17 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Santa Barbara, CA

Written by Karen Hastings
Updated Apr 25, 2022
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Santa Barbara: Just the name conjures images of gorgeous palm-lined beaches, glamorous homes, and elegant Spanish-style architecture. Visit this famous Southern California beach town, about two hour's drive north of Los Angeles, and you'll find all this and so much more.

View of Santa Barbara from Stearns Wharf | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Beauty comes naturally to Santa Barbara. The Santa Ynez Mountains back the sun-soaked shoreline, glowing pink in the late afternoon light, and the Channel Islands sit just offshore. While you're visiting, take advantage of this glorious setting to get out in nature: explore some of Santa Barbara's scenic hiking trails, stroll along the palm-lined waterfront, go whale watching, and bask on the beautiful beaches.

Culture vultures are also in for a treat. World-class performances in dance, music, and theater grace the stages of Santa Barbara's many art venues. Its museums cover everything from natural history to the sea, and Mission Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful of all California's missions. Families will find plenty of things to do with kids, too, from visiting the Santa Barbara Zoo to biking along the beachfront.

Santa Barbara also hosts a busy line-up of festivals throughout the year. Favorites include Old Spanish Days (Fiesta) in August and the Summer Solstice Parade in June. Plan your trip to the "American Riviera" with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Santa Barbara.

See also: Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

1. Mission Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Barbara | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Mission Santa Barbara is the city's most iconic landmark. Called the "Queen of the Missions" for its graceful beauty and picturesque setting, this distinctive building shaped the look of the entire city. In 1925, a major earthquake destroyed much of Santa Barbara, and it was rebuilt in Spanish Colonial Revival style, inspired by Mission Santa Barbara.

This is the only California mission to remain with the Franciscans since its founding in 1786, and a community of Franciscan friars still lives here today.

Most visitors spend an hour or two taking a self-guided tour, and scheduled docent-led tours are available on certain days.

One of the top places to visit is the church. It was completed in 1820 and was built by Chumash Indians under the leadership of Father Antonio Ripoli after an earthquake destroyed the original chapel and surrounding buildings in 1812. Highlights include its Roman temple facade, the twin towers (which are unique among the missions), and colonial-era art and sculptures. Today, the mission serves as a parish church – an evocative place to attend a Sunday service.

Also within the complex is a museum, with art pieces from the colonial period and many interesting artifacts. Especially worth seeing is the beautiful La Huerta Historical Garden, with mission-era plants such as citrus, grapes, pomegranates, and prickly pear.

Another stop on a self-guided tour is the cemetery. Here, many prominent early Spaniards, as well as 4,000 Chumash Indians, found their last resting place.

After visiting the mission, wander across the street and explore the ruins of the old mission aqueduct, built by the Chumash Indians in 1806.

Also save time to explore the fragrant Mission Rose Garden. A romantic picnic here is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara for couples.

Address: 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.santabarbaramission.org/

2. Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

Stearns Wharf offers breathtaking views of the harbor and beaches, backed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. This iconic Santa Barbara pier sits at the bottom of State Street, in the heart of the waterfront tourist area, and a stroll along here to snap some photos is one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.

Stearns Wharf was built in 1872 and was, at the time, the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Today, this tourist magnet is home to specialty shops; restaurants; and the Sea Center, one of two sites of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Looking for a restaurant with views? This is a great place to enjoy a seafood lunch overlooking the ocean.

If you're visiting with kids, a fun way to arrive here is to catch the Lil' Toot water taxi from the Santa Barbara Harbor. Once you're here, you can buy an ice cream and stroll around soaking up the ambience with the kids. Look for harbor seals as you gaze out at the water, and if you have any budding anglers in your family, visit the bait and tackle shop and cast a line off the end of the pier.

Want to stay right near this buzzing tourist hub? Some of Santa Barbara's best beach resorts and some excellent Santa Barbara restaurants overlook the shoreline on either side of the wharf.

Official site: http://stearnswharf.org/

3. Climb the Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Santa Barbara County Courthouse | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Completed in 1929, after an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1925, this National (and State) Historic Landmark is one of the architectural jewels of the city. It's one of the top places to visit in Santa Barbara, not just to admire its graceful architecture, but also to enjoy beautiful views of the city from the clocktower.

