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A definitive guide to a wine, sun, and shopping-filled trip to Santa Barbara. 

Alex Schechter
January 22, 2018

Cities are always searching for new ways to improve or expand, yet with Santa Barbara’s year-round mild weather, gleaming Spanish colonial buildings, and laid-back surf culture, it’s hard to think of anything that could really improve this California destination.

Indeed, some even refer to Santa Barbara as the “American St. Tropez.” A vacation here requires very little planning: from downtown, you’ll be within easy reach of restaurants and shops at Stearns Wharf (the city’s most visited landmark), not to mention other fun things to do, whether it’s world-class museums, or Santa Barbara’s famous Urban Wine Trail — a consortium of local vineyards, with 29 tasting rooms all situated within walking distance of each other.

Whether you're seeking a laidback beach getaway or a sophisticated cultural experience, Santa Barbara has something for every type of traveler. 

Where is Santa Barbara?

At the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is framed by exquisite scenery — lush wine country on one side, the rippling, blue Pacific Ocean on the other. Connected to other coastal California towns by scenic Highway 101, a road trip is one of the best ways to visit Santa Barbara, though Amtrak also has a route going from San Francisco to San Diego, with a stop in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara’s Top Attractions

The majority of visitors are drawn to Santa Barbara’s white sand beaches and easy-to-navigate downtown area, but the options for what to do extend well beyond just swimming and shopping. There are dozens of points of interest scattered around Santa Barbara’s scenic harborfront and bustling State Street, with a heavy focus on fine art, kid-friendly activities, and architecture.

At the newly opened MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, kids finally have a reason to get excited about hanging out in a science museum. With hands-on exhibits (like build-your-own racecar tracks, and musical instruments powered by the wind and the sun) spread over the building’s three floors and panoramic rooftop, the prospect of choosing just one station to explore can be daunting.

As fine art museums go, few in California are up to the standards of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (free admission every Thursday). The collection features original works by artists from all over Asia, Europe, and the Americas, all housed in small, meticulously kept galleries.

Santa Barbara’s iconic Spanish tile and leafy promenades are front and center at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The landmark building has a clock tower, which visitors can ascend for 360 degree views of the town. Or simply have a picnic in the adjacent Sunken Garden, which hosts free outdoor movie screenings every Friday during the summer.

Best Beaches in Santa Barbara

Historic Stearns Wharf is bordered by laid-back West Beach, which is fronted by rows of towering palm trees and makes a convenient access point to the harbor for sailing tours and kayak rentals.

Slightly east of downtown, secluded Butterfly Beach offers a quieter, more sheltered experience — ideal for anyone looking to get away from crowds.

Traveling with your pooch? Arroyo Burro Beach has been a favorite of local dog owners for years, partly because of the pet-friendly policy, but also because of the public beach’s great swimming, soft sand, and BBQ grills for evening gatherings.

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Major Events and Festivals in Santa Barbara 

Santa Barbara is home to an unexpectedly high number of voting members from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and it follows that the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival is held in high esteem by actors, directors, producers, and movie critics alike. More than 90,000 attendees show up for over 200 films and symposiums, making it one of the leading film festivals in the country.

In an effort to appease as many oenophiles as possible, Santa Barbara stages not one but two major wine festivals each year. At the end of June there’s the Santa Barbara Wine and Food Festival, where you’ll get face time with notable winemakers from all along the central coast. Two weeks later, the California Wine Festival opens it up with even more vendors, gourmet restaurants, and wineries representing the entire state.

Seeking something more light-hearted? In September, the California Lemon Festival takes over the town of Goleta (25 minutes west of Santa Barbara) with a string of citrus-related tastings (think: Lemon pie! Lemon ale! Lemon ricotta pancakes!). The event also has a program of live music and a kids’ area with bouncy houses and miniature golf.

Fireworks in Santa Barbara 

There might be no more beautiful destination along the California coast to watch fireworks explode than in Santa Barbara. The yearly Fourth of July celebrations begin with a parade, followed by a party with food vendors and live music at West Beach, and then fireworks lighting up the harborfront around 9:00 p.m.

