Santa Barbara is the epitome of casual, chilled-out California. It has a small-town feel and coastal vibe which makes it a great place to just take it easy. I’ve been spending the past 6 months living in Santa Barbara, and have come up with a list of the top must do’s + a few of my favorite spots that are little off the beaten path. Each of these activities are things that a solo traveler should feel comfortable doing alone, but will also suit those traveling with others. Here’s the list:
The top 10 Things To Do in Santa Barbara:
1. Stroll down Stearns Wharf
The first thing you should do when you get to Santa Barbara is head to the pier: Stearns Wharf. This beachfront boardwalk is the perfect introduction to the Santa Barbara lifestyle. You’ll see people playing beach volleyball, sunbathing, kayaking, swimming, paddle boarding, fishing, and sailing - some of the major activities amongst locals of this very active community. There are a few shops and restaurants on Stearns Wharf, most of which are pretty touristy. It’s fun to browse in the souvenir shops, but you won’t need to allot more than an hour or so to peruse around Stearns Wharf. When you’re finished here, follow the end of the pier onto State Street where you will find yourself in downtown Santa Barbara.
2. Head Downtown
Santa Barbara does not have your typical hustling, bustling downtown. Downtown Santa Barbara is actually decidedly mellow. There are no skyscrapers here and in fact, the tallest building, the Granada Theatre, is only 8 stories tall. Most of the buildings, designed in Spanish colonial style with red-tile roofs and white adobe walls, are only 1-2 stories max.
State Street, the major thoroughfare which runs through the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, is lined with an abundance of shops, boutiques, restaurants, bars, theaters, etc. Take your time strolling down State Street and pop into any storefront which catches your eye. Here are some of my favorite downtown stops.
Plum Goods: A gift shop that carries locally-made and inspired goods. Perfect for a souvenir you’ll actually want to gift and/or use
Lewis & Clark: A quirky little antique store
Savoy Cafe and Deli: Family-owned cafe offering lots of light, healthy, and organic options
Dawn Patrol: A breakfast place famous for its “build your own” breakfast hash. Tip: get the sweet potato base
Scarlett Begonia: A breakfast/brunch place with fabulous food, fun cocktails and courtyard seating
Handlebar Coffee Roasters: arguably the best coffee in town (with kombucha on tap!)
3. Get Outside
Life in Santa Barbara is simply best spent outside. Fairly low humidity and temperatures in the mid to low 70’s make a nice day in Santa Barbara just glorious. You should absolutely do as the locals do in Santa Barbara and get outside. One of the easiest ways to do this is to take a hike. There are plenty of trails in Santa Barbara to suit every activity level. One of the most popular trails is the climb to Inspiration Point. The trail is 3.5 miles (round-trip) with an elevation gain of roughly 900 feet. Once you reach the top, you’ll be about 1,800 feet above Santa Barbara and you’ll have beautiful views of the entire city, the coast, and the Channel Islands. You will definitely break a little bit of a sweat on this trail, but the view is well worth it.
Alternatively, you can opt for kayaking, paddle boarding or biking around town as an option. Or simply take a stroll down one of the many beaches in the area.
A caveat about the beach:
Santa Barbara has beautiful beaches with dramatic cliffs and impressive, deep blue ocean swells. But looks aren’t everything. What no one tells you about Santa Barbara’s beaches is the following:
There are oil rigs immediately off shore. A disappointing eyesore.
You will most likely end up with thick, black tar (naturally occurring and not related to the oil rigs) on the bottom of your feet/shoes.
Due to the abundant kelp forests in the ocean, massive amounts of seaweed and kelp wash up on shore which unfortunately attracts flies.
If you expect to spend your days in Santa Barbara lounging on a luxurious beach, you might wind up disappointed. I include this information so that you can plan a better trip which focuses on the many, many other things Santa Barbara has to offer other than the beach.
4. Visit the Major Sites
The Mission: Officially founded by Franciscan monks in 1786, the Santa Barbara Mission is an important piece of Santa Barbara history. These monks came from Mexico which was then ruled by Spain. Thus, the Mission was constructed with traditional Spanish-style architecture which inspired much of the architecture that exists in Santa Barbara today.
