Best Things To Do in Santa Barbara
Most visitors come to Santa Barbara to relax along the beach. But when they don't have their feet in the sand, you'll find them trying on the latest fashions on State Street, gazing at watercolors in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and getting in touch with nature at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Families are most likely picnicking in the Santa Barbara Zoo. After a grueling day of "relaxing," retire to the luxury resort of your choice – San Ysidro Ranch and the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara are two indulgent options.
Updated September 10, 2019
- #1View all PhotosfreeEast Beach#1 in Santa Barbara2.3 miles to city centerBeaches, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerBeaches, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
There are three major beaches in Santa Barbara: Leadbetter, West and East. While Leadbetter has the harbor and West Beach is home to the fireworks on the Fourth of July, East Beach is the best stretch to catch some rays without being mobbed by crowds.
The shoreline may still fill up more on the weekends, but East Beach is a bit more removed from State Street and the downtown area than the other beaches, offering more space to stretch out or take a walk along the sandy shores. You may have to protect yourself from the occasional rogue volleyball though, as there are more than a dozen sandy courts here.
- #2View all Photos#2 in Santa Barbara1.1 miles to city centerChurches/Religious Sites, Museums, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.1 miles to city centerChurches/Religious Sites, Museums, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
In the northwest part of town just four blocks from State Street, the Santa Barbara Mission offers visitors a glimpse at the city's early origins.
Founded in 1786, this Californian mission was Spain's 10th attempt to colonize the region and convert the native inhabitants to Roman Catholicism. Still a functioning house of worship, the Santa Barbara Mission boasts a museum filled with colonial artifacts and early photographs of the area.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Santa Barbara1.3 miles to city centerSightseeing, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND1.3 miles to city centerSightseeing, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Santa Barbara is a fantastic spot to whale watch because the Santa Barbara Channel's nutrient-rich water is a popular feeding ground for several types of whales. From late spring through early fall, there are regular sightings of humpback whales and blue whales. Minke whales, fin whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, coastal bottlenose dolphins and risso's dolphins, are also often seen. From late November through April, thousands of Pacific gray whales migrate through the channel heading south to the warm water lagoons of Baja California. On their return in the spring, gray whales – most notably mothers with newborn calves – travel along the coastline heading to their summer home in the Bering Strait.
While you can sometimes spot the magnificent mammals from land, the best way to get a closer look is from the water. There are plenty of options for boat tours. Condor Express earns high marks from recent passengers, who said the boat is comfortable and describe the trip as educational. The 15-passenger Sunset Kidd sailboat offers a more intimate outing and wins favorable reviews from travelers who call it a relaxing trip. Other companies recommended by the tourism board include Captain Jack's, Celebration Cruises and Double Dolphin.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Santa Barbara2.1 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Zoos and AquariumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND2.1 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Zoos and AquariumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Neighboring the Andree Clark Bird Refuge in the east part of downtown, the Santa Barbara Zoo gives visitors a taste of the exotic just a block from the sandy shore. Recent visitors said the small zoo packs a lot of entertaining creatures into a clean, well-designed property. The zoo also features attractions like a 26-foot rock climbing wall and the animal kitchen where visitors can observe animal food preparation.
Permanent residents of the zoo include anteaters, leopards, gorillas and penguins. But the biggest celebrities here are the native California condors and endangered Amur leopards. Despite the zoo's small size, many visitors praise the diversity of the animals. Many also reported visiting for more than just the creatures and praised the live stage shows, the play area and the barnyard. Others were pleased with the facility's manageable size, saying it was perfect for small children.
- #5View all Photos
Most travelers scoff at the idea of visiting a courthouse while on vacation. Really dry and boring, right? Wrong. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse epitomizes the Spanish-Moorish architecture that is found across the city. Completed in 1929, the complex impresses visitors with its intricate tile mosaics, colorful gardens and jaw-dropping view of the city and ocean below.
Try to stop by when you can also take a peek into the clock tower in the Bisno Schall Clock Gallery, to see the impressive clock, which still works. It is only open to the public Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Surrounding the clock is an impressive 60-foot mural depicting the history of timekeeping.
