Santa Barbara brings together nature, history, cuisine, and culture, making for a can’t-miss destination you won’t soon forget. These are the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California for your trip.

Between the stunning Santa Ynez mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and lush botanical gardens, you’ll find stunning vistas around every corner. The Spanish-style buildings downtown, some of which are among the oldest in the United States, add an air of charm. And all of this is permeated by the relaxed atmosphere that California is known for.

So not surprisingly, Santa Barbara and the surrounding areas of Ventura and Ojai lend themselves well to slow travel. Taking things at a leisurely pace will allow you to savor the best things to do in Santa Barbara.

But that’s not to say that the city doesn’t also have an energetic side. You’ll find plenty of exciting cultural activities, stylish hotels, and top-rated restaurants in the city. Some of the best things to do in Santa Barbara are in its colorful and lively Funk Zone. Meanwhile, State Street buzzes with shopping, dining, and activity.

No matter what you’re looking for from a trip, you’ll find something to love in the city. Here are some of my top recommendations for the best things to do in Santa Barbara.

*This post contains affiliates which means I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you if you choose to make a purchase. As always, all things recommended are my own opinion, and your support is always appreciated.

17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

What is Santa Barbara known for?

Also known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara is known for its natural and architectural beauty. It also boasts a thriving culinary scene, impressive botanical gardens, and several fascinating historical sites to visit.

How many days do you need in Santa Barbara?

Two days will allow enough time to check several things to do in Santa Barbara off your bucket list. But a longer stay of three or four days will help you explore at a more relaxed pace and enjoy all the city has to offer. 

What are the best hotels in Santa Barbara to stay at?

El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel for the best boutique luxury stay
The Ritz-Carlton Bacara for best beachfront hotel
Kimpton Canary for the best downtown, hip stay
Hotel Californian for the best family-friendly hotel

Planning a road trip with a stop in Santa Barbara?
Here’s where to go:

Visit the Central Coast FirstSan Luis Obispo, Cambria, or Big Sur.
Consider spending time in the Santa Ynez Wine Country nearby.
Further south, stopover inland in Ojai or by the coast in Malibu!

Can’t-Miss Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Visit The Old Mission Santa Barbara

History is all around you at the Old Mission Santa Barbara. The site has been run by Franciscans since its founding in 1786. Today, it comprises a museum, gift shop, cemetery, mausoleum, and gardens, providing plenty for visitors to explore. The mission offers both guided and self-guided tours.

Sip Wine at a Tasting Room in the Funk Zone

Get to know Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail with a stop in the Funk Zone, a hip and vibrant neighborhood known for its wineries and breweries. This 10-block area includes 9 wineries, so you’ll have an easy time walking between tasting rooms.

Pali Winery and Santa Barbara Wineries are personal favorites and make a great pairing for an afternoon of tasting. I’d recommend heading down in the late afternoon and then catching sunset right at the beach afterward.

If you’re looking to explore Santa Barbara’s wine country and beyond, I’d book this tour that takes you to the premier wineries out in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Tour The El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park

In the middle of the city sits El Presidio de Santa Barbara, a military outpost built by the Spanish in 1782. Today, it’s a fascinating place to visit. History lovers will love the El Cuartel building, which is the oldest in Santa Barbara and the second-oldest in California.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Explore the Botanical Gardens at The Ganna Walska Lotusland

In 1941, Polish concert singer Ganna Walska bought the estate that is now Lotusland. She spent the next 43 years curating the wide array of gardens you can visit today. From the topiary garden to the Japanese garden to the cactus garden, there’s something for everyone on Lotusland’s 37-plus acres.

Catch Art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Santa Barbara’s top art museum punches far above its weight. Featuring 25,000 works of art created over 5,000 years, the museum’s collection rivals those of other far larger cities. French Impressionism is a highlight here, and the museum has more Monet paintings than any other on the West Coast.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Spend the day out in the Channel Islands

Thirty miles south of Santa Barbara, you can catch a boat to Channel Islands National Park. The park comprises five stunning islands and their ocean environment, including abundant plant life and wildlife.

