Sometimes you have to leave the car behind when the stress of driving gets to you. And in Southern California, that happens a lot. Fear not! The National Parks TravelingMom actually felt freedom when exploring nearby Santa Barbara without a car. With a combination of a train, a sight-seeing trolley, walking and ride share, never once did she pine for her car.
I will admit it. Sometimes I need to break up with my car. If you spend all day or part of the day shuttling kids or driving around town for work, the last place you want to spend your vacation is in your car. So when I learned I could hop an Amtrak train from most cities in Southern California to Santa Barbara, I did. I’ve got all the details for Santa Barbara without a car.
11 Must Dos in Santa Barbara
- City Tour with Santa Barbara Trolley Company
- Chase Palm Park Carousel
- Stearns Wharf
- Old Mission Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara County Courthouse and Sunken Gardens
- Santa Barbara Zoo
- Moxi—The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art
- Funk Zone
- Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market
1. Santa Barbara Trolley Company City Tour
First thing I did after checking in at my hotel, Hotel Santa Barbara on State Street, was walk to the Santa Barbara Visitors Center. After a pleasant stroll, I arrived at the main trolley stop for the Santa Barbara Trolley Company, located at 1 Garden Street at Cabrillo Street.
Since the tickets are good for two days, I used it get to around, especially for the Santa Barbara Zoo and Old Mission Santa Barbara. Or you can just see Santa Barbara’s highlights on the standard 90-minute tour. Best of all, my friendly and knowledgeable driver shared all the local’s secrets.
2. Chase Palm Park Carousel
Located across from the Santa Barbara’s Visitor Center, I found the Chase Palm Park Carousel. As a lover of carousels, I hopped on a hand-carved horse. Built by the Allan Herschell Company in 1916, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and operated in Santa Barbara since 1999.
Located at 323 E Cabrillo Blvd., I found the carousel in the Chase Palm Park, right across from the Santa Barbara’s Visitors Center. Admission charged.
3. Beaches in Santa Barbara
California beaches offers some of the best beaches though notoriously don’t offer much parking. Not a problem since I left my car in LA. I recommend West Beach or East Beach, on either side of Stearn’s Wharf along Cabrillo St. I walked to both. Beach gear rental is nearby.
4. Stearns Wharf
On a local’s tip, I headed to Stearns Wharf in the late afternoon. When it was built in 1929, it was the longest deep water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Now home to souvenir shops and ice cream cones, visitors are surprised to see the sun set behind the mountains instead of over the water. After a quick look at the map, I remembered Santa Barbara’s beach faces south.
After dinner, I walked to Stearns Wharf, located at the intersection of State St. and Cabrillo Blvd.
5. Old Mission Santa Barbara
Originally built in 1786 by the Spanish, Old Mission Santa Barbara is commonly called the Queen of the Missions. With views in all directions, including the Pacific Ocean, it’s a must for architecture and history buffs.
The Spanish Mission architecture along with the art is tops. The self-guided tour walks through the courtyard that features a lush garden.
Since the Santa Barbara Mission is located at 2201 Laguna St., I got off the trolley at the mission to explore. Admission charged and open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
6. Santa Barbara County Courthouse and Sunken Gardens
When my trolley driver told me I should check out the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, I thought he was kidding. But to my surprise, one of the best views in the city is from its clock tower.
To add to my delight, the Spanish Mission style building offered a richly painted courtroom as well. A must for architecture nuts like myself though if traveling with kids, head to the top of the clock tower and skip the interiors.
I walked to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, located at 1100 Anacapa St. Open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
7. Santa Barbara Zoo
I love the manageable size of the Santa Barbara Zoo, especially with kids. Covering 30 acres, the zoo houses elephants, big cats and a pair of charming miniature trains, among other exhibits. A must for families visiting Santa Barbara.
I used the Santa Barbara Trolley to get to the zoo, located at 500 Ninos Dr. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission charged.
8. Santa Barbara Museum of Art
What a surprise when I walked up the steps of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Inside the regal building, I found a well-curated collection. It even offered some big city surprises, like Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe.
