Santa Barbara

Standing on the Pacific Coast Highway in California, Santa Barbara is an attractive resort with a historic downtown, sandy beaches, a mission, and good museums.

The Santa Barbara Mission, photo (c) Donna DaileyThe Santa Barbara Mission

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.

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 also has something the French Riviera can't match – whale-watching! 

Whale Watching in Santa Barbara, photo (c) Donna DaileyWhale Watching in Santa Barbara
Photo (c) Donna Dailey

Things to Do in Santa Barbara

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.

Beaches

The Beach at Santa BarbaraThe Beach at Santa Barbara

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

Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art MuseumSanta Barbara 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.

Historic Downtown

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.

Lotusland

Lotusland in Santa BarbaraLotusland near Santa Barbara

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

Santa Barbara Botanic GardenSanta 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.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Santa Barbara County CourthouseSanta 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

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum, photo (c) Donna DaileySanta 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

Santa Barbara Maritime MuseumSanta 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

Santa Barbara MissionSanta 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

Santa Barbara Museum of ArtSanta 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

Californian condor at Santa Barbara ZooCalifornian Condor at 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.

Stearns Wharf

A Plate of Crab at Stearns Wharf in Santa BarbaraTuck In at Stearns Wharf

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

Ty Warner Sea Center in Santa BarbaraTy 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.

Whale Watching

Whale Watching in Santa BarbaraWhale Watching in Santa Barbara

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.

More Information
For further information on things to do in Santa Barbara
visit the website of the 
Santa Barbara Conference and Visitors Bureau
 

Where to Stay in Santa Barbara

Other Santa Barbara pages

  • The historic Franciscan Inn in Santa Barbara, California, near the Pacific Coast Highway, is in a quiet location near the beach ideal for those driving PCH.

    Franciscan Inn Santa Barbara

    The historic Franciscan Inn in Santa Barbara, California, near the Pacific Coast Highway, is in a quiet location near the beach ideal for those driving PCH.

  • Dana Point in California is the official start or end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its attractions include whale watching, and Doheny State Beach.

    Dana Point

    Dana Point in California is the official start or end of the Pacific Coast Highway, and its attractions include whale watching, and Doheny State Beach.

  • San Luis Obispo in California is half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the Pacific Coast Highway and with lots of things to do and see.

    San Luis Obispo

    San Luis Obispo in California is half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the Pacific Coast Highway and with lots of things to do and see.

  • La Jolla in southern California is north of San Diego off the Pacific Coast Highway and has museums, restaurants, hotels, beaches, and the Birch Aquarium.

    La Jolla, in southern California

    La Jolla in southern California is north of San Diego off the Pacific Coast Highway and has museums, restaurants, hotels, beaches, and the Birch Aquarium.

  • Mendocino in Mendocino County is a small but pretty California coastal town, popular with artists and with travelers. It has featured in many songs and movies.

    Mendocino

    Mendocino in Mendocino County is a small but pretty California coastal town, popular with artists and with travelers. It has featured in many songs and movies.

  • Santa Barbara whale watching cruises in southern California can be booked through Condor Express, with whale watching trips leaving from the harbor.

    Santa Barbara Whale Watching

    Santa Barbara whale watching cruises in southern California can be booked through Condor Express, with whale watching trips leaving from the harbor.

  • Santa Barbara Wine Country is one of the top wine destinations says Wine Enthusiast, alongside Napa Valley, rating California vineyards alongside Champagne.

    Santa Barbara Wine Country

    Santa Barbara Wine Country is one of the top wine destinations says Wine Enthusiast, alongside Napa Valley, rating California vineyards alongside Champagne.

  • Oceanside is a typical southern California beach town with a surf culture and with the Pacific Coast Highway running right through it.

    Oceanside

    Oceanside is a typical southern California beach town with a surf culture and with the Pacific Coast Highway running right through it.

  • San Simeon is a tiny town of a few hundred people close to Hearst Castle on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

    San Simeon

    San Simeon is a tiny town of a few hundred people close to Hearst Castle on the California coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

  • Newport Beach is a small city on the Pacific coast of southern California, right on the Pacific Coast Highway and noted for its beaches and surfing.

