As a true vagabond, I’ve never lived anywhere longer than a year in my entire adult life – with one exception. I spent two and a half years in dreamy little cottage in Santa Barbara. I loved it so much that I often came back on weekends and holidays over the years and finally moved back in February 2020.
Often compared to the French Riviera because of it’s climate and high-end residents, Santa Barbara is far more relaxed and down to earth. Flip flops are literally the norm as is dining outside, meeting friends for a drink in the Funk Zone and surfing before breakfast. There’s a lovely mix of old-school charm and high-end living, beach days and mountain hikes. From the tried and true to the undiscovered, here are a few of my favourite local things to do in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara has a wide arrange of hotels from inexpensive inns to rehabbed cool retro motels to luxury hotels. Where you stay depends on budget, location and what you want out of your trip. I’ve stayed in quite a few Santa Barbara hotels for either staycations and celebrations. Below are my top 3 picks.
Four Seasons Santa Barbara: One of my all-time favourite stays anywhere. Old school classic Hollywood vibe with all the beachside, Four Seasons amenities and service. Worth it for a night, a weekend or longer if you’re lucky. The rooms, the spa, the food, service and location are all perfection. See my full review and photos here.
San Ysidro Ranch: Not technically in Santa Barbara but close enough. I celebrated a birthday weekend here in one of the loveliest cottages I’ve ever stayed in. I’d say this is in my top 5 hotels and experiences – just like everyone else with a hotel list. It was destroyed by the Montecito mudslides and closed for a year but I’m happy to report that it reopened in the Spring of 2019. I highly recommend a visit not only because it’s beautiful, but it deserves the help to get back on its feet. Read my full review and see my photos here.
Belmond Elencanto: This had been on my list of places to stay and finally in February 2019 I was able to cross it off my list. I had one of the deluxe rooms with a balcony and fireplace which did not disappoint. The views, the rooms, the grounds and the service were top notch. I’ve eaten here a lot and I have to be honest and say that’s been consistently disappointing (we had afternoon tea on which was a real let down and awkward, our room service had mix-ups and our breakfast came out cold). But I loved the room and the overall vibe so recommend it.
There’s a lot to do in Santa Barbara from hikes, to bike trails, to shops to museums to the beach. I’m never bored in this town, even if all I’m doing is just being lazy in the public rose garden outside The Mission.
Santa Barbara Courthouse: Must-see, free with beautiful 360 views of the city if you climb the tower (or if you’re here in summer, catch an outdoor flick in the gardens).
Old Mission Santa Barbara: One of the historic sites to see whilst in town. As a fan of the book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, I was especially moved to see the plaque here dedicated to the heroine of the book. The rose garden right across is the perfect place for a picnic.
The Santa Barbara Bowl is the best place to catch a concert in the summer. My favourite memory was literally cutting footloose with Kenny Loggins while we watched Stevie Nicks perform. I can’t promise you that kind of memory, but any here will be epic.
Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens: Free and dog friendly. A cool and beautiful place that’s easy to walk around with also a little history thrown in.
Walking the Santa Barbara Marina and beach,especially at sunset, is particularly beautiful and easy if you’re staying downtown.
1000 Steps: Despite the name, there’s only 150 steps down a 1920’s set of concrete stairs (that definitely show their age). If these steps are hard for you, go down to the neighbouring Mesa Steps beach where the newer constructed steps are easier. Don’t go during high-tide though as the beach will be completely underwater. And if you’re exploring, make sure you know when low/high tide is or you could get caught. Great tide pools.
Butterfly Beach & Hammonds Beach: They’re connected with different ways to access them. Butterfly beach is always more crowded but can be easily accessed from across the Four Seasons Santa Barbara. It’s one of the best places in town to watch a sunset. Hammond’s Beach requires a little walk down a rail and parking is at the end of San Ysidro Road. (Updated to add that the new Rosewood Miramar Hotel is now on Hammond’s Beach so there’s easier access but it’s also more crowded).
Arroyo Burro State Beach (or Hendry’s as it’s known to locals) is an off-leash dog beach complete with dog-wash station to help get rid of all the sand before you get in your car. There’s a trail that goes from the beach up to Douglas State Preserve Park which is one of my favourites for walking the dog.
Horseback Riding on the beach: This was on my buck list and my two-hour ride did not disappoint. I went with Los Padres Outfitters and highly recommend them whether you’re a first-time rider or totally seasoned.
One of the things I miss the most about Santa Barbara? The food. From the local hole in the wall joints to the cream of the crop restaurants, Santa Barbara has the best food around. Sometimes I’ll drive back up just for sushi – it’s that good.
