Touch down in Santa Barbara to experience the coastal charm of the ‘American Riviera.’ From its origins as a Spanish Mission to boasting a maritime heritage, Santa Barbara has transformed itself over the generations to now serving as a middle ground for the Northern and Southern California lifestyles. If you’re taking a road trip from Los Angeles or San Francisco, there are tons of things to do in Santa Barbara that remind you of home.
See the contrast of hemispheres in Santa Barbara as it brings together the best of either side of the fence. Enjoy SoCal surf culture by catching waves rolling into the expansive Santa Barbara shoreline, or get a taste of NorCal’s world-famous wine culture when you set off on wine tasting tours of vineyards inches away from grouping themselves with their northern neighbors.
Here are 19 things to do in Santa Barbara, California, that you’re not going to want to miss!
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Plan for a couple of hours inside the Santa Barbara Museum of Art because its must-see collection of works always calls for a few moments to appreciate their artistry. See creations from artists globally hanging from floor to ceiling inside the museum.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has curated an impressive collection organized by themes. See Egyptian and Asian artifacts and other objects preserved from thousands of years ago, with each piece holding insightful information about their respective cultures. Walk alongside painting-lined walls to see works by European Masters like Monet, or more contemporary art from 20th-century Western artists. See perfectly carved statues and ceramics that can be interpreted as decoration or art.
Combining wealth with horticulture will undoubtedly create one of the world’s leading gardens, as did Madame Ganna Walska with Lotusland. The gardens help preserve the legacy of the late famed Polish opera singer, who can now share her love for flowers with the world.
Sitting behind Walska’s historic Montecito Estate, Lotusland blooms with over 3,000 plants. Pass by the decorative pond in the Japanese Garden before making your way through the Succulent Garden. Admire the trimmed dinosaurs, mystical sea creatures, and horses in the Topiary Garden before avoiding the prickly plants in the Cactus Garden.
The fresh garden is a lovely plant to spend a spring afternoon seeing the flowers in full bloom and the lush greenery at its most vibrant hues.
Santa Barbara Zoo
Make sure to pack your walking shoes because the Santa Barbara Zoo takes you around the world in 30 acres. See more than 160 species of animals from all corners of the earth in dedicated exhibits that transport you to their natural habitats.
Listen to lions roar inside the Cats of Africa or feel the ground tremble to the graceful steps of the elephants in the Elephant Walk. Watch penguins waddle clumsily in The Crawford Family Penguin House exhibit and see what you’ll find scurrying in the brush at The Forest’s Edge.
Santa Barbara Zoo keeps visitors engaged with various activities for all ages. You’ll have giraffes literally eating out of the palm of your hand or see how high you can climb on the rock wall.
Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market
Mark your calendars every Tuesday for the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market to support California-proud farmers and artisans. With their white tents pitched and perfected spiels about every product on their tables, dozens of vendors showcase their products at this event, bringing the entire community out.
Since 1983, the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market has provided a place to find the freshest products in town. Browse stalls exhibiting fresh produce, seafood, dairy products, nuts, and other organic products that excite the health-nut in all of us.
Local musicians set the friendly tone of the day with light music that makes shopping the local artisan-made crafts like scented candles or freshly baked goods a true outdoor retail shopping experience.
Santa Barbara Beach
The light taste of salt in the air and sounds of the Pacific Ocean coming to rest on the shoreline means that you’re never far away from the beach when visiting Santa Barbara. So pack your sunscreen, beach towels, and inflatables because you’ll easily spend an entire day on the sandy shores extending for miles.
Whether you’re looking to add to the tourist-filled shores of West Beach or looking for a quiet escape at East Beach, these are the best beaches for watching the sunrise and sunset in Santa Barbara. For convenience, you easily find yourself at Leadbetter Beach, mere steps from the Santa Barbara Harbor and waterfront district.
And if you happen to be traveling with your pet, your furry family members are welcome to join you off-leash at Arroyo Burro Beach.
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Entering the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum feels like climbing aboard one of the vessels docked right out front in the Santa Barbara Harbor. But it’s one place where the decks are already swabbed, and you’re welcome to dive into the city’s maritime history.
The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum submerges you in maritime activity in the Santa Barbara Channel, dating back to the times of the Chumash tribes.
Navigate your way around the open-floor gallery plan where model boats show popular vessels from the past, vintage diving suits heavy enough to take anyone to the ocean floor in search of marine life, and a surfboard collection on the second floor paying homage to the surf culture still thriving in Santa Barbara today.
Get comfortable in the smooth red velvet seats of the Lobero Theatre and get ready for an unforgettable performance. With more than 180 shows scheduled every year, this theatre has continued to be a go-to venue for world-class shows ever since opening in 1873.
While the crowds change daily and the shows vary, one thing for sure is that you can always expect amazing talent to stand in the stage spotlight.
Contemporary dancers from the State Street Ballet flow majestically across the stage, whose fluid motions inspire awe in every act. Sit through a Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra concert whose instruments get enhanced by the acoustics of the building to hear every note and crescendo. Or reserve tickets for a special screening during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival held annually in the theater.
If you’re on a mission to keep sand out of your car, but still want to enjoy the beach setting, you can put Shoreline Park on your itinerary for the day. The sand-magnets in your group can spend time at the adjacent Leadbetter Beach, while the rest enjoy the grassy park area where the views are just as great from atop the bluff.
Shoreline Park offers something for everybody. Locals can be seen finishing up their morning jog along the 1.4-mile paved trail as you arrive. Its 15 acres give plenty of options to lay out your blankets for your afternoon picnic. You’ll have scenic views in every direction. See the Santa Ynez Mountains in the distance on one side or set your gaze out at sea to see the Channel Islands and beyond.
Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
Forget about Tulip Mania, because orchids are all the hype in Santa Barbara. So whether you’re a horticulturalist, orchid collector, or someone looking for a unique date spot, the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate invites everyone to indulge in its floral beauty.
Every month, new flowers bloom inside of the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate. Walk the aisles between orchids displaying colors across the rainbow. Orchids boast yellows as radiant as the California sunshine, the prettiest pinks that every girl has fantasized about, the royalist purples, and multi-colored pedals showcasing how exotic the plants can get.
Pick the brains of the expert staff, who will happily share details about your favorite orchids, and follow the SBOE Orchid of the Day Index to see the latest flowers to bloom.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Since admiring beautiful architecture is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is one building that you don’t want to miss. From the inside out, it’s one of the best examples of Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture and included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, you can walk around the courthouse complex to see the signature white walls and red-tiled roofs from all angles. Stand in the palm tree-covered gardens and take advantage of the popular archway photo spot for selfies.
After, enter the courthouse for a free tour when it’s not being used for weddings. Spin around the mural room to get the full story of Santa Barbara’s history as told by a 360-degree painting.
Lastly, climb to the top of El Mirador Clock Tower for sweeping views of Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden flows like a green sea through Mission Canyon to the feet of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Frolic through the meadows and trek through the woodlands to encounter native California plants, themed gardens, and picturesque views of nature.
The tranquil setting of visiting the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden makes it a favorite destination to experience some of the region’s natural beauty. Dragonflies whiz by you as you start your journey on the wooded pathways through the gardens.
Enter the Redwood grove with century-old trees towering overhead, wind your way around the riparian woodlands, see oak trees with leaves as big as your hand, and a peaceful Japanese Tea Garden for the ultimate serenity.
Salt Cave of Santa Barbara
Soft lighting gives off a golden aura as you navigate the stone-lined halls of the spa, Salt Cave of Santa Barbara. Whether you signed up for a 45-minute or 90-minute session, you’ll leave with a rejuvenated body and spirit.
Feel the magical sensation of the artificial cave energized by age-old Himalayan Salt. Breathe in the refreshing scents as you yield all your muscle tension to a relaxing salt rub.
Professional masseuses delight each of your pressure points with techniques to stimulate wellness, learned from over two decades of experience. Turn back the clock with a facial or find your inner peace with a guided meditation session.
Sustainable Wine Tours
Wine tasting with Sustainable Wine Tours takes you behind the scenes of local wine producers who grant you exclusive access to their homegrown spirits. Sip your way into Santa Barbara’s wine scene with a guided tour to the best small producers in town.
You’re cordially invited to be a special guest in the private operations of local wine-makers who only open their wine vaults to a lucky few. An expert sommelier doubles as your designated driver as you taste savory wine guilt-free, thanks to stories about how the wine was sustainably produced in the green operation. The intimate setting puts you in the private barrel room for a tasting experience not open to the public.
Don’t forget to purchase a few bottles from your favorite vineyard.
Where State Street ends, Stearns Wharf begins, shooting out into the harbor as a popular hangout for people craving fresh seafood, scenic views, or want to splurge on their last day before leaving Santa Barbara.
The paved street instantly turns into the worn wooded boards of Stearns Wharf laid back in 1872. Walk past the line at Lil’Toot Water Taxi to reach the Moby Dick Restaurant, named for being able to spot whales from your dinner table as opposed to what’s served.
After, get your palm read by Madame Rosinka, who always predicts a few scoops of ice cream from the next-door Great Pacific Ice Cream Co. in your near future.
Next, pick out fisherman-themed souvenirs at the Old Wharf Trading Company before reaching the end of the pier to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
The larger-than-life whale skeleton greeting guests at the entrance to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History lets guests know that this museum goes to great depths to bring them a one-of-a-kind experience with natural history.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History sits at the edge of Stearns Wharf, where the marine world comes to the surface in this immersive sea center. The touch tanks are always a top activity for the rare opportunity to touch Swell Sharks while they swim by.
Next, see what it’s like to be a marine biologist as you test authentic ocean samples to see millions of microorganisms under a microscope. Later, head up the stairs to see octopus, jellyfish, and other aquatic animals.
Old Mission Santa Barbara
Sitting on a hillside against the backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the captivating beauty of the Old Mission Santa Barbara makes it the “Queen of the Missions.” Walk across the grassy lawn as you approach the building façade, flanked by two pink-domed bell towers offering an enchanting view.
Tour the inside of the mission to see features left behind from when it served as the Santa Barbara Mission before becoming an active church. See the decorative inside of the Spanish Revival architecture, which includes carvings and marble details. Then step into the outdoor courtyard, where the trickling water from the fountain centerpiece gives the space a spiritual calmness.
Note: Inspiration Point has been temporarily closed due to rock slide/winter storm damage. Check here for updates.
Save some of your energy during the day because you’ll need it to experience the best sunset hike in Santa Barbara. As golden hour nears, park your car near the Inspiration Point trailhead and take a few deep breaths before starting the moderate hike to the viewpoint.
Step by step, you ascend 1,800-ft above sea level in the Santa Ynez Mountains. Since it’s a popular time to visit Inspiration Point, you’ll see plenty of remote workers getting in their evening jog after a long workday at home and dog-walkers.
You’ll reach the summit at the perfect moment. Watch as the lights flicker on to illuminate Santa Barbara as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, casting its final glow to views of the Channel Islands and Goleta Valley.
Beach-loving tourists aren’t the only creatures you’ll find swimming in the rich blue waters off the coast of Santa Barbara. So, set sail into the Santa Barbara Channel, and you’re sure to find the largest mammals on earth.
Santa Barbara is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. From January to March, you’ll find gray whales migrating back to Alaska after delivering the newborns in the warmer southern waters. Or stick around between June to September, where you’ll see blue whales equivalent to the size of 15 school buses put together.
Adventurous travelers can take a catamaran cruise to sail next to these massive creatures. But for the land-lovers, you can still enjoy sightings in the channel from Stearns Wharf.
El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park is a 5.5-acre park that preserves the site of the last of four military outposts built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California.
Two buildings of the original presidio have been restored — El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe — others have been reconstructed, and archaeological excavations are continuing.
Stop by the Visitor Center and take in the exhibits and displays on the history of the area. You’ll be given a tour book and a map, and you can take a self-guided tour of the park, and learn more information about the buildings and the people who once lived and worked here.
Santa Barbara FAQ
What is Santa Barbara best known for?
Santa Barbara is best known for its beautiful sandy beaches. The wonderfully broad beaches are perfect for an assortment of outdoor activities, making it a popular place to visit.
Is it worth stopping in Santa Barbara?
Santa Barbara is definitely worth a visit! With its amazing beaches, art and culture, family-friendly adventures, outdoor activities, beautiful architecture and history, and delicious restaurants, Santa Barbara has something for everyone.
How many days do you need in Santa Barbara?
If you’re looking to get the full Santa Barbara experience, you’ll need at least 3 days in this coastal city. Of course, any time spent in Santa Barbara is sure to be full of fun!
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO CALIFORNIA
- YOUR CALIFORNIA VACATION
- FRESNO: 19 Fantastic Things To Do In Fresno
- SANTA MONICA: 12 Best Things To Do In Santa Monica, California
- BODEGA BAY: 11 Amazing Outdoorsy Things To Do In Bodega Bay
- SAN JOSE: 37 Awesome Things To Do In San Jose
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
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