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Fun & Free Things to Do in Santa Barbara



We're going to let you in on a little secret: although Santa Barbara has been long regarded as the playground of the rich and famous, there are also plenty of free activities in the area to entertain visitors of all ages. Museums, parks, beaches and more - just stick to our top 10 free activities list, and you won't be emptying your wallet on this trip!

Do you like the outdoors? Then beaches and parks are the way to go. Santa Claus Beach is a favorite with Santa Barbara natives. Its wide, sandy shore and mild-to-medium waves make it a fun destination for groups and families. If you have little ones in tow, head to Alameda Park to let them run wild on an elaborate wooden playground that's popular with the younger set.

If you're looking for more cultural activities, join the fun by participating in a downtown art walk on the first Thursday of every month. Or visit the Carriage and Western Art Museum to feel like you're back in the Old West for a day. 

Check out this list of completely gratis things to do from sea to shore to schedule your very budget-friendly itinerary. 


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Work up a sweat and see the best view in town for free! One of the most popular hiking destinations in the Santa Barbara area, Inspiration Point offers a scenic panorama of Santa Barbara, the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands beyond. Although there are several places to pick up the trail, the most common route is to start on Tunnel Road just past the Santa Barbara Mission. From there, it's about a three-and-a-half mile hike that will take an hour or two, depending on your pace. The trail is dog friendly, but you should bring a leash. We also recommend packing some water and sunblock. Free parking in the surrounding neighborhoods, but it can be pretty busy on weekends.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Inspiration Point is one of the best (and most photographed) hikes in Santa Barbara.

Geneva's expert tip: Don't forget your camera! You're going to want to snap at least one picture from the top of this scenic trail.

Read more about Inspiration Point →


Santa Claus Beach
Photo courtesy of Leah Schmidt


A local favorite, Santa Claus Beach is one of Santa Barbara's best kept sandy secrets. A relatively uncrowded wide stretch of soft white sand, Santa Claus is actually located in Carpinteria, a sleepy beach town just a short drive (or long bike ride!) from downtown Santa Barbara. Santa Claus gets great, mild waves for all sorts of ocean fun: paddle boarding, boogie boarding, general frolicking etc... The shore offers a shallow, gradual entrance, making this a good beach for younger visitors, too. There's limited shade, so bring an umbrella. Restaurants, shops and board rentals are nearby. Free street parking is first come, first serve.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Santa Claus Beach is where the locals go to have a budget-friendly good time.

Geneva's expert tip: Between the natural seashore scenery, mountain backdrop and beachfront homes, you're guaranteed a lot of golden vacation photo opportunities.

Read more about Santa Claus Beach →




This free, photogenic museum features historical carriages and carriage-related art. It also looks a little like a Hollywood backlot, with staged Old West buildings including shops and saloons. The Carriage and Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara was founded in 1972. You can go there to see one of the largest exhibits of preserved and restored carriages in the nation, including authentic army and circus carriages. It's home to a collection of vintage celebrity saddles that is second to none; saddles owned by Clark Gable, the Cisco Kid, Jimmy Stewart and many others are on view. The museum is open on weekdays for free, unguided tours. Docent-guided tours are available on the third Sunday of every month, from 1-4 p.m. Private tours for groups and children may be arranged in advance by calling the facility during regular business hours.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Where else can you see famous saddles and carriages, just steps away from the beach?

Geneva's expert tip: This museum is free, open on weekdays and located in beautiful Pershing Park, just a few blocks from the Santa Barbara harbor.

Read more about Carriage and Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara →


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Possibly the most wondrous 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 Free Things to Do because: Coronado Butterfly Preserve is a gorgeous place to see overwintering butterflies in the colder months and hike around in the warmer months.

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 →




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 art exhibits and performances. Not limited to artists' receptions, 1st Thursday also showcases live music, lectures and even wine tastings. Guests are invited to participate and interact with the performers in a social environment, further fostering a creative atmosphere. Plan your tour using the 1st Thursday Passport - a map detailing upcoming attractions available at participating establishments, the Visitor's Center and online. Or simply head out to State Street and wing it... as long as you follow the music, you'll do just fine!

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: See great art, meet the artists, enjoy live music and mingle with locals as you stroll beautiful downtown.