In the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, this eye-catching landmark occupies a full city block and is an example of Spanish-Colonial Revival style. As you wander the tiled corridors, notice the hand-painted ceilings; ornate tile work, some of which is from Tunisia and Spain; and wrought-iron chandeliers.

Another highlight is the Mural Room, which tells the story of Santa Barbara's history. Free docent-guided tours are available at scheduled times.

View over Santa Barbara's red-tile roofs from the courthouse clock tower | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Surrounding the courthouse is a beautiful sunken garden, with palms and plants from more than 25 different countries. Concerts, community events, and weddings are often staged here, including some of the most evocative dance performances during the Old Spanish Days - Fiesta celebrations in early August.

Photographers take note: For one of the city's best photo ops, take the elevator to the top of the 85-foot El Mirador clock tower for gorgeous views over the red-tiled roofs of the city towards the ocean. It's also a popular place for wedding proposals.

Address: 1100 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.sbcourts.org/gi/loc/sbcourthouse.shtm

4. Bike, Skate, or Stroll along the Cabrillo Bike Path

Cabrillo Bike Path | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Looking for a way to get fit and go sightseeing at the same time? Biking along the waterfront on the Cabrillo Bike Path is one of the top activities in Santa Barbara. Tall palms wave overhead, a cool breeze blows in off the ocean, and you can bike between some of Santa Barbara's best beaches, as well as some of the city's top tourist attractions.

Wondering where to rent a bike? Most of the rental shops lie along Cabrillo Boulevard opposite Stearns Wharf, and you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a bike style. Beach cruisers, mountain bikes, Taga bikes, push buggies, Deuce Coupes, pedal go-karts, and scooters are all available. Traveling with kids? You can even rent a family-size Surrey with a fringe on top.

Hop on the bike path, and cruise for miles in either direction. From Stearns Wharf, pedal east, and you'll bike all the way past the big estates to Montecito's Butterfly Beach. Head west, and you'll end up at Leadbetter Beach. Along the way, stop off at the Santa Barbara Harbor for a bite to eat, or Shoreline Beach Cafe, where you can dine with your toes in the sand.

5. Relax on Santa Barbara's Beaches

Leadbetter Beach
Leadbetter Beach | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Santa Barbara beaches are among the best beaches in Southern California. Backed by the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains and protected by the Channel Islands offshore, the south-facing coastline offers the perfect slice of sand and sea for every type of beach lover.

East Beach and West Beach are tourist favorites. Stretching in either direction from Stearns Wharf, these two beaches capture the classic image of the California coast. Tall palms line their shores, and volleyball nets line up along the soft sand.

From West Beach, head west on the Cabrillo Bike Path, and you'll end up at sheltered surfer-fave, Leadbetter Beach. Head east on the bike path, and you'll end up at petite and picturesque Butterfly Beach in posh Montecito, a perfect picnic and people-watching spot.

Need a kid-friendly Santa Barbara beach? Hendry's is a top choice. Officially known as Arroyo Burro County Beach Park, this local favorite offers gentle surf, a fantastic beachfront restaurant, and lifeguards in season. Best of all, your pooch can run wild on the off-leash section of the beach.

And if you're just looking for the best pockets of sand for sunbathing, you're in luck! All of Santa Barbara's beautiful beaches offer stunning scenery, soft sand, and almost year-round sunshine.

6. Santa Barbara Zoo

Santa Barbara Zoo
Santa Barbara Zoo

The superb Santa Barbara Zoo is one of the top things to do in Santa Barbara with kids. Encompassing more than 30 acres, the zoo occupies a beautiful setting on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Its large, open spaces and lush gardens of palms and native plants impart the feel of a botanical garden, making it a lovely place to stroll around.

For such a small zoo, you'll find an impressive variety of animals here. Highlights include the lions, snow leopards, California condors, meerkats, and the excellent western lowland gorilla exhibit. Best of all, you'll find an engaging line-up of interactive experiences for the kids. Little ones can feed the animals at the barnyard and hand-feed giraffes as well. Don't miss the new Australian Walkabout exhibit, with emus, wallabies, and kangaroos.

