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Santa Barbara (Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Shutterstock.com)
Santa Barbara (Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/Shutterstock.com)
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

David Swanson
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Santa Barbara

Sometimes called the "American Riviera," especially by the real estate industry, Santa Barbara is a well-tended community that practically defines the mellow, sun-drenched California Coast aesthetic. But unlike busy L.A., 95 miles down the coast, Santa Barbara has always been a bit sleepy, which has made it highly enviable to seekers of seclusion and sprawling estates (along with under-the-radar neighbor Montecito -- home to Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe and Ellen DeGeneres).

Santa Barbara had been settled for thousands of years by Native Americans -- the Chumash -- when European occupation started in 1782 with the building of the last of the Spanish presidios (forts). The Old Mission Santa Barbara is the 10th of the missions established in California by Franciscans from Spain. Today the city has a population of about 88,000, and the growth of Santa Barbara is largely limited by strict zoning laws and building codes that inhibit density. Major industries are aerospace and defense companies, while tourism is a mainstay and an agricultural bounty is found just over the mountains in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Although most of us can't afford to live in Santa Barbara, it's a great stop on a cruise itinerary. Sitting at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the beach-fronted town is small enough to be easily revealed during a day visit, even on foot. The food and wine give us at least a taste of the lifestyle here, which is upmarket and exclusive, without being pampered or pretentious.

Architecture -- especially Spanish Mission and Mediterranean -- is a big piece of the eye candy. Following a 1925 earthquake, city planners decreed that all future building would adopt the style. You'll find it at both the historic sites like the Mission Santa Barbara and the fine county courthouse downtown, as well as in the gorgeous homes that line the avenues paralleling State Street, the main artery through town.

The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden represents a feast of California native plants, while those who plan ahead with a reservation can take in Montecito's legendary estate, Lotusland. If your cruise stops here on a Saturday, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Farmers Market, which brims with robust local produce year-round. Walking, jogging or cycling the pathway lining the beach is an option for independent types, as is touring the harbor or seafront by kayak or standup paddleboard. And just strolling along the rounded archways, adobe walls, and cafes and shops lining State Street can make for a perfectly enjoyable wander.

Shore Excursions

About Santa Barbara


Spanish-Colonial and Mission architecture, great wineries nearby, fine weather year-round.


Tender port; beaches are beautiful but the sea is cold for swimming in winter and spring.

Bottom Line

Unadulterated, upscale Central California coast lifestyle at its best.

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Port Facilities

Santa Barbara is a tender port. Sea Landing, the small harbor for cruise tenders, has some facilities, including volunteer-staffed information tables with maps, brochures, bus schedules and more. The Santa Barbara Visitors Center is located at 1 Garden Street and free Wi-Fi is available here.

Good to Know

"Sideways," the 2004 Oscar-winner that simultaneously introduced the world to actor Paul Giamatti and caused merlot sales to plummet, was filmed 30 miles up the road in the Santa Ynez Valley. The town of Solvang is a cute hub for explorations, with winery locations such as Kalyra, Los Olivos and Fess Parker not far away. Reach the Santa Ynez Valley by rental car or reserve a seat on one of the winery tours departing from Santa Barbara.

Getting Around

On Foot: Santa Barbara is an easily walkable town, especially the sidewalk fronting the beach leading away from the port (paralleling Cabrillo Boulevard) and along State Street, which leads to downtown. It's 1.5 miles from the port to downtown and 3 miles on foot to Mission Santa Barbara (with a modest incline most of the way).

The Red Tile Walking Tour is a self-guided, 12-block-long loop trail through downtown visiting some of the city's most significant historical gems. Pick it up along State Street, between De La Guerra and Anapamu streets. More information on this and the Santa Barbara Coastal Trail is available at the visitor center.

By Public Transportation: The Santa Barbara MTD operates a Downtown-Waterfront electric shuttle for 50 cents a ride. The route extends from the harbor, where tenders dock, up State Street to Sola Street, and down Cabrillo Boulevard to the zoo and Andree Clark Bird Refuge, and then back to the harbor -- a distance of about 8 miles total. Shuttles run every 15 minutes.

