Budget Travel

The 9 best free things to do in Santa Barbara: history, art, and gorgeous gardens

With perfect coastal weather and delightful Spanish-colonial architecture, it's obvious why a lot of celebrities and A-listers call Santa Barbara home. However the city has sights and activities for those budgets, not only 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's a long-running tourist attraction. Get a scoop of ice cream, be taken in by the Siren song from the souvenir sellers, go on a short, guided boat trip or simply meander to no more the long and gently curving wharf, in which the views are always free. It's free to fish, and you may rent any needed gear from the wharf vendor. Three restaurants provide all of the fish and chips or other briny sustenance you'll need. To learn about the rich local marine life, including the whales, buy a ticket for that Sea Center, an aquarium and education center.

Marvel in 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 number 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 make use of your phone's flashlight to light up the elaborate creations. The meaning of the complex geographic shapes, that are rendered primarily in blues and reds, is lost.

The park is on the narrow and rugged road, two miles northeast of Hwy 154, the direction to the Santa Ynez wine region.

Revel in art and architecture at Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Coming up on 100 years because the city's premier landmark, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is definitely an architectural showpiece with expansive gardens right downtown. Constructed in Spanish Colonial Revival style from 1925 to 1929, the building is stuffed with artistic creations, including hand-painted ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, and tiles from Tunisia and Spain. Around the second floor, the Mural Room depicts Spanish-colonial history, while El Mirador, the 85ft clock tower, offers arch-framed panoramas from the city, ocean, and mountains.

Opening hours are variable throughout the pandemic shutdowns, check before your visit. Meanwhile, go to the open-air Great Arch, which takes its design cues from triumphant Roman arches, and do not miss the elaborate Spirit from the Ocean fountain as well as public art installations and elaborate botanical displays.

Travel through history at Santa Barbara Historical Museum

Built within the visually appealing local cliché, Spanish mission-style architecture, the little 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 which 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 prior to 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, an enormous 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 the whale tail in the park), dolphins, and more. Kids love the playground. Wooden stairs lead down to a little and sheltered beach where tidepools provide a peek at starfish, urchins, along with other tidal sea life.

Pound the sand at East Beach

It's not just location, location, location, East Beach would be Santa Barbara's most popular beach even if it was a hike in 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, along with a cultural pavilion. On Sunday afternoons, dozens of local artists set up booths across the sidewalk. The waterfront promenade extends for several miles across 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 inside a stunning variety of colors and shapes. Nearly 60 years old, the extensive gardens are maintained by staff and volunteers. The very best months to consider time to take a break are April to November.

Take the Red Tile Walking Tour

See prime types of Santa Barbara's mandated mission-style architecture around the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour. Across 17 stops in 12 downtown blocks, you will see 22 types of the best local white stucco and red tile roof buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the highlights is the Hill-Carrillo Adobe, which dates to 1825 called the first building in town to possess a wooden – as opposed to a dirt – floor. Follow alley-like Presidio Avenue, Santa Barbara's oldest street, and take a rest in shady public gardens. For something more consumptive, cafes abound along the walk.

This walk is the best introduction you could have towards the structures which 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, that takes put the first Thursday evening of each and every month. Lots of art galleries off and on State Street open their doors for browsers to enjoy new exhibitions, artists' receptions, wine tastings, and live music. Get a copy of the 1st Thursday Passport, a guide to everything that's on, at any of the galleries.

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