Aerial shot of spanish style buildings at sunset

First Timer's Guide to Santa Barbara, CA

18/11/2020

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the soaring Santa Ynez Mountains, on a stretch of central California coastline 90 miles northwest of L.A., you'll find Santa Barbara. A quick look around and it's easy to see why the city is often called the "American Riviera." For starters, Santa Barbara's geography and weather are remarkably similar to that of its more famous sibling in southern France. Upon closer inspection, the tree-lined promenades, vibrant farm-to-table artisan food scene, abundance of nearby vineyards and wineries, and even the Spanish-style architecture truly are reminiscent of the French Riviera.

woman standing in the Santa Barbara Hills

Planning Your Trip

With well over 300 sunny days every year and average temperatures that are permanently fixed between 17 and 25 degrees Celsius (64 to 78 degrees Fareneight), there's never a bad time to visit Santa Barbara. U.S. News & World Report even ranked it as the Number One best city to live in weather-wise in both 2018 and 2019.

If you're looking for a reason to visit Santa Barbara, consider this your sign! Although there are warmer and sunnier times than others, the truth is that Santa Barbara is the perfect vacation no matter what time of year you visit.

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

exterior view of lush West Beach Inn with pool view

Whether you have a weekend or a week to spend in Santa Barbara, you need a hotel that puts you within easy access of, well, everything. The Mediterranean-style West Beach Inn, a Coast Hotel, does exactly that. It's situated directly across from the scenic Santa Barbara Harbor in the heart of West Beach, a neighborhood favored by both locals and visitors for its proximity to plenty of dining and shopping options, the arts district, and the Urban Wine Trail.

The West Beach Inn features large guest rooms with garden or harbor views and in-room air conditioning. There's a heated outdoor pool and spa, but the hotel encourages you to get out and explore Santa Barbara, too. To that end, guests are provided with a two-hour complimentary bicycle rental and a one-hour paddleboard session that's suitable for all ages. That's just the beginning. Other amenity highlights at the West Beach Inn include:

  • Complimentary deluxe continental breakfast buffet
  • Complimentary poolside evening wine and cheese reception
  • Free parking
  • Nightly turndown service with chocolates
  • Turkish cotton bathrobes

Places To Visit In Santa Barbara

Calling all sun worshippers, history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts! There are cool places to visit in Santa Barbara for each and every one of you. The best part? When you stay at the West Beach Inn, a Coast Hotel, you'll have a great jumping-off point no matter how you choose to spend your days.

white, sandy beach near Santa Barbara, CA

For beach-goers

Beaches are a must-do in Santa Barbara. Most of the beaches face south, rather than west. Because of this, they're parallel to — and sheltered from — ocean winds, resulting in less wind and calmer waters. With miles of pristine coastline, you can spend your beach days lounging, surfing, or exploring (or all of the above!).

  • Thousand Steps Beach - This beach is somewhat of a hidden gem and rarely crowded. Note that there are about 100 steps to go down (hence the name) and the coastline isn't sandy, but rather, rocky, with neat tide pools that form at low tide.
  • Butterfly Beach - Located in the Montecito area, this beach is a favorite of locals, including many celebrities. While most beaches here face south, Butterfly Beach faces west, making for larger waves and spectacular sunsets.
  • East Beach - Known for being family-friendly, you'll find volleyball courts, cafés, and a playground here. It's also adjacent to Stearns Wharf, so you can easily spend the day exploring and walking the boardwalk.
  • Hendry's Beach - Technically, this is Arroyo Burro Beach, but locals call it Hendry's. It's dog-friendly and even has a self-service dog washing station. The other big draw is the Boathouse, one of Santa Barbara's only beachfront restaurants.

rolling hills behind santa barbara

For outdoor explorers

Set against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is much more than just a beach city. There are several hiking trails to explore and places to see in Santa Barbara, ranging in difficulty from easy to advanced. Whichever you choose to take on, you'd be hard-pressed to find more picturesque trails anywhere.

  • Seven Falls - This moderate 2.5-mile roundtrip hike will reward you with waterfalls and pools at the end. Bring sturdy hiking shoes for this trail since some of the terrain is wet, as well as a swimsuit.
  • Inspiration Point - There are multiple ways to reach the summit of this hike, and any of them will lead you to sweeping views from high above Santa Barbara. Plan for at least 1.5 hours.
  • Rattlesnake Trail - This trail is ideal for families with young children and pets as well. It's gentle, well-marked, and offers plenty of shade along the way.
  • La Cumbre Peak - A bit more challenging, this 10-mile out-and-back hike takes you to Santa Barbara's highest peak at just shy of 4,000 feet. With stunning panoramic views, it's a hiking enthusiast's dream, but bring plenty of water and snacks.
  • Channel Islands - The rugged islands just off the coast offer five miles of unique, not-to-be-missed coastal hiking trails. Note that to get here from Santa Barbara, you'll need to take a boat run by Island Packers.

Old Mission in Santa Barbara

For history buffs

Originally settled by Native Americans about 13,000 years ago, Santa Barbara is one of California's oldest communities. The first permanent settlers were Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, and their influence can still be found throughout the city today. Military and maritime influences also had a lasting and still-relevant impact, as can be seen in Stearns Wharf, the oldest working wharf in the state.

A little-known fact about Santa Barbara is that it's dubbed "Old Hollywood" because the first major movie studio in California was here in the early 1900s. From 1910-1920, more than 100 silent movies were filmed there. Today, the city still serves as the backdrop for many popular movies.

Where to eat in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is something of a foodie's dream-come-true, with a heavy emphasis on locally- and sustainably-sourced farm-to-table food. Fantastic restaurants are around every corner, so the only difficulty will be choosing just a few to visit!

Waterfront view of Stearn's Wharf, in Santa Barbara, California.

  • The Funk Zone - A contemporary section of town filled with boutique tasting rooms, microbreweries, cafés, and vintage shops.
  • Wine tasting - Santa Barbara has a vibrant wine scene of its own, with its downtown brimming with tasting rooms and wineries. There's also the Urban Wine Trail, a self-guided tasting tour throughout the city.
  • Seafood - Fish doesn't get much fresher than in Santa Barbara. From the Saturday fish market to Stearns Wharf, you'll have endless options to suit every palate.

Between the many broad, sandy beaches, an endless amount of outdoor activities, and excellent entertainment and nightlife, a trip to Santa Barbara is perfect for everyone. Whether you're planning a dreamy honeymoon, an action-packed family trip, a girlfriends' getaway, or a bachelor party, Santa Barbara has all the makings of a perfect vacation.