8 unmissable things to do in sunkissed Santa Barbara

Edmund Vallance
·3-min read
Santa Barbara's sunsets are a sight to behold: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Santa Barbara's sunsets are a sight to behold: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Santa Barbara is a picture-perfect coastal city within easy reach of Los Angeles.

Temperatures here rarely dip below the mythical Southern Californian “70 degrees” (21 Celsius). The downtown area is small, and easily walkable – which is rare in these parts – and there’s a host of enviable attractions, including surfing, kayaking, wine tasting and whale-watching.

It's no wonder the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have recently made Santa Barbara their permanent home.

But there's plenty to do for visitors too, ranging from historic hotels, excellent farm-to-table cuisine and dramatic colonial architecture.

Here are eight to get you started.

Get salty

Santa Barbara's Pacific Ocean coast is a good place to spot dolphins and whales (iStock)
Santa Barbara's Pacific Ocean coast is a good place to spot dolphins and whales (iStock)

Don’t leave Santa Barbara without experiencing its main draw: the Pacific Ocean.

Spot greys, blues and humpback whales (as well as dolphins, sea lions, and turtles) on a whale-watching excursion to Santa Cruz Island with Condor Express; paddle across the mirror-like harbour on a coastal kayaking adventure (try Santa Barbara Adventure Company); or make good use of the Sunset Kidd’s fully-stocked bar (available for private charters only during the pandemic), on a sunset sailing trip to palm-fringed Leadbetter Point.

Be silly on The Sky Gallery

Family time at The Wolf Museum of Innovation and Exploration Sky Garden (Jason Rick)
Family time at The Wolf Museum of Innovation and Exploration Sky Garden (Jason Rick)

The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation is 17,000 square feet of full-on family fun.

Exhibits include a giant strummable guitar, a toy car race track, and three sound overdubbing booths, featuring excerpts from Planet of the Apes, Toy Story and Edward Scissorhands. Don’t miss the Sky Gallery: a sprawling rooftop space complete with water features, giant telescopes, and jaw-dropping mountain views.

Hit the "Drunk Zone"

Downtown’s Funk Zone (known locally as the “Drunk Zone”) is home to no fewer than 15 tasting rooms, showcasing the excellent wines produced in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley. Start your tour on the outside terrace of Kunin Wines. Then, stagger five minutes north to Deep Sea Tasting Room on Santa Barbara pier. Their wines are excellent; their ocean views, even better.

Go on a mission

Mission Santa Barbara, founded by Spanish Franciscan nuns (Getty)
Mission Santa Barbara, founded by Spanish Franciscan nuns (Getty)

Founded by Spanish Franciscan monks in 1786, the Mission Santa Barbara is arguably the most beautiful monastery in Southern California. While you can't take a guided tour right now due to Covid restrictions, you can make a virtual pilgrimage online.

Once restrictions lift, it's worth coming back for the frescoed church, and the mausoleum, before wandering through 12 acres of lush, landscaped gardens.

Shoot into the blue

Soar above mountains, beaches, and vineyards (and take a peek at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch) on an early morning hot air balloon ride across the Santa Ynez Valley with Sky's the Limit.

Eat a Blackbird

Court of Fatima at Hotel Californian (Hotel Californian)
Court of Fatima at Hotel Californian (Hotel Californian)

Housed in the swish, colonial-style Hotel Californian, Santa Barbara’s newest restaurant, Blackbird, focuses on locally sourced, Mediterranean-style fare. Feast on wild salmon with artichoke barigoule ($36/£26) or lamb with broccoli and fennel yoghurt ($42/£30). Then adjourn to the art deco-style bar for an Infinite Wisdom ($15/£11) – a medley of gin, lemon, blueberry, sage, and egg white.

Shop like a Cali local

Rub shoulders with the city’s movers and shakers at Montecito Country Mart home to a slew of designer stores, including James Perse and Intermix. You’ve also got chi-chi food options, from the likes of Panino’s, Pressed Juicery and Rori’s Artisanal Creamery.

Watch the sun go down

Promenade views of Santa Barbara Beach (MamaOT)
Promenade views of Santa Barbara Beach (MamaOT)

Santa Barbara’s psychedelic sunset is a sight to behold, so be sure to arrive early and secure your ringside seat on the sand.

To do it in style, pull up a pew at the family-friendly Shoreline Café, which offers peachy views of the spotless beach.