An Easygoing Day in Santa Barbara, CA

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How do you spend a day in Santa Barbara, California? This coastal city makes for an easy and scenic escape from Los Angeles and surrounding areas. No matter the time of year, it exudes a relaxed vibe. Summer is our favorite time to visit. It can be crowded, but the warm weather and summertime events make it popular.

Our first visit was during “Fleet Week” over twenty years ago. The city was unexpectedly festive and full of life, immediately capturing our hearts. Santa Barbara, known as the American Riviera, offers a Mediterranean-like charm with red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings, and palm trees.

For an ideal day, start your drive early to make it in time for brunch in Santa Barbara. Though stopping along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway is tempting, driving straight through ensures more time to explore. Santa Barbara is also a great pit stop on a PCH road trip or can be combined with a visit to the quaint Danish Village of Solvang, just 45 minutes north, for a packed day of exploration and delicious food.

featured blog image of kathy walking on a rocky path towards Santa Barbara Pier with the text 'a day in santa barbara' overlaying a scenic coastal backgroundPin

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This article will show you how to spend a day in Santa Barbara, whether planning a day trip or visiting the coastal city on a cruise. This easygoing one-day itinerary is perfect for those who love the coast and delicious food.

How to Spend One Day in Santa Barbara

We last visited on a rainy weekend in June and still had a fabulous time.

While a single day in Santa Barbara barely scratches the surface, it can provide a refreshing change of scenery and a taste of the city, helping you decide if you want to return for a longer stay.

After numerous day trips over the years, we finally spent a weekend in Santa Barbara, enjoying our favorite activities at a leisurely pace and discovering new ones. Each visit brings something new, whether revisiting cherished spots or finding unexpected delights.

We typically start our day by the water, soaking in the magical atmosphere of Stearns Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor. The picturesque views of the ocean against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains are breathtaking.

Our favorite starting point is Lower State Street, near the water, offering easy access to key areas. Start your day at Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara Harbor, West Beach, East Beach, or downtown—each area provides a unique perspective of the city.

Here are some key activities and sights to consider for your day trip:

  • Take a stroll along Stearns Wharf Pier.
  • Walk or bike around Santa Barbara Harbor, West Beach, Leadbetter Beach, or East Beach.
  • Explore The Funk Zone for a taste of local wines and craft beers.
  • Admire the distinctive architecture of Downtown Santa Barbara.
  • Enjoy shopping along State Street and visit The Public Market.
  • Visit the Santa Barbara Courthouse and climb the clock tower for panoramic views.

See the Ocean Views from Stearns Wharf

walking on stearns wharf pier in santa barbaraPin

A day trip to Santa Barbara isn’t complete without visiting Stearns Wharf. Starting your journey on Lower State Street, you’ll encounter the iconic Bicentennial Friendship Fountain at the pier’s entrance.

We prefer visiting Stearns Wharf early in the day before it gets busy, though evening visits are also delightful. You can drive onto the wharf, but parking is limited. The first 90 minutes are free, with a $3 per hour charge afterward. We recommend parking in town and walking to the pier.

Since 1872, this 2,300-foot wooden pier has been a Santa Barbara landmark. It offers stunning views of the coastline and Santa Ynez Mountains. The best times to visit are in the morning or at sunset.

At Stearns Wharf, you’ll find:

Nearest public parking lot to Stearns Wharf: 100-114 Helena Ave, Santa Barbara [Google Map It]. The first 75 minutes is free and then it is $2.50 an hour after that.

Top Foodie Pick: Check out Goat Tree Cafe for breakfast and brunch before reaching the pier. For dinner and lunch with fabulous cocktails, Santo Mezcal.

Bike Ride or Take a Stroll Along East Beach or West Beach

paddle boards out on west beach waters in santa barbara on an early chilly morningPin

Paddle boarders out at West Beach in Santa Barbara, even on a chilly morning.

East Beach and West Beach are two of Santa Barbara’s most popular beaches, separated by the iconic Stearns Wharf. You can head east to East Beach or west to West Beach.

Our favorite is West Beach, which leads to Santa Barbara Harbor. Here, we enjoy mouth-watering fish and chips at On the Alley and the beautiful views at Point Castillo.

At West Beach, you’ll find volleyball tents and paddle boarders gliding along the calm waters. It’s a popular spot for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking on warm days.

