1. Mission Santa Barbara, 2. Stearns Wharf, 3. Climb the Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse, 4. Bike, Skate, or Stroll along the Cabrillo Bike Path, 5. Relax on Santa Barbara's Beaches, 6. Santa Barbara Zoo, 7. Go Whale Watching, 8. Visit Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center, 9. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, 10. See the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum & Santa Barbara Harbor. Santa Barbara: The name alone conjures images of beautiful palm-fringed beaches, charming homes, and elegant Spanish architecture. Here is a list of the top 10 best things to do in Santa Barbara that you shouldn't miss
- Mission Santa Barbara
- Stearns Wharf
- Climb the Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse
- Bike, Skate, or Stroll along the Cabrillo Bike Path
- Relax on Santa Barbara’s Beaches
- Santa Barbara Zoo
- Go Whale Watching
- Visit Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center
- MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
- See the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum & Santa Barbara Harbor
Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara tops the list of best things to do in Santa Barbara. The city’s most recognizable landmark is the Mission Santa Barbara. This distinctive building, known as the “Queen of the Missions” for its graceful beauty and picturesque setting, shaped the look of the entire city. After a major earthquake destroyed much of Santa Barbara in 1925, the city was rebuilt in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, which was inspired by Mission Santa Barbara. Since its founding in 1786, this is the only California mission that has remained with the Franciscans, and a community of Franciscan friars still lives here today.
The majority of visitors spend an hour or two on a self-guided tour, and docent-led tours are available on certain days. The church is a popular tourist attraction. It was finished in 1820 by Chumash Indians led by Father Antonio Ripoli after an earthquake in 1812 destroyed the original chapel and surrounding buildings. The Roman temple facade, the twin towers (which are unique among the missions), and colonial-era art and sculptures are among the highlights. Today, the mission serves as a parish church, providing an evocative setting for a Sunday service.
Within the complex is also a museum with colonial-era art and many interesting artifacts. The beautiful La Huerta Historical Garden, with mission-era plants like citrus, grapes, pomegranates, and prickly pear, is especially worth seeing. The cemetery is another stop on a self-guided tour. Many prominent early Spaniards, as well as 4,000 Chumash Indians, were laid to rest here. After visiting the mission, walk across the street to explore the ruins of the old mission aqueduct, which was built in 1806 by the Chumash Indians. Make time to visit the fragrant Mission Rose Garden as well. One of the best things to do in Santa Barbara for couples is a romantic picnic.
Address: 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, California
Stearns Wharf is 2nd on the list of best things to do in Santa Barbara. Stearns Wharf provides stunning views of the harbor and beaches, which are framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. This iconic Santa Barbara pier is located at the bottom of State Street, in the heart of the waterfront tourist district, and a stroll along here to take photos is one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara. Stearns Wharf was built in 1872 and was the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco at the time. Today, this tourist draw houses specialty shops, restaurants, and the Sea Center, one of two locations of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
If you’re visiting with children, taking the Lil’ Toot water taxi from the Santa Barbara Harbor is a fun way to get here. Once you’ve arrived, you can get some ice cream and stroll around with the kids, taking in the atmosphere. As you gaze out at the water, keep an eye out for harbor seals, and if you have any budding anglers in your family, stop by the bait and tackle shop and cast a line off the end of the pier. Do you want to stay close to this bustling tourist attraction? On either side of the wharf, some of Santa Barbara’s best beach resorts and excellent Santa Barbara restaurants overlook the shoreline.
Address: 217 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Climb the Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Climb the Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse ranks 3rd on the list of best things to do in Santa Barbara. This National (and State) Historic Landmark, completed in 1929 after an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1925, is one of the city’s architectural jewels. It’s one of the best places to visit in Santa Barbara, not only for the beautiful architecture, but also for the stunning views of the city from the clocktower. This eye-catching landmark occupies a full city block in downtown Santa Barbara and is an example of Spanish-Colonial Revival style. As you walk through the tiled corridors, take note of the hand-painted ceilings, ornate tile work (some from Tunisia and Spain), and wrought-iron chandeliers.
Photographers, take note: For one of the city’s best photo opportunities, take the elevator to the top of the 85-foot El Mirador clock tower for stunning views over the city’s red-tiled roofs towards the ocean. It’s also a popular location for marriage proposals.
Address: 1100 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, California
Bike, Skate, or Stroll along the Cabrillo Bike Path
Bike, Skate, or Stroll along the Cabrillo Bike Path is number 4 on the list of best things to do in Santa Barbara. Looking for a way to exercise while also sightseeing? One of the most popular activities in Santa Barbara is biking along the waterfront on the Cabrillo Bike Path. Tall palms wave overhead, a cool breeze blows in from the ocean, and you can bike between some of Santa Barbara’s best beaches and tourist attractions.
Looking for a place to rent a bike? The majority of the rental shops are located along Cabrillo Boulevard, directly across from Stearns Wharf, and you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a bike style. There are beach cruisers, mountain bikes, Taga bikes, push buggies, Deuce Coupes, pedal go-karts, and scooters for rent. Traveling with children? You can even rent a Surrey with a fringe on top for a family of four.