- #6View all Photos
Santa Barbara's most famous avenue, State Street cuts through downtown and leads right onto Stearns Wharf. It's nearly impossible to miss with its shops, art galleries, theaters and attractions, including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. You can grab a ride on the electric shuttle for 50 cents, but most travelers and locals recommend you walk to truly appreciate the ambiance.
After a few hours of shopping, visitors usually slide into a chair at one of the dozens of local restaurants to refuel.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Santa Barbaraless than 0.1 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDless than 0.1 miles to city centerMuseumsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
In the heart of downtown on bustling State Street, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art infuses some high culture into this laid-back Californian community. It is home to more than 27,000 works of art, including "Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932," the only intact mural in the United States by David Alfaro Siqueiros.
The museum, which was founded in 1941, houses permanent collections of American, European and Asian art, including sculptures, paintings, prints and ceramics, and prides itself on the diversity of its exhibits. The museum also offers docent-led tours select days of the week.
- #8View all Photos#8 in Santa Barbara0.3 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/Mansions, MuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND0.3 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/Mansions, MuseumsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Take a step back in time with a visit to the El Presidio de Santa Barbara. The nearly 6-acre state historic park consists of restored buildings that make up the last Spanish military settlement built in northern California.
Originally built in 1782, the park is home to 17 buildings and sites built around a quadrangle known as the Plaza de Armas. Visitors can learn about the Chumash Native Americans who settled the land more than 13,500 years ago and the Spanish colonization of the land. The park also includes an exhibit on the history of Asian immigration to the Santa Barbara region.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Santa Barbara2.7 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.7 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, Recreation, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Also called Hendry's Beach by locals who love to walk their dogs here (there are even dog-washing stations), Arroyo Burro Beach is a pretty stretch of sand with plenty of options for outdoor fun. Visitors can sunbathe, swim, surf, whale watch, surf fish and or enjoy a picnic and take advantage of on-site grills.
Recent beach-goers admired the beauty and serenity of the area, with many calling the park "wonderful" and "relaxing." If you get hungry, the Boathouse at Hendry's Beach is a popular spot for dining and happy hour drinks.
- #10View all PhotosfreeStearns Wharf#10 in Santa Barbara1.4 miles to city centerShopping, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.4 miles to city centerShopping, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Stearns Wharf, located next to the harbor, offers plenty of diversions, including restaurants, a shellfish market, a bait and tackle shop, shops, a Channels Islands exhibit hall and a marine museum, not to mention great views. Constructed in 1872, it became the longest deep-water wharf between San Pedro and San Francisco and is the oldest working wooden wharf in California.
Recent visitors said the wharf is a fun place to visit, with plenty to see and do. Even if you're not in the mood for seafood or souvenir shopping, reviewers said it's a great place for a stroll.
- #11View all Photos#11 in Santa Barbara2.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, RecreationTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
North of downtown, the 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a refuge for bored beachgoers and nature enthusiasts alike. Visitors walk on unpaved paths through what, at times, looks like unremarkable brush. However, what you see here is carefully designed. According to the official website, the garden is committed to protecting plants unique to central California's coastal region – indifferent to their individual beauty. And it's this diversity (along with Santa Barbara's stunning mountain views), which differentiates this botanical park from others.
Highlights of the garden include the historic Mission Dam and aqueduct built in 1807, an authentic Japanese teahouse and tea garden and a redwood grove. In all, there are almost 6 miles of paths to explore and more than 1,000 types of plants. Recent visitors praised the peace and quiet to be found at the garden, calling it a great place to recharge. Others recommended the attraction if you enjoy walking trails and warned that this is not your typical, landscaped botanic garden.
- #12View all Photos#12 in Santa Barbara3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND3 miles to city centerParks and Gardens, ToursTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Lotusland is the former home of Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, who spent 40 years transforming her 37-acre estate into a garden wonderland. Upon her death in 1984, she left it to her foundation, which opened it to the public in 1993. The gardens are home to more than 3,000 plants from all over the world, including its namesake lotus flowers.
On a two-hour tour, the only way to visit, you'll see bromeliad and fern gardens, cactus and succulent gardens, a Japanese garden, an aloe garden and whimsical statuary. You'll also spot a 25-foot round horticultural clock featuring the signs of the zodiac and a collection of rare cycads, an unusual plant genus that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs.
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