25 TOP Things to Do in Santa Barbara: A Local’s Guide!

street with various shops with people walking on the sidewalk and tall trees

Come along on a fun and extremely helpful guide on the most FUN things to do in Santa Barbara – written by a SoCal native!

Located between the majestic Santa Ynez mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is the perfect blend of beachside retreat and metropolitan city tucked into the coastline of Southern California.

Grab your favorite luggage, ladies, and let’s set out for a fun day exploring all Santa Barbara has to offer!

Quick Picks for Your Stay

Heads up: Santa Barbara is home to royalty like Price Harry 🥰 and Oprah, so don’t sleep on the job, book your hotel and tour reservations in advance. Don’t miss out!

Here are the main things to book in advance:

And here are the best hotels: The Inn at Mattei’s Tavern (luxury), Brisas Del Mar at the Beach (mid-range), Castillo Inn at the Beach (budget)

1. Travel back in time at Stearns Wharf

Santa barbara pier, california.

At its inception in 1872, the pier was the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A trip to Santa Barbara is incomplete without a stroll along the picturesque Stearns Wharf, making it a must-visit for all travelers, mostly because it offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and an array of charming shops and seafood restaurants.

For history buffs, the wharf also provides an opportunity to immerse in the city’s maritime history. There are even options for fishing and whale-watching excursions.

The nightlife here is awesome; there’s often live music playing in the distance, a great bustle of people, and wonderful dining options.

PRO TIP: you can accomplish so much of your Santa Barbara itinerary starting at Stearns Wharf as a jumping-off point.

NOTE: so many incredible activities take place at Stearns Wharf, like Santa Barbara Parasail.

TOUR PRICE: from US$140 per person

2. Relax on the famous beaches in Santa Barbara

a beach with palm trees and a hotel in the background

Some of the most popular things to do in Santa Barbara include exploring picturesque beaches like East and West Beach, and for good reason, they’re postcard-perfect! 🌴

One of the best things to do during your Santa Barbara weekend trip is lay out your towel on the warm, white sand of Santa Barbara’s broad beaches. These sun-drenched beaches line the coast and make it almost impossible to choose a favorite.

Side note – don’t forget to check out our in-depth article on all the BEST places to stay on your trip to Santa Barbara!

2.1 East Beach: popular for tourists

An aerial view of a beach and houses on a sunny day.

If you love the sun and hitting the surf, you’re going to love East Beach! Its shoreline seems to go on for an eternity, with tons of space for beach volleyball, picnics, and family fun.

I love the palm-lined promenade here, great for a bike ride or stroll, all while enjoying stunning views of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

2.2 West Beach: a hub for water activities

A sandy beach with a pier in the distance.

Smack in the middle of coastal downtown, East Beach and West Beach, stretch out in both directions from Stearns Wharf.

Located on one side of Stearns Wharf, West Beach is a bustling hub for both tourists and locals.

Rent kayaks or paddleboards, explore the coastline, or simply bask in the sun on the sandy shores – this is the best beach to relax for the day!

2.3 Butterfly Beach: a tranquil spot

A beach with palm trees and a view of the ocean.

There’s something serene and exclusive about Butterfly Beach, located in an upscale enclave of Montecito.

I am one for loving to sunbathe on Butterfly Beach’s golden sands.

And, I’m not alone! Its pristine sands and tranquil atmosphere are popular with the rich and famous, too. 📽️

The beach is also known for its stunning sunsets, so grab a picnic and beach towel and cozy up!

2.4 Leadbetter Beach: for watersports

A beach with a lot of people on it.

Looking for a laid-back beach vibe?!

Leadbetter Beach is a definite favorite among surfers and beach lovers. You can catch some waves or enjoy a peaceful day by the ocean.

There’s a grassy picnic area nearby, making it a great spot for families to unwind as well!

PRO TIP: rent bikes and roll your way from beach to beach along Cabrillo Bike Path, connecting the area’s beaches.

HACK: beach parking can be a real nightmare, especially in the summertime, so beat the crowds and get to the shore in the early morning hours.

NOTE: if you find yourself exploring Montecito’s lavish estates, don’t miss the Coast Village Road area, filled with excellent boutique shopping and dining.

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3. Explore the parks and trails of Santa Barbara

A dirt path leading to the ocean with a tree in the background.

Exploring parks and trails provides outdoor enthusiasts with exciting things to do in Santa Barbara.

