese and taste some samples and buy a couple wedges. Some personal favorites: The Prima Donna and the Campo De Montalban.
La Super Rica Taqueria: Katy Perry loves it, Julia Childs loves it, so there’s a pretty good chance you’ll love it too. Definitely the most well known Mexican food joint in Santa Barbara, come here and try one of their many taco offerings or daily specials. Try and come right when they open or on a weekday, as the line can get pretty long. Also, it’s cash only! A must-try: La Super-Rica Especial (marinated pork and cheese-stuffed pasilla chile), or the Chilaquiles, tortilla chips covered in a spicy tomato broth sauce and topped with cheese and green onions (offered on Mondays and Thursdays only).
Lucky Penny: Made to order wood-fired pizza from a penny covered building in the Funk Zone. Take it to go, or enjoy it at one of their outdoor back patio tables. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they’ve got you covered all day long for fast, fresh, and tasty food. I recommend the Lucky Penny Classic – made with san marzano marinara, salami, mozzarella, fresh oregano, and chili flakes.
Mesa Verde: A vegetarian restaurant, but don’t let that deter you if you aren’t a full time vegetarian. Their menu is full of aspirational plant-based dishes, is 100% organic, and the restaurant itself is casual and welcoming with a very friendly staff. I recommend the Falafel sandwich, made with hummus, mixed greens, cucumber, mint, red onion, pickled beet and tahini.
Mony’s Mexican Food: For a quick, tasty, and affordable bite in the Funk Zone, you can’t miss Mony’s. They fly under the radar, with La Super Rica being the best known Mexican spot in town, but Mony’s definitely ranks up there. Their salsa bar is like no other, offering varieties like pistachio salsa?! (it’s good!), peanut salsa (yep), habanero salsa, and more, along with a variety of tacos in the $2 price range. As a bonus, all orders eaten in include free chips and salsa! So stay for a while, try some salsas you maybe wouldn’t have tried before (or even known existed) and enjoy your food at one of their several outdoor tables.
The Natural Cafe: A solid health food spot with three locations around Santa Barbara, The Natural offers a wide variety of menu items (plenty of vegetarian and vegan options) sure to please even the pickiest eater in your group. The vibe is casual and the service is fast. Some favorite menu items include the Nachos Grande, Spiritual Spinach Salad, KB’s Grilled Cheese, and S.B. Special Smoothie.
Santa Barbara Public Market: A gourmet food court and market with something for everyone, with a focus on local farms and artisanal ingredients. Grab a bowl of soup from Empty Bowl Gourmet Noodle Bar, fresh fish from the Fish Market, sample some olive oil at il Fustino Oils and Vinegars, pick up a bottle of wine from the Wine + Beer cellar, fill up on some food from Corazon Cocina or Fala Bar, and finish off with a sweet treat from Rori’s Artisanal Creamery.
The Lark: The Lark is one of Santa Barbara’s most popular restaurants right now, and it’s definitely deserved. It was named for the train of the Southern Pacific Railroad that serviced Santa Barbara from 1910-1968, and it’s located in the old Santa Barbara Fish Market building. Their menus are locally sourced and responsibly grown, changing seasonally but retaining staple items. With a great balance of indoor and outdoor seating, with very visually impressive decor throughout. Food is intended for sharing and served family style, and they have a full bar with many fun cocktails to choose from. You can make reservations, and it is highly recommended as this place opens for dinner daily at 5pm and fills up quickly. Pictured in this post are the crispy Brussel Sprouts, made with medjool dates, garum, sesame, and lime, and should definitely be the first thing you order after being seated!
Los Agaves: Casual but elegant, and free chips and salsa! Upon entering the restaurant, head to the counter to place your order then seat yourself in one of their dining room areas. You will definitely want to get here before the dinner rush, this place can get packed! Highly recommend the Agaves Enchiladas.
Milk & Honey: Small plates, so come with friends and order tons so you can try it all! A nice relaxing spot close to downtown to grab a bite and a drink.
State & Fig: Another hidden gem in Santa Barbara. A farm-to-table menu, some of the more popular items being the Chicken and Biscuits for brunch, or the Ricotta Gnocchi for dinner. Located in the beautiful La Arcada Plaza off State seat with plenty of outdoor seating.
Yellow Belly: A smaller restaurant, in a cozy, rustic space, a good go to when you’re just wanting an easy night out. The full name of the restaurant is Yellow Belly Tap Sucker Bar and Restaurant, which is a word play on a real bird named the Yellow Belly Sap Sucker, which can be found adorning their menu and other restaurant elements. Try the baked mac and cheese to start, made with gruyere, jack, parmesan and sharp cheddar, hearty and delicious.
