Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Places to Go and Things to Do in Santa Barbara

With all of the things to see and do in Santa Barbara, choosing how to spend your time here can be a tough decision. From museums and cultural events to renowned gardens and architecture, there’s something to enjoy morning, noon and night in this pretty city by sea.
A sample day might begin with a trip to the beautiful Santa Barbara Zoo (the giraffes have an ocean view!), include an afternoon spent picnicking in the rose garden in front of the Santa Barbara Mission and end with an evening strolling the downtown galleries for First Thursday.

And if you’re lucky enough to visit at the right time, you’ll soon discover that the locals love to get together and celebrate... almost anything and everything! This city has so many parades - even a boat parade - and festivals, it’s a wonder anyone ever makes time to go to work. One of the most enjoyable celebrations by far is the Old Spanish Days Fiesta, a week full of great music, food and dancing honoring the town's Spanish heritage.

So what are you waiting for? Get over here; Santa Barbara is ready to show you its best and brightest. This list will get you started with activities suited for individuals, couples and the whole family, whether you’re in town for a entire week or just a weekend.


Possibly the most wonderous of all natural wonders in Santa Barbara, California. The Coronado Butterfly Preserve is a place where - from late October through early March - monarch butterflies migrate to spend the winter. They hang in clumps and clusters from the branches of the eucalyptus trees, often hundreds at a time. Free to the public (there is a donation box at the entrance), the Coronado Butterfly Preserve open every day from sunrise to sunset. Even in the off season, the preserve is a beautiful place to visit, home to numerous birds and wildlife, Devereux Creek, trails, open area and outdoor gathering areas and classroom.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Where else can you see thousands upon thousands of bright orange monarch butterflies clustered together and dripping from the trees?

Geneva's expert tip: Most people visit the preserve for a self-guided tour, but you can call ahead to arrange a tour to learn more about the overwintering butterflies.

Read more about Coronado Butterfly Preserve →

Photo courtesy of brewbooks

Of course you have always wanted to visit a dreamy garden designed by a less-than-great Polish opera singer, right? Lotusland is the result of decades of effort and attention at the hands of the eccentric Ganna Walska. Fantastical vignettes feature a wealth of unusual plants, including cycads, which were present in the era of the dinosaur. Other gardens are devoted to lotuses, ferns, succulents, bromeliads, aloes and topiaries. There are also orchards, water gardens and a garden populated exclusively by plants that are blue! Regular group tours are suitable for children ages 9 and up; family tours are available for younger children. Gifts and exclusive souvenirs can be purchased in Lotusland's Garden Shop. Advance reservations are required - call or email as soon as possible to schedule your visit to this one-of-a-kind garden.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Ganna Walska's gardens are legendary, due to both their natural beauty and her unusual gardening style. Reservations required.

Geneva's expert tip: If you visit during July or August, you just might be lucky enough to see famed lotuses (for which the garden is named) in bloom.

Read more about Lotusland →

1st Thursday is a monthly evening celebrating art and culture in downtown Santa Barbara. On the first Thursday of every month, participating galleries, shops and other art-related venues open their doors, offering free access to exhibits and performances. Not limited to artists' receptions, 1st Thursday also showcases live music, lectures and wine tastings. Guests are invited to participate and interact with the performers in a social environment, sparking a creative atmosphere that's great for people watching. Plan your tour using the 1st Thursday Passport - a map detailing upcoming attractions that is available at participating establishments, the Visitor's Center and online. Or simply head out to State St. and wing it... as long as you follow the music, you'll do just fine!

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: 1st Thursday is the perfect way to begin a classic Santa Barbara night out. Enjoy a tour of local galleries.

Geneva's expert tip: Dozens of restaurants dot this gallery hop. When festivities start dying down, follow your nose to a scrumptious dinner.

Read more about 1st Thursday →


A great place for some stunning nature photos! Specializing in native West Coast flora, this botanic garden features a variety of habitats that focus on showcasing - and conserving - California's native plants. Across 75 acres of terrain are desert, meadow, ridge and redwood forest vistas. Other areas show how to use similar plants, particularly drought tolerant varieties, at your own home. Guided tours are available on weekends and themed self-guided tours are accessible at any time. Throughout the year, concerts, lectures and other special programs expand the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's educational efforts. There is also a retail shop on site, offering books, nature-inspired gifts and locally made wildflower honey.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: A vibrant setting for an afternoon spent outdoors, the Botanic Gardens offer a number of trails suitable for amblers of all sizes and abilities.

Geneva's expert tip: Did a certain plant catch your eye while walking about? Stop by the onsite Garden Growers Nursery to take home your very own specimen.

Read more about Santa Barbara Botanic Garden →

Considered one of the most beautiful government buildings in America, Santa Barbara's historic Spanish-Moorish style courthouse draws thousands of visitors each year and is actually the second courthouse on this site, constructed after an earthquake damaged the original Greek revival building in 1925. Although civic court functions are still part of daily life in this bustling structure, there are two sights you absolutely cannot miss: the Mural Room and the El Mirador clock tower. The Mural Room, a popular site for weddings, is the jewel of the Courthouse, showcasing painter Daniel Sayre Groesbeck's romanticized version of Santa Barbara's history over 6,000 square feet of wall space. Not to be outdone, the clock tower allows for a breathtaking 365-degree view of the city. And don't worry... although one end of the building was originally used as a jail, prisoners are no longer housed in this must-see destination.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Santa Barbara Courthouse has been called the most beautiful government building in America. You have to see it to believe it!