The Courthouse: Another fine example of Spanish Colonial architecture (specifically Spanish Colonial Revival architecture) is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. After a devastating 1925 earthquake destroyed the courthouse which was initially built here in 1872, the courthouse was rebuilt and redesigned in the style of the Santa Barbara Mission. The courthouse is free and open to the public. Venture up the steep clocktower stairs to gain unbeatable views of the courthouse “sunken gardens”, the Santa Ynez Mountains and downtown Santa Barbara.
Other museums and major sites:
The Natural History Museum
The Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
5. Take a day trip to the Channel Islands
Located 20 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara are a collection of 5 volcanic islands, part of the California Channel Islands chain. The Channel Islands collectively house an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem. Here you will find magnificent kelp forests, sea caves and marine life like seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, and many species of fish. On land you’ll find mountains, canyons, forests, 14 endangered or threatened species of plants and some that are found nowhere else in the world. A local charter company, Island Packers, takes trips out to the Channel Islands almost daily, and Santa Barbara Adventure Company is a great resource if you wish to take a kayaking tour! Overall, it is well worth the time to take the trip out to one of these fantastic islands.
6. Take a day trip to Los Olivos
A friend suggested I visit this little “one street town” called Los Olivos located about an hour from Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, and I must say that my day spent in Los Olivos has been one of my favorite experiences here in Central California. Los Olivos is indeed a very small town. But this little town is home over two dozen tasting rooms for both wine and beer, at least a dozen different shops and a handful of fantastic restaurants.
Enjoy the easy drive through the mountains from Santa Barbara and arrive in Los Olivos by late morning/early afternoon. Grab a gourmet sandwich at Panino for lunch and take your time browsing in the various boutiques around town. Take a peek into the many tasting rooms and choose a few with a vibe that matches your style. I highly, highly recommend heading to Solminer Wine for a tasting of the most delicious organic & biodynamic wine I have ever had. I bought 4 bottles.
If you’d like, you can take a detour on the way back to Santa Barbara and take a sneak peak/have an early dinner in the curious little city of Solvang. Every building on the main street in Solvang looks like it was plucked right out of a Danish village. They even have a windmill. It’s like a little Christmas village in the middle of Central California. Definitely worth the drive!
Note: If you don’t want to make the drive, there’s always the option to join a wine tour!
7. Dine on seafood
There is no shortage of dining options in Santa Barbara. For seafood, here are some of my favorite options:
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach: Boathouse is located directly on the beach in Santa Barbara. A glass wall protects diners from the breeze while preserving uninterrupted views of the ocean. Appropriate attire is what I would call “beachy business casual”.
Shoreline Cafe: Another great option for seafood. I’m pretty sure this is the only place in Santa Barbara which actually has tables on the beach. Atmosphere is casual.
Enterprise Fish Company: Enterprise is located in a cool, lofty building in the “Funk Zone” downtown. This restaurant does not have a view, but it does have a great menu. The steamed muscles are to-die-for.
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company: Located at the very end of Stearns Wharf, the views from SB Shellfish Co. are unbeatable. Order from the counter and enjoy at one of the picnic tables outside. Atmosphere is very casual.
Los Agaves: Los Agaves is actually a Mexican restaurant, but many of their seafood dishes feature local, wild-caught seafood. A great place to go for a good margarita!
8. Explore the “Funk Zone”
Similar to the Warehouse District in New Orleans, the Santa Barbara Funk Zone has managed to take empty warehouses and graffiti-covered walls and somehow turn them into something cool. Modern eateries, 20+ tasting rooms, hip boutiques and art galleries have all made the “funk zone” their homes. Very popular amongst Santa Barbara’s contemporary crowd, this is almost always a happening place. A great way to get an introduction to this funky corner of Santa Barbara is by taking a food tour. Get a little taste of Santa Barbara history and a sample of the variety of offering present in the Funk Zone.
