Spanish red tiled roofs, expansive beaches, and cascading hills are just the beginning of Santa Barbara's allure.
This California jewel, nicknamed the “The American Rivieria,” is a laid-back coastal getaway that offers a balanced combination of outdoor pursuits and cultural activities.
The following is a quick guide to our favorite spots after a fleeting 36-hour visit to the region:
36 Hours in Santa Barbara
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
The Kimpton Goodland Hotel
The Goodland is a hotel that epitomizes California cool. Located in Goleta, it’s a 10-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara and a quick zip from the airport. The property is an old Holiday Inn that’s been refurbished into a hotspot with a retro surfer-boho vibe. As expected with the Kimpton brand, this boutique property offers thoughtful perks. Guests may never want to leave with amenities like free happy hours, an in-room record player and vinyl record library, outdoor pool, pet-friendly rooms, inviting lounge areas, fitness area, picnic benches, and its on-site restaurant, Outpost.
What makes the scene at the Goodland so distinctive are the creative, complimentary events it throws throughout the week. Jetsetters will enjoy guest DJs and bands playing by the poolside. Fitness freaks will appreciate yoga classes every Sunday morning and kayak and paddleboard rentals on Mondays at East Beach. And families and friends can partake in inclusive activities like trivia, game night, s’mores around the firepit, and tarot card readings. The Kimpton also runs the Canary Santa Barbara downtown.
What to Do in Santa Barbara
Tour Old Mission Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara’s Mission is a beautifully preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture that’s still run by friars. Gardens of blushing roses greet visitors at the front lawn; follow the arched corridors inside the complex and discover meditative gardens, sacred chapels, and ancient crypts. The front plaza is a public gathering place for families and picnickers on the weekends and also the site for the Madonnari Festival in May. Street artists take over the pavement with pastels in hand to paint impressive oeuvres.
There’s more to the grounds than its graceful scenery, it’s deeply intertwined with the local history. Built in 1786, it was the tenth Mission in the state established by Franciscan monks whose main objective was to convert the the Chumash Indian population to Christianity. A large part of the facility is dedicated to a museum that explains the Mission’s role in California’s heritage.
Stroll East Beach and Stearns Wharf
Constructed in 1872 and sprawling 2,300 feet, Stearns Wharf is one of the oldest and longest piers in California. Originally built to dock freight ships, it eventually evolved into a tourist destination that has become Santa Barbara’s most visited landmark. The wharf feels like a beach town’s boardwalk brimming with restaurants, candy shops, souvenir stores, and the Museum of Natural History Sea Center.
The pier is located in the middle of East Beach on the edge of downtown. The crescent shore’s gentle waters are ideal for paddle boarding and sea kayaking – there are several outfitters on the waterfront that rent equipment. The most peaceful time to visit is on weekday mornings and it’s also the best time to find a parking spot in the public lots along Cabrillo Boulevard.
Watch the Sunset at Butterfly Beach
Located in upscale Montecito, Butterfly Beach is one of the few in the area that faces west, making it a prime spot to soak up the sunset. A lot of pet owner stroll this stretch of sand as leashed dogs are permitted on the beach. This locale is also home to the historic Biltmore Hotel, opened in 1937, which is now part of the Four Seasons Resort family. The sophisticated Ty Lounge is located through the lobby and opens to an ocean terrace where guests can admire views over cocktails and tapas around a fire pit.
Unwind at Goleta Beach Park
If you’re near the airport or staying at Goodland, Goleta Beach Park is just a few minutes away by car. The beach is a pleasant stop for couples and families looking to relax for an hour or two. The 29-acre recreational park consists of playgrounds, volleyball courts, public restrooms, BBQ areas, and a long fishing pier. Dine at its waterfront cafe or swing by nearby Trader Joe’s to pick up picnic food and drinks. Best of all, parking and admission are free.
Where to Shop in Santa Barbara
State Street is the main thoroughfare that bisects Santa Barbara’s downtown. Characterized by Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and studded with palms, this mile-long stretch is a haven for pedestrian-friendly shopping and dining. While most big name brands are on State, take some time to wander the charming side streets and plazas to uncover some local gems like Warbler Records and Plum Goods.
The Funk Zone
Napa is not the only California destination for wine lovers – Santa Barbara’s neighboring Santa Ynez Valley is home to over 120 wineries. A fun way to experience the variety of bottles coming out of this region is to visit the slew of tasting rooms in the Funk Zone. The district, sandwiched between East Beach and Highway 101, has become a hip hotbed for foodies and art aficionados. Blocks of converted warehouses and vivid murals are home to eclectic art galleries, bars, breweries, and unique shops like The Blue Door that sells three floors worth of contemporary and mid-century modern decor. The epicenter of the neighborhood is the intersection of Yanonali and Anacapa streets, which also lie on the city’s Urban Wine Trail and is part of the bi-monthly Funk Zone Art Walk.
Where to Eat in Santa Barbara
If you’re on the hunt for an energizing, nutritious breakfast or snack, head to Backyard Bowls. This local chain serves up wholesome açai bowls, hot porridges, and smoothies. The vegan-friendly PB+J quinoa breakfast bowl is a personal favorite – the café does run out so don’t wait too late into the morning to order it. There are three locations in the area: one in downtown Santa Barbara, one in La Cumbre Plaza shopping center, and another in Goleta across from the Goodland Hotel.
Mesa Verde is a destination for creative vegetarian and organic cuisine. Chef Greg Arnold draws from his art background to create painterly plated dishes infused with colorful flavors. The restaurant is humbly tucked away on Cliff Drive with a rustic interior and patio that keeps the atmosphere intimate and casual. Come in a group for lunch, brunch, or dinner; large portions incite sharing, especially since it may be difficult to decide what to order. The menu garners rave reviews for its crisp and smoky polenta fries, savory flatbreads, inventive vegan caesar salad, and baklava with vanilla ice cream and pomegranate molasses dessert.
Santa Barbara Public Market
When you can’t decide what to eat, visit the Santa Barbara Public Market a couple of blocks off of State Street. The center is a one-stop shop for dining where everyone is bound to find an option. Visitors will discover a number of purveyors under one roof: a noodle bar, bakery, coffee roaster, beer garden, and cafés. Check the market’s website for upcoming events like cooking demonstrations and tastings.
Santa Barbara Wine Collective & Helena’s Bakery
Santa Barbara Wine Collective and Helena’s Bakery share a space in the historic Castagnola warehouse in the Funk Zone. The bakery prepares artisan bread and hand-made pastries. It also serves an array of gourmet sandwiches and side dishes that can be enjoyed on the premises or to-go for a beachfront picnic.
Santa Barbara Winery Collective is a co-op space that features six producers from Santa Barbara County. It’s noted for a friendly, knowledgeable staff and a communal tasting room where guests can sample drinks and nibble on toasted treats.
Where are your treasured spots in Santa Barbara? Leave your recommendations and questions below.
Disclaimer: Kimpton provided me with a discount stay. All opinions expressed are my own.