Not many people know that the city of Santa Barbara was originally named La Laguna de Concepcion and didn’t actually become “Santa Barbara” until 1602. The story goes that the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed during a massive storm through the Channel islands and La Laguna de Concepcion on December 4, 1602.
That was the eve of St. Barbara’s Feast Day, a holiday dedicated to the patron saint of mariners and architecture. Thus the city was named after Saint Barbara, the patron saint.
After the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in Santa Barbara, the city became a seaside tourist town. In 1925 an earthquake damaged much of the city, so many buildings were restored in Spanish colonial revival style. In addition, Santa Barbara’s adobe character is preserved by law.
Not surprisingly, Santa Barbara’s history is ripe with Spanish influence, from Spanish revival architecture to Spanish street names and culture. In addition, you can tour buildings such as the Mission Santa Barbara and El Presidio de Santa Barbara that display the Spanish colonial revival style.
Located near the Santa Ynez Mountains and referred to as the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara is a beautiful place to visit. Just a few steps away from the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara has plenty of sandy beaches, including Hendry’s Beach, East Beach, West Beach, Arroyo Burro Beach Park, and Butterfly Beach.
There are many fun things to do in Santa Barbara, California whether you want to see blue whales, Stears Wharf, lush botanic gardens, or enjoy food walking tours.
Table of Contents
- Best & Fun Things to do in Santa Barbara, California
- 1. Santa Barbara Zoo
- 2. Santa Barbara Harbor
- 3. Refugio State Beach
- 4. Santa Barbara Museum of Maritime History
- 5. Santa Barbara Mission
- 6. Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
- 7. Shoreline Park
- 8. Santa Barbara Post Office
- 9. Butterfly Beach
- 10. Leadbetter Beach
- 11. Santa Barbara County Courthouse
- 12. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
- 13. Funk Zone
- 14. Santa Ynez Wine Trail
- Getting around Santa Barbara, CA
- Is Santa Barbara, California, worth visiting?
- What is Santa Barbara, California, known for?
- What are the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California?
- What are some fun things to do in Santa Barbara, California, when it’s raining?
- What are some fun things to do in Santa Barbara, California, with kids?
If you are looking for things to do in Santa Barbara, look no further. Santa Barbara has something for everyone: water activities, art galleries, museums, wine tasting, fresh seafood, and street art. If you’re short on time, these are our top Santa Barbara recommendations!
- Most significant landmark – Mission Santa Barbara
- Best park – Shoreline Park
- Best free activity – Leadbetter Beach
- Best activity for kids – Santa Barbara Zoo
- Best activity for adults – Santa Barbara County Courthouse
- Best food – El Paseo
- Best nightlife – The Good Lion
- Best all-around accommodation – Brisas del Mar, Inn at the Beach
Best & Fun Things to do in Santa Barbara, California
1. Santa Barbara Zoo
Address: 500 Nin os Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93103
The Santa Barbara Zoo has almost 150 species of mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles. As a zoo visitor, you can see more than 500 animals in their natural exhibits.
The zoo has barnyard animals such as rabbits, sheep, and goats and big cats such as lions and leopards. Some of the most popular animals are probably gorillas, kangaroos, and giraffes. Of course, the Santa Barbara Zoo also has smaller mammals such as adorable meerkats, hedgehogs, and otters.
The zoo is a fantastic attraction for adults and children alike. Not only can you take the train around the zoo, but you can also hand feed giraffes, watch the zookeepers put together meals for the animals, and play in the zoo’s play area.
For an extra fee but an amazing experience, you can try one of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s animal encounters.
Have you ever wanted to toss a fish to some hungry penguins? Or have you ever seen a leopard being trained by a zookeeper? Do you want to hand feed a tortoise? Do you want to get up close and personal with armadillos, frogs, or barnyard animals?
While an animal encounter isn’t a required experience, it certainly makes the trip an unforgettable time.
Regardless of what you see or do, the Santa Barbara Zoo is one of the best Santa Barbara attractions. It ranks as one of the top things to do in Santa Barbara, California, with kids.
