48 Hours in Santa Barbara: 7 Things You Have To Do In The Californian Coastal City

I recently travelled the Californian Coast on board the new West Coast Hop-on Hop-off service from Busabout, a travel company particularly popular in Europe, who this year made their debut into the US market. The service gives you unique flexibility to travel the West Coast without a car, with services across eight destinations running every other day through the Summer. Their service from Los Angeles to San Francisco stops in Santa Barbara, a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. So I decided to stick around the coastal Californian city for 48 hours – the time between services – and stayed for two nights at The Wayfarer, an intimate hotel/hostel in the heart of the city. Here’s what I got up to while I was there, and why you should fill your schedule with the same experiences.

1. See a show at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Ever since I was a kid, I heard about how magical the shows at the Santa Barbara Bowl were. When I lived closer to LA, I’d hear of people driving up to the city for the weekend to take in one of the shows at the venue. With so many great venues in Los Angeles, there surely must have been something special here. And having finally experienced it, seeing The Raconteurs (The Saboteurs in Australia) and Melvins, it’s pretty easy to understand why people make the trip.

Depending on the configuration of the venue, there’s a capacity of less than 5,000 – making it relatively intimate venue for the sort of acts who play here – they themselves often coming up from Los Angeles, where they will have played a venue two or three times the size the night before.

The history of the venue dates back to 1936, where it opened as a WPA project for a fiesta pageant – and then in the 60s the space was incorporated to facilitate rock and roll tours, and since then just about everyone has played the venue – in 1979, both Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell played the venue (Mitchell’s film Shadows and Light being recorded at this time), and 40 years later, earlier this month, Elvis Costello and Blondie shared the stage on the same night.

Despite the great weather in California, the venue is only officially open between June and October, with the city only permitting a maximum of 37 events there for the calendar year. And in addition to contemporary music, there’s also symphonic performances (the London Symphony were there last month) and comedy shows.

Find out more about what’s coming up at the Bowl on their Official Website. It’s definitely worth planning your visit around a show! Shows are scheduled until the end of October, with Rod Stewart, Of Monsters and Men, Incubus, Gary Clark Jr., Van Morrison and more set to take to the stage.

The venue isn’t the only place to catch live music in the city – and most of other popular venues in the city are also historic. The Lobero Theatre dates back to 1873, The Arlington to 1931 and The Granada Theatre to 1924. Suffice it to say, this is a city which pays great respect to its history and heritage.

2. Take a stroll along Stearn’s Wharf

Speaking of heritage, few structures have come to represent the city of Santa Barbara more than Stearn’s Wharf – the city’s pier, which opened in 1872 and sits where State Street – where you’ll find much of the city’s shopping and dining options – meets Cabrillo. It’s currently the 2nd longest wooden pier in California, behind Santa Cruz.

It’s just a few minutes walk from The Wayfarer, and it’s free to walk or drive onto. You’ll find a number of restaurants on the pier (including the Moby Dick Restaurant), The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, and an assortment of shops and spots like an Ice Cream Parlour. You can even go wine tasting, and you’ll spot locals fishing off the end of the wharf.

Every Sunday, you also may stumble across the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show, which runs along Cabrillo Blvd., East of Stearn’s Wharf. It’s been running since 1965, and sponsored by the City’s Parks and Recreation department since the following year. Interestingly, it’s the only “continuous, non-juried arts festival of original drawings, paintings, graphics, sculpture, crafts and photography in the world”. So definitely check it, and its 200 Santa Barbara County resident artists out! It’ll be hard not to leave without some artwork to be honest.

3. Explore the history of the city on the Santa Barbara Trolley

At the visitor’s centre, just a few minutes down the road from the Wharf, you can join services like the tourist trolley that travels around the city on the hour between 10am and 3pm. You can hop on and hop off the service, so it can be a good way to get to places like the Santa Barbara Zoo. Though it’s not as flexible on times as some of the city’s own transport options, it features a live tour guide who talks about the surrounds, and answers questions as you travel through the city.

