22 Best Things To Do In Santa Barbara (ULTIMATE TRAVEL GUIDE!)

Cazzy Magennis
Written By:
Cazzy Magennis
Last Updated:
November 6, 2022
Heading to the riviera of California? Then look no further than our ultimate guide on the best things to do in Santa Barbra for all the right inspiration..
things to do in santa barbara

Santa Barbara is a US city on the southern California coastline backed by the Santa Ynez Mountains.

The name and architecture reflect the city’s Spanish past and here you’ll find beautiful white stucco buildings and red-tiled roofs sandwiched between the beachfront and mountains.

The city is packed with fun things to do from chilling at the many golden, sandy beaches to winery tours and tastings, museums, hikes and much, much more.

So, if you’re planning on heading to this gem of a city with an average of 283 days of sunshine per year, strap yourself in and discover the very best things to do in Santa Barbara below.

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How to get to Santa Barbara

Drive

It’s very easy to reach Santa Barbara from Los Angeles as it’s just 90 minutes by car along US 101 S. 

Bakersfield is two and a half hours away on I-5 S and CA 126-W, and Las Vegas is a six-hour drive on I-15 S.

Given its location the city is easily reachable from all the major cities of the southwest.

One of the best ways to get to Santa Barbara is to go by motorhome or RV.

That way you’ll have all you need right with you and won’t have to worry about finding places to stay overnight. 

Airplane

Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA) is the city’s main hub and lies just 7 miles west of the downtown area.

The airport is served by American Airlines, United, Southwest and Alaska Airlines covering most major US destinations.

For international travel the closest airport is LAX in Los Angeles with flights from South America, Europe, Asia and Oceana.  

Check here for the latest flight deals. 

Train

Santa Barbara benefits from two AMTRAK mainline railways; the Pacific Surfliner and the Coast Starlight.

The former connects the city to LA, San Diego, and Orange County.

The Coast Starlight connects Santa Barbara with Seattle and Portland making the city easy to reach from the Pacific Northwest.

Below are a few sample routes with times and prices:

  • Los Angeles to Santa Barbara 2h33m $25.00
  • San Diego to Santa Barbara 5h45m $43.00
  • Seattle to Santa Barbara 32h22m $98.00

Bus

Flixbus operates routes between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara with fares as low as $14.00 and a journey time of under two hours

From Santa Barbara Flixbus has direct connections to 21 cities around the US and this is a great option for budget travelers. 

Greyhound is another option for interstate travel and is one of the biggest names in coach travel in the US. 

Getting to the City from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA)

The cheapest option to get from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport to downtown is to take the Metropolitan Transit District buses.

The buses leave from the stop on Moffett Road opposite the terminal.

You can find the timetable here or in the south terminal lobby.

There are also taxis and private transfers available.

Check the SBA website for more info. 

Getting Around Santa Barbara

getting around santa barbara

Hiring a Car

Hiring a car is a great way to get around the city as it gives you a lot more freedom to get about on your own terms.

It's also a great way to turn your Santa Barbara trip into a fully blown California coast road trip!

Campervan / RV

One of the best ways to get around Santa Barbara and the surrounding areas is to hire an RV/campervan.

This is a great way to get to the beaches, mountains and main Santa Barbara attractions, and can save a lot of money on accommodation too!

You can check our guide on RV rentals in LA for inspiration.

Other Ways to Get around Santa Barbara

Walk - Santa Barbara is a very walkable city, especially along the waterfront and down by the pier, State Street and the Courthouse. And actually, it's extremely pleasant to do so! We particularly enjoyed walking around in the late afternoon/early evening when the temperatures drop a little.

Guided tour - This three-hour Santa Barbara walking tour and scavenger hunt is a great way to get to grips with the city and have a little fun too!

Cycle - the city is very bike-friendly and with so many sunny days, is a joy to cycle around. 

There is a bike path from East to West beach and some excellent mountain biking trails for those who like a little more adrenaline on two wheels.  

Trolleybus - taking the SB Trolleybus is another great way to get an introduction to the city and takes in many of the most famous sights. 

