Beaches, mountains, a killer food scene, and wine country … does Santa Barbara have it all? Most definitely. Move over Napa, because this Southern California destination has been climbing up high onto travelers’ bucket lists – fast. From trendy/foodie Funk Zone area downtown to the old-money Montecito crowd up in the hills, there’s no shortage of great things to do in S.B.
Sailing along Highway 101 into Santa Barbara, you’re immediately struck by the landscape all around. Mountains, dotted with white spanish-style homes, meet dramatically with the palm tree lined Pacific Coast. Surfers wade in the deep blue waters and skateboards glide along Butterfly Beach. Stretching a full 9 exits on Highway 101, downtown Santa Barbara runs parallel to the ocean. Start on the water at Stearns Wharf, soaking in the sea air and stunning views along the coast, then work your way inland to explore the city, taste some wine, and fill your belly.
what to do in Santa Barbara
The Beaches & Sunsets: The beautiful beaches of Santa Barbara can be appreciated all year round. In the warmer months, head out early to watch the fog burn off around lunchtime. Then get active in the ocean or relax on the sun drenched sands. When it’s cooler outside, grab a light jacket and opt for a afternoon walk along the surf. Our favorite is Butterfly Beach, right along Channel Drive. The rocky coast is simply stunning, a favorite among locals and playful pups, as well as surfers just after sunrise. Early evening catch the sky turn a brilliant pink for a classic, jaw-dropping West Coast sunset. Hang out for the Golden Hour and watch the sun disappear amid the famous cotton candy skies.
The Funk Zone: Equal parts Hipster-Wino-Foodie, the newly developed Funk Zone area is the place to hang out downtown. Experiencing exponential growth in the last few years, the Funk Zone has attracted some of the best new restaurants, wine tasting rooms, boutique shops, art galleries, microbreweries and more.
Old Mission Santa Barbara: Called the “Queen of the Missions”, the Old Mission Santa Barbara captures the city’s rich history in one iconic structure. At 230 years old, the Santa Barbara Mission was originally founded by Spanish Franciscans. Today, it still houses Franciscan friars and maintains an active church presence. With the desert mountains in the backdrop, the mission grounds are impeccably kept. Of particular interest, the mission’s rose garden attract visitors from all over. Spend an afternoon admiring the Mission’s beautiful architecture and history, then settle down on the green lawn for a picnic next to the rose garden.
Downtown Santa Barbara: Cruise along State Street, right into Downtown Santa Barbara for a day of shopping. While you’re sure to find big name retailers like Nordstrom, you’ll appreciate the healthy dose of local shops peppered along the block. Casual restaurants and bars are also plentiful in this area.
The Clock Tower at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse: Yes, you read that right. We’re recommending you visit a courthouse while you’re on vacation – yikes. But the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is an architectural landmark in the city and the Spanish colonial history runs deep here. You’ll be mesmerized by the colorful and intricate tiles that blanket the first few stories of the building. Climb the stairs or take the elevator to the top of the Clock Tower where the panoramic views of the city, ocean and mountains are pretty unbeatable.
After soaking the views, walk back down the stairs and check out the tiled murals along the way. We snagged a quick photo at the bottom.
Wine Country: While there are dozens of tasting rooms in the Funk Zone, true wine country is just a 45 minute drive north. In towns like Buellton, Lompoc, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Santa Maria, you’ll find some of the most gorgeous vineyards producing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varietals. We recently met with Master Sommelier Brian McClintic, and he put it best by saying, “it’s perhaps the most underrated wine region in the country. It’s humble and rustic the way the best European wine regions are”. There’s so much to see and do in wine country that we’re in the midst of creating it’s very own destination guide to help you navigate all the vineyards and trails.
where to eat in Santa Barbara
Lucky’s: The old-school steakhouse has long been a favorite among locals, especially the Montecito crowd. Black and white photos of old Hollywood greats give the place a glamorous feel, and it’s one of the only places where you’ll find fresh Abalone on the menu every single night. The velvety shellfish is served lightly pan friend in a buttery sauce – basically, to die for. Get the appetizer portion for a taste and save room for a steak or – our favorite – the Dover Sole Meuniere.
