The best time to try to surf at Santa Barbara's famous beaches is in fall or winter © Photodisc / Getty Images
Santa Barbara is a sensory overload in the best possible way. With deep Chumash, Spanish and Mexican roots combined with modern coastal California flare, there is plenty to wow you in the American Riviera.
To make the most of your Santa Barbara adventure, you need to dip your toes in it all – its history, its international culinary masterpieces, its cliff-draped beaches, and if schedules align: its annual city-wide spectacle that will have you roaring, “Viva La Fiesta!” With a wealth of options to choose from, here are the 14 best things to do in Santa Barbara.
Visit the Mission
Founded in 1786, the stately Old Mission Santa Barbara sits on a 15-acre plot of green goodness between the ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains. Its grounds include a long church, mausoleum, and cemetery. For Mission first-time visitors, its nine-room museum is a good starting place with models of the Mission’s original living quarters and precious artifacts from centuries past.
Get funky in the Funk Zone
In the area near the Amtrak station – between the sea and Highway 101 – this was once one of Santa Barbara’s edgier sites. In the Funk Zone you'll find updated warehouses and graffiti-clad buildings housing some of the town’s best wine tasting rooms, boutique shops and restaurants. Dart is the spot for freshly-roasted coffee, Lark offers a fresh-fish catch and craft cocktails and Shopkeepers masters the modern-clothing-meets-home-goods vibe.
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Go wine tasting among the lush vineyards of the Santa Ynez valley © YaskoCreative / Getty Images
Venture out to wine country
Load your Santa Barbara itinerary up with some vino and you won’t regret it. Named Wine Enthusiast’s global Wine Region of the Year in 2021, there are more than 270 Santa Barbara County wineries producing prized Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and more, each year. Experience it all with a wine tour to the Santa Ynez valley, or on a tasting room tour in the town of Los Olivos. If you haven’t got time to leave town, feast on wine menus at local restaurants or trek the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail.
Feed a giraffe at Santa Barbara Zoo
Tucked on the eastern edge of Santa Barbara and just north of the water’s edge, you’ll find a 30-acre zoo loaded with unique encounter opportunities. You can toss a fish to a Humboldt penguin, feed San Clemente Island goats and more. For the ultimate experience, book private encounters, which can run $200-plus and include Q&A sessions with the zoo’s staff. The best bargain for all is the giraffe feeding – for $8, a Masai giraffe slurps greens right out of your hand. Between activities, make sure to hop aboard the Zoo Train, which is a hit for kids and adults alike.
Head to the Courthouse’s Clock Tower for the best views in town
If someone told you: “The view from the courthouse was breathtaking,” you’d probably think it’s a joke, or wonder what crime they committed. From the top of the Clock Tower at Santa Barbara County Courthouse, the views are no joke and it’s a crime to miss out on them. The Clock Tower is open from 8am to 5pm on weekdays and 10am to 5pm on weekends. It’s free to trek the 85-foot tower and panoramic vistas of the courthouse complex, ocean mountain and red tile roof skyline await.
After hitting the beach leave time to explore Stearns Wharf before the sun sets © George Rose / Getty Images
Hit the beach (and the water, too)
The Santa Barbara Channel looms along the town’s southern edge and there are plenty of opportunities to explore it. For a beach day, opt for the central East and West beaches which have calmer waters. You can also walk (and drive!) on the adjacent Stearns Wharf. If you decide to take a dip outside of the June to August months, a wetsuit will help with colder water temperatures.
There are plenty of fishing and whale-watching companies that offer boat excursions, some of which will take you on the 3.5-hour trip to the Channel Islands looming off the coast. For spotting dolphins and the prized Blue whale, Condor Express, Captain Jack’s Celebration Cruises and The Double Dolphin are local go-tos.
Stroll down State Street (and, if you can: Viva La Fiesta!)
State Street is Santa Barbara’s main artery, extending from the water northwest through downtown. Lined with shops, watering holes, restaurants, clubs and more, popular spots include the Paseo Nuevo open-air mall, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Dune Coffee for a perfectly-timed espresso.
