Trying to find great activities and attractions in the American Riviera? Our guide to the best things to do in Santa Barbara is all you need to plan the perfect trip!
Loved for its fresh seafood, rich history, and pristine beaches, Santa Barbara, California, is the best place to satiate many appetites and interests.
The tenth Mission founded by Spanish Franciscans, Santa Barbara has a rich historical background. Impactful historic architecture exudes an undeniable appeal to the city that has become well-known as a favorite vacation spot.
The Mediterranean climate draws visitors from around the world to soak in the sun on the beaches or hit the water to catch some waves. As Santa Barbara is right off the water, fresh seafood isn’t hard to come by, and the local chefs show off their world-class skills!
Plus, with more than 50 parks and gardens, it’s not hard to remain active on land or water with scenic views of the coast throughout.
So give this article a read for the best things to do in Santa Barbara. You don’t want to miss out on all the wondrous attractions Santa Barbara offers!
Table of Contents
- The Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara, California
- 1) Quench Your Curiosity At The Santa Barbara Museum Of Natural History
- 2) Peer At Hand-Painted Murals At The Santa Barbara County Courthouse
- 3) Bask In Tranquility In The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
- 4) Celebrate Art & History At The Santa Barbara Museum Of Art
- 5) Go Jet Skiing At The Santa Barbara Harbor
- 6) Look For Dolphins At Shoreline Park
- 7) Peer At Mesmerizing Flowers At The Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
- 8) Explore the Santa Ynez Valley
- 9) Take The Family To Santa Barbara Zoo
- 10) Catch A Wave At Arroyo Burro Beach Park
- 11) Adventure Through Downtown Santa Barbara
- 12) Grab Local Treats At The Santa Barbara Public Market
- 13) Learn About The Influential Leader At The Casa de la Guerra
- 14) Sun Tan & Explore Stearns Wharf On West Beach
- 15) Learn About Early History At The Old Mission Santa Barbara
- 16) Hear Legends Of The Sea At The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
- 17) Ignite Your Curiosity At MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
- 18) Sink Into The Underwater World Of The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
- 19) Learn How To Surf At Leadbetter Beach
- 20) Tour The Impactful El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
- 21) Visit The Remarkable Moreton Bay Fig Tree
- Where to Stay in Santa Barbara, California
The Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara, California
No need to look for what to do in Santa Barbara: our list of the area’s top activities is not one you want to skimp out reading.
From seeing the hand-painted murals at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse to looking out for whales and dolphins at Shoreline Park, this list is guaranteed to take you on the trip of your life!
Don’t forget to check out our ultimate list of the 25 best things to do in California for more ideas on the west coast!
1) Quench Your Curiosity At The Santa Barbara Museum Of Natural History
Founded in 1916, the Santa Barbara Museum Of Natural History preserves more than 3.5 million specimens. The specimens collected at the museum cover a broad spectrum of natural history, including paleontology, astronomy, anthropology, geology, and animals.
The top-class interactive exhibits welcome all ages to learn more about the impact of natural history and how it affects our world today.
Stroll through the museum’s planetarium, the only one on the Central Coast. Learn about the region’s native people at the Chumash Life exhibit.
Then, take the kids to the hands-on Curiosity Lab to quench their thirst for knowledge with intriguing information on the region’s animals and land features.
- Address: 2559 Puesta Del Sol, Santa Barbara, CA 93105, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm (Closed Tuesdays)
- Cost: $19
2) Peer At Hand-Painted Murals At The Santa Barbara County Courthouse
A Spanish Colonial Revival style building in downtown Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse was established in 1929.
Designed by William Mooser III, the appealing structure is one of the most stunning public buildings in the nation and one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara. The iconic landmark in Santa Barbara features red-tiled roofs, iron-clad chandeliers, and sunken gardens.
Visitors can climb to the top of the clock tower to bask in spectacular panoramic views of Santa Barbara.
Free tours take guests through the historic building, the accompanying gardens, and the mural room, featuring hand-painted pieces highlighting the rich culture and history of Santa Barbara.
