I have visited Santa Barbara three times in person in the last five years and am sharing my first-hand experiences both as a couple and with teen and pre-teen kids of what I personally recommend seeing and doing.

Lyn selfie Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is one of my favorite places I’ve traveled to in the U.S., and there are so many beautiful things to do in Santa Barbara! I’ve visited this jewel of a California city personally three times, and I will keep coming back.

It’s an absolutely stunning California coastal town with jaw-dropping sunsets, gorgeous architecture and a fascinating history. In fact, it’s even nicknamed the “American Riviera.”

If you love sunny California paired with Spanish-style buildings topped by quintessential red tiles, you will love Santa Barbara as much as I do!

After visiting multiple times in the last few years, I’ve compiled my personal recommendations for the fun things to do in Santa Barbara that I’ve experienced myself.

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Getting to Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Southwest Airlines
Santa Barbara from the air

In 2021, Southwest Airlines began flying directly into Santa Barbara, but you can alternately fly into Los Angeles International or any of the area airports like…

  • Burbank
  • John Wayne/Orange County
  • Long Beach

Then rent a car and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, which locals call the “PCH,” to Santa Barbara, which is a really gorgeous drive. We did this and rented through Silvercar by Audi and enjoyed a lovely Audi as we drove along the Pacific…

Silvercar by Audi Q7
Our Audi Q7 rental at Pismo State Beach on our way up the Pacific Coast Highway

We’ve also flown directly into Santa Barbara airport, which is really lovely! 

Santa Barbara Airport
Santa Barbara Airport

It’s a super small airport designed with Santa Barbara-style architecture. Plus, the view flying into Santa Barbara is absolutely gorgeous.

We flew for free using Southwest points and it was a hefty amount of points, but well worth it, especially since I hold a Southwest Companion Pass, so my husband flies with me for FREE.

22 Fun Things to Do in Santa Barbara

1. Take a Trolley

Santa Barbara Trolley
The Santa Barbara Trolley on a stop at the Mission

If you want a quick overview of Santa Barbara, take the Santa Barbara Trolley. This is a tour I’ve done firsthand when we visited Santa Barbara with our two boys, and it was a great overview of the city and what it has to offer.

The tour only lasts about 90 minutes, but you can hop on and off all day if you’d like for $25 for adults.  The trolley takes you past key sites like…

  • Old Mission
  • The Harbor
  • The Zoo
  • The courthouse
  • And more!

2. Go Million-Dollar House Hunting

Santa Barbara open house
Check out homes like this Midcentury Modern with spectacular ocean views!

Lots of wealthy people and celebrities live in Santa Barbara and especially Montecito (just south of Santa Barbara), including Oprah, Ellen and even the Beanie Baby tycoon!

Check out the listings for open houses and attend some (you’ll find them most commonly on Sundays). It never hurts to dream!

We like to visit open houses in many cities we visit. I find it inspiring, and my husband, who loves design and architecture nerds out over seeing in person these houses he’s seen online :).

Outdoors

3. Hang Out at the Beach

Butterfly Beach
Photo by Jay Sinclair/Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara offers many beautiful beaches whether you want to just kick back and relax, take a stroll or splash in the surf.

One of the most popular beaches is Butterfly Beach in Montecito, which is a great spot to catch the sunset. It’s just across from Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara.

If you’re at Stearns Wharf, you can head to the family-friendly East Beach.

Other options include…

  • Leadbetter Beach near Santa Barbara Harbor
  • Goleta Beach Park in nearby Goleta
  • Arroyo Burro Beach – We headed here and found it to be a great beach filled with locals, but not too crowded. Parking can be tough here, however, so bring your patience and make a few circles until you can find an open spot.

4. Kayak Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park

By far one of the coolest things I’ve ever done is kayaking through sea caves at Channel Islands National Park just off the coast of Santa Barbara.

You can watch a webinar where I explain all about visiting Channel Islands National Park in the video library inside our Families Fly Free membership where we teach you my simple Fly Free Formula to always be able to fly your family free using travel rewards.

