Welcome to Santa Barbara, where the sun, sea, and mountains create a coastal paradise like no other. The Chumash people initially inhabited the town for thousands of years before Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century. Today, Santa Barbara still reflects its Spanish colonial heritage with Mediterranean-style buildings and red-tile roofs, which perfectly complement the natural backdrop of the San Ynez Mountains. 

What may appear as a small beach town truly has so much to offer. From its pristine beaches, one-of-a-kind hiking trails, vibrant culture, mouthwatering eateries, live music scene, renowned vineyards, and plenty more… there won’t be a minute to spare.

Just 90 minutes from Los Angeles, whether visiting for just the day or a long weekend, it’s a no-brainer. So whether you’re looking to catch the perfect wave or want to indulge in a world of laid-back tranquility, the magic of Santa Barbara offers what can only be referred to as a diverse array of experiences that cater to every taste and interest. 

When is the best time to go to Santa Barbara?

Santa Barbara bathes in near-perfect weather, averaging more than 300 days of sunshine each year, so there’s really no bad time to visit. For travelers looking for that quintessential Californian experience, July and August are when the sun is at its hottest and the water is warmest. While the warmer season does bring larger crowds and higher prices, consider planning your trip around Santa Barbra’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta. The city truly comes alive during the five-day festival that honors Santa Barbara’s history, spirit, culture, heritage and traditions. The celebrations begin on the Wednesday before the first Friday in August, and 2024 will mark its 100th anniversary. 

Budget-conscious travelers may find winter (December to February) more appealing, with fewer tourists and a better chance of snagging a great deal on accommodation. But the sweet spot lies in spring and fall when the crowds thin out while temperatures are still on the higher side. Just be sure to pack layers as the temperatures can drop up to 15 degrees at night.

How much time should I spend in Santa Barbara?

Santa Barbara can be enjoyed as an easy day or weekend trip from Los Angeles (travel time is only 90 minutes). However, with so much to do and see, true explorers will relish the opportunity to linger for three to four days (and many lodging properties offer guests their third night free). 

If you only have two days, you can soak up the city’s Spanish heritage and enjoy the palm-lined waterfront and coastal cuisine. However, with a few more days up your sleeve, you can indulge beyond the city’s immediate offerings. For starters, Santa Barbara’s wine tastings are a must. There’s a series of 25+ rooms downtown, but if you can venture out to Santa Barbara’s wine country, it’s home to 283 wineries. With more days, outdoor adventures like hiking and cycling are also possible and cater to all levels and expertise. 

Two women with bikes on a pier in Santa Barbara at sunset
Hire a bike and soak up the coastal vibes from Stearns Wharf at sunset © Maxwell Frank / Getty Images

Is it easy to get in and around Santa Barbara?

The options are plenty when it comes to getting in and around Santa Barbara. A direct flight to Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA) is an option with flights from all around the US, including Portland, Salt Lake City, and even Atlanta. From there, a ride-share service or hotel shuttle can transport you the 10 miles to downtown. 

Getting to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles is an easy 90-minute drive on US 101-N. Alternatively, tourists can opt for the Amtrak train. The gorgeous coastal ride starts from Union Station in Los Angeles and takes just over two-and-a-half hours to arrive directly in downtown Santa Barbara. 

Once in Santa Barbara, the compact city center means you can ditch your car for the most part. The downtown coastal area is very pedestrian and cyclist-friendly, making it easy to explore the charming streets of boutiques, cafes, and galleries without the added stress of finding (limited) parking. However, if you plan to visit beyond downtown, a car or rideshare option will be necessary. 

Top things to do in Santa Barbara

There’s so much to pack in during your time in Santa Barbara, but there are a few must-dos that showcase the city. Renting a bike is the best way to see as many spots as possible. Make sure you cruise along the scenic Cabrillo Bike Path, which offers breathtaking views of the coastline and the Santa Ynez Mountains. 

Foodies and wine enthusiasts will feel right at home with the near-limitless gastronomic offerings. For a casual-yet-upscale coffee, Cajé Coffee Roasters are known for their very photogenic drinks (order the Sugar Wood or Belarosa). For lunch, it’s almost criminal for a first-timer to skip La Super-Rica Taqueria. After one bite, you’ll quickly learn why Julia Child and Katy Perry call this their favorite taco joint. Bibi Ji is another local go-to for their friendly atmosphere and delicious twist on modern Indian cuisine. 

