Santa Barbara is nicknamed the "American Riviera" but, to us, it might as well be the "only" riviera because as native Californians, we're biased and we love it more than any other riviera out there.
We're stuck on Santa Barbara because it's everything you see on a California postcard but IRL—sun-kissed surfers, stunning hikes, world-class wine, local artisans, and lots of good food.
Why Downtown Santa Barbara?
Yes, State Street can be weirdly transient and college town-y in certain blocks but overall we love downtown Santa Barbara because it's steps from the beach, very walkable, and has tons to do. It's kinda always a good time to visit Santa Barbara but we prefer the Spring through Fall when the water is warm enough to surf without a full wetsuit and the snowbirds haven't yet set up shop.
Whether you stop over a few days to totally get away or just have one day, it’s magical all the same. Here are the places to visit and things to do in Santa Barbara that have the Salt & Wind thumbs up!
Before You Go
Where to Stay
Classic Luxe: Four Seasons Biltmore
The grand dame of Santa Barbara hotels, this is one of the most classic hotel properties in California. It's located just south of downtown in Montecito just along Butterfly Beach. The sprawling property is California classic in every way — tennis courts, California Spanish tiles, and lots and lots of palm trees. If you don't stay there, go for a sunset drink!
Contemporary Chic: Belmond El Encanto
If you want to get away from the mix of it all, head to El Encanto. The property is tucked in a residential neighborhood more or less behind the Santa Barbara Mission gardens but it's still just a few minutes from downtown. They have some of the best views in Santa Baraba, a serene pool, and adorable cottages that make it feel like a total refuge. And, if you can't stay there, stop by for brunch or take your mother for tea time!
Boutique Vibes: Canary Hotel
The only problem with Santa Barbara is that the lodging can get pricey, which is why I like that the Canary Hotel is such a good value. It's located right downtown, has Finch & Fork bar (see below) downstairs, and has a rooftop view that's worth the visit alone!
What to Watch
- Sideways - this is the film that put Central Coast wines on the map and it's still as good as ever
Once You're There
Where to Breakfast and Lunch
Chill: Backyard Bowls
We first heard about these guys when they opened a branch of their Santa Barbara acai bowl joint in our Los Angeles neighborhood. The crew in Los Angeles is so friendly and the bowls so fresh that we wanted to check the original. It's smaller and less design driven than the Los Angeles store but the acai bowls and smoothies are every bit as good.
Fast: Lily’s Tacos
Just off of State Street is Lily's Tacos, which is repeatedly ranked as one of the best taquerias in town. There's usually a line out the door but they have super fast service and it's very much worth the (not very long) wait. The lengua tacos are on point and the steamed maciza tacos (seasoned with warm spices) are some of our favorites.
Classic: La Super Rica
This is a reputation preceeding it situation because La Super Rica was Julia Child's favorite Santa Barbara taco shop and word has gotten out. The lines are always long and they only take cash, but the greasy Mexican food is worth it — especially the Rajas, tacos de Adobado, and the Super Rica especial.
Creative: Blue Owl
This little Asian-inspired cafe is tucked right off State Street and every time we've gone, there's been a wait. It's comfort food with an Asian twist and our favorites have been the Wake n Bacon sandwich, the Red Curry Shrimp Roll, and the Banh Mi.
Where to Dinner
Chic: The Lark
Ask anyone where to eat in Santa Barbara and they'll most likely name The Lark or one of its sister places, the wine bar Les Marchands, the casual spot Lucky Penny, or the tapas joint Loquita. The Lark is built in homage of The Lark train, which passed through Santa Barbara back in the day and has decor elements highlighting that history. Some of the top bites of our last meal there were the Grilled Hanger Steak, the Southern Pimento Cheese, and the Hamachi Crudo.
Classic Cali: Barbareno
Every single plate at Barbareno pays homage to Santa Barbara and California's history. From local ingredients like avocados, quail, and figs to dishes like the Eggamuffin (their upscale twist on the Mc Muffin, which was invented in SB btw), the Oak Tagliatelle, and the Ranchero Scotch Eggs, everything they do has a nod to Central Coast cuisine.
Eclectic: Sama Sama Kitchen
Our favorite thing about State Street is that just when you've written it off for seeming too much like an outdoor mall, it has something totally unique like Sama Sama Kitchen. This Southeast Asian restaurant is from the crew at Shelter Social Club who we have a total crush on. They've worked to restore old hotels and just generally raising the hospitality bar in Central California and Sama Sama is no exception. The minimal decor and laidback service mean all the focus is on the food and drink.
Where to Drink
Creative: Test Pilot
Most people will tell you to head to the Funk Zone for wine tasting and you should definitely do that. Just also make sure you save time for a tiki drink or two at the straight-outta-1960s-Hawaii joint that is the recently opened tiki bar, Test Pilot. Last time we went we had excellent drinks and made quick friends with the locals hanging there.
Laidback: Figueroa Mountain Brewing
We're not gonna lie: the scene can get a bit frat-y here later in the night so do last call elsewhere. Despite that, Fig is worth stopping by if you like good beer and especially if you can't make it to their original location in Santa Ynez Valley.
Educational: Santa Barbara Wine Collective
Just as the name implies, this is a wine tasting room that features 5 local wineries, including the classics Babcock and Fess Parker and the much-talked-about newer winery, Sandhi.
Where to Coffee
This local roaster makes some seriously good espresso drinks and is a favorite among the locals (the place has been swarming with cyclists and early morning joggers every time we've been).
Where to Shop
Yes, the name is a little, well, cheesy, but the store more than makes up for that. When it comes to cheese — and anything that pairs with it from chocolate to crackers — C'est Cheese has got you covered. They're around the corner from Handlebar Coffee Roasters so we usually stop by both at once.
The team behind The Lark and Lucky Penny opened Les Marchands and, with decor right out of 19th century Paris, it's so gorgeous we'd say stop by just to see the interior. But that'd be selling it short becuase the wine merchant and wine bar has a serious inventory with a super approachable staff and you can also cozy up to the bar for a few sips and some bites like uni guac.
The only problem with this Funk Zone vintage and antique shop is that we could spend waaay too much money there. Unlike too many vintage shops, this is well kept and well organized and has gems from clothing to tabletop and everything in between.
Where to Explore
So, yes, a helicopter tour is not something you do everyday but a place with a super varied landscape - like Santa Barbara — is a pretty amazing place to do it. Preferably at sunset. And, if you have the time, going all the way out to the Channel Islands and back.
As a beginner surfer, I love how friendly the waves are in Santa Barbara. And, if you're a total novice, the guys at Channel Island Outfitters will take you out and get you in the water, without having you spend too much time training. They also do kayak excursions out to the Channel Islands if you have time to do a day trip.
If hiking is your thing, then Santa Barbara is your place because there are every type of hike from waterfalls to canyons to beachside. If you have a car, head up to Cold Spring Creek, just up the hill from downtown. There are a lot of different ways to do the hike from easy to strenuous and, on a clear day, the top of the hike has a view over the city.
Make Sure To...
- Do some wine tasting in The Funk Zone
- Spend a morning in the water at The Harbor
- Visit the historic Santa Barbara Mission
- Spend an afternoon doing the Taco Trail
Santa Barbara's central location in California means you can get anywhere pretty quickly. Here are a few easy day trip that we highly reccomend:
- Go wine tasting and for some California BBQ in Santa Ynez
- Road trip up the historic California Highway 1
Our Favorite Locals
Let the (light) stalking begin! These are the Instagram accounts we peep when we need some Santa Barbara:
More Santa Barbara Area on Salt & Wind
For even more Central California coast, check out our other coverage:
- A Taste Of The American Riviera: Food Lovers' Itinerary
- Nine U.S. Hotels Cheaper Than A Bottle of Veuve
Did you know we lead boutique food and wine tours for food lovers? Come join our next Salt & Wind trip!
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Last updated January 2017