Santa Barbara is the perfect California town. It is a fun, hip, classy town built between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynes Mountains with an energetic, outdoor vibe. It is full of Spanish colonial mission architecture and history, local wineries, and plenty of outdoor activities. I recently revisited it with a couple of my best friends. A girl’s trip to Santa Barbara is the perfect plan if you are looking for things to do with girlfriends in California. This guide will also be useful to plan your three or two days in Santa Barbara, no matter with whom you are traveling.
I was fortunate to spend three years living in this city’s suburbs while attending the University of California at Santa Barbara. Although it is more built-up then it was when I lived there, it is just as fabulous as I remembered.
It is easy to spend two or three days in Santa Barbara. I spent three days on this occasion, but three of my friends just joined me for two days in Santa Barbara due to work and family commitments. Because of this, I will organize this list into things to do, whether you are just in Santa Barbara for one day or are lucky enough to spend three days in Santa Barbara.
Table of Contents
Things to Do in Santa Barbara
To make your planning more manageable, I am going to divide my list of things to do in Santa Barbara into three days how I experienced it.
One Day in Santa Barbara
Start your time in Santa Barbara by exploring its downtown, including its historical beginnings.
Start your Morning with a Free Breakfast at Your Hotel- Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
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We were looking for a hotel that was moderately priced (for Santa Barbara, at least) and conveniently located with parking. Beachside Inn perfectly fit our needs. It is not at all fancy, but the staff is accommodating, and it is directly across the street from the marina on Cabrillo. They also offer free breakfast.
You can also check out the property next door with similar amenities, but also a jacuzzi, The West Beach Inn.
If you are looking to splurge and don’t mind being out of downtown, look into the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito.
I also spent a night at the Residence Inn by Marriott in Goleta, which is adjacent to UCSB. It is a lovely hotel with big rooms, as you would expect from a Marriott, but about 15 minutes north of Santa Barbara.
Mission Santa Barbara
2201 Laguna Street (about 3 miles from the Wharf)
As I have said before in my writing about California, if you want to understand modern California history, visit a mission as all California 4th graders do. And the Old Mission Santa Barbara is a perfect one to start with as it is the oldest mission still in function. It is run by the Franciscan order and still holds masses.
You can do a self-guided tour during hours the mission is open by buying tickets at the entrance. For no additional money, you can also take a docent-led tour at specific times. Show up early if you want to do this, as they quickly fill up. The tour will take you throughout much of the mission, including its burial grounds and museum. There is an excellent display about the girl from The Island of the Blue Dolphins. This real girl who lived alone on a local island was taken to this mission after her rescue. Expect to spend at least 2 hours at the mission, although you could spend a half day.
Another one of my favorite missions is Mission San Juan Capistrano. If you are in Southern California, be sure to check it out, especially its gardens in spring.
Mission Street Ice Cream
201 West Mission Street
I realize I am going to tell you in a moment to have ice cream on the wharf. But you are on vacation, and you can have ice cream multiple times a day. But seriously, this is excellent, world-class ice cream. It has made my shortlist of best ice cream around the world. And it is close to the mission. Be sure to stop here on your way back to the water. I may have returned to Mission Street Ice Cream each day I was here. My biggest regret from college is that I did not know of its existence when I lived here.
This pier is large enough for car traffic. You will find it right after West Beach, and being on it provides an excellent view around downtown Santa Barbara. You can also eat, shop, or visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Last rebuilt in 1872, it is the oldest working wooden pier in California. If you want a quick lunch, there is also a seafood market where you can grab a crab to go.
Head to Stearn’s Wharf for lunch at Longboards. This restaurant is where we headed to during college for lunch when our parents were in town. Seat yourself upstairs on the patio, and enjoy watching what is happening in Santa Barbara. The beach and surf-themed patio restaurant has excellent burgers and teriyaki chicken sandwiches.
Pacific Ice Cream
Californians grew up with a drug store called Thriftys that had an ice cream counter. For five cents, I could get a cone. The store has since closed, but the ice cream remains, and you can get some on Stearn’s Wharf. It is good, not excellent ice cream, but the chocolate malted crunch is still as good as I remember with thin slivers of chocolate and coated malt balls. The cones have skyrocketed past inflation and will cost you about 6 dollars, but do come with an incredible view.
Take a Walk Along the Beach
There is a sidewalk that runs along Cabrillo from Stearns Wharf through Santa Barbara City College all the way to 1000 Steps Beach.
Every Sunday, all year long, art vendors set up along Cabrillo.
