Santa Barbara is a beautiful California coastal town situated between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains on Pacific Coast Highway. The city is full of fun places to explore, ranging from historic landmarks and museums to beaches and hiking trails. Santa Barbara is a loved destination for a relaxing weekend and draws visitors from around the United States and abroad. I have spent a lot of time in Santa Barbara over the years, and here are my favorite places to explore in the city. Let me know what I left off in the comments.
Here is a video of the recommendations, or read on for all the information.
Sterns Wharf is the large pier that juts out of the Santa Barbara coastline. The pier was built in 1878, but it has suffered lots of damage from storms, earthquakes, and fires since then. 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. It houses multiple restaurants, with my favorite being the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. It is also home to the Sea Center, which is a great spot to learn about the ocean life in the area. Overall, the wharf is just a historic part of California that is a blast to explore in Santa Barbara.
While at the wharf, consider taking a ride on Lil’ Toot if it’s running when you are there (usually the weekends). This small ship is a local favorite and great for young children. The boat is painted yellow, has a smiley face, and has a fun whistle. It is just a glorified water taxi, but it is a blast, and sometimes it goes out to see seals on its way over to the harbor. It is just fun to be out on the water, and it will give you some great views of the pier as well. Do note that you can only buy a one-way ticket, and based on the line, you might have to wait for a few rounds if you want to ride it back. When it drops off at the harbor, it is right at our next recommendation, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
While this museum is not very big, I love it, and as it has a lot of fun exhibits. The museum has a Fresnel Lighthouse Lens initially used in the Point Conception Lighthouse that is prominently displayed and worth the visit just to see. Surrounding the lens, there are exhibits on surfing history, the Chumash Native Americans, commercial diving, and the oil rigs that dot the landscape. When I last went, they even had scavenger hunts for small children to do while exploring the museum, which is a fun idea. Don’t forget to go to the 4th floor when you are there for a great view over the Harbor.
Walk to Point Castillo
While you are at the harbor, consider walking to Point Castillo. This is an excellent activity for the whole family as it is 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 the sand on one side and boats on the other. When you get to the end, you can sit on the whale-shaped benches and soak in the views of Sterns Wharf right in front of you. If you don’t want to hike, this is a great and active option in the city.
El Presidio de Santa Barbara
Next up, the Presidio is a state historic park that showcases the last Spanish fort, built in 1782. The site preserves two of the original adobe structures and has restored two others. You can see the padres quarters, the chapel, kitchen, and other buildings in the fort. It’s a great area to visit to learn more about the Spanish influence on the area, and it is pretty crazy to see this historic structure right in downtown Santa Barbara.
Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara is probably the most popular tourist attraction in the city. It is one of the 21 Spanish California Missions, and is one of the most beautiful to see. The mission was founded in 1786 and was the 10th mission created. Today you can tour the mission and the grounds, with some of the popular spots to see being the fountain, the cross outside, and the chapel inside. The chapel still holds services and is closed when a service is happening. In the back, there is a cemetery with one of the largest fig trees I have ever seen as well. I have been many times but always enjoy going back and walking the grounds.
Morton Bay Fig
Speaking of fig trees, the next recommendation is to visit Santa Barbara’s Moreton Bay Fig Tree near the railroad depot. This fig tree 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 base of the tree is around 41 feet in circumference, and I wouldn’t doubt the claim after walking around it. It is an easy, quick spot to stop in the city.
While at the Moreton Bay Fig, and if you are traveling with younger kids, consider heading over to the Moxi, known as The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation. This spot is fun for kids of all ages but especially fun for those a little older. The museum is full of fun exhibits like a massive Lite Brite, giant guitar, and all sorts of interactive innovations. Also, the rooftop is an awesome spot for views out over downtown Santa Barbara. My kids loved running around and seeing the exhibits but were a bit young to appreciate it fully. I can’t wait to spend a half-day here when they are a little older though.
While in downtown Santa Barbara, walk up State Street and visit the Santa Barbara Courthouse. The grounds of this historic structure are stunning, and I have seen multiple weddings here when I have visited. I recommend grabbing some coffee at Handlebar and just walking around and soaking it all in. The courthouse also has an overlook in the clock tower that you can go up to if it is open. It hasn’t been open with the pandemic though, so I am not sure when it will open again.