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

There are plenty of great accommodation options in Santa Barbara and the surrounding areas.

Whether you’re looking for a dorm bed in a backpacker hostel, or something a little more stylish, you’ll be sure to find somewhere to suit your tastes and your wallet.

Here is a small selection of places to stay in Santa Barbara:

Our Top Pick - Harbor View Inn

harbor view inn

So I'm going to make a big claim here, this is one of the best hotel rooms I've experienced in 6 years of travel, and it's everything to do with the location, the quality and the facilities.

The Harbor View Inn is a family-friendly boutique hotel is in a great location just off West Beach with absolutely epic views of the coastline!

Our room was sea view facing and you literally stepped out from your bedroom onto the spacious balcony and were welcomed with ocean views.

sunrise view at harbor view inn

The room itself is exceptional quality in terms of both amenities and comfort.

The double bed is large and comfortable, there are USB charging ports next to the bed (we love when a hotel understands the convivence of this).

santa barbara accomodation

There is a large bath which was wonderful (we all know how much I love a good hotel bath by now!), and even a separate, large shower.

The room is bursting with extra facilities which add to your stay including excellent air conditioning, a Nespresso coffee machine, a sofa for relaxing, bath robes, and more.

Not only is the room excellent but the facilities within the boutique property are also excellent.

They boast a wonderful swimming pool and jacuzzi, perfect for soaking up the sunshine, or even relaxing at sunset.

Book your stay right here.

Mid-range -Orange Tree Inn  

This excellent hotel is centrally located on State Street in the heart of the city and just 2 miles from West Beach.

The property boasts an outdoor pool and sun deck, free cable and Wi-Fi and some rooms come with a private balcony.

Budget - Sunset Motel

If you're looking for a budget option in Santa Barbra, then check out the Sunset Motel.

This property offers air-conditioned rooms with TV, free Wi-Fi and tea and coffee making facilities.

The motel is just a 15-minute drive from the beach.

The Best Things to do in Santa Barbara

1. Take a romantic evening Sunset Cruise

Santa Barbara is famed for its epic sunsets and one of the best ways to experience these is to take a sunset cruise.

This is one of the great things to do in Santa Barbara for couples as you journey along the coast in the shadow of the Santa Ynez mountains.

You’ll have the chance to spot dolphins, California sea lions and a host of bird and marine life aboard the 50-foot catamaran the Double Dolphin as you sail along the California Riviera.

On board a selection of beers, wines (Californian naturally), champagne, soft drinks and gourmet snacks are served so you can enjoy your cruise with a touch of class.

santa barbara at sunset
In my happy place ;)

Everything is a reasonable price too onboard which is great. I enjoyed a glass of local sparkling wine!

We truly enjoyed this beautiful experience and luckily were treated to a beautiful sunset.

Tickets cost $65.00 per person and the cruise lasts two hours around sunset.

Check the website to see sailings depending on what time of year it is.

2. Hire a Bike and Head Along the Coastal Path

wheel fun rentals in santa barbara
This was FUN!

With a dedicated cycle path running along the waterfront between East beach, West beach and Leadbetter beach, cycling is the perfect way to take in those sea views.

Hiring a bike is also a great way to get a bit of exercise at the same time (perfect if you want to indulge in some of Santa Barbara’s fine food - more on that below).

Wheel Fun Rentals have locations around the city’s main beaches and boardwalk.

They have a range of bikes, trikes and electric cycles to choose from with prices starting at $14.95 per hour for a city bike.

We hired a Surrey (a double-seated, wide bicycle) and it was great fun exploring the beaches and waterfront this way.

The fact it protects you from the sun it just a bonus, and since you're cycling, you gain a bit of a breeze- a great way to enjoy the beach without getting burnt!

If you’re looking for a less energetic way to get around, then this Santa Barbara electric bike tour is just the thing for you. 

The tour lasts two and a half hours and takes in some of the top sights including State Street, the Santa Barbara Mission and of course the waterfront.

3. Do a Santa Barbara Trolley Tour

riding the santa barbara trolley

Another great way to get around and see the top sights and places to visit in Santa Barbara is to take a trolleybus tour.

