By Wendy van Diver
Photos Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

AS THE SEAGULL FLIES, the coastal city of Santa Barbara lies just 185 miles from San Diego. If you’ve yet to visit, picture an enchanting place where the mountains nearly touch the sea and Spanish tile rooftops line the streets and hillsides. Santa Barbara, California is romantic to the core—an idyllic destination when you want to slip away.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse  |  MARK WEBER MARK WEBER
Santa Barbara County Courthouse | MARK WEBER MARK WEBER

I can hear you thinking, “If only we had things as easy as seagulls. We humans have to deal with LA traffic.” Well, I’m here to tell you that we don’t.

Every day, the Pacific Surfliner offers five opportunities to glide up the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara via the rails. Many of the trains are new, featuring large windows, laptop outlets, reclining seats with footrests, and surfboard racks. The time passes quickly as you zone out, chat, read, and savor the shoreline views. Soon, you’re listening for your stop. All you need to do is step off the train—with your bags and even your bicycle, if you like—and you’re on your car-free getaway.

Stearns Wharf  |  MARK WEBER
Stearns Wharf | MARK WEBER
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner  |  MARK WEBER MARK WEBER
Amtrak Pacific Surfliner | MARK WEBER MARK WEBER

Before we go any further, I should mention that I’m speaking from experience because, for 19 of the past 20 years, I resided in Santa Barbara. Last year, when I moved to San Diego, it wasn’t quite as hard to say goodbye, because I knew going back would be a breeze with Amtrak.

The Santa Barbara Amtrak station is located in a peaceful, tourist-friendly neighborhood a few blocks from the ocean. It may take a while for this to sink in, but pretty much everything you’ll want to see or do is located within a 2.5-mile radius of the station. Within this area, you’ll find plenty to do without once looking for your keys, a parking place, or a gas station.

First, you’ll want to ditch your bags. This is easy, because many boutique hotels are situated in the surrounding neighborhood. After that, you can start exploring by foot, bicycle, and public transportation. Just remember to tuck your train ticket in your wallet because, thanks to Santa Barbara’s Car-Free program, you can use it for special offers around town.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art  |
Santa Barbara Museum of Art |

When I was a resident and had out-of-town guests, I’d be sure they visited three iconic spots. Stearns Wharf is California’s oldest working wharf. Its sturdy, yet delightfully clackety, boardwalk offers plenty of shops to browse and restaurants to try. Santa Barbara County Courthouse, designed in the Spanish-Colonial style, has beautiful grounds, amazing hand-painted murals, and unforgettable panoramic views you can enjoy from the clock tower. Old Mission Santa Barbara itself is gorgeous but be sure to turn around and take in the spectacular ocean view. You can walk to all, but there are other easy options including the Santa Barbara Trolley, which gives you hop on and off privileges all day, and the MTD Electric Shuttle, which will take you part of the way for a whopping fee of 50 cents per ride.

El Paseo  |  MARK WEBER

The heart of Santa Barbara’s downtown is home to a few nicely preserved historic structures. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, built in 1782, is the last Spanish military outpost in the New World. It costs nothing to stroll through and enjoy the authentically restored quarters at your own pace or to take a docent-led tour. Not far away, El Paseo, an enchanting narrow arcade, is the state of California’s first shopping mall. Today, it houses gift shops, art galleries, restaurants, and a few arresting pieces of outdoor sculpture.

You’ll also find several intriguing museums within walking distance. I’m particularly fond of The Carriage and Western Arts Museum of Santa Barbara where you can see an impressive collection of genuine stagecoaches and saddles once belonging to famous people. Santa Barbara’s Maritime Museum is a treasure chest of fascinating exhibits pertaining to the sea, from fishing and whaling to lighthouses and shipwrecks. This summer, after a lengthy renovation and expansion, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is reopening and, in October, it will host a Van Gogh and his influences exhibit.

Santa Barbara’s Maritime Museum  |  BLAKE BRONSTAD
Santa Barbara’s Maritime Museum | BLAKE BRONSTAD

One of the great things about traveling car free is you won’t have to worry about drinking and driving. Through the past several decades, the wines of Santa Barbara County have earned a place on many wine connoisseurs’ bucket lists. Today, there are more than 200 wineries in Santa Barbara County producing wines from more than 50 grape varieties. Within the 2.5-mile radius from the Amtrak station, there are nearly two dozen wine tasting rooms located for the most part in two neighborhoods: The Funk Zone and The Presidio. My personal favorites are Deep Sea on Stearns Wharf (a pleasant range of wines to enjoy in an expansive space with 360-degree views) and Grassini Family Vineyards in the El Paseo arcade (exceptional wines in a beautiful living room environment, ideal for relaxing, sipping wine, and playing a board game).

Old Mission Santa Barbara  |  MARK WEBER
Old Mission Santa Barbara | MARK WEBER
Arroyo Burro Beach  |  GABRIELA HERMAN
Arroyo Burro Beach | GABRIELA HERMAN

Santa Barbara’s glorious beaches are uncrowded and easily accessible. Besides East Beach and West Beach—which together form the giant stretch of beach running from the harbor, past the wharf, to the bird sanctuary along Cabrillo Boulevard—you’ll find more beach in both directions, just around both bends. At the lowest tide, you can head for Arroyo Burro Beach to the west or Butterfly Beach to the east. If you linger for a bite at Arroyo Burro Beach’s Boathouse Restaurant or The Four Seasons Biltmore above Butterfly Beach, you can always forget the tide table and “splurge” on an Uber or Lyft for the short ride back downtown. If you’d rather, rent a bike or Segway and follow the trail running between Cabrillo Boulevard and the shore. 

Although the beaches are mesmerizing, your best chance for a full view of the sunset is on a sunset cruise. Sunset Kidd’s 41-foot Morgan Out Island Sailing Ketch and Double Dolphin’s 51-foot catamaran are two popular choices. If you prefer to watch the sunset from land, walk up the hill to Shoreline Park.

Grassini Family Vineyards in El Paseo Arcade
Grassini Family Vineyards in El Paseo Arcade
Loquita  |  ROB STARK
Loquita | ROB STARK

All this walking, bicycling, and catching shuttles is bound to build an appetite. Thankfully, there are plenty of enticing restaurants and eateries around town. Here are four of my personal favorites listed by location from the waterfront to upper State Street: Brophy Brothers for fresh seafood at the harbor, Loquita for Spanish tapas and craft cocktails, Joe’s Café for old-time Santa Barbara favorites including stiff drinks, and Jane for homemade California cuisine in an intimate setting. For live music, check the calendar at Soho or pop into The Red Piano and sing along.

I do have to warn you: When it comes time to leave Santa Barbara, it won’t be easy. But you’ll have another relaxing Amtrak ride to look forward to—and plenty of time to reminisce and make plans for the next time you slip up the coast.

For more information about visiting Santa Barbara car free, see pacificsurfliner.com, santabarbaracarfree.org, and santabarbaraca.com.