Ride for miles in either direction on the bike path. Pedaling east from Stearns Wharf will take you past the large estates to Montecito’s Butterfly Beach. Leadbetter Beach is located to the west. Stop for a bite to eat at the Santa Barbara Harbor or Shoreline Beach Cafe, where you can dine with your toes in the sand.
Address: Santa Barbara, CA, CA 93101
Relax on Santa Barbara’s Beaches
The beaches in Santa Barbara are among the best in Southern California. The south-facing coastline, backed by the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains and protected by the Channel Islands offshore, provides the ideal slice of sand and sea for every type of beach lover. Tourists flock to East and West Beaches. These two beaches, which stretch in either direction from Stearns Wharf, capture the classic image of the California coast. Tall palms line the beaches, and volleyball nets line the soft sand. Head west on the Cabrillo Bike Path from West Beach to reach the sheltered surfer haven of Leadbetter Beach. Head east on the bike path to reach the petite and picturesque Butterfly Beach in posh Montecito, a great spot for a picnic and people-watching.
Looking for a family-friendly Santa Barbara beach? Hendry’s is a great option. This local favorite, officially known as Arroyo Burro County Beach Park, offers gentle surf, a fantastic beachfront restaurant, and lifeguards in season. Best of all, your dog can run free on the beach’s off-leash area. 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.
Address: 1400 Cabrillo Blvd Santa Barbara, CA 93190
Santa Barbara Zoo
One of the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids is visit the fantastic Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo, which covers more than 30 acres, is situated on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Its wide open spaces and lush gardens of palms and native plants give it the feel of a botanical garden, making it a pleasant place to stroll.
You’ll find an impressive variety of animals here for such a small zoo. The lions, snow leopards, California condors, meerkats, and the excellent western lowland gorilla exhibit are among the highlights. Best of all, there’s a fun lineup of interactive experiences for kids. Children can feed the animals in the barnyard and hand-feed the giraffes. Don’t miss the new Australian Walkabout exhibit, which features kangaroos, emus, and wallabies.
Hop aboard the zoo train for a quick overview of the exhibits or to simply rest your feet. It circles the exhibits, providing 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
Go Whale Watching
Few things are more thrilling than watching a humpback whale breach from the ocean, and Santa Barbara offers a front-row seat. Whale watching cruises take you right to the heart of the action. The Santa Barbara Channel is home to over 27 different species of whales and dolphins, making it one of the best places in the country to see marine mammals in the wild. Humpback and blue whales feed here from May to November, and gray whales migrate along the Santa Barbara coast on their northern and southern migrations.
Even if you don’t see whales, you’ll almost certainly see dolphins, sea lions, and even orcas. One of the most popular whale watching cruises is on the Condor Express, which also offers a whale watching guarantee – if you don’t see any marine animals on your cruise, you can take another one for free during the season.
Address: King Street Wharf 7 Pyrmont, NSW, Australia 2000
Visit Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center
This excellent museum has featured fascinating exhibits on the natural history of the region for more than a century. The museum now has two campuses: Mission Canyon, nestled in beautiful oak woodland along Mission Creek, and the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, which provides a glimpse into the underwater world of the Santa Barbara Channel. The Mission Canyon campus features a life-size 72-foot blue whale skeleton at the entrance, which is a great exhibit to see before heading out on a whale watching trip.
Other popular exhibits here include Chumash Indian displays, the mammal hall, the Gladwin Planetarium, which has interactive exhibits on space exploration, and the lovely woodland nature trail along the creek. The permanent collection is supplemented by special exhibitions. Don’t miss the Butterflies Alive! exhibit during the summer! View these winged beauties up close at this exhibit.
Address: 2559 Puesta del Sol, Santa Barbara, California
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
Have you ever wanted to make sound effects for a Hollywood film or step inside a massive guitar? All of this and more is possible at MOXI. This engaging science and technology museum is only two blocks from the Santa Barbara waterfront, housed in a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style building with whimsical sea-themed accents. On three floors, fascinating hands-on indoor and outdoor exhibits are organized into themes such as Light, Speed, Interactive Media, Fantastic Forces, and the Sky Garden.
At the Innovation Workshop, you can see how 3D printers create objects, build a race car and test it on the museum’s tracks, or take a selfie and use it to create a personalized 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
See the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum & Santa Barbara Harbor
On a sunny day, the Santa Barbara Harbor is a lovely place to stroll. Wander along the breakwater looking for harbor seals, watching sailors rig up their boats, or feasting on fresh-caught seafood. Brophy Bros., a few doors down from the museum, is one of Santa Barbara’s best restaurants for fresh seafood with a harbor view.
After inhaling the salty sea air, you might be interested in learning more about Santa Barbara’s rich maritime history. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, located on the waterfront, is a must-see. The museum has interesting exhibits on surfing, Channel Islands ranches, Chumash Indians, and other topics. Do you enjoy fishing and scuba diving? You’ll see a variety of antique equipment here, as well as exhibits on military history and model ships.
Changing exhibits supplement the collection, and the Munger Theater shows movies and documentaries about the sea. With scavenger hunts, a working periscope, and other interactive exhibits, this sea-themed museum is especially appealing to children. From the top-floor viewing deck, photographers can capture stunning images of the harbor and city.
Address: 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, California