Looking for some unique things to do in Santa Barbara? Here’s my full list!
Of all the places to visit in California, I’ve gotta say Santa Barbara has to be up there. It’s hard not to like a place that sits along the coast and has sunny weather in the 60-70s year round. My friend, Sher, and I stopped in for a few days as part of our coastal road trip, and I think we each agreed it was our favorite stop! For a relatively smaller city, there’s a lot to do from sightseeing to outdoorsy activities. I can see why so many celebrities wind up buying homes here.
Here’s my guide on what we got up to as well as some things I already know I want to do on a future visit!
This trip was in collaboration with Visit Santa Barbara. All opinions are my own.
Quick Tips for Your Santa Barbara Trip
Before I get into all the unique things to do in Santa Barbara, here are some tips to help you when planning your own trip.
If you’re doing a California coastal road trip, Santa Barbara is a great place to drive into! It’s two hours from San Luis Obispo and two hours from LA. Perfect in-between stop as I don’t recommend driving more than 2 hours a day to avoid exhaustion. I will say if you’re driving from LA on a weekend, the traffic looked intense, so leave early. We were driving the opposite way and it just seemed to go on and on.
You can also fly into Santa Barbara if you’re coming from elsewhere! Southwest now flies to SB from Oakland, Las Vegas, and Denver while Alaska Airlines started a new route from San Diego.
Santa Barbara is that nice size where it’s slightly too big to be totally walkable but slightly too small to feel like you want to drive everywhere. After doing my e-bike ride, I wished we’d actually just rented e-bikes for our whole stay! I really liked my experience with Cal Coast Adventures. They’ll bring you the bikes wherever you are, and I find their daily rental prices quite reasonable. Plus if you want that cute bicycle aesthetic, they have a vintage-looking style in the Trek’s Electra Townie Go.
Weather & Packing
I have decided that when it comes to SoCal, your best bet is to not believe anything the weather map app tells you. When we were packing for our trip, it told us SB, LA, and San Diego would be in the 50s-60s for our days. Absolute lies. It’s hot as soon as you cross over into California’s southern region. Santa Barbara is sunny like 300 days of the year, and it was warm even in November! So with that in mind, make sure to have at least some of these things:
- Sunscreen – my go to at the moment is from La Roche Posay
- Sunglasses/Hat – remember, it’s going to most likely be sunny on your visit
- Shorts – I was really, really regretting not having at least one pair of shorts here
- Sneakers – Good to have for any hiking, walking, or sports. I had my Allbirds
- A Swimsuit – Especially if you plan on doing anything in the water
- Comfortable sandals – Also something I was missing! As always, I’m a Birkenstocks fan
When you’re thinking of what to wear, just remember California has a much more relaxed vibe, especially outside of LA and San Francisco. Santa Barbara is mostly an outdoorsy town, so everyone seemed to be in casual wear at the fanciest. Just wear comfortable clothes and dress for the sports you plan on doing!
Where to Stay
As you might guess, Santa Barbara is home to a lot of really cute hotels ranging from boutique to absolute luxury! If you do want to be able to walk a little, I’d stay more towards the main part of town or near the Funk Zone. We stayed at the Hideaway, which has been newly renovated and was really cute. Definitely get a room with a fireplace, especially if you’re doing any water sports! It’ll be nice and cozy when you warm up from the ocean, which is freezing year round. Also do not miss out on their breakfast. It changes everyday and is absolutely delicious. I’m still thinking about the burrito from our first morning!
Unique Things to Do in Santa Barbara (That I Did)
1. Go for a (e)bike ride
Of course this is my very first recommendation. As soon as you arrive in Santa Barbara, have Cal Coast Adventure drop off an e-bike for you. Head towards the waterfront where there’s a great biking and walking path you can follow past Santa Barbara Zoo and the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. If you’re lucky, you might spot a giraffe having his afternoon snack as you bike by!
From there you can bike through Montecito and even on to Summerland. I promise it’s really not that far apart and there’s only one tiny hill. This’ll just give you a lay of the land as you start planning out the rest of your trip and let you stretch your legs a bit after driving or flying in.
