The 18 best things to do in Santa Barbara

One of the most idyllic cities in the entire country, you can’t go wrong when you visit Santa Barbara. Thanks to hundreds of activities and things to do in Santa Barbara, you’ll never get bored.

Plus, with temperatures that hover between 67-80 degrees year-round, you can plan a beach day almost 365 days a year. Plus, no matter where you live, you’re no more than 15 minutes from the ocean, mountains, or great food and drinks.

Some call it perfection. We call it Santa Barbara.

Below, you’ll find some of my favorite places to visit and things to do in Santa Barbara, California!

18 Amazing Tours and Things to Do in Santa Barbara

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1. Go Whale Watching in the Santa Barbara Channel

The Santa Barbara Channel is nutrient-rich, attracting wildlife from all over during their migration routes north and south. I’ve been on three whale-watching outings and cannot speak more highly of the team at Condor Express. Their summer trips are 4.5 hours and 100% worth it.

For those with a camera, this is one of those things to do in Santa Barbara that you can’t pass up.

2. Enjoy McConnell’s Ice Cream

Some swear it’s the most incredible ice cream on Earth. I’m not sure I could say that (though I believe most ice cream is one deviation away at max, so they all taste the same), but it is dang good. There are three locations in Santa Barbara, with the most popular two on Upper and Lower State Street.

3. Visit the Santa Barbara Mission

places to see in Santa Barbara Mission

Founded in 1786, it was the tenth of 21 California Missions. It’s a stunning architectural feat, and its historical implications for the city are immense. I highly recommend taking the tour ($15) and learning about the mission and town.

4. Go Wine Tasting in and around Santa Barbara!

Going wine tasting is one of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara has some of the most incredible wines in the entire country. (Sorry, Napa.) You can either do it in town or drive for 35 minutes and go wine tasting at the vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley. This is definitely one of the top things to do in Santa Barbara.

Book your wine tastings here.

5. Eat at Cold Springs Tavern

A hidden gem in the Santa Ynez Mountains, the Cold Springs Tavern is about 30 minutes from downtown but is at the top of places to visit in Santa Barbara. This old stagecoach stop is now a fantastic meal spot. Unfortunately, they are only open Thursday – Sunday, with varying hours.

We had their Tri-Tip sandwich for lunch when I went, which was delicious.

6. Enjoy the smells at the Botanical Garden

Spend a half day adventuring around the beautiful botanical gardens and end it with a stunning view from the high point overlooking the city. There are so many plant species here it’ll have your head spinning!

Checking out the botanical gardens was an amazing things to do in Santa Barbara.

7. Take a boat to the Channel Islands National Park

Visiting Channel Islands National Park is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara.

Now, this is technically not in Santa Barbara. You’ll have to drive 30 down the coast to Ventura to hop on one of the boats, which will transport you to the National Park. However, I highly recommend visiting if you have the chance. Make sure to hike out to Potato Harbor when you visit.

There are animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth!

Book your trip to the Channel Islands!

8. Enjoy Beer and Wine in the Funk Zone

There’s a drink for everyone in the Funk Zone. With two dozen breweries or wineries to choose from, it’s the perfect place to spend the entire day and night. My favorites are TopaTopa, Biergarten, and Pali Wine, but they’re all delicious, and you can’t go wrong.

9. Visit the Santa Barbara Zoo

A lioness staring at the camera at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Visiting the Santa Barbara Zoo isn’t just great for families but for anyone wanting a calm day amongst beautiful animals. We loved spending half a day here and found the lions to be especially playful!

Free things to do in Santa Barbara

10. Visit the Santa Barbara Hot Springs

It’s a four to five-mile round trip hike to the hot springs, which makes it far enough away to keep crowds decent but not too far where you’re exhausted afterward. It’s been built up into a nice multi-tier system, with the hottest pools at the top and cooler ones at the bottom.

Easily one of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.

visit santa barbara hot springs

11. Visit Butterfly Beach

Enjoying sunset at Butterfly Beach is one of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.