This is a great option for first-time visitors to get an orientation of the city and see some of the top attractions in Santa Barbara.

You’ll go past the Museum of Natural History, the Mission and Stearns Wharf (the pier), arguably the most famous landmark in Santa Barbara.

This 90-minute excursion costs just $30.00 per person and sets off from the Garden Street Visitors Center.

It was such a fun experience, and being in a trolley just felt like an awesome way to see the city! 

Plus our guide had lots of great information and fun facts.

4. See the Old Mission Santa Barbara

Old Mission Santa Barbara

The Mission Santa Barbara was founded in 1876 by Padre Fermín Lasuén for the Franciscan Order.

This historic building set within 15 acres of land houses an order of Francisacn Friars and includes a museum, gift shop, mausoleum and gardens.

Visiting the Mission is one of the best Santa Barbara things to do for history lovers or those looking to escape the city for a little slice of solitude.

It’s possible to take a self-guided tour of the Mission between 9:30 am and 4:00 pm seven days a week.

Entrance costs $15.00 for adults and $10.00 for children and teenagers.

The tours include the sacred garden, museum, cemetery and Mission church, but be advised that sometimes certain sections will be off limits to visitors as it is a working place of worship.

5. Visit the Natural History Museum

 Natural History Museum santa barbara

The excellent Natural History Museum is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara for nature lovers and dinosaur geeks (like me!)

The museum has 10 indoor exhibit halls with displays on geology, marine life, plant life and much more.

There are regular specialist exhibitions and events held at the museum, which also includes stunning gardens and even a planetarium.

The museum is set in a beautiful location along Mission Creek within Mission Canyon and is a great place to experience the area’s natural beauty. 

The Natural History Museum is open Wednesday to Monday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Tickets cost $18.00 for adults and $12.00 for children.

You can book your tickets online.

This is a perfect place to spend the day in Santa Barbara, especially if you have young children, or if you want to escape the heat for a little bit.

6. Go for a Walk at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens

Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens

Another great place to visit in Santa Barbara for nature lovers is the city’s botanic gardens.

The gardens cover 78 acres across Mission Canyon and contain over 1,000 species of rare plants.

With 11 sections to explore from desert and meadow to redwood, canyon and backcountry, the botanic gardens make for a great day out in pristine nature.

visiting the santa barbara gardens

Visit the herbarium, learn about California’s native bugs or explore the library which holds over 15,000 books with an emphasis on the flora and fauna of southern California.

The gardens are open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and tickets cost $18.00 for adults and $10.00 for children.

Reservations can be made online.

7. Enjoy Lunch at the Public Markets

If you love food, then you will LOVE the Santa Barbara Public Markets.

This upmarket venue is the best place to sample some of the city’s culinary delights from artisan baked goods to local craft beers and wines.

We went to the Fala Bar for some seriously good falafel, a great option for vegans as their entire menu is plant-based.

This was probably some of the best falafel I've ever had, and the portions were large.

Great value!

fala bar santa barbara

There is indoor and outdoor seating, and a wide range of cuisines from burgers and pizza to sushi, tacos and more.

foodchoices at santa barbara public market

This is THE place to go if you’re feeling peckish in Santa Barbara and is open Sunday to Wednesday 11:00 am to 9:00 pm and Thursday to Saturday 11:00 am to 10:00 pm.

8. Head up the Historic Stearns Wharf

Historic Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf is Santa Barbara's iconic pier that dates back to 1872.

The wharf is named after the local builder and lumberjack, John P. Stearns who was responsible for its construction.

The pier has been almost destroyed on several occasions from storms, earthquake and fire but has been painstakingly rebuilt each time (the last time in 1998).

The wharf now houses over 15 businesses including craft shops, amusements, snack stalls and restaurants.

Taking a stroll along Stearns Wharf is one of the top things to do in Santa Barbara.

The pier, which celebrated its 150th year in 2022 is one of the best places to watch Santa Barbara’s magnificent sunsets. 

It's got a lot of fish options, that sound and look interesting.

Brad and I are vegetarian so we couldn't try, but if you like fish, then this would be the place to try it!

