Live and Learn: 10 Best Museums in Santa Barbara

When you're visiting Santa Barbara, it's easy to get distracted by all the natural wonders. Tall palms, white sand beaches, foliage-rich foothills inviting a hike... we get it. It's beautiful here.

But you know what? Even we want to head inside once in a while.

And no, not for a drink (although we know some good places to go come cocktail hour); we want to learn a little something about this great town that embraces us. And the state in which the town is located, and the nation encompassing that, and the world surrounding that nation, and all the people in the world and on and on. You get the picture. We're a curious bunch here in Santa Barbara.

Fortunately, there are a great many museums within city limits, providing marvelous wonders and learning tools for inquisitive minds. Unfortunately, this list only has room for 10 of those museums. 

So here's your assignment, fellow adventurers. Visit as many of the below establishments as you can. Admire the masterpieces at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, stand under the whale skeleton at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and pet the sharks at Ty Warner Sea Center

Then go and find more museums, because they're out there. And you are a traveler, an explorer. And this is what we do. Right? Right!


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 4th, 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 twenty-one missions built in California. It 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.

Casa del Herrero

Completed in 1925, this gorgeous Spanish Colonial Revival home is the collaboration of owners George and Carrie Steedman and a coterie of designers, architects and horticulturists. Painstakingly conceived, built and furnished, the estate is a stunning Moorish and Mediterranean unification of art, gardens and space. Boasting European treasures, intricate tilework and Steedman's own metalworking, Casa del Herrero ("house of the blacksmith") pays tribute to its owners' machinery industry. Relatively unchanged since its creation, the home now welcomes visitors to browse its exquisite grounds and interiors. Public tours are available from Mid-February through mid-November, with a small number of December dates allotted for visitors wishing to see the home dressed up in its holiday splendor. Reservations must be made in advance.

This museum is hard to find (even though it's right downtown), but it's worth it! Located above the Paseo Nuevo shopping mall, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara advances creativity and inspires critical thinking through meaningful engagement with the art of our time. Learning opportunities for both adults and children also make up a part of their annual calendar, ranging from artist talks to workshops. Admission to the museum is free, but visitors are encouraged to make a donation to support ongoing programs. Park in the city lot under the mall for most convenient access. The museum also operates a satellite gallery in the Hotel Indigo, a boutique hotel in the nearby Funk Zone.


Set in a Victorian-style depot dating to 1901 and built by the Southern Pacific Railroad, this museum has special appeal for railroad buffs. Aside from the charming structure itself, this facility offers exhibits about rail life (especially in this region of California), historical artifacts and a collection of rare photographs. There's also an elaborate, 300-square-foot model railroad to marvel at and a miniature train that's a favorite with kids. A gift shop and picnicking areas are onsite, too. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and may be booked for private parties with advanced notice. Admission is free. Donations are requested.

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

Before it opened as a museum in 2000, this structure served as a training facility for the Navy for more than fifty years. Renovations have given it a new lease, and now its interactive displays seek to inform visitors about marine life, health and history. Permanent and temporary exhibits fill the two-story structure and explore the Channel's maritime past, from native Chumash activity to commercial fishing, military use, yachting and coastal trade. Displays accommodate both young and old visitors, and the great periscope is an attraction that is not to be missed! The onsite museum store offers a wide array of nautical gifts, books, models and more.

Santa Barbara Historical Museum

Offering one of the state's best collections of regional history, this museum enjoys a downtown location along with a gracious courtyard and historical adobe buildings. Inside, fine art, western saddles, costumes and antique toys highlight the collection. Both permanent and rotating exhibits showcase Santa Barbara's past and present. The reference library houses a plethora of maps, manuscripts and books that are invaluable for regional research and local history. In addition to the weekday hours, the library is open the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. Guided tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Admission is free; donations are welcome.

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 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 on site is a museum store, cafe and special childrens' gallery. The museum is also committed to art education, spending roughly 20% of every dollar on academic, outreach, after school and lecture programs for all ages.

Owned and operated by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Sea Center is a wet and wild offshoot, focused on marine life. Creatures of the deep and the not-so-deep take the spotlight, from sharks to starfish. Interactive exhibits abound. There is a live shark touch pool and a tide pool tank that children can crawl through for a fisheye view, in addition to many other displays. The wet deck allows for a magnified peek at the sea life right under your feet; you can even take samples just like an oceanographer would do. Visitors of all ages will enjoy discovering the marvels of nature at the Sea Center.

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 eleven 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. For a natural history experience with a seaside twist, visit their associate site on the wharf, the Sea Center.

The Carriage and Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara was founded in 1972. Located just steps away from beautiful West Beach, this free museum features historical carriages and carriage-related art. You will enjoy admiring one of the largest collections of preserved and restored carriages in the nation, including authentic army and circus carriages. Additionally, they boast a collection of vintage 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 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Private tours for groups and children may be arranged in advance by calling the facility during regular business hours.


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