Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, the majestic city of Santa Barbara is located approximately two hours north of Los Angeles. Many refer to it as the “American Riviera”, and rightfully so, as the weather and location is comparable to the Cote d’Azur. When planning a visit, you may seem overwhelmed by the amount of attractions found in this wonderful city. To help pare down your list, here are the five must-see places to visit in Santa Barbara before you do anything else.
Mission Santa Barbara
The city of Santa Barbara was founded by Spanish missionary Fray Fremin Lausen and the Franciscan Order in 1786, establishing a Catholic mission in honor of St. Barbara. The beautifully constructed, Roman-inspired sandstone church dates back to 1820 (the earlier church was destroyed by the 1812 earthquake). The self-guided tour includes a visit to the main church and museum filled with interesting 18th and 19th century artifacts of the Native Americans and resident priests. Across the street from the church is the Mission Rose Garden, which is a favorite of both locals and visitors alike. The garden features over 1,500 roses and a large grassy area to speed your blanket out and have a picnic.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
Just up the street from the Mission is the spectacular Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. With over one thousand species of plants, the 78 acre park features over five miles of easy-to-navigate hiking trails (both paved and unpaved) that allow you to explore the various plants in their natural environment.
The eight block stretch of State Street from Anapamu to Guitierrez is worth a stroll in the late afternoon. Retail stores, restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and art galleries make up the downtown area of Santa Barbara. Some of the restaurants, cafes, and pubs have outdoor seating where you can enjoy the sun and warmth of Santa Barbara’s Mediterranean climate. It is very easy to spend a good portion of your day exploring the interesting and unique shops that line State Street. It is also worthwhile to experience the nightlife of Santa Barbara here on weekends, with many restaurants and bars featuring live music and dancing.
Located at the end of State Street is the most visited location in Santa Barbara: Stern’s Wharf. Named after a local lumberyard owner, Stern’s Wharf is the oldest operating wooden pier in California. At almost 2,000 feet, it is also the longest wharf in California (2,027 wooden planks to be exact). Today, the wharf is home to restaurants, shops, and a launching point for fishing and whale watching expeditions. The featured attraction of Stern’s Wharf is the Ty Warner Sea Center (named after the Beanie Babies owner who donated over a million dollars for the museum’s refurbishment in 2004). This museum provides a fascinating glimpse into the sea life found in the Santa Barbara Channel through interactive exhibits, films, and a touch pool.
Santa Barbara County Wine Tasting
Although a scattering of wine tasting rooms are found in the city, it is highly recommended to spend a day exploring the high-quality wines of the Santa Ynez Valley. You can visit over 100 wineries in the county on your own or take one of the many available wine tasting tours that originate out of Santa Barbara. If you’ve seen the movie Sideways, a few locations will look familiar (since the film was based in this area). While you are in the region, be sure to visit Lake Cachuma, the Dutch-themed city of Solvang, and try the pea soup at Andersen’s in Buellton. You may even be tempted to throw down a few bucks at the neighboring Chumash Casino.
We are only scratching the surface of what this gorgeous city has to offer it’s welcome guests. If you are planning a visit, be sure to give yourself at least three days to explore the essence of Santa Barbara.