The Ultimate Santa Barbara Travel Guide: 20 Unique Things To Do

Santa Barbara have its similarities to the world-famous French Riviera or Côte d’Azur. The small-city, coastal vibes of both places is where the comparisons start. But the resemblance is more than just the Mediterranean weather, lush landscapes, and the Spanish architecture.

It only took a few days in Santa Barbara to make me realize that this quaint town has a sort of European charm that is easy to fall in love with. One of our favorite things to do when traveling in Europe was walking around town and exploring everything on foot. And just like the French Riviera, Santa Barbara’s downtown is chockablock with cultural sites, historical places, great restaurants, and wine-tasting rooms, all within easy walking distance of one another. Looking for some unique things to do in Santa Barbara? Here’s my 20 ideas to help you start planning a trip to Santa Barbara. 

1. Visiting Jeff Shelton’s Whimsical Buildings in Santa Barbara – the Fig District

Spend an hour wandering the downtown area of Santa Barbara and you’re sure to notice many architectural wonders from local architect Jeff Shelton. When you think of Santa Barbara, you think of red tiled roofs and whitewashed buildings; amidst the endless Spanish-style structures that define the city, Shelton’s whimsical designs really stand out.

Eight of his most noteworthy designs are located in a 10-block area of the downtown core, referred to as “The Fig District.” Sprinkled around town, Shelton’s work is a source of creativity and festive spirit.

If you are interested in planning a self walking tour to visit all of Jeff Shelton’s buildings, check out my detailed guide of the Fig District here.

2. Enjoying live sea urchins and oysters at the Santa Barbara Fish Market on the Main Harbor

The Santa Barbara Fish Market gives the public access to whatever the commercial fishermen are bringing in that week. They also offer a selection of prepared foods like sashimi platters, poke bowls and uni shooters.  

We ordered a tray of half dozen oysters and 4 sea urchins ($15 apiece). They charged a small shucking fee. They have outdoor seatings in the patio, but we preferred sitting by the harbor. We bought a beer from the Harbor Market…and off we went to the perfect spot to enjoy the uni.

3. Exploring the Funk Zone and Dart Coffee

Once an old and sleepy warehouse district, the Funk Zone has recently become the “it” spot in Santa Barbara. This area used to be the industrial, marine, and manufacturing part of town.

Over the past decade, the city has converted abandoned warehouses and buildings into artisan boutiques, eclectic shops, trendy cafes, studio spaces, art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, farm-to-table and upscale eateries.

Once you are here, one of the must visit stops is the Blue Door. This multi-story shop houses vintage and modern wares from dozens of independent dealers. You can find furniture, lighting, gifts, art and vintage clothing and accessories here. You’ll know you’re at the right place when you see a big, blue door!

Nestled in this neighborhood is Dart Coffee Co. This is one of the coffee shops that I could easily see myself visiting multiple times a week. This coffee shop offers a unique experience for coffee lovers and art lovers alike. From the freshly roasted beans that line the shelves to the bright and vivid colors that decorate the cafe inside out, this cafe is an Instagrammer’s paradise.

The best thing about Dart is the large garden area across the street. It is easy to miss because it looks like it is the backyard of home, but you’ll find a little gate that says Dart Garden.

4. Visiting Chase Palm Park and the SB Arts & Crafts Show

This park runs from East Beach to Stearns Wharf.  On the harbor side there is a long bike and rollerblading trail, a skateboard park, a recreation house and access to the beach. There is grass for soccer and other activities. On the other side of the street there is a pond, music pavilion, merry-go-round, playground and many paths.

The soft green grass in Chase Palm Park is the perfect spot to lie down on your back and look up at the palm trees as they sway against the blue sky.

If you’re there on a Sunday, you’ll come across dozens of local artists displaying their handiwork as part of the Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show!

