Local’s Guide to the Top 10 Things to do in Santa Barbara

  • Activities
  • by HANA-LEE SEDGWICK
  • on SEPTEMBER 2, 2021
  • 1536
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Courtesy of Gabriela Herman
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With its pristine beaches, expansive ocean views, and mountainous backdrop, Santa Barbara is certainly one of the most picturesque places in California, let alone the world. Natural beauty aside, this idyllic seaside destination offers much more than just good photo ops (though there are plenty of those to be found); it’s actually a great place for people of all ages to visit, thanks to the plethora of diverse activities and attractions available at one’s fingertips. From outdoor activities to world-class wine and restaurants, historical sights to interesting museums, here are the top 10 things to do in Santa Barbara.

COVID-19 Note: Please check with businesses in advance to confirm opening hours and safety protocols. Currently, masks are required indoors and some attractions are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter.

Get Out On The Water

Santa Barbara Sailing Center, Courtesy of Blake Bronstad

Given its coastal location, a visit to Santa Barbara is just not complete without some ocean-related activities, regardless of the time of year you visit. For an exceptional vantage point of the Santa Barbara coastline and a chance to spot dolphins and seals, hop aboard the 41-foot Sunset Kidd sailing yacht, or venture out for a scenic sail on Santa Barbara Sailing Center’s Double Dolphin catamaran. Both companies also offer private charters in addition to public cruises, so you can tailor your day at sea to fit your needs.

If you’re looking for a more casual open water activity on your own time, rent kayaks or stand-up paddle boards from the SB Sailing Center or from Paddle Sports Center. Depending on the time of year, you may also want to consider a whale watching expedition, such as with the Condor Express or Celebration Cruises, which always makes for an exciting day at sea.

Visit Some Historical Sites

Courtesy of Unsplash | Devin Rice

Known as the “Queen of the Missions,” the Old Mission Santa Barbara is a must-see historical landmark in Santa Barbara, originally founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1786. After touring the parish, museum, and mausoleum, head across the street to the Santa Barbara Mission’s own grassy park and rose garden. Home to over 1,500 different types of roses, it’s a favorite spot for locals to gather for a picnic or to let the kids run around.

Another historical site worth seeing is El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, located right in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Originally founded in 1782, this one-time Spanish military outpost has since been restored and reconstructed, offering visitors a glimpse into the original living quarters of the soldiers and their families who resided in the adobes. It’s also conveniently located close to coffee shops and boutiques, should you need some caffeine or retail therepy before or after.

Admire the Architecture

Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Courtesy of Jay Sinclair

Santa Barbara is known for its Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture, where white stucco walled buildings adorned with red tiled roofs are both charming and beautiful. While you could easily walk around and get inspired, you’ll want to make a point to visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Likely to be one of the most visually stunning public buildings you’ll encounter in the U.S., this architectural delight was completed in 1929 and stands out for its Spanish Colonial design and lushly landscaped grounds. The colorful tiles and ornate architectural details may be the obvious draw for out-of-towners, but the (still active) Santa Barbara County Courthouse also provides an exceptional vantage point of downtown from its clock tower, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains.

Architecture buffs will also appreciate a visit to Casa del Herrero (House of the Blacksmith). Designed by George Washington Smith, this Montecito estate from the 1920s is one of the finest examples of Spanish revival architecture in America, and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Eat & Drink Downtown

Carlitos Cafe y Cantina, Arlington Plaza, Courtesy of Cecilia Rosell

Though Santa Barbara’s diverse neighborhoods each offer a different taste of the area, there are a few main neighborhoods ideal for eating and drinking to your heart’s content. Once an abandoned warehouse district, the Funk Zone is now a must-visit spot for food and drink, thanks to the plethora of wine tasting rooms, breweries, and hip restaurants. The historic Presidio neighborhood is another top spot if you’re looking to fill the belly, where you’ll find a diverse array of restaurants, coffee shops, and wine tasting rooms.

Of course, you can pretty much stop anywhere along State Street to eat and drink well; Lower State Street (along on the 500 and 600 blocks) includes lively breweries, popular sports bars, and packed restaurants, along with a party-like atmosphere, while the Arts District (along the 1200 and 1300 blocks) features everything from high-end sushi to gourmet Mexican to Italian eateries and more, plus a couple of cocktail bars. Simply put: come ready to eat and drink when visiting Santa Barbara.

Visit the Zoo

Santa Barbara Zoo, Courtesy of Cecilia Rosell

If you’re looking for a family-friendly activity the kids (and adults) will adore, look no further than the Santa Barbara Zoo, a quaint and picturesque place to spot animals such as lions, penguins, gorillas, and otters. For a memorable zoo experience, have the kids feed the giraffes then hop aboard the train for a tour around the zoo’s perimeter. The cool thing about the Santa Barbara Zoo is that it’s totally doable in a couple of hours, leaving more time to explore around town the rest of the day.