McConnell’s Ice Cream: McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams was founded in Santa Barbara in 1949. Almost 70 years later, they are still making their ice creams in small batches, from scratch, with Central Coast, grass-grazed milk & cream that they pasteurize from raw at their creamery, which is located at The Old Dairy. In addition, they source all other ingredients from local partner farms, artisans, and purveyors. The end result is a rich, perfectly creamy ice cream with all sorts of exciting flavors, such as Sea Salt Cream and Cookies, Eureka Lemon and Marionberries, Toasted Coconut Almond Chip, with more being introduced seasonally. Check out their newest location on State Street, and order yourself something fancy like the La Tortuga or Breakfast of Champions.
Renaud’s Patisserie: Renaud’s Almond Croissants are the truth! Come here in the morning to get one while they’re hot and fresh, but really they are the best at any time of day. Located in a more laid back part of town, in the Gelson’s shopping area, and right by Chaucer’s books. Grab a book and a croissant and you’ve got your afternoon made for you.
The Blue Door: Three floors of well curated vintage and modern collections, with new items added daily, this store is a visual delight. They source most of their modern wares from local Santa Barbara companies. This is a great place to come just to window shop or to find a gift for yourself or that friend that likes something a little more unique and off-beat.
Chapala & Parker: An SB Local Boutique, located in the same neighborhood as Trim. A cute little clothing boutique with prices you can actually afford. Definitely worth straying off State Street to come see.
Civilianaire: I stumbled upon this store on my most recent visit to Santa Barbara while getting some pastries from Bree’Osh, and I don’t know how I hadn’t already heard of it. Started by the duo behind Lucky Brand and Jean Shop, the shop has a great selection of quality clothing that is made in LA. As far as I know, this is their only storefront, but their product is sold in other stores. They’re most well known for their Japanese Denim.
State Street: State Street is one of America’s most pedestrian-friendly downtowns. It has a large diversity of shopping choices, whether you are looking for national brands or indie boutiques, they’ve got it all. Give yourself plenty of time to spend walking up and down the street – stop and listen to a street performer, grab a bite from one of the many restaurants there are to choose from, buy yourself a thing or two. You can’t go wrong with a visit to State Street.
Trim Surf Shop: An unassuming little surfboard shop located just off of State Street. Come here to buy your next surfboard or a gift for a surfer friend, they’ve got just the right amount of product to choose from.
Whistle Club: Lifestyle boutique featuring designer clothing + craft coffee. Nice to see more stores like this popping up in SB! This store is another must visit while in Santa Barbara/Montecito. Really great selection for the ladies!
THINGS TO DO
Botanic Garden: A wonderful place to come spend a morning or afternoon strolling on one of their several footpaths. The Garden’s 78 acres are made up of mostly native plants, and have an amazing view of both the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Santa Barbara Channel islands. My favorite area is the Redwoods Section, nice and shady with those big beautiful trees towering over you. If you come in the spring, there might even be water in the stream nearby.
Courthouse: The SB Courthouse is a must visit when in SB. Built in 1926, the Santa Barbara Courthouse is a beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival building that occupies an entire block and still functions today as both a place for local law and visitors to walk around it’s beautiful grounds. There are several areas open to the public, including: the Mural Room, the Law Library, the sunken garden, and the observation tower (saved the best for last). The whole building is interesting to walk around, but be sure to make it up to the Observation Tower, which is perhaps the best view you’ll get in all directions of Santa Barbara, with a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. It’s free to enter, and surrounded by plenty of 2-hour free parking spaces.
Cold Spring Trail: A very woodsy and shady pretty trail which for the most part is a gradual incline, making it family friendly. Hike the 3.7 miles to the top and get a nice view of Santa Barbara. In the rainier season, you will find the trail covered in cute little salamanders, so be careful where you step! A fun trail to bring your dogs along with you. Be careful of the poison oak – don’t step off the trail, and you’ll be fine. You can also access Tangerine Falls from this trail! And the drive in the mountains to get here isn’t half bad itself.
Mission: Established in 1786, the Santa Barbara Mission gives visitors a look into the city’s origins. To this day, it is one of Santa Barbara’s main cultural and historical landmarks. It’s iconic structure, signature peach color, and beautiful grounds (the rose garden is fantastic when in season!), the Mission is a must visit when in SB, whether you decided to go on the paid tour or just explore the public areas on your own.
Mountain Drive: Self explanatory. Go get lost driving around in the hills above Santa Barbara and Montecito. Super pretty, especially after a few days of rain with a clear view out to the islands.
