Best things to do in Santa Barbara
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 and chapel as well as exhibition about its construction and life within its walls.
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, 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 is steep in parts. The other option is starting at Jesusita Trail, which is also steep in parts and stretches about 7 miles.
If you’re the type of person who finds peace in nature, the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden should be on your itinerary. This garden, which focuses on California native plants, is unlike any we’ve been to 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.
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.
State Street’s Santa Barbara Museum of Art just recently began a massive five-year renovation and expansion project, which has considerably cut down on the works on display. But what’s there—a mix of rotation exhibitions and highlights of the permanent collection hevay on Impressionism and Southern California abstraction—is still worth exploring, especially since the museum has halved its admission fees in the meantime.
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 Santa Barbara County Courthouse: 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 “El Mirador” clock tower for sweeping views of Santa Barbara—make sure to stop by the historical, sublimely painted Mural Room on the second floor.
A tangle of trails weave 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, leopard and giraffes—check at the front to see the daily feeding schedule for the long-necked mammals.
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 outdoot playground. Adults, though, should enjoy a stroll around the campus’s 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 sea floor below.
More of the best in Santa Barbara
From swanky dinner spots by the ocean to more modest eateries serving exceptional tacos for barely more than a buck, Santa Barbara shines when meal times roll around. Ready or not, here are the best restaurants in town.
Would you rather be beachside, or tucked into the hills? Is a pool a must? Entertainment for the kids? Keen to be near to the city’s best things to do and tastiest restaurants? Maybe you’re on a budget but can’t stand the average motel vibe.