Santa Barbara Off the Beaten Track

By Rachael Quisel

Instead of retail therapy at the downtown Santa Barbara boutiques, try Cat Therapy. Nestled between the shopping stops is a hidden zone of pawsibly the cutest Zen you’ve ever encountered. Settle into the modern, airy space to cuddle cage-free kitties, like Creamsicle Cooper.

Get your fill of free-range kitty love from (L) Ducky, (R) Dimitri, and Cappy (below) at Cat Therapy. (Photos by Alex Buckley)

Found foraging in trash bins in the gritty streets of Los Angeles, he was brought to Santa Barbara to hang with other rescued cats. His sweet demeanor landed him a forever home, but he has plenty of friends still around to take you into good headspace. Everyone is welcome to join in this plush, pillow-strewn cocoon, regardless of their ability to adopt!

  •  Cat Therapy is located at 1213 State St, Suite L, Santa Barbara. 
See for more info.
  • Learn more about the Los Padres National Forest, and the Santa Ynez Mountains, at To volunteer with Sage Trail Alliance, 
visit or email
  • Cajé and Lab Social are located at 416 E Haley St, Santa Barbara. 
See and for more info.
  • For more information about Franceschi Park, 
  • For more information about 1st Thursday, 
  • Youth Interactive is located at 1219 State St, Santa Barbara. 
Visit for more info.

Yellow sunshine warming your skin, palm trees bobbing by the wharf, soft sand massaging your feet, that seafoam scent that smells like vacation — Santa Barbara offers all of this and more. But, beautiful places can come with a downside: crowds. It’s hard to enjoy the beach when your personal space keeps getting invaded. Likewise, it doesn’t matter how sweet the raspberry notes in the local pinot noir are, when you have to wait forever to taste one. Outside of the beaches, tasting rooms, dining, and shopping, Santa Barbara has a lot to offer its many yearly visitors. With my insights, you’ll be glad you ventured off the beaten track.

What do the locals like as much as their beaches? Their mountains. Overlooked by many visitors, the Santa Ynez Mountains, part of the Los Padres National Forest, rise just behind Santa Barbara, forming an emerald green backdrop for the city. The Sage Trail Alliance provides 2,000 hours of volunteer work annually to the care of mountain trails, which are accessible year-round. Delight your senses in an immersive hike with a group of environmentally savvy locals. The heady, spicy scent of sage will fill your nose as you traverse through swatches of bright yellow, purple, and white wildflowers nestled among the chaparral. Wield the tool of your choice: pruning shears, pick-ax, or the ever-popular Macleod — a cross between a rake and hoe that makes you feel like Thor — and fix up the trails while making new friends.

Why get stuck in traffic heading to tourist traps when you can get your hands on the land — and take in amazing views while you’re at it? Get in touch with the Sage Trail Alliance and do a good turn for the community, and maybe make a few new friends while you’re at it, too. (Photos Sophia Dentzel)

Afterward, you’ll share a free lunch and be invited on a group hike or bike ride on the freshly trimmed trails. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll understand why many have adopted “voluntourism” as their preferred way to travel.

Leave behind the tourist hot spots for this cocktail lover’s paradise. Cajé is a treasured local coffee nook by day and transforms into Lab Social by night, with handcrafted libations, live music, and sass. But be forewarned: It’s so hidden many locals haven’t heard of it yet. And that’s no surprise because, as a speakeasy, discretion is in its DNA. But it’s gotten rave reviews by those who have found the entrance. Something about a red light out back…

Photo by Rachael Quisel

Instead of hanging out at Stearns Wharf for that Instagram-perfect sunset shot over the ocean, take a short drive along Alameda Padre Serra Road (APS). The road winds up the foothills east of the Mission Santa Barbara, through the European-esque Riviera neighborhood, offering spectacular peek-a-boo views around each curve. Just off the APS, Franceschi Park is the best place to watch the sunset. It offers Pacific views in the shadow of a creepy-in-a-cool-way 19th-century house. Share a cozy moment at one of the picnic tables with the group of locals who make the pilgrimage there each evening to watch the sun slip behind the mountain peaks in bursts of violet, orange, and pink sherbet.

1st Thursday allows locals and visitors alike to interact with local artists, and buy treasures you won’t find in gift shops. The Youth Interactive group also creates made-to-order, one-off art while you wait. (Photo Rebekah Beeghly)

Santa Barbara has long been heralded by those in the know as a hub for artists and creatives. Come out to see the funky, diverse, and inventive artwork behind the scenes on 1st Thursday Art Walk, a monthly opportunity for locals and visitors to immerse themselves in the arts community. The highlight of this night is the crowd at the Youth Interactive Collective. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to have a tailor-made memory there—visitors can choose specific fabrics, beads, paints or patterns, and local art students will make a custom piece for you in real-time. Why buy an overpriced tchotchke at a tourist shop when you can support young artists by commissioning a tailor-made keepsake?

Have you ever heard that the best way to see a place is to explore with someone who lives there? Take it from me, your local aficionado: For a transformational time, seek out the less-obvious pockets of town during your next trip to Santa Barbara, the American Riviera.