Today let’s look into the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara – a dream destination. Santa Barbara is an incredibly beautiful California city snuggled between the ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains. It is called American Riviera for its glamour and timeless charm.
Established by the Spaniards in the 18th century, completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1925 and rebuilt from the ashes in subsequent years, Santa Barbara has an elegant European feel with Spanish-style white stucco houses with red roofs, surrounded by lush blooming gardens.
Between the history, architecture, rich museums, vast parks and gardens, here is our suggested list of 15 unique things to do in Santa Barbara, whether you go with the family or alone.
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15 unique things to do in Santa Barbara
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, the historic Stearns Wharf was for a long time the most modern and the longest pier in this part of the world. Today it is the location of some of the city’s most fascinating attractions such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center.
Stearns Wharf is also a great spot to spend some time in one of many restaurants watching people, boats and enjoying the breathtaking views of the busy harbour, beaches and the looming Santa Ynez Mountains. Kids would enjoy the Lil’ Toot water taxi, which they can take from the Santa Barbara Harbor. They can also watch harbour seals or try their hand at fishing.
Heading here is one of the best unique things to do in Santa Barbara for all types of travellers.
Mission Santa Barbara
Mission Santa Barbara is the city’s true icon. Established in 1786 by the Franciscan friars, it has been dominating the city landscape from its picturesque site on top of the hill. It is still doing its job and is providing a home to a group of Franciscan priests.
It is easy to explore the Mission on your own which is why it’s one of the best and most unique things to do in Santa Barabara. Stroll through the church, have a look at its magnificent façade designed like a Roman temple, and pay attention to the twin towers and many colonial-era paintings and sculptures. If you want to learn more, join one of the organized tours.
Relax for a minute in the magnificent surrounding La Huerta Historic Garden or the charming Mission Rose Garden.
Sightseeing is tiring and there is no better place to take a break from all the history and art Santa Barbara has to offer than on one of its magnificent beaches. There are no more beautiful beaches in the entire State of California.
The most popular are West Beach and East Beach, stretching on both sides of Stearns Wharf. They are picture-perfect, with fine white sand, tall swaying palm trees and scattered volleyball nets. Head here for one of the best unique things to do in Santa Barbara
If you take the Cabrillo Bike Path from West Beach, you will reach a surfers’ paradise, Leadbetter Beach. Keep going east along the bike path and you will find a tiny scenic Butterfly Beach located in upscale Montecito. It is perfect for a lovely picnic.
While you’re near Montecito, make sure to check out the nearby hot springs – Santa Barbara is famous for them. Hendry’s beach, also called Arroyo Burro County Beach Park, is the kids’ favourite with its gentle surf, and a wide expanse of sand. It has a popular restaurant, and it has lifeguards during the summer season. This beach is also dog-friendly.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
A courthouse is not a place anyone wants to visit voluntarily, except when it is such an architectural jewel as Santa Barbara County Courthouse. This is why this is one of the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara.
Built in 1929, it is a National Historic Landmark. Its 85-foot tall El Mirador clock tower is one of the best spots from which to get a view of the entire city.
The courthouse was built after the 1925 earthquake in the Spanish Revival style. It’s massive, taking over an entire city block. Take a free tour of its tiled corridors, and have a look at the elaborate wrought iron chandeliers, hand-painted tiles from Spain and Tunisia and the magnificent painted ceilings.
The highlight of the courthouse is the Mural Room. The murals tell the fascinating story of the city’s turbulent past. There is a lovely sunken garden outside of the courthouse, a popular spot for weddings, concerts and other events.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
A century-old, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is a great place to learn about the fascinating natural history of the area.
The museum is divided into the Mission Canyon campus, surrounded by ancient oaks along Mission Creek, as well as the Sea Center, located on Stearns Wharf, showcasing the Santa Barbara Channel’s underwater world.
The main feature of the Mission Canyon campus is the massive 72-foot skeleton of a blue whale, greeting you at the entrance of the exhibit before going on a whale-watching cruise. Other exhibits include the Chumash Indians display; the mammal hall and the Gladwin Planetarium, a wonderful shady nature trail, and the Butterflies Alive! exhibit open in the summer.
The Sea Center is the place where the kids can touch baby sharks, feel the tentacles of a sea anemone, hold a tiny hermit crab, and watch monster venomous jellyfish. Easily one of the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara.
Whale Watching Tours
Santa Barbara is one of the rare places in the world where you can have a front-row seat watching 27 species of whales as they migrate along the Santa Barbara coast through the Santa Barbara Channel.
During the peak migration season, from May to November, hundreds of whale watching cruises take tourists to experience the breathtaking scenery of humpback whales breaching the waves, or shooting tall plumes of water from their blowholes.
Most commonly, visitors have a chance of seeing blue, humpback and great whales, sea lions, dolphins, or sometimes orcas. Most whale watching boat cruises offer a guarantee — you can go again for free if you don’t see any whales during the cruise.
The Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery
Sea lions are part of the Santa Barbara landscape. The best place to see them is the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve.
It is also your opportunity to stretch your legs and take a scenic hike along Coastal Vista Trail. The trail winds along the sea cliffs offer a spectacular view of the ocean and the sea lions’ habitat.
The trail is one mile long, fairly flat and suitable for all levels of fitness. The best time to observe the seals on the beach below the cliffs is from February to April when they are giving birth.