If fleeting time is a factor and you’d still like to check out the zoo, you can hit it up briefly on this Santa Barbara: City Highlights Bike Tour.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Riverside, California
2. Santa Barbara Harbor
Address: 132-A Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
The Santa Barbara Harbor is the perfect place to spend the day stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, sailing, or whale watching. This historic working harbor is also the launchpad for deep-sea fishing and scuba diving adventures.
Stearns Wharf, located in Santa Barbara Harbor, is the oldest working wooden wharf in California. Supported by over 2,300 pilings, Stearns Wharf is also 2,300feet long. Stearns Wharf includes shops, restaurants, and a small aquarium, as well as gorgeous views of the Harbor.
When you’re tired after a day of being on the water, you can relax and watch the sunset or shop for souvenirs.
If you prefer to stay ashore, visit the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum to learn about Santa Barbara’s nautical history. You can also watch the boats come and go on the Santa Barbara channel.
The Santa Barbara Harbor also hosts many local events, including markets, festivals, and parades. Locals might say that the harbor is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California.
Want to feel the ocean breeze from a catamaran in the harbor? Consider taking a relaxing sunset cruise!
If you want a beautiful and relaxing place to stay near the harbor, The Brisas del Mar Inn is a highly-rated hotel close to many of Santa Barbara’s attractions. Not only do they offer free bicycle rentals, but they have an outdoor pool and hot tub for relaxation after a day of sightseeing.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Brentwood, California
3. Refugio State Beach
Address: 10 Refugio Beach Rd, Goleta, CA 93117
Refugio State Beach is a 30-minute drive west of Santa Barbara in Goleta, California. The Santa Barbara coast has many beaches to choose from, but if you’re looking for a calm and peaceful experience, Refugio State Beach might be for you.
Although it’s a state beach, it’s a secluded setting away from the hustle and bustle of city beaches. In addition, the water is crystal clear and calm, allowing for amazing fishing, kayaking, and swimming.
From the shore, you can see the Channel islands clearly. If you are watching carefully, you may also see dolphins, sea lions, or seals!
While the beach is a major attraction, many beachgoers like the 5-mile hike and bike trail that goes between Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach.
Consider reserving a campsite for your visit. Then you can watch the sunset from your campsite and wake up to the gorgeous water views.
You can reserve campsites through the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Nothing beats eating dinner around picnic tables while watching the marine life. In addition, should you need camping essentials, the state park has a small general store with a snack bar near the shoreline.
If your idea of a perfect day is kayaking with dolphins and sea otters, look no further than this Haskell’s Beach Kayaking Tour.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Lone Pine, California
4. Santa Barbara Museum of Maritime History
Address: 113 Harbor Way STE 190, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
Located at the Santa Barbara Harbor, the Santa Barbara Museum of Maritime History is one of the best attractions for families. This is a fantastic spot for curious children who love hands-on exhibits and films about nautical history.
The Santa Barbara Channel has 13,000 years of history which the museum displays. Adults and children alike will enjoy looking through an actual periscope and the Point Conception Lighthouse lens.
Other historical artifacts include a canoe from the Chumash Indians and exhibits on local shipwrecks. More modern exhibits include stories of sport fishing, commercial fisheries, and the oil spill from the 1960s.
The newest exhibit, “Whales Are Superheroes!” focuses on the roles that whales play in climate change. While this exhibit will appeal to any age, its aesthetic inspiration comes from graphic novels and comics to intrigue even the youngest maritime fans.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Maritime History opened in 2000 in the old Naval Reserve Building. Its mission was to interpret and share the rich history of the Santa Barbara Channel. The founders’ goal was to create a place where visitors could learn about maritime history and culture without leaving Santa Barbara.
If you have a large group wanting to tour the museum, fill out this form on their website.
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5. Santa Barbara Mission
Address: 2201 Laguna St, Santa Barbara, CA 93105
Old Mission Santa Barbara has been a gathering place and spiritual home since its establishment in 1786. It was the tenth California mission built by the Spanish Franciscans, founded on the Feast of Saint Barbara on December 4, 1786.