There’s something magical about hiking the trails of the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking the crystal blue ocean.

3.1 Shoreline Park

A grassy field with palm trees in the background.

Be sure to pop over to Shoreline Park for amazing outdoor activities in the California sun.

Hang out in the California sun, enjoy recreational activities like volleyball, kite flying, or flag football, or spend the day people-watching.

Situated right near Santa Barbara’s famous harbor and Stearns Wharf, this park is easy to combo with the other activities on your Santa Barbara itinerary.

3.2 Santa Barbara Historical Parks

El prado de santa elizabeth historic park

If you have the time during your trip, visit El Presidio De Santa Barbara State Historic Park and revel in Spanish architecture at El Presidio.

This Santa Barbara presidio, or fortified military settlement, was founded by the Spaniards in 1782 and is the last of 4 military outposts built by the Spanish.

This impressive Spanish Mission brings you back in time to visit an actual military fort built by the Spanish Franciscans.

Some of the original adobe structures are still standing! Explore the chapel and reconstructed Padres’ quarters, and discover the watch tower and the heritage garden.

This military and governmental hub extended from the southern limits of what is now San Luis Obispo County to the Pueblo of Los Angeles.

PRICE: US$5 per person

4. Tour the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

maritime museum building

One of my top Santa Barbara attractions is diving into history at the Maritime Museum.

Located fittingly along the Santa Barbara Harbor, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum educates you on the area’s sea lions, fishermen, Chumash Indians, and Channel Islands National Park.

If you love scuba diving, this sea-themed Santa Barbara museum is the perfect place to inspect dive equipment and its transformation throughout the decades, as well as old fishing tools and artifacts from the time.

PRICE: US$10 per person

5. Take a guided trolley tour of Santa Barbara

A red and yellow trolley is driving down the street.

I love the trolley – it’s SO charming!

Definitely book the Santa Barbara trolley tour and immerse in the city’s Spanish colonial heritage. Discover the red-tiled rooftops, historic adobe structures, and lush gardens.

The guides are amazing and fun and give you a ton of knowledge in the area!

TOUR PRICE: US$30 per person

6. Visit Old Mission Santa Barbara 1786

a building with 2 towers and with a cross in front of it

A really popular attraction in the area, take some time to explore the historic Santa Barbara Mission.

The only California mission to stay in the possession of the Franciscans since its inception, the Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786, still has Franciscan friars living there today.

Arguably the most iconic landmark in Santa Barbara, the Old Mission Santa Barbara has a beautiful Spanish Colonial facade that was rebuilt in 1925 after a massive fire consumed the city.

Don’t miss the church, built by the Chumash Indians in 1820, with its stunning Roman temple facade and twin towers looming high above. My personal favorite spot on the grounds is the Mission Rose Garden, brimming with colorful, fragrant flowers. Pack a picnic and plan for lunch on the expansive green lawns.

PRO TIP: save money and take the self-guided tour of the Santa Barbara Mission, which will take you about 2 hours.

PRICE: US$15 per person

7. Explore the local farmers’ markets

A man is walking down the street in front of a white building.

New, trendy, and popular with people of all ages, the Santa Barbara Public Market is an indoor shopping plaza filled with amazing food vendors and dining options.

Located in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Public Market is open on Tuesdays and hosts over 60 local vendors from the area.

Enjoy a variety of international cuisine like Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, and, of course, local wines – you’ll never want to leave this place!

8. Visit the renowned Santa Barbara Museum of Art

A white building with steps leading up to it.

Sometimes you just need a day to soak in culture and discover art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Small but mighty, this Santa Barbara museum holds over 27,000 works of art spanning a 5,000-year period.

This place has some of the best 19th and 20th-century art I’ve seen in years.

I definitely geeked out over the Claude Monet paintings which are almost always the busiest exhibit.

PRO TIP: don’t miss the Portrait of Mexico Today, a 1932 mural that is the only piece of art we have of David Alfaro Siqueiros in the USA.

HACK: admission is free Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., closed Mondays. Book your tickets here.

PRICE: US$10 per person

9. Shop and sightsee on State Street

A street lined with palm trees and parked cars.

Beaches, culture, history, and – what is it we’re missing? OH, yeah! SHOPPING.

State Street in downtown Santa Barbara is a few blocks of boutique shopping and eclectic dining options.

Spend a Friday night people-watching, browsing the retail windows, and trying out all of Santa Barbara’s delicious seafood options.

