Santa Barbara Travel Guide

USA  #13 in Best Family Beach Vacations in the U.S.
Credit

Courtesy of Gary Weathers/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

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.

How we rank Things to Do
  • #1
    Things to do in Santa Barbara
    View all Photos
    #1 in Santa Barbara
    Cafes, Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Cafes, Shopping, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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 museums like 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 — with more than 300 shops and stores — visitors usually slide into a chair at one of the 160 local restaurants to refuel.

  • #2
    Santa Barbara County Courthouse
    View all Photos
    #2 in Santa Barbara
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Tours, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Monuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, Tours, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

    After climbing the stairs or taking the elevator to the top of the 85-foot "El Mirador" clock tower for a few photos, some visitors suggest you take a docent-led tour to learn more about the courthouse and Santa Barbara history.

  • #3
    East Beach
    View all Photos
    #3 in Santa Barbara
    Beaches, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Beaches, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/Area
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME 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. 

  • #4
    Old Mission Santa Barbara
    View all Photos
    #4 in Santa Barbara
    Churches/Religious Sites, Museums, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Churches/Religious Sites, Museums, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME 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. 

  • #5
    Art Walks
    View all Photos
    #5 in Santa Barbara
    Recreation, Shopping, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Recreation, Shopping, Free
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

    While taking a stroll on State Street, you'll notice Santa Barbara's prominent love of art. And every Sunday — as well as some Saturdays — local artists partake in the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show. 

    The art walk runs along more than half a mile of beachfront on Cabrillo Boulevard, starting east of Stearns Wharf and running to Calle Cesar Chavez. 

  • #6
    Santa Barbara Zoo
    View all Photos
    #6 in Santa Barbara
    Parks and Gardens, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens, Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME 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 say 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 rare snow leopards. Despite the zoo's small size, many visitors praise the diversity of the animals. But they come for more than just the creatures.

  • #7
    Santa Barbara Museum of Art
    View all Photos
    #7 in Santa Barbara
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME 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.

    The museum 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 daily.

  • #8
    El Presidio de Santa Barbara
    View all Photos
    #8 in Santa Barbara
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Museums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Historic Homes/Mansions, Museums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME 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.

  • #9
    Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
    View all Photos
    #9 in Santa Barbara
    Parks and Gardens, Recreation
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens, Recreation
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    North of downtown, the 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.

    "Wows await you as you walk the easy paths. The sounds of the trees swaying, the birds singing, the chameleons running around, the mountain views combine for a refreshing interlude away from the city," offered one TripAdvisor

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