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14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is one of the most glamorous cities in California, with beautiful Spanish-style architecture and a spectacular palm-lined waterfront, all backed by mountains that glow pink in the late afternoon. In 1925, a major earthquake destroyed much of the city and it was rebuilt in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, resulting in the ornate architecture you see today.

Many of Santa Barbara’s top tourist attractions are close together, making it an easy city to explore, and you’ll find plenty of kid-friendly adventures. Other popular things to do include exploring the beautiful Mission Santa Barbara and the city’s excellent museums, coming face-to-face with wildlife at the zoo, shopping in the palm-lined malls along State Street, watching watch humpback whales leap out of the ocean, and explore some of the scenic hiking trails. The city also hosts a busy range of festivals throughout the year. Favorites include the Old Spanish Days (Fiesta) in August and the Summer Solstice Parade in June.

Read also: Top Rated Hiking Trails in Santa Barbara

1 Mission Santa Barbara

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Mission Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Barbara has been named the “Queen of the Missions” for its graceful beauty and picturesque setting. It is the city’s most iconic monument and its style has strongly influenced the city’s architecture. This is the only California mission to remain with the Franciscans since its founding in 1786, and a community of Franciscan monks still lives here.

Completed in 1820, the current church was built by Chumash Indians under the leadership of Father Antonio Ripoli after an earthquake destroyed the original chapel and surrounding buildings in 1812. Highlights include the Roman temple facade, the twin towers (which are unique among missions), and colonial-era art and sculptures. Today the mission serves as a parish church – an evocative place to attend a service.

Also within the complex is a museum with works of art from the colonial period and many interesting objects. Especially worth the lovely La Huerta Historical Garden , with mission-era plants such as citrus, grapes, pomegranates, and prickly pear, and the cemetery , where many prominent early Spaniards, as well as 4,000 Chumash Indians, found their final resting place. You can tour the complex on your own or join a scheduled, docent-led tour on select days.

After visiting the mission, wander the streets and explore the ruins of the old mission aqueduct, built by the Chumash Indians in 1806, and if you have time, stop at the fragrant Mission Rose Garden, a delightful place for a picnic on a sunny day.

Address: 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.santabarbaramission.org/

2 Stearns Wharf

Stearns Wharf harminder dhesi photography / photo modified
Stearns Wharf harminder dhesi photography / photo modified
 

Located at the foot of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, Stearns Wharf offers breathtaking views of the harbor and beaches, backed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. It was built in 1872 and was at the time the longest deep-sea kilometer between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Today, this tourist magnet is home to specialty shops; restaurants; and the Sea Center , one of two sites of the Santa Barbara Museum of Nature . This is a great place to stroll around with an ice cream or enjoy a seafood lunch overlooking the ocean. You can also visit the bait and tackle shop and cast a line from the end of the pier (look for harbor seals). If you have kids, a fun way to get here is to catch theLil’ Toot water taxi from the Santa Barbara Harbor .

A great way to explore the Stearns Wharf area is to rent a bike from one of the nearby rental shops and cycle along the beachside cycle paths that cover the coastline at the wharf entrance. If you want to stay close to this bustling tourist hub, some of Santa Barbara’s best beach resorts overlook the coastline on both sides of the wharf.

Official site: https://stearnswharf.org/

3 Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
 

Completed in 1929, after an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1925, this national (and state) historic landmark is one of the city’s architectural jewels. This downtown building spans an entire city block and is an example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style. As you wander the tiled hallways, you’ll notice the hand-painted ceilings; ornate tilework, some from Tunisia and Spain; and wrought iron chandeliers. Another highlight is the Mural Room, which tells the story of Santa Barbara’s history. Free guided tours with docents are available at set times.

Surrounding the courthouse is a beautiful sunken garden , with palms and plants from more than 25 different countries, where concerts, community events and weddings are often staged. For stunning views over the city’s red-tiled roofs toward the ocean, take the elevator to the top of the 85-foot El Mirador clock tower , a popular spot for wedding proposals.

