Top Things to Do in Santa Barbara, California

Sometimes I think there's not much to do in Santa Barbara and other times I think there's too much. These are some of the most popular and most interesting things I've found to do in Santa Barbara.

If you're like a lot of other Santa Barbara visitors and have been there before, you may find a few ideas here for some new things to do on your next Santa Barbara trip.

You can use this list for a day trip, but if you plan to stay overnight, here's how to make the most of it. And of course, you'll need a place to stay — which can be hard to find — but I've got you covered. Just use this guide to find out what you need to know about Santa Barabara hotels.

  • 01 of 08

    Best Thing to Do in Santa Barbara: A Scenic Drive

    Santa Barbara Waterfront View
    ••• Santa Barbara Waterfront View. Adapted from Travis/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

    I had been to Santa Barbara more than 20 times before I even heard about this drive. It's as if the locals want to keep it to themselves.

    It's a 17-mile drive that's as beautiful as its cousin down in Pebble Beach, but without the entrance fee. It takes you on a loop through some gorgeous neighborhoods, past lovely beaches, along the city's waterfront, up through the hills overlooking the town and to the city's oldest landmark, Mission Santa Barbara.

    It's hard to find a good description of this drive, signs are scarce and sometimes missing, and the only online map I could find was a challenge to use. So you don't have to go through all that, I created a map for you to use.

  • 02 of 08

    Santa Barbara Waterfront

    Stearns Wharf on the Santa Barbara Waterfront
    ••• Stearns Wharf on the Santa Barbara Waterfront. Adapted from Damian Gadal/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Santa Barbara's south-facing coastline and sheltered bay make for some outstanding coastal views. Among the things you'll find on the Santa Barbara waterfront are:

    Stearns Wharf: One of the most visible features of the waterfront, the oldest working West Coast pier once belonged to Hollywood legend Jimmy Cagney and his brothers. It is home to restaurants, ice cream stands, and a fish market. More details are at the Stearns Wharf website.

    Chase Palm Park: This long, narrow park hugs the waterfront with a palm-lined walking/riding path. Rent bicycles, pedal-powered surreys, windsurfers or kayaks at one of the nearby shops and cover it all. On weekends, you can also enjoy the arts and crafts festival that sets up along the sidewalk.

  • 03 of 08

    Shopping

    Shopping in Downtown Santa Barbara
    ••• Shopping in Downtown Santa Barbara. Adapted from Carlos Gomez/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

    Shopping is one of the things Santa Barbara visitors do most often, according to surveys done by the visitor's bureau.

    State Street, Santa Barbara's main street is also its busiest shopping area. Shops are not as high-budget as they once were, but they're all nice, and a few are locally owned, selling unique merchandise.

    I particularly like the Random Store at 1207 State Street. There's no name out front, but if you're looking for earring backs, a Balinese carving of a lady, a paint brush, or a wooden poker chip case (without the chips), this might be just the place for you. Or who knows what else you might find that you didn't even know you needed.

  • 04 of 08

    Red Tile Walking Tour

    Santa Barbara's Red Tile Rooftops
    ••• Santa Barbara's Red Tile Rooftops. Willem Van Bergen/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The thing you'll see in every picture of Santa Barbara are the red-tiled roofs. They've been a feature of the town since the early days when the Spanish first arrived.

    This self-guided walking tour covers some of Santa Barbara's oldest and most fascinating architectural landmarks. You can find a map on the Santa Barbara Car Free website and a podcast audio tour on the city visitor bureau site.

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Channel Islands National Park

    Willows Cave, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park
    ••• Willows Cave, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Adapted from Dhilung Kirat/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

    Just offshore and beautifully unspoiled, these islands which have never been part of the mainland are California's version of the Galapagos. You have to take a boat trip to get there, and it will take most of a day.

    Here's what you need to know before you go to the Channel Islands.

  • 06 of 08

    Polo Matches

    Polo Match in Santa Barbara
    ••• Polo Match in Santa Barbara. GC Images / Getty Images

    Maybe I'm the only one who thinks this would be fun to do, but I've always been fascinated with people whacking balls around with mallets while riding a horse. Santa Barbara is one of the few places in California where you can watch them do it.

    Polo season runs from April through October, and anyone can watch at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club.

  • 07 of 08

    Santa Barbara Mission

    6906536230_d0139b3ae9_o.jpg
    ••• Mission Santa Barbara. David McSpadden/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Often called the "Queen of the Missions" it's a few blocks inland from the State Street shopping area. Its classical-styled exterior was copied from an early architecture book. The interior is the most beautiful of the California missions.

    Plan your trip with the Mission Santa Barbara Visitor Guide.

  • 08 of 08

    Lotusland

    244708301_532cfc2f65_o.jpg
    ••• Japanese Garden at Lotusland. Adapted from brewbooks/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    I haven't had a chance to visit it yet, but many Santa Barbara visitors have nice things to say about Lotusland in Montecito. Its gardens cover 37 acres.

    You'll need an appointment to take one of their guided tours, and they're closed in the winter. Get all the details for visiting at their website.