Biking in Santa Barbara

bike stations along the beach in santa barbaraPin

For biking enthusiasts, the Cabrillo bike path offers a scenic route along the coastline with stunning ocean and mountain views. The pedestrian bike path parallel to the beach is perfect for a stroll or bike ride. Take your time and make stops to appreciate Santa Barbara’s beauty fully.

You can rent bikes from shops in Downtown Santa Barbara or electric city bikes from Santa Barbara BCycle stations along E Cabrillo Blvd and the Cabrillo bike path.

Santa Barbara Harbor & Waterfront

boats on the santa barbara waterfront and harborPin

Continuing west along West Beach, you’ll arrive at the charming Santa Barbara Harbor, a busy maritime activity hub with various boats, from small fishing vessels to luxurious yachts.

As a working harbor, fishermen bring their daily catch, including the prized Santa Barbara Sea Urchin, fresh at the Santa Barbara Fish Market. The harbor also offers plenty of water activities, such as kayaking, paddle boarding, and sailing. Depending on the season, you might spot playful seals around the docks.

Foodie Pick: The fish and chips at On The Alley are the perfect afternoon lunch.

Did you know there is a water taxi from Stearns Wharf to Santa Barbara Harbor and vice versa? The Lil’ Toot Water Taxi is a fun ride that departs every 30 minutes and it includes a narration of historical facts and things to know about the area.

Point Castillo

Take a scenic stroll from the harbor to Point Castillo for breathtaking harbor views. Sit on one of the whale’s tail-shaped benches or cross the rocky shoreline to get closer to the water’s edge. There’s a small beach at the end where you can see across to Stearns Wharf.

The harbor can be busy on weekends, but Point Castillo is still worth a visit. On quieter days, it’s a peaceful spot for people-watching and soaking up the laid-back Santa Barbara vibe.

After enjoying the delicious food and stunning views, head to Leadbetter Beach for relaxation and sunbathing. It’s the perfect spot to unwind and soak up the Santa Barbara sun.

Tour Idea:
Santa Barbara Kayak Tour [Book Here]

Visit Downtown Santa Barbara

a bicyclist on state street in santa barabaraPin

State Street in Santa Barbara is closed to vehicle traffic to allow bicyclists and pedestrians.

Return to the heart of Santa Barbara and explore the charming Downtown area. With its architectural beauty, shops, cafes, and restaurants, downtown is a must-visit.

You could easily spend an entire day here. The focal point is State Street, a ten-block, tree-lined avenue with the city’s highest concentration of shops and eateries. Don’t miss the side streets, where you’ll find hidden gems like idyllic courtyards and unique boutiques.

Coming from the coast? Start at The Funk Zone off Lower State Street, near Stearns Wharf. This vibrant area spans 13 blocks and features wineries, cafes, restaurants, galleries, wine-tasting rooms, murals, and boutique shops with handmade leather goods and jewelry.

Fun Things to Do in Downtown Santa Barbara

  • Santa Barbara Courthouse: The clock tower offers a free 360-degree view of the city (it closes at 4:45 p.m.).
  • Spanish Architecture: Take a self-guided red tile walking tour to see red tile roofs, white stucco buildings, arches, and colorful details.
  • Santa Barbara Public Market: Visit Little Heart Cafecito for the best coconut tres leche we’ve ever had.
  • Paseo Nuevo: Explore this area with higher-end retail shops for extensive shopping.
  • The Funk Zone: Go wine tasting and explore the vibrant arts and culinary scene.

The Funk Zone

The Funk Zone is a trendy, eclectic neighborhood in Santa Barbara that has transformed from an abandoned industrial area into a vibrant arts district. It features numerous wine-tasting rooms, art galleries, restaurants, and boutiques.

Spend time sampling local wines, enjoying craft beer, and savoring delicious meals in this lively area.

Foodie Pick: We had excellent Spanish tapas at Loquita. Their patatas bravas, clams with chorizo, and then churros for dessert were a few of our favorite dishes.

Tour Ideas:
Downtown Santa Barbara Food Tour [book tour]
Santa Barbara Funk Zone Food and Photo Tour [book here]

Optional: Hop on the Santa Barbara Trolley Tour

The Santa Barbara Trolley Tour offers a 90-minute journey through the city’s top historic spots. Starting at the visitor center, this tour is perfect for a quick and informative overview of Santa Barbara.

