Best things to do in Santa Barbara

Best Things to do in Santa Barbara: A Local’s Guide

Santa Barbara is a beautiful coastal city situated between the Pacific Ocean and the San Janez Mountains. The city is a love destination for a relaxing weekend and draws visitors from around the United States and abroad. Santa Barbara is full of fun places to explore ranging from historic landmarks and museums to beaches and hiking trails. Here are the best places and things to do in Santa Barbara.

1. Stearns Wharf:

Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

Stern’s Wharf is the large pier that juts out of the Santa Barbara coastline. The pier is one of the few drivable piers in California and it has lots of parking. So, you can grab a spot and explore the historic wooden structure. The pier was built in 1872 but it suffered lots of damage from storms earthquakes and fires. Since then it has featured lots of shops and a couple of restaurants. One of my favorite things is the Santa Barbara shellfish company. It’s also home to the Sea Center which is a great spot to learn about the ocean life.

2. Lil Toot Boat Ride:

Lil Toot Boat Ride

Lil Toot is a small ship and a local favorite that’s great for young children and is normally running on the weekends. Only the boat is painted yellow has a smiley face on it and has a fun whistle. It’s just a glorified water taxi but it’s a blast and sometimes. It goes out to see the seals on the way over to the harbor I love riding it. It’s fun to be out on the water and will give you some great views of the pier. You can only buy a ticket one way and based on the line when you get there. You may have to wait for a few rounds to ride it back when it drops you off at the harbor.

3. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum:

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is not very big but You love it and has a lot of fun exhibits. The museum has a lighthouse lens that was originally used at the point of conception lighthouse. It’s prominently on display and worth the visit just to see its surroundings. There are lots of exhibits on surfing history. The Chumash Indians commercial diving and oil rigs that dot the landscape. They even had a scavenger hunt for small children while exploring the museum which is a great idea as well. Don’t forget to go to the fourth floor when you’re there for a great view over the harbor.

4. Harbor Walk to Point Castillo:

Pointe Castillo

Walking along the harbor to Pointe Castillo while you’re at the harbor consider walking out to Point Castillo. It is right at the end near the jetty. It’s a great walk for the whole family. It’s paved and flat the walk takes you along all the restaurants and shops along the harbor and out towards the jetty. During high tide, you may even see the water crash up against the wall here but most of the time. The walk is peaceful and beautiful with sand on one side and boats on the other. When you get to the end you can sit on the whale-shaped benches. You’ll soak in the views of the Stern’s Wharf right in front of you across the water. If you don’t want to hike, this is a great way to stay active while in Santa Barbara.

5. El Presidio de Santa Barbara:

El Presidio de Santa Barbara

 The El Presidio de Santa Barbara next up to the Presidio is a state historic park. It showcases the last Spanish fort that was built in 1782. This site preserves two of the original adobe structures and has restored the other two. It’s a great area to visit to learn more about the Spanish influence on the area. It’s also pretty crazy to see this historic structure right in downtown Santa Barbara. While visiting the fort, you can see the padre quarters, the chapel the kitchen, and other buildings. It’s worth a visit while in the city plus handlebar coffee is right across the street which is a great place to get a drink.

6. Old Mission Santa Barbara:

Old Mission Santa Barbara

The Old Mission Santa Barbara is probably the most popular tourist attraction in the city. It’s one of the most beautiful of the 21 Spanish California missions to see today. You can tour the mission and walk the grounds with some of the popular spots. You’ll see the fountain and the cross outside and the chapel inside. The chapel still holds services and is closed when a service is happening. So know that going in the back there’s a cemetery with one of the largest fig trees I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss going back and walking the grounds of the historic mission speaking of large fig trees.

7. Morton Bay Fig Tree:

Santa Barbara's Morton Bay Fig Tree

Santa Barbara’s Morton Bay Fig Tree near the railroad is truly massive and is said to be the largest fig tree in the United States. The tree has been designated a historic landmark and it really must be seen to be believed. According to the most recent measurement the tree’s base is around 41 feet in circumference and I wouldn’t doubt that claim after walking around it. It’s a great quick stop in the city while at the Morton Bay Fig.

8. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation:

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation

If you’re traveling with younger children consider heading over to the moxie known as the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation. This museum is fun for all ages but it’s probably best for those that are a little older. The museum is full of fun exhibits like the massive bright giant guitar and all sorts of interactive innovations. Kids love running around and seeing the exhibits. It’s a great place to spend a half day here when you have kids with you. The rooftop is an awesome spot for views over downtown Santa Barbara as well.

9. Santa Barbara Courthouse:

Santa Barbara Courthouse

While in downtown Santa Barbara walk up State Street and visit the Santa Barbara Courthouse. The grounds of this historic structure are stunning. I’ve seen multiple weddings here when I visited. I recommend grabbing some coffee and just walking around the gardens and soaking it. All in the courthouse also has an overlook in the clock tower that you can go up to if it’s open. It’s definitely a fun thing to do in the city.

10. Funk Zone:

The Funk Zone in Santa Barbara

The Funk Zone is a trendy area right off the main downtown drag this area is home to coffee shops art galleries restaurants and wine tasting. It’s fun just to walk around and see the slowdown for funk signs along the street and the beautiful murals situated on many of the buildings. They also have fun events here like holiday pop-up bars and live music during different times of the year. I especially love dark coffee which has an awesome outdoor seating area right in the middle of the funk zone. The area is constantly changing and it’s always worth going back to see.

11. Shoreline Park

Shoreline Park Photo

Shoreline Park sits along the coast and is a long skinny park with almost a mile of coastal views. The park features walking paths a children’s play area and mini benches. It’s a great spot for a morning stroll and has some truly stunning views of the Channel Islands on a clear day. If you want to visit the beach you can find Leadbetter Beach on one side and a thousand steps beach hidden on the other research. If you want to go there but don’t go in the tide as high as the beach is pretty much gone. Shoreline Park is a nice spot for an easy morning in the Santa Barbara area.

12. Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market:

Santa Barbara Farmer's Market

If you enjoy going to different farmer’s markets then the Santa Barbara one is a great recommendation for you. The company that runs the market actually has one six days a week all over Santa Barbara County. So, depending on what day you’re there and where you’re staying there’s probably a market for you to visit. They have all the traditional things like fresh fruit and vegetables and even meat. My favorite vendor is the pistachio company.

13. Santa Barbara Natural History Museum:

Santa Barbara Natural History Museum

Santa Barbara Natural History Museum is very unique. It has one of the largest collections of taxidermied birds and other animals. It’s fascinating to see the animals up close like this and the entire museum is full of these diorama-type displays that put the animals in elaborate settings. The underwater ones are especially intricate. The museum also has a pygmy mammoth skeleton that was found on one of the channel islands and a full dinosaur display in the back area. The dinosaurs are animatronics that will move and growl making them fun for kids to see lastly. The museum has one of the best exhibits on the Chumash Native Americans. There are a lot of artifacts here and information on this people group that were the original inhabitants of Santa Barbara.

14. Santa Barbara Zoo:

Santa Barbara Zoo Lion

Santa Barbara Zoo comprises only 30 acres right along the coast. It’s small but still a pretty good zoo to visit. It’s even been voted one of the best small zoos in the United States and it’s easy to see. The zoo has a fantastic elevated walkway that looks down on a lake and passes alongside some of the large bird exhibits. It also has gorillas, giraffes, and lions on display as well all of these animals were really active. The views looking out over the coast with the giraffes are pretty special. The zoo also has a train that you can ride which takes you around the park. It’s a small zoo but it’s fun for a few hours while in Santa Barbara especially, with young children.

15. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park:

Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

Chumash Painted Cave State Park is located about 20 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara and the hills above the city. The drive to the site is an adventure on its own with hairpin turns and what is basically a one-lane road. There are some great views out over the city on the way up though when you get to park. You can see the whole area in a few minutes and people usually don’t stay too long. The park preserves some of the best remaining Chumash Native American rock art. It’s beautiful to see because of the iron gate that protects it. The rock art is still in immaculate shape and the designs are colorful and big. It is estimated that the art dates back to before the 1600s but little is known of what these designs mean. It’s somewhat difficult to visit with the drive and the limited parking. But, it’s a beautiful and well-preserved spot in Santa Barbara.

16. Santa Barbara Botanical Garden:

Santa Barbara Botanical Garden

Santa Barbara Botanical Garden consists of over 75 acres of prime real estate and is a stunning outdoor area to explore in the city. The garden focuses on California Native Plants with a few distinct sections like a desert and a meadow. The property also has a walking path that takes you over a small creek and into a shaded area that is preserved to allow visitors to experience the area’s native look. In the back, the garden also has a historic rock dam that was made in the early 1800s to provide water for the mission. This section also has a beautiful area of redwood trees with many benches to just sit and relax in their shade.

With an abundance of historic landmarks, natural wonders, and culinary delights to discover, Santa Barbara invites you to embark on an unforgettable journey along California’s captivating coast. Whether you’re seeking relaxation, adventure, or simply a taste of coastal charm, this enchanting city promises a weekend getaway like no other.

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