Check out our best things to do in Santa Barbara to make the most of your visit today! Santa Barbara is one of those rare California beach towns that seems like something straight out of an Italian Coast Dream Vacation book. This is why Santa Barbara is often called the “American Riviera” – a name that tries to communicate just how striking this beach town really feels. With stunningly beautiful beaches and mountain views, this town is only a couple hour drive north of Los Angeles. It’s nestled comfortably between the vast Pacific Ocean and dramatic mountains that tower overhead. With its Idyllic beaches, and it’s-always-summer-here vibe, it offers a wide range of outdoor and sightseeing experiences that will make you wish you called this place your home.
There are plenty of fun things to do, from finding great street tacos on Milpas Street, to exploring an abandoned Castle in the foothills, to taking a sunset cruise at the harbor. There are also plenty of things to do in Santa Barbara with Kids, like the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Moxi Children’s Museum, and a handful of awesome beaches to play and soak up the sun. We’ve put a great list of top things to do in Santa Barbara here for you to enjoy!
1. Stearns Wharf
Stearns wharf is a classic spot to visit because it is a large pier that also has restaurants and shops you can visit. Where else can you eat and shop above the Pacific ocean? It’s one of the top things to do in Santa barbara for a good reason – It’s right where the main shopping street in Santa Barbara (State Street) meets the ocean and you can look back from the wharf and see epic views of the mountains that surround you.
2. The Funk Zone
This newly gentrified area of Santa Barbara is close to the waterfront and walking distance to most of the shopping and popular restaurants. There are about a dozen fantastic urban wine tasting shops, a few breweries, and some highly acclaimed food destinations, making the Funk-Zone the new go-to spot for young professionals and food and wine types to spend the evening. If you are visiting Santa Barbara and are looking for one of the hot-spots, then look no further than the Santa Barbara Funk Zone.
3. Santa Barbara Harbor
The Santa Barbara harbor and waterfront district is a must if you’re just visiting Santa Barbara for the day. Here, you can watch boats come and leave the harbor, and even a kayak tour or a romantic sunset cruise on a sailboat. If you’re hungry and like seafood, this is the place to be, as there are a handful of the seafood restaurants lining the harbor. You know the seafood is fresh because you can watch the fisherman haul in their days catch right in front of your eyes. This man-made harbor is bordered by a long break wall that’s surrounded on all sides by water. Watch out though, you might get wet as waves regularly crash against the wall and soak the inattentive tourist.
4. State Street Shopping
If shopping is your thing, then State Street is your place. This is Santa Barbara’s main street and there are countless opportunities to spend your hard-earned cash. Check out Paseo Nueva, the outdoor mall, or if you want to see some boutiques, check out La Arcada (Pictured Above) for a unique shopping experience. In addition to shopping, there are many food options and 3 theatres all within walking distance of each other, so you can spend half a day hear without an issue.
5. Milpas Street Taco Stands
With a rich Spanish and Mexican heritage, it’s no wonder that Santa Barbara has some of the best Mexican food on the west coast. To get an authentic experience, Milpas Street is the place to go to find those classic street-style tacos. While this isn’t typically in the tour books, this should definitely be on your top list of things to do in Santa Barbara.
6. East Beach
East Beach in Santa Barbara is one of those quintessential California views – palm trees lining the streets, volleyball courts in the sand, and beach-goers nearly at all times of the year. If you want a larger beach to spread out on and maybe play some volleyball, then East Beach is a great option. The water here is fairly calm and protected as it is close to the harbor and break wall, which cuts down the waves and makes a great beach for swimming at.
7. Santa Barbara Mission
To really get in touch with Santa Barbara’s past, visit the Old Santa Barbara Mission, which sits on a hill overlooking most of the downtown area. The mission lawn is a popular place to picnic with family and friends, and you often see people playing lawn games like frisbee, or corn-hole on this large grassy area in front of the mission. You can take a tour of the restored mission and get a glimpse into the rich past of Santa Barbara.
8. Hendry’s Beach
Hendry’s Beach, also known as Arroyo Burro Beach is a local favorite and also a dog-owners favorite as this is one of the few beaches that encourages leash-free dogs of all sizes. If the tide is right, you can wander for literally miles up or down the coast and find all sorts of sea life on your journey. This a great beach to take a jog, or enjoy a sunset and should definitely be on your fun things to do in Santa Barbara list if you have dogs or kids along for the ride.
9. Butterfly Beach
Butterfly Beach is a beautiful and popular beach destination that sits in front of many multi-million dollar homes and the Four Seasons Hotel. From this beach, you have a great view of the harbor and of downtown. There is a bike and walking path that you can take that will lead you all way back to downtown Santa Barbara if you have the time and goes directly in front of many impressive mega-mansions that would make your inner-billionaire jealous.
10. Santa Barbara Zoo
While the Santa Barbara zoo isn’t the largest, it makes up for its lack of size with a breathtaking location. Situated on a small hill, it’s surrounded on one side by a lake and on the other, the Pacific ocean. This zoo is perfect for taking your kids to, with plenty of animals to keep them occupied, and many grassy areas for picnics and resting. The zoo even has a miniature train that you can ride all the way around the property for a “back lot” tour.
11. Cold Springs Tavern
The Cold Springs tavern is one of the hidden culinary gems of Santa Barbara. Opened originally in 1865 as a stagecoach stop, this restaurant will transport you to another time period and give you an authentic taste of the old west. Located just 20 minutes north of downtown Santa Barbara, this spot should make it on your list of interesting things to do while you’re in Santa Barbara.
12. Moxi Museum
The Moxi Museum should definitely be your fun things to do with kids in Santa Barbara list. This beautifully designed museum is full of interactive exhibits and workstations that kids will love. The Moxi is on main street in town and very close to the harbor, so you can easily get here on foot if you are parked anywhere around the downtown area.
13. Knapps Castle
Here’s a Santa Barbara hidden gem. Knapps Castle isn’t really a castle at all, but does sure seem like it once was… This is the remains of a huge house that once graced the hills above Santa Barbara, but now has fallen into a tumble of stones and staircases. It’s a short hike from the main road, but worth your time. Since Knapp’s Castle is very secluded, with no other structures around it for many miles, It has become a favorite spot for photographers and the sunset truly lights up the valley below and really gives you the feeling that magic truly in the air.
14. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
With engaging exhibits, the Museum of Natural history is a great hidden gem. It’s tucked away behind the Mission area and can be many hours of fun. Out front, there’s an incredible complete skeleton of a grey whale that you can walk inside! In addition to having some great exhibits showing dinosaur skeletons and hundreds of taxidermied animals from around the coastal area, the museum has a wide-open nature path and stream that keep kids occupied outdoors for hours.
15. The Sunken Gardens
Situated in the very heart of Downtown Santa Barbara, the courthouse and Sunken Gardens is a masterpiece of architectural and landscape design. One of the best things to do here is to take trip up to the courthouse tower, where you can take in the entirety of Santa Barbara from one spot, from the ocean, to the mountains, and everything between.
16. Lotus Land
If plants are your thing, then LotusLand is worth checking out. This massive botanical garden sits on private property in the heart of the Montecito area of Santa barbara. This 37-acre property was turned into a lush garden by a famous opera singer in 1941 and is maintained by a small army of gardeners. Tickets must be purchased to tour this property, but it is quite worth it.