Travel Guide | California

College Tourist Student Guide to Santa Barbara

Things to do and see when visiting Santa Barbara

About two hours north of Los Angeles is the beautiful, coastal city of Santa Barbara, California. The popular tourist destination known as the “Riviera of the West” is widely believed to be home to the rich and famous, however it can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone. Walking around the city, one will quickly notice the surrounding California Mission – style architecture. This emanates the pride that the city has in its cultural roots. The Spanish missionaries and soldiers were the first European settlers to come to Santa Barbara with the goal to build a mission and spread Christianity.   After a large earthquake and tsunami in 1812, the mission and entire town were destroyed. In the ten years following the tragic event, the town and mission were rebuilt to an even grander scale and the Mexican flag was raised with the end of the Mexican War of Independence, but only for 24 years. These 24 years were known as the “Rancho Period.” The city and its large cattle operations were run by the few wealthy families until it became part of the United States after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

By 1860 the population in Santa Barbara had doubled with American settlers.  The city went through a rough patch during the Gold Rush as it was known to be filled with gamblers and thieves.  The drought then ended the “Rancho Period” because most of the cattle were sold. However, once the railroad was built through Santa Barbara, the city became a huge tourist attraction to well off travelers. Then, just at the end of the 19th century, oil was discovered along the east of Santa Barbara. With this the first offshore oil development in the world was created. The 20th century then brought the film industry to town and Santa Barbara became home to some of the largest silent film movie studios until they eventually moved to Hollywood.  Needless to say, the economy began to flourish.

Unfortunately, in 1925 another devastating earthquake provided a time of rebuilding. This time the city made it a point to design all city buildings in the Spanish Colonial Style one would see today.  Also, during the 20th century both the Marine Corpse Air Station Santa Barbara (now the Vandenberg Air Force Base) and the famous Highway 101 were built in Santa Barbara.  The airport now serves as a commercial airport as well and the highway has made it far easier for tourists and commuters to get to this beautiful beach town.

Today, Santa Barbara is known as a very environmentally friendly area due to legislative acts that were put into practice after the 1969 oil spill. The city is now filled with “clean” industries. The main attraction, State Street, is home to plenty of yoga houses, small boutiques, coffee shops, and sidewalk restaurants. Its wide brick sidewalks and plethora of trees give off a family friendly vibe. From a Sunday brunch or festival to a Friday night out with your friends, Santa Barbara has it all.


Must Sees:
Santa Barbara Courthouse:

This beautiful structure has been referred to as, “the grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built.” This is a must see! You can walk through and see the detailed architecture, large murals, and take a stroll in the tropical garden.

The Santa Barbara Mission:

This is another building to walk through and enjoy the sights. You can go into the church to see the 18th century Mexican art or the Chumash Indian art room.

University of California, Santa Barbara:

Check out the local campus! You can take a walk along campus point, surrounded by the ocean and nature. The lagoon and beach provide lovely views. The local town, Isla Vista, has a bunch of small restaurants like Free Birds and Woodstocks that are typical college hangouts.

The Pier:

Why not grab some ice cream and take a stroll down the Santa Barbara Pier? It’s a great place to enjoy the ocean. Maybe even rent a bike for the day and take a ride along the shore or get on a paddle board and head into the great Pacific! The Land shark is also another great way to tour the water. This tour goes from the streets to the ocean with great information on the city’s history.

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State Street:

It’s never a bad time for some brunch and shopping along State St. With the trees and pleasant people sitting on the sidewalks, it makes for a great afternoon.

Santa Barbara Bowl:

A great outdoor concert venue to check out!  The bench seating makes for a casual vibe and easy way to meet people.  Artists like Jack Johnson and Lorde are actually on the upcoming calendar.

Fun for Free:
Goleta Monarch Butterfly Grove:

Located a few miles down the highway from the central State St. is this peaceful butterfly preserve that anyone can spend the day in, free of charge!

Hike to Inspiration Point:

A good workout is only a 10 minute drive from State St. This hour long hike takes you uphill and through a creek and ends with a breathtaking view of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean from the top of Inspiration Point Summit.  There is no need for a guide, the trail is large and easy to follow.

Arts & Crafts Show:

Enjoy the handmade crafts shown on Cabrillo Blvd. along the beach every Sunday!  Around 200 local artists bring their best paintings, jewelry, sculptures, and photography to show off and sell from 10am until the early evening.

After Dark:

Looking for the typical college dive bar and some cheap drinks? This place can get pretty rowdy and fun on a Wednesday night! There are some pool tables and the famous karaoke machine.  But remember, only order a Long Island Ice Tea or an AMF (the full name is a little inappropriate: Adios Mother F****rs).  This contains vodka, rum, tequila, gin, and some 7-up.  It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

Tonic / Eos / Sandbar:

Thursdays are when the college kids hit downtown State Street. These three spots are a hit!   Tonic and Eos are nightclubs with DJ’s, a bar, and a dance floor.  Sandbar is actually a great mexican restaurant that is known for their delicious tacos.  However, at night it turns into a packed bar, 2 dance floors, loud music, young people, and great drinks.  There are plenty of student deals going on like 1$ drinks on Mondays or Thursday’s three drinks for 6$.

Backyard Bowls:

Need a healthy breakfast or brunch? This little joint is the place to go for all things acaii, fruit, and yogurt.

Killer B’s:

A great little sports bar with televisions and delicious food to settle in for a good basketball or football game.

What to Eat:

This ice cream shop is so good that they made two locations. At a reasonable price, one can get a cone with a scoop of ice cream way too big to finish alone!  There are plenty of flavors and toppings.  There is both ice cream and yogurt with tons of different toppings to choose from.  The best flavor is hands down the Salted Caramel Chip.  There is indoor and outdoor seating to enjoy your desert comfortably.


Mediterranean food and live music in a cool outdoor setting is the perfect place to get a nice dinner when you’re feeling a little fancy.

The Anderson’s:

This Danish restaurant and bakery is the perfect spot for some brunch or desert. The crepes and pastries are a local favorite.




There is a bus line that travels around all of Santa Barbara. A regular one way fare is usually $1.75. The students get bus passes for free. There is also a trolley type shuttle that goes up and down State Street that is 50 cents.

SB Local Knowledge:

The weather is always changing! No matter how sunny it looks outside, bring a jacket. The ocean breeze will make for a chilly afternoon.

June gloom is no joke in Santa Barbara, so try to schedule your trip before or after June!

Gian Ryan

UC Santa Barbara | 10 stories

Hi there! I'm Gian. I am currently a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara studying political science. In my teenage years I have been around the states and Europe to places like France, Spain, and England. I have visited Morocco and Lebanon. I am studying abroad in Florence, Italy in the coming fall. I'll be spending my summer in Los Angeles writing some fun and informative articles about traveling in college! Can't wait to get started.

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