1. Our mountains aren’t your usual mountains.
Unlike most of the world’s mountain ranges, the Santa Ynez Mountains run from east to west, starting at the ocean and cutting inward along the Gaviota Coast. The ocean-to-mountain hiking and exploration possibilities are everywhere — think rock climbing, scenic beach paths, winding dirt trails, boulders, hot springs, and waterfalls.
For a fun afternoon adventure, check out 7 Falls and 3 Pools, a three-mile hike that leads to a creek where waterfalls often cascade into a series of deep green pools perfect for jumping and cooling off. Visit Devil’s Playground to hop between giant sandstone boulders, flex your rock climbing skills, or marvel at the incredible rock formations, one of which — dubbed “The Narrows” — is a slim crack in the rocks that stretches for a few hundred yards and leads to a cave. There’s also Tangerine Falls, Gaviota Wind Caves, and the Tunnel Trail, a steep, sun-exposed 10-mile hike with sublime views of the Pacific at every turn.
2. The Funk Zone is where it’s at.
The Funk Zone is one of Santa Barbara’s coolest, most contemporary neighborhoods (with a name you definitely won’t forget). Located between the beach and the Amtrak station off the 101, it’s got a quirky, industrial vibe to it and is home to surfboard shops, breweries, boutique stores, art galleries, restaurants, and tons of wine tasting rooms.
For a fancy dinner, make your way to The Lark for flavorful, innovative dishes like grilled Spanish octopus and duck liver mousse with charred pineapple and jalapeño. Head to Brass Bear Brewing for cold beer, garden-fresh veggies, and charcuterie plates, or to Figueroa Mountain Brewing to hear local bands play on the weekends.
Also be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum, the Blue Door to peruse vintage home goods, the Arts Fund gallery to see changing exhibitions of work by local artists, and the Guitar Bar to get your hands on different instruments from the comfort of cozy couches and ottomans.
3. There are farmers markets whenever you need them.
Rain or shine, farmers markets take place every day of the week around here, including in neighboring municipalities like Goleta, Montecito, and Solvang. But the Tuesday and Saturday markets in downtown Santa Barbara are usually the largest and most interesting.
On Saturdays you can listen to live music while you walk through the stalls to taste butterscotch dates, sample avocado honey, pick up fresh seafood from local fishermen, or grab a homemade chicken tamale. Among the other items you can score are artisanal wooden cutting boards hand-crafted by a local wood-worker, locally grown Hawaiian papayas, fresh-pressed walnut oil, orange blossom honey from San Marcos Farms, Autumn Crisp grapes, and peach pies.
4. The Mexican food is great, but so is everything else.
The abundance of delicious, authentic Mexican food in Santa Barbara deserves its own article, but you probably knew that. What you may not have known is that the city also nails its food in all other departments: Vietnamese, Japanese, vegan, seafood, sandwiches, brunch, Italian, steak, barbecue, you name it.
For a classic California-style brunch, head to Jeannine’s for a smoked salmon bagel, pineapple coconut scone, or the banana kahlua french toast. Get city-style deli sandwiches at Three Pickles, oysters and cheese plates at The Hungry Cat, barbecue beef sandwiches at Cold Spring Tavern, yummy dishes with weird names like “I Like Pig Butts” at Milk & Honey Tapas, and spicy small plates such as pork belly bao and crispy rice salad at the Indonesian-inspired Sama Sama Kitchen.
McConnell’s is the place for a sweet snack. They serve homemade ice cream with flavors like Turkish coffee, sea salt cream and cookies, and chocolate-covered strawberries.
5. The local wine trail is expansive and runs right through town.
Our Urban Wine Trail is a self-guided wine tour of nearly 30 boutique tasting rooms, all of which pour selections produced in the surrounding region. It spends a lot of time in the Funk Zone, so you can make pit stops for gourmet sandwiches at places like C’est Cheese and Metropulos between tastings.
Pretty much all of the tasting rooms are within walking distance of each other, so your options are wide open, but be sure to visit favorites like Grassini Family Vineyards, Santa Barbara Winery, and Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant.