9. Go Wine Tasting

One thing I love to do with every country I visit is hit up the wine regions...

And visiting America was no different. I've visited a few wineries in different regions across North America, and I was excited to explore what Santa Barbara had to offer in wine!

In 2021 Santa Barbara County was voted wine region of the year so no trip to the city is complete without sampling some of the great wines on offer.

Whether you want to do a tasting tour such as this one, visit a tasting room like the Grassini family’s downtown winery or hit one of the many bars around the city, you’re sure to be blown away by the wines on offer.

We really enjoyed the wines at the Deep Sea Tasting Room on Stearns Wharf.

Not only were the wines fantastic, but the views across the bay to the city were incredible too.

Some other great places to learn about Santa Barbara’s wine making include the Valley Project, Santa Barbara Wine Collective and Jamie Slone Wines.  

10. Visit the Museum of Natural History Sea Center

Museum of Natural History Sea Center

Ocean lovers will have a great time at the Museum of Natural History Sea Center which is conveniently located on Stearns Wharf.

The aquarium is full of interactive displays and hands-on activities great for the whole family so a perfect family friendly activity in Santa Barbara.

Get up close and personal with sea horses, octopus, jellyfish (not too close with these) and a whole host of interesting marine life.

The center hosts events and educational workshops throughout the year so be sure to check out the official website to see what’s currently going on.

The Sea Center is open every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and tickets cost $13.00 for adults and $10.00 for children.

Visiting the aquarium at the Sea Center is definitely one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara for nature lovers and families.

11. Peruse the Funk Zone

The Funk Zone refers to an area of old factories and warehouses that has become the city’s hip, artsy hangout.

The zone is just a few blocks from West Beach and is one of the best places to visit in Santa Barbara for its studios and galleries, craft breweries, artisan shops and restaurants.

One of the best ways to get the most out of this eclectic part of the city is to take a food and photo tour (there are plenty of places worthy of “the ‘Gram”)!

This 3-hour small group tour will have you sampling some of the city’s best treats and includes visits to breweries, wineries and even a distillery (all tastings included).

If you’re looking for a bit of retail therapy then the Zone has you covered.

Be sure to check out some of the great boutique stores in the neighborhood such as Jules by the Sea, the Shopkeepers, the Blue Door and SeaVees.

Some of the best restaurants in the city can be found within the Zone.

The Bluewater Grill specializes in local seafood and shellfish.

Other top places to eat include the Lark, Lucky Penny (which actually has more than 150,000 real copper pennies- thanks' trolley tour for that fact!) and Flor de Maiz. 

12. Discover the Presidio Neighborhood

Presidio Neighborhood

Presidio means “Fortress” in Spanish and this downtown neighborhood is located around one of the last Presidios built in California.

Like the nearby Funk Zone, the neighborhood is home to an eclectic mix of boutique shops, wineries and restaurants.

The area is great to just walk around and get lost in the myriad little walkways, courtyards and square’s that hark back to its Spanish origins. Be sure to check out the “Street in Spain”; a colorful, cobbled walkway in the Paseo Shopping Center decked out with flags.

Presidio is home to lots of great tasting rooms such as the Happy Canyon Vineyard, Au Bon Climat and the above-mentioned Grassini Family Vineyards.

You may enter sober and leave a little bit tipsy! ;) 

13. Keep an Eye Out for Festivals

It’s no secret that the Spanish love their festivals and so Santa Barbara has more than its fair share of annual fiestas, street parties, parades and other activities.

The Old Spanish Days Fiesta is one of the highlights of the calendar and dates back nearly a century to 1924.

This eight-day-long festival celebrates the city’s Spanish, Mexican and Native American heritage through song, dance, performances, food and drink.

Other annual festivals include the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, one of the largest events in the city.

Actually Santa Barbara has a very interesting film history, it was basically the original Hollywood! BUT go on the Trolley tour and you'll learn all about it.

Whenever you visit, there will be sure to be something lively going on so check out this listing of current events to see what’s on during your stay.

14. Enjoy Incredible Food

resteraunts in santa barbara
We ate WELL!

