“What isn’t clear is why people always say ‘goes without saying,’ yet still feel compelled to say the thing that was supposed to go without saying. Doesn’t that bother you?” – Shawn Spencer, Psych
When my adventure buddy asked me if I wanted to tag along to Santa Barbara, California, where she was headed for a 3-day certification program, it was an immediate omgYES for two big reasons: a) Travel, obviously. And b) Santa Barbara is where Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster run a psychic detective agency. At least in the TV show, Psych, one of my all time favorites. Unfortunately, they didn’t film the show in Santa Barbara, and the city doesn’t even have a commemorative Psych office. Oh well. It was fun to imagine. (Santa Barbara, if you build it, the PsychOs will come.)
I thought about coming up with a full itinerary to experience all the best things I could in the three-and-a-half days we’d be there, but in the end I decided to start with absolutely zero plans, and just explore, solo, seeing where each day took me. Turns out that is an amazing way to travel. I think the word is “wander.”
Here are a few of the magical moments I got to be a part of in sunny Santa Barbara:
Santa Barbara’s east beach–great spot to just sit and watch the surf–calmer than some a lot of west coast beaches.
The sandy beach itself was never crammed full of visitors on the weekend I visited and was a great place to escape for some quiet.
A completely empty itinerary allowed me lots of time to just stop and be still and relax and reflect and just be for a while. It was deeply refreshing, helpful, inspiring. After lunch on day 2 I spent the entire afternoon letting the surf knock me over and tumble me around and then journaling and dreaming in the sun.
On the morning of day 3, the tide had risen so far that it left long, wide (cold!!) pools toward the back of the beach.
The sound of waves rolling and crashing was mesmerizing. It was like its own meditation. It’s an amazing spot to find presence.
I’ve never loved the beach as much as I did on this trip. I found a lot of peace, and rest, and simplicity there. Thanks for the incredible place to just be, Santa Barbara.
The town of Santa Barbara is awesome. So many great little spots, lots of little holes-in-the-wall to be discovered. And its very Spanish architecture is so unique and beautiful! There’s a great view from everywhere, it’s easy to get around, and a great place to explore on foot!
A long stretch of the east beach is bordered by a long, narrow park of grass and palm trees. In the morning, it made for a peaceful walk. In the afternoon and evening, it came alive with community! People strung hammocks between the palm trees, meditated, practiced yoga, had hula-hooping parties. It became a sunny outdoor party, all to the sound of waves crashing a short jog away. It seemed that this mile long stretch of grass was Santa Barbara’s real beach scene, which made the less crowded sand a little more welcome for travel weary introverts in need of an escape.
There is lots of good coffee to be found in Santa Barbara, which is a newer pleasure for me. I found a dirty chai at the Santa Barbara Roasting Company (if you’re a where-coffee-comes-from fanatic, go there!), a yummy iced latte at State Street Coffee (I understand there’s usually a line out the door here, certainly was when I visited, but wonderfully close to the beach), and the adorable little macchiato pictured below at Dune Coffee Roasters, whose sunny and cozy patio was the perfect landing spot for my day 1 afternoon of finishing a school essay.
It was a little rough trying to choose between so many delicious looking places to try, but one we found ourselves at, literally by spontaneously deciding to ditch our plans and walk down a different alley, was The Nook. The food was very good, the spot was GREAT.
If you ever visit Santa Barbara, go walk through the old Courthouse, make sure to stop in its old courtroom with the fantastic artwork, and climb up the tower for the best views of the town. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.
With an honorable mention to the pizza we got on our last night at Lucky Penny, I have to tell you (maybe in all caps) about the best food I found in Santa Barbara. TAQUERIA EL BAJIO. Oh man oh man. I could go there every day. It seemed like a more authentic/less touristy little place, in a neighborhoody part of town. I went there for lunch on day 2, and it was so mouth-wateringly exactly-perfect that I made my adventure buddy go back with me on day 3. Fresh, yummy, juicy, and just all-together need-to-go-back. Thanks for being my taste-buds highlight of the trip, Taqueria El Bajio! I’ll be back!
Oh man the trees.
Walk a lot in downtown Santa Barbara if you find yourself there. The parking is plentiful, convenient, and cheap, so park your car and get trekking. Especially walk up and down State Street. Such a pretty street and so many spots to explore.
(P.S. If you’ve ever seen Psych, they did a pretty good job of recreating the feel of Spanish-built, sunny, laid-back Santa Barbara. I intend to go back.)
So here is a treasure that it seemed most visitors miss. A short (and steep) drive from town is E Camino Cielo, a long road that runs miles from well west of Santa Barbara all the way past and on to the east. Exactly as lonely as you’d like beautiful scenery to be.
It is NOT the scariest road I’ve been on, if nerve-wracking drives are not your thing. But you do very much feel like you’ve found your way above it all.
Yes, that’s the road you see running along the mountain. Spectacular drive.
The variety of colors and textures was amazing.
The 360 views were incredible. You’re in the Santa Ynez mountains looking out over the ocean, Santa Barbara, and other nearby coastal cities. Spin around and you’re looking miles and miles out over Los Padres National Forest with its massive desolate-looking mountains.
And sunny California is sunnier-California at that elevation. The sun feels like your next door neighbor. Bring sunscreen and a hat if you’re going to make a day of it.
There are so many perfect spots to hop out and explore and just take in the views.
Lots of bicyclers struggling up and zipping down the steep mountain roads, and lots of hang gliders taking off from the top and gliding out over the hills behind Santa Barbara.
In the picture above you can see Santa Barbara with its renowned Stearns Wharf jutting out into the ocean. To the right of the wharf is Santa Barbara Harbor. Far in the distance you can see one of the islands of the Channel Islands National Park. I so wanted to get there. Someday!
“Camino Cielo” translates “sky road.” Accurate.
Visiting on a weekend, I felt like Santa Barbara’s ocean had the ideal balance between popular and quiet. On the actual beach, and especially out on the water, it was never crowded, but you were also never felt totally out on your own. There was a carefree feel to it.
Stearns Wharf was basically a little city on a big dock. Lots of little places to stop, and a lot longer a walk than you’d expect. Lots of fishing, too. And lots and lots of wildlife. I sat and watched a little sea lion friend play around the wharf for about ten minutes.
Thank you to the Paddle Sports Center at the Santa Barbara Harbor for making one of my dreams come true! I got to kayak for a while out on the ocean and it was so beautiful and so much fun!
If you visit, consider getting a kayak or paddle board and getting a good ways out onto the water. Sitting on the ocean surface, right down level with the water, you start to see and feel the ocean breathing. You rise and fall and rise and fall and it is so, so, so magical.
Santa Barbara is one of my chillest memories in the world. It’s the perfect place to go without an itinerary. It’s sun and sand and waves and mountains and tacos and a beautiful town to explore.
And as always, shout out to the world’s greatest adventure buddy. We only got little bits and pieces together down by the water and up in the mountains because she was so busy with her certification, but I’m thankful for all the little moments we got to stand together on the beach.
“To travel is to live.” – Hans Christian Anderson