There are no services, shops, or transportation on the islands once you arrive, so planning ahead and packing carefully is key. You will need to pre-book your ticket and plan accordingly with one of the many tour providers. BOOK YOUR TICKET TO CHANNEL ISLANDS.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Eat Your Way Through the Santa Barbara Public Market

To taste the best of Santa Barbara, make your way to Santa Barbara Public Market, the city’s premier food hall. You can sample tacos, sushi, falafel, pizza, and more from some of Santa Barbara’s best chefs all under one roof.

Don’t miss dessert at Rory’s Artisanal Creamery—the small-batch ice cream will blow you away! If food is your thing, consider booking yourself on this small-group food tour that takes you through the best Santa Barbara eateries.

Spend a day at the Beaches

Santa Barbara has miles and miles of coastline and plenty of beautiful beaches to explore. Each offers something different, but my favorite has always been Butterfly Beach near Montecito. It’s the perfect place to sunbathe and catch the sunset at the end of the day.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Book a Whale Watching Tour

Santa Barbara offers year-round opportunities for whale watching, and a boat tour will get you up close and personal with these fascinating animals. From November to April, thousands of Pacific gray whales migrate between Alaska and Mexico.

In the other months, you can spot blue, humpback, and fin whales that migrate to the channel to feed. This is one of the best-selling whale-watching tours that depart from Santa Barbara.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Natural and cultural history come together at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Renovated in 2018, it features state-of-the-art exhibits on topics ranging from geology and astronomy to paleontology and anthropology. It’s a great stop for visitors of all ages, with family programs geared toward children.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Stroll the Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara for Sunset

You can’t beat a California sunset, and historic Stearns Wharf is the perfect place to take one in. Located in Santa Barbara’s harbor, it’s home to an array of restaurants and specialty shops that you can explore before or after you watch the sun dip into the Pacific.

Helpful Post: A Slow Road Trip Guide To Santa Barbara, Ventura, And Ojai

17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Explore the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Discover California’s biodiversity at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which highlights and conserves the state’s native plants and habitats. Its 78 acres include five miles of trails and more than 1,000 species of local plants. The garden has sections for the desert, Redwoods, meadows, and more.

17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Go Shopping in Downtown Santa Barbara

Downtown Santa Barbara has endless options for shopping and features everything from independent boutiques to national retailers. It’s also both beautiful and highly walkable, making it a great place to spend a couple of hours shop-hopping.

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Take the Family to the Santa Barbara Zoo

146 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects call the Santa Barbara Zoo home, including Chilean flamingos, Western grey kangaroos, and snow leopards. Visitors can make their trip interactive by hand-feeding Masai giraffes or watching the zoo residents’ food being prepared in the Animal Kitchen. Note that reservations are required for general admission.

Spend the Afternoon at The Natural History Museum Sea Center

Animal lovers can’t miss the Sea Center at Santa Barbara’s natural history museum. This aquarium, located on bustling Stearns Wharf, will acquaint you with marine life from the Santa Barbara Channel. Along with its permanent exhibitions, it offers events and special programming.

17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Have a Picnic at the Gardens at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse

You won’t find a more picturesque picnic spot than the Sunken Gardens at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The complex, constructed in 1929, is now a National Historic Landmark and the grounds are a popular wedding venue. After you eat, head up to the top of the clock tower for 360-degree views.

Take a day trip to Ojai

Just 45 minutes from Santa Barbara is the charming town of Ojai. It’s a haven for artists and a great place to slow down and connect with nature. While there, make sure to explore the town’s many shops and eateries. You can also go olive oil tasting or tap into your creative side by taking a class at Firestick Pottery Studio.

Want to spend more time in Ojai?
Read the Weekend Travel Guide to Ojai!

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17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

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