My favorite beach in Santa Barbara. The views are mesmerizing, and the flower and plant display next to the bike path is beautiful. During the summer months, it’s a beach that gets busy during the day, but as the sun begins to dip, people leave, and you’ll have a much more peaceful time.

Make sure you add this to your things to do in Santa Barbara checklist.

12. Enjoy Sunset at Lizards Mouth

Lizards Mouth Hike places to see in santa barbara

Lizard Mount is a beautiful sunset spot 35 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara. There’s no official parking lot, so park on the side of the road. If you hit the gun range, you’ve gone too far. The hike is mostly flat for .33 of a mile. Once you’re on the rocks, you’ll have to create your route to the “Lizards Mount” area.

Totally one of the things to do in Santa Barbara at sunset.

13. See the Santa Barbara Courthouse

Make sure to check out the great architecture at the Santa Barbara Courthouse.

I’ve only been to a few courthouses in my days, but this one has to be one of the most beautiful. It’s on my route to the gym and seemingly has a wedding at least 5/7 days a week. It’s gorgeous, and you can walk to the top to get a better view of the city.

14. Enjoy a beach sunset from 1000 Steps Beach

Enjoying a beach sunset is one of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.

Another great beach! This one’s over near Shoreline Park, further west and up the coast. Take the stairs down and enjoy walking in the sand and enjoying the views. I highly recommend this place for Santa Barbara photography, especially in the fall and winter months, as the sun will set over the ocean.

15. Hike to Inspiration Point

hike to inspiration point in santa barbara

Inspiration Point is a local favorite and can get busy on the weekends. Get there early, as the parking isn’t great, and you can add another mile or two just on the road. The hike is half on a forest service road and then on a standard mountain trail.

Overall, it’s about 3.7 miles and should take about 90-100 minutes, but it is 100% one of the things to do in Santa Barbara. This is also a phenomenal Santa Barbara photography destination.

16. Take a trek on the Cold Springs Trail

hike cold springs trail

At 2.7 miles, the Cold Springs Trail is just long and hard enough to get the blood pumping without wiping you out. Before climbing up for ocean views, this loop follows a creek for a while. The trailhead is in Montecito and a mile from the Royal Couple’s house. (Fun Fact.)

If you’re looking for a more challenging hike, keep going up and summit Montecito Peak. It’s eight miles round trip with about 2,400 feet of elevation gain. I’d suggest starting before 9 am to beat the heat.

We did the loop multiple times, and it was one of our favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.

17. Walk Chase Palm Park

One of the things to do in santa barbara is visit chase palm park for sunset!

Run. Walk. Bike. Yoga. Play with your dog. Chase Palm Park offers all of this right next to East Beach. So when you visit Santa Barbara, make sure to stop here too.

18. Enjoy the Santa Barbara Harbor

There are few things more soothing than soaking in the calm waters of a harbor. This is a great place to go if you have young kids who love watching boats come in and out. You can also turn this into a two-mile walk by walking around the harbor and getting next to the ocean.

You’ll have great views of the Wharf and the mountains behind it. Additionally, keep an eye out for local wildlife!

Is a trip to Santa Barbara worth it?

Let’s just get this out of the way. 100% yes, visiting Santa Barbara is worth it. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever been to. Even better, I had the amazing opportunity to live there for one year, and the ridiculously beautiful weather will always call me back!

You will love your time here and enjoy all the things to do in Santa Barbara.

Where to stay in Santa Barbara

The beauty of Santa Barbara is you’re almost always within five minutes of the ocean. It’s one of the selling points of this beautiful destination. The best places to stay are down by the water, on the ocean side of the train tracks.

Furthermore, there are some very high-end resorts with fantastic views!

🏨Budget Stay – Motel 6 Carpenteria; Casa Del Sol Carpenteria; Rose Garden Inn Santa Barbara

🏨Mid-level Stay – Inn by the Harbor; Brisas Del Mar; Hotel Santa Barbara

See more mid-tier options

🏨Luxury Stay – Rosewood Miramar Beach; El Encanto; Ritz-Carlton Santa Barbara

See all luxury options

Planning your vacation to Santa Barbara

How to get to Santa Barbara

There are two ways to get to Santa Barbara, California. You can drive in from the North and South via Highway 101 (from LA/SF) or 154 (which takes you over the mountain range. From Los Angeles, it’s about a 90-minute drive, while San Francisco is 4 hours.