We recommend the trolley tour if:

  • It’s your first time in Santa Barbara.
  • You haven’t experienced it yet.
  • Someone in your group can’t walk long distances but wants a narrated tour.
  • You want to learn about the destination.
  • You seek a quick, fun tour by a local.

Daily tours run from Thursday to Monday and cost $28 per person. You can purchase your tickets online in advance.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

For a change of pace, spend the day in Santa Barbara Wine Country in the Santa Ynez Valley. Go wine tasting and visit some of the 200 wineries in the region. You can follow the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail, which has wineries and tasting rooms listed by neighborhood.

Start planning your Santa Barbara Wine Country road trip and consider visiting these wineries (reservations may be required):

Tour Ideas:
Santa Ynez Valley Wine Tour [Book Here]

Going on a Day Trip to Santa Barbara: Transporation Options

The Pacific Surfliner at the Santa Barbara Station.Pin
The Pacific Surfliner at the Santa Barbara Station.

Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara

  • Distance: Approximately 95 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
  • Travel Time: Typically takes 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic, via the 101-N.

Scenic Route: Pacific Coast Highway (PCH)

  • The PCH offers a beautiful, scenic drive to Santa Barbara. It’s worth taking if you’ve never driven this route before, as the coastline views are stunning.
  • Tip: Take the PCH to Santa Barbara on your way there, and return via the 101-S for a different perspective.

Public Transportation

  • Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner: Offers daily routes to Santa Barbara. The train drops you off at the Santa Barbara station, just a short walk from Stearns Wharf Pier and the beach.
  • Optional Tour: Santa Barbara via Amtrak Coast Starlight Train Day Trip from Los Angeles [book here]

Where to Stay with 24 Hours (or more) in Santa Barbara

With 24 hours or more in Santa Barbara, you can explore this coastal city more slowly. You can fit in some of the city’s delicious food, visit the iconic Old Mission Santa Barbara, or stroll through Santa Barbara’s Botanic Garden. You can also stop by the Santa Barbara Zoo or make a pit stop in Solvang for the day.

You’ll need to stay overnight. 

Harbor View Inn

North Wing City King Room at the Harbor View Inn Santa BarbaraPin
North Wing King Room at the Harbor View Inn

Our recent stay at the Harbor View Inn was wonderful. Located at State Street’s corner, across from Stearns Wharf Pier, it was an ideal base for exploring the beach, Funk Zone, and other attractions. Our spacious, newly remodeled room was impeccably clean and comfortable, with a highlight being the bathroom’s ample shower space and luxurious rain shower.

We stayed in the North Building, which had its own entrance and parking lot, allowing us to charge our electric vehicle conveniently. Though we couldn’t use the pool due to the weather, it was clean and had a peaceful ambiance. Overall, the Harbor View Inn exceeded our expectations, and we highly recommend it for a comfortable and convenient stay in Santa Barbara.

Do cruise ships dock in Santa Barbara?

Cruise ships on a Pacific Coastline itinerary sometimes call upon Santa Barbara for the day. The ship will anchor in the Santa Barbara Harbor and tender passengers onshore.

Can Santa Barbara be a day trip?

Yes, Santa Barbara can easily be a day trip destination, especially if you’re coming from nearby cities like Los Angeles. However, with so much to see and do, it’s worth considering an overnight stay to experience more of what Santa Barbara offers.

Where can I spend the day in Santa Barbara?

With a day in Santa Barbara, you have several great options. Explore historic State Street, enjoy wine tasting in The Funk Zone, and climb the Santa Barbara Courthouse clock tower for panoramic views. Alternatively, you can explore the beautiful coastline, starting with a visit to Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara Harbor, and the nearby beaches.

What train goes to Santa Barbara?

Amtrak’s Pacific Coastliner goes to Santa Barbara and drops you off within walking distance of Stearns Wharf.


Kathy Ava

Meet Kathy Ava, a food, travel, and cruise writer based in Los Angeles/Pasadena, and the owner and main writer of Tasty Itinerary. With over 20 years of experience planning trips and logistics at her full-time job and for herself, she's become a pro at crafting unforgettable tasty itineraries. She's always on the hunt for delicious, fun travel destinations and cruise itineraries. She firmly believes that life is short and we must make the most of it, so always say yes to dessert.

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