It’s a true delight to visit Santa Barbara. There are the mighty Santa Ynez Mountains, the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean, swinging palm trees, and postcard-worthy Mediterranean-style buildings, all providing a dramatic backdrop for exploring the American Riviera.
A true gem on the California coast, Santa Barbara is a balmy tourist destination brimming with stellar museums, a family-friendly zoo, lush botanical gardens, and sun-kissed beaches that will make you never want to leave.
From playing beach volleyball to enjoying scenic whale-watching cruises, here’s a guide to the top 17 things to do in Santa Barbara.
The 17 Best Things to do in Santa Barbara, CA
Visit The Old Mission Santa Barbara
Founded by the Spanish Franciscan priest Fermín Lasuén, in 1786, Old Mission Santa Barbara was the tenth of the California missions to be founded.
Often referred to as the “Queen of the Missions” thanks to its breathtaking beauty, the Santa Barbara Mission lies on 15 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean that also encompasses lush gardens, a historic cemetery, a mausoleum, and ruins of the mission’s extensive aqueduct system.
The mission also plays host to a dazzling array of artworks from Mexico and South America, most of them from the Baroque or neoclassical eras.
Address: 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara, CA
Watch The Sunset From Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara
The oldest working wharf in continuous use in California, Stearns Wharf is one of Santa Barbara’s best-known tourist attractions. It was built in 1872 and served the passenger and freight shipping needs of California’s South Coast for over a quarter-century.
Beautifully located on the vibrant Santa Barbara Harbor, this wooden wharf is the perfect place to go for enjoying sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Tried and true activities at Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara include watching the sunset over the ocean, fishing, kayaking, and whale watching.
This lively wharf also boasts an array of souvenir shops and breezy restaurants where you can feast on jet-fresh seafood with stunning views of the ocean.
Address: 217 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA
Soak Up The Sun On Santa Barbara Beaches
Spanning 110 miles of coastline, Santa Barbara is home to many beautiful beaches that offer outdoor fun and excitement for all ages.
The ones you can’t miss when visiting Santa Barbara? The pristine Butterfly Beach, which is known for its serene waters perfect for swimming and paddle boarding, and the man-made Leadbetter Beach, a popular spot for picnicking, sunbathing, and jogging.
East Beach: If you’re heading over to East Beach for a day by the ocean, make sure to stop by the multicolored Chromatic Gate art installation for a quick photo!
In case you’re visiting Santa Barbara with your kids, West Beach is the place to go. Nestled between Stearn’s Wharf and the Harbor, this family-friendly beach is easily accessible and features a wide walkway/bike path.
Explore The El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
At Canon Perdido Street lies the most visited attraction in Santa Barbara: El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park.
Also known as the Royal Presidio of Santa Barbara, this historic site is the last of four military outposts built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California.
The Santa Barbara Presidio was built by Spain in 1782, during the American Revolutionary War, and two of the fort‘s original adobe buildings still exist and are open to the public — El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe.
El Cuartel is the former family residence of the soldier assigned to guard the western gate into the Plaza de Armas. This building is the oldest remaining in Santa Barbara and the second oldest in California.
Address: 123 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA
Learn About The California Native Plants At The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Covering over 70 acres, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a lush oasis home to over 5,000 species of native California plants.
The garden is divided into 11 sessions, each one displaying plants from an array of habitats from across California, including deserts, meadows, and redwoods.
While walking through the garden, you’ll get the chance to spot plants and trees from the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts, rare California poppies, redwood trees, desert lavenders, and more.
Address: 1212 Mission Canyon Rd, Santa Barbara, CA
See A Monet Painting At The Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Art lovers will be happily surprised in Santa Barbara. Throughout the city, they’ll find a myriad of world-class museums and art galleries filled catering to every interest and curiosity.
A must-visit is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which frequently opens doors to world-class exhibitions, and it features a wide collection of 27,000 works of art.
Here, expect to come across masterpieces by Claude Monet, and Henri Rousseau, among other artists.
The museum also harbors a plethora of century-old relics, including a 19th-century woman’s dragon robe with twelve imperial symbols, from China, and an ancient ritual apron from Tibet.
Address: 1130 State St, Santa Barbara, CA
Shop In Downtown Santa Barbara and Paseo Nuevo
Aside from waterfront attractions, Santa Barbara is also famous for its teeming shopping scene. In case you’re in the mood for some retail therapy, head over to the city’s top shopping destinations: the El Paseo open-air mall and State Street.
This breezy mall is home to over 50 stores, including big-name retailers like Sephora, Bath & Body Works, Hollister, and Victoria’s Secret.
Address: 651 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara, CA
Meet A Giant Whale At The Santa Barbara Museum Of Natural History
The Santa Barbara Museum Of Natural History is another bucket-list attraction for families visiting Santa Barbara.
While snooping around the museum’s indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces, visitors will get the chance to see precious items such as birds, insects, geological treasures, mammals, marine life, and more.