The MTD also has a bus network connecting Santa Barbara and the neighboring communities, for about $2 a ride; $6 for a day pass. There are discounts for seniors and young children ride free. These buses don't stop at the harbor, but main routes through downtown -- lines 11, 14, 21 and 21X -- converge around the Museum of Art on State Street.

The Santa Barbara Train Station is located close to the port and Amtrak serves the coastal communities near Santa Barbara.

By Taxi/Rideshare: Metered taxis are usually waiting near the port when tenders start coming in, and shared rides like Uber and Lyft are easily hailed.

By rental car: There is an Avis Rent a Car branch at 34 East Montecito Street, just off State Street, and a Hertz outlet at 633 East Cabrillo Boulevard, inside the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The U.S. dollar rules in Santa Barbara, although major credit cards are widely accepted. Visit xe.com or oanda.com for current exchange rates. ATMs are plentiful; you'll find one at Sea Landing, where tenders disembark, along State Street, at the Santa Barbara Visitors Center and another in the Funk Zone.


English is the native tongue for most, but Spanish is a common first or second language for some residents.

Food and Drink

Farm-to-table was a lifestyle in Santa Barbara long before it was a cooking trend for urban centers. The best chefs have direct relationships with farms and fishermen, so between the sea's bounty and the produce of nearby Santa Ynez, fresh is the focus. As a bonus, the culinary influences of Mexico are usually within reach.

For a quick bite after landing, head to the Funk Zone, where Helena Avenue Bakery (131 Anacapa Street) serves up delicious, freshly baked breads, pastries and breakfast sandwiches at communal tables. An informal picnic assemblage can also be found at nearby Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant (216 East Yanonali Street), a gourmet market where hot and cold sandwiches and salads can be taken to go (closed Sunday).

If you're in a larger group with divergent interests, a terrific catch-all is the Santa Barbara Public Market (38 West Victoria Street), a collective of about a dozen local purveyors offering noodle bowls, cakes and cupcakes, poke bowls, and beer and wine bars; the creative tacos (tempura cauliflower, anyone?) at Corazon Cocina are surprising and satisfying. Starring a menu of hamburgers named after local streets, the all-purpose Benchmark Eatery (1201 State Street) wins over with a diverse menu of salads, sandwiches, seafood and meat dishes.

Away from downtown (but worth the trek) is La Super-Rica Taqueria (622 North Milpas Street), which has been serving authentic homestyle Mexican cuisine in Santa Barbara since 1980. Another Santa Barbara institution, McConnell's Fine Ice Creams (728 State Street), has been offering small-batch ice creams from its State Street storefront since 1949; flavors rotate, but from black coffee made with cold brew and Guittard chocolate to Earl Grey tea with shortbread cookies, they're sure to have something unexpected for you.

For an upscale, full-service venue not far from the port, aim for Convivo (901 East Cabrillo Boulevard) at the Santa Barbara Inn. Homemade pasta, wood-fired pizzas, grilled meats and seafood are in the spotlight, in an elegant, sunny setting facing the sea.


The main shopping area for Santa Barbara is downtown, on State Street and its side streets. Paseo Nuevo is an outdoor mall, located just off State Street at Canon Perdido, and here you'll find name-brand chain stores like Nordstrom's, Gap and Sephora. A bit more local flavor is found at La Arcada Plaza, another outdoor mall on State Street, with tiled walkways, fountains, cafes, tasting rooms, chocolatiers and galleries selling works by local artists.

For true Santa Barbara goods, you'll want to head to the Funk Zone. Get your surf gear at Channel Island Surfboards, outdoor wear at Mountain Air Sports and, of course, you'll find lots of shops selling local wines and craft beers by the bottle (or glass). Also check out The Guilded Table, an artist's collective inside Waterline where craftspeople design, produce and sell their work.

Occupying a 100-year-old bungalow on Victoria Street, the Santa Barbara Company sells a wide variety of regional products ranging from culinary salts to candles to heirloom beans, as well as bespoke gift baskets. For thoughtful gifts, Plum Goods specializes in eco-friendly jewelry, clothing and accessories. On Saturdays, the Santa Barbara Farmers Market has street performers and food products you can bring home, such as local honey, olive oil, jellies and jams, and handcrafted soaps.