Santa Barbara is one of my favorite places to visit in the U.S. It’s an absolutely stunning California coastal town with jaw-dropping sunsets, gorgeous architecture and a fascinating history. In fact, it’s even nicknamed the “American Riviera.”
If you love sunny California paired with Spanish-style buildings topped by quintessential red tiles, Santa Barbara is for you!
After visiting twice in the last few years, I’ve compiled my list of the top things to do in Santa Barbara.
Getting to Santa Barbara
While my favorite airline, Southwest Airlines, doesn’t fly directly into Santa Barbara, you can fly into Los Angeles International or any of the area airports like:
- John Wayne/Orange County
- Long Beach
Then rent a car and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, which locals call the “PCH,” to Santa Barbara, which is a really gorgeous drive.
We did this and rented through Silvercar by Audi and enjoyed a lovely Audi as we drove along the Pacific…
21 Stunning Things to Do in Santa Barbara
1. Take a Trolley
If you want a quick overview of Santa Barbara, take the Santa Barbara Trolley. The tour only lasts about 90 minutes but you can hop on and off all day if you’d like for $25 for adults.
2. Hang Out at the Beach
Santa Barbara offers many beautiful beaches whether you want to just kick back and relax, take a stroll or splash in the surf. One of the most popular beaches is Butterfly Beach in Montecito, which is a great spot to catch the sunset. It’s also just across from Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.
If you’re at Stearns Wharf, you can head to the family-friendly East Beach. Other options include Leadbetter Beach near Santa Barbara Harbor, Goleta Beach Park in nearby Goleta and Arroyo Burro Beach.
3. Kayak Channel Islands National Park
By far one of the coolest things I’ve ever done is kayaking through sea caves at Channel Islands National Park just off the coast of Santa Barbara. This is an entire-day adventure, as you have to get to and from the islands by boat (keep an eye out for whales along the way) with Island Packers.
Then spend the day kayaking (we booked with Santa Barbara Adventure Company, whose guides were great!) into sea caves among sea lions and amidst beautiful waters on this entirely natural island. It’s a must-do!
4. Walk Around the Wharf
One of the highlights of Santa Barbara is Stearns Wharf and the harbor area, which is at the end of its charming downtown. This area has waterfront dining, shops and a Sea Center, where you can get interactive with area sea life (great for young kids!).
Be sure to take a walk onto the rocky formation that extends out into the water and serves as a block from the waves. It was here we got the above photo, which I would wager is the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.
5. Marvel at the Moreton Bay Fig Tree
This absolutely amazing 120-year-old fig tree is supposed to be the largest of its type in the U.S. Brought from Australia in 1877, you’ll find it not far from the harbor and wharf area, though somehow it’s easily missed if you don’t know to look for it!
I didn’t see it until our second visit. Look for it right by the Amtrak station.
6. Relax at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Located in the Mission Canyon area of Santa Barbara, the beautiful Santa Barbara Botanic Garden spans 78 acres, which are filled with California native plants. It’s one of only 30 gardens accredited as a “living museum.”
The garden features easy hiking trails that take you past an authentic Japanese Teahouse, a redwood forest and the 1807 Mission Dam. Check out the Water Wise Home Garden with drought-tolerant native plants that you can buy at the nursery.
7. Get a Spa Treatment in an Underground Salt Cave
Right in downtown Santa Barbara is an amazing underground salt cave, which offers a variety of spa experiences, including hot salt stone massages, salt scrubs and more.
The cave was created by the owners who imported 60 tons of pink Himalayan salt from Pakistan, making it the largest salt cave in North America.
8. Take a Hike
With its canyons, ocean and vast plant and floral life everywhere, Santa Barbara is a great destination to take a hike whether you want high-up coastal views, a rugged canyon hike or a romp through wildflowers.
The Rattlesnake Trail is a popular 3.5-mile round trip, overlooking a canyon, or try the short but gorgeous Lizard Rock half-mile walk with scenic views and its iconic lizard-shaped rock formation. Check out more best hikes in Santa Barbara.
9. Explore Old Mission Santa Barbara
As a Catholic, seeing the California missions is always tops on my list, and this is my favorite of the missions I’ve seen thus far. Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786 by Franciscan monks, is in fact known as the “Queen of the Missions.”
It’s certainly the largest with gardens, a church, cemetery and museum. You can even attend mass there if you’d like, as we have.
