Geographically stunning, a cultural hub spanning Native American, Spanish and Mexican history, and a coastal haven for the arts, Santa Barbara is packed with museums that tell many stories.

The museums in the “American Riviera” range from historic and quaint to modern and massive, each one conveying a sense of history in its own way. Santa Barbarans are proud of their city and the educational punch its museums deliver for locals and tourists alike.  What are the best museums in Santa Barbara? Here are our picks.

MOXI / The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation: best museum for kids 

Just before State Street meets the beach, MOXI has a white exterior that only hints at the creative exhibits inside. Opened in 2017, the building blends a classic mission-style façade with towering windows and three packed levels of exhibits. Oriented around interactive STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) themes, they’re organized into seven distinctly labeled areas like “Sound,” “Light” and “Speed”.

You mustn’t miss the museum’s Sky Garden, from which you can look out at panoramic mountain vistas stretching in the distance and look down into the museum halls below thanks to a glass floor. For the kids, make sure to ask about MOXI’s schedule of Innovation Workshops – design-and-build sessions that often result in a nice keepsake.

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Santa Barbara Maritime Museum: best museum with a view 

There is so much more to the Santa Barbara Channel than the beach. The body of water itself has an important role in the region’s history, thanks to its rich natural resources and diverse marine life including dolphins, seals and the massive blue whale. And there might be no better place to learn about Santa Barbara’s cherished waters than at the Maritime Museum.

Founded by a local group of sailors and fishers, the museum has year-round exhibits that focus on such local institutions as the Women Lighthouse Keepers, as well as those oil rigs you might spot off the coast. And since it is indeed on the water, overlooking Santa Barbara Harbor, the views from the 4th floor might be the best display of all.

The mission-style façade and front steps of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s collection includes some 25,000 objects, from ancient antiquities to Impressionist paintings © csfotoimages / Getty Images

Santa Barbara Museum of Art: best museum for art connoisseurs 

From graffiti art in the “Funk Zone” to art vendors lining Cabrillo Boulevard on weekends, art literally spills onto Santa Barbara’s streets. To take in the full range of the city’s art community under one roof, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is the place to be. On State Street in the middle of downtown, this museum houses more than 25,000 pieces, some more than 5000 years old. The collection suits Santa Barabara’s own eclectic diversity, with highlights including works by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siquieros, Impressionist landscapes by Monet, classical antiquities and more.

Big changes await those that haven’t been to the museum in some time: a multi-year renovation was completed in 2021, resulting in all-new gallery spaces as well as a new grand staircase entry.

Santa Barbara Historical Museum: best museum for history buffs

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum is a piece of history itself. Built in 1964, it is one of the oldest cultural organizations in the area. The site is an architectural gem, with several Spanish-inspired courtyards to explore, including one with two preserved adobes.

The museum boasts thousands of artifacts and papers documenting the city’s trajectory, from hunting tools used by the area’s first inhabitants to grand 19th-century paintings that speak to the city’s ambition. A must for any visitor here is its permanent exhibition, “The Story of Santa Barbara,” which explores the development of the community from the earliest Chumash settlements through today.

The Spanish-style buildings and plantings at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Visitors will find a planetarium, model dinosaurs and much more on the 17-acre campus of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History © VDB Photos / Shutterstock

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Sea Center: best for close encounters 

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was founded more than 100 years ago as the Museum of Comparative Oology. (For the uninitiated, that’s the study of birds’ eggs.) Today, the campus has nearly 17 acres of grounds to explore, on which visitors will find a planetarium, a 70ft-long blue-whale skeleton, and mammal hall with life-size bears, seals and more. Kids will particularly enjoy the Prehistoric Forest area filled with dinosaur replicas. 

Located on Stearns Wharf, the Sea Center is the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s sister institution. Visitors can look forward to close encounters with the likes of sea urchins, rays and even (for the super-brave) sharks.

Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum: best free museum in Santa Barbara

Now a network of museums that can be found in 14 American cities, the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum first opened to the public in Santa Barbara in 1986, sharing its collection of priceless documents spanning art, science, literature and history. Highlights from its holdings include a copy of the Declaration of Independence, early editions by Shakespeare and even a draft of Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. Admission is always free.

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