Santa Barbara, California is a delightful coastal city known for its Mediterranean-like climate, pretty beaches, and lively culture.
From exploring the region’s distinctive architecture to indulging in some of its delectable culinary offerings, there are myriad ways to spend one day in Santa Barbara.
Take a walk through the historic EL Pueblo Viejo Landmark District and admire the Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings. Visit the iconic Santa Barbara County Courthouse, and of course spend some time next to the Pacific Ocean enjoying the very blue, breathtaking views.
Enjoy a day in Santa Barbara with this itinerary.
9 a.m.: Stroll Around El Pueblo Viejo Landmark District
If you’re interested in history and architecture, El Pueblo Viejo Landmark District will give you a big helping of both. The district, also known as the “Old Town,” is the city’s original settlement, dating back to the late 1700s.
Take an early morning stroll through the historic streets, which are lined with adobe buildings, many now restored to their original appearances, and get a glimpse of the city’s past.
The central district is also home to several museums, such as the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, and different cultural institutions, as well as the Presidio’s “El Cuartel” soldiers’ lodgings, which is one of the oldest buildings in California.
You’ll also find a collection of cool theaters in the center, in the theater district, including the Granada Theater, restored in 1924, the historic Lobero Theatre with its white adobe façade, and The New Vic (the Victoria Street Theatre), which used to be an Episcopal church.
Whether you’re a lover of history, an aficionado of architecture or you’re just looking for a picturesque spot to roam around while on a romantic vacation or honeymoon in California, El Pueblo Viejo should offer you a thoroughly enjoyable walking and sightseeing experience.
9:30 a.m.: Stop for Coffee Downtown
As you become better acquainted with Santa Barbara’s historic downtown, chances are you might start to feel a little peckish, or find yourself in need of a caffeine pick-me-up.
Two laidback locales in the center that stand out are Handlebar Coffee Roasters, on E. Canon Perdido Street, and Dune Coffee Roasters (formerly The French Press), with locations on State Street and Anacapa Street.
Handlebar Coffee is a bike-themed café known for its superb coffee and tasty baked goods, while Dune Coffee Roasters, with its comfy vibe, serves up delicious coffee and different kinds of pastries. Both cafés are great places to kick off your big day in downtown Santa Barbara.
10:30 a.m.: Visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse
After wandering around Santa Barbara’s historic downtown and getting your general bearings, make your way over to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, also in the Old Town, to check out the building’s Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture.
One of the most unique places to visit in California, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, built in 1929, features attractive tiled floors and colorful tiled mosaics.
Intricate ironwork is exemplified by the wrought-iron chandeliers, while there’s a beautiful red-tile roof and lots of surrounding palm trees. If time allows, opt for a guided tour to learn more about the courthouse’s role in Santa Barbara’s development.
For impressive views of the city, you can also hike on up to the top of the courthouse’s clock tower.
Try to swing by the Mural Room too, with its magnificent fresco depicting some of the region’s history. If you’re looking to experience beauty and history all in one amazing spot, this picturesque courthouse won’t disappoint.
11:30 a.m.: Explore the Old Mission Santa Barbara
About a five-minute drive northwest of the courthouse, away from the beaches and the Pacific Ocean, you’ll happen upon the Old Mission Santa Barbara.
If you only have one day in Santa Barbara, you’d be remiss if you didn’t go and take a look at this historic mission, established in 1786.
After taking in the two pinkish mission towers and the green lawn in front of this noble-looking edifice, make sure you look into the distance, too, and note the San Ynez Mountains, which provide a gorgeous natural contrast to this historic site.
The mission itself was built by Spanish Franciscans and was the center of cultural life here for many years. Today, the complex, which serves as a museum and a place of worship, is well-known for its memorial rose garden nearby, and its refined structural silhouette.
Another highlight is taking a tour through the Old Mission’s interior, with its ornate altarpiece, vibrant stained-glass windows, and elaborate tilework.
The museum also hosts exhibits that look at the mission’s connections to Santa Barbara, along with some of the history of the Chumash people, who lived in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the first European settlers.
12:30 p.m.: Drop by Stearns Wharf for Lunch
Come lunchtime, wander over to Stearns Wharf for a seafood lunch, with plenty of restaurants to choose from. If crustaceans and fresh fish don’t appeal, you’ll also find other mealtime selections in the vicinity of the pier.