    Newport Beach

    Newport Beach is a small city on the Pacific coast of southern California, right on the Pacific Coast Highway and noted for its beaches and surfing.

  • This Visiting Hearst Castle page gives all the practicalities including location, types of tour, length of tours, how long to allow, and much more information.

    Visiting Hearst Castle

    This Visiting Hearst Castle page gives all the practicalities including location, types of tour, length of tours, how long to allow, and much more information.

  • The Santa Barbara Guidebook from Moon Handbooks also covers California’s Central Coast with Ventura, San Luis Obispo, wine country, and Hearst Castle.

    Santa Barbara Guidebook

    The Santa Barbara Guidebook from Moon Handbooks also covers California’s Central Coast with Ventura, San Luis Obispo, wine country, and Hearst Castle.

  • The Santa Barbara Italian restaurant Olio e Limone serves some of the best Sicilian-Italian food in California, and is well-located downtown.

    Santa Barbara Italian Restaurant

    The Santa Barbara Italian restaurant Olio e Limone serves some of the best Sicilian-Italian food in California, and is well-located downtown.

  •  Historic and romantic Vagabond's House Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carmel is a great place to stay with free wine and cheese and generous breakfast.

    Vagabond's House Inn

    Historic and romantic Vagabond's House Inn Bed and Breakfast in Carmel is a great place to stay with free wine and cheese and generous breakfast.

  • San Clemente in California is a small city on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, noted for its beaches and surfing.

    San Clemente California

    San Clemente in California is a small city on the Pacific Coast Highway midway between San Diego and Los Angeles, noted for its beaches and surfing.

  • Encinitas is a beach city in Southern California, famous for surfing, and regularly chosen as one of the best places to live in both California and the USA.

    Encinitas

    Encinitas is a beach city in Southern California, famous for surfing, and regularly chosen as one of the best places to live in both California and the USA.

  • Malibu is a beach city north of Los Angeles famous for the celebrities who live there in expensive homes and the Pacific Coast Highway runs through it and there are beaches and hikes for all to enjoy.

    Malibu

    Malibu is a beach city north of Los Angeles famous for the celebrities who live there in expensive homes and the Pacific Coast Highway runs through it and there are beaches and hikes for all to enjoy.

  • The Point Reyes National Seashore is an hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway and is maintained by the National Park Service.

    Point Reyes National Seashore

    The Point Reyes National Seashore is an hour’s drive northwest of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway and is maintained by the National Park Service.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel recommends some of the top wildlife spots along the California coast.

    Top Wildlife Spots on the California Coast

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel recommends some of the top wildlife spots along the California coast.

  • Morro Bay is a delightful small town on the California coast roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and noted for the huge Morro Rock.

    Morro Bay

    Morro Bay is a delightful small town on the California coast roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and noted for the huge Morro Rock.

  • Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island, is off the shore of Southern California and reachable from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.

    Santa Catalina Island

    Santa Catalina Island, or Catalina Island, is off the shore of Southern California and reachable from Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, and Dana Point.

  • Bodega Bay is a small California coastal town on the borders of Marin County and Sonoma County, and the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds.

    Bodega Bay

    Bodega Bay is a small California coastal town on the borders of Marin County and Sonoma County, and the filming location for Alfred Hitchcock's the Birds.

  • Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

    Coastal California Guidebook

    Lonely Planet's Coastal California guidebook is the ideal travel guide for driving or cycling the Pacific Coast Highway from the Oregon border to Mexico.

  • Santa Monica Pier is just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica near Los Angeles, with an amusement park, an aquarium and many other attractions.

    Santa Monica Pier

    Santa Monica Pier is just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica near Los Angeles, with an amusement park, an aquarium and many other attractions.

  • A walk around the Point Lobos State Reserve near Monterey and Carmel provides lots of photo opportunities, especially of the Harbor Seal Birthing Area.

    Point Lobos State Reserve near Carmel and Monterey, with photos

    A walk around the Point Lobos State Reserve near Monterey and Carmel provides lots of photo opportunities, especially of the Harbor Seal Birthing Area.



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