Geneva's expert tip: Climb or ride up to the top of the clock tower for a 360-degree view of Santa Barbara. It's completely free!

Read more about Santa Barbara County Courthouse →

A giant skeleton of a blue whale greets you at the entrance to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, letting you know that you have arrived at a magical place dedicated to the wonders of nature. Occupying 11 acres in historic Mission Canyon, the Museum of Natural History boasts a beautiful campus, complete with Spanish-style grounds and buildings. Exhibits include a mineral and gem gallery, Chumash Indian culture center and the much admired dioramas in the Mammal Hall (among many others). It is also home to the area's only planetarium. The SBMNH is located within walking distance of the Santa Barbara Mission. For a natural history experience with a seaside twist, visit their associate site on the wharf, the Sea Center.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: This museum is both fun and educational. It has a whale skeleton named "Chad" right out front, incredible exhibition halls and a planetarium!

Geneva's expert tip: Visit the Curiosity Lab with your little one for a chance to examine, touch and draw specimens as well as ask questions of a staff naturalist.

Read more about Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History →

Santa Barbara

Elephants, flamingos, lions and even penguins... some of the most intriguing members of the animal kingdom are waiting for you at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Over 500 species are showcased on 30 lush acres overlooking the beach. Special features include giraffe feedings (yes, you get to hand-feed giraffes!) and a giant animatronic T. Rex named Duncan, star of the show "Dino Doc." Committed to their mission of preservation and conservation, the Santa Barbara Zoo participates in the Species Survival Plan, actively guarding species like the California Condor from extinction. Aside from spectacular naturalistic animal exhibits, the zoo also offers several play and picnic areas, seasonal educational classes and event rental opportunities. Park on the street out front for free and walk to the beach afterward.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Animals! The Santa Barbara Zoo has happy animals, ocean views, lush grounds and tons of space for kids to run and play.

Geneva's expert tip: To get your bearings, start your day by riding the one of the zoo trains, miniature locomotives that tour the circumference of the property.

Read more about Santa Barbara Zoo →

Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Art

A local museum that enjoys a national reputation, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art offers a rare display of the artistic achievements of a variety of cultures and periods. Home to 27,000+ works of art (not including traveling exhibitions), this museum houses a collection that rivals museums in much larger cities in both quantity and quality. For example, the SBMA owns more Monets than any other museum on the West Coast. Particular emphasis is given to American, Asian and Classical art; European painting and sculpture; and 20th century art and photography. Also onsite is a museum store, cafe and special childrens' gallery. The museum is committed to art education, spending roughly 20% of every dollar on academic, outreach, after-school and lecture programs for all ages.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The Santa Barbara Museum of Art showcases an awe-inspiring collection of famous masterpieces year-round.

Geneva's expert tip: Visit their website to view upcoming family days, artist talks, evening celebrations and other special events.

Read more about Santa Barbara Museum of Art →

No trip to Santa Barbara is complete without a visit to the Santa Barbara Harbor! This is a great place to stroll, eat, shop and see the sights. The breakwater was completed in 1930 and provides safe harbor for commercial and private boats, as well as a lovely path for pedestrians to take in the view. But watch out for rogue waves! Harbor businesses include a few shops and some very tasty restaurants. This is also the headquarters of the local yacht club and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Waterfront shuttles service the area to take visitors from the harbor to Stearns Wharf for a small fee. Free and paid parking is available. Several beaches within walking distance.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Hundreds of boats, panoramic views of the Pacific and one of the best seafood restaurants in town make this a must stop.

Geneva's expert tip: Head to the harbor early on a Saturday morning to pick up the freshest catches at the local Fishermans Market on Navy Pier.

Read more about Santa Barbara Harbor →

A joint effort of Franciscan vision and Chumash Indian labor, this graceful structure was founded by Franciscan Friar Fermen de Lasuen on the Feast of St. Barbara, December 4, 1786. Architectural details were reworked until the 1830s. Referred to as "Queen of the Missions" for its graceful beauty, the Old Mission Santa Barbara is the tenth of the 21 missions built in California. It features twin bell towers and has outstanding views of the city. Daily tours are available, and remnants of early mission structures (mill, reservoir, kiln, etc.) can also be seen, along with sacred artifacts. An onsite gift shop features jewelry, statues, religious artifacts and more.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Known as the "Queen of the Missions," this historic building offers tours, has an ocean view and is fronted by the prettiest rose garden!

Geneva's expert tip: The Santa Barbara Mission is especially vibrant over Memorial Day weekend, when it hosts Santa Barbara's popular I Madonnari chalk painting festival.

Read more about Old Mission Santa Barbara →


Meet Geneva Ives

Geneva Ives moved to Santa Barbara in 2000 on a whim (ok, and to go to college) and never looked back. She loves Santa Barbara because it’s really one of America’s greatest small towns - it...  More About Geneva