The Best Things to do in Santa Barbara, California

The 15 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara, California

With views of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is the perfect place for an outdoor adventure. Known as the “American Riviera,” you can spend your days here hiking through the mountains, surfing the waves, or building sandcastles on the sandy beaches. And with mild temperatures all year round, there’s no bad time to visit this Mediterranean-feeling paradise!

But Santa Barbara boasts more than beautiful outdoors. Here you’ll find a rich history and a mix of cultures. Originally settled by the Chumash tribes, Santa Barbara has roots in Chumash, Spanish, and Mexican cultures. Santa Barbara is filled with places to explore the history of these diverse groups. From festivals to food joints, there’s always something to uncover about Santa Barbara’s roots. 

Between centuries-old historic sites and newer places to explore arts and culture, there are so many things to do in Santa Barbara. I’ve compiled our list of my absolute favorite things to do in Santa Barbara. Stick to these fun and unique Santa Barbara bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this beachside haven!

The Top 15 Things to Do in Santa Barbara, CA

1. Climb the Clock Tower at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Unique Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: Santa Barbara County Courthouse

After much of the city was ruined by the 1925 earthquake, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse was completed in 1929, occupying a full square block of the downtown area. Frequently called the most beautiful government building in the United Space, the space is surrounded by lavish gardens, including the beautiful Sunken Garden, where the 1872 courthouse once stood. 

Visiting the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara if you’re a history and art lover. Take a seat by the peaceful Spirit of the Ocean statue, and then head inside to the Mural Room, an ornately decorated room with four murals depicting Santa Barbara’s Chumash, Spanish, Mexican, and immigrant cultures. Then, head up to the 85-foot El Mirador clock tower for an unforgettable view of the city and the natural beauty surrounding it.


2. Visit El Presidio de Santa Barbara

Fun Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: El Presidio de Santa Barbara

If you’re a history fan, El Presidio de Santa Barbara belongs on any list of must-do things in Santa Barbara. This historic park preserves the site of the last four military outposts built by the Spanish along the coast of Alta California. Two buildings of the original Presidio have been restored, with additional reconstructions and archaeological excavations being ongoing. 

You’ll find four presidios built by Spain throughout California: Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, and San Francisco. All of them played a vital role in protecting the missions and settlers from attack and guarding the country against invaders. The Santa Barbara Presidio was both a military and government headquarters. 

Currently, you’ll find two remaining original sections of the Presidio. The El Cuartel was a family residence of the soldier assigned to guard the western gate. It’s the oldest building in Santa Barbara and the second-oldest in all of California. The other building is the Canedo Adobe, named for another Presidio soldier to whom the Presidio was deeded when it became inactive. 

Inside the Presidio, you’ll now also find the Buenaventura Pico Abode, an example of a Mexican-period abode built around 1830. You’ll also discover the Rochίn Adobe, an example of an American-period abode.


3. Explore the Beauty of Lotusland

Unique Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: Lotusland

Lotusland is one of the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara and a can’t-miss stop if you love being at one with nature. Located just outside the city in Montecito, Lotusland is a 37-acre estate once owned by opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. She spent 43 years transforming it into a lush paradise filled with extraordinary botanical treasures like water lilies, euphorbias, and, of course, lotuses. 

Lotusland is made up of 25 distinct gardens, each with its own themes, like the Blue Garden, the Japanese Garden, and the Topiary Garden. Throughout the gardens, keep your eyes peeled for beautiful hidden gems, like the Neptune fountain. 

If you’re hoping to see the lotuses in bloom, you should aim to visit in mid-to-late summer. However, with so many plant species here, there is something in bloom all year round. No matter when you visit, be sure to make your tour reservation in advance.