9. Visit a public market
Visiting a public market is a great way to get a taste of local life and incorporate a unique activity into your itinerary. Here are the options:
Sunday: Visit the Santa Barbara Arts and Craft Show which is located along the beach road of Cabrillo Boulevard. Almost 200 local artists set up booths and tents to showcase their artwork, paintings, pottery, jewelry and other crafts. This event takes place every Sunday and has been since 1965! Open 10am - sunset.
Tuesday and Saturday: The Santa Barbara Farmers Market comes to State Street every Tuesday from 4-7:30 pm and every Saturday from 8:30am - 1pm!
Visit the actual Santa Barbara Public Market: Trendy cafeteria-style markets are sweeping the nation. Santa Barbara’s newest establishment is the Santa Barbara Public Market which features about 9 different stalls, each with their own unique focus. This is the perfect place to visit if you’re not sure what kind of “food mood” your in. Browse the different options and choose whichever place strikes you in the moment.
Also, check santabarbaraca.com to see what festivals might be going on during your stay!
10. Catch a live performance
There are multiple theaters and performance venues in Santa Barbara, and you can almost be guaranteed that there is something going on every week of the year.
The Santa Barbara Bowl: one of the most famous venues in Santa Barbara. The SB Bowl is an outdoor amphitheater located in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking the city. It is open from April - October every year. This concert venue has seen many big names throughout its history including Bob Marley, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan.
The Granada Theatre: a beautiful venue which hosts a variety of theatrical performances throughout the year like plays, symphonies, operas, ballets and concerts. A historical icon in Santa Barbara, it is an absolute treat to witness a performance in this fabulous theatre.
The Ensemble Theatre: a local, professional theatre company which puts on regular performances throughout the year which very in genre from traditional to avant-garde.
The Arlington Theatre: yet another performance venue which hosts regular concerts, comedy shows and films.
Lobero Theatre: Founded in 1873 and rebuilt in 1924, the Lobero theatre is a historic building in Santa Barbara. This intimate venue hosts both local and big-name musical performances - many of which have traditionally been jazz musicians.
A few final notes about visiting Santa Barbara:
Beware the June Gloom.
Ever heard of June Gloom? Me neither. Until I came to Santa Barbara.
In the months of May, June, and July, Central and Southern California experience a daily dose of dense fog. This fog termed the “marine layer” rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and looms overhead for most of the day. If the fog does burn off, it is in the late afternoon. Pair this with cold wind and perpetual mist and you’ll start to wonder if you’re still in California. If you are taking a trip to see Santa Barbara, you should see it at its best, and late spring to early summer is not it.
While the “June Gloom” is indeed a bummer, the weather is consistently beautiful once it passes. The months of August, September, and October bring blue skies and the ideal temperature: just warm enough but not too hot. Truthfully, the weather is unbelievably perfect once the June Gloom bids us adieu. This is why I think August - October is the best time to plan your trip to Santa Barbara. This is also a fantastic time to visit wine country, so consider adding a few days to your itinerary and venture to Napa and Sonoma for a few days!
Staying over 2 days? Rent a car.
This list of top 10 things to do in Santa Barbara includes some things that are technically outside of Santa Barbara. If you’re just visiting for a weekend, there is plenty to do within Santa Barbara to keep you occupied, but any longer than that and it would be worth your while to take a couple of day trips to nearby areas. If you are nervous about parking, traffic, etc., just know that Santa Barbara is actually a relatively small city, and driving around is nothing to stress about.
Here is a helpful link to a Google Maps list of these spot + a few extras!
If you have any questions or comments about what to do/where to go in Santa Barbara, leave us a comment below!
Author: Madeline Freret
Madeline joined the Astrid Solo Travel Advisor team as a Content and Digital Marketing Manager in 2018. She believes that traveling is an essential aspect of life that allows you to see yourself, other people, places and things in a new light. She is passionate about trying new things, having a curious mind and seeking joy wherever she goes. To read more about her and each one of our Solo Travel Advisors, head over to the About page!