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The Top Things to do in Santa Barbara, California

August 9, 2021

Bacara_Main_PhotobyTheRitzCarltonBacaraSantaBarbara things to do in santa barbara

Photo: The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, courtesy Visit Santa Barbara

Deservedly referred to as the ‘American Riviera’, Santa Barbara offers no end of fun for luxury travelers. Riley’s Beth Hoke visited recently, and shares this list of the top things to do in Santa Barbara, CA

Updated Nov 3, 2022  / Commissions may be earned from our affiliate partner links


There’s a reason why Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera. Like the famed stretch of southern France and northern Italy that borders the Mediterranean, Santa Barbara is a premier tourist destination and one of the top places to visit in the USA. Its year-round mild climate, luxury accommodations, high-end shopping, and cultural attractions make it the ideal coastal California getaway.

To help you make the most of your luxury travel experience in this beautiful, ritzy part of California, we’ve out together this list of the top things to do in Santa Barbara. Have fun!


The Top Things to do in Santa Barbara, California

Arrive in Style
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Santa Barbara Airport offers seamless connections to most major US cities (Photo courtesy Visit Santa Barbara)

Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the picturesque Pacific, Santa Barbara can be reached by car, train, plane… or even private yacht.

California’s legendary Highway 1 passes through Santa Barbara making it a must-see stop on any Central Coast road trip. You can park in a limited-time parking spot on the street or in one of the citys municipal lots or parking structuresdowntown or along the waterfront. Several of the lots have EV charging stations available. 

The city is served by two train lines: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and the Coast Starlight. Be sure to reserve a seat on the west side of either train for a view of the ocean, or visit the sightseer lounge on the Coast Starlight line for sweeping views of the scenery from the floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the train.

Santa Barbara Municipal Airport is a regional airport served by commercial airlines arriving from Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle. Private charter services are also available.

Santa Barbara Harbor has guest slips available on a first-come, first-served basis. Whether you’re renting a pleasure craft or captaining your own luxury yacht, you’ll dock at the Harbor Patrol Accommodation Dock in front of the Harbor Patrol Office where you’ll be assigned a slip upon registration. Registered guests will have access to restrooms and showers and will be issued a key to the marina gate. Alternatively, there is an open anchorage area on the east side of Stearns Wharf.


Enjoy a Stay at a Luxury Santa Barbara Hotel
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The Ritz Carlton Bacara is one of a number of luxury resorts in Santa Barbara (Photo courtesy Visit Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s luxurious resorts and spas, boutique hotels, and historic inns provide their guests with world-class service and exceptional amenities.  Here are some notable recommendations for you to consider…

El Encanto, a Belmond HotelThis historic hillside property features panoramic views of the Pacific and downtown Santa Barbara. The hotel’s 92 rooms, suites, and private bungalows can be reserved for solo travelers, couples, and families and are pet-friendly as well.

Spend time at the spa or sun yourself on the deck surrounding the zero-edge pool followed by drinks at the elegantly appointed bar and dinner under the stars. If you’re in town on a Sunday, be sure to reserve a table for El Encanto’s Bellini Brunch, where you’ll enjoy bottomless Bellini’s along with freshly pressed juice, baked goods, shared plates, and a selection of coastal-inspired entrées.

For reviews, rates, and reservations, check out El Encanto, a Belmond Hotel

Hotel Californian: Just steps from the beach, this glamorous property is a go-to destination for Hollywood A-listers and the international jet set. Its contemporary Moroccan-inspired interiors are the creation of celebrity interior designer, Martyn Lawrence Bullard.

Custom furnishings make each of the hotel’s 121 guest rooms and suites unique. Your resort fee includes access to a 24-hour state-of-the-art fitness center, EV charging stations, exclusive activities and events, complimentary use of the hotel’s custom bicycles, board game and video game rentals, high-speed Wi-Fi, and beach chairs and umbrellas.  

For reviews, rates, and reservations, check out Hotel Californian

The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara: This resort-style property features over 300 rooms, suites, and residences featuring ocean and garden views. Amenities at this ocean-front luxury hotel include beach access, an spa and wellness center, an on-site tasting room, and exclusive dining options.

Active guests will enjoy the tennis lessons, water aerobics classes, bike rentals, guided hikes, and yoga sessions included with your resort fee as part of the activities program.

For reviews, rates, and reservations, check out The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara


Treat Yourself to a Spa Experience
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Float Luxury Spa is an oasis of bliss in downtown Santa Barbara (Photo by Float Luxury Spa)

If you’re staying at one of the properties noted above, you’ll find that their in-house spas offer a full range of services from signature facials to acupuncture. Estheticians, wellness consultants, and fitness trainers create customized experiences catered to their clients’ needs. 