Whether you love art, history, or scenic views, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is not an attraction to miss!
- Address: 1100 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, United States
- Hours: 8 am – 4 pm Monday – Friday, Closed weekends
- Cost: Free
3) Bask In Tranquility In The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Growing more than 1,000 species of rare and indigenous plants, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is established in Mission Canyon.
A living museum, the garden is designed exclusively with California-native plants. Trails wind through imposing coastal redwood forests, past an authentic Japanese teahouse and tea garden, and cacti-filled desserts in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
Within the garden’s acreage is the historic landmark, Mission Dam, which was constructed by Chumash Indian labor in 1806.
A stroll through the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is guaranteed to provide peace and tranquility from the hustle and bustle of life. Go on a romantic date or take the family to see this impressive garden for the ultimate recharge.
- Address: 1212 Mission Canyon Rd, Santa Barbara, CA 93105, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm
- Cost: $20
4) Celebrate Art & History At The Santa Barbara Museum Of Art
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Museum Of Art features more than 25,000 pieces of art that span over 5,000 years of human history and creativity.
Founded in 1911, the museum has become renowned for its world-class exhibitions, including masterpieces of French Impressionism.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is one of the leading art museums on the West Coast, preserving international antiquities from across the globe and history.
Peer at impactful pieces like “Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932”, the only remaining preserved mural by David Alfaro Siqueriors found in the nation.
- Address: 1130 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, United States
- Hours: 11 am – 5 pm (Closes at 8pm on Thursdays, Closed Mondays)
- Cost: $10
Check out our list of the Best Things To Do In Los Angeles for more ideas!
5) Go Jet Skiing At The Santa Barbara Harbor
Built in 1929, the Santa Barbara Harbor is a picturesque boating spot where yachts and commercial fishing boats launch. Locals and tourists alike come to the harbor to explore their options.
Tour the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, a family-friendly attraction on the harbor. The museum uses interactive exhibits to tell the story of early settlers and the harbor’s history.
Then, launch off the Santa Barbara Harbor on an excursion of the sea. Schedule an awe-inspiring sunset cruise, catch a thrill jet skiing, or get activating paddle boarding through the waters. Finally, go whale watching for orcas, gray whales, humpbacks, and blue whales.
Santa Barbara Harbor is where you’ll find the best seafood restaurants, from fish tacos to the catch of the day. And don’t forget to check out the local shops sprinkled along the harbor for fun souvenirs and finds!
If you’re more inclined to stay active on your trip, consider a guided kayak tour!
The tour launches off at the Santa Barbara Harbor and paddles through the Santa Barbara Channel, the historic wharf, beneath the pier, and down the beach for spectacular viewpoints of the best of Santa Barbara.
6) Look For Dolphins At Shoreline Park
Gazing at the encompassing view of the Pacific Ocean, Shoreline Park is one of the most visited parks in Santa Barbara.
A long strip by the ocean, the park is favored for its refreshing atmosphere and scenery, the mountains, islands, and harbor within view of Shoreline Park.
Picnicking at the park is a popular activity thanks to its rejuvenating environment. In addition, people often come to play frisbee, walk, skate, and whale watch here.
Take the wooden stairs, following them down to the beach below. Here you’ll find a beachy area with a tidal pool and up close viewpoints of the ocean. The binoculars by the bronze whale tale are perfect for looking beyond the beachy shore.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see dolphins jumping through the ocean’s waters as they play or hunt for food!
- Address: Shoreline Dr & Santa Rosa Place, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, United States
- Hours: 7 am – 7 pm
- Cost: Free
7) Peer At Mesmerizing Flowers At The Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
With flourishing grounds full of flora and fauna, the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate features one of the world’s largest collections of orchids.
The estate stretches across five acres of vibrantly thriving nature on a coastal landscape near the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Barbara Orchid Estate annually hosts the largest and oldest-running orchid showcase in the nation, the International Orchid Show.
People travel from across the globe to witness the splendor of orchid displays, vendor offerings, and orchid-related art.
