Perfect weather, beautiful buildings, excellent bars and restaurants, and activities for all tastes and budgets make Santa Barbara a great place to live (as the locals will proudly tell you) and a must-see place for visitors to Southern California. Check out the Spanish Mission church first, then just see where the day takes you.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Santa Barbara.
This next-gen science museum is an interactive treasure trove of exhibits and experiences related to sound, technology, speed, light and color that are sure to delight and enlighten little ones. On three floors they can learn about music (by stepping inside a giant guitar), building a race car, or re-creating sound effects from famous movie scenes. Don't miss the views from the Sky Garden roof terrace and a nerve-challenging walk across a glass ceiling.
Built in Spanish-Moorish Revival style in 1929, the courthouse features hand-painted ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers and tiles from Tunisia and Spain. On the 2nd floor, step inside the hushed mural room depicting Spanish-colonial history, then head up to El Mirador, the 85ft clock tower, for arch-framed panoramas of the city, ocean and mountains. Explore on your own or join a free hour-long tour offered at 2pm daily and 10:30am Monday to Friday, starting in the Mural Room on the 2nd floor.
California's ‘Queen of the Missions’ reigns above the city on a hilltop perch more than a mile north of downtown. Its imposing Ionic facade, an architectural homage to an ancient Roman chapel, is topped by an unusual twin-bell tower. Inside the mission’s 1820 stone church, notice the striking Chumash artwork. In the cemetery the elaborate mausoleums of early California settlers stand out, while the graves of thousands of Chumash lie largely forgotten.
Small (so it's perfect for young kids) Santa Barbara Zoo has 146 species covering all creatures great and small, including several not found in many other zoos. Asian elephants Little Mac and Sujatha have been together here since 1972 and are hugely popular, as are the adorable meerkats. Don't miss the chance to see endangered California condors – probably your best bet for seeing them in the whole state – and giant anteaters. The antics of the Humboldt penguins always raise a smile.
The southern end of State St gives way to Stearns Wharf, a rough wooden pier lined with souvenir shops, snack stands and seafood shacks. Built in 1872, it’s the oldest continuously operating wooden wharf in California, although the actual structure has been rebuilt more than once. During the 1940s it was co-owned by tough-guy actor Jimmy Cagney and his brothers. If you have kids, take them inside the Sea Center.
Take a soul-satisfying jaunt around this 40-acre botanic garden, devoted to California’s native flora. Miles of partly wheelchair-accessible trails meander past cacti, redwoods and wildflowers and by the old mission dam, originally built by Chumash tribespeople to irrigate the mission’s fields. Guided tours (included with admission) depart at 11am and 2pm on Saturday and Sunday, and 2pm on Monday. Leashed, well-behaved dogs are welcome.
This thoughtfully curated, bite-sized art museum displays European and American masters – including Monet, Van Gogh and Degas – along with photography, classical antiquities and Asian artifacts and thought-provoking temporary exhibits. At the time of writing, some galleries were closed while the museum is retrofitted for earthquake protection.
Swim (lifeguards on duty), stroll or just picnic on this gem of a stretch of sand, also known as Hendry's Beach, 5 miles southwest of Santa Barbara. It's flat, wide, away from tourists and great for kids, who can go tide-pooling. It’s also a popular local surf spot and the eastern section is dog-friendly (there's even a dog wash in the parking lot).
The huge whale skeleton by the entrance whets the appetite for the city's natural history museum. The usual dioramas of stuffed animals are on display in dimly lit rooms (the bird collection is especially good on local species), but the joy of this place is that once you've learned about nature inside, you can head outside to the 'Museum's Backyard', a trail through woods by a creek, and engage with the real thing.