Some of the fascinating relics held at the museum include a 74-foot-long whale skeleton, a prehistoric forest, a shark cove, and more.
Address: 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara, CA
Explore The Marine Life At The Natural History Sea Center
Located in Stearns Wharf, the interactive Sea Center is a highly interactive regional aquarium that displays a colorful array of marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel.
Among the highlights of the aquarium are a two-spot octopus, moon jellies, giant Pacific seahorses, and a life-size model of a gray whale and her calf.
Address: 211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA
Take The Little Ones To The Santa Barbara Zoo
Often regarded as one of the US’s best small zoos, the Santa Barbara Zoo is the ultimate family-friendly attraction in Santa Barbara.
The zoo is located near the ocean and offers visitors a sneak peek into the lives of more than 500 fascinating wild creatures such as gorillas, otters, giant anteaters, lions, and more.
Address: 500 Ninos Dr, Santa Barbara, CA
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Go On A Scenic Picnic In The Arroyo Burro Beach Park
Arroyo Burro Beach Park is the ultimate destination for a day outdoors. Located just ten minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, this 70-acre reserve is home to a beach surrounded by tall bluffs, as well as scenic trails offering stunning views of the ocean.
Here, popular activities include picnicking, bodyboarding, fishing, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, and swimming.
Address: 2981 Cliff Dr, Santa Barbara, CA
Check Out The Views From The Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Santa Barbara County Courthouse is one of the most beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings. Designed by William Mooser III and completed in 1929 this gorgeous construction flaunts a four-faced clock tower, red tile roofs, and graceful arches, all surrounded by freshly mowed gardens.
Another highlight is the Mural Room, which depicts the story of Santa Barbara’s history.
When visiting the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, make sure to climb the El Mirador Tower, from where you’ll be treated to the most sweeping views of Santa Barbara.
Address: 1100 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA
Explore The Botanic Garden Of The Ganna Walska Lotusland
Named one of the “10 best gardens in the world”, Ganna Walska Lotusland is the former home of the Polish opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska.
Take a self-guided tour of this historic estate to spot some beautiful gardens sprinkled with colorful bromeliads, cacti, succulents, and thousands of plants from around the world.
Address: Cold Spring Rd, Montecito, CA
Go For An Adventure At The Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park encompasses five islands strung out in the marine-rich Santa Barbara Channel.
Established to protect the unique natural and cultural resources found both on the islands and within ocean waters, the park is home to a dazzling array of animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth.
Some of the wild creatures you have the chance to see while exploring the park (hiking, boating, and diving are some of the most popular activities here) include the bald eagle, the island spotted skunk, Townsend’s big-eared bat, and Baja California treefrog.
Address: Ventura, CA
Enjoy A Scenic Whale Watching Cruise
Santa Barbara is one of the most popular destinations for whale watching in the United States. Late spring through early fall, go on a scenic cruise of the Santa Barbara Channel to get the chance to see humpback whales and blue whales aka the largest mammals on earth.
January through March is also a prime spot for whale watching in Santa Barbara. During these months, you’ll be able to spot the California gray whales traveling northward closely along the coast with their offspring.
Marvel At Casa Del Herrero’s Stunning Architecture
Designed by George Washington Smith, this landmark estate is located on Montecito Street, Santa Barbara is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish Revival architecture in the country.
When taking a guided tour of the house, visitors are transported back to California in the 1920s and 1930s.
Address: 1387 E Valley Rd, Montecito, CA
See The Santa Barbara Cityscape From The Shoreline Park
Shoreline Park is one of the top attractions in Santa Barbara for a fun-filled day with the family. Facing the Pacific, the park has paved walking paths and a grassy expanse that is perfect for a picnic with sweeping views of the Santa Barbara coastline, and the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Address: Shoreline Dr & Santa Rosa Place, Santa Barbara, CA
Is Santa Barbara worth a day trip?
Yes. Santa Barbara makes for the ideal day trip from Los Angeles, as both cities are only 90 miles apart (2h drive).
What is Santa Barbara most known for?
Santa Barbara is mostly known for its idyllic beaches, sunny weather, and eye-popping Spanish colonial architecture.
What does Santa Barbara have to offer?
Santa Barbara has plenty to offer anyone who makes the trek. This is a city filled with beautiful beaches, historical sites, lush parks, top-notch museums, and great shopping spots.
What are the top Santa Barbara attractions?
The top attractions in Santa Barbara are:
- Old Mission Santa Barbara;
- Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara;
- The beaches;
- El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park;
- Santa Barbara Botanic Garden;
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art;
- Downtown Santa Barbara and Paseo Nuevo;
- Santa Barbara Museum Of Natural History;
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center;
- Santa Barbara Zoo;
- Arroyo Burro Beach Park;
- Santa Barbara County Courthouse;
- Ganna Walska Lotusland – Botanic Garden;
- Channel Islands National Park;
- Casa Del Herrero.
- Shoreline Park.
Where to stay in Santa Barbara?
Here are some enticing options to consider for your stay in this California gem:
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