Even if you’re not planning on venturing past downtown, it doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on a famous Santa Barbara wine tasting. Just steps from the main State Street, Grassini Family Vineyards has a tasting room. For just $25, you can try their Estate Flight, which features four of their estate-grown wines, or you can purchase a glass or bottle to enjoy. 

Taking the time to stop and enjoy the serenity is a huge part of what attracts so many people to Santa Barbra. For a budget-friendly option, pack a casual picnic and bask in the sunshine, beauty, and tranquility of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens. Tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the enchanting oasis showcases California’s diverse flora. 

Rows of lush green vineyard grapvines with a majestic oak tree in the distance.
If time allows head out to the boutique vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley © YaskoCreative / Getty Images

Leave time for a day trip from Santa Barbara

There are several day trip options from Santa Barbara, including visiting nearby wine regions such as the Santa Ynez Valley. Beyond wine tastings, the Santa Ynez Valley is also known for its horseback riding. A popular place to visit is the Alisal Ranch, located on 10,500 sweeping acres, with 100 horses trained for riders who are beginners having their first lesson, to an expert wanting an exhilirating trail ride.

Another great spot is Monetcito – another coastal town only a 10 minute drive with boutique shopping and sprawling estates. If you’re lucky, you may even bump into Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry, Ellen DeGeneres or plenty of other celebrities who call this area home.

Venturing out a little further, take a scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway to destinations like Malibu or Big Sur, or visit other popular day trip destinations like Solvang, Ojai or Channel Islands National Park

My favorite thing to do in Santa Barbara

Picking just one favorite activity is nearly impossible with all that Santa Barbara has to offer. But if I did have to recommend just one activity, I’d say you cannot miss an evening show at the Santa Barbara Bowl

The spectacular amphitheater was built in 1936 and seats over 4,500 people. Of course, the performances are showstopping, but the true magic happens before the show. Located approximately 300 feet above sea level, as the sun starts its descent behind the hills, the sky transforms into a breathtaking canvas of fiery hues. It’s a scene that captures  Santa Barbara’s rich natural beauty, and the magical sunsets become forever intertwined with the unforgettable experience of the live show. 

How much money do I need to visit Santa Barbara?

Santa Barbara is considered to be a relatively expensive place to visit due to its popular coastal location and luxurious upscale amenities. However, there are options to suit various budgets. 

  • Hostel room: $40–$65 per night (season dependent) 
  • Basic room for two: $150–$350 per night (season dependent) 
  • Self-catering apartment (including Airbnb): $140–$350+ per night (season dependent) 
  • Public transport ticket: $1.75 for a single bus ride, or $4.50–$7 for a day pass
  • Coffee: $3–$6
  • Sandwich: $8–$15
  • Dinner for two: $30–$100+
  • Beer/pint at the bar: $5–$10
  • Wine tasting: $15–$30
  • City tour: $30–$100pp 
Entrance to the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, a popular tourist destination
Admire Santa Barbara's unique architecture © VDB Photos / Shutterstock

What’s the nightlife like in Santa Barbara? 

The nightlife scene in Santa Barbara is vibrant with trendy bars, restaurants, and lounges lining the main streets of downtown. Many feature live music performances to add to the lively atmosphere. 

Is it easy to find parking in downtown Santa Barbara? 

The short answer is: no. Parking in downtown Santa Barbara can be challenging, especially during high seasons. There are metered spots, but availability varies. Consider walking on foot or biking around to avoid parking hassles.

What should I pack for my trip to Santa Barbara?

Even during warmer months, the temperature in Santa Barbara drops significantly at night, so layers are always recommended. There are many options when it comes to activities, including beach outings, wine tastings, and outdoor expiration so pack a variety of clothing options. Everyday essentials for Santa Barbara include sunscreen, comfortable walking shoes, and a water bottle to stay hydrated. 

Are there any safety tips I should keep in mind?

Overall, Santa Barbara is considered a safe tourist destination, but it’s always wise to take precautions and be aware of new surroundings. Additionally, it’s important to be mindful of ocean conditions when swimming and enjoying other water activities. Always listen to lifeguards and local advice regardless of how confident you are in the water. 

Here is more expert advice to help you plan your trip:

Find the best time to visit Santa Barbara.
Check out these budget-friendly tips for California before you book.
Save this guide to the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.
And bookmark these California road trip itineraries, including the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Barbara.

Explore related stories



How to get tickets to the 2026 World Cup games in North America

Feb 7, 2024 • 5 min read