10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is arguably one of the most beautiful towns in California, with lovely Spanish style architecture, an inviting waterfront, and a mountainous backdrop. It also has the great advantage of having many of its places of interest within close proximity of each other, making it an easy city to explore. One of the main attractions is the 18th century Mission Santa Barbara, but there are a wide range of things to see and do, with museums, a zoo, the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, botanical gardens, and a number of good hiking trails in the area.
See also: Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
1 Mission Santa Barbara
The "Queen of the Mission Stations", as Santa Barbara is generally called, was the only one to remain with the Franciscans after being secularized. It is also the only one they preserved to present day.The church, completed in 1829 after the original had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, is the work of Father Antonio Ripoli. It has a Roman temple facade and was built by the extremely skilled Chumash Indians. It is the only mission with two towers, and had to be rebuilt in earthquake-proof construction. Today it serves as a parish church.
The buildings contain the museum with art pieces from the colonial period and many interesting artifacts. Especially worth seeing are the garden, and the cemetery in which many prominent early Spaniards, as well as 4,000 Chumash Indians found their last resting-place.
Address: 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93105-3697, United States
2 Santa Barbara County Courthouse
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a Spanish-Moorish building in the style of a palace, completed after the large earthquake of 1929. The tiles lining the staircase are mainly from Tunisia, while those used on the arches are of Californian origin. The entrance hall on the first floor is a strange mixture of styles, including Islamic, Romanesque, and Byzantine.
For a good view out over the city towards the ocean, a trip up to the top of the El Mirador bell tower is in order. Located throughout the courthouse are numerous paintings by noted artists Allan Gilbert Cram, and Van Cina. In the mural room visitors will find an original Grosbeck.
Address: 1100 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-2099, United States
3 Santa Barbara Museum of Art
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a well-regarded cultural institution notable for its large collection of works of art. The museum is particularly well known for its collection of Claude Monet pieces. One of the museum's highlight is the mural of the United States created by David Alfaro Siqueiros. The museum is spread out over 60,000 square feet and features a museum store, café, a children's gallery, and an extensive library. In addition to its permanent collection that spans over 5000 years of human history, the museum hosts top notch traveling exhibits on a regular basis.
Address: 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-2746, United States
4 Ty Warner Sea Center
The Sea Center is located on Stearns Wharf. The center is a cooperative venture of the Marine Sanctuary and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Visitors can enjoy a glimpse of life in the Santa Barbara Channel as well as a kelp forest, and touch the spines of a sea urchin. Interactive exhibits include sampling and testing ocean water, studying animal behavior, and examining microscopic marine life. This is a particularly good place for families with small children who can touch live specimens, even small sharks, in the touch pool. You can see what a tidal pool looks like from underneath through the windows of a huge tank.
Address: 211 Stearns Wharf
5 Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden showcases native California plants and trees. Paths wind their way through lush areas, providing a tranquil environment. The garden has been in existence since the 1930s and consequently offers a selection of mature trees and plants. A portion of the garden has been labeled a Santa Barbara County Historic Landmark. Visitors can take a tour or stroll the paths on their own. Some of the plants are labeled. There is also a shop on site selling books and other items, as well as a nursery where you can buy your own California native plants.
Address: 1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93105-2126, United States
6 Santa Barbara Zoo
Located on over 30 acres, this zoo is notable for its beautiful setting that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains. The zoo has all kinds of animals, reptiles, and insects. The zoo has the feel of a botanical garden as the property is laid out with formal gardens, open spaces, native plants, trees, and cacti. Programs like the Barnyard, where you can feed domesticated sheep, or the Giraffe Feeding station where you can get up and personal with a Baringo giraffe draw regular visitors and are a favorite with children. Also on site is a carousel and a zoo train for kids.
Address: 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93103-3798, United States
7 Casa de la Guerra
This U-shaped adobe Casa de la Guerra was built between 1819 and 1827 as a political and social center for the community by the fifth commandant of the Presidio. By adding more houses on the northwest and northeast sides it has been made into the El Paseo Complex, a Spanish street which was used as a copy when Santa Barbara was rebuilt after 1925. It is an example of an affluent, Spanish-Mexican style home during that period and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Guided tours available.
An annual Spanish Days Festival is held in the square in front of this building.
Address: 15 East de la Guerra Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-2217, United States
8 Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum was formed in 1994. The facility was formerly known as the Old Naval Reserve Center until 1942 when it became an U.S. Navy training facility from 1942 until 1995. The museum features changing exhibits, a couple old time fishing boats and sailboat, and the Munger Theater. The theater shows interesting and current maritime related movies and documentaries.The Maritime Museum is particularly fun for, and in many ways geared towards, children, and places an emphasis on learning.
Address: 113 Harbor Way
9 El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Site
The Presidio (fortress), founded by the Spaniards in 1782, was badly damaged in the earthquakes of 1806 and 1812, and became of no importance at all after the American troops entered in 1846. Of the original buildings only El Cuartel, the soldiers' quarters, and the front rooms of the Canedo Adobe remain. The padre's house and the chapel have been restored. El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park is located in modern downtown Santa Barbara at the intersection of Santa Barbara and East Canon Perdido Streets.
10 Stearns Wharf
At the bottom of State Street in Santa Barbara is Stearns Wharf. Built in 1872, it became the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This city landmark now features stores and restaurants, a lovely view of the harbor, an aquarium, and the mountains behind Santa Barbara. It is relatively low key, with a few shops. It can be a nice place to have a leisurely lunch while enjoying the view out over the ocean and surrounding beaches. Most visitors simply come here to walk and have a look around. Also located here is the Ty Warner Sea Center.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara for Sightseeing
Sightseers visiting Santa Barbara for the first time should base themselves downtown, near the shops and restaurants along State Street. Other attractions, such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, are within walking distance of this main strip, and the ocean end of State Street at Cabrillo Boulevard is a tourist hotspot, with Stearns Wharf, a beachfront bike path, and beautiful blue-water views. Here are some highly-rated hotels in these convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: The boutique Spanish Garden Inn, with free parking, cozy rooms, and a heated outdoor pool, lies in a secluded downtown location, less than a 10-minute walk from State Street's best shopping and dining. Another upscale downtown hideaway is the Simpson House Inn. This elegant Victorian estate snuggles behind hedges amid an acre of English gardens, with well-appointed guest rooms and charming cottages. In a prime location, across the street from Stearns Wharf and West Beach, Harbor View Inn is a more affordable luxury option with well-appointed rooms, some with ocean views, as well as an outdoor pool, Jacuzzi, and spa. Those seeking beachside luxury away from the downtown buzz will appreciate the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, in the exclusive neighborhood of Montecito, a ten-minute drive from downtown Santa Barbara.
- Mid-Range Hotels: At the homey Harbor House Inn, a short stroll from West Beach and the harbor, each of the studios is unique, while the nearby Mediterranean-style Brisas Del Mar, Inn at the Beach is also great for longer stays thanks to its suites with fully equipped kitchens. Across from the beach and a short stroll from State Street, the Spanish Revival style Holiday Inn Express scores top points for its convenient location.
- Budget Hotels: Within walking distance of Stearns Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor, Castillo Inn at the Beach offers excellent value. Part hotel and part hostel, The Wayfarer is another popular budget option, with a communal kitchen and an outdoor pool, in downtown Santa Barbara's trendy Funk Zone. For those who prefer chain hotels, La Quinta Inn & Suites sits smack bang on State Street, about a 16-minute stroll from Paseo Nuevo, the popular Spanish-style outdoor shopping mall.