Visit a Park or Garden

Lotusland, Courtesy of Lotusland

Santa Barbara has a plethora of beautiful parks and gardens, each offering something special. One of the most visited is Ganna Walska Lotusland. Once home to the famous Polish opera singer/socialite Madame Ganna Walska, who spent 44 years creating this impressive estate turned public garden, Lotusland is now recognized as one of the ten best gardens in the world. Here you’ll find exotic plants, unique gardens, and whimsical details throughout its 37 acres, which you can admire during a self-guided tour. Another must-see for horticulture fans is the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, where you can spend an hour or two meandering around the 5.5 miles of walking paths while exploring California’s native plants, wildflowers, and towering Redwood trees. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden also has an on-site nursery, open year-round.

As far as parks go, Alice Keck Memorial Garden is a picturesque destination in downtown Santa Barbara, home to 75 different tree and plant species. It’s also got grassy areas, a gazebo, and a pond with resident ducks and turtles. Across the street is Alameda Park, a favorite among families due to the large “Kid’s World” playground structure. If you’re looking for a park with a view, Franceschi Park, an urban park located on Santa Barbara’s Riviera, offers spectacular views of the city. Once home to famed botanist Francesco Franceschi, the park features several types of exotic plants, but the pristine city views are what will leave a lasting impression. Across town, Shoreline Park, situated on a bluff above Leadbetter Beach, is a popular kid-friendly spot to walk, BBQ, play, or just take in views of the ocean, while nearby Douglas Family Preserve is another bluff-top park, ideal for ocean-view walks amidst the Eucalyptus trees — especially great if you have the dogs in tow, as off-leash dog use is allowed.

Explore the Waterfront

Courtesy of Unsplash | Marco Carrillo

You can’t visit Santa Barbara without making a point to experience the Waterfront area, where you’ll find the iconic Stearns Wharf jutting out over the ocean and the always lively Santa Barbara Harbor. Walk out onto Stearns Wharf for a chance to spot seals or pelicans, then visit the Sea Center aquarium, grab some fresh seafood, or simply take in the great views of Santa Barbara. If you want to get to the harbor from there, you can opt to take a long leisurely stroll beside West Beach or, for a more scenic experience, hop aboard the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi, which will take you right into the Harbor. Once there, there are plenty of places to eat and drink while checking out the boats.

Get Your Art Fix

Courtesy of Unsplash | Alonso Reyes

Santa Barbara is home to several art museums and galleries, each featuring a unique display of works from local, national, and/or international artists. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which recently got a facelift, features an impressive 25,000 works of art from throughout the ages, while the Museum of Contemporary Art has unique exhibitions and programming highlighting modern styles of art. There are at least half a dozen galleries you can walk to from either museum, featuring collections of fine art prints, paintings, drawings, and photography.

Hit the Beach

Butterfly Beach, Courtesy of Jay Sinclair

Whether you’re looking to enjoy a quiet beach walk, a game of beach volleyball, or just want to let the dogs run around, Santa Barbara’s many beaches have you covered. East Beach is the place to be if you want to spend a day playing beach volleyball, as there are numerous courts, but it’s also a popular beach for families, thanks to a playground and nearby parking. In Montecito, Butterfly Beach and Miramar Beach may not have much in the way of facilities, but these two picturesque beaches are great for beach walks, picnics, and splashing in the waves. Just be wary of the tide schedule, since there’s limited sand available when it’s high tide. Looking for a super dog-friendly beach? Then head to Arroyo Burro, where you can let the dogs run around sans leashes.

Catch a Show

Granada Theatre, Courtesy of Granada Theatre

Santa Barbara is big on its music and theater, thanks, in part, to the top-notch performance venues around town. As California’s longest continuously operating theater, the intimate Lobero Theatre, founded in 1873, continues to draw a variety of noteworthy musical acts and performers, while nearby, the beautiful Granada Theatre plays host to theatrical and musical performances, ballet, and opera. Another noteworthy venue is the Arlington Theatre, built in 1930, which continues to showcase movies, bands, and comedic acts.

Drawing the largest crowds and biggest names in music and comedy is the Santa Barbara Bowl, a 4,562-seat open-air amphitheatre that doesn’t have a bad seat in the house. Just note that you’ll have to climb quite a bit of stairs if you want to admire the stunning views from the terrace bar at the top. Yes, more views! (In case you haven’t noticed, many Santa Barbara attractions are all about the views.)

Courtesy of Unsplash | OC Gonzalez

There are plenty more fun things to do in Santa Barbara, as well as in the surrounding areas like Goleta and the Santa Ynez Valley, so much so that you may need more than a couple of days to truly experience the beauty and charm of this coastal paradise. But whatever you choose to fill your time with, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself planning your next getaway to Santa Barbara well before you get home!


First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Santa Barbara

12 Best Santa Barbara Wineries to Visit


Author

Hana-Lee Sedgwick

Hana-Lee Sedgwick is a writer and editor based in her hometown of Santa Barbara, California. A Certified Specialist of Wine and Sommelier, Hana-Lee specializes in all things wine, food, and travel, and her work regularly appears in publications such as The Tasting Panel, Edible, and Food & Home. Whether for work or play, she never tires of exploring California wine country. Follow her on Instagram at @wanderandwine or visit her blog, wanderandwine.com.

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