Sushi: Sakana is a small Montecito Sushi spot was my regular go to and I never miss a chance to eat here when I’m in town. If you can’t make it to Montecito, Arigato Sushi on State Street is a close second (and caters to larger parties).
Mexican: Cava is always a good place for a treat or celebration. The food and service is the best and the menu truly exceptional. The atmosphere is charming – grab an outdoor seat if you can. If that’s not within your budget, Los Arroyos – both downtown and in Montecito – have the best budget Mexican food and it’s a true locally run, family owned business. My favourite? The ceviche!
Family/Locals: Really great food, atmosphere and prices, these have been my staple restaurants to go to with family and friends. Arnoldi’s is a long-time classic local place with bocce courts out back. Opal’s menu and the atmosphere is fantastic and Trattoria Victoria is a classic local Italian restaurant that I’ve gone back to time and time again. Ca Dario Ristorante is another favourite, especially the bolognese
Breakfast/Brunch: Helena’s Bakery in the Funk Zone. Love their granola bowl. Jeannines can’t be beaten. I love the Montecito location but their downtown one is right across the beach. And if you have food allergies like gluten, Savoy has the best options from gluten free toast and sandwiches. It’s also a tea lovers paradise.
Healthy Options: Backyard Bowls has several locations and is a great, cheap, healthy way to have breakfast with their different types of breakfast bowls and smoothies (with gluten free options). My favourite is the warm Quinoa bowl. There’s a lot of juice options in Santa Barbara but the best is the local Juice Ranch. It’s all organic, made in house, and really, really good. The Little Miss Sunshine is the perfect morning perk up if coffee isn’t your thing. Ah Juice in downtown Santa Barbara has really good juice options.
Burgers: Mesa Burger is my favourite (they have Gluten-free buns and their fries are Celiac safe). For cheap + classic there is an In-N-Out a few min north of Santa Barbara.
Gluten-Free: Most places in Santa Barbara have some gluten free option. It’s a pretty easy place to safely eat in if gluten is a worry. This is a very small list of favs.
The Oat Bakery is one of my favourite places for bread because they have amazing loaves and buns that are not only gluten-free, but super tasty and hearty. Lilac Patisserie is the best (gluten-free) bakery in town with so many different options to chose from plus they do custom order cakes and pies. Savoy Cafe has so many options from pancakes to french toast to sandwiches to baked goods. Olivers is a newcomer in Montecito. The food is absolutely incredible regardless if you’re vegan or not. I ate here for the first time in February 2019 and can honestly say it was one of the best meals. But I don’t know if it was because it was a Sunday or they’re fairly new but we were seated at 8PM for our 7PM reservation. The food took over an hour to get so we ate around 9. And the decor inside is kind of weird/doesn’t make sense. But, if you have the time and you can sit outside, I’d totally go.
Coffee: My go-to for coffee is Dune Coffee. With two locations in Santa Barbara, they’re able to keep you caffeinated whilst you walk around. Another local favourite is the Handlebar Cafe, with two locations, both of which are great. For fancy coffee, try Caje. The State street location across from the Arlington has beautiful outdoor and shaded seating.
Cocktails & Drinking: Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company for beer is a must go to local spot in the funk zone. For cocktails, I love Shaker Mill for its unique (and so good) drinks and vibe. The Good Lion and Palihouse are also a good options. For casual options, Seven in the funk zone has a good local vibe and music on the weekend.
Sweet Treats: McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams is locally made and their Turkish Coffee is my favourite. Rori’s Ice-Cream in Montecito has gluten free cones and I’m a fan of their chocolate. Lilac Patisserie and Savoy in Santa Barbara have lots of gluten-free baked goods. Crush Cakes is another local favourite (with a another location in Carpinteria) that has gluten-free options including cupcakes and breakfast/lunch.
Summerland is one of my favourite places to spend a morning in. Just south of Santa Barbara is has it all – beaches, shopping, and good food. Field and Fork opened in 2019 and is both a cafe and a home shop. The Well Garden & Home opened in 2020 and is a beautiful outdoor home and garden shop. Porch is an upscale home store that’s stunning and across from a local staple, Botanik, which is where I get all my pots from. And the Summerland Antique Collective has been a place where I’ve gotten several of my favourite home staples such as my book case and trunk.
General Places: Home (Santa Barbara), Pierre La Fond Upstairs (Montecito), Wendy Foster (Santa Barbara), Jenni Kayne (Montecito), Montecito Country Mart, Treat Skincare (Santa Barbara), Heritage Goods & Supply (one of my fav favs in Carpinteria) and Diani Boutique downtown is one of my favourite little home and gift shops.
Originally published August 30th, 2016. Updated August 19, 2021