Opportunities are plentiful to camp out on many of the large outdoor patio options that line the street in downtown Santa Barbara and spend the afternoon eating and drinking your vacation away.

PRO TIP: gaze up at the beautiful facades of the historical Spanish architecture indicative of the Spanish Colonial era of the 19th and 20th centuries.

HACK: hop on the Santa Barbara trolley tour to speed up your sightseeing adventure and fit in all that this wonderful city has to offer.

NOTE: much of State Street is closed off to vehicle traffic, making it pleasant to walk but hard to find parking!

10. Take a scenic drive along the coast

an aerial view of a beach with palm trees

Imagine spending your trip living the ultimate California dream?!

Cruise the iconic Pacific Coast Highway, which offers a breathtaking drive along the rugged cliffs and blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

You’ll pass through charming coastal towns, as well as many of the area’s most beautiful beaches!

11. Walk around the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

A path through a field of wildflowers with mountains in the background.

Explore the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden – it is so special, each twist and turn is a new magical corner of the gardens to discover.

One of my favorite areas is the California Native Plant Garden, where you’ll encounter an array of indigenous flora, from vibrant wildflowers to majestic oak trees.

With over 5 miles (8 km) of trails, a Japanese tea house, and the historic Mission Dam that feeds the Santa Barbara Mission, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden can be a full afternoon of fun!

PRO TIP: green thumb? Stop at the gift shop on your way out and pick up some native Californian plants!

NOTE: reservations are required.

PRICE: US$20 per person

12. Take the kids to Santa Barbara Zoo

a woman and a child feeding giraffes at a zoo

Like many of California’s zoos, Santa Barbara Zoo is dedicated to conservationist work and rehabilitation.

Small but mighty, the zoo is not to be missed on your Santa Barbara attractions list.

My favorite exhibits are the California condors, the snow leopards, and the lowland gorillas, but really, they’re all amazing!

PRO TIP: hop on the zoo train and enjoy an easy, comfy tour of the premises and catch views of Santa Barbara as a bonus!

NOTE: throughout the year, they offer unique experiences like Boo at the Zoo and Sleepover Safaris. Check here for programming.

PRICE: US$25 per person for non-members

13. Get adventurous with a kayak in the harbor

A group of sailboats in the water near a beach.

It’s hard for me to relax for too long on vacation before I want to do something fun and adventurous!

Paddling through the scenic waters of Santa Barbara Harbor on a kayak tour is an adventure that allows you to connect with nature while enjoying a unique perspective of this coastal city, and I’m here for it!

Cruise past the sailboats and yachts and look out for sea lions, dolphins, and seabirds.

TOUR PRICE: from US$210 per person

14. Attend concerts at the Santa Barbara Bowl

A group of people on stage in front of a large screen.

Open-air concerts are so much fun, and the Santa Barbara Bowl is an iconic open-air amphitheater worth a spot on your list.

The intimate setting allows you to get up close and personal with your favorite artists as you enjoy the sound of live music under the starlit California sky – sold?

From legendary rock bands to contemporary pop sensations, the Santa Barbara Bowl hosts an eclectic lineup of concerts throughout the year. See the calendar here.

15. Enjoy a wine tour in Santa Barbara Wine Country

a vineyard with mountains in the background

Yum, yum! Wine time. 🍷

Enjoying local wine tours offers a taste of California’s vineyards, among things to do in Santa Barbara, California, that are fun and definitely memorable!

The Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley are renowned for their Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Rhône varietals – so you really can’t go wrong.

The best way to experience the breathtaking views of vine-covered hills, rustic tasting rooms, and the ambiance of California wine country is by trying local grapes on the Santa Barbara wine-tasting tour.

You can taste local wines on the Urban Wine Trail, a fun self-guided tour through Santa Barbara’s urban wineries, too!

PRICE: from US$250 per person

Book your tickets here

16. Book a sailing tour for a romantic evening

A group of friends toasting on a sailboat at sunset.

Sailing in Santa Barbara, California – well, I’m not sure life gets much better or romantic! ⛵

If you’re traveling with a special someone, book a sailing tour, it’s one of the most romantic and exciting things you can do in Santa Barbara.

As you leave the harbor, it’s pretty typical to see dolphins and sea lions playing in the waves!

TIP: don’t forget to look out for the beautiful Channel Islands in the distance!