Santa Barbaras Funk Zone is a trendy area right off the main downtown drag. The district is home to coffee shops, art galleries, restaurants, and wine tasting. It is fun to walk around and see the “slow down for the funk” signs along the street and the beautiful murals on many of the buildings. They have fun events here like holiday pop-up bars and live music during different times of the year. I especially love Dart Coffee, which has a fantastic outdoor seating area right in the middle of the Funk Zone. The area is constantly changing, and it is always worth going back to see what is new.
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 many benches. It is 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 1000 Steps Beach hidden on the other side. Research how to get there if you want to go, and don’t go when the tide is high as the beach is pretty much gone. Shoreline Park is an excellent spot for a leisurely morning in Santa Barbara.
If you enjoy going to a farmer’s market, then the Santa Barbara one is a good recommendation for you. The company that runs the market has one six days a week all around Santa Barbara County, so there is a market for you depending on what day you are there. They have all the traditional things like fresh fruit and vegetables and even meat. My favorite vendor is the pistachio company, and it is hard for me to leave without picking up a bag.
Santa Barbara Natural History Museum
This is the last museum on this list, but as you can see, Santa Barbara has some great museums. The Santa Barbara Natural History Museum is unique and has one of the largest collections of taxidermied birds and other animals that I have ever seen. It is fascinating to see all of the animals up close like this, and the entire museum is full of these diorama-type displays that put the animals in elaborate scenes. The underwater ones are especially intricate. The museum also has a pygmy mammoth skeleton found on one of the Channel Islands and a full dinosaur display in the back area. The dinosaurs are animatronics and will move and growl, making them fun for the kids. Lastly, the museum has one of the best exhibits on the Chumash Indians that I have seen. There are a lot of artifacts and information here on this people group that were the original inhabitants of the Santa Barbara area.
Santa Barbara Zoo
The Santa Barbra Zoo comprises only 30 acres right along the coast, and while it is small, it is still a pretty good zoo to visit. It has been voted one of the best small zoos in the USA, and it is easy to see why. The zoo has a fantastic elevated walkway that looks down on a lake and passes alongside some large bird exhibits. The zoo also has gorillas, giraffes, and lions. All of which were very active when I was there. The zoo also has a train that you can ride that takes you around the park. It is small, but it is fun for a few hours while in Santa Barbara, especially with young kids.
Chumash Painted Cave State Park
Chumash Painted Cave State Park is located about 20 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara in the hills above the city. The drive to the site is an adventure on its own with windy roads and what is basically a one lane road. There are great views out over the city on the way up though. When you get to Chumash Painted Cave State Park, there is room for maybe two cars there, but you can see the whole area in a few minutes, so people don’t usually stay too long. The park preserves some of the best remaining Chumash Native American Rock Art, and it is 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 design mean. It is a little difficult to visit with the drive and limited parking, but it is a beautiful and well-preserved spot in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens
The Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens consist of over 75 acres 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 the small creek and into a shaded area preserved to allow visitors to experience the area’s native look. In the back, the garden has a historic rock dam made in the early 1800s to provide water for the mission. This section also has a beautiful area of redwoods, with many benches to sit and relax in their shade. Before I visited this spot, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was blown away by how beautiful it is and highly recommend it.
While I could make a whole post on hiking in the area (let me know if you want that), the most popular spot has got to be Inspiration Point. This hike is 3.5 miles round trip, and it takes you up to a fantastic viewpoint over the entire Santa Barbara area. On a clear day, you can see three of the Channel Islands from the vantage point as well. The hike gives you a great introduction to the Santa Ynez Mountains, and if you are feeling adventurous, you can hike to Seven Falls as well. I would not recommend you do this without a GPS track and some scrambling abilities as it can be hard to find, and the path down to it is very steep. Also, note that the parking for this trail can fill up early on the weekends as it is minimal.
Before ending this list, here are two food recommendations. Santa Barbara is full of great food, so be sure to research more than just these two spots.
First, Los Agaves is one of my favorite places in California. I have been coming here for years, and it never lets me down. The Mexican food restaurant has some of the best chicken mole enchiladas that I have ever had, and I basically never stray to order anything else. Amie usually always goes with the Agaves Enchiladas with fish and shrimp, and the salsa here is excellent as well. It’s a great spot if you love good Mexican food like we do.
McConnell’s Ice Cream
Lastly, McConnell’s Ice Cream is a must visit in Santa Barbara. There are a few locations around the city, so you pretty much always have one close to you. The ice cream here is stellar, with flavors ranging from lemon and Marionberry to churros con leche. You can even split scoops if you can’t decide on just one. Let me know what your favorite flavor is in the comments.
So there you have it, my favorite places in Santa Barbara. Let me know what I left off in the comments!