Touting itself as “the American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is where the Santa Ynez Mountains melt into the Pacific Ocean in central California. A Santa Barbara day trip will encompass gorgeous weather, charming Spanish-Colonial architecture, a rich history, unlimited choices in restaurants and bars, and diverse outdoor activities.
A picture-perfect harbor, pristine beaches, artsy Mediterranean vibe, and a mere two-hour drive from Los Angeles make it the perfect getaway. It’s also the setting of the quirky television series, Psych.
Santa Barbara warrants more than just a day trip, but if that’s all you can muster, here are some of the best things to choose from.
1. Mission Santa Barbara
Established in 1786 by Franciscan friars, the gorgeous pale pink-columned church (still active friars there) is set on 13 acres of beautiful gardens, a cemetery with a mausoleum, museum and gift shop. Guided and self-guided tours are available.
2. Santa Barbara Courthouse
The Santa Barbara Courthouse is a highlight for anyone visiting the city. Built in 1929, the adobe Spanish-Colonial Revival building is surrounded by lush, landscaped gardens and palm trees.
The fully functioning courthouse is the place to go to get the best views over the city. Head to the roof for 360-degree views from the wrought iron enclosed terrace.
The interior is also stunning, with mosaic tiled staircases modeled after designs from Spain, chandeliers, hand-painted murals, and clock tower. Free tours are available for those interested in the history of the courthouse.
3. El Presidio
Right off the main street in downtown are the remnants of one of California’s early forts.
Not much of the original fort remains, but archaeological excavations are ongoing, having restored two of the original buildings with others reconstructed in the 1782 style (the year Santa Barbara was founded).
4. Hike to Knapp’s Castle
For a day trip, you can easily fit in the 0.8-mile round trip hike up to Knapp’s Castle. Built in 1916 for Union Carbide chairman George Knapp, the once-impressive mansion is now a fascinating series of burned-out ruins. But scenic ruins they are. The views of Lake Cachuma and the Santa Ynez Valley from the trio of stone archways are spectacular!
There are also longer, more difficult hikes in the Padres National Forest or Tangerine Falls for those seeking more challenge with longer time to stay.
5. Lunch on Stearns Wharf
The Wharf was originally built in 1874, suffering four fires, each time being rebuilt to its former thriving glory. Just a short walk from the harbor, the picturesque pier overlooking the Pacific with the Santa Ynez Mountains just behind is the #1 Instagram spot in Santa Barbara. It’s a great place to hang out, for an hour or an entire afternoon. There are plenty of small shops to browse as well as the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center where you can learn about the marine life and water surrounding Santa Barbara – the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Barbara Channel.
The pier is a great place to have lunch at one of the handful of small restaurants. Most offer outdoor seating with expansive ocean views. My fish and chips were delicious!
6. Leadbetter Beach
Santa Barbara has miles of coast hosting beaches that are accessible year-round. Leadbetter Beach is especially popular with locals. The windy conditions make it perfect for surfing and sailing, but there are also other activities such as scuba diving, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, fishing, and more.
7. Kayak Channel Islands Sea Caves
For the more adventurous, the Channel Islands eight-island archipelago lies just off the coast of Santa Barbara. You can rent a kayak and paddle through the largest number of incredible sea caves in the world, especially around Santa Cruz Island. Channel Islands National Park has come to be known as “the Galapagos Islands of North America,” so keep an eye out for the sea lions, dolphins, cormorants, and peregrine falcons!
8. Shoreline Park
Located on the bluffs of Santa Barbara, Shoreline Park has paths for strolling to take in the views of the ocean as well as the Santa Ynez Mountains. It has also been known to be a great spot for spotting whales in the Pacific. The park has a staircase that leads down to the beach.
9. State Street
From Stearn’s Wharf, it’s just a few blocks and you’re in Santa Barbara’s downtown. State Street is the main hub with shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and arcade. On Sundays, there’s an outdoor art walk displaying works from artists from all over the country.
10. Old Spanish Days
Old Spanish Days is an eight-day fiesta usually held in Santa Barbara during the end of July – beginning of August. The fiesta strives to preserve and perpetuate the California cultural heritage and traditions of the Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and early American pioneers that comprise the rich cultural heritage of Santa Barbara. Making wide use of local volunteers, the celebration fosters a spirit of community participation and civic pride. From the first fiesta parade in 1924, the nearly ninety-year-old gala is an important and anticipated event, considered Santa Barbara’s premier festival, drawing visitors from around the world. Every year the fiesta puts out an official Fiesta poster and pin designed by a local artist.
11. The Harbor
Enjoy a perfect sunset or stroll along the harbor on your Santa Barbara day trip. The Fisherman’s Walk meanders past a plethora of vessels of every size and type. You can also rent kayaks here or grab something to eat in one of the restaurants.
For a romantic dinner, head to Pascucci, my favorite restaurant. The ambiance can’t be beat. I dined on a perfectly cooked fish entrée while comfortably seated in a thick-cushioned semi-circle bench directly facing a toasty fire.
For a more historical setting, try the Cold Spring Tavern. Preserved from its original incarnation in 1886 as a stagecoach stop, the historic tavern also offers musical entertainment.
13. Funk Zone
About a block away from the ocean is the hip warehouse district called the Funk Zone. There are places for wine tasting as well as breweries where you can sample flights of beer.
If you have more time to spend in this delightful coastal city, here are 25 fun things to do in Santa Barbara that will keep you busy for days on end!
Need an amazing place to stay in Santa Barbara? Find just the right hotel here!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.
Read more about Patti Morrow.