Never been to Santa Barbara and have just a day to visit? Follow this itinerary for a first-time explorer. It focuses on must-see attractions, starting in the downtown historic district, then branching out to the waterfront and harbor. It also includes nearby dining and lodging suggestions.
Have fun! And please report back to us your impressions and suggestions.
First, fuel up with breakfast at a downtown eatery or coffee shop. Locals love D’Angelo’s, Cajun Kitchen and Jeanine’s. Pressed for time? Order a coffee or tea drink and a pastry at Handlebar Coffee, The French Press or Helena Avenue Bakery.
The best way to understand Santa Barbara from the get-go is to learn about its roots. History in these parts is woven into the very fabric of nearly everything you see, from street signs and architecture to our multicultural community. Toss your preconceptions out the window — there’s no other region like us anywhere on the planet, and much has to do with our geographic setting and the people who lived here many years ago.
Head to the Santa Barbara Courthouse and ride the elevator up to the clocktower rooftop, with 360° views of the city. See all those red tile roofs? They pay homage to the city’s Spanish era, which you will learn about at your next stops, El Presidio, founded in 1782 and now a state historic park, and the nearby Casa de la Guerra, the grand home of the presidio commander and the social hub of Santa Barbara throughout the Spanish era. Author Richard Henry Dana immortalized a wedding that took place here (and he attended) in his fictional account in Two Years Before the Mast.
Next, head up to Mission Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful buildings in California and often called the “Queen” of the entire mission system established by the Spanish padres in the late 1700s. Tour the padres’ living quarters and restored gardens on your own, or try to time your visit to coincide with one of the docent-led group tours.
You have many options for lunch in downtown and the waterfront, which is where your afternoon forays should center.
Local faves near the Presidio and Casa de la Guerra include Three Pickles, beloved for its classic and creative sandwiches and quick service and Paradise Café, renowned for its authentic oak-grilled steaks, seafood and burgers since 1983 (by now you will know the connection between oak grills used in the Spanish and Mexican eras and today’s popular Santa Barbara restaurants). Stick with the historic Santa Barbara theme at La Playa Azul, which has served up authentic Mexican dishes since 1976.
After lunch it’s time to enjoy Santa Barbara’s gorgeous waterfront. Stroll to the end of historic Stearns Wharf and snap selfies with Santa Barbara’s iconic scenes in the background: towering mountains, white-sand beaches, red tile roofs and boats bobbing in the harbor. Kids will want to visit the Sea Center on the wharf, a smallish aquarium with excellent exhibits about local marine life.
Take a walk along the half-mile breakwater in the Santa Barbara Harbor — if your schedule permits, visit the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum or at least the Outdoors Santa Barbara lookout deck atop the same building (free)— then walk or ride a water taxi back to the wharf. If you walk, look for Syuxtun Story Circle, a tile mosaic mural embedded in the sidewalk that tells the story of the native Chumash and honors the former site of a major Chumash village.
From here, take your pick of possible adventures.
Just north of the wharf lies the Funk Zone, where you can amble into wine tasting rooms — part of the city’s Urban Wine Trail — plus craft breweries, restaurants, pubs, coffee shops and galleries.
If you’re a food and wine aficionado, hop on the downtown shuttle (stops at the Dolphin Fountain at the foot of the wharf, 50 cents per rider) and ride up to the Arts and Culture District, where you’ll find more Urban Wine Trail tasting rooms and cool shops along State Street and neighboring blocks.
For a quick land-and-sea tour (90 minutes total) board the Land Shark, or sign up for an afternoon or sunset harbor cruise through the Santa Barbara Sailing Center, Celebration Cruises, the Condor Express or Sunset Kidd Sailing Cruises.
If you have kids in tow or you’re just plain fascinated by science, visit the brand-new MOXI — The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, with four stories of brain-charging, hands-on, interactive exhibits for all ages, from pre-K to gray.
Now you’re surely tuckered out and famished, so why not stay for dinner before heading to your next destination? If you’re driving, the freeway traffic won’t subside until after 6 or 6:30 anyway, so you might as well savor your remaining fleeting hours in Paradise.
In the waterfront area, nosh on fresh-from-the-boats seafood at Brophy Bros., a lively second-floor restaurant overlooking the harbor, or feast on classic Mediterranean dishes with a contemporary local twist at Toma, across from Sea Landing. On State Street across from the Amtrak Station, sip gin and tonics and share authentic tapas and paellas at Loquita, which pays homage to Santa Barbara’s Spanish roots. Just a block away is Loquita’s sibling eatery, The Lark, known for its cutting-edge locavore dishes, historic setting (it was once a fish-processing warehouse) and hip social vibe.