Santa Barbara is one of the top destinations in America for foodies and has a huge array of restaurants to choose from.

Whether you’re looking for Spanish, Southern, Mexican, Japanese, European or especially seafood, one thing’s for sure, you’ll not go hungry in Santa Barbara!

The sky really is the limit, but for some of the best eateries in the city head to the waterfront, State Street, Funk Zone and Presidio areas mentioned above.

One of the best meals we had was at the Italian Chase Restaurant and Lounge which is perfect if you’re looking for a little elegance with your evening meal.

One of the main reasons we enjoyed our meal was that fact it has a brilliant vegetarian restaurant, and a vegetarian lasagna they've won awards for!

So a great choice for fellow veggies like us.

This 3.5-hour walking tour will give you a good introduction to the city’s food scene and includes tastings at five or six downtown eateries (plus wine tastings). 

15. Chill Out at Shoreline Park

shoreline park

Shoreline Park is one of Santa Barbara’s great waterfront parks and the perfect place to chill out, grab a drink or a bite to eat and watch the sunset.

With stunning views across the bay to the harbor, islands and mountains, this is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for an afternoon.

There are picnic tables and BBQs for public use so it’s a great place to make a spread and enjoy the views.

The park has access to a “secret” beach and tidal pool below only accessible at low tide.

It’s not unusual to see dolphins from the park so this really is one of the best places to visit in Santa Barbara for a little escape. 

16. Check Out Arroyo Burro Beach Park

Arroyo Burro is another of the city’s fine beaches located a short ten-minute drive from downtown.

Hitting Arroyo Burro beach is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara for those looking for a calm stretch of sand with mild surf (so a good option for families).

This dramatic stretch of coastline is part of the Arroyo Burro Beach County Park and boasts miles of golden sand backed by cliffs and parkland.

Be sure to check out the Douglas Family Preserve; over 70 acres of unspoiled wilderness close to the beach.

The nearby Boathouse Restaurant is a good option for dining and has stunning sea views. 

17. See the Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Santa Barbara County Courthouse

The Superior Court of California County of Santa Barbara was built in 1929 in the Spanish revival style.

The courthouse is one of the best things to see Santa Barbara for its interesting colonial-style architecture.

This iconic Santa Barbara landmark is located in the downtown area and close to lots of other attractions, restaurants and bars.

The courthouse is open to the public and offers excellent panoramic views of the town from its clock tower, making it one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.

There are free daily one-hour tours of the courthouse at 10:30 am and 2:00 pm Monday to Friday and 2:00 pm at weekends.

If you’re interested in more of Santa Barbara’s history and architecture then this walking tour is perfect.

Psssst, our trolley tour guide told us that this is the second most photographed building in the USA?!....Someone else can vouch for that ;) 

18. Go Shopping

State Street is Santa Barbara’s main retail area in the heart of the city with a huge assortment of shops, boutique clothing stores, artisan food halls and more.

Paseo Nuevo is an open-air shopping complex with lots of big high street names and plenty of dining options.

For smaller and more independent stores head to La Arcada or El Paseo which date back almost 100 years.

Be sure to hit the Funk Zone and Presidio neighborhoods too for some great shopping. 

19. Discover the Up and Coming Craft Brewery Scene

Hopefully you’ve learned that Santa Barbara is one of America’s best wine regions, but what about beer lovers?

Well, if you love an ale then you’re also in for a treat as the city has an ever-growing number of craft beer breweries and tap rooms opening up all the time.

The Lama Dog Tap Room + Bottle Shop has 20 revolving beers on tap (and wines too) and its own bottle shop so if you like what you taste you can bring some home with you.

Lama Dog is open from 11:30 am to 10:00 pm Sunday through Thursday and 11:30 am to 12:00 am Friday and Saturday.

Other noteworthy names in the Santa Barbara craft beer scene include Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co, Captain Fatty’s at the Project and the Funk Zone’s Rincon Brewery.

20. Go Golfing

California (and of course Santa Barbara) has some of the finest golf courses in the USA.

The city plays host to some of the top championship courses such as the Sandpiper Golf Club and Glen Annie Golf Club.

