Whether you’re a visitor or a local, this guide will leave you with plenty of ideas of how to fill your time in this beautiful coastal California city.
A local’s guide to activities in Santa Barbara
Stroll down State Street
State Street is the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. It is the main avenue where you can find countless big name and boutique shops, breweries, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, wine tastings rooms, theaters, art galleries, souvenir shops, and much more. Better yet, it ends at a pier and beach. This is a beautiful area to spend the day browsing, walking, and munching.
Kayak the Coastline
Book a guided kayak tour with a local. The waters around the coastline and within the marina are generally gentle and easy enough to kayak without much fight from the current or waves. You’ll likely spot sea lions and seals lounging in the sun and possibly see dolphins out just beyond the marina. The tours usually last about an hour and a half and cost $60-100 per person.
Eat at the Santa Barbara Public Market
The Public Market is a great spot to eat if you have groups of friends or a family all craving something different. Half the group wants beer while the other wants wine? No problem, the market offers counter and table service to allow your group to order from anywhere, but sit together. There is a sushi bar, ice cream, vegetarian fare, tacos, and much more inside. Seating is primarily indoor, but there is also an outdoor patio space. Explore the merchants and menus here.
Check out the Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum features a wide array of all things natural sciences. One of their permanent exhibits is a dinosaur forest walk. This outdoor trail introduces visitors to animatronic dinos and is a real hit with children. Among others, you’ll see a T-Rex, Stegosaurus, and a mother Triceratops with her young.
Inside you you can find the Hall of Birds and the Hall of Mammals featuring the diverse wildlife of the Santa Barbara region. There is also an exhibit depicting the natural life, art, and culture of the indigenous residents of Santa Barbara, the Chumash people. The most complete Pygmy Mammoth skeleton ever found inspired the centerpiece of the Earth Sciences Hall.
Picnic at Chase Palms Park
Chase Palms Park is located right between the Funk Zone (see more on this below) and the beach near State Street. Picnicking here is a great budget friendly option when visiting Santa Barbara. Bring a blanket for the grass as there are not picnic tables here, but there are lots of palms to help create some shade.
Drive up Farren Road
Farren Road is located in the town of Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. This road provides you with great photo ops, as there are groves of tall cacti flanking the roadway. Moreover, you can get a beautiful view of the ocean and hills here.
Rock Climb and Hike Lizard’s Mouth
This trail is found near Goleta. It is a short out and back hike with a moderate incline. It’s best for bouldering and exploring. Kids will likely find all the rocks to climb quite fun, but come prepared with ample water. Find more about the specifics of Lizard’s Mouth on the AllTrails App, my go-to for hiking.
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Wander Ganna Walska Lotusland
Created by the famous Polish opera singer Ganna Walska in the 1940s, Lotusland is a botanical garden that attracts visitors with its expansiveness and creativity. You can find these gardens in Montecito, the town just a short drive south of Santa Barbara. Visiting the gardens at this time requires an advance reservation and admission prices are relatively expensive.
Play Volleyball at East Beach
You can play volleyball at one of the many beach courts located at East Beach. If interested, you can explore more on the public Facebook group page. There is also space to more casually pass the ball around among friends if you don’t want to play competitively.
Visit the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens
There is no shortage of great places to walk in Santa Barbara, but the botanical gardens are something special. They offer a chance to explore varieties of California plants from redwoods to poppies. Leashed dogs are also welcome at the gardens.
Bike the Cabrillo Bike Path
More than 4 miles long, this is one of the most popular bike paths of Santa Barbara. There are numerous spots where you can rent a bike along Cabrillo and State Street. These shops offer everything from sport bikes to children’s bikes. If you are looking for a active workout along this path though it is best to go early in the day. Tourists and those out for leisure can cause traffic jams later in the day.
Clear your Mind with Outdoor Yoga
There are several businesses offering outdoor yoga, especially since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Santa Barbara Beach Yoga offers yoga to all levels and leads instruction through wireless headsets available to all those in the class. In addition to instruction, there is also gentle music to suit the flow of the class.
Take a Surf Lesson
With the Pacific Ocean at its edge, many visitors to California like to give surfing a try. Santa Barbara often makes the list as one of the best surf towns in California. Rincon Point State Beach in particular attracts surfers from all over the world. Before you’re ready for Rincon though, you can get your feet wet with surf lessons in beginner friendly locations. You can book private and small group lessons with a variety of companies such as Santa Barbara Surf School. Wetsuits and boards are generally provided in these types of lessons.
Stand Up Paddleboard the Harbor
Another popular activity in Santa Barbara is stand up paddleboarding (SUP). Many shops around the harbor offer rentals for a reasonable hourly rate. The harbor offers calm, easy water that makes SUP most enjoyable. Plus, there are many seals, sea lions, and seabirds that frequent the area so you can spot wildlife as you go.
Try a Local Brewery
California is known for its vibrant and creative craft beer scene. For its relatively small population size and geographic footprint, Santa Barbara boasts numerous unique craft breweries throughout the city. Try Night Lizard, Figueroa, or Brass Bear.
Related: San Diego Brewery Guide
Visit Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf is the only operational wooden wharf left in California. It was built in 1872 and is now the oldest of its kind. You can find it at the end of State Street.
Once the longest deep-water pier on the central coast, it is a great spot for a walk. There are several businesses still on the pier, including lunch options and ice cream. Stearns Wharf is often considered to be one of the top sights in all of Santa Barbara, with spots that overlook the ocean and beaches.
Go Wine Tasting
One of the biggest attractions in Santa Barbara is wine. The county has 6 official American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) after all. The most efficient way to sample a diverse array of local wine is by following the urban wine trail, a selection of dozens of tasting rooms in Santa Barbara.
A good place to start is The Valley Project. Along with your wine samples here you learn more through maps and about the soil the grapes are grown in. Another great spot is the Santa Barbara Wine Collective. Only about 45 minutes to an hour away, you could also visit the vineyards and estates of many of the tasting rooms you find in downtown.
Explore the Old Mission
Built in 1786, this is one of the oldest missions in California. The Mission consists of a church, museum, cemetery, gift shop, and acres of beautifully tended gardens with cacti and more indigenous plants. You can take a self guided tour around the grounds. The steps in front of the mission are a popular spot to snap photos.
Visit Channel Islands National Park
To get to this national park you’ll need to take a ferry. The main ferry option leaves and returns from Ventura, a city about an hour south of Santa Barbara. Although the ferry leaves from Ventura, the Channel Islands can be seen in the distance off the coast of Santa Barbara. The park is composed of 5 beautifully preserved islands. You can spot seals, marine birds, whales, a light house, and much more.
Relax at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park
Founded in 1782, the Presidio is a preserved Spanish military outpost. It played an important role as both a military and governmental seat of power in the area, long before California joined the United States. Today, you can visit and learn more about the history of Santa Barbara. It is also conveniently located near State Street downtown.
Spend an Evening at the Funk Zone
The Funk Zone is an artsy, hipster area of the city where you can find excellent bistros, wine tasting rooms, and breweries. There is street art throughout the area and many of the galleries feature contemporary art. No matter how many times you go, there is always something new to try here. Local favorites include The Lark, Municipal Winemakers, and the Lucky Penny.
Buy Local Produce at the Farmer’s Market
The Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market occurs every Tuesday on State Street from 2:45 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. This colorful market features roughly 50 regional farmers and artisanal vendors. Many local restaurants and chefs stock their kitchens with this produce grown close to home. Rather than food trucks and crafts, the focus of this market is particularly on the produce. That said, you usually can find unique items or bites either at the market or nearby.
Spot the Chromatic Gate
Designed by once local resident and renown artist Herbert Bayer, “Chromatic Gate” is near several luxury hotels and the popular beaches of East Beach. Reaching 21 feet, it was built in 1991 in Arco Circle. You can find it at Cabrillo Park, 633 East Cabrillo Blvd. The pallet of colors against the a backdrop of palm trees and green mountains make it a popular spot to snap some photos.
Eat at the First Habit Grill
Have you eaten at the popular chain fast-casual restaurant The Habit Grill? I first got a taste when they built one in the new Student Union at San Diego State University and have been a fan ever since. This West Coast chain got its start in Santa Barbara, right off the campus of UCSB. You can find the original hamburger counter at 5735 Hollister Avenue, Goleta.
See the Moreton Bay Fig Tree
Located on the corner of Chapala and Montecito Street, this fig tree is the oldest of its kind in the nation. Planted in 1877, it creates a 21,000 square foot area of shade. Nearby you can also see a retired Southern Pacific Santa Barbara SP142 Train.
See the Chumash Cave Drawings
The land where Santa Barbara sits once belonged to the Chumash. Traces of their home are scarcely visible, but one of the few remnants can be found at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park. As far as state parks go, this one is rather small. Reachable by traveling up a steep and winding road, you will find the cave entrance and soon see the remaining cave paintings. Covering a sandstone wall, these colorful images are a bit of a Santa Barbara mystery. Experts estimate that they may be more than 1000 years old, but the meaning behind them is not known.
Related: Whose land are you on?