Held every Sunday year-round and on Saturdays of major holiday weekends, the Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show highlights more than 200 of the amazing local artists and artisans who call Santa Barbara home. From original drawings and paintings to sculptures, pottery and photography, nearly every medium of art is represented here. 

It is a wonderful Sunday afternoon – check out the art show, stroll down the wharf to get an ice cream, visit the touch tank at the Natural History Museum’s Sea Center and then wander out the end of the wharf to watch the pelicans catch fish off the pier.

5. Exploring the SB Public Market and having lunch at the Empty Bowl Noodle Bar

Nestled in the heart of beautiful Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Public Market is a vibrant and bustling destination that offers a delightful array of culinary delights, unique shopping experiences, and a lively atmosphere.

You’ll find an impressive collection of eateries, each offering its own unique culinary experience. From gourmet burgers to artisanal pizzas, from fresh seafood to farm-to-table delicacies, there’s something to please every palate.

The Public Market is chock-full of some of the best restaurants in SB, but the one that is really not to miss is Empty Bowl Noodle Bar where they specialize in authentic noodle dishes and small plates from Thailand and Taiwan.

With counter-only seating, you might stand in line for a bit… but it’s oh so worth it. We had a taste of their famous Khao Soi. It’s a northern Thai noodle soup that uses wheat-based egg noodles and is served in a coconut milk curry broth. It’s made with chicken, and the bowl is topped with crispy deep fried noodles. 

6. Having a sunset picnic at the Old Mission’s Rose Garden

One of our favorite photo spots in SB is the Rose Garden in front of the Santa Barbara Old Mission. This massive Rose Garden hosts over 1,500 varieties of roses surrounded by vast grassy areas where you can picnic and soak in the wonderful atmosphere.

Spring is the best time to see the roses in their full glory, but the bloom was still gorgeous in November when we visited. And there’s more than just the roses to steal the show; facing the garden, the Old Mission Santa Barbara is also one of the best photo spots in the city and a true architectural and historical gem.

7. Exploring Arlington Plaza and stopping by Cajé for their artistic craft drinks

Arlington Plaza is a small shopping mall found in Santa Barbara’s downtown arts district. This is the place to find an eclectic collection of locally owned shops and dining spots. This charming strip of glass-fronted shops sits just across the road from Arlington Theater.

Located in the Arlington Plaza is the famous coffee shop – Cajé. If you’re looking for an Instaworthy Santa Barbara coffee shop, Caje Coffee is it!

The dazzling cafe showcases verdure wrapped white walls, long flowing drapes and arched hallways, a soothing water fountain center stage, crafty wooden furnishings among numerous cute seating arrangements, lush exotic plant life, a few fireplaces, and a picturesque Spanish courtyard setting where you and even your furry four-legged friend can soak in some more lavish California sun rays.

Known for its impressive craft drinks, they attract many people for “Instagram-worthy” photos of their artistic drinks. The price reflects this at about $9 to $12 a drink, but it’s worth the splurge. We ordered their famous signature drinks: Burnt Out, Jupiters Forest, and Bella Rose.

8. Exploring Stearns Wharf during sunset at have dinner at Santa Barbara Shellfish Co.

Stearns Wharf is located in the harbor and is home to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Here you can also find waterfront restaurants, wine tasting, and shopping.

Located on Stearns Wharf is the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. It’s one of the most beloved local institutions for salt-of-the sea favorites like chowder, shrimp cocktail and steamed crab.

They have a wide variety of options, including clams, mussels, oysters, and prawns. They also have a selection of fish and chips and seafood chowder. When visiting Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, a must-try is the Raw Scallops topped with Uni.

The restaurant also features a casual atmosphere and outdoor seating, making it perfect for a relaxed lunch or dinner. The Santa Barbara Shellfish Company is perfect for those who want to enjoy fresh shellfish in a casual setting.

