Santa Barbara is less than 100 miles from hyper-metropolitan Los Angeles but differs vastly from its huge neighbor to the south. With a mild climate and lush natural environs, the “Riviera of the West” is perfect for a day trip from LA, with its wide beaches, highly rated wineries, and a large variety of shopping and dining choices, that enables the town of just 90,000 residents to enjoy the sort of cultural and social amenities which are usually found only in much larger cities.
Although the common perception of Santa Barbara is as a playground for the rich and famous, the reality is that the average income is only slightly higher than California as a whole. Notable for its California Mission-style architecture (a long-standing local ordinance ensures that all commercial construction follow the Mission theme, which results in a plethora of red-tiled roofs and faux adobe supermarkets), local residents are intensely proud of their city’s roots and traditions, and a number of hugely popular festivals throughout the year celebrate the many cultures found in the city.
Top Places to see in Santa Barbara
- Santa Barbara County Courthouse, 1100 Anacapa St. M-F 8AM-5PM, Sa-Su 10AM-4:30PM. Guided tours, M-Sa 2pm and M, Tu, F 10:30am. Built in 1929 and the grandest building in the town. A working courthouse, this Spanish-Moorish castle has frescoes, murals and Tunisian tilework. The El Mirador Bell Tower provides great views of the city and the bay. The grounds contain a collection of palms and specimen trees from more than 25 countries and a printed guide to the plants is available. Free.
- Santa Barbara Mission, 2201 Laguna St., (from downtown State St., turn east onto Mission St. and follow signs pointing toward the Mission), (805) 682-4149,. Self-guided tours daily 9AM-4:30PM. Known as “The Queen of the Missions,” Santa Barbara’s “Old Mission” is a superb example of California’s Franciscan Spanish architecture. The tenth California Mission to be constructed, Mission Santa Barbara today is both a scenic wonder and a fine anthropological study of original native culture in the surrounding area. Well worth a visit, note the adjacent pottery kiln and tanning vat ruins. Adults $5.
- Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2559 Puesta Del Sol (follow signs from nearby Santa Barbara Mission), (805) 682-4711. Daily 10AM-5PM. This large, well-presented museum is – literally – a hidden treasure. Highlights in the eleven exhibit halls include regional natural history, a life-size Blue Whale skeleton, and a rare skeleton of a pony-sized “pygmy mammoth.” $10 for adults; free on the 3rd Sunday of every month except September.
- Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, (805) 963-4364,. Tu-Su 11AM-5PM. A remarkably well-provisioned museum considering the size of the town, Santa Barbara’s main art museum features a strong collection of Roman antiquities, as well as an impressive lineup of classical European and modern art. Frequently rotated exhibitions are among the strongest in California. Adults: $9; suggested donation on Sunday.
- Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 East De la Guerra St. Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. $7 adults, $5 seniors/students, free to members and anyone under 18, free on first Thursdays of the month.
- Presidio of Santa Barbara, 123 East Canon Perdido St (a block off State St, corner of East Canon Perdido and Santa Barbara Sts). Every day except major holidays, 10:30AM-4:30PM. A military fortress founded in 1782, only parts of which remain. Some parts are gradually being rebuilt. Adults $5, seniors (62+) $4, children 16 & under free.
- Stearns Wharf, end of State Street along the Waterfront. This picturesque 1872 wharf – the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco – has lots of history. Badly damaged several times by fire, it has been repeatedly rebuilt and today features more than a dozen shops and restaurants, and one of the best views in California from the end of its pier. You may see brown pelicans at the end of the wharf. It was once owned by Hollywood legend James Cagney. Free.
- Karpeles Museum, 21 West Anapamu St. (half a block from State St), (805) 962-5322,. W-Su, noon-4PM. The Karpeles Library is the world’s largest private holding of important original manuscripts & documents. Among the items on permanent display in the museum is an original Stone copy of the Declaration of Independence, a replica of the globe used by Columbus (sans the Western Hemisphere), handwritten scores by a dozen leading composers, and the computer guidance system used on the first Apollo lander flight to the moon. Free.
- Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Ninos Dr, (805) 963-5695,. Every day, 10AM-5PM, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and some private events. Small but well-represented with over 600 animals, the zoo has provided entertainment for all ages since 1963 and is the largest zoo between Los Angeles and San Francisco (unless you count the Monterey Aquarium). Adults 13-59: $14. Children 2-13 and Seniors 60+: $10. Children under 2: Free.
- Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road (Follow signs from Old Mission), ☎ 805 682-4726. 9AM-5PM Nov-Feb, 9AM-6PM Mar-Oct. Located on 65 acres in the foothills just above the city, the Garden features exquisite exhibits of California native plants displayed in beautiful landscaped settings. Walk along a meadow, through a canyon and redwood forest, across a historic dam, and along ridge tops that offer sweeping views of the Channel Islands. Established in 1926 as an educational and scientific institution, it is the oldest botanic garden in California dedicated to the study, conservation, and display of native flora. $8 adults, $6 seniors/teens/military with id, $4 children 2-12, under 2 free.
- Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, 653 Paseo Nuevo, ☎ 805-966-5373. Tu-Sa 11AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. CAF is a non-profit, non-collecting institution dedicated to exhibiting the highest quality of contemporary art while recognizing “the artists of tomorrow,” and was founded in 1976 by artists and art supporters seeking a venue dedicated solely to contemporary art. What began as a grassroots, artist-run organization with nominal funding now serves as the leading contemporary arts presenter in Central California. CAF offers its innovative education and exhibition programming to the region primarily free of charge. Foundations and individuals keep CAF active with opportunities for artists, children, and adults to experience all the visual and performing arts have to offer. Free.