Today the Santa Barbara Mission includes a museum, historic garden, gift shop, cemetery, and mausoleum. In addition, it is home to a large community of Franciscan Friars and Saint Barbara Parish.
Of the twenty-one California missions, the Santa Barbara Mission is the only one that has been under the continuous guidance and leadership of the Franciscan Friars since its creation in 1786. In addition, this mission has the oldest singing tradition of the California missions.
There have been many changes since the mission was established over 200 years ago, including adding and rebuilding several churches. The “Queen of the Missions” still stands despite two earthquakes and social and political turmoil.
Mission Santa Barbara provides a unique perspective of the past and will always be a gathering place for the community.
If you don’t have time to tour the Mission’s grounds, the Santa Barbara Trolley Tour makes a ten-minute stop to review the basic history.
See Related: Best Things to do in Outer Banks, North Carolina
6. Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
Address: 1250 Orchid Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93111
The Santa Barbara Orchid Estate was established in 1957 and is home to one of the largest collections of orchids in the world. The estate consists of 5 acres of both orchids and hybrids.
The estate was founded by Robert Chrisman, just steps away from the Pacific Ocean. The estate’s manager, Paul, purchased the estate in 1967, and after his retirement in 1986, Paul’s children took over ownership.
You don’t have to be a connoisseur of orchids to enjoy the estate. Whether you’re a seasoned grower of orchids or just an admirer from afar, you will enjoy the large variety of orchids.
Not only do they have 5 acres of orchids to view, but they are also a specialty retail nursery for visitors wanting to grow orchids in coastal California. In addition, the estate features orchid species and hybrids that can be grown outdoors.
While orchids may not be the first thing on your child’s mind, the grounds are beautiful and colorful, and the estate has a very friendly staff. This makes it a good family experience for young and old alike.
Check out the website for more information on the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate.
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7. Shoreline Park
Address: Shoreline Dr & Santa Rosa Place, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
Shoreline Park provides a fabulous view of Santa Barbara Harbor and the nearby mountains. This is a fantastic place for families with a playground and beautiful views.
Children and adults can walk, skate, or throw a frisbee. You can also use binoculars for whale or dolphin watches. You must take the narrow wooden stairs near the center of Shoreline Park to get down to the beach.
When the tide is low, there is a tidal pool area that is beautiful and private. At high tide, the beach is covered with water.
West of Shoreline Park is Thousand Steps Beach, while Leadbetter Beach is just a few minutes east.
Shoreline Park is a great spot for surfing, with many lessons available from local companies. If you’ve always wanted to learn how to surf, now’s your time! This surf lesson might be just what you need.
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8. Santa Barbara Post Office
Address: 836 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93102
When visiting a new city, your first thought probably isn’t to visit their post office.
However, the post office was designed and built in the 1930s in the Spanish revival architecture. The Santa Barbara Post Office’s terra cotta roof and white stuccoed walls display the post office’s Spanish colonial style.
After 85 years, the post office has had no changes to the exterior of the building and few changes to the interior. The interior of the building is still the original, except the bank-teller windows were replaced with open counters in the 1970s. The landscaping has also remained the same after all of these years!
The post office’s interior includes murals completed by William Atkinson in 1937. One of these murals shows “The Transportation of the Mail.”
The Presidio neighborhood in Santa Barbara includes many historic buildings, including the Lobero Theater, the El Paseo, and the El Presidio complex.
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9. Butterfly Beach
Address: 1260 Channel Drive Montecito, CA
Butterfly Beach is easily accessible by car or bike from Downtown Santa Barbara. Take Highway 101 to Olive Mill Road, which turns into Channel Drive. As you are near the shoreline, Channel Drive will bend to the left. Park on either side of Channel Drive or Butterfly Lane if Channel Drive is full.
If you plan on riding a bike, take the 3-mile Cabrillo Blvd bike path from Stearns Wharf. It’s an easy ride on a flat, paved trail. In addition, when the parking lots fill up quickly on weekends, riding a bike can be an advantage.
This awesome beach is located in Montecito, a laid-back area near Santa Barbara. Its location gives you a unique opportunity to watch both sunrises and sunsets. The beach is a local favorite because the water is perfect for surfing, swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, or kayaking.