The Funk Zone
When I lived here, downtown Santa Barbara was concentrated around State Street. You will still find a lot happening on State Street, but you should check out the Funk Zone, full of art galleries, restaurants, and spirit tasting, many with outdoor patios.
Where is the Funk Zone in Santa Barbara?
This new and trendy area features restaurants and wine bars in a large square between Cabrillo and Highway 101, State Street and Golden Street.
Margerum Wine Company
19 East Mason Street
One of my friends is pregnant, so we didn’t spend a lot of time sampling, but took the advice of the Santa Barbara Tourism Board kiosk, which is on Cabrillo and can give you maps, to visit Margerum as our one wine tasting flight. The tasting room is upscale, open, and light, as are their wines. The clear winner for me was their dessert wine, Amaro. I am a lover of a port wine that this resembled but was deliciously distinct from.
Two Days in Santa Barbara
Today spend the day exploring the gorgeous nature that surrounds Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
1212 Mission Canyon Road
High in the hills of Santa Barbara lie gardens weaving paths through boulders. The grounds are uneven in many spots and there are stairs, so this is a hard one to visit if you have mobility issues. But if you are up for a hike and love landscapes, spend half a day wandering around diverse areas such as the teahouse garden (which has tea ceremonies at times, desert garden, and manzanitas garden.
Things to Do in Goleta, California
Goleta is the town directly north of Santa Barbara. Although you could find enough to keep you busy in Santa Barbara, Goleta has some of the best nature and beaches around. Therefore, I would suggest checking it out. It is also the closest city to Isla Vista, which contains UCSB.
Goleta Butterfly Preserve and Ellwood Mesa
7559 Palos Verdes Dr, Goleta
One of the highlights of my traveling life was seeing the eucalyptus trees full of migrating butterflies at the Goleta Butterfly Preserve. On this trip, I was too late to see them, as they had just moved on to Pismo Beach. Nevertheless, this spot is still an ideal place to walk along the cliff of Goleta while the scent of eucalyptus leaves enters your nose. The Ellwood Mesa is 137 acres of open space with many flat trails along the cliffs. The area can keep you busy for half a day or so. It is also a perfect spot to watch the sunset around Santa Barbara.
In 2022 I returned and did get to see the butterflies. Read about the Goleta butterflies.
After a long, active day, we head back into Santa Barbara to one of my favorite Mediterranean restaurants.
Eat Dinner at Zaytoon
209 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara
Not only is the Lebanese food delicious and the drinks unique, eating around a firepit in the charming patio makes this place pretty perfect. They also take reservations, although the firepits may only be guaranteed for larger parties.
Three Days in Santa Barbara
For our last day, we revisited UCSB and took a hike to get a view of the ocean, complete with a natural hot spring.
Isla Vista is the unincorporated area that contains UCSB. It also has excellent beaches. We also went back to our favorite burrito place. Even though Isla Vista has changed over the years, Freebirds is the same.
Visit this flat, white sand beach to surf or explore the tidepools.
Gaviota Hot Springs
One of my best college memories was heading into the mountains north of Goleta late one night to take a soak in the natural hot waters of Gaviota. Read all about it.
Some other ideas of ways to spend your third day in Santa Barbara:
- Drive an hour north to the Dutch town of Solvang, complete with windmills and wineries. You can easily visit by yourself if you have a car. If you would rather take a tour, check out this one.
- Spend the afternoon kayaking around Santa Barbara. Book your kayak or tour here.
- Take a wine tasting tour. Look into booking your tour here.
- Do a food tour. This is always one of my favorite ways to get to know a town. Book your food tour here. This tour even visits McConnell’s!
Take the Train to Santa Barbara
If you drive to Santa Barbara, you will have a car to get around, which is a good thing as there is so much outside of downtown to see. But I am a big fan of the ease and relaxation of a train ride. I took Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner Train into Santa Barbara. This train is often listed as one of the prettiest train rides in the United States. It may not be as pretty as my train ride in Alaska, but the uninterrupted hours of ocean views through Amtrak’s large windows make this a pretty great way to get to Santa Barbara.
Pro Tips: The Baggage Car is a coach car with first-class size, reclining seats. Be sure to find it. Also, If you start in Orange County, sit on the right side of the train to get the ocean view. It may seem backward, but the train leaves Los Angeles from the same direction it pulls in, so it turns around.
I’m sure you can see now why Santa Barbara is one of my favorite California cities. You can also see that there are so many things to do in Santa Barbara and the surrounding areas. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Be sure to leave me a message if I missed any of your favorite activities, or you have any questions.