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Getting around Santa Barbara and where to stay

Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara features some of California’s most iconic landscape. The city is situated on a stretch of sparkling coastline backed by majestic mountains and surrounded by vineyards. Explore Santa Barbara’s historic buildings and Spanish-style architecture, white-sand beaches, fine dining and wine tasting. Here’s our guide to getting around Santa Barbara, its top attractions, beaches and where to stay.

What’s in this guide?

•    Getting from the UK to Los Angeles
•    Getting from LA to Santa Barbara
•    Santa Barbara neighbourhood guide
•    Santa Barbara’s top attractions
•    Top beaches in Santa Barbara
•    Shopping in Santa Barbara
•    Where to eat in Santa Barbara
•    Best places to stay in Santa Barbara
•    Santa Barbara and the Central California Coast

Getting from the UK to Los Angeles

The most convenient way to get to Santa Barbara is to fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Direct flights go from London Gatwick and Heathrow with a variety of airlines such as Norwegian, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and United. The journey takes just over 11 hours. British Airways, United and American Airlines also offer connecting flights from Heathrow to Santa Barbara Airport, changing in Phoenix or San Francisco.

You can also fly direct from Manchester to LAX with Thomas Cook Airlines in just under 11 hours. There are connecting flights from other major UK cities such as Edinburgh, Cardiff and Southampton that change in European hubs and take upwards of 13 hours.

Getting from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara

Internal flights from LAX to Santa Barbara Airport take just under an hour with United Airlines. Most visitors incorporate Santa Barbara into a California road trip, travelling along the scenic Route 1 Pacific Coast Highway and the 101. From LA, Santa Barbara is a two-hour drive north, then you can head up the coast to San Luis Obispo County, Big Sur and the San Francisco Bay area.

Santa Barbara neighbourhood guide

Downtown State Street is the heart of Santa Barbara. Lined with restaurants and bars, it leads down to Stearn’s Wharf and the waterfront. This central section of the city is easily walkable but there are plenty of neighbourhoods a short drive away that are well worth visiting:

Goleta

Located just west of the city, Goleta is home to Santa Barbara Airport, the University of California and the annual Californian Lemon Festival. Visit Isla Vista, cycle along the coastal bike path or check out the Butterfly Preserve. Goleta also has shopping centres and a beach ideal for paddleboarding, as well as surfing at Campus Point. Head to the nearby mountains to trek The Playgrounds hiking trail.

Montecito

Lies just east of Santa Barbara and is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country. The area has been attracting the rich and famous since the 1880s and today, stars such as Oprah Winfrey own houses in Montecito. Head to the Upper Village and Coast Village Road for luxurious restaurants and shopping. There are 15 hill trails nearby with sweeping ocean views, as well as pristine sands with calm waters at Miramar and Butterfly Beach.

Summerland

Travel slightly further east and you’ll hit Summerland, a surf town known for its stellar antique shopping. There’s a quiet vibe, with plenty of local eateries and a peaceful beach below Lookout Park, a common horse riding spot. You can also do some wine tasting or wander the quaint Main Street.

Mission Canyon

Located slightly north of Santa Barbara, this area is home to La Cumbre Peak, the highest point in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Mission Canyon is a good starting point for hikes, with a number of trails. You’ll also find Rocky Nook Park and nearby, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Gardens.

Santa Ynez Valley

Drive 40 minutes northwest of Santa Barbara to this picturesque valley, home to over 200 wine tasting rooms and made up of six small towns. Santa Ynez itself is a vintage cowboy settlement, while the village of Solvang was founded by Danish-Americans and boasts windmills, farms and traditional bakeries. You’ll find more Old West heritage in Los Alamos, as well as award-winning breweries in Buellton and wine tasting in Los Olivos. Tiny Ballard is worth a stop for its rustic churches and miniature donkeys.

Santa Barbara’s top attractions

From lazy beach days to landmark buildings, museums, watersports and wine tasting, here are some of Santa Barbara’s top attractions:

The Old Mission

Santa Barbara’s most famous historical landmark was founded by Spanish Franciscans back in 1786 and remains home to friars today. The Old Mission is the last of the 21 missions set up in California that’s still active and its colonial architecture is echoed throughout Santa Barbara. Take a tour of the buildings and grounds, which include a museum, gardens and a cemetery.

Stearns Wharf

Stroll around this busy wharf, which was built in 1872 and lies at the bottom of State Street. Stearns Wharf offers incredible harbour views and is full of shops, restaurants and bars. Relax on West Beach, walk or cycle along the waterfront or even fish off the pier.