A local favorite, Float Luxury Spa, is a true oasis in the center of downtown Santa Barbara. Their exclusive line of eco-friendly products are used in treatments that will tone and tighten, refresh and restore, detoxify and de-stress.


Spend a Day at the Beach
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Nothing says “California dreaming” quite like surfing at Leadbetter Beach (Photo courtesy Visit Santa Barbara)

Santa Barbara’s sandy beaches stretch for miles along the coastline. Skirting the crystal-clear waters of the Pacific and lined with palm trees, the beaches are idyllic retreats, each with their own individual character.

For water sports, head to where amateur surfers and boogie boarders will find gentle waves perfect for perfecting their technique. Leadbetter draws a younger crowd that enjoys sunbathing and socializing, due in part to its location across the street from Santa Barbara City College.

Family-friendly East Beach is separated from West Beach by Stearns Wharf. You’ll find that East Beach is a little less crowded as it is a bit more removed from the downtown area. A multi-purpose path partially shaded by towering trees is popular with runners, rollerbladers, and cyclists. There’s also a playground, sand volleyball courts, a beach house with restrooms and showers, and oceanfront restaurants. 

West Beach has fewer facilities and is primarily used as a launch site for watercraft of all shapes and sizes. Adjacent to the beach are the Sea Landing Dive Center and the Santa Barbara Sailing Center where you can schedule a lesson, rent equipment, and book private charters.

For a casual beach day with your canine companion, check out Hendry’s Beach (otherwise known as Arroyo Burro Beach). Worried about your dog getting all that sand in your rental car or bringing it back to the hotel? Don’t be – there’s a dog-washing station in the parking lot for your convenience! Dogs are even welcome on the patio at the upscale Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach.


Shop Like a Local
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Shopping in places like the The Blue Door is a must when in Santa Barbara (Photo by Brian Garwood)


If you want to take a break from the California sun, step into one of the many boutique shops in downtown Santa Barbara where you’ll find local artwork, designer clothing, custom jewelry, and unique souvenirs.

Te Amo Jewelers sells fine jewelry and estate pieces from their shop on State Street. This family-run business has been a Santa Barbara staple since the early 90s and cater to discerning clients looking for high-quality gemstones and jewels.

Looking for antiques? Head to The Blue Door on Yanonali Street. They specialize in vintage home furnishings, decor, art, and accessories.

Panoyan Custom Tailoring and Men’s Wear is a made-to-measure clothing store that sells custom suits and shirts as well as ready-made items from select manufacturers. If you’re in town for a special occasion, stop by their State Street shop to be fitted for a tuxedo.  

Catherine Gee’s flagship boutique on Haley Street is a more recent addition to Santa Barbara’s shopping. Sumptuous silks are her specialty, although you’ll find pieces crafted from other high-quality fabrics as well. Her designs have been worn by A-list celebrities and world-renowned supermodels. 

Santa Barbara is home to a number of excellent art galleries, but the best-known is Sullivan Goss—An American Gallery. Works from notable American artists from the 19th century to today are available for purchase at the gallery on Anapamu Street.

If you want to bring home souvenirs for friends and family, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Company. This charming bungalow on Victoria Street houses a curated collection of products crafted by local artisans.


Take in a Show
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The Lobero Theatre is one of the best places in Santa Barbara for great entertainment (Photo: JaySinclair)


Santa Barbara has a thriving performing arts scene with three major venues featuring year-round programming.  

The Lobero Theatre has been in continuous operation since 1873, when founder José Lobero opened an opera house in an old adobe school building. Since then, this historic venue has hosted a variety of arts and cultural events including dance recitals, concerts, film screenings, lectures, and award ceremonies.

Another of Santa Barbara’s historic landmarks, the Arlington Theatre screens first-run movies and hosts live performances and events for the annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The Granada Theatre is a premier performing arts venue that showcases regional and national productions including the Broadway in Santa Barbara series.


Do Your Research!

Whether your idea of the perfect vacation includes indulging in soothing spa treatments, sunbathing at the beach, browsing through art galleries, enjoying world-class entertainment, or simply taking in the scenery, Santa Barbara has it all.  

For the latest news on these and other fun things to do in Santa Barbara, check out the Visit Santa Barbara website.




Contributor Beth Hoke is a travel and lifestyle writer who has created content for some of the industry leaders in experiential travel, including Googles Touring Bird; Tuis blog, Musement; and Vamonde. Her features have appeared online and in print at,, and Military Spouse magazine.


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