How to Experience Santa Barbara's Waterfront in Style

Leadbetter Beach is a popular spot for beginning surfers.
Leadbetter Beach is a popular spot for beginning surfers. Damian Gadal
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California is practically synonymous with paradise to most: palm trees, laid-back vibes, and warm temps with lots of sunshine almost year-round. If that’s what you’ve got in your mind when heading to Santa Barbara, you won’t be disappointed. Santa Barbara's climate is so ideal that it’s often compared to the Mediterranean and referred to as The American Riviera®. While the list of what makes Santa Barabara amazing could go on and on, here you’ll find the best of the best along the city’s popular waterfront, made up of Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf.

Of course almost every water-based activity you could want to experince in California is available along Santa Barbara’s waterfront. Looking to catch some waves? Surfing is a popular pastime when a swell rolls in. There’s a lovely wave known as Sandpit that’s a result of work that the Army Corp of Engineers did to protect the waterfront which is the go-to for more experienced surfers, while Leadbetter just a few miles down is much better suited for all abilities.

You can take a trip on just about any kind of boat from the Santa Barbara Harbor.
You can take a trip on just about any kind of boat from the Santa Barbara Harbor. Louise Palanker

If the wind picks up and destroys the waves, give wind surfing, kite surfing, or sailing a try in the harbor. Stand-up paddleboarding has become has become popular in the harbor. It’s an ideal place to learn because it’s protected from waves that make learning hard—just pay attention to the moving boats. Whether you’re chasing waves or looking for a relaxed paddle, there are plenty of outfitters that have all the equipment and lessons you could need: Channel Islands Outfitters, Santa Barbara Adventure Company, and Cal Coast Adventures to name a few.

You’ll notice that these outfitters don’t just deal with water sports, however, because Santa Barbara’s waterfront is a picture perfect place for land-based activities as well. The beach is so beautiful here that runners (and walkers) spend hours simply going back and forth. Runners can take in the entirety of the harbor via sidewalk as well, jogging between the beach and the road that runs alongside it. The Cabrillo Bike Path is an easy ride that glides along the harbor and is best undertaken on a beach cruiser (ideally with a basket) for full California effect. Wheel Fun Rentals is a conveniently located bike company that can hook you up with whatever bike you’re looking for.

One amazing thing that nature lovers can’t miss is Santa Barbara Island, part of Channel Islands National Park. You arrive on the island by boat (via Island Packers, which departs from Ventura Harbor), and you immediately enter into a natural wonderland. The turquoise color of the water alone is worth the visit, but the exercise in self-reliance (absolutely no services on the island, folks) is a test worth taking in an environment that could hardly be prettier.

Whales are just some of the wildlife you’ll spot on a trip to the Channel Islands National Park.
Whales are just some of the wildlife you’ll spot on a trip to the Channel Islands National Park. Michele W

Santa Barbara’s waterfront is one of the best places to depart from for whale watching and dolphin tours. History buffs will love taking a spin through the harbor’s Maritime Museum or the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum Sea Center. The Maritime Museum charges a small fee ($8 for adults and kids are free), but it teaches visitors all about the history of the harbor—there’s so much to see that it’s hard to get to all of it. The Sea Center, located on Stearns Wharf, is interesting for visitors of all ages, but has some particularly killer programming for kids (an ace in your pocket if you’ve got antsy little ones along).

Shopping is plentiful along the waterfront, and it’s warm enough to stroll the streets with hardly more than a light jacket year-round. Skipping from shop to shop is a pleasant experience on its own. Heading up State Street toward downtown from the harbor offers plenty of local choices as well as well name-brand stores. Stearns Wharf is where you’ll find local artists and craftspeople selling their wares. The Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show is held every Sunday from 10 a.m. until dusk on Cabrillo Boulevard along the water. The exhibition gives local artists a chance to display and sell their original drawings, paintings, graphics, sculpture, crafts, photography, and other handmade items. It’s a great place to find original works and enjoy the creativity on display.

Once the end of the day rolls around and it’s time for re-fueling and relaxing, eating, and drinking in one of the many bars and restaurants that dot the waterfront is essential. Endless Summer Bar and Cafe, Brophy Brothers, On the Alley, and Santa Barbara Shellfish Company are all waterfront staples, and Sambo’s is where to go for (all day) breakfast.

Whatever you end up doing on the waterfront, you’ll be able to enjoy those incredible views of the Pacific. And you’ll quickly discover why people return to Santa Barbara year after year.

Originally written for Visit Santa Barbara.

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