This is an entire-day adventure, as you have to get to and from the islands by boat (keep an eye out for whales along the way – we spotted a few in the distance on our trip) with Island Packers.

Then spend the day kayaking (we booked with Santa Barbara Adventure Company, whose guides were great!) into sea caves among sea lions and amidst beautiful waters on this entirely natural island. I can’t recommend this activity enough!

5. Walk Around the Wharf

Santa Barbara sunset
The most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen — from the Santa Barbara harbor and marina

One of the highlights of Santa Barbara is Stearns Wharf and the harbor area, which is at the end of its charming downtown.

This area has waterfront dining, shops and a Sea Center, where you can get interactive with area sea life (great for young kids!). You can even enjoy wine tasting with a view on the pier at Deep Sea Wines.

Be sure to take a walk onto the rocky formation that extends out into the water and serves as a block from the waves. It was here we got the above photo on our first visit to Santa Barbara, which I would wager is the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The ocean paired with the mountains in the background is simply gorgeous.

6. Marvel at the Moreton Bay Fig Tree

Moreton Bay Fig Tree
Credit Visit Santa Barbara

This absolutely amazing 120-year-old fig tree is supposed to be the largest of its type in the U.S. Brought from Australia in 1877, you’ll find it not far from the harbor and wharf area, though somehow it’s easily missed if you don’t know to look for it!

I didn’t see this tree until our second visit when I made a point to track it down :). An easy landmark that we used is the Amtrak station, which it’s right next to.

 

7. Relax at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Photo By Cecilia Rosell, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Located in the Mission Canyon area of Santa Barbara, the beautiful Santa Barbara Botanic Garden spans 78 acres, which are filled with California native plants. It’s one of only 30 gardens accredited as a “living museum.” 

The garden features easy hiking trails that take you past an authentic Japanese Teahouse, a redwood forest and the 1807 Mission Dam.

Check out the Water Wise Home Garden with drought-tolerant native plants that you can buy at the nursery.

8. Get a Spa Treatment in an Underground Salt Cave

Santa Barbara salt cave
Photo by Ciro Coelho

Right in downtown Santa Barbara is a manmade underground salt cave, which offers a variety of spa experiences, including hot salt stone massages, salt scrubs and more.

The cave was created by the owners who imported 60 tons of pink Himalayan salt from Pakistan, making it the largest salt cave in North America.

9. Take a Hike

Santa Barbara hike
Awesome view from this hike near Santa Barbara

With its canyons, ocean and vast plant and floral life everywhere, Santa Barbara is a great destination to take a hike whether you want high-up coastal views, a rugged canyon hike or a romp through wildflowers.

Lizard Rock hike

The Rattlesnake Trail is a popular 3.5-mile round trip, overlooking a canyon, or try the short but gorgeous Lizard Rock half-mile walk with scenic views and its iconic lizard-shaped rock formation.

The photos of me above are on the Lizard Rock hike where we encountered the ruins of an old house with an absolutely stunning view of the valley below.

Check out more best hikes in Santa Barbara.

10. Rent an E-Bike

Santa Barbara ebike
Cabrillo Bike Path

E-bikes are all the rage, and they are the perfect way to explore Santa Barbara. We rented an e-bike on State Street and then hopped on the Cabrillo Bike Path to Butterfly Beach. It’s a stunner!

Cabrillo Bike Path
Cabrillo Bike Path

Beware you will have to turn right at Channel Drive to Fairway Road where you will enjoy the most beautiful path filled with flowers and greenery and the beach and ocean to your right as shown above.

We had a blast e-biking through Santa Barbara and seeing the sites from outside of a car window. There’s nothing like being in the open breeze, gazing at the lovely ocean and so many colorful flowers and plants in this area.

Check out more Santa Barbara bike paths.

History

11. Explore Old Mission Santa Barbara

Old Mission Santa Barbara grounds

As a Catholic, seeing the California missions is always tops on my list, and this is my favorite of the missions I’ve seen thus far.

Old Mission Santa Barbara, founded in 1786 by Franciscan monks, is in fact known as the “Queen of the Missions.” It’s certainly the largest with gardens, a church, cemetery and museum. We have even attended mass there on Sunday, which is open to the public. 

