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Santa Barbara Vacation: The Best Attractions

Updated on August 22, 2009
Santa Barbara at Sunset
Santa Barbara at Sunset
Santa Barbara Courthouse
Santa Barbara Courthouse

Santa Barbara, California is often known as the "American Riviera", and for good reason. Its mild climate, miles of beautiful beaches, and elegant Spanish-influenced architechture have made it a popular travel destination as well as a home to the rich and famous. As a long-time resident, I thought I'd share some of the best of what the city has to offer as you plan your Santa Barbara vacation.

Located 90 miles north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. With a population of about 90,000, it has all the amenities of a big city, yet remains small enough to offer an intimacy that visitors come to love.  There's really no better place in the western United States for a vacation than Santa Barbara.

You can travel to Santa Barbara either directly by flying to the local airport (SBA), or by traveling to Los Angeles and renting a car and driving the rest of the way. Figure on a 1:45 to 2 hour drive depending on traffic on the 101 Freeway. Although Santa Barbara has a very walkable downtown area, most visitors will want to have a car available to experience all the city has to offer. Bus service is generally good, but taxicabs can be difficult to come by.

Once there, you can choose from a variety of hotels that range from the modest to the extravagant. You may want to base your vacation around the Cabrillo Beach area, which has many hotels within easy walking distance of the beach, the marina and many restaurants.

The Cabrillo waterfront area is the city's foremost tourist destination. Stearns Wharf, which dates to 1872, has many restaurants and shops as well as the Ty Warner Sea Center, a marine education facility associated with the Museum of Natural History. On Sundays the Santa Barbara Artwalk, with dozens of local artists and craftsmen hawking their wares takes place next to the wharf. The nearby marina, with hundreds of boats in a sheltered harbor also hosts several restaurants.

Santa Barbara has an amazing collection of beaches, facing both south and west. Vacationers may be most interested in East Beach, to the east of Stearns Wharf, and Arroyo Burro State Beach, a mile or two up the coast. Water temperatures tend to be a bit on the cool side, but the beaches are generally uncrowded and always great places to spend an afternoon.

The Old Mission Santa Barbara is the city's best known landmark. Founded in 1876 by Franciscan missionaries, its gracious beauty has made it known as the "Queen of Missions". Self Guided tours are available from 9 AM to 4:30 PM daily. Also worth seeing is the famed County Courthouse, an architectural beauty just a block away from the Art Museum on State St.

Santa Barbara has a large roster of museums for a city of its size. The most notable, perhaps, particularly for travellers with children, is the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. It features one of the largest bird and egg collections in the country as well as a sizeable collection of Chumash Indian artifacts. Also worth visiting is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which has a collection of antiquities rivaled in the western U.S. only by the Getty Museum.

The Santa Barbara Channel plays host to migratory whales throughout most of the year. At different times, Blue, Humpback, Gray, and Minke Whales can be seen in abundance. Mid-February to Mid-May is the best time for Gray Whales, while May through September are best for Blue and Humpbacks. Condor Cruises is the best known of the local tour operators.

Lower State Street is the heart of downtown. A terrific variety of shops and restaurants line the street from Mission St. to Haley. At night, there's a lively bar and club scene that draws the local college students and their admirers.

In Vino Veritas was never truer than in Santa Barbara. The county is a major wine producing region and the city has a wide variety of tasting rooms that cater to the curious oenophile. More adventurous types can head up to the nearby Santa Ynez Valley and tour the many vineyards and wineries to be found there. While your there, make a trip to Solvang, a quaint Danish village, with many shops and eateries geared to the tourist trade.

Whatever your pleasure, Santa Barbara has something for everyone. Great climate, beautiful beaches, high culture, and laid back ambiance. Nothing quite compares to a vacation in California paradise.


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    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 3 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      Nice job about an amazing beach town that is rich in culture and character.

    • ddsurfsca profile image

      ddsurfsca 8 years ago from ventura., california

      I was born in Santa Barbara, as were my three kids, and my husband's family has been there for the past five generations. It is a wonderful place for tourists, but I have to be honest, and say that the city has made it very difficult to raise family there, and my husband's family and I and my kids have had to move to ventura because the cost of living was just too much, as was the rent. I miss the place, and wish I could move back there sometime soon.