4. Spend a Day at the Beach

What to do in Santa Barbara, California: Spend a Day at the Beach

Visiting a beach in Santa Barbara is a must, whether you’re a surfer or a sunbather. You have plenty of options when it comes to picking a beach that fits your idea of a perfect day in the sun. One of the most popular beaches is East Beach, a 1.6-mile stretch of shoreline that’s often home to volleyball tournaments throughout the year. 

Although dogs are allowed on Santa Barbara County beaches if they’re on a leash, Arroyo Burro County Park is popular with dog lovers for its off-leash designated area. It’s also a top beach for surfers. 

Over in Carpinteria, you’ll find a top choice for families: Carpinteria State Beach. With a protective reef and a gentle slope, you can rest easy while your kids play along the shore. With so many options to choose from, the hardest part about a beach day in Santa Barbara is choosing which one to go to!


5. Take in the Sights at Stearns Wharf

Cool Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: Stearns Wharf

A trip to Santa Barbara wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of its most iconic landmarks, Stearns Wharf. Located at the end of State Street, it’s California’s oldest working wharf and the perfect place to take in some gorgeous views of the Pacific. 

There’s plenty to do at this busy wharf. Hop on a dinner cruise and take in the sunset from the water. Learn about the area’s wildlife at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Or go shopping for specialty souvenirs you can’t get anywhere else. 

Stearns Wharf also offers several places to dine on the waterfront. If you’re planning to visit the wharf, book yourself a reservation at sunset at one of these restaurants. Popular choices include the Harbor Restaurant, offering fine dining with a view, or Longboard’s Grill for more casual options with the same panorama of the sea.


6. Enjoy the Old Spanish Days Fiesta

Fun Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: Old Spanish Days Fiesta

To celebrate the city’s Spanish founders, Santa Barbara honors its heritage every August with the Old Spanish Days Fiesta. This celebration has been going on for nearly a century. This five-day festival, called simply “Fiesta” by locals, is filled with customs and traditions from Chumash, Spanish, Mexican, and early American settlers that created the area’s diverse cultural heritage.

Here you’ll see parades, carnivals, rodeos, dance performances, and so much more, all taking place throughout the city. From mariachi bands to flamenco dances, there’s plenty of beautiful culture to be amazed by here. 

In addition to entertainment, the festival is a celebration of the cuisines of these different cultural influences. Venture through a Mexican market to find tamales, enchiladas, and much more, or head to the cantina for a drink. And don’t forget to stop by the vendors for handmade wares you won’t see anywhere else. If you’re looking for fun things to do in Santa Barbara, time your visit with Fiesta!


7. Grab a Drink at Cold Spring Tavern

Located 15 miles inland from downtown Santa Barbara, the Cold Spring Tavern was once a stagecoach shop, opening all the way back in 1868. The tavern has since changed hands multiple times, but the structure has stayed the same. Stop by for a bite while you take in the fascinating history of this woodland treasure.

A visit to the Cold Spring Tavern is about more than visiting the tavern itself, though. This land is also home to several other historic buildings. The Road Gang House, once housed by 11 Chinese immigrants who were paving the toll road through the San Marcos Pass, still stands proudly, despite part of the structure being destroyed. 

The Ojai Jail, built across from the Road Gang House, was built by Constable Andrew Van Curen in his backyard. Gopherville is actually a series of buildings from an abandoned ghost town, while Blisshaven was once a cook shack. 

You can still grab a drink at the Log Cabin Bar, which was once a water bottling plant. And in the Bunkhouse, you can grab a one-of-a-kind find at the Treasures and Trash Gift Shop.


8. Meditate in a Himalayan Salt Cave

Fun Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: Himalayan Salt Cave

Looking for a spa day like no other? Salt is home to the largest underground crystal salt cave in North America and offers one of the most unique things to do in Santa Barbara. Salt has two Himalayan salt caves, with walls and ceilings made of 45 tons of backlit Jurassic Age salt blocks and crystals. 

The floor is covered in crushed salt. This sea salt is packed with minerals, and breathing in these microparticles is said to be therapeutic and benefit your respiratory health. 