We enjoyed strolling the grounds, learning about the history of the mission and thinking about what life must have been like here several hundred years ago. We definitely enjoyed a sense of peace!

Chapel Mission Santa Barbara
You can attend mass at the chapel shown here

TIP: Enjoy a free docent tour of the grounds Monday through Friday at 11 a.m., Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and Sunday at 12:30 p.m.

12. See The Presidio State Park

Presidio Santa Barbara
Credit Jessy Lynn Perkins

See where Santa Barbara was born right in the heart of its downtown at El Presidio State Historic Park.

I found that when we visited, it was easy to miss, as it’s just off State Street, the main thoroughfare, which we were not really expecting. So keep a look out!

The Presidio is the site of the last Spanish military fortress built when Spain occupied this area, known as New Spain, in the late 1700s until Mexico gained its independence in 1821. 

I love history, so if you do too, this is a must-stop.

13. Climb to the Top of the Santa Barbara Courthouse

Santa Barbara Courthouse

The No. 1 thing you must do when in Santa Barbara is climb to the top of its magnificent courthouse, which is a building you’d never suspect to be a courthouse!

We went to the courthouse on our second trip to Santa Barbara with our boys, as I’d always read what a great activity this is, as it’s free and offers fab views.

This grand structure with its exterior clock face and characteristic red tiles is gorgeous inside (that was a surprise I wasn’t expecting!) and out, and at the top, you’ll enjoy fantastic panoramic views of the city.

It’s still used as a courthouse though, so beware, court may be in session, as it was when we were there!

Shopping

14. Shop ‘Til You Drop in Paseo Nuevo

Santa Barbara shopping Paseo Nuevo
Paseo Nuevo, Credit: Jay Sinclair

Even though I’m not a shopper, one of my personal favorite things to do in Santa Barbara is to wander among its vast “paseos,” which are arcades that run off of its main thoroughfare of State Street.

These are vast mazes that you’d never guess are behind State Street’s facades that I’ve visited firsthand.

These “paseos” remind me of the historic district in Marbella, Spain, another destination we’ve visited, which also has utterly charming, brightly-colored buildings through alley after alley.

The largest of these is Paseo Nuevo, which is a full-on shopping mall/paseo with many top brands like Nordstrom and Victoria’s Secret, as well as locally-owned shops.

You’ll also want to stop for an authentic Hawaiian shaved ice about as big as your head, which my son certainly enjoyed!

15. Lose Yourself in La Arcada

La Arcada Santa Barbara
Photo by Mark Weber

Another of these paseos is La Arcada, which has a more local fee. Here you’ll find…

  • Art galleries
  • Boutiques
  • Fountains
  • Sidewalk cafes

Food & Dining

16. Scarf Down Some Scrumptious Ice Cream at McConnell’s – Yum!

McConnell's Ice Cream Santa Barbara

A local institution, McConnell’s is THE place for ice cream in Santa Barbara. They make their ice cream from scratch, using organic ingredients and no preservatives. This is one of our must-stops when we are visiting Santa Barbara!

There are two locations, including the main one on State Street (we have had to wait awhile in line, especially on summer days :), so be prepared) and one in the Funk Zone, closer to the wharf and harbor.

Last time, I had a “sammy,” which is their name for an ice cream sandwich made with your pick of ice cream between two homemade cookies. Yum!!

McConnell's Ice Cream Sammy - Santa Barbara
The “Sammy”

 

17. Enjoy a Wine or Beer Tasting in the Funk Zone

Funk Zone Santa Barbara
Photo by Cecilia Rosell

The Funk Zone is a newer, revitalized area of town that is closer to the wharf and harbor where you’ll find lots of wineries with tasting rooms, as well as breweries and some hip hotels like the Hotel Californian and Riveria Beach Hotel (formerly a Hotel Indigo) where we have personally stayed.