If you want a quick overview of the exhibits, or you just want to rest your feet, hop aboard the zoo train. It travels around the exhibits and offers views of Santa Barbara along the way.

Santa Barbara Zoo also hosts a busy schedule of fun family events year-round, including Boo at the Zoo and Sleepover Safaris. Check the website for details.

Address: 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.sbzoo.org/

7. Go Whale Watching

Humpback whale
Humpback whale

Few things are as exhilarating as watching a humpback whale breach from the ocean, and in Santa Barbara, you can enjoy a front row seat. Whale watching cruises whisk you right to all the action.

More than 27 species of whales and dolphins swim the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, making it one of the best places in the country to view marine mammals in the wild. From May through November, humpback and blue whales feed here, and gray whales migrate along the Santa Barbara coast on their northern and southern migration.

Even if you don't spot whales, you can usually see other wildlife such as dolphins, sea lions, and even orcas.

One of the most popular whale watching cruises takes place aboard the Condor Express, which also offer a whale watching guarantee – if you don't spot any marine animals on your cruise, you can take another cruise for free during the season.

Official site: https://condorexpress.com/

8. Visit Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center

The Sea Center on Stearns Wharf | Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

For more than a century, this excellent museum has featured fascinating displays on the region's natural history. Today, the museum encompasses two campuses: The Mission Canyon campus, nestled in beautiful oak woodland along Mission Creek, and the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, which offers a window into the underwater world of the Santa Barbara Channel.

One of the first things you'll notice at the Mission Canyon campus is a life-size 72-foot blue whale skeleton at the entrance, a great exhibit to see before heading out on a whale watching trip.

Other popular exhibits here include displays on the Chumash Indians; the mammal hall; the Gladwin Planetarium, with interactive exhibits on space exploration; and the lovely woodland nature trail along the creek. Special exhibitions complement the permanent collection.

During summer, don't miss the Butterflies Alive! exhibit for up-close views of these winged beauties.

Jellyfish at the Sea Center | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

The Sea Center, with beautiful views over the water, is also wonderful for families with children. Here, you can touch a baby shark, feel the texture of a sea anemone tentacle, hold a hermit crab, and see alien-like jellyfish. Other interactive exhibits involve hauling up a catch in the crabpot, studying animal behavior, and examining microscopic marine life.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

  • Address: 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara, California

Sea Center

  • Address: 211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.sbnature.org/

9. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Ever wanted to create sound effects for a Hollywood movie or step inside a giant guitar? At MOXI, you can do all this and more. In a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style building with whimsical sea-themed accents, this engaging science and technology museum sits only two blocks from the Santa Barbara waterfront.

Fascinating hands-on indoor and outdoor exhibits on three floors are grouped into themes, such as Light, Speed, Interactive Media, Fantastic Forces, and the Sky Garden.

You can see how 3D printers create objects at the Innovation Workshop, build a race car and test it on the museum's tracks, or take a selfie and use it to create a customized mosaic to share with your friends.

Top off your visit with spectacular views over Santa Barbara from the rooftop deck, where you can peer through a series of different scopes in the lookout tower.

Summer camps, after-school classes, and adult theme nights add to all the fun.

Address: 125 State Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.moxi.org/

10. Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Santa Barbara Museum of Art | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art holds an impressive collection of art for such a small city. More than 27,000 works span 5,000-plus years.

The museum is particularly well-known for its collection of Claude Monet paintings, classical antiquities, 19th- and 20th-century American and European artworks, contemporary American painting, Asian art, and photography.

As you enter, notice the Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932 mural, the only intact specimen in the United States by David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

The museum also hosts superb traveling exhibitions and features a children's gallery, with fun interactive displays.

After your visit, you can enjoy a snack in the café and pick up some unique gifts in the museum store.

Insider's Tip: Admission to the Santa Barbara Art Museum, as well as other Santa Barbara downtown art galleries, is free on the first Thursday of every month.