Visitors to Butterfly Beach can see the Channel Islands and may also see whales or dolphins in the distance.
Butterfly Beach is a fantastic option for all ages. Adults can sit back and read a book or frolic in the water with their families. No matter what you do here, you will have a good time.
If you want to see Butterfly Beach and its beautiful waves, why not rent an electric bike and blissfully ride on the sand? No experience with e-bikes is required!
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10. Leadbetter Beach
Address: 801 Shoreline Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93109
Located next to Santa Barbara Harbor, Leadbetter Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the area. Because it’s also at the base of Santa Barbara City College, it’s often full of college students and tourists.
Leadbetter Beach is known for its green grass, large sandy shoreline, and blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The most popular activities include stand-up paddleboarding, swimming, kayaking, and surfing. In addition, many yoga studios offer waterfront classes on the beach with its flat sand and fresh ocean air.
This popular beach provides picnic tables, outdoor showers, and restrooms.
If you get hungry at the beach but didn’t pack a picnic, you can head to Shoreline Cafe on the beach.
You can also walk to the shoreline and take in the view of the Channel Islands and do Some whale watching. Without a doubt, Leadbetter Beach is one of the best places to visit in Santa Barbara, California.
Would you rather see seals and dolphins from the comfort of a kayak? This kayak tour is led by an experienced guide who can show you where to find these beautiful creatures.
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11. Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Address: 1100 Anacapa St. Santa Barbara, CA
Just like no one would think to visit a post office to see Spanish colonial design, most people wouldn’t think that a courthouse would be one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. However, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful exhibitions of Spanish architecture.
Designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, the courthouse is a fully operational iconic landmark.
It is recognized for its clock tower, elegant arches, and Spanish red tile roofs. There are self-guided tours giving visitors a history lesson with beautiful and ornate architecture and hand-painted murals.
In addition, you can see beautiful views of Santa Barbara from the top of the clock tower. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a fun outing for both adults and children with the architecture and views from the clock tower.
So, if you’re wondering what to do in Santa Barbara, California, don’t forget this architectural gem!
Why not enjoy a scavenger hunt? Organize one with your group, whether small or large, to discover local landmarks in a fun excursion across town!
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12. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
Address: 123 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
El Presidio de Santa Barbara is one of the city’s oldest buildings, originally developed as the Spanish governmental center and military headquarters in 1782. Three other Spanish presidios existed in Monterey, San Diego, and San Francisco.
Today, the El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park preserves four of the old Spanish military outposts that are still on the grounds of El Presidio.
Spanish soldiers used the native Chumash Indians to build the military outposts, using adobe bricks and sandstone boulders. The Chumash also used timber, red clay, and whitewash.
These outposts protected the Spanish settlers from foreign invasion in addition to acting as military headquarters.
The Presidio de Santa Barbara was designed as a quadrangle, with an outer wall built for defense with two cannon bastions protecting the military headquarters. The center of the quadrangle is the Plaza de Armas, with the most prominent building being the Chapel and bell tower. This chapel was Santa Barbara’s first church.
The Presidio is a historical site with exhibits and programs designed for the entire family. Visiting the Presidio is easily one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara, California.
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13. Funk Zone
Address: between State Street and Garden Street, and Montecito Street to Cabrillo Boulevard.
What other city do you know that has an area called the Funk Zone?
Adjacent to the Amtrak station, the Funk Zone consists of shops, art galleries, tasting rooms, and cafes between the Pacific Ocean and Highway 101. Over the past few decades, this funky and artistic neighborhood near Cabrillo Blvd. and State Street has become a destination for locals and tourists alike.
This funky area has a unique history in lumber, produce, fishing, and manufacturing, but is now a destination for locals and tourists alike.
Artists began flocking to the area a few decades ago for the unique industrial space, and the area has grown tremendously since then. Walking around the Funk Zone, you’ll see the love of art in the area with street art, contemporary art, and graffiti murals.
In addition to art galleries, you’ll find various dining options, retail shops, and tasting rooms.