Geneva's expert tip: When festivities start dying down, follow your nose to a scrumptious dinner. 1st Thursday takes you near many of the best restaurants in town.

Read more about 1st Thursday →


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Skateparks are cool. Free skateparks with ocean views? They're even cooler. Skater's Point opened in 2000 as part of the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreations Department. This park is open to skaters of all ages and situated in a choice location... it's right on the beach! The smooth concrete park was designed based on ideas from local and professional skaters. It features design elements like grind rails, a half pipe, transition rails and more. There is also a comfortable spectator's area. Skater's point is open every day from 8 a.m. until half an hour after sunset. Elbow and kneepads are required for all skaters, and so are helmets. The skate park is located along the Cabrillo bike and pedestrian path.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Skater's Point is an oceanfront skate park. Not a skater? It's still fun to watch from the sidelines.

Geneva's expert tip: Younger and less-experienced skaters are encouraged to skate on weekends before noon.

Read more about Skater's Point →


Breakwater at Santa Barbara Harbor
Photo courtesy of Geneva Ives

The breakwater at the Santa Barbara harbor is a little bit fancy. It's intended to minimize the effect of wave action on pricey yachts. It's also free. The long curved walkway that juts out into the sea is perfect for strolling on sunny weather and warm nights. Incorporating stone brought over from Santa Cruz Island, the breakwater is a smooth path lined with banner-waving flagpoles and offers terrific views of the harbor, the city and the distant mountains. The occasional wave splashes over it (fun!), and there's a small beach at the very end that is never crowded - except when a flock of pelicans decides to land there. There are a variety of restaurants, shops, tour boat departure points and other attractions nearby.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Sometimes the best beach walk is one that doesn't get your feet sandy. This fits the bill!

Geneva's expert tip: It's not a bad idea to show up hungry. There are some delicious eats in the srea, including Brophy's and On The Alley, as well as the Santa Barbara Fish Market if you're in the mood for more of DIY dinner.

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Alameda Park
Photo courtesy of Nico Lette


Head to the giant playground at Alameda Park for hours of fun, free play! Kids World is the very best playground in town. There are also wide, open areas with lots of room for games of tag or frisbee. You'll also find about a million trees and picnic benches, and a gazebo that hosts musicians on special occasions. This park is a great destination for a lazy afternoon spent reading or napping in the sun. It's also a fun place for a pick-up soccer game among friends. Event spaces and restrooms are available, and the park often hosts large city celebrations and events. The Earth Day and Summer Solstice festivals are held here. Near the also delightful Alice Keck Park, Alameda occupies two city blocks not far from the downtown area of State Street.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Home to the best playground in town, hands down. This wood fortress has all the slides, swings and secret hiding places any kid could want!

Geneva's expert tip: Nearby picnic areas lend themselves to outdoor birthdays and other celebrations. Bring a pinata and hang it from a low branch.

Read more about Alameda Park →




Free summer movies, free flamenco shows in August, free 365-degree views of the city from the clock tower... the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a mecca of free, fun things. It's also stunning! Considered one of the most beautiful government buildings in America, Santa Barbara's historic Spanish-Moorish style courthouse draws thousands of visitors each year. Civic court functions are still part of daily life in this bustling structure, and 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 a 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 view of the city.

Recommended for Free Things to Do because: There's no better place to get a view of Santa Barbara than from the top of the Courthouse clock tower.

Geneva's expert tip: In the summer, free movies are shown in the sunken gardens on Friday nights. Go early to claim your spot!

Read more about Santa Barbara County Courthouse →




If you didn't take a picture of the Queen of the Missions, does your trip to Santa Barbara even count? Most locals would say no. Pack a picnic (don't forget the local wine) and spread out for happy hour at the rose garden across the way while admiring the view. Referred to as "Queen of the Missions" for its graceful beauty, the Old Mission Santa Barbara is the tenth of 21 missions built in California. The pink-tinged building features twin bell towers and affords 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 Free Things to Do because: An exceptionally beautiful historical destination, especially when the lush rose garden is in bloom.

Geneva's expert tip: Visit the mission during the I Madonnari festival to see great (but temporary) works of art, hear live music and eat food from local vendors.

Read more about Old Mission Santa Barbara →


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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

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