Museum of Natural History: Hidden away in a residential neighborhood in the foothills, this is the oldest museum in Santa Barbara (as of 2016 it will have been open for 100 years!). Upon parking and walking up to the museum you’ll be greeted by an impressive skeleton display of “Chad,” a blue whale, the largest animal to exist on earth. Known best for it’s fine dioramas of birds, mammals, and southern California habitats, and also has halls dedicated to marine life, geology, and Chumash Indian life. A fun 2-4 hour visit can be had here.
Stearns Wharf: The oldest wharf in California, Stearns Wharf is a great place to walk out onto from downtown to get a little tourist-ing in and makes for a beautiful spot to watch the sun go down. Token touristy gift shops to get yourself a magnet or t-shirt (because we all need more of those!), restaurants, ice cream shop, and the Marine Center. Free parking for the first 90 minutes, there’s no excuse to not make a quick visit out to the wharf! Easy access to the Art walk on Sundays right off the wharf, and Skater’s Point.
Zoo: Located on 30 acres right next to the ocean in Santa Barbara, this zoo’s claim to fame used to be Gemina, the giraffe with the crooked neck (she passed in 2008). Although she’s not there anymore, this zoo is still great! It’s a little smaller than most zoos, but that’s ok because bigger zoos can sometimes feel overwhelming! Beautiful scenery, lush landscapes, this zoo is well maintained and can be a very enjoyable experience for people of all ages.
Alice Keck Memorial Garden: AKA turtle park. Come here to enjoy a nice walk around the grounds, check out the variety of flowers and plant life, and to see some (a lot!) of turtles, ducks and the occasional heron in the pond in the middle of the park. Meander around the walkway that goes around the whole park, there are plenty of hidden little nooks and benches where you can steal away a nice quiet moment to yourself. This park also borders Alameda Park, where you can enjoy even more open space and a rather large playground for the kids.
Arroyo Burro/Hendry’s Beach: Otherwise known as Hendry’s Beach, another great beach in Santa Barbara to enjoy the waves or have a picnic with your family and friends. They have grills, free parking, and there’s a dog friendly area of beach here too. Win, win.
Butterfly Beach: Located along Channel drive right by the Ritz Carlton, this beach is low key and always a good time. Parking’s never really an issue, and at low tide it’s possible to walk all the way to East Beach. If you’d rather, you can also get here via the paved bike path that runs from the Wharf and stops here, it’s a really lovely ride. Unfortunately there are no public restrooms here, so plan accordingly.
East Beach: A beautiful and big beach, with nice soft sand to take long walks on or to break your fall during many a volleyball game played at their several courts on the beach. The water here is deep even at high tide, and bordered by a grassy, tree-lined park, the East Beach Grill, and a playground. Parking can get limited, but you have the option to park in a paid lot or look for free two hour parking on Cabrillo Boulevard. No dogs allowed 🙁
Lookout Park: Drive down to Summerland and catch the sunset from this nice little park/beach. Just be sure to leave before the park closes, they’re not joking and you will get locked in and possibly get a ticket!! As long as you get out on time, this is a really nice spot to stop by and have a nice picnic and enjoy the park or the beach down below the cliffs.
Thousand Steps Beach: Not quite 1000 steps, but it can sure feel like it on your way back up! This tucked away little beach makes for a great sunset walk away from the crowds of the main beaches, but still close enough that you’re not too far away from all the downtown action. Depending on what time of year you visit, you might have a smooth and sandy experience, or a rocky and tide pool visit!
Gelson’s: The fancy grocery store. Treat yourself, come here for an elevated grocery shopping experience.
Trader Joe’s: If you don’t already know by now, you really should know. One of the best! TJ’s has the best snacks around.
Tri County Produce Co: Excellent selection of fresh organic produce, right by the beach! They also have a big selection of other grocery store type items. A great local alternative to Whole Foods/Lazy Acres.
Auto Camp: Throwing it back to the 50s with an updated boutique Airstream hotel experience. Only two miles away from downtown, and each trailer comes with 2 beach cruiser bikes to roam around town with. Outfitted with all the amenities you’d need, Malin + Goetz toiletries in the bathroom (a plus!), and they have a handy guide to restaurants + attractions nearby.
Belmond El Encanto: A five star resort hotel hidden away in the hills above the Mission, with great views of the town and the ocean. Come here for a quiet and serene getaway. Enjoy some time at the pool, have a spa day, walk around the gardens, or just spend the day hidden away in one of their bungalows. Take a complimentary electric bike and make the short ride away to the mission or downtown. Also, heated marble floors in the bathrooms, and pet friendly?! Yes please.
The Wayfarer: A little more budget friendly, this hostel is located in the Arts district just a few blocks from the beach. It’s not all bunk beds! They have private rooms as well. Very modern and new and clean feeling, with a lot of fun on-site amenities.