Watch a Sunset from the Douglas Family Preserve
This 70-acre, ocean front preserve offers recreational and leisure activities. It can be a good place to go for a run or a picnic. It is perhaps best enjoyed at sunset when you get a bluffside view of the sunset’s colors reflected on the ocean. Parking is generally in a residential area and can fill up at sunset time, so come early on the weekends. I don’t advise wearing any new light colored shoes; parts of the trails are quite dusty.
Visit El Capitan State Park
About half an hour north of Santa Barbara is a gem of a state park: El Capitan. Here you can find walking paths, beach front access, and camping. State parks such as this on the central coast offer a beautiful view of California beaches without the crush of people found further south around Los Angeles. If you can, go on a weekday morning for the most peaceful experience.
Take a Day Trip to Solvang
Solvang is a famous Danish inspired town in California. Full of windmills and sweet treats, many aspects of Solvang are touristy but there are also delicious foods and many wineries in the area. If possible, go on a weekday as it can become quite crowded on the weekends. Nearby, you can also sample Andersen’s famous pea soup.
Hike to Knapp’s Castle
Knapp’s Castle is tucked away in the hills of Santa Barbara. It was finished in 1916 by Union Carbide and founder George Knapp. Once a luxurious home, it was sold in 1940 and just 5 weeks later it was largely destroyed in a forest fire. All that remained after the fire was the home’s stone skeleton.
Since then, the home was turned into a Santa Barbara landmark. Although it is still owned privately, it cannot be developed or restored. Today, only the ruins of Knapp’s Castle remain. It has become one of the most popular places to visit by hikers.
Explore the Santa Barbara Courthouse
This building is widely considered as one of the most beautiful courthouses in the US. Its exterior, the outdoor gardens, the interiors with paintings depicting the history of Santa Barbara, and stunning architectural details are all impressive. In the spring, it is a popular spot for graduation and prom photos. The most popular spot in the courthouse is the clock tower. Climb the clock tower for an amazing view of the red roof tiles of Santa Barbara.
Eat at Cold Spring Tavern
Built in 1886, it was a rest stop for stagecoaches. This historical stop was preserved and the bar and tavern continue to serve guests. On the weekend you can enjoy band performances and tri-tip barbeque sandwiches. Check their website for more information about hours and the menu.
Go Whale Watching
There are many whale watching cruises available to take you out to sea where you can potentially spot dozens of different species of dolphins, whales, and other marine life. Blue and humpback whales generally appear between May and November. Other popular animals include sea lions and orcas. Prices usually range from $60-100 per person.
Hang out at Hendry’s Beach
The Arroyo Burro Beach Park is a popular location for a wide range of water activities. Also known as Hendry’s Beach, this Santa Barbara location is a great spot for swimming, fishing, surfing, picnics, horseback riding, and bird watching.
The park offers picnic tables, grills, and parking. Perhaps the best aspect of this beach is that it is totally dog-friendly! Finally, one of the best restaurants in Santa Barbara, The Boathouse, is located here nestled between the hills. You can sit on their patio and dog watch while brunching.
Wander the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
The Santa Barbara Orchid Estate is located on 5 acres of land. First created in 1957, today it is managed and owned by Paul Gripp and his family. The family is well known for being orchid collectors and propagators, and you can see their love for these flowers in this Santa Barbara location. The estate specializes in temperature tolerant orchids that can easily grow outdoors. While you’re here, you can purchase one of hundreds of orchid varieties that are available for sale.
Discover Thousand Steps Beach
Tucked away off the beaten path is this iconic stairway in Santa Barbara. It is in a residential area with ample free street parking. The stairs wind their way down a cliff, earning its name “thousand steps.” You can go for a walk down the stairs and then along the beach, tides permitting.
Hike Hot Springs Trail
Located off of East Mountain Drive, this is a popular trail that leads you to hot springs. Also known as the Montecito Hot Springs, it is 3.7 miles round trip and dogs are welcome. Soaking in the pools is permitted so come prepared for a dip!
Sample Coffee from a Local Roaster
A good local coffee shop is great. A good local coffee shop that roasts their own beans is even better. Handlebar Coffee can be found in a few locations around Santa Barbara. The best one for a quick bite is downtown (E Canon Perdido Street), while the one on De La Vina Street is better for getting some work done. The location at De La Vina is where the roasting happens and it also offers more seating than the downtown location.
Hike Inspiration Point
This is a clearly marked trail above the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden on Tunnel Rd. Its a moderate difficulty 3.8-mile round trip that has spectacular views of the ocean and area. Wildflowers also hug the trail’s path. Dogs are welcome here as long as they are leashed.
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