The Orchid Estate is situated next to a popular inner-city hiking spot, More Mesa if you want to exude more energy while adventuring more of Santa Barbara!
- Address: 1250 Orchid Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93111, United States
- Hours: 10am – 2pm Friday, 9am – 3:30pm Saturday
- Cost: $14
8) Explore the Santa Ynez Valley
Naturally formed by the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Ynez Valley is renowned for its high-class wineries.
Only a short 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley is full of eye-catching landscapes, thrilling adventures, and entertaining activities. The valley is home to the native Chumash tribe, sprawling fields of wildflowers and vineyards, and affluent creative inspiration.
Join this wine country tour of Santa Ynez with stops at Santa Barbara’s best small-production and family-owned wineries. Schedule a thrilling hot-air balloon adventure with encompassing views of the valley.
Outdoorsy travelers can head to the Santa Ynez Mountains, most of which are part of the Los Padres National Forest. Take on some rewarding hikes with inspiring viewpoints of the city and the ocean. Consider taking the trail that leads to Lizard’s Mouth, an iconic mountaintop rock formation.
9) Take The Family To Santa Barbara Zoo
Consistently ranked as one of the best small zoos in the nation, the Santa Barbara Zoo is home to intriguing species like the Giant Anteater and the Australian Walkabout.
More than 146 species are protected at the zoo across 30 acres peering over the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Some other Santa Barbara Zoo favorites that attract visitors are the gorillas, native California condors, and penguins.
Hurry over the feeding time for the giraffes to meet the tallest creature on earth. Then, ride the Zoo Train for a behind-the-scenes look at your favorite animals.
And don’t pass up on the Ridley-Tree Animal Kitchen, where zoo visitors can see how 500+ animals are food prepped for.
One of the top Santa Barbara attractions for kids and families, the Santa Barbara Zoo is filled with fun things to see and do!
- Address: 500 Ninos Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93103, United States
- Hours: 9:30 am – 5 pm
- Cost: Prices range from $15 – $25 (Check the website for more info)
10) Catch A Wave At Arroyo Burro Beach Park
Arroyo Burro Beach Park, or Hendry’s Beach for locals, is only ten minutes from downtown Santa Barbara.
Surrounded by coastline and towering cliffs, the park is a family-friendly beach and a favorite active hangout spot.
Locals and tourists come to Arroyo Burro Beach Park to fish, swim, surf, suntan, and paddleboard for an inexplicable day of fun!
The park accesses other popular trails, parks, and attractions, like the Douglas Family Preserve. At the preserve, whale watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, biking, hang gliding, and paragliding are all popular activities to partake in 70 acres of untainted coastal land.
Looking for more fun beach destinations in CA? Here is our guide to the best activities in San Diego!
11) Adventure Through Downtown Santa Barbara
The lively downtown area is where you can find many of the best things to do in Santa Barbara.
Buy tickets for a performance at the Granada Theatre, home to the State Street Ballet, the Santa Barbara Symphony, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, the UCSB Arts & Lectures, the Opera Santa Barbara, and the Theatre League’s Broadway Series.
Shop to your heart’s content in the many name-brand and locally-owned boutique stores and art galleries decorating Santa Barbara’s downtown.
Explore the famous Santa Barbara Public Market or join a craft beer walking tour with a visit to the best unique craft breweries in Santa Barbara while learning about the city’s history!
12) Grab Local Treats At The Santa Barbara Public Market
One of the favorite things to do in Santa Barbara by locals and tourists alike, the Santa Barbara Public Market is a thriving social hub selling locally sourced produce, foods, and products.
The premier food hall to find the best drinks and food, guests can experience food made by some of the best chefs in Santa Barbara.
People watch on West Victoria street with shaded table seating. Pair with local selections of drinks and food. If the weather isn’t agreeable, air-conditioned indoor seating is also available!
From wine and beer to decadent dishes and savory cuisines, the Santa Barbara Public Market has it waiting for you!