There are several ways you can take in the benefits of the salt caves. You can come in for a 45-minute meditation session, where you can lie right in the salt or close your eyes and relax in a zero-gravity lounge chair. Up to 14 people are allowed per session, but you can also book a private cave session for you and your travel companions.

You could also choose to book a massage or other spa treatment. Treatment options include a Himalayan deep tissue massage, a crystal cave couples massage, and mineral facial packages. 


9. See a Show at the Lobero Theatre

Originally founded in 1873 and rebuilt in 1924, the Lobero Theatre is California’s oldest continuously-operating theater. It’s recognized as one of Santa Barbara’s greatest cultural hubs and one of the coolest things to do in Santa Barbara if you’re a theater lover. 

The Lobero has a rich history, having welcomed some of the biggest names in Hollywood throughout every generation. Bela Lugosi, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, and Basil Rathbone are just some of the Golden Age of Hollywood greats who have been brought to the Lobero.

If you’re a fan of jazz, the Lobero should definitely be on your Santa Barbara bucket list. The theater has a long history with jazz beginning all the way back in 1949 with performances by Nappy La Marre and the Dixie Land Bobcats. From Herbie Hancock to Dizzy Gillespie, all the jazz greats have played here! 

The Lobero is a place for major performing arts acts in Santa Barbara to call home. Throughout the year, you’ll watch shows by the State Street Ballet, the Music Academy of the West, and more. It’s also home to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. There’s always something happening in this historic theater, so be sure to buy your tickets to see a show during your trip to Santa Barbara.


10. Have a Day of Play at the MOXI

Santa Barbara, California Things to do: MOXI

The MOXI, also known as the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, is a museum filled with interactive exhibits that focus on science, technology, and the arts. Fun for the whole family, these spaces were designed to let imaginations soar. From racing marble roller coasters to going inside a giant guitar to find out how they work, this place is perfect for curious minds.

Head to the Innovation Workshop to build your own high-tech, no-tech, and everything-in-between gadgets. Or check out art installations that truly exemplify the idea of STEAM.

The museum holds special dates for the needs of different guests. Tuesday mornings are dedicated to being a play space for toddlers, while their Mellow Mornings are meant to be a sensory-friendly space for children who need a little less stimulation. But if you’re an adult hoping for some time to explore kid-free, you can join their special Happy Hour events during select evenings.


11. Go Shopping at Paseo Nuevo

Must do things in Santa Barbara, California: Paseo Nuevo

Paseo Nuevo is filled with many of the coolest things to do in Santa Barbara. This open-air shopping center in the downtown district offers shopping, dining, and entertainment. 

Grab some sorbetto from Zio & Sweet, a dessert shop serving up sweets from Milan for the past 60 years. Or, for a healthy option, go for an acai bowl from Oakberry. Then, head to the Seaside Makers Collective to shop from a diverse array of locally-made artisan goods. 

What to do in Santa Barbara, California: Paseo Nuevo

If you’re visiting on a weekend, be sure to visit the Makers & Wares Market, an outdoor European-style market where you can speak to the artisans themselves while you browse their handmade treasures. 

You’ll also always find something happening at the Center Stage Theater, a black-box theater that’s often showing children’s shows. Or you can see a movie at the Spanish-style Paseo Nuevo Cinemas.


12. Take in the Art of the Funk Zone

Santa Barbara, California Bucket List: Funk Zone

Located near the waterfront, The Funk Zone offers some of the coolest Santa Barbara activities. Decorated with eclectic murals, there’s color everywhere in this beautiful district. Once an industrial area, this walkable neighborhood is now known for its creative collectives, galleries, boutiques, and so much more. 

If you’re a wine fan, pick up a map of the Urban Wine Trail. Though this trail stretches across two districts, most of the wineries on it can be found in the Funk Zone. But wine isn’t all that’s found here. In addition to multiple breweries, you’ll also find Cutler’s Artisan Spirits, Santa Barbara’s first post-Prohibition distillery. 

