If traveling the Pacific Coast Highway then you can't avoid seeing Santa Barbara as US 101 runs right through it. It's about 90 miles north of Los Angeles (an easy 90-minute drive), and just over 10 miles south of San Luis Obispo. If traveling from San Francisco, you should allow a good six hours. If headed for Los Angeles Airport, this makes a perfect final stop, as it's only two hours away. It makes an ideal stopping place for one or more nights, whichever direction you're headed, as there's plenty to do, lots of hotels and other accommodations, and some great eating places too.
The Santa Barbara Mission. All Photos (c) Donna Dailey
You'll see why it's been called the American Riviera. It has that laid-back charm you also get in the South of France, with attractive architecture, long sandy beaches, lots of art and history, and fine restaurants too with plenty of seafood and local wine. Though it does have something the French Riviera can't match – whale-watching!
Andree Clark Bird Refuge
Just behind the East Beach at 1400 E. Cabrillo Blvd is this lovely bird refuge in beautiful gardens set around a lagoon, with hiking and biking trails, and notices picking out the birds that can be seen there. In all there are some 42 acres of saltwater marshes, and it's one of the largest bird reserves in the area.
East Beach runs east from the wharf and is the best and busiest beach in town. It's nice and sandy and with lots of facilities like volleyball courts, rest rooms, showers, and picnic spots, where you can grab yourself a barbecue grill. A little less well-equipped is Leadbetter Beach, west of the center, but it does have picnic areas, rest rooms and showers. It's more popular with surfers as it gets stronger winds and waves. If you want to get more out of town then further west is Hendry's Beach (aka Arroyo Burro Beach County Park). This is another great beach, sometimes a little less busy, and also has decent surfing, picnic areas, rest rooms, showers, volleyball courts, free parking, and a terrific setting with white sands and cliffs.
Carriage and Western Art Museum
This is the largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles in the USA, and a popular place for families. There are old stagecoaches, police vehicles, farm buggies, military vehicles – an amazing array, and there's a collection of saddles once owned by people including Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Will Rogers, the Cisco Kid, and many more.
El Presidio State Historic Park
This is the historic heart of Santa Barbara in downtown, housing its oldest building (and the second oldest in the whole of California), the adobe guardhouse. It was part of a Spanish fort founded in 1782, one of four that they built to guard the California coast.
A lot of Santa Barbara was destroyed in an earthquake in 1925, but it gave the city chance to rebuild. They did so using Spanish/Mexican architectural styles, giving the downtown an attractive and cohesive look that many California towns and cities lack. Go to the Santa Barbara CVB office at 1601 Anacapa and pick up a 'Red Tile Tour' leaflet that walks you around the most interesting features of downtown.
Karpeles Manuscript Library
This might sound a bit dry and dusty but old Walt Disney cartoons are among over a million items in this amazing collection of rare manuscripts, only a fraction of which can be put on display at any one time. They include such documents as the Thanksgiving Proclamation signed by George Washington, the original draft of the Bill of Rights, a Mark Twain manuscript, the Custer's Last Stand Treaty, and other important historic papers.
This 37-acre estate of rare plants and exotic gardens is actually in Montecito, a 3-mile drive east of Santa Barbara along the Pacific Coast Highway. It's a more exclusive place where celebrities like Oprah Winfrey have homes. Lotusland once belonged to opera singer Ganna Walska, and goes back to 1882. There are lush lotus ponds and cactus collections, and even plants that have been around since dinosaurs ruled the earth. It's important to note that you must book in advance on one of the guided tours, which take two hours and are the only way to see the gardens. Check the website or call (805) 969-9990.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
From delicate flowers and small cacti to giant redwoods, this incredible 78-acre garden concentrates on native California species. There are over 5 miles of walking trails, which take you to the 1806 Mission Dam and the aqueduct which used to bring water to the Santa Barbara Mission. There are also fascinating displays on the plants used by Native Americans for building and for making clothes and baskets. The Botanic Garden should be high on your list of things to do in Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara Historical Museum
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
The Courthouse was built in 1929 as part of the post-1925 earthquake reconstruction. It's an architectural gem, and if it looks strangely familiar you probably saw it on TV during the Michael Jackson trial. You can visit to take an elevator to the observation area at the top of the 85-foot clock tower, and there are also guided tours at set times. See the website or call (805) 962-6464.
