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Lotusland
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/brewbooks

The 10 best things to do in Santa Barbara

Looking for the best things to do in Santa Barbara? Our guide includes outstanding hikes, museums and much, much more

Written by
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
Contributors
Kate Wertheimer
&
Michael Juliano
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When it comes to deciding the best things to do in Santa Barbara, the conversation begins with the beaches. How could it not? The so-called American Riviera is a haven for seaside lovers, with miles of sandy coastline ready to be enjoyed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that everything revolves around the sea and the sand here, as Santa Barbara has plenty to offer visitors of all persuasions.

With the Santa Ynez mountains providing a magnificently dramatic backdrop to it all, Santa Barbara excels in plenty of ways. The restaurants are as excellent as the hotels are charming, while the city’s most historic landmarks double up as beauty spots that live long in the memory. Energetic travelers will enjoy picturesque hiking trails while a different kind of energy exists in the city’s thrilling nightlife. What are you waiting for? Santa Barbara is ready for you.

Best things to do in Santa Barbara, ranked

The late 18th-century Old Mission Santa Barbara gave more than just its name to the city. You can see its lush courtyard, tiled roof and shaded arches reflected in buildings all over Santa Barbara. But the mission is a beautiful, historical destination on its own, with a solemn cemetery, chapel and an exhibition about its construction and life within its walls.

Inspiration Point
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Brian

2. Inspiration Point

Hike to Inspiration Point for the kind of breathtaking natural encounter that will clear your mind. There are two ways to get to Inspiration Point, which is a beautiful outlook overlooking Santa Barbara’s coastline and the Channel Islands in the distance. The shorter option starts at Tunnel Trail and will make for about a 3.5-mile hike roundtrip. It starts on an easy paved road for about a mile, but then makes its way to a trail that's steep in parts. The other option is starting at Jesusita Trail, which is also steep in some areas and stretches about 7 miles.

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If you’re looking for fresh seafood, head to Stearns Wharf in the early morning hours to wait for the fishing boats to unload their catch. You can buy straight from the boats and take your fish home with you on ice—it’s cheaper, fresher and way more fun. Although the pier (home to California’s oldest working wharf) offers wine tasting, a touch aquarium for kids, and lots of shopping and dining options, avoid it after mid-morning—it tends to become a bit of a tourist trap as the day goes on.

The compact halls of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History lend themselves well to pint-sized patrons, from a kid-sized cavern to an outdoor playground. Adults, though, should enjoy a stroll around the campus’ Mission Revival buildings spread along a wooded creek. The small Sea Center at Stearns Wharf, on the other hand, is an all-ages winner, with shark- and anemone-filled touch tanks and a research center with biologically-rich muck straight from the seafloor below.

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If you’re the type of person who finds peace in nature, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden should be on your itinerary. This garden, which focuses on California native plants, is unlike any we’ve seen before. Even the Redwood Section, where redwood trees were planted beginning in 1930, looks as though the trees are organically growing there. Throughout the mile-long walkway, there are plenty of spots for visitors to sit and reflect.

State Street’s Santa Barbara Museum of Art recently completed a massive six-year renovation and expansion project, bringing new gallery spaces and public areas to the museum. You'll find a mix of rotating exhibitions and highlights of the permanent collection that are heavy on Impressionism and Southern California abstraction. Visit the museum store for jewelry, books, toys and other custom items.

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Lotusland

Polish opera singer and garden enthusiast Ganna Walska built up the tropical and subtropical gardens at Lotusland over four decades. Today, you can explore the multiculturally-themed gardens with two-hour guided tours that’ll take you through everything from a silvery-blue forest to a prehistoric-looking cycad garden.

A tangle of trails weaves through the beautiful grounds of the Santa Barbara Zoo. Equal parts open green space and lush animal habitats, the zoo is teeming with conservation information and close-up views of creatures like elephants, lions, leopards and giraffes. Check at the front to see the daily feeding schedule for the long-necked mammals.

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Santa Barbara County Courthouse is the one time you actually want to spend a day at court. The Spanish-Moorish structure is striking from the inside, but step underneath its spacious archway and you’ll find yourself inside one of the most beautiful government buildings in the country, period. Take the elevator or stairs to the top of the Seth Thomas Tower Clock for sweeping views of Santa Barbara—and make sure to stop by the historical, sublimely painted Mural Room on the second floor.

Short on time? Take a 90-minute narrated trolley tour of Santa Barbara's main attractions. Santa Barbara Trolley Company offers daily tours that leave from the Visitor Center at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. This is a great way to see the Santa Barbara Courthouse, Santa Barbara Zoo, Museum of Natural History, Old Mission Santa Barbara, Stearns Wharf, East Beach, the harbor and more.

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