Sandwiched between the west-coast icons, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is California’s slightly lesser-visited but no less beautiful little brother. Make the most of life in the city with our guide to the best hidden gems in Santa Barbara.
1. The Sacred Space
The Sacred Space in Summerland is both a treasure trove of spiritual trinkets and a beautiful set of gardens, where scenic sitting-spots are surrounded by stone Buddhas and overlooked by peaceful tropical plants. Peruse the store overflowing with deities, crystals, antique furniture, art and jewelry, or stop by for an afternoon herbal tea – this is a pace of harmony and spirituality.
2. The Santa Maria Wine Trolley
California is home to some of the US’ most popular wine regions and the city of Santa Barbara has a unique way of introducing its visitors to the local delicacies. Hop aboard a vintage-style old trolley bus to visit some of the wineries in the Santa Maria Valley. The bus runs on weekends during the summer months and you can hop on and off as you please to enjoy the day and build your own wine-tasting schedule!
3. The Hitching Post
Step back in time and experience the Old West at The Hitching Post in the small town of Casmalia, just north of Santa Barbara. After opening as the first oakwood bbq in the area in 1944, The Hitching Post grew in popularity thanks to its indoor firepit fueled by local indigenous red oakwood, used to cook only the best cuts of meat. The building is 120 years old and the interiors celebrate its history, offering diners a delicious meal served with a large side of Old West charm.
4. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
One of the smaller parks around Santa Barbara, the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park is not as popular with visitors but is home to beautiful cave paintings, thought to be over 1,000 years old and created long before European settlers took over in California. A set of bars guards the entrance and protects these historic paintings from damage but, though you can’t enter the cave itself, you can still get a good view from there.
5. The Book Den
One of the oldest book stores in California, The Book Den has grown in reputation since it first opened its doors in 1902 as the place in Santa Barbara to pick up your next read. Here you’ll find the latest releases and critically-acclaimed novels alongside rare, out-of-print and valuable specimens. The entire back wall is dedicated to poetry and, if you’re looking for a souvenir or a unique bookmark, the selection of postcards on offer are designed by local artists.
6. Museum of Contemporary Art
Calling all culture vultures: once you’ve explored the popular Santa Barbara Art Museum, head to the lesser-visited Museum of Contemporary Art. Founded in 1976 as an alternative art space by a group of community artists, this low-key space hosts between eight and ten exhibitions each year, alongside an array of special events. Find it on the upper floor of the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center.
7. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
About 20 miles offshore of Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is a hugely biodiverse explorer’s wonderland. Discover the colorful and plentiful life beneath the waves by snorkeling or diving through the crystal-clear waters surrounding the islands, book a kayak trip to explore Painted Cave. These islands are home to important seabird and sea lion breeding grounds and are visited by many species of whale and dolphin.
8. OstrichLand USA
Why go to the super-popular Santa Barbara Zoo when you could take a short road trip out to the west of town and visit a huge ranch home to over 100 ostriches and emus? At OstrichLand you can purchase bowls of food and feed the big birds, take a peek at the babies born during the summer and watch these incredible creatures enjoy their large paddocks. The ranch has even inspired an episode of The Simpsons!
9. Red Rock Pools
The Santa Ynez Mountains, the natural swimming holes that have formed along the Santa Ynez River are a popular way for locals to kick back, relax and cool down in the heat of the Californian sun. Follow the Red Rock Trail to reach the bigger pools and head a little further upriver to find more secluded spots to take a dip. What are you waiting for? Pack your bathing suit and set off with your mates.
10. Sunset at Butterfly Beach
One of Santa Barbara’s few west-facing beaches (most face south), Butterfly Beach is one of the best places around to catch the golden Californian sunset. Settle down on the sand and watch the skies turn those classic orange hues, or go for a romantic stroll along the water at twilight.