TOUR PRICE: from US$73 per person

Book your tickets now

17. Have a blast whale watching on the Pacific

People on a ship looking at a whale

Having spent many of my years living in both California and Hawaii, I can attest to the fact that whale watching is by far one of the most incredible activities you will ever do, anywhere!

Getting up close and personal with humpback whales during their migration, traveling amongst a pod of dolphins, salty Pacific Ocean air in your face… what could be more magical?!

Whale watch from the coastline or a charter, and you’ll have the opportunity to spot humpback whales, gray whales, or even the occasional blue whale during their seasonal migrations along the Pacific Coast.

Knowledgeable guides on charters provide valuable insights into the behavior and conservation efforts of these magnificent creatures, enhancing the whale-watching experience.

NOTE: boat tours leave daily from Santa Barbara Harbor, and May through November is your best bet to spot the whales.

PRICE: from US$73 per person

Book your whale-watching cruise

18. Get down in the Funk Zone

a couple of bikes parked next to each other in front of a building

I’m a hippie, bohemian gal at heart, and I’m ALL about The Funk Zone – an artistic and eclectic neighborhood in Santa Barbara, California, with a crazy, vibrant, fun atmosphere.

Take a leisurely stroll through the Funk Zone’s colorful streets, where you’ll encounter captivating murals, avant-garde art galleries, and unconventional art installations that showcase the city’s cutting-edge creativity.

Discover boutique shops, wine-tasting rooms, and trendy restaurants – a foodie’s dream come true!

PRO TIP: don’t miss Funk Zone Live, a hip-art walk held on the second Saturday of every month.

19. Stop at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse

a large white building with a clock tower surrounded by grass and palm trees

Rebuilt in 1929 after an earthquake wrecked the original, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse serves as an artistic marvel and architectural jewel in Santa Barbara.

Check out El Mirador Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse, 85 ft (26 m), and climb to the top for incredible views of Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the Valley down below.

Filled with Spanish Colonial Revival style design and intricate tile work from Spain and Tunisia, you can spend hours inside or soak up the sun of the cool sunken garden with plants from over 25 different countries.

NOTE: check their website for info on free guided tours Monday through Friday at 10:30 a.m.

PRICE: free

20. Marvel at the Moreton Bay Fig Tree

A large tree in a park with a fence around it.

Officially made a Santa Barbara landmark in 1970, this 140-year-old gigantic fig tree is the largest of its kind.

Visit Santa Barbara and find this tree planted near the Amtrak Station on State Street.

Originally brought to Santa Barbara in 1876 as a mini tree, it was planted on what is now the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

PRICE: free

21. Pedal along Cabrillo Bike Path

Two people riding bicycles down a street with palm trees.

A must-do on your ‘things to do in Santa Barbara’ list, bike along the scenic Cabrillo Boulevard and the Cabrillo Bike Path, which acts as a trail linking you to all the area’s best beaches.

Starting at Leadwater Beach, you can head all the way west to the giant estates that line Butterfly Beach in Montecito.

Not much into pedaling? Try these eBikes instead.

PRICE: from US$95 per person for a 2-hour eBike rental

Rent a bike

22. Play and learn at MOXI

a large white building

If you’re traveling with kids, I highly recommend visiting the MOXI, a dynamic and interactive Santa Barbara museum with hands-on exploration and discovery for all ages.

The inside of this place is really cool and modern. You’ll love the science, technology, and creativity at every corner of this Santa Barbara museum.

Filled with 3 full floors worth of science, innovation, and technology, see how Hollywood creates its movie sound effects or crawl your way into a giant guitar.

Experience some of the most groundbreaking inventions of our time, like the 3D printer, building functional items ready to be used right that moment, in front of your eyes.

PRO TIP: don’t miss the roof deck with opportunities for panoramic vistas of Santa Barbara.

PRICE: US$18 per person

23. Get lost in Lotusland

A garden with topiary and giraffe statues.

No matter how many times I go, I’m always happy to go one more time and wander through Lotusland’s botanical gardens.

Deceased owner, Madame Ganna Walska, was one of the first garden designers to use mass plantings for dramatic emphasis, and the garden displays some of the most unusual plants and designs you will find anywhere in the world.

Don’t miss the gigantic swimming pool filled with lotus flowers, indicative of the garden’s namesake.

NOTE: advance reservations are required. Book here.