- Address: 38 W Victoria St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, United States
- Hours: 11 am – 9 pm (Closes at 10pm on weekends)
13) Learn About The Influential Leader At The Casa de la Guerra
The former residence of the fifth commandment of the Presidio de Santa Barbara, José de la Guerra, the Casa de la Guerra, is an outstandingly preserved historic building.
Steps away from State Street, the Casa de la Guerra was the home of an influential man who acted as a leader of the people of Santa Barbara.
Jose de la Guerra was a protector and prominent figure that served as a ranchero, military officer, and founder of the distinguished Guerra family.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, visitors can tour this historic landmark to learn more about the impact of Jose de la Guerra on Santa Barbara’s history.
- Address: 15 E De La Guerra St, Santa Barbara, California 93101, United States
- Hours: 12 pm – 4 pm, Thursday – Sunday
- Cost: $5
Heading north? Check out our ultimate 3 Days in San Francisco Itinerary!
14) Sun Tan & Explore Stearns Wharf On West Beach
Ideally located right between the Harbor and Stearn’s Wharf, West Beach is a hot spot for public events, like Santa Barbara’s massive July 4 celebration.
The picturesque beach is great for picnicking, swimming, sunbathing, windsurfing, and playing beach volleyball. Around West Beach are paths for walkers and bikers to explore the local area, like public art, plazas, and a stop at Los Banos Pool.
This historic beachside pool is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having once been a bathhouse site and bathing resort destroyed by an earthquake and fire.
West Beach’s scenic beachfront path stretches three miles, perfect for exploring other Santa Barbara attractions like East Beach, the Marine, and Shoreline Park. If you get hungry, grab a meal at Stearns Wharf.
Stearns Wharf features a variety of intriguing attractions like souvenir shops, ice cream shops, casual dining restaurants like the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, a small aquarium full of marine life.
In addition, the bait and tackle shop on Stearns Wharf is perfect for snagging some bait for casting out on the wharf’s edge.
15) Learn About Early History At The Old Mission Santa Barbara
A Spanish mission, the Old Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1786. It was frequently termed the “Queen of the Missions.” In the present day, it acts as a national historical landmark for people to learn, pray, and commune together.
The Old Mission Santa Barbara homes a mausoleum, historic gardens, a cemetery, a gift shop, a museum, and houses the community of Franciscan Friars. The nine-room museum is teeming with intriguing artifacts, including colonial pieces and early photographs, recounting the history of the mission.
The grounds are home to the garden La Huerta, designed with Spain’s agricultural touches and plants that date back to Mission Santa Barbara’s founding.
Visit the official website for the Santa Barbara Mission for more information about tours and events!
- Address: 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara, CA 93105, United States
- Hours: 9:30 am – 4 pm
- Cost: $15
16) Hear Legends Of The Sea At The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Dedicated to preserving local maritime history, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum holds 13,000 years of impactful stories and records.
The museum educates on various topics and is one of the best venues for learning about the Channel Islands National Park, the Santa Barbara Channel, and maritime history. From environmental preservation to the Chumash people, the museum welcomes all ages to learn something new.
Take on the interactive exhibits and peer at awe-inspiring views from the rooftop deck at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, where land meets the sea!
- Address: 113 Harbor Way STE 190, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm (Closed Wednesdays)
- Cost: $8
17) Ignite Your Curiosity At MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
Devoted to educating all ages on the impact of science, art, and technology, MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, will ignite your curiosity!
Using interactive experiences, the family-friendly museum engages curious minds to experience new worlds, ask questions, and find solutions. Study your favorite riffs on the Giant Guitar. Conduct test flights at the Wind Column Workshop.
Create 3D tools in the Innovation Workshop. Then, end your trip with a courageous walk across the Sky Deck to bask in spectacular viewpoints of Santa Barbara and beyond!
- Address: 125 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm
- Cost: $18
18) Sink Into The Underwater World Of The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
Found on Stearns Wharf, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is an interactive aquarium where visitors can get up close and personal with marine animals.