Address: 1100 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbcourts.org/gi/loc/sbcourthouse.shtm

4 Santa Barbara Zoo

Santa Barbara Zoo
Santa Barbara Zoo
 

Santa Barbara Zoo is located on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific Ocean and covers more than 13 hectares. The wide open spaces and lush gardens with palms and native plants give the feeling of a botanical garden, making it a lovely place to stroll around. For such a small zoo, you’ll find an impressive variety of animals here. Highlights include the lions, snow leopards, Asian elephants, California condors, and western lowland gorilla exhibits. The zoo also offers fun interactive experiences such as the barnyard and giraffe feeding station. If you want a quick overview of the exhibits, you can board the zoo train that circles the exhibits, offering beautiful views along the way.

Address: 500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbzoo.org/

5 Editor’s Pick Whale Watching Tours

Humpback whale
Humpback whale
 

Few things are as thrilling as watching a humpback whale breach the ocean, and in Santa Barbara you can join a whale watching cruise for a front-row seat to all the action. More than 27 species of whales and dolphins swim in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, making it one of the best places in the country to view marine mammals in the wild. Humpback and blue whales roam here from May through November, and gray whales migrate along the Santa Barbara coast on their north and south migrations. Even if you don’t see whales, you can usually see other wildlife like dolphins, sea lions, and even orcas. Select cruises also offer a whale-watch guarantee in case you miss a sighting,

6 Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Santa Barbara Art Museum Davide Restivo / photo modified
Santa Barbara Art Museum Davide Restivo / photo modified
 

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has an impressive art collection for such a small city, with more than 27,000 works spanning 5,000 years. The museum is best known for its collection of Claude Monet paintings, classical antiquities, 19th and 20th century American and European art, contemporary American painting, Asian art and photography. As you enter, notice the Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932 mural, the only intact example in the United States by David Alfaro Siqueiros. The museum also hosts excellent traveling exhibitions and features a children’s gallery, with fun interactive displays. Also in the building is a museum shop, a café and an extensive library.

Address: 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbma.net/

7 Santa Barbara Nature Museum and Marine Center

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Santa Barbara Nature Museum and Damian Gadal Marine Center / photo modes

For more than a century, this excellent museum has presented fascinating displays about the natural history of the region. Today, the museum includes two campuses: the Mission Canyon campus, nestled in a beautiful oak grove along Mission Creek, and the Sea Center at Stearns Wharf, which offers a glimpse into the underwater world of the Santa Barbara Canal.

One of the first things you’ll notice on the Mission Canyon campus is a life-size 72-foot blue whale skeleton at the entrance, a great exhibit to see before heading out whale watching. Other popular exhibits here include displays on the Chumash Indians; the mammal hall; the Gladwin Planetarium , with interactive exhibits on space exploration; and the lovely forest nature trail along the creek. Special exhibitions complement the permanent collection. In summer you should not miss the Butterflies Alive! exhibit for a close-up view of these winged beauties.

The Sea Centre , with beautiful views over the water, is also great for families with children. Here you can touch a baby shark, feel the texture of a sea anemone tentacle, hold a hermit crab and see alien jellyfish. Other interactive exhibits include retrieving a catch in the crab pot, studying animal behavior and examining microscopic marine life.

Santa Barbara Museum of Nature

  • Address: 2559 Sunset, Santa Barbara, California

Sea Centre

  • Address: 211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbnature.org/

8 MOXI, the wolf museum of exploration + innovation

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation |  Photo copyright: Karen Hastings
MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation | Photo copyright: Karen Hastings
 

Ever wanted to make sound effects for a Hollywood movie or step into a giant guitar? At MOXI you can do all this and more. In a beautiful Spanish Colonial-style building with whimsical seaside-themed accents, this brand new science and technology museum opened in early 2017 two blocks from the Santa Barbara waterfront. Fascinating hands-on indoor and outdoor objects on three floors are grouped into themes such as Light, Speed, Interactive Media, Fantastic Forces and the Sky Garden. You can watch 3D printers create objects in the Innovation Workshop, build and test a race car on the museum’s tracks, or take a selfie and use it to create a custom mosaic to share with your friends. Start your visit with spectacular views of Santa Barbara from the roof terrace, where you can look through a series of different ranges into the observation tower. Summer camps, after-school classes and evenings with adult themes add to all the fun.