Imagine if you could witness such an event! They hang out on the beach the rest of the year as well and you can walk down to the beach to watch them. Please do not disturb them. If you have questions about their habitat and life, ask one of the ever-present docents.
Further out in the ocean you can often observe dolphins and whales. Along the trail, small animals such as squirrels and lizards are scuttling around. There are also over 200 species of birds.
Santa Barbara Zoo
You should not miss the Santa Barbara Zoo even if you are not travelling with kids. It stretches over 30 acres on the hill overlooking the ocean. Lush greenery, plants from all over the world and vast open spaces make the zoo a wonderful place to visit on a hot summer day.
Considered one of the best small zoos in the country, Santa Barbara zoo is home to 500 animals representing 160 species. Some of the most popular are snow leopards, the lions, California condors, western lowland gorillas, meerkats, giraffes and many others. The colourful zoo train will take you through the zoo if you get tired.
Make sure to add the zoo to your list – it’s one of the most exciting things to do in Santa Barbara!
MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation
MOXI is a new science and technology museum located in a lovely Spanish Colonial building full of fun sea-themed decor. It opened in 2017, not far from the city waterfront. MOXI Museum is the place where many exhibits are hands-on and you can try your hand at creating sound effects for a movie or explore the insides of a huge guitar.
There are three floors of exhibits divided into Speed, Light, Interactive Media, the Sky Garden and the Fantastic Forces. At the Innovation Workshop, you can watch 3D printers make various objects, make a race car, drive it on the museum’s race tracks, or use a selfie to create an incredible mosaic. The museum’s rooftop offers a few scopes to take a close-up view of the city and the ocean.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
You might not be able to drag the kids to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, but it is well worth the visit. It contains over 27,000 works of art that have been created over 5,000 years.
The museum has an incredible collection of paintings by Claude Monet, 19th- and 20th-century European and American artworks, modern American painting, photography and Asian art. One of the best and most unique things to do in Santa Barbara.
The best time to visit the museum or any other Santa Barbara downtown gallery is on the first Thursday every month when the entrance is free.
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
This museum might be much more interesting to the kids. It tells the story of the maritime history of Santa Barbara. It’s located on the harborfront, and it offers very interesting exhibits on Chumash Indians, surfing, Channel Islands ranches, and much more.
There are fascinating exhibits on diving and fishing through history, several model ships and objects from military history. Children would enjoy scavenger hunts, looking through a real periscope, or taking photos of the city and harbor from the viewing deck.
Once you finish exploring the museum, take a stroll through Santa Barbara Harbor. You can watch the harbor seals, stroll along the breakwater or enjoy some fresh fish and seafood in one of many restaurants along the waterfront.
Located in the upscale neighbourhood of Montecito, Lotusland is considered one of the world’s most wonderful gardens. It has been created by three consecutive owners, but most of the current botanical collections are attributed to Madame Ganna Walska, the famous Polish opera singer.
She spent over four decades creating the dramatic garden showpiece you can see today. Uniquely designed, the garden has entire individual gardens consisting only of tall agaves, tender euphorbia, stately cactus, and spiky cycads. The lotus flowers thrive in what was once a swimming pool.
If you would like to learn more about the garden, come for a visit on Wednesday to Saturday, between mid-February and mid-November, when there are two-hour guided tours. The perfect unique things to do in Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a beautiful green oasis spread over 78 acres of lush woodland, overlooking the ocean and the mountains. The garden is home to over 1,000 species of native trees and plants.
The garden is a popular spot for hiking with over 5.5 miles of trails that wind through the fragrant pine woodland. Some of the most interesting spots in the garden are the Mission aqueduct and dam, constructed in 1807 to bring water to the Santa Barbara Mission; the towering redwood grove; a charming colourful wildflower meadow; and a whimsical Japanese tea garden and tea house.
El Presidio State Historic Site
Located in downtown Santa Barbara, El Presidio is a fortified army settlement (presidio in Spanish) founded in 1782 by the Spaniards. It is an amazing well-restored piece of the city’s history.
You can visit two original fort buildings – the Cañedo Adobe and El Cuartel. The visitor center offers tours of the presidio and exhibits on the historic site’s history. There are also the reconstructed old Chapel called Comandancia, Padre’s Quarters, and rooms in which the Presidio’s Lieutenant lived.
Learn to surf in Santa Barbara
If surfing is something you were dreaming about, Santa Barbara is the perfect place to do it. Considered as having some of the most perfect breaks on the West Coast, Santa Barbara has mild tides, moderate water temperatures and plenty of world-class surfing schools. The full surfing season starts in the fall but there are nice surfing spots year-round.
Look for a reputable and certified surfing school such as iSurf, which is endorsed by the World Surf League.
Best Tours in Santa Barbara
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara
There are definitely more than 15 unique things to do in Santa Barbara, so you will have to make a careful plan and try not to miss anything truly special. Between the mountains and the sea, with so much history and lush nature, there is plenty to do for the whole family.
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Guest Post Written By
This is a post by Lorena Maia, who runs the TravelCroc website. On her site, she shares her travel tips, memories and experiences. She also publishes a variety of travel-related advice. Lorena has lived on 3 continents – South America, Europe and Australia. She currently calls Australia home – until she and her husband decide to spend some time somewhere else.