Wine tasting

Santa Barbara Wine Country has a unique climate that produces over 50 varieties of wines, from Chardonnays to Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. The best way to sample them is to take the Urban Wine Trail, which winds through downtown to the beach and includes 26 tasting rooms. In many, you can pair tastings with chocolates and cheeses. Popular stops include the Deep Sea on Stearn’s Wharf and Grassini Family Vineyards.

Lobero Theatre

Come to California’s oldest operating theatre, established in 1873, for concerts, music, operas and films. The Lobero is the hub of Santa Barbara’s performing arts scene and hosts the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, as well as ballets, plays and orchestras. Other theatre venues in the city include the Spanish-style Arlington Theatre and the Granada Theatre, established in 1924.

Golfing

Santa Barbara has a range of public and private golf courses with ocean and mountain views. Each club has its own personality, the 18-hole Sandpiper Golf Club is a public 7,000-yard course with an ocean backdrop. The Montecito Country Club is set up in the hills, while the Santa Barbara Golf Course is another favourite option.

Museums

Most are located centrally, in downtown or along the waterfront. Start with the Santa Barbara Historical Museum which details 500 years of regional history. The Maritime Museum near the harbour tells the area’s seafaring history through interactive exhibitions and don’t miss the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Other top picks include the South Coast Railroad Museum, Sea Center and Lotusland.

Watersports

Spend time swimming in the Pacific Ocean, sailing, surfing and paddle boarding, or explore the area by kayak. There are stunning sea caves to discover in the nearby Channel Islands National Park. Companies such as Cal Coast Adventures and Santa Barbara Sailing Company rent out equipment and organise charters.

Hot air ballooning

Thanks to Santa Barbara’s year-round fine climate and light winds, it’s the perfect place for a hot air balloon ride. Float over the hills, coastline and ocean at sunset or sunrise for spectacular views.

Casa del Herrero

The House of the Blacksmith dates back to the 1920's and is located in Montecito. The Casa del Herrero is one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the whole of America and is listed on the Register of Historic Places. Tour the building and its Moorish-inspired gardens. For similar architecture, visit the Santa Barbara Courthouse, which has hand-painted ceilings, tiled corridors, a clock tower and mural room depicting the history of the city.

Whale watching

Over 27 species of dolphins and whales swim in the Santa Barbara Channel, along with sea lions. These include Humpback, Gray, Orcas and Blue whales that you can spot on a whale watching tour with a company like Sunset Kidd or Condor Express. The best time for tours is between May and November, when Gray whales migrate and Blue and Humpback whales are feeding.

The Polo and Racquet Club

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains, the club is spread over 87 acres and features clubhouses, stables, eight tennis courts, a pool and Jacuzzi.

Events and festivals

June is a great time to visit for the Summer Solstice Celebration with a parade and live music, while the Santa Barbara Wine and Food Festival and California Wine Festival take place in July. Other options include the Goleta Lemon Festival, Old Spanish Fiesta Days and April’s Earth Day.

Top beaches in Santa Barbara

With over 300 days of sunshine a year, Santa Barbara is the perfect place for some beach time. Whether you’re into watersports, volleyball or sunbathing, there’s a beach to suit all tastes, here are some of the best options:

•    West Beach – borders Stearn’s Wharf and boasts fine sands and palms. This is a great place for watersports rentals and sailing tours to the nearby Channel Islands National Park. Volleyball is also popular on West Beach
•    Leadbetter Beach – has calm, light surf for swimming, paddle boarding and surf lessons. As it’s located close to downtown, Leadbetter is also one of Santa Barbara’s busiest beaches with white sands as well as a grassy lawn, showers, toilets and picnic areas
•    East Beach – located on the other side of the wharf, East Beach is also a volleyball hotspot and connects to Chase Palm Park, which hosts concerts in the summer. This lively beach also has rollerblading and bike trails, a playground, bathrooms and food vendors
•    Butterfly Beach – lies near Montecito and faces west, providing sunset views. Butterfly is a quieter, more sheltered option with calm waters for swimming, you may even spot a few Montecito celebrities here
•    Hammond’s Beach – also in Montecito, Hammond’s is a hidden gem popular with surfers and backed by Hammond’s Meadow. It lies right next to Miramar Beach, a small, south-facing cove
•    Arroyo Burro Beach – locally known as Hendry’s, this is the best beach for dog walking as it allows off-lead access. There’s also a grassy picnic area, seafood restaurant and toilets. To get to Arroyo, head west along the coast from downtown
•    Rincon Beach Park – offers world-class surfing and is tucked between nearby La Conchita and Carpinteria
•    Summerland Beach – lies below Lookout Park, just 10 minutes from Santa Barbara. There’s a playground, showers and picnic spot on this wide, sandy beach
•    Goleta Beach – set in a park, this beach is full of amenities, from barbeques to watersports rentals, volleyball courts, a restaurant and playground. There’s also a pier for fishing and plenty of room for sunbathing and swimming

