With perfect coastal weather and beautiful Spanish-colonial architecture, it's no wonder that so many celebrities and A-listers call Santa Barbara home. But the city has sights and activities for all budgets, not just those on a Hollywood salary.
From period local architecture to sun-drenched beaches, from a historic walk to a beautifully scented rose garden, here are the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.
Stroll the length of Stearns Wharf
Santa Barbara’s thriving main drag, State Street, dead-ends southbound in Stearns Wharf, an 1872 wooden pier that is a long-running tourist attraction. Get a scoop of ice cream, fall prey to the Siren song of the souvenir sellers, go on a short, guided boat trip or just meander out to the end of the long and gently curving wharf, where the views are always free. It's free to fish, and you can rent any needed gear from a wharf vendor. Three restaurants provide all the fish and chips or other briny sustenance you need. To learn about the rich local marine life, including the whales, buy a ticket for the Sea Center, an aquarium and education center.
Marvel at the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
Before European colonizers arrived, the Santa Barbara region was inhabited by the Chumash people. In 1600, an individual or group of Chumash made some elaborate paintings inside a small, limestone cave. Today, you can visit this state historic park for free. See the paintings through gaps in a security gate, although (being a cave) conditions are dark, so use your phone’s flashlight to illuminate the elaborate creations. The meaning of the complex geographic shapes, which are rendered primarily in blues and reds, has been lost.
The park is on a narrow and rugged road, two miles northeast of Hwy 154, the road to the Santa Ynez wine region.
Revel in art and architecture at Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Coming up on 100 years as the city’s premier landmark, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is an architectural showpiece with expansive gardens right downtown. Constructed in Spanish Colonial Revival style from 1925 to 1929, the building is filled with artistic creations, including hand-painted ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, and tiles from Tunisia and Spain. On the second floor, the Mural Room depicts Spanish-colonial history, while El Mirador, the 85ft clock tower, offers arch-framed panoramas of the city, ocean, and mountains.
Opening hours are variable during the pandemic shutdowns, so check before your visit. Meanwhile, visit the open-air Great Arch, which takes its design cues from triumphant Roman arches, and don’t miss the elaborate Spirit of the Ocean fountain as well as public art installations and elaborate botanical displays.
Travel through history at Santa Barbara Historical Museum
Built in the visually appealing local cliché, Spanish mission-style architecture, the small Santa Barbara Historical Museum traces Santa Barbara’s history. Exhibits start with the Chumash people and continue through the Spanish, Mexican, and American eras, with spurs into local stories, such as the city’s once segregated yet vibrant Chinese community and the origins of the local art community, which remains rich and varied today. Don’t miss displays that include Chumash woven baskets, artifacts from Father Junípero Serra and surviving equipment from the period when the city was a center for early film production before the industry consolidated in Hollywood.
Spot sea life from Shoreline Park
Follow the waterfront promenade west 1.2 miles from Stearns Wharf to Shoreline Park, a vast grassy expanse on a small bluff with views out across the harbor. From the cliffside paths, you can spot migrating whales (and note the bronze sculpture of a whale tail in the park), dolphins, and more. Kids love the playground. Wooden stairs lead down to a small and sheltered beach where tidepools offer a glimpse of starfish, urchins, and other tidal sea life.
Pound the sand at East Beach
It’s not just location, location, location, East Beach would still be Santa Barbara’s most popular beach even if it was a hike from the center. But it’s not! Right next to both Stearns Wharf and downtown, the strand is long and lined with many amenities, including volleyball nets for pickup games, a children’s play area, and a cultural pavilion. On Sunday afternoons, dozens of local artists set up booths along the sidewalk. The waterfront promenade extends for several miles along the entire shore, perfect for relaxed walks in beautiful surroundings.
Breathe deeply at AC Postel Mission Rose Garden
Right across from Old Mission Santa Barbara, where the modern city began, this peaceful and sunny park features over 1500 rose bushes, with flowers in a stunning array of colors and shapes. Nearly 60 years old, the extensive gardens are maintained by staff and volunteers. The best months to take time to smell the roses are April to November.
Take the Red Tile Walking Tour
See prime examples of Santa Barbara’s mandated mission-style architecture on the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour. Across 17 stops in 12 downtown blocks, you’ll see 22 examples of the best local white stucco and red tile roof buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Among the highlights is the Hill-Carrillo Adobe, which dates to 1825 and was the first building in town to have a wooden – as opposed to a dirt – floor. Follow alley-like Presidio Avenue, Santa Barbara’s oldest street, and take a break in shady public gardens. For something more consumptive, cafes abound along the walk.
This walk is the best introduction you can have to the structures that make Santa Barbara Southern California’s most visually appealing city.
Have an artful 1st Thursday
Savor Santa Barbara’s vibrant and varied art scene during 1st Thursday, which takes place the first Thursday evening of every month. Scores of art galleries on and off State Street open their doors for browsers to enjoy new exhibitions, artists’ receptions, wine tastings, and live music. Pick up a copy of the 1st Thursday Passport, a guide to everything that’s on, at any of the galleries.
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