In what felt like my millionth trips to LA, it seemed about time I visit Santa Barbara and do the coastal drive from Malibu. If you’re wondering what to do in Santa Barbara, the answer is EVERYTHING and most of it is doable in a weekend, but who doesn’t want a full week in paradise? Most of the action centers around State Street, which has the majority of the shops, bars and restaurants in the area. It also borders the pier and beach, as well as “funk zone” where you can do the Urban Wine Trail and sample local vineyards. If you need help planning your trip make sure to stop by the Visitor Center at 1 Garden Street (across from the beach). They are incredibly helpful in helping you find the best hotel deals, plan your wine tour and other activities. Our complete guide below!
What to do in Santa Barbara
- Urban Wine Trail (most of the wineries are dog friendly)
It’s a charming series of wineries and some breweries with tasting menus. It’s a very cool way to try local vineyards all in the comfort of downtown Santa Barbara. Make sure to start or at least make it to “the funk zone” and visit the Santa Barbara Winery (the oldest winery in the county), Santa Barbara Wine Collective, Corks n’ Crowns, and Paradise Springs. If you’re a fan of sparkling wines, Riverbench Winery is not to be missed. These are all within blocks of each other. For the sunset, head to Deep Sea Wine on the pier (about a 5 minute drive or 15min walk), sit outside and take in the view as you enjoy their exceptional wines. If you’re higher up on State Street, check out Jamie Sloan, Au Bon Climate and a few others in the area. Make sure to stop by the visitors center or website for a complete map.
- Santa Barbara Courthouse
It’s free, right in town, and you can take the elevator to the top for the best 360 panoramic view of the city. It’s an active courthouse and equally as stunning on the inside as outside, make sure to take a moment on the rooftop and in the garden.
- Walk/run/eat/drink/sunset cruise/eat ice cream/bike on the pier The boardwalk and pier is lovely and has several restaurants and tourist shops along the course to stop in. The walk/bike path goes along the water, and is a great way to start or end your day. For bike rentals of all sizes check out Wheel Fun Rentals. They have three convenient locations, and carry everything from electric to cruiser bikes (or our favorite the surreys).
- Shopping From the pier (at the bottom of State Street), to the top the street has stores for miles. Everything you could ever want from contemporary chains to specialty boutiques, antique, to second hand shops, bars and restaurants.
- Salt Cave Located right in town on State Street, it’s the largest underground crystal salt cave in North America. We’re talking floor to ceiling healing Himalayan salt to open your lungs! The air in the caves are infused with microparticles of the salt. Make sure to stop in for a “Walk in Session” which is a 45 minute relaxation in the cave. They also offer spa services, skincare products, yoga classes and other events (check out their website for more).
- Whale/Dolphin Watching There are a few sailing options, we did the Double Dolphin sunset cruise and hopped aboard the 50-ft catamaran and drank wine while we cruised by sea lions and even a whale in the yonder.
- Santa Barbara Trolley – See below under transportation options. This is one of the most fun and affordable ways to get around Santa Barbara and hit all the major attractions.
Additional attractions not in downtown: Santa Barbara Zoo, Museum of Natural History, the historic Old Mission, wine tasting in Santa Ynez region. The tourism board can also offer many more suggestions and attractions based on your trip!
How to get around
Santa Barbara Trolley ($22)- A guided trolley where you can see the American Riviera in 90 minutes or jump off and on all day. You also get the 2nd day free to hit any destinations you missed or do them again. The trolley makes all local stops including the Santa Barbara Courthouse, Santa Barbara Zoo, Museum of Natural History, the historic Santa Barbara Mission. They are also available for private tours and wine tours.
State Street Waterfront Shuttle (50 cents) – offers frequents shuttle service, up and down State Street and the waterfront area. And I mean… it’s only 50 cents!
Driving – there is tons of 90 minute complimentary parking and lots around town, however Santa Barbara is very walkable.
Uber/Lyft – Great choices since the downtown spans a few miles and sometimes you just need a quick lift.
Biking and other rentals (see Wheel Fun) are also available.
Where to Stay
Hotel Californian (dog friendly) – The newest hotel in the area and five star for their rooms, decor, and service. Situated at the bottom of State Street, the location is prime. It’s blocks from the beach/pier and steps from the Funk Zone/Urban Wine Trail. With a gorgeous roof deck (with a pool coming soon!) to layout and watch the sunset or enjoy a bottle of wine, everything about the property is chic and luxurious.
Hotel Milo (dog friendly) – If you’re looking for something more affordable and on the water, Hotel Milo is a great option. Located across the street from the beach, two blocks from State Street. Make sure to call when booking because their double bed rooms on the first floor don’t hold a candle to their second floor rooms, which are much more spacious and are offered at the same price. There’s also a lovely intimate sitting area on the 2nd floor where you can watch the waves and take in the view of the pier.
There isn’t a shortage of other options on State Street, we didn’t make it inside but the Hotel Santa Barbara, Hotel Indigo, Kimpton Canary Hotel we’re also on our radar for downtown. If you’re the in the Goleta area (about a 15-20 minute drive from State Street), the Kimpton Goodland is one of the most Instagrammable hotels to stop in for a drink or bite. If you decide to stay there upgrade to a suite, the rooms we’re tight and not as inspiring as the rest of the property but one of the best options for the area.
Where to Grab a Bite/Drink
Joe’s Cafe – classic American Steakhouse that’s been around since 1928. Known for the stiffest cocktails in town, this is a great option for small and large parties alike.
La Super-Rica – If it’s good enough for Julia Child… the famous family run Mexican Taqueria is no frills. Everything is fresh, and they make the corn tortillas by hand. Order from a window and eat on picnic tables on the covered patio.
We had several recommendations for cocktails including Sandbar, 7 Bar, Bobcat, Good Lion, and Santo Mezcal (which was also suggested for dinner). Red Piano is great for music and cocktails, and Wildcat for cocktails and dancing. Most of them were on the same block and hit or miss as far as ambiance depending on the night and entertainment.
If you’re into breweries, Santa Barbara Brewery restaurant came recommended.
For coffee, State Street Coffee is the perfect grab and go spot for some great, if you’re looking for more of sit down and wonderful breads, pastries, head to Helena Avenue Bakery inside the Santa Barbara Wine Collective. This adorable bakery also has a wonderful outside seating area.
There are also several restaurants on the pier which are great for seafood and views.