6. It redefines the daily workout.
Santa Barbara City College’s La Playa Stadium is one of the most gorgeous places for an outdoor workout. Regularly used for football and soccer games, track meets, and public recreation (hours vary), it has a 180-degree view of the ocean and is a 30-second walk to the sand.
Whether you plan to torture yourself by running up and down the bleachers 20 times, or just want a tranquil spot for an evening jog, you’ll enjoy a killer view while you do it. You can stay at the top of the stadium after your last interval and watch the sunset, or jog to Leadbetter Beach for a light cool-down, then treat yourself to a well-deserved burger and fries at Shoreline Cafe.
7. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is perfect for your next date.
Or for a wedding venue, a sunset stroll, an afternoon picnic, a nap between classes — take your pick. The courthouse, constructed in 1850 in the Spanish style typical of the area, is grand and gorgeous with beautifully tiled hallways, potted palm trees, and an observation deck for watching the sunset.
You can tour the courthouse’s mural room, library, and hall of records, but the building’s best feature is the wide, grassy lawn that welcomes wedding parties, circles of friends chatting on blankets, couples, and university students reading under the trees.
8. Beach camping doesn’t get better than right here.
Santa Barbara has some of the prettiest, best-equipped beach campgrounds in the state. El Capitan State Beach has plenty of hiking and biking trails, and Refugio State Beach’s intimate setup features 85 sites all within a couple hundred yards of the beach, guaranteeing you a gorgeous view no matter where you stake your tent.
A little farther north is Jalama Beach, a stretch of coastline tucked behind open farms and pastures. The surf here is ideal, the atmosphere is secluded and friendly, and the flat, wide shoreline is perfect for a long morning run to Point Conception.
9. One of the state’s coolest music venues is right on our coast.
Situated in the hills, with views of the mountains and ocean below, the Santa Barbara Bowl is one of the best places on the Central Coast to see your favorite artist, band, or comedian. The massive outdoor amphitheater was built in 1936 for the city’s Fiesta pageant, and now hosts the biggest names in music and comedy — everything from Steve Martin and Paul Simon to Rebelution, The Lumineers, and Van Morrison.
10. Luxury in Santa Barbara is next level.
After a day of kayaking, paddle boarding, or cruising along the beach boardwalk on a bike, you’re going to want a little downtime. The best way to kick back and relax (after that wine tour, of course) is indulging in a spa treatment. Bacara Resort & Spa and the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore are both spectacular hotels situated right on the water. If you get a spa treatment here, you can stick around and take advantage of the other amenities available — plunge pools, steam rooms, and all the cucumber water you can handle.
If you want a few more options for your spa day, head to Alchemy Wellness Spa & Cafe, where you can take yoga classes, get a variety of treatments, then order local, organic vegetarian plates in their adorable cafe. Or go to Float Luxury Spa for a sea stone massage, coconut scalp treatment, or dry brushing exfoliation.
11. Channel Islands National Park is in our backyard.
The Channel Islands are a cluster of eight small islands on the other side of the Santa Barbara Channel. On a clear day, you can see them perfectly from any beach in the city. Five of those islands are part of Channel Islands National Park, which — with over 100 species of unique flora and fauna — has been called the “Galapagos of North America.”
You can join a whale watching excursion, go snorkeling, or take a kayaking tour between Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands to see seals and swim in sea grottoes. For on-land activities, there’s great hiking on Santa Barbara Island, and the Torrey pine forest on Santa Rosa Island is a secluded woodland area that feels worlds away from the normal hustle and bustle of California.
12. We’ve got some serious green space.
Santa Barbara is chock full of gardens and parks with 360-degree views of ocean and mountains. To see exotic plants collected from around the globe, head to Lotusland, the 37-acre estate of late opera singer Madame Ganna Walska. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden works to conserve native flora and has a Japanese teahouse (open every second Saturday of the month from 12-2pm) and over five miles of walkable paths through desert, canyon, woodland, meadow, and redwood areas — all surrounded by ocean vistas.
If you want a calm, open area to cycle, walk your dog, or try to spot a whale far out at sea, Douglas Family Preserve — with its three miles of cross-crossing trails through pine and cypress trees — is the place to be. There’s also the A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden, Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, and Franceschi Park, where you can picnic, stroll the grounds, and get one of the best coastline views in the city — which clearly is saying something.