9. Exploring the Montecito Country Mart and having the authentic Italian wood fired pizza at Bettany

Montecito, California, is a beachside subset of Santa Barbara county filled with hidden gems and idyllic local favorites. While spanning fewer than 10 miles, Montecito is chalk-full of luxury shopping, fantastic food, and quiet, sprawling beachfront.

Located right off the freeway in the Montecito Country Mart, Bettina is a cozy neighborhood restaurant that offers seasonal farm-to-table dishes and authentic Italian wood fired pizzas. You can order traditional pizzas, like Pepperoni or Margherita, or unique flavors, like Carbonara or Hazelnut. Bettina also offers an impressive selection of wine, select beer, and cocktail options. 

While you are here, you should definitely stop by Caffee Luxxe for coffee. Sleek, sophisticated, and smooth are three ways to describe both the interior design and coffee of Caffe Luxxe.

The marble countertops serve as the perfect canvas for the shop’s baristas to prepare your roast, and the minimalist décor evokes a sense of luxurious architectural wonder. Inspired by café culture in Italy, the shop’s creators champion hand crafted artisanal espresso and brewed coffee.

10. Having a beach day at Refugio State Beach

Refugio State Beach is located 23 miles West of Santa Barbara on Highway 101 at Refugio Road, about six miles north of El Capitan. It has camping situated back from the shore with only a few of its 85 sites located on the water. If you are simply going for a day, you can pay 15 dollars to park your car and just hang out at the beach.

The Palm trees planted near Refugio Creek give a distinctive look to the beach and camping area.

11. Taking a coastal walk at Mesa Lane Steps

The 241 mostly wood steps provide the only beach access; the stairs begin at the south end of Mesa Lane and zig-zag down to Mesa Lane beach. This walk is way better than any gym’s Stairmaster; the Mesa Lane Steps will challenge your calves and quadriceps on the way back up.

Mesa Lane boasts Santa Barbara’s longest and most aesthetic staircase, descending to a pristine stretch of sand. The initial descent is lined with exuberant red bougainvillea, the botanical icon of Santa Barbara.

At the bottom of the stairs lies a narrow stretch of beach where there’s ample room for walking, sunbathing, and beach sports.

12. Visiting the colorful stairs at Paseo Nuevo Plaza

From lavish gardens to Spanish-inspired architecture, Santa Barbara is as photogenic as they come. The Paseo Nuevo plaza is a hotspot for shopping in the city. While we were here, we found this colorful stairway made up of intricate Spanish tiles.

This stair fully captures the beautiful Spanish-style vibes for which Santa Barbara is known for (Exact location of this staircase: next to 601 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara, CA 93101).

13. Soaking in the aqua thermal springs at Hot Springs Canyon

In the 1800s, Montecito Hot Springs, also known as Hot Springs Canyon, was a thriving hot springs resort. Today, the aqua thermal springs nestled in the coastal mountains of San Padre, remain but there’s little trace of the resort. It’s currently run by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County and is filled with hikers making their way through the picturesque surroundings to the canyon.

You’ll be rewarded with breathtaking scenery on your way up. It’s roughly a 4-mile loop and once you reach the series of vivid color pools you’ll be able to get that spa treatment you deserve. .

A few pools with rock walls at the springs cascade into one another, and they have varying depths and temperatures. The source water is 112℉, and the pool at the very top is the hottest. It’s also the pool that fits the most people at once.

14. Taking pictures with the instagrammable Chromatic Gate

Located along the waterfront on the edge of Cabrillo Ball Park is Santa Barbara’s Chromatic Gate. At a height of 21 feet and weighing 12.5 tons, the “rainbow arch” was erected in 1991. The Chromatic Gate is made out of six different colors, one slightly taller than the other as it creates a rainbow gateway.

Santa Barbara’s Chromatic Gate has gained notoriety on Instagram and is considered a very instagrammable location due to the many primary colors. The colors fade and depending on your date of arrival, the colors of the structure may be in softer tones.