Address: 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbma.net/

11. Shop in Paseo Nuevo & State Street

Paseo Nuevo shopping mall
Paseo Nuevo shopping mall | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Santa Barbara is a haven for shoppers, and the epicenter of all the action is State Street downtown. Here, you'll find Spanish-style Paseo Nuevo, a picturesque outdoor shopping mall punctuated by potted palms and fountains.

Fabulous boutiques, big-name chain stores, and alfresco cafés line the paved walkways, and it's especially beautiful during the holidays, when lights adorn the mall. Even if you don't buy anything, it's still fun to stroll around here.

From Paseo Nuevo, you can also wander along State Street and browse other specialty shops, antique stores, and boutiques. Cafés and restaurants spill out onto the sidewalks here and make great people-watching spots.

Insider's Tip: On Tuesday afternoons, State Street hosts the popular Santa Barbara Farmers Market, with fresh, locally grown produce.

Address: 651 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://paseonuevoshopping.com/

12. See the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum & Santa Barbara Harbor

Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara Harbor | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

The Santa Barbara Harbor is a lovely spot for a stroll on a sunny day. Wander along the breakwater and look for harbor seals, watch the sailors rigging up their boats, or feast on fresh-caught seafood along the waterfront. A couple of doors down from the museum, local-favorite Brophy Bros. is one of the best restaurants in Santa Barbara for fresh seafood with a harbor view.

After soaking up the salty sea air, you might want to learn a little about Santa Barbara's rich maritime history. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum on the waterfront is the place to go. The museum features fascinating exhibits on surfing, Channel Islands ranches, Chumash Indians, and more. Are you interested in fishing and diving? You'll see all sorts of antique equipment here, and you can also explore exhibits on military history and model ships.

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum | Photo Copyright: Brian Hastings

Changing exhibits complement the collection, and the Munger Theater shows maritime-related movies and documentaries.

This sea-themed museum is particularly fun for children, with scavenger hunts, a working periscope, and other interactive exhibits. Photographers can snap some beautiful photos of the harbor and city from the top-floor viewing deck.

Address: 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.sbmm.org/

13. Hang Out at The Funk Zone

Santa Barbara Funk Zone | Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

The Santa Barbara Funk Zone is urban renewal at its best. Boutique shops; cutting-edge art galleries; street art; tasting rooms; and some of Santa Barbara's best restaurants, cafés, and entertainment venues now reside in imaginatively converted warehouses in this hip arts district.

Looking for things to do in Santa Barbara at night? This is one of the best places to visit for Santa Barbara's nightlife scene. And if dining is your main objective, consider taking a foodie tour. That way, you can explore the district and sample some of the artisan foods and beverages in the local tasting rooms at the same time. Don't miss a meal at The Lark, too. It's one of Santa Barbara's best restaurants.

Trying to find a unique gift or vintage treasure? You can probably find what you're looking for in one of the boutique shops here. LOVEWORN and The Blue Door are favorites. If you're visiting with the kids, MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation sits right on the district's edge.

Getting here is easy. Its only two blocks from the beach, between Cabrillo Blvd. and Highway 101.

Official site: https://www.funkzone.net/map-of-the-zone

14. Lotusland

Lotusland | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Lotusland has been called one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. This inspiring collection of botanical beauties nestles in the upscale enclave of Montecito, about 10 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara.

Three different owners contributed to this stunning botanical collection, but it was the last and most flamboyant, the famous Polish opera singer Madame Ganna Walska, who transformed it over more than four decades into the dramatic display you see today. The gardens lie on Ganna Walska's estate, where she lived until she passed in 1984.

Madame Walska was one of the first garden designers to use mass plantings for dramatic emphasis. Entire gardens of sculptural agaves, contorted cactus, slender euphorbia, and spiky cycads impart a theatrical quality to the garden's design, and the garden's namesake lotus flowers flourish in the former swimming pool.

Highlights are the Blue Garden; Palm Garden; Japanese Garden; and the Theatre Garden, with a collection of antique stone figures from France.

Don't miss Madame's prized specimens: three extremely rare and gigantic cycads that are now extinct in the wild.