2. Grab a coffee and do some window shopping in Montecito
A cute spot to stop on your e-bike ride is Bree’Osh Bakery Cafe in Montecito. The cafe was founded by French couple, so you know they know their way around bread. I liked it so much, I stopped in for a second time on our way out of Santa Barbara!
The road that Bree’Osh is on, Coast Village Rd, is also worth walking or biking a long to do some window shopping. Loads of cute boutiques, restaurants, and storefronts. Another restaurant recommendation we had but couldn’t fit in was Bettina’s for some authentic Italian pizza.
3. Take in the views from the Winslow-Maxwell Overlook
If you don’t mind another hill on your e-bike ride, head up to the Winslow-Maxwell Overlook by Santa Barbara College for some of the best views overlooking the harbor.
4. Visit the Mission Santa Barbara
Located more towards the mountains and on the outskirts of town is the beautiful Old Mission Santa Barbara. It was built in 1786 and of the 21 missions originally built, it’s the only one that is still under the guidance of Franciscan friars. While you can visit the museum and gift shop, the best is to simple enjoy the grounds and the exterior architecture. It really is quite beautiful!
Depending on what time you’re visiting, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is also nearby and may be worth a visit.
5. Stop into the Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Now, I know typically county courthouses aren’t exactly something you put on a list of must-sees in a new city. However, the Santa Barbara one is really beautiful and worth stopping in to enjoy the Spanish architecture! It was built in 1929 and occupies an entire city block. The whitewashed buildings which feature red tile roofs and semi-surround a sunken garden. We couldn’t explore too much as there was a wedding going on when we visited! If you go at the right time, you can also take the elevator up the El Mirador clock tower for some more scenic views.
6. Enjoy the newly renovated Santa Barbara Museum of Art
There are actually quite a few museums in Santa Barbara that I’d like to visit on a return trip, but this time we could only fit in one. We ultimately chose the Museum of Art after our hotel recommended it as her favorite. Newly renovated, it really is a beautiful museum with multiple exhibitions across two floors. I loved the main area where you can look at all the portraits and use a QR to read more about each one.
7. Catch the sunset from Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach
If you’re looking for a good sunset view, plan to get a late lunch or early dinner at the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach. We didn’t see sunset, but we did get a taste of golden hour towards the end of our lunch. The food is delicious and way more filling than you’ll realize!
After appetizers of steamed black mussels, fried calamari, and tostada ceviche, we were almost too full for our main meals! I got the fish tacos (made with local snapper) as my main, though the apple and walnut salad looked pretty good too.
One thing to try if you they have it is the Santa Barbara uni, a type of sea urchin! It’s a local speciality, but they were out when we ordered.
8. Check out the Funk Zone district
The Funk Zone is a favorite district in Santa Barbara. It covers the area between the ocean and Highway 101 and is full of cool restaurants (one that’s next on this list), cafes, shops, and more. We saw bits of it as we went in and out, but I also think on a return trip it’d be fun to do an art walk to see all the murals!
9. Get the crispy Brussel sprouts at The Lark
Okay, you should get a lot of food at The Lark when you go, but I really wanted to point out the Brussel sprouts because they were recommended to us, and I’m not sure even that prepared us for how good they were. Looking at the menu, they’re made with sesame, medjool dates, garum, and lime, and I’m probably going to wind up attempting to make a less delicious version of them soon, that’s how good they were!
When you go, I recommend getting one dish from each section (farm, ocean, ranch) and splitting it. Obviously, the Brussel sprouts should be your farm option. We also got the diver scallops (ocean) and buttermilk chicken (ranch), which was deceptively light. They also have two fun mocktail options, and I loved the Bougainvillea one.
10. Get a taste of history at La Paloma Cafe
La Paloma got its start all the way back in 1940 as a Mexican restaurant founded by Jennie Luera. For 43 years they served classic Mexican cuisine and lived in the house next door until selling it in 1983. From there it became Paradise Cafe all the way through to 2019 when Acme Hospitality bought the restaurant and wound up deciding to bring back La Paloma in a new way. Luckily for them, Jennie Luera’s granddaughter still owned the building and was on hand to recount stories of her grandparents and the old La Paloma. Today the restaurant takes inspiration from the now blended culture of Santa Barbara and has created dishes that are a blend of Spanish, Mexican, and Chumash.