A lot of the messaging that comes through the narration continues a trend you’ll have noticed through this article – this is a city with a lot of old, historic buildings, that continue to be used a century or more later for the purposes they were originally intended. Take the Museum of Natural History for instance, established in 1916, or Joe’s Cafe, which has been serving up customers for 90 years. And then there’s the Old Mission Santa Barbara, the largest Mission in California, which was founded all the way back in 1786. Everyone who takes the Trolley there gets a bit of time to explore and use the restroom.

There’s a lot of other fun facts I learnt on the journey. For instance, Motel 6 started here and Earth Day has its origins here too thanks to the ’69 oil spill. Scarface was filmed in the mansions in Montecito, which is also where Oprah has a massive property, and Charlie Chaplin built the Montecito Inn in 1928. A lot of the buildings and hotels were in fact built in the 20’s and 30’s, including the five star Four Seasons resort, which is popular among celebrities and owned by Time Warner.

For more about the Trolley and its route, head to sbtrolley.com.

4. Grab a taco at the Santa Barbara Public Market

Part of the Alma del Pueblo mixed-use development in the heart of downtown – a little more than 20 minute walk from the Wharf – is the Santa Barbara Public Market. The resurgence of public markets around the US has happened in line with the new dominance of food trucks around the country, and has given many trucks the opportunity to set up affordable brick and mortar establishments. I like to think of the spaces as fancier hawker centres, as you’ll find in places like Singapore.

The most recommended place to eat in the markets is the Mexican outlet, Corazon Cocina. The tacos there are phenomenal – you’ll see the Al Pastor (Spit Roasted Pork with pinapple salsa) and Norteno (Skirt Steak) below. And I’m told there’s not a dud to be had on the entire menu. In addition to their location in the Public Markets, last month they opened their second location on State Street, right next to The Wayfarer. This location is a more conventional sit down restaurant and bar, and features a similar menu. But I think the walk to the markets is worth it just for the communal experience they offer.

5. Enjoy the wineries and restaurants in “The Funk Zone”

So many of the wineries are around the hotel too. The Wayfarer sits in an area referred to as “The Funk Zone”, which features no less than 14 wineries, and some breweries too, alongside great shopping and dining options. Les Marchands is one of the popular wine bar and restaurants, who also have live music, such as during their Burger and Blues night, which takes over the venue on Mondays.

You can enjoy brunch here on weekends, with a menu that changes throughout the year. You might get yourself a breakfast burger, or a sourdough waffle BLT, as I had. I added on a sunny side up egg for good measure. The fries were phenomenal, extra crispy thanks to a layer of cornstarch, and the waffle light and delicious. The mustard aioli perfectly brought the dish together and the bacon was delicious. I had a glass of Chenin Blanc sparkling (“Jacky Blot” from Liore, France) with the meal (because it was the weekend!) and also snuck in a green tea.

Tyger Tyger is another popular spot, offering southeast Asian cuisine, with yellow and pink lighting fixtures on the outside, a small patio and a bright and colourful theme. There’s also a coffee shop called Dart a Coffee co., and ice cream courtesy of Monkeyshine. The complex opened back in October.

Tyger’s emphasis is on Vietnamese good, with Banh Mi and Banh Xeo among the menu. You’ll also find larb noodle, Thai favourites like green papaya salad, Korean-style short rib and “weeping brisket” with coconut sticky rice. It’s all casual and affordable dining with orders taken at the counter.

Alcoholic beverages are available including local draft beer from SLO brew and Draughtsmen Aleworks, and they have other treats like Thai iced tea or a tygers milk iced cocktail with lychee and sake. Both Tyger Tyger and Marchands are from ACME hospitality, who I’m told single handedly increased the quality of the food offerings in the city, especially with the introduction of Lark in the funk zone, in 2014.

Beyond the food, it’s a must to enjoy the wineries in the area. I had some delicious drops at the Municipal Winemakers, where I also had some freshly cracked Sea Urchin, The Valley Project, The Pali Wine Co. and Kunin Wines. Most tastings cost $15, though many will waive the fee if you buy some bottles before you leave.

