Santa Barbara is a coastal community on the central California coast. Often called the American Riviera, the city is known for its upscale boutiques, restaurants serving up local wines, and downtown area with Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings with red-tile roofs. If you’re interested in planning a trip to this beautiful city, this travel guide will help you decide what to do, where to stay, and how to get there.

Early Morning: Fuel Up With Breakfast

Before you start your day exploring Santa Barbara, you need to fuel up with a healthy and hearty breakfast. Stop by Finch and Fork and you’ll find simple and clean dishes that showcase some of the best California ingredients. You’ll find classic egg dishes, like an egg white omelet and huevos rancheros. For something a little more filling, consider the lemon ricotta pancakes, or for a treat in the morning, go for the french toast with caramelized​ bananas and a walnut crumble. To wash everything down, you’ll find fresh-pressed juices, coffee, and tea.

If you’re visiting Santa Barbara with your four-legged friend, you’ll appreciate the dog-friendly patio seating at Scarlett Begonia. While the breakfast menu changes seasonally to offer the freshest ingredients, you’ll often find traditional dishes, such as two eggs that come with bacon or sausage, fruit, potatoes, and toast. You’ll also find savory options, like french toast, pancakes, and cinnamon rolls. Or you can go for one of the daily selections of signature pastries in the bakery case.

Savoy Cafe & Deli is a family-run cafe in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. When you come in for breakfast, you’ll find a menu featuring dishes made with local and organic ingredients whenever possible. The spinach feta onion scramble
comes with organic eggs, organic spinach, feta, and onions and the vegan breakfast burrito has quinoa, house-made pico de gallo, kale, sweet potato, organic spinach, avocado, and tofu. Along with coffee and espresso, you’ll also find an extensive menu of loose leaf teas.

The Old Mission Santa Barbara.

Midmorning: Explore the History

After you’ve filled up on a tasty breakfast, it’s time to head out and explore Santa Barbara. Perhaps the best way to begin is by learning more about the history of the city. Old Mission Santa Barbara is a Spanish mission founded by Padre Fermín Lasuén on December 4, 1786. Even though this historical landmark is still home to a community of Franciscan friars, you can take a tour of the grounds, church, museum, gardens, and more. During the tour, you’ll see amazing architecture and art as you learn more about the history of the mission.

Another unique historical sight worth exploring is El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. Here you’ll find El Presidio Real de Santa Bárbara, which is a former military installation built by the Spanish in 1782. As you take a tour of the grounds, you’ll learn how the presidio was built and how it played a vital role in the area. While the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation had to reconstruct some of the buildings, you can still see the original El Cuartel, which is the family residence for the soldier guarding the gate and the oldest remaining structure in Santa Barbara.

Head to Santa Barbara Historical Museum and you’ll discover relics from all the people who helped shape Santa Barbara into the city it is today, including Chumash, Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, and Yankee cultures. You’ll see photographs, artifacts, textiles, and furnishings, some of which date back to the 15th century. Along with permanent and rotating exhibits at the museum, they also offer tours of the Fernald Mansion, which was cut into three sections and moved across town on trailers to save it from demolition.

Noon: Enjoy Your Lunch

After you’re done learning more about the history of the area, take some time in the afternoon to stop and relax with lunch. If you’re near the Santa Barbara Harbor, stop by On The Alley for simple foods with a California flair. Choose the OTA Burger and you’ll get caramelized onions, fried jalapeños, bacon, avocado, jack cheese, and a fried egg. Go for the Alley Dog and you’ll enjoy a hot dog wrapped in bacon, deep fried, and topped with coleslaw and three-pepper relish on a toasted split-top bun. You’ll also find tacos, sandwiches, and salads.

For a unique lunch, head to Shoreline Beach Cafe on Leadbetter Beach. Here you’ll find two dining areas: the deck, which offers shade in the summer and heat in the winter, and the beach, where you can sit directly on the sand and enjoy your lunch with the water just steps away. On the menu, you’ll find an excellent selection of burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, and salads. There’s also a nice selection of fish, including the grilled fish tacos, spicy seared ahi, and Shoreline seafood soup.

If you’re in the mood for Mexican, head to Los Agaves Restaurant. You’ll find all of your favorites, including options like the Agaves burrito, which comes with fresh halibut and shrimp, onions, roasted red peppers, Monterey jack cheese, guacamole, lettuce, and chipotle sauce. You’ll also find enchiladas, taquitos, fajitas, tacos, and chimichangas. Whatever you order, make sure you save room for dessert so you can savor the homemade flan.