Two-hour guided tours are offered Wednesday to Saturday. Advance reservations are essential.

Address: 695 Ashley Road, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.lotusland.org/

15. Explore Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

Craving a dose of nature? Head to the beautiful Santa Botanic Garden. Set on 78 acres of natural woodland, with beautiful views of the mountains and ocean, the gardens showcase around 1,000 types of native California plants and trees.

More than 5.5 miles of paths wind their way through the pine-scented woodland. Highlights include the historic Mission Dam and aqueduct, built in 1807 to funnel water to the Santa Barbara Mission; the magnificent redwood grove; a wildflower meadow; and a lovely Japanese teahouse and tea garden.

A portion of the garden is designated a Santa Barbara County Historic Landmark, and you can take a guided tour or stroll the paths on your own.

Afterwards, stop by the museum gift shop and nursery, where you can buy your own California native plants.

Address: 1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: http://www.sbbg.org

16. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Site

El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Site | Photo Copyright: Karen Hastings

El Presidio is a striking slice of history in the middle of downtown Santa Barbara. This fortified military settlement (presidio) was founded by the Spaniards in 1782.

Two of the fort's original adobe buildings still stand: El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe. Tours start at the visitor center with exhibits on the history of the presidio and a brief orientation.

From here, you can take a self-guided tour of the reconstructed Chapel, Comandancia, and Padre's Quarters, as well as reconstructions of rooms that once housed the Presidio's Lieutenant; a two-story observation tower; and a beautiful heritage garden, with plants from the era, like prickly pear and grapes.

Behind the north wing are the 1940s Whittaker orchards and the archaeological site of the Presidio outer defense wall.

Address: 123 East Canon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara, California

17. El Paseo

El Paseo
El Paseo | savemejebus / photo modified

El Paseo feels like a small Spanish village in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Steeped in Spanish Colonial Revival style, this evocative complex of shops, restaurants, and galleries was built around the historic Casa de la Guerra adobe in 1920.

Today, the adobe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can visit the small museum here.

The adobe was built by the commander of El Presidio de Santa Barbara, José de la Guerra, between 1819 and 1828. The commander and his wife raised their family here, and over the years, it became the social, political, and cultural center of Santa Barbara. It remains an excellent example of an affluent, Spanish-Mexican-style home during the period.

Guided tours are available with advance reservation. El Paseo is also one of the venues for annual Old Spanish Days Festival events, and the courtyard is a lovely spot for lunch. Note that the main entrance is on the 800 block of State Street.

Address: 15 East De la Guerra Street, Santa Barbara, California

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara for Sightseeing

If you're visiting Santa Barbara for the first time, downtown makes a great base. Here, you'll be near the shops and restaurants along State Street and other attractions, like the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The ocean end of State Street at Cabrillo Boulevard is also a tourist hot spot, with Stearns Wharf, a beachfront bike path, and beautiful blue-water views. Here are some highly rated Santa Barbara hotels in these convenient locations:

Luxury Hotels:

  • For the ultimate beachfront pampering, away from the downtown buzz, splash out at the magnificent Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito.
  • 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.
  • The boutique Palihouse Santa Barbara, sits in a residential area, a 10-minute walk from State Street's best shopping and dining. Snuggle up in the cozy rooms or take a dip in the heated outdoor pool at this "Vintage preppy meets American Riviera"-style hotel.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Across from East Beach, the Mediterranean-style Santa Barbara Inn offers excellent value. The large rooms come with generous balconies, and rates include a continental breakfast.
  • At the homey Harbor House Inn, a short stroll from West Beach and the harbor, each of the studios is unique.
  • Across from the beach and a short stroll from State Street, the Spanish Revival style Holiday Inn Express Santa Barbara, an IHG hotel 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.
  • Crisp, colorful rooms and a retro Southwest vibe make the Agave Inn a great budget choice. Restaurants and shops are right nearby.
  • For those who prefer chain hotels, La Quinta by Wyndham Santa Barbara Downtown sits smack bang on State Street, about a 16-minute stroll from Paseo Nuevo, the popular Spanish-style outdoor shopping mall.

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