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.

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.

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

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.

Our Pick of the Guides

Moon-Santa-Barbara-Central-Coast-2014.png

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.

Golf

See The Best Golf Courses in Santa Barbara

Museums

See our page on the Best Museums in Santa Barbara.

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 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 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 Sea Center. There are also lovely views of the town, the coast, the sea, and the mountains.

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
 

Other Santa Barbara pages

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Santa Monica in California is famous for its pier, and beaches, and is one of the best west coast vacation spots, with hotels, restaurants, surfing, museums.

    Santa Monica, California

    Santa Monica in California is famous for its pier, and beaches, and is one of the best west coast vacation spots, with hotels, restaurants, surfing, museums.

  • The Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino on the California coast is an eco-resort with yoga classes and the award-winning Ravens Restaurant.

    Stanford Inn by the Sea Mendocino

    The Stanford Inn by the Sea in Mendocino on the California coast is an eco-resort with yoga classes and the award-winning Ravens Restaurant.

  • Crescent City is on the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California and noted for its crescent-shaped beach, Ocean World sea park, and nearby redwoods and state parks.

    Crescent City

    Crescent City is on the Pacific Coast Highway in northern California and noted for its crescent-shaped beach, Ocean World sea park, and nearby redwoods and state parks.

  • Pacific Coast Highway Travel's guide to the best museums in Santa Barbara, which include art, history, natural history, and science museums.

    Best Museums in Santa Barbara

    Pacific Coast Highway Travel's guide to the best museums in Santa Barbara, which include art, history, natural history, and science museums.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  •  Of all Eureka inns, The Carter House Inns are the most romantic and historic, with one of the best restaurants in Northern California.

    Eureka Inns

    Of all Eureka inns, The Carter House Inns are the most romantic and historic, with one of the best restaurants in Northern California.

  • One of the best California coast guides is the California Coastal Access Guide, describing the coast’s beaches, National Parks, State Parks, with many maps.

    California Coast Guide

    One of the best California coast guides is the California Coastal Access Guide, describing the coast’s beaches, National Parks, State Parks, with many maps.

  • The Casa Laguna Hotel and Spa in Laguna Beach is right on the Pacific Coast Highway and has luxury rooms, a swimming pool, and real gourmet breakfasts.

    Laguna Beach Inn and Spa

    The Casa Laguna Hotel and Spa in Laguna Beach is right on the Pacific Coast Highway and has luxury rooms, a swimming pool, and real gourmet breakfasts.

  • There are plenty of Santa Cruz downtown wine tastings including Beauregard Vineyards,Storrs Winery and Pelican Ranch Winery,all with tasting rooms.

    Santa Cruz Downtown Wine Tastings

    There are plenty of Santa Cruz downtown wine tastings including Beauregard Vineyards,Storrs Winery and Pelican Ranch Winery,all with tasting rooms.

  • 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.

  • The Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo is a romantic, historic guesthouse on the Mendocino California coast, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

    Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo

    The Lighthouse Inn at Point Cabrillo is a romantic, historic guesthouse on the Mendocino California coast, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

  • The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

    Santa Barbara Historical Museum

    The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara, California, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

  • The Pacific Coast Highway goes right through Laguna Beach, a relaxed artsy beach resort whose attractions include shopping, galleries, dining, and beaches.

    Laguna Beach

    The Pacific Coast Highway goes right through Laguna Beach, a relaxed artsy beach resort whose attractions include shopping, galleries, dining, and beaches.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The Oceana Santa Barbara beachfront hotel has a perfect seafront location, close to Stearns Wharf and State Street, and whale watching cruises.

    Santa Barbara Beachfront Hotel

    The Oceana Santa Barbara beachfront hotel has a perfect seafront location, close to Stearns Wharf and State Street, and whale watching cruises.

  • Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway include some of the best independently-owned boutique hotels, spas, and lodges in California, Oregon and Washington.

    Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway

    Unique Inns on the Pacific Coast Highway include some of the best independently-owned boutique hotels, spas, and lodges in California, Oregon and Washington.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • For a Moss Beach hotel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Seal Cove Inn offers good accommodation north of Half Moon Bay, minutes from the ocean.

    Moss Beach Hotel

    For a Moss Beach hotel just off the Pacific Coast Highway, the Seal Cove Inn offers good accommodation north of Half Moon Bay, minutes from the ocean.

  • 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.



Recent Articles

  1. 8 California Beaches That Feel Like The Caribbean

    Jun 15, 24 03:53 AM

    California's beaches offer white sands, turquoise waters, and palm trees, evoking the serene beauty of the Caribbean with their picturesque scenery.

    Read More

  2. Slingshots, Color, and Open Roads: How to Explore California’s Spring Wildflowers

    May 01, 24 11:10 AM

    Beaches. Mountains. Deserts. Cities. California has a lot, and it’s known for a lot, but in the mix of some of the most incredible scenery in the United States, one excellent feature is often overlook…

    Read More

  3. Best Things to Do in Monterey

    Apr 30, 24 07:57 PM

    fishermans-wharf-monterey.webp
    The best things to do in Monterey, chosen by Pacific Coast Highway Travel, include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, whale watching and Fisherman's Wharf.

    Read More