Arroyo burro beach
Arroyo Burro Beach.

Afternoon: Head to the Beach

When you’re full from lunch, it’s time to head to one of Santa Barbara’s most popular attractions: the beach. If you want to do a little celebrity sighting, head to Butterfly Beach, which is across from the Four Seasons Resort Biltmore. Although this beach is rather simple and there isn’t much in the way of amenities, it’s an excellent place to go for a walk. However, perhaps the best perk of Butterfly Beach is that it’s one of the few west-facing beaches in the area, so you’ll get amazing views of the sunset over the water.

Known as Hendry’s Beach by the locals, Arroyo Burro Beach is the beach you want to go to if you’re visiting Santa Barbara with your dog. The entire beach welcomes on-leash dogs, and if you head down to the beach just below the Douglas Family Preserve, you’ll find an off-leash area. The Arroyo Burro Beach also offers a sandy beach that’s perfect for swimming and surfing, a grassy area for picnics, restrooms, and on-site seafood restaurant.

Another popular beach in the area is Leadbetter Beach. The large, sandy beach is a popular spot for people to relax in the sun. You’ll also find outdoor showers, restrooms, picnic tables, barbecue sites, and a grassy lawn. Because this beach offers consistent winds and small surf, it’s a very popular spot for surfers, windsurfers, kitesurfers, and sailboats.

Museum natural history sea center
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center in Santa Barbara.

Late Afternoon: See Some Wildlife

If you need a break from the sun and sand, consider checking out some of the wildlife you can see in the area. The 30-acre Santa Barbara Zoo is home to around 500 animals and is consistently ranked one of the best small zoos in the country. Stop by the Cats of Africa exhibit to see African lions and black-footed cats. Head to the Forest’s Edge exhibit to see two male western lowland gorillas. Or take a walk through the California Trails exhibit to spot desert tortoises, California condors, Channel Island foxes, and bald eagles.

For an opportunity to see animals that live under the sea, head to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Located on Stearns Wharf, the center features permanent exhibits where you can learn more about marine life from the area. Head to Shark Cove to have an up-close and personal experience with coastal sharks and rays. You can even see what these amazing creatures feel like at the shark touch pool. Then check out Intertidal Wonders, where you’ll see the life that survives in tidal pools on the Santa Barbara coast.

Although the 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is most famous for being home to over 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants, this is also a great place to spot different types of wildlife. Head out on the 5.7 miles of walking trails that wind throughout the park to discover what you can spot. The ponds and streams in the Arroyo and canyon sections are home to fish and turtles. Take a hike to the meadow section and you’ll see butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds flying among the wildflowers. If you walk quietly on the trails, you never know what type of wildlife you might discover.

Dinnertime: Choose Your Favorite Cuisine

When dinnertime rolls around, you’ll find countless options around Santa Barbara for a delicious meal. If you’re in the mood for Italian, head to Toma Restaurant & Bar. Located near the harbor, this waterfront offers dishes ranging from classic to contemporary. Start your meal with grilled octopus or steamed clams. For your main course, you’ll find pasta dishes like black spaghetti and lasagna, as well as roasted chicken, stuffed peppers, and braised beef short rib. If you saved room for dessert, you can’t go wrong with the crème brûlée or the warm chocolate torte.

For fresh, locally caught seafood, head to Brophy Bros. Take a seat in the dining room and enjoy beautiful views of the mountains and harbor with your dinner. You can start your meal with a hot appetizer, like garlic baked clams, or a cold one, like peel and eat shrimp. For the main course, consider the crab cakes, swordfish, seafood pasta, mahi mahi, or salmon. You’ll also find seafood options, such as beer battered shrimp or breaded clam strips.

The Palace Grill offers a menu full of authentic Creole and Cajun cuisine just like you would find in New Orleans and the American South. When you stop by for dinner, you’ll find appetizers that include Cajun crawfish popcorn and Caribbean coconut shrimp. For your main course, consider the filet mignon stuffed with smoked crawfish tails and Creole spices, the crawfish étouffée, or the blackened catfish. You’ll find mouth-watering dessert options that include sweet potato pecan pie, Louisiana bread pudding soufflé, and bananas Foster.