Jeannine’s Restaurant & Bakery: No visit to Santa Barbara is complete without a visit to Jeannine’s for breakfast. Everything is baked fresh and you’ll want to grab a few of the crazy-good scones or slices spice cake to save for later. The Apple Spice Bread is particularly out-of-this-world.
The Lark: The hot spot of the Funk Zone culinary scene, The Lark has some of the best food in town, including some of the most amazing brussels sprouts we’ve ever tasted. The dishes range from small bites, like Deviled Eggs with Crispy Pancetta, Jalapeño, Smoked Paprika and Chive, to delicious share-plates like the Hamachi Crudo, and a great selection of pastas as well. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss out on dinner at The Lark.
Lucky Penny: Tucked along the side of the Funk Zone, the Lucky Penny serves a tasty, relaxed lunch. Equal parts coffee shop & pizzeria and 100% chill, this little copper-penny-lined eatery pumps out delicious wood-fired pizzas and fresh salads. Grab a table on the outdoor patio for a quick nosh in between tasting room visits.
Les Marchands: This trendy wine bar attached to The Lark is probably our favorite spot for a glass of wine and small plates with friends in the evening. The wine list is extensive and exceptionally curated, but don’t let that overwhelm you. The staff can help pick the perfect glass (or bottle) and even recommend cheese and charcuterie pairings. Cheers!
La Super-Rica: Santa Barbara has lots of superb food, but Mexican definitely tops the list. A local’s landmark, La Super-Rica has long been one of the most beloved spots in town. Get there early, because the line for the famous powder-blue tacoria wraps around the block most days. While you wait, you can catch a glimpse of them pressing fresh tortillas. Simple and authentic Mexican food, La Super-Rica is favorite of just about everyone, even Ms. Julia Childs!
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company: Set over the ocean on Stearns Wharf, both the killer setting and succulent Dungeness Crab make a visit to the popular Santa Barbara Shellfish Company well worth it. Sit outside and enjoy the breathtaking views of the palm-tree-lined Santa Barbara coast while noshing on some of the freshest seafood around.
where to stay in santa barbara
Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara: Overlooking the iconic Butterfly Beach in Montecito, this Four Season’s property is simply stunning. You’ll happily get lost wandering around the 22 acres of lush tropical gardens and white Mediterranean architecture splashed with colorful tiles. The decor artfully melds Spanish Colonial style and West Coast simplicity. With two beautiful pool areas and top-notch spa, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara is an idyllic West Coast oasis.
Montecito Inn: Ever wish you could build a hotel for your friends to just come and stay at whenever they visit? That’s exactly what Charlie Chaplin did. He built the Montecito Inn in 1928, along with a few investors, and it’s still one of the top places to stay in the area. In addition to the hotel’s unique history, the rooms are fresh and modern and the location puts you walking distance from all the best restaurants and shops in charming Montecito.
Canary Santa Barbara: If you want to stay a bit closer to Downtown Santa Barbara, the Canary is your spot. Set in heart of Downtown, you’re close to the Funk Zone, wine tasting rooms, and only a few minutes drive to the beach. The rooms are spacious and the higher floors give you some great views of the city.
Belmond El Elcanto: If you’re looking for luxury, privacy, and relaxation, we know just the pace to send you. The Belmond El Encanto rests high in the foothills of Santa Barbara, so the views of the city and the Pacific below are just breathtaking. Laid out intricately with cottages and garden pathways, the property feels much more like a private estate than a hotel. The restaurant terrace has the best views for sunset around. Spend a day at the spa then take a dip their the beautiful. You’ll feel like you’re swimming right out onto the edge of the world. When booking, be sure and snag a cottage with a fire place to cozy up to when the sun goes down.
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