Additionally, you can fly into the Santa Barbara airport. It’s a four-terminal airport but usually has affordable flights across the West Coast. It’s a 20-minute drive from here to downtown SB.

What’s the weather like?

The weather is PERFECT almost year-round. The highs rarely leave the 65-80 range, and the worst thing is morning fog. But that burns off mid-day, giving you amazing weather to enjoy all the great things to do in Santa Barbara.

Enjoy some awesome Santa Barbara Activities

There are so many incredible things to do in Santa Barbara or right around the corner from the city. The following are some of my favorite activities, and I’m sure you’ll love them!

Book these through Viator!

Things to do in Santa Barbara: A+ Weekend Itinerary

Friday

  • Fly or drive into Santa Barbara and check into your hotel
  • Depending on the time, grab some Poke and head down to the water for sunset
  • Head into the Funk Zone for some drinks

Saturday

  • Do an early morning hike along the Cold Springs Trail or go visit the Santa Barbara hot springs
  • Clean up and Go wine tasting in Santa Ynez Valley or locally. Either book a tour or have a DD.
  • Check out the SB courthouse before you eat
  • Enjoy dinner on the beach. Sushi anyone?

Sunday

  • Get brunch on the coast
  • Hop on a 4.5-hour whale-watching tour and see some of the most incredible views (go with Condor Express). This is one of my absolutely favorite things to do in Santa Barbara.
  • Say goodbye to Santa Barbara, but we know you’ll be back!

FAQ: Visiting Santa Barbara

How many days do you need in Santa Barbara?

You need at least two full days to get a taste of the town and enjoy the best things to do in Santa Barbara. Take a half day on Friday and get in early before the weekend traffic starts. The 101 always seems to be under construction around Summerland, so you’ll have a slowdown there. If you don’t do this during rush hour, you’ll be fine!

What should tourists know about getting around Santa Barbara before visiting?

Santa Barbara is a very chill area, and no one’s in a rush. Don’t try to hurry your visit and go with the flow. Also, a lot of SB is one-way streets; keep this in mind when driving around and trying to find parking or restaurants.

Lastly, Santa Barbara has one of the highest per capita unhoused rates. You’ll likely see tents and people sleeping on or near the streets.

What is the best steak restaurant in Santa Barbara, California?

We ate at Holdren’s Steak and Seafood, and it was incredibly tasty. I recommend that. I’m sure there are others, but we didn’t eat out much. However, the great food options are one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara.

What were your favorite sushi restaurants in town?

There are so many amazing sushi places in town. Our top two were Oku, which is right on the water, and Arigato Sushi on State Street. You honestly can’t go wrong with any place in the area.

What were your favorite breweries?

Oh, good question! That are so many breweries in Santa Barbara that are also delicious it’s hard to rank them. I really enjoyed the following:

  • Night Lizard
  • Third Window
  • Rincon Brewing
  • Lama Dog and Topa Topa (they share an area)
  • SB Biergarten (German beer)
  • M Special

What is there to do in Santa Barbara at night?

There are a ton of things to do in Santa Barbara at night! You can visit the above breweries, drive up the pass and watch the stars come out, walk the beach, or take in a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Does Santa Barbara have a boardwalk?

Yes! It’s at East Beach/Chase Palm Park. This is a gorgeous 2-mile stretch of beach that is walker/runner/biker friendly. So many people are out enjoying the sun and great weather.

What is the most walkable area in Santa Barbara?

There are plenty of walkable areas in Santa Barbara. First, downtown on State Street is all blocked off now, letting you walk up and down without cars. Secondly, the boardwalk is perfect, and then over by Butterfly Beach.

The things to do in Santa Barbara are endless!

Wrapping Up: Things to Do in Santa Barbara

There are so many things to do in Santa Barbara that it’s impossible to do them all in one go around. Try to do a couple of these things and then plan another trip next year! Enjoy!

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside