1) Old Mission Santa Barbara
Explore one of Santa Barbara’s most picturesque landscapes. Known as “Queen of the Missions” for its exceptional beauty, the Santa Barbara Mission was founded by the Spanish Franciscans in 1786 and was the 10th of 21 Missions. The church was destroyed in 1925 by an earthquake; however, restorations have returned it to its original grandeur. Its grand twin bell towers on a hilltop overlooking the city, the mission provides a spectacular view of the ocean and the San Ynez mountains. The Mission is open daily for self-guided tours at the time of writing it was $15. The locals that I chatted with said they enjoy picnicking in the rose garden at sunset. Something that I will need to make time for on my next visit to Santa Barbara.
2) Wine Tasting
Santa Barbara Wine Country is quite literally “Sideways” uniquely situated in the valley between the Santa Ynez Mountain Range and San Rafael Mountains. Funneling cool pacific air and marine layer over the vines. It makes for a great day trip from Santa Barbara but if you can’t make it up to Santa Ynez the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail is a great option as you can walk from tasting room to tasting room. With tastings from $10-25. Some of my favorite wineries are Valley Project, Lafond Winery, and Santa Barbara Wines. The guys at Valley Project said don’t sleep on the Santa Barbara Merlot even if it reminds Paul Giamatti’s character in “Sideways” of his ex-wife. Let me know what your fav wineries are.
If you’re like me you’re physically drawn to the water and mountains. Santa Barbara’s coastline has it all. I hopped on a Coastal Kayaking Tour with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company and we spent 4 hours exploring the coast. We learned that kelp can grow up to 2’ in a day. Which is just mind-blowing. Our guide Addison pointed out a harbor seal and a bat ray swimming in the seagrass close to us. I failed to photograph both but I promise I saw them. Always be filming… You can also see Dolphins and depending on the time of year you can see California Grey Whales, Blue Whales, Minke Whales, and Humpback Whales. We stopped at a beach for a break and explored what the tide washed up. Before heading back to Haskell beach.
4) The Funk Zone
The Funk Zone is a favorite of mine and one that I seem to visit on every Santa Barbara trip. Cornered in by the Ocean, 101, and Amtrak station this district has boutique tasting rooms, cafes, galleries, breweries, and shops. It’s old manufacturing and functional buildings from decades past and gave way to the nicknamed the Funk Zone. This area has a lot of character and is super walkable.
Santa Barbara is full of bike paths and since parking can be a little tricky in the more popular areas cycling is your best bet. The most popular bike path in Santa Barbara is Cabrillo Bike Path which runs from Leadbetter Beach to Butterfly Beach. At approximately 4.5 miles long, paved, and flat this path is great for families. You can rent these quad bikes and even hit up a few mt passes if you’re into road biking.
6) Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wood wharf in California, was built in 1872 by John Peck Stearns. When completed In 1872, it became the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco. You can drive on the wharf and parking is free for the first 90 mins. It has a good mix of shops and restaurants. The Ice Cream shop is a must-stop for me on those hot summer days.
7) Santa Barbara County Courthouse
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is on Anacapa Street, in downtown Santa Barbara. Although it was closed due to COVID there is a free scenic lookout at the top of the clock tower offering 360-degree views of the city, Santa Ynez Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean. The clock tower can be reached by elevator or if you want to exercise there is a staircase. The beautiful gardens and building backdrop makes for a great place to get hitched if you ask me. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is open daily, including free drop-in tours hosted by the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Docent Council.
8) Inspiration Point
When I visit a city I like to get a good birds-eye view of my surroundings. Inspiration Point more than does the trick! This 3.5-mile round trip hike takes you up to a panoramic 360-degree view of the city, ocean and the San Ynez mountains. I recommend hiking up at sunset to get those beautiful pink hues. It also gives you a little directional perspective with the sun setting in the west you realize that the Santa Barbara beachfront faces south.
9) Stand Up Paddle Boarding
Did I mention that I love the water? You can rent Stand up paddleboards and kayaks right next to Stearns Wharf or in the Marina. You’ll want to drag your feet as you get into the water. Sometimes there are rays that hang out close to shore. But they are harmless if you don’t step on them. Once you get on the board you can cruise around the Wharf. It’s fun to cruise in and around the Wharf. If you go on the left side of the Wharf you can stay out of the boat wake. Sometimes you can see harbor seals hanging around the pier but they are pretty skittish. And there is great surfing over next to shoreline park.
10) Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Uniquely nestled in nature, the museum is located along Mission Creek in the Mission Canyon area. The museum has ten indoor exhibit halls focusing on regional natural history including astronomy, birds, insects, geology, mammals, marine life, paleontology, plant life, and the Chumash Indians. The skeleton of the 72-foot Blue Whale is amazing to explore. This whale was hit by a cargo ship in ___ representing an additional cost to those imported goods. There is also a natural history Sea Center on the Wharf talked about earlier.
11) Red Rock
In the winter and spring, the water of the Santa Ynez River flows west to Lake Cachuma. It crisscrosses the road that leads you back to Red Rock Pools. My friend Graciella showed me this gem of a location and we took our bikes from the day-use area back to the pools. This area of the Los Padres National Forest is extra special to me and if you want to support this forest that stretches along the California coast from Ventura to Monterey head on over to Los Padres Forest Watch.
12) Arroyo Beach
Arroyo Burro Beach, also known as Hendry’s Beach by local residents and is a popular location for people to walk their dogs off-leash. So if you’re bringing your four-legged friend to Santa Barbara you probably already know about this location. When I bring my dog Iris on a trip the first thing I google is dog-friendly parks. We explored the beach and found these trees that fell down the cliffs. Just be sure to pick up after your pet.
13) Shoreline Park
Shoreline Park is a beautiful space overlooking the ocean with a large grassy area. There are tables to sit and have lunch and stairs down to the beach. You can go down one set of stairs and walk on the beach for a while and then walk up another set of stairs up to the other end of the park. This area is great for a morning run or watching the surfers at Leadbetter Beach.
14) Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
The Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is a short 20 min drive out of Santa barbara. The walls of this small cave carved from towering sandstone boulders contain some of the finest remaining rock art created by Chumash Native Americans. A steep path leads to the cave entrance, which is protected by heavy iron grillwork. Anthropologists estimate that the paintings date to the 1600s and earlier. It’s important to remember that we displaced
15) Moreton Bay Fig Tree
Right next to the Santa Barbara rail station and the 101 Freeway this enormous tree it’s said to be the largest of its kind in the United States. I went to visit this tree in the early morning to get the sunlight to stream through the tree sideways. Has anyone taken the train to Santa Barbara? I’ve always wanted to do that or any long train ride.
16) Botanical garden
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a 78-acre botanical garden, containing over 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants. I explored the area in the summer but to fully live up to its full potential you want to visit in the spring. Learning about all the invasive plants that crowd out the indigenous plants was fascinating and makes me think twice about taking pictures of those blankets of yellow flowers in the spring.
I hope you enjoyed this Santa Barbara Travel Guide if you did please subscribe to my newsletter, comment below, and share. I’ll be finishing up a tour review of the Coastal Kayaking Tour in my next article that will come out in a few days and then after that, I’ll be sharing a recent backpacking trip to Duck Pass Trail.