Okay so we all know the hotspots when travelling to California: San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. But why not take a break from these fast-paced cities and head to a destination where even Californians go when they want to get away?

Enter the beautiful, laid-back city of Santa Barbara, located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, just off Highway 1. With the famously scenic backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is filled with Spanish-style architecture, long white-sand beaches, fabulous shopping and outstanding restaurants, making it the ultimate weekend destination. There are many activities to suit your fancy (even if that activity is lying on the beach) so here are our recommendations for what to do when visiting Santa Barbara. But take it from this local author - this way of life can get pretty addictive!

1. Roam around State Street

This long street takes you from the beach right into Santa Barbara's historic downtown. With a goldmine of shopping, restaurants and nearby museums, it's a good place to kick off your relationship with Santa Barbara and its people.

2. Catch up with the animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo

With over 500 animals, you'll have a hard time picking a favourite, so definitely give yourself a few hours to meander around the zoo, have some lunch and enjoy the Pacific Ocean views.

3. Have a picnic at the Santa Barbara Mission

Established in 1786 by Spanish Franciscans, this mission is a piece of history - and it's surrounded by colourful gardens and a massive lawn area, a perfect setting for an afternoon picnic. It's worth taking a tour of the Mission Museum too.

4. Take a hike

With the Santa Ynez Mountains, there are multiple hikes to choose from. For an easy-going hike with a great view, check out Inspiration Point. If you're feeling adventurous, the 3 Pools Beyond 7 Falls hike is much more rigorous (there's some rock climbing involved!) but the pools at the end make it all worthwhile.

5. Rent a bike and ride along the coastline

The beach cruiser is a staple of Santa Barbara life and cruising along the coastline is one of the best ways to explore it. The Cabrillo Beach Boulevard Bike Trail is a local family favourite, but check out this Santa Barbara bike riding guide for more options.  To hire a bike, check out Wheel Fun Rentals and Open Air Bicycles, both on lower State Street.

6. Enjoy some frozen yogurt

After that bike ride, you know what would hit the spot? Some classic frozen yogurt (or ice cream if you prefer). Santa Barbara has become home to lots of frozen yogurt shops. Pinkberry, Rockin’ Yogurt, Yogurtland or McConnell's Ice Cream and Yogurt Shop are all great choices.

7. Go whale watching

There are nearly 30 different types of whales and dolphins that inhabit the Santa Barbara Channel during different parts of the year, making these waters some of the world's best for whale watching. Check out Condor Express to book your whale adventure.

8. Participate in at least one water activity

Image by Damian Gadal

Surfing, kite surfing, scuba diving, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), jetskiing - take your pick. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company will hook you up. If you really don’t want to get in the water, there's always  horseback riding on the beach.

9. Feast on some Mexican food

Try out Los Agaves or Los Arroyos for some divine Californian Mexican cuisine – both were voted as the top two Mexican restaurants in Santa Barbara for 2011. If you happen to visit University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), walk to its adjacent college town, Isla Vista, for Freebirds, the Mexican restaurant all students and alumni swear by.

10. Go wine tasting

Sun-coated valleys covered in magnificent vineyards and divine wine, there's no resisting a day of wine tasting in Santa Barbara, home to 103 wineries. We recommend you take one of many Santa Barbara Wine Tours - no one should have to be designated driver and miss out.

Hit the road and discover more with our California Trips guide

Explore related stories