A stunning California beach town wedged between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara has no dearth of Instagram-worthy photo sites. From the historic dusty-pink Mission to the colorful tiled Spanish steps at Paseo Nuevo, and from mountain roads offering jaw-dropping views of the city to waterfront locations perfect for capturing fiery sunsets, you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice and struggling to fit every available opportunity into your itinerary. Here are some of my favorites, from our too-short-we’re-gonna-have-to-come-back-soon weekend trip early this year:
Santa Barbara Harbor
Whether you’re snapping pictures of the rows of boats from a spot along the waterfront, or capturing picture-perfect reflections from the walkway around the harbor, your photos of this location will make your Instagram feed pop. When we visited the harbor at sunrise, we found plenty of parking. There were tons of cormorants and other sea birds cackling as they hovered above the boats, and a few friendly locals waved as they passed by with their dogs. This is probably the best time of day for photography here, with the potential for wisps of fog or beautiful sky colors. From the waterfront walkway on Cabrillo Boulevard, you can get beautiful pictures of the harbor at both sunrise and sunset. I took the shot below just after sunset, and the photos that follow in the early morning.
Views from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse
An absolute must-visit for the spectacular 360-degree views from the top of the 85-foot El Mirador Clock Tower. Santa Barbara is called the American Riviera because of its Spanish-style red-tiled rooftops, and this is a great place to see, and photograph, those rooftops. With a halfway decent zoom lens, from the “Ocean View” side of the viewing deck, on a clear day you can capture the row of palms lining Shoreline Drive, and a sliver of the ocean beyond. Views of city buildings and homes against the backdrop of the mountains from other sides of the deck are equally stunning. If you have the time, stop to marvel at the interior of the courthouse, with its Spanish tiles and stunning murals. You’ll get great photos from the tower any time of the day if it’s clear, but it was easier to find street parking earlier in the day, with a shorter wait for the elevator to the summit and fewer people jostling for the best spots on the deck.
With this location you get a two-fer — you can take photos of the wharf from the waterfront walkway along Cabrillo Boulevard (as I did) or you can go to the end of the pier and take photos of the water, the city and the mountains from the wharf (as I plan to do on our next visit). Stearns Wharf is the most-visited landmark in Santa Barbara. It has had a checkered history, having survived damage from storms, earthquakes and fires. I got my best photos of the wharf at sunrise and pre-dawn. Late evening would be another good option, although the waterfront walkway gets crowded during the day.
Palm Trees on Cabrillo Boulevard
When I think of Santa Barbara, the very first image that pops into my awareness is that of the waterfront walkway along Cabrillo Boulevard and Shoreline Drive, lined with very very tall palm trees. They’re guaranteed to make a visual statement, especially when combined with a beautiful sky. Be warned, though: the walkway is very popular with locals and visitors alike, and during the day you’ll have to navigate through walkers, joggers, runners, cyclists, quadricyclists, folks out walking their dogs, folks having fun strolling with their families or friends, and street tightrope artists. But your photos will be gorgeous!
Santa Barbara has a number of beautiful beaches, so you can pick any one of them and you’ll get some wonderful photo opportunities. I took the photos below at Hendry’s Beach, which was close to Santa Barbara Inn, where we were staying for the weekend. We went around sunrise, so the restaurant was closed, and there was only one couple walking their dog on the beach. I am sure the beach gets crowded during the days and evenings when the Boathouse is open.
What are your favorite Insta-worthy spots in Santa Barbara? I’d love recommendations for our next trip! Respond with a comment below.