Santa Barbara Travel Guide

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Situated along an east-west section of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara stretches from pristine south-facing shores to the rugged San Rafael Wilderness Area. Known for its creative and diverse population of free-thinking hippies, dedicated farmers, surfing cowboys, inspired artists, discreet celebs, fabled eccentrics, and students from all over the world, this town was built upon the dreams of an industrious bunch—a requisite trait needed to come up with ways to afford the seaside enclave's ever increasing cost of living. But whether dwelling high on the hog in the coveted Hope Ranch, Riviera, and Montecito neighborhoods, or in a modest pad on the westside of State Street, north in Goleta, or on the breezy Mesa, Santa Barbara residents love their town and it's evident in the city's boisterous festivals. The annual Summer Solstice Celebration is a pagan paradise, Old Spanish Days Fiesta is a nod to the city's roots, and Earth Day began in town as a response to the area's devastating 1969 oil spill. In between festivals you can always count on weekly farmers markets to bring together chefs, shoppers, and the soil-tilling growers in the community—including winemakers from the renowned Santa Ynez Valley grape-growing region, and ranchers who work the same land founded by the city's earliest Spanish inhabitants.

With Brooks Institute of Photography, Santa Barbara City College, University of California Santa Barbara, and Westmont College within a stone's throw of each other, heaps of students frequent State Street's quaint coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants, music venues, and of course, the many clubs and bars that come alive at night. But not all of the city's favorite haunts are reserved for student life; locals favor off the beaten path pubs, cafes, and wine bars that serve up Central Coast vintages, creative farmers market inspired dishes and cocktails, and live music. The legendary Santa Barbara Bowl is an intimate amphitheater nestled into a neighborhood hillside and draws big names to the stage, including well-known music makers that call the county home—think David Crosby, Jack Johnson, and Kenny Loggins. Historic downtown theaters including the Arlington and the recently refurbished Granada host dance and theater companies, comedians, authors, politicians, and more, who are wooed by UCSB's celebrated Arts & Lectures program. 

The intrepid traveler will be glad to know that outdoor adventures are also on the menu in Santa Barbara. Hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing are favorite activities in the Santa Ynez Mountains, while Pacific waters are prime for surfing, stand up paddling, kayaking, diving, and more. The mountains are a few miles from the heart of town and offer everything from short day hikes and bike rides, to multi-day backpacking trips. Famed wave riders Kelly Slater and Bobby Martinez have been known to ride local point breaks, but plenty of nearby waves are slow and safe for beginners. If you'd rather enjoy a dry day on the water, charter a sailboat from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center or head to the harbor and hop on a water taxi for a sunset cruise. Of course, you can always get your aquatic fix with a stroll along the shore and fish 'n' chips from Harbor haunts Brophy Bros. and Longboards, or even on the sand at Shoreline Beach Cafe.

If shopping and eating are your main concern, look no further than downtown's State Street—home to boutiques, cafes, and bookstores. Pick up Santa Barbara styles at local shops such as Wendy Foster and Blue Bee, or hit the bigger department stores in Paseo Nuevo—a mall of cobble stone pathways that lead to a movie theater, restaurants, salons, and more. To indulge in the city's gastronomic delights, stay on State Street for authentic Italian cuisine and wine on tap at Palazzio, or walk a few blocks off State for melt-in-your-mouth butternut squash ravioli with sage butter sauce at family-owned Ca Dario. With the city's strong Latin roots, you can count on epic Mexican eats at Carlitos Cafe and Cantina and Los Arroyos, and Argentinian treats and flamenco dancing at Cafe Buenos Aires. Local fish and California fare (think salads and anything with avocado) are also around every corner—The Hungry Cat serves up the freshest fish and imaginative cocktails, and Milk & Honey specializes in wine and tapas. If you dare to venture away from downtown, you'll find fabled haunts that have been serving Santa Barbara for decades. Arnoldi's is a classic Italian eatery with fierce bocce ball tourneys out back, and Harry's has served its hearty sandwiches and cocktails to everyone from Robert Mitchum to Bo Derek. Once the lights go down, dusty pubs, sleek bars, and live music venues open for business around State Street. Since 1928, Joe's Cafe has maintained its reputation for the stiffest drinks around, while across the street the James Joyce is known for big band tunes, peanut husk-covered floors, and Santa Barbara Blondes (by the pint and on the dance floor).

From historic watering holes, fine dining, wild nightlife, and rootsy bands to notable landmarks and adventure on both land and sea, Santa Barbara has a little something for everyone.

Where to Go in Santa Barbara

TOP PICKS BY OUR LOCAL EXPERTS

Presidio Motel

1620 State Street

Sleek and hip, Presidio redefines the definition of a motel.

Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

Chumash Native American rock paintings dating back more than 400 years.

milk & honey

30 West Anapamu

Low lights, exotic tapas, and inventive cocktails.

James Joyce

513 State Street

Darts, pool, live music, and local brews are the draw at this Santa Barbara staple.

Santa Barbara Blog Posts

UPDATES FROM OUR TRAVEL TEAM

Channel Islands HeliTours
Check out the sights of the Central Coast and the lush Channel Islands with a bird's eye view of the landscape on a Channel Islands Helicopter tour (from $250 for three passengers). Based out of Oxnard airport, heli-tours by chief pilot Daniel Casey take off for flights from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara... Read more

Style Your Sole
Head to Santa Barbara's prAna at Santa Barbara Outfitters, 1200 State St., Santa Barbara, tomorrow for a SOLE-ful Sunday of live music and artful footwear. If you purchase a pair of TOMS shoes, one of eight local artists will be available to customize your kicks for free. Each artist has donated a pair... Read more

Cinco de Mayo
Celebrate the fifth of May and Santa Barbara's rich cultural heritage at the 20th annual Cinco de Mayo Festival on May 7th and 8th, from 11 am until 10 pm. Head to Plaza de la Guerra and at the historic Casa de la Guerra to enjoy live music, tasty Mexican fare, craft booths, frosty drinks, and activities... Read more


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