Then, explore the stunning art from the area’s creators. From the Helena Mason Art Gallery’s emerging artists to the intricate color patterns of the Colorful Arts Studio, there’s so much to see in this cultural hub.


13. Climb Aboard the Lil’ Toot

Is there anything quite as adorable as a boat named Lil’ Toot? This kid-approved water taxi has a smile for every guest, literally! With a smile on its bow and bubbles rising up out of its smokestack, it’s no wonder that this super cute boat has been delighting riders for two decades.

One of the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids, Lil’ Toot offers water taxi rides between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf every hour on Saturdays and Sundays. If you’d like a ride during the week, you can also book a private charter. 

The 25-minute rides are narrated by the captain and crew, who will share interesting facts and stories about the harbor’s history, wildlife, and more. If you love Lil’ Toot enough, you can even get married on deck by an ordained minister or book a Lil’ Toot birthday party for your little one.


14. Take a Wine or Food Tour

Santa Barbara, California Things to do: Santa Barbara Tasting Tour

Santa Barbara is home to over 200 wineries. While you won’t be able to do them all on your trip, scheduling a wine tour can help you safely try several of the best. There are many wine tours available, but Sustainable Wine Tours is one of our favorite options and one of the most fun Santa Barbara activities. 

This wine touring company is dedicated to minimizing its environmental impacts while also getting you door-to-door for intimate tasting experiences. No giant public tasting rooms are to be found here. Instead, you’ll get up close with the vintners at exclusive, upscale locations. 

Best Things to do in Santa Barbara, California: Santa Barbara Tasting Tour

Is wine not really your thing? The food culture in Santa Barbara is also unmatched. On a Santa Barbara Tasting Tour, you’ll explore Downtown Santa Barbara as you get up close and personal with the area’s food scene. This tour is as much a food tour as it is a history tour, as you’ll also see sites like the Arlington Theater, the Granada Theater, and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, all while you dine on treats like empanadas, ice cream, and noodle bowls!


15. Peruse Bart’s Books

Santa Barbara, California Things to Do: Bart's Books

Located in nearby Ojai, Bart’s Books is a must-do thing to do in the Santa Barbara area if you’re a book lover. Bart’s Books has been providing reading lovers with a picturesque place to peruse since 1964. As the world’s largest outdoor bookstore, this store hosts a collection of over 130,000 new and used books. You may just find a rare treasure hidden among its stacks.

What started as a few bookcases outside the home of Richard Bartindale, an avid reader who adored the Parisian book carts by the Seine, has become one of the best places to visit near Santa Barbara. From 35-cent specials lining the outside walls to out-of-print first editions valued at thousands, there’s something for everyone here. 

Whether you’re a collector, looking for your next best beach read, or hoping for a challenging book club pick, you’re bound to find it here. Bart’s Books is all about the books. You won’t find a coffee shop here or outlets to plug in your laptop. What you will find is a wonderland of stories.

It’s easy to lose track of time in these shelves. It’s also easy to walk away with an armful of paperbacks and hardcovers that you hardly remember picking up but are so glad you did.

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Santa Barbara. What’s your favorite?


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Author

  • Jacqueline Gualtieri

    Jacqueline is a writer and editor pursuing the freelance life to explore the world. Born and raised in New Jersey, she spent her college years in Boston before settling down with her partner and puppy in Monterey, California.

    When she’s not writing, you can often find her planning her next trip. Road trips are her favorite, whether it’s driving across the country or simply exploring a new city in her own backyard. She loves uncovering the history of every new place she goes.

    Jacqueline has a restless passion for learning and makes it a goal to pick up a new skill every year. She’s picked up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, and cross-stitching, but she’s hoping to master more languages to help her in her travels. She’s also a published author, with short stories and poetry appearing in several anthologies.

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