All I can say is that when you go, go hungry so you can enjoy all the food! Shoutout to our server Bobby for helping us pick dishes and describing them all to us! We started with the La Paloma salad, made from local rose apples and with a hibiscus vinaigrette, Kumiai oysters that had a nice kick with the scallion oil and hot sauce, and some ranch fries, made with scallion dressing and served with queso fresco. Then we decided to split the oak grilled fish of the day (ours was albacore tuna) and I also got a side of their glazed carrots. For dessert we managed squeeze in a Mexican salted chocolate tart made with dulce de leche and raspberry sauce. YUM!
11. Try the Oaxacan cuisine at Flor de Maíz
Craving some Mexican? Try Flor de Maíz, which specializes in Oaxacan cuisine! Located along E Cabrillo Blvd, across from the beachfront and Stearns Wharf, Flor de Maíz is the perfect spot for lunch and drinks. Definitely grab a seat outside! We split some homemade lobster and cheese empanadas and then I got the duck taquitos in mole coloradito while Sher got the fish tacos. If you’re unsure of what to get, they have a really helpful photo menu so you can see what the dishes look like.
12. Grab an ice cream sandwich from McConnell’s
You know, if only I’d come to Santa Barbara eleven years earlier. I might’ve run into Taylor Swift on her California trip with the subject of her Red album… Apparently they came to McConnell’s for ice cream. Never mind, I was eighteen at the time and it would’ve been in the middle of the school year!
Anyway, potential celebrity run-ins aside, if you stop into one ice cream spot in Santa Barbara, it’s gotta be McConnells. It’s basically been an institution ever since it was first founded in 1949. Couple Gordon and Ernesteen McConnell decided to start an ice cream company that would forgo the fillers, stabilizers, and preservatives other companies were using to make their ice cream from scratch.
Get the ice cream sandwich for something truly delicious! I can’t remember the exact combo I got, but both cookie and ice cream included sea salt.
13. Sample all the mocktails and cocktails in SB
Over all, Santa Barbara is home to a bunch of really cool bars, wineries, and breweries! Almost every place has an extensive list of drinks and many include great mocktails for nondrinkers. We didn’t go to a ton, but I can say I enjoyed the ones I had a Flor de Maiz, The Lark, and La Paloma Cafe. If you don’t see any on the menu, just ask your server and they’ll be able to give tell you your options! For even more ideas, check this Santa Barbara cocktail guide.
14. Spend the morning in the Ganna Walska Lotusland
Lotusland is easily one of the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara! As it’s known now first came about in 1941 when Polish opera singer Ganna Walska purchased it. She was inspired to purchase the property during a six-week trip to California with her then husband, Theos Bernard.
Renaming it Tibetland, she intended to use it as a retreat for Tibetan monks. However wartime visa issues and a divorce from her husband in 1946 led her instead to change the name again to Lotusland and spend the rest of her years cultivating the many gardens you see today.
It really is such a gorgeous place and so worth the visit! Remember to reserve in advance and know tickets are timed. I recommend opting for the morning as it can get pretty hot by midday! When you go, you can either opt for an extensively guided tour or walk around yourself and chat with the many guides around the property.
15. Get a coffee and do some antiquing in Summerland
Once you’ve finished at Lotusland, go down into the main part of Summerland. You can gawk at the price tags while antiquing and grab a coffee at the very cute Red Kettle Coffee, recognizable by the gnome statue hanging out outside. Both their coffee and their teas are made locally and they also sell various products from local small businesses in their cafe. If you’re an iced chai latte fan, don’t miss it here!
16. Enjoy Summerland Beach
Right across the main road from Summerland’s main town road is its beach. Actually if you’re driving, I’d park at Lookout Park which overlooks Summerland Beach and just walk into town from there (it’s all of 5 minutes on foot). It’s a quiet, pretty beach area at least when we went. Good if you need an afternoon of sunbathing and relaxing!
