Get us in your inbox

Lotusland
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/brewbooks

The 10 best things to do in Santa Barbara

Here are the best things to do in Santa Barbara, including a botanic garden, outstanding hike, museums and more

Advertising

Regardless of whether you’re a beach person, you’ll never be at a loss for things to do in Santa Barbara. State Street is perfect for a stroll, the Funk Zone is full of wine tasting rooms, there’s a host of excellent restaurants to try (fresh seafood, anyone?), and a great range of hotels for those looking to stop for a while. Santa Barbara's picturesque hiking trails are second to none, and the historic landmarks include some of the most beautiful spots in the city (who knew a courthouse could be so appealing?).

Summer is the busiest season in Santa Barbara, but since temps are in the 60s and 70s year-round here, there's no bad time to plan your trip to the American Riviera. Although Santa Barbara is home to UC Santa Barbara and has a college town feel, it's also appealing to the older wine drinking set who enjoy a weekend of tastings. This city on the Central Coast is also close to San Luis Obispo, Monterey Bay and Ventura for those who are looking to explore nearby areas. 

So what are you waiting for? Discover the very best attractions and things to do in Santa Barbara for your next getaway. 

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, 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.

Advertising

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.

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.

Advertising

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.

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.

Advertising

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.

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’ 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.

Advertising

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, leopards and giraffes. Check at the front to see the daily feeding schedule for the long-necked mammals.

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.

More of the best in Santa Barbara

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising