10 Things to See and Do in Santa Barbara

By: Lindsay MacNevin

Spectacular mountains, sparkling blue ocean, gorgeous landscapes, and sunny weather all year round are just a handle of incredible things that make Santa Barbara so wonderful and majestic. Home to artists, wine makers, chefs and brewers who look to stretch their imaginations and create something different; this city is truly a melting pot of culture. From the Urban Wine Trail that offers 22 wine tasting rooms two blocks from the beach to the world’s safest beach to a working wharf that offers fresh seafood; this city offers endless possibilities of things to see and do. Lounge on the pristine Butterfly Beach in Montecito and celebrity watch or kayak around the sea caves through the Channel Islands. Here are our top ten things to see and do in the lovely city of Santa Barbara.


10. Head to Channel Islands

The Channel Islands National Park that encompasses five remarkable islands and the ocean environment surrounding them is a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore. Channel Islands are home to incredible wildlife, beautiful flora and cultural history. All five islands are open to visitors but not all are easy to get to and we highly suggest researching the islands before you go as there are no services available on the islands and you must bring in your own food and water.

A popular activity here is sea kayaking and most outfitters offer tours which include ferry tickets, equipment, snorkeling gear, knowledgeable guides and education on the natural history. It can be argued the best place to sea kayak is through the sea caves at Scorpion Anchorage and around the Santa Cruz Island. Multiple day tours can be arranged and include many areas around the islands that are only accessible by kayak or canoe.  The islands are all different and unique in their own ways and if you are prepared to camp for a few days this is one experience that you will not forget. Riveting beauty and tranquility await you in the Channel Islands.

Channel Islands National Park California


9. Spot the Stars in Montecito

The lush intimate village of Montecito is located a short drive or bike ride just outside the city limits of Santa Barbara. It’s a place where billionaires are just regular folks and celebrities are the norm. One of the wealthiest places in the entire nation it is not likely you will be spending an entire week here but this village is a great day trip to explore the beautiful hotels, beaches and taste some of the finest foods. If you decide to treat yourself to a night here we highly recommend staying at the Four Seasons Biltmore or the Montecito Inn that was built for none other than Charlie Chaplin.

Boasting one of the best coastlines in the country; Montecito has no shortage of beautiful beaches. Head to Butterfly Beach where sparkling calm waters and warm sand create the perfect place to relax and unwind. Miramar Beach is another popular beach with its beach houses lining the curved sand. Tide pools provide endless hours of fun and the waves are perfect for boogie boarding. Grab a bite to eat on one of the many outdoor patios where award-winning chefs come to dazzle the locals and visitors with innovative cuisine. Just remember; this area is home to many stars that come here for privacy and appreciate the space visitors give them.

Terry Straehley / Shutterstock.com
Terry Straehley / Shutterstock.com


8. Visit Lotusland

Often described as a jewel of Santa Barbara; Lotusland is a unique experience that any visitor or resident of the city should experience. This breathtaking tour through incredible gardens does require an advanced reservation so be sure to book as early as possible. The story behind these gardens is one of the reasons to visit them. The gardens were donated to the city by Ganna Walska, a wealthy widow who’s past included performing in New York, marrying six times and devoting her energy to creating beautiful gardens.

From stunning cactus gardens that seem to be the favorite of all to the butterfly garden to the water garden; there are over 18 separate areas to explore each with their own unique attributes. The tour guides do a wonderful job explaining the various plants, flowers and the history of the grounds. Unfortunately there is not an opportunity to explore the grounds on your own but the two-hour guided tour provides enough time and information to suffice. The immaculate grounds, the fascinating history and the sacredness of this place make it a worthwhile visit in Santa Barbara.

Photo by: Ganna Walska Lotusland
Photo by: Ganna Walska Lotusland


7. Take an Epic Hike

Santa Barbara has some of the best hiking spots around and for the avid trekker there is no shortage of hikes to be had. From beach walks to mountains to waterfalls; experienced or beginner the variety of options is truly endless. One thing to note about the waterfall hikes is to check the water levels before you go as the dry weather is affecting them severely. Whether you are looking for a short flat hike, a long winding trek up the mountain or a hike to the natural hot springs, you will find it all in this city.

One of the most popular hikes is Inspiration Point Hike which is about a 3.5 mile round trip that leads you to stunning views of the ocean, mountains, Channel Islands and the city. A popular place for sunset hikes, the path starts out paved and turns into a trail about a mile in. Prepare to gain about 800 feet in elevation but anyone in good shape should have no trouble. The Gaviota Hot Springs is another popular hiking option; although depending where you start from can either be a serious 9 mile hike through the bush or a short trek through the woods. The hot springs are truly natural with a few pools lined with black sand and green/blue water. Whichever hike or hikes you decide to do in the city make sure to bring plenty of water as the sun gets extremely hot during the day.

Santa Barbara Coastline California


6. Santa Barbara Zoo

The Santa Barbara Zoo is much like the city itself; clean, quiet, small and absolutely lovely. If you are in this city with children this is an absolute must stop and one of the first places you should visit. Geared towards children, the zoo is small in nature allowing families to travel through it without walking so much that those little legs get too tired to continue on. The intimacy of the zoo is also a perk that other larger zoos lack and provides a feeling of being closer to the animals here.

More than 500 animals are on display here including snow leopards, gorillas, elephants and the overly popular penguins. Participate in the daily giraffe feedings, watch the show on dinosaurs or get up close and personal with the animals in the barnyard. For an extra special experience participate in one of the behind the scenes experiences where you will tag alongside a zookeeper and learn all the ins and outs of taking care of the animals. The Santa Barbara Zoo invites you to discover the open and inviting habitat that so many of their animals call home, and is a must do when you are in the city.

Otter Santa Barbara Zoo California


5. Visit Stearns Wharf

We couldn’t leave Santa Barbara’s number one tourist destination off the list of things to see and do in this city and that is a visit to Stearns Wharf. California’s oldest working wharf offers everything from the freshest seafood to fun recreation to an incredible sea center. Visitors will want to spend a few hours here taking in the sights and treating their bellies to the catch of the day. Views from the wharf at sunset and sunrise are a treat with the ocean and mountains in sight, along with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of seals, pelicans and other bird species.

Watch the local fishermen unload their catches or try your hand at fishing off the end of the wharf; tackle and bait are sold right there for your convenience. Stop into the Sea Center which is a working sea lab and learn more about the marine life in the area. Take a ride on the water taxi, shop for souvenirs or dine outside at one of the eateries. Grab an ice cream and stroll along this wooden pier reading about the history from the plaques placed along the pier. Enjoy the beautiful weather, the interesting history and you might just find yourself coming back here more than once.

Stearns Wharf Santa Barbara California


4. Discover the City Art

Santa Barbara is full of hidden nooks and crannies bursting with history and beauty and among these nooks are beautiful pieces of art throughout the city. From towering fountains to bronze statues to fascinating sculptures there is art to be found around every corner. A great way to spend the day in this city is searching out these pieces of art. One of the loveliest fountains to find is the Dolphin fountain located at the entrance to Stearns Wharf.

The La Arcada shopping mall is the ultimate place to enjoy the city’s public art with several bronze statues and beautiful sculptures. The courtyard is full of interesting one-off shops, galleries and great restaurants and bistros that serve up delicious food and drinks. Along with bronze playful dolphins and a turtle fountain; visitors will enjoy the lifelike bronze statues from artists J. Seward Johnson and George Lundeen. Santa Barbara does a great job in incorporating public art into the city’s design and make sure you spend a day discovering these incredible pieces of art.

Fountain Santa Barbara California


3. Visit the World’s Safest Beach (CARPINTERIA)

Just 12 miles southeast of the city of Santa Barbara is the world’s safest beach; Carpinteria or Carp as the locals call it. Perhaps it is the gentle sloping of the beach, the calm waves, and the small and welcoming community that make it so safe. Perhaps it is the seals and sea lions that play in the waters, or the tide pools that are home to starfish, sea urchins, crabs and more that pull visitors to the beach. The gorgeous mountain views, the sound of laughter of children playing and the smells of apple bacon that waft across the beach are all normal occurrences here.

Visit the beach to sit back and relax in the miles of white sand or rent an inner tube from the beach shack and paddle out into the calm waters. Pack a picnic lunch and take advantage of the barbecues on site, or try your hand at a volleyball game. Swim alongside the dolphins that often visit the area or catch a glimpse of a migrating grey whale. Head further north to Santa Claus lane where surf board rentals and lessons often take place as the beautiful beach offers the perfect break for beginners. However you choose to spend your day here; this spectacular beach will not disappoint.

CARPINTERIA beach santa barbara California


2. Visit the Funk Zone

The city of Santa Barbara has always been somewhat of a haven for artists, wine makers, chefs and artisans that look to bring a little something different to the table and it’s no surprise that the Funk Zone has taken off in support of these incredible people. The Funk Zone is less funk and more vibe and this neighborhood has been transformed into a sub-culture of artisan shops, micro-breweries, wine tasting rooms, art galleries and hip eateries. Old warehouses and forgotten shops have been transformed into these hidden hot spots along the coast of California.

The Funk Zone is perhaps most widely known for its Urban Wine Trail, a series of 22 tasting rooms that represent Santa Barbara’s award winning wines. Choose to walk or take a pedi-cab as you make your way from one room to the next tasting the best this city has to offer. From Tiki themed rooms to the famous Santa Barbara Winery with its exceptional wines there is no way to pack in all of these rooms in one day but if you wanted to try, most of them are open from 10am-6pm.  Located just two blocks from the beach and around the corner from some great restaurants; the Urban Wine Trail is just one example of what makes The Funk Zone neighborhood so enjoyable and unique.

Red Wine glasses


1. Go Wine Tasting

If you love wine Santa Barbara is the perfect landing place for you as the cities wineries are located just steps from downtown, the beach and in the rolling hills of the surrounding mountains. The unique climate, the East to West Mountains, the pacific breezes and the exceptionally long growing season are all factors that contribute to the award winning wines that are produced here. Known for its wine tastings and tours; this should be one of the first things to experience in the city.

The Santa Ynez Mountains offer some of the best wineries including Kalyra Winery started by Mike Brown who originates from Australia. It is quickly becoming one of the most fun and laid back tasting rooms with its beach like atmosphere and wine choices for everyone. Featured in the movie “Sideways” this winery has become very popular so we suggest booking beforehand. For a more traditional winery experience head to Rusack Boutique Winery; where an inviting tasting room with a redwood deck built around beautiful oak trees awaits. A custom made tasting bar, pottery throughout and award-winning wines make this the perfect stopover for a picnic and a glass of vino. For a more urban wine experience head over to our next destination; The Funk Zone.

Vineyard Santa Barbara California