Shopping in Santa Barbara

Downtown Santa Barbara is a pedestrian’s paradise, with independent shops, European-style bakeries, and plenty of benches for people-watching. There's eclectic State Street, for example, which has everything from imported Italian pottery to one of California’s oldest bookstores. Along the way, stop in at summery outdoor mall Paseo Nuevo, where patios and trickling fountains make for a pleasant mid-afternoon hideout.

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Santa Barbara’s Best Restaurants

With Santa Barbara’s proximity to established wine country farms, not to mention fresh-caught shrimp and sea urchin, the coastal stopover has quickly become a magnet for foodies. Edgy, contemporary dining rooms now vie for space along State Street and in the city’s up-and-coming Funk Zone, guaranteeing plenty of top-notch places to eat in Santa Barbara.

Most Romantic Restaurant: The Lark

Cheap Eats: Hana Kitchen

Best Brunch Restaurant: Les Marchands

Best Seafood Restaurant: Brophy Bros.

Best Spanish Restaurant: Loquita

Best Bars in Santa Barbara 

Santa Barbara’s famous Urban Wine Trail holds court as one of California’s most interesting — and accessible — places to knock back a glass of Chardonnay or micro-batch Pinot Grigio, depending on what you’re into. With 29 tasting rooms clustered around downtown and the beach, it’s entirely possible to sample bottles from over a dozen different vineyards without ever once leaving the city.

A former warehouse in the gritty Funk Zone has been reimagined as an evening-only food hall. The Waterline, as it’s known, comes alive with an attractive mix of locals and curious visitors, who can sip wine on the patio, sample craft beer that’s made on site, or order a basket of delicious fries through the takeout window at Nook.

Easy Day Trips from Santa Barbara

If you’ve come to Santa Barbara (like many travelers), to drink wine, then you can’t leave without a quick getaway to see the vineyards. A 45-minute drive from downtown, the Santa Ynez Valley has all the markings of classic wine country: rolling green hills, quaint farm towns, and an equal focus on both gourmet food as much as wine. Coastal Concierge offers customizable wine tours, ranging from the scenic to the more daring, But whether you’re in a helicopter or a Mercedes SUV, the opportunity to be whisked to some of the top wineries in the nation is one you shouldn’t pass up.

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Where to Stay in Santa Barbara 

Ideal for a weekend escape from neighboring Los Angeles, Santa Barbara doesn’t kid around when it comes to relaxing, well-appointed places to stay. The city’s magnificent coastline offers up several attractive beachfront hotels, while further up in the mountains there are heavenly resorts for those who want to be close to the wineries.

Luxury Hotels

Along the Pacific Coast, less than 20 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, is the The Ritz-Carlton Bacara — a Mediterranean-inspired property spread across 78 acres. one of the area’s top-rated luxury hotels. Closer to the heart of things is the Hotel Californian, a built-from-scratch Mission Revival villa spanning three city blocks. The design incorporates two million pieces of hand-painted tile from Morocco. Behind the lobby, the hotel’s Blackbird (by Chef Alexander La Motte, a Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller alum) has emerged as one of the town’s best dinner spots. 

Boutique Hotels

Great boutique hotels in Santa Barbara include the 158-room Kimpton Goodland, which channels the town’s laid-back surfer vibe with beachy rooms and even a vinyl record shop in the lobby.

Affordable Hotels

Meanwhile, the colorful Wayfarer is a sure bet in the affordable hotels category. The property boasts hostel-style dorm rooms as well as private units, all with access to the outdoor pool and communal kitchen in the lobby (free breakfast is included for all guests).

Vacation Rentals in Santa Barbara

Don’t just limit yourself to hotels, though. Throughout Santa Barbara, enviable deals can be found on sites like Airbnb and HomeAway, which offer guest quarters inside modern beach homes, downtown apartments, and plush country wine estates.

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