17. Grab lunch at Field + Fort
If you’re headed to LA next, then be sure to stop off at Field + Fort for a quick lunch before continuing south. Likewise stop here first if you’re coming from LA! It’s located a bit towards the end of Summerland town and is half an elevated home good store and half a restaurant with outdoor seating. Cannot recommend the market greens salad enough! Get it with the chicken salad on top and use the carrot ginger vinaigrette liberally.
18. Say hi to all the cute dogs!
California as a whole has to be on the most dog-friendly places I’ve ever been and Santa Barbara one of the most dog-friendly in the state. I don’t think I saw a single place where dogs weren’t allowed in some form! If you’re a dog person, you’re going to love seeing all the cute, happy pooches on their walks or hanging out at their owners’ feet. I think my favorite was seeing the dog wash station at Lookout Park.
More Unique Things to Do in Santa Barbara that are on My List for Next Time
19. Visit Channel Islands National Park
I definitely want to check out the Channel Islands on a return trip. They’re an eight-island archipelago split between Santa Barbara, Ventura, and LA counties. Of those eight islands, five make up the National Park including Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa.
There’s a ton to do from island hopping to camping to hiking to scuba and more, and the islands are known as the “Galapagos of the North” because of their unique ecosystems.
20. Take advantage of all the water sports in Santa Barbara
As you might guess from a coastal city with 300+ days of sunshine… Santa Barbara is home to a ton of water sports! While I was doing my bike ride, Sher was actually taking surfing lessons with Surf Happens. After a disastrous turn attempting SUP in Da Nang, I decided to forgo anything that required me to try to stand up on a board in the freezing Pacific Ocean. However, next time I think it’d be fun to do some kayaking.
21. Explore Stearns Wharf
We only saw from the beach, but if you want to visit, Stearns Wharf has been a Santa Barbara landmark since 1872. Today there are quite a few restaurants and speciality shops, and the one I want to visit is the Shellfish Company!
22. Stroll around the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
If you want even more nature, then you’ll enjoy the 78-acres of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Definitely would want to do one of its trails in the future and enjoy more the scenery!
23. Visit more of Santa Barbara’s museums
Like I said above, I’m planning on visiting more museums on a return trip! Here are some on my list:
- Museum of Natural History – near the Old Mission and home to over 3.5 million specimens
- Historical Museum – goes into over 500 years of history Santa Barbara history
- MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation – cool museum for science, technology, and the arts
- Santa Barbara Maritime Museum – cool place to learn about the exploration history of the Santa Barbara Channel
24. Try the Mexican at La Super-Rica Taqueria
One specific spot I wanted to try, but wasn’t really close to anything else we were doing, was the Mexican at the no frills La Super-Rica Taqueria. Julia Childs herself named it as one of her favorite places to eat and the photos look amazing. Definitely have to try the Super-Rica Especial.
25. Get a pool pass for Rosewood Miramar Beach
Rosewood Miramar Beach is probably one of the most luxe places to stay in Santa Barbara. Situated in Montecito, you wouldn’t believe it surrounds a train track and is off a freeway. Seriously once you step through the lobby, the freeway noise magically disappears. At well over $1,000 a night, it’s probably not in most people’s budgets.
However, you can purchase a day pass that includes the Manor pool, Cabana pool, access to the Cabana bar, Bocce ball, and complimentary wifi. You could also upgrade to a Manor Cabana or Adult Cabana as well. Not too shabby a way to relax for the day, especially if you’re spending your other days fitting in a bunch of outdoor activities.
26. Visit some wineries
I know I don’t drink, but I do love visiting wineries and hearing about how each one makes its wine as well as its history. As you might guess – Santa Barbara has its own urban wine trail to help guide you!
27. Visit nearby Solvang
Want to feel like you’re in Denmark but with sunny Socal weather? Then check out Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley. I’ve actually been wanting to visit for a while, but it just didn’t fit into this road trip. It’s only a 40ish minute drive from Santa Barbara, so next time I think I’d carve out a day for it!
And those are all the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara! Anything to add? I feel like I’m going to need to plan a week here next time I go to fit in all I want to do!
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