The center’s upgraded exhibit, Dive In: Our Changing Channel, is where visitors can peer in awe over the underwater world in the Santa Barbara Channel. See Giant Pacific Seahorses and Moon Jellies while learning about the various habitats of marine life, including kelp forests and reefs.
Find out the history of the endangered White Abalone and the importance of the Channel Islands inside this exhibit.
There’s plenty to explore, information to learn, and marine animals to peer over at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center!
- Address: 211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, United States
- Hours: 10 am – 5 pm (Closed Thursdays)
- Cost: $14
19) Learn How To Surf At Leadbetter Beach
The famous Leadbetter Beach is a stunning spot on the Santa Barbara coast, providing easy access to other fun activities after hitting the waves!
This beach is often frequented by catamaran sailors, windsurfers, picnickers, paddleboarders, and those looking to hit the beach for a tan and some relaxation.
The waves are typically beginner-friendly, perfect for those new to surfing, paddle boarding, etc., looking to gain experience. Book a surf lesson if you want some extra help from an expert!
During low tide at Leadbetter Beach, access to an isolated beach strip is open for adventuring. However, privacy at this hopping beach is hard to find, so don’t expect too much alone time here!
20) Tour The Impactful El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
A fortress that was established by the Spanish military in 1782, El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park features the fort’s original adobe buildings, Cañedo Adobe and El Cuartel.
Constructed to protect the Second Military District in California during the American Revolutionary War, the fortress acted as the regional governmental center and headquarters. Chumash Indians helped assemble the buildings of the presidio using sun-dried adobe bricks.
A tour the Santa Barbara Presidio takes visitors through the park’s educational exhibits. Self-guided tours are available in specific parts of the park, such as the Padre’s Quarters, the Chapel, the Comandancia, and the 1940s Whittaker orchards.
There’s also the observation tower and the heritage gardens to check out during your visit for a step back in time!
- Address: 123 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, California 93101, United States
- Hours: 10:30 am – 4:30 pm daily
- Cost: Free
21) Visit The Remarkable Moreton Bay Fig Tree
Said to be the largest in the nation, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree is more than 140 years old, making it one of the oldest living things in California.
The tree is planted on Chapala Street at Highway 101 and is a National Historic Landmark. The rumors of the tree’s beginnings start with a young girl and an Australian sailor.
Stories tell that the sailor gifted a seed to the girl who planted the seed, which was rooted on July 4, 1876. It was relocated in 1877 to its current location on Chapala Street.
The Moreton Bay Fig Tree’s crown spreads 176 feet, its height stretching 80 feet tall. And the same site where the Moreton Bay Fig Tree resides is where explorer El Capitan Gaspar de Portola and his crew settled down in 1769, the crew going on to play an impactful role in colonizing California.
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Where to Stay in Santa Barbara, California
Now that you know the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California, let’s look at the best places to stay during your trip!
Best Cheap Hotel in Santa Barbara, California
Only ten minutes from downtown, the Oasis Inn and Suites offers a great location near the Santa Barbara Harbor and nearby restaurants to blend in with the locals.
In addition, guests have access to an outdoor pool, free Wi-Fi, and free parking for a simple and affordable stay when you visit Santa Barbara, California.
Best Mid-Range Hotel in Santa Barbara, California
The Quality Inn Santa Barbara is an award-winning hotel near top Santa Barbara activities, including the historic State Street, the Santa Barbara waterfront, and the Chumash Casino.
A stay at this hotel features complimentary parking, Wi-Fi, a continental breakfast buffet, and coffee, with access to the outdoor heated pool to unwind.
Best Luxury Hotel in Santa Barbara, California
A five-star hotel, El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, Santa Barbara, exudes luxury and refinement with its Spanish Colonial Revival buildings and seven acres of lush gardens.
One of the most loved resorts on the West Coast, guests will settle in seamlessly with a trip to the hotel’s boutique spa and outdoor pool. Then, grab a drink at the bar and socialize in the hotel’s lounge and restaurant between cave diving and wine tastings in Santa Barbara, California.
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