Featuring near-perfect year-round weather, amazing stretches of mountain-strewn coastline, and some of the country’s most exclusive zip codes, it’s no wonder that magnificent Santa Barbara is often referred to as America’s Riviera.
The coastal city is home to about 100,000 residents and is located approximately 140 kilometers northwest of downtown LA.
Though its exclusive hotels, resorts, restaurants, and swank shopping venues are usually the exclusive realm of the fabulously chic and wealthy, it’s a popular day-trip destination for those interested in experiencing the good life before heading back to their moderate accommodations in nearby cities.
Below are 15 things to do in and around Santa Barbara.
1. Shoreline Park
Though Santa Barbara’s natural attractions tend to get the most attention, the city’s skyline is pretty impressive as well. It is best seen from Shoreline Park in the fading afternoon light.
Shoreline Park is located in the Santa Ynez Mountains and includes nearly 15 acres of coastal bluffs, from which it’s easy to see the Pacific Ocean and the city below. Previous guests have even seen frolicking whales on clear days.
The park’s amenities include a playground, picnic and shaded seating areas, and a number of well-marked trails.
Dogs are allowed, but they’ll need to remain leashed except in designated areas.
2. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Spread across nearly 80 acres just off Mission Canyon Road, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is home to hundreds of local plant, flower, and tree species.
The garden has been around for nearly 100 years and even includes a stand of majestic California Redwoods that stretch hundreds of feet into the blue skies above.
There’s also a historic Native American dam built in the early years of the 19th century across Mission Creek. A multitude of trails connect each distinct area; they are relatively flat and dotted with informative plaques describing the natural and humanmade things you’re seeing.
3. Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market
There’s really no better way to meet locals and get informed when visiting a new area than by spending a few hours at a local farmers market.
The Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market has been around since 1983; it’s one of many affiliated markets held in nearby towns on multiple days of the week.
Most of the vendors are local farmers and entrepreneurs; they sell everything from organic olive oil and California nuts to arts and crafts, jewelry, and prepared food items like honey and salsa.
The Santa Barbara market is held on Anacapa Street and is open one day during the week and one on the weekend seasonally.
4. The Old Mission
For more than a century, Spanish missionaries established numerous outposts in California in an altogether unsuccessful attempt to convert the area’s Native Americans to Roman Catholicism.
Santa Barbara’s Old Mission was originally established in the 1780s; all these years later, it’s still a functioning place of worship.
The mission also features a museum chock full of fascinating artifacts and archaeological remnants, including religious memorabilia, historic photos, and first-hand accounts of the missionaries who served in the area.
Located just a few minutes from the downtown area, it’s only open seasonally, so check their website or give them a call before heading out.
5. Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
Apparently, the mild weather along the Pacific coast in Santa Barbara is conducive to growing a variety of orchid species, because the area is home to one of the country’s most renowned orchid estates.
The Santa Barbara Orchid Estate was founded in 1957 and specializes in growing a variety of orchids and hybrids that don’t require the controlled conditions found inside greenhouses.
Guided tours, guest speakers, and botany exhibitions are frequently available, and the facility is aptly located on Orchid Drive in Santa Barbara.
The estate is comprised of nearly five acres and is open to visitors throughout the year.
6. Stearns Wharf
With a history dating back to the early 1870s, Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara is the Golden State’s most aged wooden wharf and has been in continuous use since it was constructed.
Though its heyday as a freight port is largely a thing of the past, the area on State Street has recently been converted into a hip dining and shopping attraction that includes more than a dozen individual businesses.
The wharf is also home to a bustling fish market, a maritime museum, and some of the best seafood restaurants in the area.
It’s an excellent place for an afternoon walk or happy hour with friends, and water taxi tours are available as well.
7. Take a Whale Watching Tour
Though whales are more often associated with cold water climes like those found in the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica, the relatively warm waters off the Santa Barbara coast are popular whale watching areas for much of the year.
The whale watching season generally lasts from the spring through the early fall, when a variety of whale species make their migrations through the nutrient-rich waters en route to their annual calving grounds.
Common sightings include humpback, blue, and fin whales, as well as several dolphin species.
A number of tour operators work in the area; excursions usually last between a few hours and half a day.
8. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Like many of Santa Barbara’s premier attractions, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has a story that stretches well back into the early 20th century when the area was much more rural than it is now.
The museum is located in a scenic canyon just behind the aforementioned Spanish Mission. Its grounds are spread across more than a dozen acres comprising architecturally unique outbuildings and serene natural surroundings.
The city’s oldest museum, it includes a number of impressive exhibits focusing on the area’s maritime history, abundant wildlife, and interesting history.
There’s also a nature trail that follows Mission Creek, from which it’s common to see a variety of wildlife species.
9. State Street
Due to its hustle and bustle, shops, galleries, eateries, and theaters, State Street is often referred to as Santa Barbara’s heart.
It was designed to resemble a European outdoor market. For those staying nearby who’d rather not walk, it’s easy to get to using one of the shuttle buses that run from numerous city locations.
The area tends to come alive during the late afternoon and early evening, when harried travelers and locals relax with appetizers and cool drinks. During the summer months, there’s often live entertainment and museum and gallery events as well.
10. El Presidio
In addition to its mission, the California coastline in Santa Barbara is also home to a Spanish fort built more than 200 years ago.
Though it was once a front line of defense for Spain’s military, commercial, and religious enterprises in the area, El Presidio now sits within a six-acre state park with more than a dozen renovated buildings set around a central fortified plaza.
In addition to culture and world history, visitors will learn about the Native Americans who called the area home for generations before the arrival of the foreign colonialists in the mid-18th century.
The park is conveniently located just a few blocks from downtown Santa Barbara.
11. Los Agaves
Located on North Milpas Street in Santa Barbara, Los Agaves is the perfect lunch or dinner destination for weary explorers looking to refill their empty tanks without spending an arm and a leg.
Perennial menu favorites include seafood burritos, chicken enchiladas, and crispy beef tacos – all of which come with a mouthwatering selection of homemade sauces and salsas that range from sweet, light and tangy to thick, dark, and spicy.
The restaurant also has several combination platter options that include sides like rice and beans. These are great options for those who’d rather not tackle a massive entrée on their own.
12. Lobero Theater
As a landing point for Spanish explorers long before the United States was officially founded, the Santa Barbara area is home to many of the state’s oldest historical attractions.
The Lobero Theater was originally built in the 1870s. Though it has been renovated extensively over the years, it’s been in continuous use since its founding, making it the oldest theater of its kind in California.
Throughout the year, the theater hosts a number of productions, including professional and community-based performances that range from ballet and traditional dance to chamber orchestra and contemporary music like jazz.
The theater is located on East Canon Perdido Street in downtown Santa Barbara.
13. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
For lovers of nautical history, there’s no better place to spend a few hours than the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum on Harbor Way.
The museum boasts one of the city’s most impressive collections of local historical memorabilia, including equipment, weapons, maps, art, and interactive exhibits that engage and entertain old and young visitors alike.
Visitors may show themselves around or sign up for one of the decent-led tours that usually lasts about an hour.
The museum’s staff also offers a number of special educational programs throughout the year, so consider checking the calendar of events on their website before planning your trip.
14. Ganna Walska Lotusland
Though Polish opera icons, opulent California homes, and expansive lotus gardens aren’t typically associated with one another, they’re all key elements in one of Santa Barbara’s most unique attractions.
During the middle portion of the 20th century, Ganna Walska was a Polish opera singer who lived on a 40-acre estate in Santa Barbara. Before her death in 1984, she transformed it into one of the area’s most impressive natural wonderlands.
The home’s sprawling grounds include thousands of lotus plants from all over the world; when they’re in bloom, the sight is nothing short of breathtaking.
The home and gardens are about eight kilometers east of Santa Barbara in Montecito.
15. Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Located on State Street in the downtown area, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art was founded more than 70 years ago. It now includes an impressive collection featuring more than 25,000 individual works of art.
The museum is spread over tens of thousands of square feet of exhibit area and features pieces from Asian, European, and American artists.
The venue includes a library, café, gift shop, and an auditorium for special activities that include guest speakers, seminars, and live music.
Guided tours are great options for those looking to make the most of their visit by benefiting from the local docent’s interesting and educational insights.