Address: 125 State Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.moxi.org/

9 Lotusland

Lotusland |  Photo copyright: Karen Hastings
Lotusland | Photo copyright: Karen Hastings
 

In the chic enclave of Montecito, about ten minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, Lotusland has been called one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Three different owners contributed to this beautiful botanical collection, but it was the last and most flamboyant, the famous Polish opera singer Madame Ganna Walska, who transformed it over four decades into the dramatic display you see today. The gardens are on the estate from Ganna Walska, where she lived until she died in 1984.

Madame Walska was one of the first garden designers to use mass plantings for dramatic emphasis. Entire gardens of sculptural agaves, contorted cactus, slender spurge and spiky cycads provide a theatrical quality, and the namesake lotus flowers bloom in the former swimming pool. Highlights include the Blue Garden; Palm Garden; Japanese garden; and the theater garden, with a collection of antique stone figures from France. Don’t miss Madame’s prized specimens, three extremely rare and gigantic cycads now extinct in the wild. Around mid-February to mid-November, two-hour tours are offered from Wednesday to Saturday. Booking in advance is essential.

Address: 695 Ashley Road, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.lotusland.org/

10 New Walk at State Street Shopping

Paseo Nuevo La Citta Vita Shopping Center / photo modified
Paseo Nuevo La Citta Vita Shopping Center / photo modified
 

Santa Barbara is a shopper’s paradise and the epicenter of all the action is the center of town. Here you’ll find the Spanish-style Paseo Nuevo, a picturesque open-air shopping center punctuated by potted palms and fountains. Nordstrom anchors the mall and a host of fantastic boutiques, big box stores and cafes frame the asphalt walkways between. Paseo Nuevo is especially beautiful when it is decorated for the holidays. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s still fun to stroll around here.

From Paseo Nuevo, you can also stroll along State Street and browse other specialty stores, antique shops, and boutiques. Cafes and restaurants line the sidewalks here and make great places for people watching. On Tuesday afternoons, State Street hosts the popular Santa Barbara Farmers Market , featuring fresh, locally grown produce.

Address: 651 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://paseonuevoshopping.com/

11 Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and Santa Barbara Harbor

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and Santa Barbara Harbor have been updated
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and Santa Barbara Harbor have been updated
 

On the harbor front, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum pays tribute to the city’s rich maritime history. The museum features fascinating exhibits on surfing, Channel Islands ranches, Chumash Indians, fishing and diving equipment, military history, model ships, antique instruments and historic photographs. Changing exhibits complement the collection and the Munger Theater shows maritime films and documentaries. This sea-themed museum is especially fun for kids, with treasure hunts, a working periscope, and other interactive exhibits. Photographers can take some beautiful pictures of the harbor and city from the top floor viewing platform.

After exploring the museum, the Santa Barbara Harbor area is a lovely place for a stroll, and you can stroll along the breakwater and look for seals. Brophy Bros., a few doors from the museum, has been Santa Barbara’s favorite restaurant for years, serving fresh seafood with stunning views of sailboats lapping into the harbor.

Address: 113 Harbor Way, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbmm.org/

12 El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Site

El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Site D & S McSpadden / photo modified
El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Site D & S McSpadden / photo modified
 

A notable piece of history in downtown Santa Barbara, El Presidio de Santa Barbara is a fortified military settlement (presidio) founded by the Spanish in 1782. Two of the fort’s original adobe buildings still stand today – El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe. Tours start at the visitor center with exhibits on the history of the presidio and a brief orientation. From here you can tour the reconstructed Chapel, Comandancia and Padre’s Quarters, and reconstructions of rooms that once housed the Presidio’s lieutenant; a two-story observation tower; and a beautiful heritage garden, with plants from the era such as prickly pear and grapes. Behind the north wing are Whittaker’s 1940s orchards and the archaeological site of the Presidio’s outer defensive wall.

Address: 123 East Canon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara, California

Official site: https://www.sbthp.org/presidio.htm

13 Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
 

Set among 78 acres of natural forest, the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden offers beautiful mountain and ocean views. It has more than 1,000 species of native California plants and trees. More than 3 miles of trail wind their way through the forest, where highlights include a historic Mission Dam and aqueduct, built in 1807 to convey water to the Santa Barbara Mission; a redwood grove; wildflower meadow; and a beautiful Japanese tea house and tea garden. Part of the garden has been designated a Santa Barbara County Historic Landmark and you can take a tour or walk the trails yourself. Afterwards, you can stop at the museum’s gift shop and nursery, where you can purchase your own California native plants.

