7 Ways to Enjoy Santa Barbara Aside from the Beach

July 1, 2013 by

North America, Places to Go, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration, Wine Tasting

Well-worn travelers know the feeling well. When you first step off of a plane, spot palm trees in the distance, feel a cool ocean breeze, and find the mountains cascading down into the deep blue Pacific, there’s a feeling of excitement and peace – a unique stirring of emotion – a sense of adventure and relaxation all balled into one. It’s  with this feeling in our chests that we usually drop our bags and make a beeline for the nearest beach, cocktail in hand, and properly set up camp.

With many exciting outdoor activities, Santa Barbara is perfectly poised to be your beach destination of choice. But there’s a lot more happening in this big little town than first meets the eye. With a population of around 100,000, a mean annual temperature of 72, and miles of beautiful coastline, Santa Barbara is a playground for the wealthy, and there is a lot to do here. If you’re hanging out in Santa Barbara and want more to do than just see the beach, here are 7 great ways to spend your time.

A note about getting around in Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara is situated on a rare slice of the Californian coast that just out over the ocean, causing the town’s layout to run South to North, meaning that while many newcomers might point to the ocean and say “West,” one really points to the ocean and says “South.” Knowing this will save you many minutes of head scratching while trying to sort directions.

 #1: State Street

State Street in Santa Barbara.

State Street in Santa Barbara.

State Street is Santa Barbara’s main street, its backbone, its beating heart. It runs from the beach all the way through town and out the other end to Goleta, though State Street’s lower half is the only real part of the thoroughfare that is of much interest to tourists. It’s in this lower half that all of Santa Barbara’s many bars, restaurants, cafes, boutiques, art galleries and nightclubs reside. Much of the directional information you’re likely to receive will use this street as a touchstone, and it’s the center for so much commerce in the city that Santa Barbara would be lost without it. No trip to Santa Barbara would do the area justice without a trip to or through this beautifully manicured street. Street performers set up camp, the Santa Barbara Art Museum lives here, and so do many of the city’s finest restaurants.

#2: Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf is a Santa Barbara icon. It juts out into the mighty Pacific like its very own extension of State Street. A privately owned pier, Stearns Wharf is open to pedestrians day or night, and parking is free for the first 75 minutes with validation from a merchant. Stearns Wharf makes for a spectacular vantage point during sunsets (a point which several Stearns Wharf restaurants make full advantage of) , and fishermen regularly take to the end of the pier to see what the daily catch will bring in. You can rent poles and buy tackle here as well, but if that doesn’t suit your taste buds, there’s always the Deep Sea Tasting Room for a relaxing quaff, and below there’s a salt-water taffy store for the inner kid in you.

#3: The Santa Barbara Courthouse

 One of the most beautiful government buildings in all of the United States, the Santa Barbara Courthouse is a working courthouse, but you’re encouraged to visit and tour the grounds. You’ll know it by spotting the beautiful Spirit of the Ocean fountain out front, d=which was done in classic Romanesque style. The surrounding Sunken Gardens are beautifully manicured and the site of many weddings, and there’s an elevator to the 85-foot “El Mirador” clock tower that provides unrivaled views of the downtown Santa Barbara landscape. Walk the halls and see the many wrought-iron fixtures, and pop your head into the many hand-painted rooms which are full of detail and offer a visual history of the Santa Barbara area. The Santa Barbara Courthouse is one of the main attractions of the Santa Barbara area thanks to its informative and visual appeal.

#4: Go Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

Not only is Santa Barbara neighbors with the famous Santa Ynez Valley, which offers some of the best wine tasting in the world and was made famous by the cult classic Sideways, but Santa Barbara also boasts its very own Urban Wine Trail (http://www.urbanwinetrailsb.com/) which takes visitors through the Santa Barbara “funk zone” to visit over 15 local wineries all in a small 5 block radius. Additional good times are spent heading over to the aforementioned Santa Ynez Valley and making a day of it, but what makes the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail a great option is that you can spend your whole morning touring the best activities in Santa Barbara before grabbing a late afternoon wine tasting. Personal recommendation: Municipal Winemakers have the best wines and a Wes Anderson-like decor – ask for their sparkling Shiraz. They sell out of this almost immediately, but it’s worth a shot.

#5: See a Show at the Arlington

The Arlington Theater. Photo by OCAPA via Flickr.

The Arlington Theater. Photo by OCAPA via Flickr.

 It’s a Santa Barbara tradition. The Arlington Theater is old timey yet modern, beautiful and old, yet renovated and new. Built in the Spanish Colonial style (like most of Santa Barbara), the Arlington has a reputation for hosting the best shows that come to town, as well as movies the rest of the time. Walking inside the theater room itself is like stepping back outside under a Santa Barbara night sky – the designers have made it so the setting is a Spanish Colonial courtyard, complete with balconies, hanging plants, and stars twinkling above you. Seeing a show here is a priceless experience.

#6: Lotusland

Flowers in Lotusland

Flowers in Lotusland

Part of Santa Barbara’s natural beauty lies in its abundant plant life, and there’s no better way to experience it than a trip to Lotusland. Visiting this non-profit public garden is to see the finest in Old World Santa Barbara architecture and landscaping. The gardens consist of The Blue Garden, Bromeliad Garden, The Butterfly Garden, the Cactus Garden (with over 300 different species of cacti), The Cyad Garden, The Fern Garden, The Japanese Garden, The Succulent Garden, The Topiary Garden, you get the idea. To visit Lotusland is truly an amazing event, and there’s nothing finer than a walk through mother nature’s abundant beauty while enjoying some of the fine Santa Barbara weather.

Because Lotusland is a public garden operating in a private residential neighborhood, advance reservations are required. Call their visitor services ahead of time at (805) 969-9990 between 9am and 5pm.

#7: Go for a Hike

Hike up to Inspiration Point. Photo by Aaron LaRue via Flickr.

Hike up to Inspiration Point. Photo by Aaron LaRue via Flickr.

Santa Barbara is mountains and sea, and it would be a shame to miss these chaparral cliffs while staying here. There are many different hikes to choose from, and at the Santa Barbara visitor center you can pick up a free guide. A personal favorite, however, is a quick hike up to Inspiration Point. This easy one-hour-up, one-hour-down hike is perfect for getting just above the top of the city and seeing all the way down the coast to the Guadeloupe dunes. To get there, take Highway 192 to Tunnel Road, turn up the mountain and drive until you see signs. Park along the street and bring some water. You’ll likely meet a few people along the way – it’s a popular hike.

So there you have it – 7 ways to enjoy Santa Barbara aside from the beach. During your stay you’ll likely find many more attractions that pull your attention away from the salt and sand, but let’s be honest – it’s hard to fight the lull of the beach – it’s like we can only run so fast.

Check out Viator’s Santa Barbara things to do

-Hudson Hornick

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2 Responses to “7 Ways to Enjoy Santa Barbara Aside from the Beach”

  1. Boo Radley Says:

    While the Santa Barbara Court house is beautiful and well worth a visit, that’s not a picture of it. It looks like that may be Our Lady of Sorrows church, a few blocks up the road.

  2. Laura Says:

    Thank you for the correction!

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