I walked to Santa Barbara Museum of Art, located at 1130 State St. Admission charged and open every day except Mondays and Thursdays.
9. Moxi—The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
The Moxi offers a place for families to learn and discover while exploring. Since its opening in early 2017, the Moxi is the Santa Barbara destination for families.
I walked to The Moxi, located at 125 State St. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission based on age.
10. Funk Zone
Steps from the beach, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone offers visitors a large chunk of the Urban Wine Trail, a self-guided tour of tasting rooms featuring wine from across the region. Browse vintage shops along with art galleries in the maker’s Mecca of Santa Barbara.
I walked through the Funk Zone, along Anacapa Street, north of East Beach. Free
11. Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market
As one of Santa Barbara’s major roads, State Street offers visitors wide sidewalks shaded in trees and flanked with flower beds. Walking up and down State Street is pleasant year-round.
Though bustling with shops and restaurants, State Street closes to vehicular traffic on Tuesdays for the popular Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market. Vendors up and down State Street sell everything from hand-tied flower bouquets to organic produce.
Where to stay:
For my visit, I stayed at the Hotel Santa Barbara. I found an historic property with cozy rooms with a mix of traditional interiors and modern touches.
Built after the devastating earthquake, Hotel Santa Barbara opened its doors in 1926. Almost immediately, Hollywood’s stars, like Clark Gable, walked through the lobby doors. To this day, Hotel Santa Barbara hosts stars and movie makers as the official hospitality hub for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
After an extensive renovation, Hotel Santa Barbara offers its guests all the rich details of a historic property. In addition, I found all the modern conveniences that travelers need. As a train traveler, I would say this is where to stay in Santa Barbara without a car.
Where to eat:
Estasblished in 1977, Enterprise Fish Company offers a casual nautical-themed dining room serving sustainably-sourced seafood. Steps from the beach and the train station, the location is tops.
I recommend the Lobster Bisque. With a combination of heavy cream, butter, lobster and flaky pastry, it’s heaven in a spoon. The Blackened Ahi Sashimi Tuna is another stand-out.
I walked to dinner at the Enterprise Fish Company, located at 225 State St, next to the train station. Open seven days a week from lunch to dinner.
Where to Relax:
Getting away with a spa treatment tops my list for vacation musts. During my visit to Santa Barbara I enjoyed a massage at Float Luxury Spa, in the heart of Santa Barbara.
Float Luxury Spa features individual treatment rooms and several areas for lounging before and after services. I enjoyed the outdoor courtyard with a fountain and loungers during my visit. Additionally, I used the locker room outfitted with a shower and complimentary toiletries.
I walked to Float Luxury Spa, located at 18 E. Canon Perdido St. Float Luxury Spa is open every day.
Santa Barbara Without a Car
After a spectacular train ride abroad Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, I arrived at the 1902 Santa Barbara Train Station. An example of Mission Revival architecture, the Santa Barbara Train Station underwent a complete restoration in 2000. And it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Walk through the waiting room even if you arrive in Santa Barbara via U.S. 101 or the airport.
As one of the best scenic routes in North America, the Amtrak’s Coast Starlight passes through untouched areas of the Pacific Coast when traveling north from Santa Barbara. This train features coach passenger cars, business class cars, a cafe and observation car, a dining car along with sleeper cars. During my trip, I got a glimpse of the vintage 1950s parlor car. Featuring wood-grain interiors, the parlor car reminds me of a glamorous hotel bar where men in hats smoke cigars. All the remaining parlor cars are on the Coast Starlight trains, with service from Los Angeles’ Union Station to Seattle.
California’s own Amtrak Surfliner also serves Santa Barbara. Though not as glamorous as the Coast Starlight, it offers business class cars and coach cars, though coach seating is unreserved. Meaning, you are not guaranteed a seat, just passage on the train. There is a possibility you will have to stand for a portion of your trip, especially peak days or times.
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- Don’t let the morning fog discourage you; it burns off.
- Take a cab or ride share to and from the train station, especially with kids and luggage.