6. Visit the Santa Barbara Zoo

It’s one of the stops on the Trolley, and there’s also a shuttle that runs between the zoo and the waterfront, which costs 50 cents and runs every 15 minutes between 10am and 6pm, with extra rides between 6pm and 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Basically matching the hours of the zoo. The zoo itself is a small one, reminiscent of Taronga Zoo (with beautiful views of the ocean and the nearby lake), and has some amazing exhibits – with plenty of talks throughout the day, and there’s a railroad that runs around its exterior.

The Giraffe and Elephant enclosures are the biggest areas, and I caught a talk at the Meerkat exhibit while I was there and watched them feast on worms – as many of the kids around me sung “Hakuna Matata”. If you visit via the Trolley, you get $1 off admission by showing your trolley ticket (which lasts for two consecutive days) – but with the last ride leaving at 325pm, the MTD provides a good and very affordable alternative to get back to town.

7. See a film in one of the city’s historic cinemas

On my last second night in the city, after I’d exhausted myself with everything else you’ve seen in this article, I retired to the cinema. As you’d expect, all the cinemas in the city are historic in their own right, and catching a film is a must for any visit. The Arlington, which is also one of the live music venues in the city, is perhaps the most iconic, taking you back to how films were screened back in the day – in front of thousands of people. The Lion King currently has an exclusive 4K digital run at the cinema, with 2,000 seats available for each session, which may have explained the kids singing “Hakuna Matata”.

There are also a number of cinemas operated by Metropolitan Theatres, such as the Paseo Nuevo Cinemas, which opened in the 90s, and the Metro 4 Theatre on State Street, which is an old vaudeville house that opened in the 1930s. Both cinemas feature a classic marquee out the front and provide wonderful movie watching experiences.

Getting around Santa Barbara

If you don’t have a car – as it’d be assumed should you be using the Busabout services – you’ll be pleased to hear Santa Barbara is a city that has a decent public transport offering. And being a tourist haven, there are also some great tourist focused transport options, .

Santa Barbara MTD’s (Metropolitan Transit District) Downtown and Waterfront Shuttles run regularly along Santa Barbara’s most popular corridors, including downtown State Street and ocean-facing Cabrillo Boulevard. Santa Barbara MTD was the first in the United States to adapt all-electric shuttles in 1991. In 2018, it completely replaced its shuttles with a new fleet of zero-emissions, battery-electric shuttles.

Though this being said, most places are pretty walkable, and if all else fails you’re able to get Uber and Lyft through the city.

Getting to Santa Barbara

If the Busabout service isn’t what you’re looking for, there are also Greyhound services that cater to the city, and there’s an Amtrak station in the city too. It also has its own airport! If you’re coming from Australia, you’ll be best to fly into Los Angeles and then travel by road or train from there – it takes between 2 and 3 hours, depending on where you’re coming from.

Where To Stay in Santa Barbara

While in Santa Barbara I stayed at the “poshtel” that the Busabout service picks up and drops off from, The Wayfarer. The building incorporates 27 boutique hotel rooms and 4 hostel rooms, and all the trimmings that most hostels provide – notably a kitchen out the front that can be used by any guest, and a complimentary breakfast between 7 and 10am, at the entry to “The Funk Zone”.

Since Busabout gets you in a few hours before 3pm check in, you can leave your bag at reception, and enjoy the end of breakfast, or relax by the pool! There’s a table tennis and a bar that sits next to the pool, and they have pool parties on some Sunday afternoons.

Busabout’s West Coast Hop-on Hop-off Pass services San Francisco, Santa Barabara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, South Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and Mammoth Lakes. Coaches depart from all eight destinations every other day between June and August. For more details head HERE.

The author travelled as a guest of Busabout in July 2019, with additional support from Brand USA and Visit Santa Barbara. Photos by the author, except for the photos from the Santa Barbara Bowl, which is from The Raconteurs show on 27th July 2019. You can see the full gallery on their official website HERE

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.