The city of Santa Barbara, California lies less than 100 miles north of Los Angeles on the American Riviera, a breathtakingly beautiful part of the Pacific Coast. Among its many attractions are year-round sunshine, pristine sandy beaches, lovely parks, unique shopping opportunities, and fascinating museums. Outdoor activities near many Santa Barbara vacation rentals include cycling, kayaking, horseback riding, and whale watching. Here are the top 15 things to do in the Santa Barbara area.

california church
Source: Pixabay/egorshitikov

1. Old Mission Santa Barbara

The iconic landmark Old Mission Santa Barbara, with its gleaming white bell towers, verdant gardens, and background of the San Ynez Mountains, is famous for its overwhelming beauty. Although the mission is still an active church, you can take self-guided or docent-guided tours of the La Huerta Historical Garden, the cemetery, and the church itself during non-service hours. The mission museum features 17th-century tools, artifacts, art, and replicas of the original kitchen and living quarters.

2. Santa Barbara Botanical Garden

The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden offers miles of family-friendly hiking paths through redwood forest, lush meadows, and a desert blooming with cacti. Historical attractions in the garden include the dam and aqueduct system that supplied the mission with drinking water, the Japanese Teahouse nestled amidst ferns and oaks in the Tea Garden, and the riot of flamboyant wildflowers in the meadow under Cathedral Peak.

3. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center

Located on Stearns Wharf on the waterfront, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center is the perfect place for the whole family to discover the wonders of local marine life. The site has interactive exhibits, a crawl-through tide pool area, a theater highlighting sea creatures in the Santa Barbara Channel, and a live shark touch pool.

4. Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show

Sponsored by the City Parks and Recreation Department, the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show takes place weekly on Cabrillo Boulevard just east of Stearns Wharf. The sidewalk displays highlight paintings, sculpture, graphics, photography, and other original works by local artists. You can chat with the artists and even watch them at work in this beautiful beachside setting.

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5. Lotusland

Lotusland, a 37-acre estate divided into 25 distinct gardens, lies just east of Santa Barbara in Montecito. The gardens feature unique collections of plants arranged in elaborate themes. Among the artistically arranged plants are palms, ferns, lotuses, water lilies, and cacti. Renowned as one of the world’s best gardens, Lotusland rewards visitors with a wondrous fantasyland of colorful plants and flowers.

6. Santa Barbara Museum of Art

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is in a large, beautiful white building in the midst of the downtown area. The permanent collection has over 27,000 pieces of ancient and modern paintings, sculptures, photography, and other artwork. These include artwork from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America. A special Family Resource Center has teachers to assist your children in creating their own artwork based on museum exhibitions.

7. Santa Barbara Zoo

The Santa Barbara Zoo lies on the east side of the city on a beautiful green hilltop near the ocean. The site houses over 500 animals of almost 150 species as well as 30 acres of lovely gardens. Special things to do at the zoo include behind-the-scenes tours and opportunities to participate in zookeeper activities. Popular animal attractions include African lions, western lowland gorillas, Asian elephants, giraffes, and California condors.

8. Santa Barbara Glassblowing Studio

Santa Barbara Glassblowing Studio is located at Santa Barbara Art Glass near Stearns Wharf. Tours of the facility allow you to watch professional glassblowers in action. If you want to try it for yourself, you can join a glassblowing class and learn to create a blown glass masterpiece shaped in a 2,000-degree oven.

9. Condor Express Whale Watching

The Condor Express is a 75-foot catamaran that leaves daily from the Sea Landing dock at Santa Barbara Harbor. Tour the ocean waters in the Santa Barbara Channel and off the Channel Islands, and observe gray whales, blue whales, and humpback whales on their annual migrations. You can also spot orcas, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and harbor seals.

10. Santa Barbara Historical Museum

The Santa Barbara Historical Museum, located in the downtown historic district, offers a unique look at Santa Barbara’s fascinating past. The collections include the story of Santa Barbara in paintings and photographs, artifacts from Native American civilizations, and displays of the Spanish settlement era and the pioneer Old West. Other exhibits highlight Santa Barbara’s importance as an art colony and movie-filming location.

11. Paddle Sports Center

The Paddle Sports Center, conveniently situated on the Santa Barbara waterfront, rents kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and related equipment so you can explore the lovely coastal waters. If you’re inexperienced, the center offers stand-up paddle board lessons. You can also take a guided kayak tour of Santa Barbara Harbor and the waterfront area.

12. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

The amazing Santa Barbara Maritime Museum lies on the waterfront in Santa Barbara Harbor. Subjects of the fascinating exhibits include the Point Conception Lighthouse, local shipwrecks, ranching on the islands, historic fishing industries, and technologies of diving. Other displays highlight surfing, seaplanes, and the geology of oil exploration. A working periscope allows you to view the surrounding landscape.

13. Wheel Fun Rentals

Wheel Fun Rentals has several locations around the city where you can rent bicycles, roller blades, surreys, and other wheeled conveyances to help you explore the area in an environmentally friendly way. Santa Barbara is a bike-friendly city, and Wheel Fun Rentals offers a self-guided bicycle tour itinerary that allows you to explore most of its major attractions while you peddle along in the warm sunshine.

14. Santa Barbara Helicopter Tours

There’s nothing more thrilling than taking a helicopter tour of the American Riviera and its surrounding countryside. Santa Barbara Helicopter Tours offers flights over the city, the waterfront, the downtown area, and the mission. You can also opt for longer flights that take you over California wine country, Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, Oprah Winfrey’s estate, and the Ronald Reagan Ranch.

15. Santa Barbara Beach Horseback Rides

Enjoy a leisurely ride on a lovely secluded beach or along a coastal bluff with Santa Barbara Beach Horseback Rides. The beach gives you a unique perspective to observe beach-front celebrity mansions and beautiful ocean vistas. Riding experience isn’t required to take part in this thrilling and iconic activity.

 
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