If you’re planning a summer visit, make it around Santa Barbara’s biggest annual festival, Old Spanish Days. For a week – typically in early August – the festival locally known as La Fiesta morphs State Street and surrounding areas into an all-out party with folklorico and flamenco dance performances, a parade often with adorable kids’ groups sharing their talents, food vendors and more. Energetically declare to anyone “Viva La Fiesta!” and you’ll get a friendly “Viva La Fiesta” right back.
Have a drink at Joe’s Café
Where Cota and State Streets intersect, you’ll find a Santa Barbara icon. For nearly 100 years, Joe’s Café has been the local spot to schmooze, enjoy a very strong cocktail (two is just right, three could be too many…) and variety of big-plate steaks, seafood and pasta offerings. Adding to its charm, the decor includes photos of local personalities.
Learn about the history of the American Riviera at one of Santa Barbara's excellent museums © VDB Photos / Shutterstock
Learn about the American Riviera’s history
Santa Barbara is loaded with museums, each digging into an aspect of what makes this town – and our world – so spectacular. The best museum bets include the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, which spotlights the area’s natural resources via hands-on activities. You can even learn to raise a boat sail here! Its location, overlooking the Santa Barbara Harbor, is prime, too.
For kiddos, the MOXI will entertain with STEM-centric maker spaces where they can use 3D printers, video-editing technology and even walk across a glass Sky Deck on the roof. And there is an art museum, historical museum and natural history museum too.
Eat McConnell’s ice cream
Perhaps you’ve spotted the white pints with a black lid and cursive McConnell’s at a grocery store near you? Well, the fine ice-cream purveyor got its start in Santa Barbara in 1949. Known for its regionally inspired flavors – like Eureka Lemon & Marionberries or Sea Salt Cream & Cookies – there are now two McConnell’s shops in Santa Barbara, both on State Street. At each location, expect a line out the door and, yes, it will be worth it. With a noticeable creaminess, and flavor names that get you drooling before first taste, this is what ice-cream dreams are made of.
Visit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Tucked just north of Route 192 along the quiet and secluded Mission Canyon Road, this is a tranquil spot where locals unwind. For hiking enthusiasts, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden grounds are primed with nearly six miles of paths with – you guessed it – colorful surroundings. In total, there are 78 acres to explore and more than 1000 species of plants to gawk at. Between its redwood, desert and Japanese teahouse sections, you’ll leave with that much more of an appreciation for Santa Barbara’s climate and biodiversity.
You'll find punnets of fresh local produce at Santa Barbara's Saturday Farmers Market © Corbis Documentary RF / Getty Images
Shop the Saturday Farmers Market
Savor local strawberries, load up on the ripest of avocados, or perhaps even take a bouquet of flowers home for a special someone? You can buy it all each week at what is known as the Saturday Morning Market. More than 100 vendors line the parking lot where Santa Barbara and Cota Streets intersect, with leisurely shoppers milling about the stalls. Get there early (before 10am) for the best selections.
Indulge in all the Mexican and Spanish food
There is no shortage of international fare to dabble in here, but Santa Barbara's Spanish and Mexican offerings should be prioritized. Once occupied by Spain and Mexico, the city pays homage to its roots everyday via omnipresent Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and culinary delights mastered through the centuries. A day is best started with a massive chorizo and egg burrito from the unpretentious and 30-year staple, El Sitio. And, for an afternoon treat, hit Funk Zone hotspot Mony’s for $2.25 tacos made of cow tongues, intestines and other intriguing ingredients.
Catch a show at the Santa Barbara Bowl
If you happen to be in Santa Barbara between April and October, head to the hills for a show at the Santa Barbara Bowl. This 4500-seat, open-air amphitheater keeps a full slate year-round, having attracted the likes of Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell and Maroon 5. Get there at least an hour early as it is situated in a residential neighborhood, and you’ll need to climb a hill to its entrance. As for an indoor spot for a show, the historic Granada Theatre has been a State Street mainstay for nearly 100 years. Within its gold-colored confines, you can catch performances by the Santa Barbara Symphony as well as big-name concerts, musicals and lectures.