TIP: Enjoy a free docent tour of the grounds Monday through Friday at 11 a.m., Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
10. See The Presidio State Park
See where Santa Barbara was born right in the heart of its downtown at El Presidio State Historic Park.
The Presidio is the site of the last Spanish military fortress built when Spain occupied this area, known as New Spain, in the late 1700s until Mexico gained its independence in 1821.
11. Climb to the Top of the Santa Barbara Courthouse
The No. 1 thing you must do when in Santa Barbara is climb to the top of its magnificent courthouse, which is a building you’d never suspect to be a courthouse!
This grand structure with its exterior clock face and characteristic red tiles is gorgeous inside and out, and at the top, you’ll enjoy fantastic panoramic views of the city. It’s still used as a courthouse though, so beware, court may be in session!
12. See a Performance at the Lobero Theater
Catch a performing arts show, ranging from ballet to musical theater to opera to concerts, at this charming venue in the heart of Santa Barbara’s historic theater district.
Founded in 1873, the Lobero Theatre is California’s oldest continuously-operating theater.
13. Learn Something New at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
A great activity for families, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History offers interactive exhibits about the area’s natural history. You’ll also find a planetarium, 17 acres of forest along Mission Creek and 74-foot-long blue whale skeleton, known as “Chad,” shown above.
14. Shop ‘Til You Drop in Paseo Nuevo
Even though I’m not a shopper, one of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara is to wander among its vast “paseos,” which are arcades that run off of its main thoroughfare of State Street. These are vast mazes that you’d never guess are behind State Street’s facades.
These “paseos” remind me of the historic district in Marbella, Spain, which also has utterly charming, brightly-colored buildings through alley after alley.
The largest of these is Paseo Nuevo, which is a full-on shopping mall/paseo with many top brands like Nordstrom and Victoria’s Secret, as well as locally-owned shops. You’ll also want to stop for an authentic Hawaiian shaved ice about as big as your head!
15. Lose Yourself in La Arcada
Another of these paseos is La Arcada, which has a more local feel. Here, you’ll find art galleries, boutiques, fountains, sculptures, sidewalk cafes and more. Just a stroll through this area is well worth the time.
Food & Dining
16. Scarf Down Some Scrumptious Ice Cream at McConnell’s
A local institution, McConnell’s is THE place for ice cream in Santa Barbara. They make their ice cream from scratch, using organic ingredients and no preservatives.
There are two locations in Santa Barbara, including the main one on State Street (be prepared to wait awhile in line, especially on summer days :)) and one in the Funk Zone, closer to the wharf and harbor.
17. Enjoy a Wine or Beer Tasting in the Funk Zone
The Funk Zone is a newer, revitalized area of town that is closer to the wharf and harbor where you’ll find lots of wineries with tasting rooms, as well as breweries and some hip hotels like the Hotel Californian.
You’ll also discover art galleries and vibrant murals (try an art walk), as well as restaurants with outdoor dining in this roughly 13-block area.
18. Dine at Joe’s Cafe
There’s no experience quite like dining at Santa Barbara’s oldest restaurant, Joe’s Cafe. Founded by Joe Ferrario, an immigrant from Italy, in 1928, Joe’s is a popular local restaurant and bar, known for having the “stiffest” cocktails around and a relaxed, fun atmosphere. Students from local UC-Santa Barbara like to hang out here.
19. Get a Treat at Helena Avenue Bakery
A popular, and “sweet,” spot in the Funk Zone, Helena Avenue Bakery serves seasonal pastries and organic breads made from scratch, as well as breakfast, sandwiches and salads all in a modern, industrial setting.
Headed to the beach? Order a grab and go picnic to take with you!
20. Get Your Feline Fix at a Cat Cafe
Love kitties? Curl up next to these sweet felines at Cat Therapy Santa Barbara. A coffeehouse-like setting, Cat Cafe is filled with adoptable cats and offers free coffee and tea to visitors.
It costs about $12-$14 to spend an hour of time with the kitties. Purr-fect!
21. Drive to Wine Country
Just outside of Santa Barbara, about a 45-minute drive, is the Santa Ynez Valley full of many small towns, most of which boast wineries. A couple of popular stops include Solvang and Los Olivos.
The movie, “Sideways” made Solvang, which is modeled after a Danish town, famous. Look for its iconic windmill and enjoy all sorts of Danish treats in addition to wine tasting galore at area wineries.
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