Stearns Wharf, a historic landmark jutting out into the water, from near the end of State Street, dates back to 1872. The pier is considered the oldest working wharf on the West Coast, and comes with some incredible vistas of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged Channel Islands.
If you’d like to learn more about some of the local marine life and the Santa Barbara Channel, stop by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center on the pier and dive head first into the center’s entertaining and educational interactive aquarium.
If you are a seafood fan, drop in on the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, a casual option known for its succulent oysters, crab, and other delights, located on the wharf’s wooden planks.
Another superb seafood spot is Brophy Bros., southwest of the wharf, next to the marina, just past West Beach.
Brophy Bros. will treat you to sublime harbor views, plus an extensive fish and shellfish menu. You’ll also find the Santa Barbara Fish Market, celebrated for its lobster rolls, close to Brophy Bros.
The Harbor Restaurant and the Bluewater Grill will both offer you some slightly fancier seafood dining options around Stearns Wharf as well.
Jeannine’s Restaurant & Bakery, meanwhile, serves up ocean views, plus tasty breakfast and lunches, with great sandwiches, like the Wagyu style Beef Tri-Tip, and salads; their Spanish Waldorf Salad is full of fruits and nuts.
If you have a sweet tooth, you can visit the Great Pacific Ice Cream Company on the boardwalk or head a few blocks inland to McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams, on State Street, for a few scoops of some delicious gourmet, home-made ice cream.
1:30 p.m.: Head for the Beach
Most people would agree that one day in Santa Barbara should include some sunny beach time. Luckily for you, Stearns Wharf is pinched in on both sides, by East Beach and West Beach, respectively.
East Beach and West Beach, while similar, differ from one another in a few key ways.
East Beach, hemmed in by a long, grassy expanse and tall palm trees, is known for its wide, sandy shore, volleyball courts, and narrow but scenic Cabrillo Bike Path, which extends down to Butterfly Beach.
This is a popular spot for outdoor recreation, kayak rentals, and wonderful Channel Islands views. East Beach is also one of the best family beaches in California.
West Beach, on the other hand, is quite a bit smaller than East Beach. You might favor West Beach if you plan on strolling around the Santa Barbara Harbor, the nearby Fish Market, or visiting the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
If you’re pressed for time but still want to bask in the heat and enjoy the beach, these two options should fulfill your need for sand and surf while the sun is near its zenith.
3 p.m.: Explore El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
As you move into the afternoon, dig into the city’s Spanish-influenced history by visiting El Presidio de Santa Barbara. Don’t arrive too late in the day, though, as the park usually closes around 4:30 p.m.
The Presidio, established in 1782, is the oldest serving military facility in California and was one of only a handful of military outposts built by the Spanish to secure their claims to the “Alta California” coastline.
In the mid-19th century, the Presidio was decommissioned, then repurposed for various civilian uses. Today, the Presidio is a State Historic Park that serves as a museum, with exhibits and displays focusing on California’s Spanish cultural heritage. “El Cuartel”, Santa Barbara’s oldest building, is located here too.
4 p.m.: Admire Arroyo Burro Beach County Park
Now that you’ve seen a good chunk of the city, feasted on mouthwatering food, and learned a thing or two about Santa Barbara’s storied history, it’s time to take in the spectacular natural coastal scenery that California is known for.
Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, west of downtown, will provide you with a serene retreat where you can relax.
Located next to the grand beauty of the Pacific Ocean, the park, also known as Hendry’s Beach, is one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara and a bird-watching mecca with many species of shorebirds and waterfowl frequenting the area.
The bluffs pushing up against the beach and the shoreline here will also afford you some whale-watching opportunities, including blue whales, grey whales, humpbacks, and other species during the whale migration seasons.
You might even be able to spot other marine mammals, like seals and dolphins, out in the water, if you have sharp eyes.
By arriving later in the day, with temperatures cooling down some, you’ll have plenty of space to yourself. Take a quick dip in the sea, watch surfers ride the waves, and relish in this magnificent coastline, less than a 15-minute drive away from Stearns Wharf.
As your one day in Santa Barbara begins to wind down, why not walk over to Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach for a late afternoon drink or meal? This eatery, next to the sand, serves up soothing ocean vistas, and a decent wine selection, plus oysters, seafood, burgers, steak, chowder fries, and more.
Discover the beauty of the Californian coastline on a cruise to Santa Barbara and other nearby destinations for a memorable West Coast vacation experience.