The Funk Zone is a favorite for adults and groups who want to enjoy wine, art, and delightful Santa Barbara fare. It’s quickly becoming one of the best Santa Barbara, California, tourist attractions.
Not sure where to start or what to do in the Funk Zone? This tour includes three different local eateries, a microbrewery, two wineries, and a distillery! The small group tour guide also teaches how to take the best photos of your food in the Funk Zone.
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14. Santa Ynez Wine Trail
Address: Off of Highway 154, in Santa Ynez valley
This amazing wine trail is located off Highway 154 near the Santa Ynez Mountains. The wine trail is roughly a 45-minute drive from Santa Barbara over the mountains.
While Santa Barbara has tasting rooms in the Funk Zone, it’s worth heading to visit over twenty wineries (although maybe not all on the same day!).
There is a long history of winemaking in Santa Barbara County, even before California was an official state in 1850. Some say that the area’s winemaking began as early as 1800. With over 200 years of grape growing and winemaking experience, Santa Barbara County continues to combine traditional techniques with the latest in vineyard innovations.
There are many micro-climates within the Santa Barbara area, which allows for the successful growth of a range of grape varieties. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc are the top four varietals planted in the valley, but the area also produces everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to lesser-known Mourvedre.
If you don’t want to drive, there are many options for private tours, and there is also a bus service from Santa Barbara called the Clean Air Express. They offer Saturday service between the valley and Santa Barbara.
If this sounds like your thing, but you want to see some of the smaller production wineries, you might like this tour. A luxury vehicle takes you through the Ynez Valley Wine Trail for five hours, stopping at small production wineries. Walk the vineyards with winemakers and tour production facilities, and of course, try the delicious wine.
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Getting around Santa Barbara, CA
For all the attractions in Santa Barbara, it’s actually a relatively small town. Much of the city is pedestrian-friendly, so bring comfortable walking shoes if you plan on walking during your stay.
There is also public transportation in the area through the Santa Barbara MTD. Their website offers schedules to see if taking the city bus will work for you.
And if you’re traveling with a large group, you may want to book transportation to various attractions in and around the area. Some private charter services include EOS Transportation and Limo Link Transportation.
Is Santa Barbara, California, worth visiting?
Absolutely! Although Santa Barbara is a small town, there are plenty of tourist attractions to keep you entertained. Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is a city rich in history on the beautiful Pacific coast. When you visit Santa Barbara, you can see marine life off of California’s oldest working wharf in the United States, Stearns Wharf, or see beautiful Asian art collections at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. There are many Santa Barbara attractions, including Casa del Herrero, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and State Street downtown.
What is Santa Barbara, California, known for?
Santa Barbara is known for its beautiful sandy beaches on the Pacific coast, such as Arroyo Burro Beach, West Beach, and East Beach. California’s oldest wharf, Stearns Wharf, is a favorite place to dine, shop, and view Santa Barbara’s harbor. Also, the city’s natural history is unparalleled, with gorgeous mountain and ocean views.
What are the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California?
Downtown Santa Barbara has many fun things to do, including dining, shopping, and beautiful architecture. You’ll also find historical landmarks such as the Granada Theater and the County Courthouse in downtown Santa Barbara. La Arcada on State Street is a quaint shopping area with fun dining options and boutique shopping. Also, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a fantastic attraction if you are a plant lover.
What are some fun things to do in Santa Barbara, California, when it’s raining?
Thankfully, Santa Barbara doesn’t have many rainy days, but if you encounter rain, there are still plenty of fun things to do. Check out one of Santa Barbara’s museums- either the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, the Santa Barbara Courthouse, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, or Casa del Herrero. In addition, you can do a self-guided tour of the many wineries and do wine tasting indoors.
What are some fun things to do in Santa Barbara, California, with kids?
Kids will enjoy the wildlife at the Santa Barbara Zoo and the whale watching at Stearns Wharf. Head to Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History for more educational hands-on learning. In addition, you can always visit the Santa Barbara Farmers Market in downtown Santa Barbara for fresh fruit and produce. If the kids want a beach day, head to Arroyo Burro Beach Park.
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