Sunken gardens
The Sunken Gardens.

Late Night: Enjoy Something Different

Just because the sun goes down on your day in Santa Barbara, that doesn’t mean your fun has to end. Instead, find some entertainment that’s unique to the area. West Wind Santa Barbara Drive-In brings the classic joys of a drive-in movie theatre to the modern times. Toss a football or Frisbee around before the show starts. Then relax in your car as crisp and clear audio gets beamed directly through your car’s speakers. The drive-in shows all the latest releases, and you’ll find some of your favorite movie snacks at the concession stand.

The Santa Barbara area is known for its wine, so you’ll find plenty of wine tasting rooms where you can sample some of the best flavors. Head to Stearns Wharf to find the Deep Sea Wine Tasting Room for Conway Family Wines. Here you’ll enjoy stunning views of the ocean while you savor some of the best wines available. Find a seat inside or outside and savor your mix of red and white wines.

Santa Barbara Airport Guide

If you choose to fly into Santa Barbara, you’ll arrive at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. This public airport is just seven miles west of downtown Santa Barbara. There are three airlines that offer regularly scheduled flights around the country. United Airlines has non-stop flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver; Alaska Airlines provides service to Seattle and Portland; and American Airlines offers flights to Phoenix and Dallas/Fort Worth.

After you arrive at the airport, you’ll find a few ground transportation options for getting to your destination. There’s a public bus stop on Moffett Road across from the terminal. There are also nine area taxi companies that can pick you up and two door-to-door shuttle services that can take you from the airport directly to your destination.

If you prefer having your own transportation, there are seven car rental companies that offer convenient on-site offices. These companies include Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, and National. Additionally, Thrifty has an off-site car rental office.

If you’re at the airport and waiting for your flight, you’ll find numerous options for shopping and dining to pass the time. You can head to Costa Terraza Restaurant and Tapas Bar, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, or La Mission Café to grab a quick bite to eat before you board your plane. While Costa Terraza and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are on the second floor and only available to ticketed passengers, La Mission Café is downstairs before security and open to everyone.

Whether you need something to pass the time during your flight or you want to grab a last-minute gift for someone, head to Santa Barbara News and Gifts for a nice selection of newspapers, magazines, books, sundries, traveler’s aids, and Santa Barbara souvenirs and wines. Other services offered at the airport include free wireless internet access, charging stations for mobile devices, and a visitor information desk.

Leadbetter beach
Leadbetter Beach in Santa Barbara.

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

During your stay in the area, you’ll need a place you can rest your head. Luckily, you’ll find plenty of Santa Barbara hotels that offer the amenities you need. From luxury to budget-friendly, you’ll find a hotel that fits perfectly in your travel budget.

Luxury Hotels in Santa Barbara

For the most luxurious stay in the area, you can’t beat Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara. This resort is just four miles from downtown Santa Barbara and sits directly across from the ocean. The colorful rooms come with free wireless internet access and 65-inch flat-screen televisions. The resort also has a spa, two pools, a lounge, and two restaurants serving Californian and Italian cuisine.

Another opulent option in Santa Barbara is the Spanish Garden Inn. This upscale hotel is in the historic Presidio District surrounded by the restaurants and boutiques of State Street. The elegant rooms have fireplaces, flat-screen televisions, iPod docks, free wireless internet access, and private patios or balconies. Amenities at the hotel include a heated outdoor pool, complimentary continental breakfast, a bar, and available in-room spa services.

Budget-Friendly Hotels in Santa Barbara

If you’d prefer to stay in an affordable option during your trip to Santa Barbara, consider the Orange Tree Inn. This relaxed hotel is just 11 minutes from the Old Mission Santa Barbara and 2.1 miles from Stearns Wharf. In your room, you’ll find a desk, flat-screen television, and coffee maker. Some rooms also come with furnished balconies. The hotel offers a heated outdoor pool with a shaded seating area and free parking.

The Motel 6 Santa Barbara – Beach puts you just two minutes from East Beach. The rooms offer granite countertops, wood floors, and flat-screen televisions with expanded cable channels. You’ll also find free parking, coin laundry, a year-round outdoor pool, and complimentary morning coffee at the hotel.

When you’re ready to enjoy everything Santa Barbara has to offer, GoDoTrip can help. From information about top attractions, getting to the city, and figuring out where to stay, you’ll discover what you need to plan the perfect trip.