Santa Barbara Historical Museum
This tells the history of Santa Barbara, surprisingly enough, through historic photos and documents, paintings, furnishings and period clothing. Fascinating and well-done look at the story of the city. Good gift shop, too. For a more detailed look, see our separate page on the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
If you're looking for family things to do, this story of California's maritime history has lots of modern interactive exhibits. Entertaining for the kids, but informative too, about the fishing, trading, and warfare that went on off the California Pacific Coast.
Santa Barbara Mission
Top of the list of Santa Barbara visitor attractions is its impressive Mission, one of the most beautiful in California. It stands atop a hill overlooking the town and the Pacific Ocean, and dates from 1786. When an earthquake in 1812 destroyed one of the three churches at the Mission, it was rebuilt and is still in use today. Known as the Queen of the Missions, it is one of the many California Missions founded by Father Juniper Serra (see the Pacific Coast Highway Travel Carmel page.)
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
The Museum of Art is an excellent collection of fine arts with a lot of historical and more modern objects from China and the rest of Asia, as well as a good display of paintings from the American West, and Latin America. Check if there are any visiting exhibitions too.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
This large museum with its outdoor nature trails too is another major Santa Barbara attraction, especially good for families. It ranges from displays on the local Native American culture, through the wildlife and minerals of the region right up to the modern day with a planetarium and a space lab. Allow plenty of time here.
Santa Barbara Walking Tours
Take a private art tour of Santa Barbara with this company run by local resident and art/history expert Ellen Durham.
Santa Barbara Zoo
The Santa Barbara Zoo is not a large-scale zoo like the one in San Diego, but despite its small size it has big appeal, especially for children. There's a petting zoo, a railroad ride, and a carousel. Adults might appreciate the scenic setting on a hilltop behind the East Beach and right by the Pacific Coast Highway. There are about 700 animals in all, including rarities like a snow-leopard, as well as favorites such as giraffes, elephants, and gorillas, most living in good-sized natural habitats.
This 1872 wharf is Santa Barbara's most visited attraction, definitely one of the top few things to do. It's the oldest working wharf on the California coast, though the work today is limited to local fishing boats and pleasure cruises. There's plenty of shopping too, a choice of restaurants, and the Ty Warner Sea Center (see below). There are also lovely views of the town, the coast, the sea, and the mountains.
Ty Warner Sea Center
This fairly small but really impressive Sea Center has become a new Santa Barbara highlight. It is up there with the Mission and the Wharf (where it's located) on the top things to see in town. Kids will love it. There are touch-tanks, aquariums, lots of hands-on exhibits, and the chance to take part in experiments and watch marine scientists at work. You can learn to identify the sea creatures you're likely to see along the Pacific Coast, and see injured marine wildlife being cared for in the animal nursery. Absolutely brilliant – don't miss it.
During the whale-watching season from about December to March you can see the whales passing by Santa Barbara. Head for Shoreline Park, to the west of the harbor, where the high cliffs provide a good look-out spot. You can also book whale-watching cruises through Condor Express, based at the harbor. Read our account of our own experience with Condor Express on this Santa Barbara Whale Watching page. See also the Whale Watching in California page.
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To help you in choosing your Pacific Coast Highway hotel, guesthouse, inn, bed-and-breakfast, resort, motel or other accommodations, we've prepared our Pacific Coast Highway Hotels Guide. In it we do mini-reviews of accommodations along the Highway, from Seattle to San Diego, through Washington, Oregon, and California.
In all there are over 200 hotels listed, complete with 8 pages of color maps showing the towns where our recommended hotels can be found. There are both alphabetical and geographical indexes, helping you plan your journey.
We also include color photos of all the hotels that are our Personal Favorites. Here's the link to read more about our ebook guide to Pacific Coast Highway hotels.
The 2016 edition of our Hotels Guide is available with maps and color photos (if you have a color reader) in the US Kindle Store for only $4.99 and in the UK Kindle Store and other Kindle stores worldwide at prices based on the US price.
If you want a paperback edition of the 2016 guide with only black and white photos and black-and-white maps, it costs $6.99 at the US Amazon Book Store and £4.99 in the UK Amazon Store.