PRICE: US$50 per person

24. Explore Isla Vista

a view of a beach with mountains in the background

You’ll love Isla Vista, a vibrant coastal community adjacent to the University of California, Santa Barbara, offering a unique blend of youthful energy, beachside charm, and cultural diversity.

Wander along Isla Vista’s lively streets, and encounter a mix of beach bungalows, student housing, and eclectic shops.

The youthful atmosphere is infectious, and you’ll often find street performers, art installations, and a sense of community that feels – refreshing!

Isla Vista has quirky cafés, and fantastic coffee shops, and is a really fun way to spend the afternoon by the beach, playing around.

25. Hop over to Santa Cruz Island

An amusement park with a lot of colorful rides.

Santa Cruz Island is the perfect place for a 1-day trip and overnight camping trips. Since it’s the easiest island to get to, with the best weather, offering the most activities, it’s a no-brainer to add this to your trip if you have the time.

Check out the island’s captivating sea caves, such as Painted Cave, and underwater ecosystems underneath the crystal-clear waters.

The largest of the 8 islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island is known for its gorgeous natural landscapes and rich biodiversity.

Santa Cruz Island is also a haven for kayaking and snorkeling and the perfect place to spot dolphins, seals, sea lions, and an array of seabirds.

Head out on Island Packers Ferry and check tour times here.

PRO TIP: pack wisely, there are no food options on the island.

NOTE: departing from Ventura Harbor 3 times daily, this activity is outside Santa Barbara’s downtown area.

PRICE: US$31.50 for adults, US$42 for adult overnight campers

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

There are so many lavish, convenient, and comfortable places to stay in Santa Barbara. Below are a few of my favorites in each budget.

collage of 3 images with: hotel pool, bedroom and overview of the hotel

Luxury (US$750 and up)

  • The Inn at Mattei’s – this beautifully restored 19th-century Victorian mansion turned boutique inn offers an intimate, personalized experience in Santa Barbara.
  • Hotel Californian – located in the famous Funk Zone, the Hotel Californian is a stunning hotel offering elegance and accessibility to Santa Barbara’s best attractions.

Mid-Range (US$450 – US$600)

  • Brisas Del Mar at the Beach – beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture, close to the beach and downtown Santa Barbara, and offering complimentary bike rentals.
  • West Beach Inn, A Coast Hotel – a stylish boutique hotel within walking distance of Stearns Wharf, State Street, and Santa Barbara’s best sites.

Budget (up to US$300)

  • Castillo Inn at the Beach – located a short walk from the pier and Stearns Wharf, this budget-friendly option is convenient, comfy, and clean.
  • Avania Inn of Santa Barbara – convenience and charm fill the colorful halls of this great budget option near downtown Santa Barbara.

Check the rates here

🏛️ Best museum:MOXI
🚎 Top paid attraction:Santa Barbara Trolley Tour
🚶 Best free activity:Cabrillo Bike Path
🐅 Best attraction for kids:Santa Barbara Zoo
🕺 Nightlife:Funk Zone

FAQs about things to do in Santa Barbara, CA

Cars parked underneath flags at the seaside

⌛ What is the best time to visit Santa Barbara?

While Santa Barbara is gorgeous year-round, spring and fall offer the best of the best weather.

♥️ How to spend 1 day in Santa Barbara?

You can spend 1 day in Santa Barbara, wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley, having a picnic at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, or catching dinner & sunset at Stearns Wharf.

🍼 What are the best things to do with kids in Santa Barbara?

Explore the Santa Barbara Zoo, hit Stearns Wharf for ice cream, or play the day away at Hendry’s Beach (Arroyo Burro Beach Park).

🍸 What are the best Santa Barbara things to do at night?

Grab a bite to eat on State Street, sample wine in the tasting rooms of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, or rent bikes for a sunset roll down Cabrillo Bike Path.


palm trees line the beach as the sun sets

Santa Barbara’s perfect blend of relaxing beach oasis and vibrant city escape proves its nickname, ‘The American Riviera,’ to be quite fitting.

With so many things to do in Santa Barbara, there’s no end to the possibilities with amazing dining, unique shopping, and world-class beaches. Be sure to book any must-sees prior to arrival, as Santa Barbara is a busy place any time of year.

Now, get traveling, but don’t forget to drop me a line with your personal favorites below! 🛫

Aloha and safe travels,

Hayden G.

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tourists kayaking with docked boats in the background

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collage of 2 images with: santa barbara pier with buildings and palm trees in the background and a trolley on the road

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