Adres: 1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, Californië

Official site: https://www.sbbg.org

14 The Walk

El Paseo savemejebus / modified photo
El Paseo savemejebus / modified photo
 

El Paseo feels like a small Spanish village in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, this evocative complex of shops, restaurants and galleries was built around the historic Casa de la Guerra adobe in 1920.

Today, the adobe is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and you can visit the small museum here. The adobe was built by the commander of El Presidio de Santa Barbara , José de la Guerra, between 1819 and 1828. The commander and his wife raised their family here and over the years it became the social, political and cultural center from Santa Barbara. It remains an excellent example of a prosperous Spanish-Mexican style residence during the period. Guided tours are available with advance reservation.

El Paseo is also one of the locations for annual Old Spanish Day Festival events, and the courtyard is a lovely place for lunch. Note that the main entrance is on the 800 block of State Street .

Address: 15 East De la Guerra Street, Santa Barbara, California

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara for Sightseeing

If you’re visiting Santa Barbara for the first time, downtown is a great base, close to the shops and restaurants along State Street. Other attractions, such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, are within walking distance of this main strip, and the ocean end of State Street at Cabrillo Boulevard is a tourist hotspot, with Stearns Wharf, a bike path at the beach. and beautiful views of the blue water. Here are a few highly-rated hotels in these convenient locations:

  • Luxe hotels:Boasting free parking, cozy rooms and a heated outdoor pool, the boutique Spanish Garden Inn enjoys a secluded downtown location, less than a 10-minute walk from State Street’s best shopping and dining. Another luxurious hideaway downtown is the Simpson House Inn. This elegant Victorian estate is set behind hedges in acres of English gardens, with well-appointed rooms and charming cottages. In a prime location, just across the street from Stearns Wharf and West Beach, Harbor View Inn is a more affordable luxury option with well-appointed rooms, some with ocean views, as well as an outdoor pool, Jacuzzi and spa. Those seeking luxury on the beach, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, will appreciate the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, in the exclusive Montecito neighborhood,
  • Mid-range hotels: At the cozy Harbor House Inn, a short walk from West Beach and the harbor, each of the studios is unique, while the nearby Mediterranean-style Brisas Del Mar Inn at the Beach is also ideal for longer stays thanks the suites with fully equipped rooms. equipped kitchens. Across from the beach and a short walk from State Street, the Holiday Inn Express, a Spanish Revival-style hotel, scores top marks for its convenient location.
  • Budget Hotels: Within walking distance of Stearns Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor, Castillo Inn at the Beach offers excellent value. Part hotel, part hostel, Hotel Wayfarer is another popular budget option, with a communal kitchen and outdoor pool, in downtown Santa Barbara’s trendy Funk Zone. For those who enjoy chain hotels, La Quinta Inn & Suites is located right on State Street, about a 16-minute walk from Paseo Nuevo, the popular Spanish-style outdoor museum.

Other must-see small towns and attractions in California

If you’re traveling with kids or want to explore Santa Barbara’s outdoors, check out our Santa Barbara with Kids and Best Hiking Trails in Santa Barbara pages. California is also sprinkled with many other must-see small towns. For more information, visit our San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Sausalito, Monterey, Half Moon Bay and Carmel pages. If you’re planning a trip around the state, our best places to visit in California, top tourist attractions in California, and off-the-beaten-path California pages will help you plan your trip.

related questions

Which airport does it serve Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara is served by one airport, Santa Barbara Airport (SBA), which is located about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of the city center.

You can find cheap flights to Santa Barbara through Swati Travel. Here are some indicative prices for one-way flights from Los Angeles (LAX) to Santa Barbara (SBA) on Swati Travel for the dates of September 20-27, 2023:

  • Alaska Airlines: $100
  • American Airlines: $120
  • United Airlines: $140

Please note that these prices are subject to change and may not be available on all dates. To find the best deals, it is always best to book your flights in advance.

Read also:

Discovering the Hidden Gems of Historic San Antonio

Tracing the History of San Antonio

Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in San Francisco

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