The Road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone, and I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
When I think of Santa Barbara, this is the poem that comes to mind. Sometimes, we set out from home, and we don’t know where we’ll end up. We don’t necessarily know what we find, or how much we’ll enjoy what we discover there.
On paper, Santa Barbara has all the makings of a destination I would like, but it’s not a destination I planned to visit on purpose. It was a convenient stop along my Pacific Coast Highway road trip in 2014, but it became a destination I dream of visiting over and over.
This is especially true when you consider that Santa Barbara has the unofficial nickname of being the ‘American Riviera.’ It earned this title for its similarities to the French Riviera. With history, waterfront views, delicious food, and great California weather, what’s not to love? Here’s a guide to Santa Barbara if you want to see for yourself.
Soak Up History at the Santa Barbara Mission
The crown jewel of visiting Santa Barbara is the Old Santa Barbara Mission north of town. While Santa Barbara and the surrounding region were inhabited by First Nations people for over 13,000 years, the mission was founded in 1786 as part of California’s Spanish period.
The Mission is now beautifully preserved and open to the public. You can wander the grounds, peer into several mausoleums, and take a moment of peace in the chapel.
To visit Old Mission Santa Barbara, you can visit at any time during opening hours. If you’d prefer to tour with a docent, tours are Tuesday through Friday at 11:00 am or Saturday at 10:30 am. Admission is $9 for adults.
Explore Stearns Wharf
From the earth tones and stones of Old Mission Santa Barbara to the infinite blues of Stearns Wharf. The pier juts out into Santa Barbara Channel and offers panoramic views of the coastline Santa Barbara calls home.
Out on Stearns Wharf, you can enjoy a delicious meal at restaurants such as The Harbor Restaurant or Moby Dick, sip wines at Deep Sea Tasting Room, cruise aboard Celebration Cruises, and explore the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. If you want something less structured, you can opt to just walk along the pier, watch the pelicans and fisherman, and soak up some California sun.
Enjoy Local Seafood
Being located on the coast, Santa Barbara is a haven for seafood lovers. I don’t consider myself a huge fan of seafood, but even Santa Barbara convinced me.
While visiting friends in Santa Barbara, we enjoyed a wonderful happy hour at Enterprise Fish Company. Small plates – like oysters on the half shell ($1.50 each), Cajun popcorn shrimp ($6), and fried calamari ($6.50), all pictured above – plus a few pints of local, seasonal beer… it’s the recipe for a great time and fond memories. Enterprise Fish Company also has a lunch and dinner menu.
Take in the View from the Santa Barbara Courthouse
I always love to ‘get above it all’ when visiting a new town. If there’s a mountain, skyscraper, or strange towerlike structure, I’ll usually climb it to see what there is to see. In Santa Barbara, there’s one place to do that (unless you take to the sky on a flightseeing tour): the Santa Barbara Courthouse.
This beautiful, historic courthouse dates to 1929. Inside, you can tour several of the historic courtrooms, and climb the tower
Guided tours of the Santa Barbara Courthouse happen daily Monday through Saturday at 2:00 pm, and also at 10:30 am Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. If you want to visit on your own, you can visit anytime weekdays 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Tours and admission are free.
Looking for more off-beat spots to visit in Santa Barbara? Try visiting the ‘Funk Zone!’ This hip corner of Santa Barbara has a lot to offer beyond the top sights I’ve listed.
Fall in Love with Santa Barbara
When I left Los Angeles on my way up the Pacific Coast Highway, my stop in Santa Barbara was primarily to see friends and rest for the night. Instead, the American Riviera charmed me. Santa Barbara on the coast is an easy place to relax and unwind. Though it was just a stop on my road trip, I plan to stay more than a few days the next time I pass through.
This post was originally written in July 2014 and updated in October 2017.