You can expect lush and smooth fairways and fast greens in these great golf courses nestled between the ocean and mountains. 

Brad loves to golf, and even though he didn't golf on this trip, he did lust after the beautiful golf courses!

For golfers, hitting the fairway is one of the best activities in Santa Barbara.

For more golfing info check out this guide.

21. Get Out on the Water

No trip to Santa Barbara is complete without hitting the water and getting a little wet!

From swimming to surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding and more, Santa Barbara is the perfect destination to get out on the water.

A great spot is Point Castillo which has a wonderful swimming beach.

Santa Barbara has some excellent surf spots, so if you’ve ever wanted to have a go at this adrenalin-fuelled sport now’s your chance. 

For those looking for a high-octane thrill on the water why not have a go at parasailing?

This fun thing to do in Santa Barbara costs from as little as $75.00 per person and will give you some of the best views of the city.

See here for more details.

You can also rent kayaks from the beach (right across from the Harbor View Inn- FYI) or again opt for a sunset cruise with the Santa Barbara Sailing club if you want to enjoy the water without getting wet.

22. Go for brunch at Jeannine's Restaurant & Bakery

This was my favourite place to eat in all of Santa Barbara (so we went twice! ;) )

They do an amazing brunch, where you can even go full holiday mode and order champagne mimosa.

The atmosphere, the décor, the staff and the food quality were excellent, and we adored the vegetarian options.

They also do really good coffee, pastries and cakes for a quick grab and go!

But if you're looking for an awesome brunch spot, then I absolutely recommend Jeannie's!

Other Santa Barbara Travel Tips

When is a good time to visit Santa Barbara?

Given Santa Barbara’s southern California location the city enjoys almost year-round good weather making it a great destination at any time.

However, the best time to visit is generally spring (March to May) or fall (September to November) as you’ll enjoy plenty of sunshine but avoid the worst of the crowds.

Although winters are mild, this is when the city experiences its most rainfall so not great for exploring or days at the beach. 

How long should you spend in Santa Barbara?

With so much packed into this waterside city you’ll want to spend at least a week to hit the beach, explore the coast, visit the museums and gardens and enjoy Santa Barbara’s phenomenal foods, wines and beers.

The city is also perfect for weekend breaks where you can enjoy stunning views and romantic dinners at some of California’s top restaurants.

If you really want to delve deep then 10 days to two weeks would be perfect for exploring everything the city has to offer and to get out into some of the national parks. 

What is a good budget for Santa Barbara?

The recommended budget for Santa Barbara is around $130 per day, but you can cut this down by opting for budget accommodation and checking out many of the free activities on offer.

Traveling by camper is a great way to save money as you have your accommodation with you and can easily prepare your own meals (and save on transport too). 

Is Santa Barbara Safe to Visit?

Santa Barbara is a very safe city and tourists have little to worry about. The city reports lower violent crime than the rest of the United States.

Take usual traveler precautions as pickpocketing and thefts can occur around tourist sites.

Be mindful of the weather and cover up during the hottest part of the day, and always slap on a bit of sunscreen.

Follow all safety signs at the city’s beaches and try to swim at patrolled beaches where lifeguards are on hand. 

Where to go After Santa Barbara

Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Las Vegas are all great options and easy to reach from Santa Barbara (see the Getting Here section for more info).

Explore California’s sun-drenched coastline and even head down into Mexico (Tijuana is only four and a half hours by car). 

Santa Barbara is such a fantastic destination for its sunny skies, beachfront activities and amazing sunsets.

With some of the best wines produced here and some excellent eating options, it’s no wonder it is so popular with holidaymakers.

It honestly stole a piece of my heart, and was one of my favourite places to visit in all of the USA.

*A special thank you to Santa Barbara Tourism for hosting us!

Disclaimer: Fully research your destination prior to travel, or any products prior to purchase. We can accept no responsibility for anything you experience as a result of the information found on this website. Some posts may contain affiliate links, which means we receive a small commission for some purchases, at no additional expense to you. Read more here
Some images courtesy of Deposit Photos.
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