Shopping in Santa Barbara

Looking for some retail therapy? Santa Barbara has everything from beach souveniers to designer stores and open-air shopping plazas. State Street has a variety of well-known shops and the Paseo Nuevo outdoor mall. La Arcada offers vintage shopping and luxury boutiques, while La Cumbre Plaza is a modern mall located uptown with the biggest range of shops. Head to Stearn’s Wharf and the harbour for souveniers and beach accessories.

Where to eat in Santa Barbara

When it comes to dining in Santa Barbara, you’re spoilt for choice with a range of fine restaurants, from Italian to Mexican, Sushi and seafood. Here are some of the highest-rated restaurants in Santa Barbara:

•    Brophy Bros. Clam Bar and Restaurant – serves delicious, locally-caught seafood and has views over Santa Barbara harbour. Try the clam chowder, beer battered fish and chips and signature Bloody Marys
•    Bouchon – lies in downtown and has a French-country dining room. Enjoy fresh, local ingredients such as fish from the Santa Barbara Channel and produce from the countryside, presented with local wines
•    Toma Restaurant and Bar – treat yourself to an Italian-Mediterranean meal at this award-winning waterfront restaurant. Dishes include grilled octopus, shrimp gnocchi and classic lasagna
•    The Lark – one of Santa Barbara’s trendiest restaurants, set in a former fish market in the Funk Zone. The menu offers artisanal, seasonal farm-to-table dishes like Spring California vegetables and West Coast oysters
•    Bella Vista at Four Seasons – this classy restaurant offers al fresco oceanfront dining with panoramic views on Butterfly beach. Choose from an Italian menu created with local ingredients and an expansive wine list
•    Yoichi’s Japanese food – if you’re in the downtown area and fancy sushi, Yoichi’s is the place to go. The restaurant offers a traditional multi-course dining experience including sashimi, soups and grilled dishes
•    McConnell’s Fine ice creams – the original store, established in 1949, lies on Mission Street but there are a couple more branches spread across the city. Ice cream flavours include whiskey and pecan pralines, peppermint stick and chocolate covered strawberries
•    Olio E Limone Ristorante – lies just off State Street and is run by a husband and wife team. The restaurant serves authentic Italian cuisine using local ingredients and specialises in Sicilian dishes

Best places to stay in Santa Barbara

There are hundreds of hotels and guesthouses in Santa Barbara, here are some of the best options:

•    Kimpton Canary Hotel – is the only hotel with a rooftop bar, restaurant and pool in Santa Barbara, offering panoramic views. It’s set just off State Street less than two miles from the beach and has 97 rooms ranging from delux to the king suite with a living room. Guests have access to nearby Gold’s Gym and FLOAT spa down the road
•    The Fess Parker, A Doubletree by Hilton Resort – this chic hotel has Mission-style architecture, a heated outdoor pool and lies close to nearby beaches. Rooms have either mountain, garden, pool or ocean views. There’s also a tennis court, fitness centre, spa and hair salon. Dine at the Roundhouse restaurant with outdoor terrace, Rodney’s Grill or The Set bistro
•    Best Western Plus Pepper Tree Inn – is located on Upper State Street, minutes from Santa Barbara’s attractions. Each room has a private balcony or patio with views of the gardens and pool. There’s a fitness centre, restaurants, sauna and spa at the resort, which boasts an Old Spanish design
•    Harbor View Inn – has 100 rooms all with balconies or patios, as well as a bar and oceanfront dining at Eladio’s. The Inn has a Spanish design theme, with a swimming pool, bar and spa. The Harbor View is ideally-located in central Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara and the Central California Coast

If you’re stopping in Santa Barbara as part of a Californian road trip, be sure to check out some of the central coast’s nearby hotspots. These include Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo County, which has 80 miles of beaches and a thriving art, food and wine scene. Enjoy outdoor adventures such as hiking and watersports and visit three wine regions: Paso Robles, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. Don’t miss the grand Hearst Castle and take a trip to Los Padres National Forest for hiking, camping and fishing.

Explore the best of California's coastal highlights with these recommended tours

 

Explore California & The Pacific Coast Self-Drive (11 nights)
Self-Drive The Great West (20 nights)
Western Discoverer Escorted Tour (13 nights)


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