Riviera Beach Hotel, Santa Barbara
Riviera Beach Hotel

When it comes to wine tastings, we headed to Paradise Springs Winery and enjoyed an outdoor wine tasting with putting green (great to entertain kids while Mom and Dad sip some wine!). 

Paradise Springs winery Funk Zone Santa Barbara

We had the option to choose between a tasting of reds or a mix of reds and whites, but when in California, make sure to taste their awesome Pinot Noir (a red), which is one of my favorite wines!

You’ll also discover art galleries and vibrant murals (try an art walk), as well as restaurants with outdoor dining in this roughly 13-block area.

18. Dine at Joe’s Cafe

There’s no experience quite like dining at Santa Barbara’s oldest restaurant, Joe’s Cafe, and we highly recommed it.

Founded by Joe Ferrario, an immigrant from Italy, in 1928, Joe’s is a popular local restaurant and bar, known for having the “stiffest” cocktails around and a relaxed, fun atmosphere. Students from local UC-Santa Barbara like to hang out here.

19. Get a Treat at Helena Avenue Bakery

Helena Bakery - Santa Barbara
Photo by Blake Bronstad

One morning on our last trip to Santa Barbara when looking for a place to hang out and work aside from our hotel room, I headed to a popular, and “sweet,” spot in the Funk Zone, Helena Avenue Bakery.

This local bakery serves seasonal pastries and organic breads made from scratch, as well as breakfast, sandwiches and salads all in a modern, industrial setting.

I went for the warm brown butter cinnamon roll, which was so delicious and I can give it a first-hand recommendation, but it’s too much for 1 person, so bring a buddy :)!

Helena Avenue Bakery Santa Barbara Funk Zone
Warm Brown Butter Cinnamon Roll

Headed to the beach? You can order a grab-and-go picnic from Helena Avenue Bakery to take with you!

TIP: At night Helena Avenue Bakery turns into Santa Barbara Wine Collective where you can do a wine tasting.

20. Dine at Finch & Fork

Finch & Fork Kimpton Canary
Deviled Eggs

Located inside the Kimpton Canary Santa Barbara hotel, Finch & Fork offers a delicious meal with locally-sourced ingredients. We opted to dine there for a romantic dinner one evening on our last trip.

We loved the…

  • White Sweet Potato Soup as an appetizer
  • Deviled Eggs small plate – we especially recommend this
  • Bellweather Farms Ricotta Gnocchi (enough for a meal for 1!)
  • Short Rib Pappardelle Pasta as an entree 

21. Sip a Margarita at Santo Mezcal

Santa Mezcal margarita
Best margarita in Santa Barbara!

Definitely one of the hottest restaurants in town, Santo Mezcal is located in the Funk Zone in the same building as the Riviera Beach House hotel. We made more than one visit to this restaurant, which we discovered on our most recent trip, to enjoy their absolutely amazing margaritas :)!

There are no reservations, so you’ll just have to wait your turn, which could be hours. We advise going on a Monday or Tuesday or in between lunch and dinner to avoid the crowds.

The food is great, but you MUST have their Fresh Margarita with strawberry, which is absolutely delicious and we hear, the BEST margarita in Santa Barbara. We aren’t arguing :), because we can attest that it was darn good. We recommend ordering it with tequila and not mezcal.

Santo Mezcal Santa Barbara
Enchiladas verdes at Santo Mezcal which we also recommend

22. Drive to Santa Barbara Wine Country

Solvang windmill

Just outside of Santa Barbara, about a 45-minute drive, is the Santa Ynez Valley full of many small towns, most of which boast wineries.

A couple of popular stops include Solvang and Los Olivos. The movie, “Sideways” made Solvang, which is modeled after a Danish town, famous.

We visited Solvang ourselves on our first trip to Santa Barbara. It’s super charming and a fun activity to do outside the city. Look for its iconic windmill (shown in our photo above) and enjoy all sorts of Danish treats in addition to wine tasting galore at area wineries.

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Author

  • Lyn Mettler

    Lyn Mettler is a longtime travel writer for US News & World Report, USA Today 10Best and The TODAY Show who created Families Fly Free, a program which teaches families her simple system to use travel rewards to fly for free.

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