15. Having lunch at the Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant

Perched on the dock of Santa Barbara Harbor, Brophy Bros. Clam Bar & Restaurant is another great spot for shellfish lovers. It is perfect for those who want to enjoy fresh shellfish in a casual, waterfront setting.

Crab cakes, shrimp cocktails, and chowders are some of the tastiest dishes on the menu. They also have a variety of fish and chips, seafood platters, and raw bar.

It’s truly magical to soak in the views of the American Riviera coastline while devouring a plate of seafood pasta. The restaurant has a casual, laid-back atmosphere, making it perfect for a casual meal with friends and family.

16. Taking a stroll down the State Street

Santa Barbara has one of the cutest little downtown districts in Southern California. That’s why it’s earned my award for prettiest city in the US! The layout is incredibly friendly to pedestrians, so walking around to all of the restaurants and shops is easy to do. The buildings are all modeled in the Spanish mission style to honor the legacy that helped build and develop the area.

Something you won’t want to miss when visiting downtown Santa Barbara is strolling down the beautiful, palm tree-lined State Street for outdoor dining and buying fresh and diverse cuisines

Early in the pandemic, the city transformed the heart of Downtown Santa Barbara into a wide pedestrian promenade. A 10-block stretch of State Street now conjures a festive European milieu with outdoor dining spilling into the street, pedestrians strolling the shops and galleries, and graceful trees and Spanish-colonial architecture rising above it all.

17. Going on a mural hunting

There is a great amount of murals and wall arts around Santa Barbara. You could spend a whole day mural hunting! There’s always new art poping up (especially in the Funk Zone).

18. Visiting nearby Solvang

Solvang is a Danish-inspired town only 45 minutes from Santa Barbara! Visiting Solvang is like visiting Europe with rolling hills, vineyards, classic Danish style architecture, and Danish pastries.

If you visit Solvang in December, you will be in a very special treat. Solvang is known as one of the ten best winter holiday towns in the United States and Readers Digest confirmed this reputation by calling Solvang the “Best Christmas Town in California.” 

The Danish village comes alive during holiday season with sparkling Christmas lights, musical performances, an enchanting parade, seasonal treats at the local bakeries and unique shopping opportunities. Check out my Christmas Guide for Solvang here.

19. Taking a day trip to Pismo Beach

Pismo Beach is a lovely white sandy beach just 1.5 hours north of Santa Barbara. This area is a quaint little beach town with a population of less than 8,000.

Pismo Beach is a small, laid-back hidden spot that remains practically untouched on the Central Coast of California. Airstreams on the pier, beautiful scenic hikes, epic sunsets and fresh seafood, Pismo Beach has everything you could want for your coastal getaway. Check out my 3-day itinerary guide for Pismo Beach here.

20. Taking a day trip to Morro Bay

Only 2 hours north of Santa Barbara, Morro Bay is a little gem that’s different from other beach towns in the west coast. It is a foggy, temperate beach town with more Eucalyptus trees than palm trees and a quiet quirkiness.

Morro Bay is unique because of one feature: Morro Rock, a 581 foot (177 m) volcanic plug (landform created when magma hardens within a vent on an active volcano). A causeway (or sand spit) connects it to the shore.

It is the perfect place to enjoy some relaxing time on the beach.  The popular beaches are: Morro Sand Dunes, Morro Rock Beach, Morro Bay State Park Beach, and Morro Strand State Beach.

And those are all the most unique things to do in Santa BarbaraI hope this guide helps you plan a fun trip to Santa Barbara!


By inAra

Hi there! I’m May, a girl who loves to wander and wonder! I’m from Saigon, based in Los Angeles, but my current location is anywhere and everywhere. Travel, Photography, Tea Time, Picnic, Home Decor and Event Planning are a few of my favorite things.

inArabymay is a travel and lifestyle blog inspired by beautiful destinations, by color and nature, and by wonderful people that I’ve met on my journey.

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