Santa Barbara’s distinctive collection of museums and cultural attractions are essential to the fabric of the community. They teach, inspire, entertain, and some even transport us back in time. They are uniquely Santa Barbaran and tell stories about the natural world, California history and architecture, art, music, makers, fascinating characters, and so much more. The fact is, for such a small town away from major urban centers, we’re downright spoiled by the quality of programming, depth and breadth of the collections, and aesthetic beauty showcased at these fine institutions and landmarks that are dedicated to creating joyful, mind-expanding experiences.
This guide to Santa Barbara’s top museums and attractions includes information on what’s open and when, how to book reservations if needed, and more essential need-to-knows.
The Santa Barbara Zoo is known as the “Zoo with a View” for its stunning coastal hilltop location. Home to more than 500 animals representing 146 different species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects, the Zoo is actively engaged in the global Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ conservation programs working to ensure species survival. The manageable size of the Zoo adds to the appeal of its picturesque setting and animal family. Admission requires reservations through an online ticket booking system. Since daily capacity is limited, booking in advance is recommended to ensure you don’t miss out. Please note that some animals have earlier “bedtimes” starting at 4:30 p.m. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily and 10 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.
The incredibly interactive MOXI The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation is open to curious minds of all ages. The museum has been a hit from day one, with three floors filled with hands-on exhibits focused on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Seven tracks let visitors customize every visit in a fresh way, moving from Tech, Sound, and Fantastic Forces to Speed, Light, Interactive Media, and the outdoor Sky Garden. Timed reservations are required through the online booking system, and ticketed reservations typically open 30 days in advance. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: MOXI is open 7 days a week, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. In 2022, closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.
Founded in 1916 as the Museum of Comparative Oology and imbued with local nostalgia, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (SBMNH) has been a destination for school children throughout the region since 1923. Peacefully nestled along a soothing creek surrounded by 17-acres of oak woodland, the location is well situated between Mission Santa Barbara and the Botanic Garden (a highly recommended “trifecta” for a day’s itinerary). A blue whale skeleton greets you at the entrance to the campus that’s home to 3.5 million natural history specimens—from mammals to Chumash artifacts—as well as the area’s only planetarium. SBMNH enhanced its outdoor exhibitions during the pandemic, to include the Prehistoric Forest and Nature Nook where naturalists tell stories and share specimens. Advanced booking is not required but reservations are recommended and can be purchased online. Learn More
Stearns Wharf is an iconic Santa Barbara landmark extending over the Pacific where State Street meets Cabrillo Boulevard. Completed in 1872, the wharf was the longest deep-water wharf between Los Angeles and San Francisco in its early days, when it served passenger and freight traffic. Today, it’s a popular fishing spot that’s home to seafood-centric eateries, a winery, shops, and some of the city’s most epic views. One of the wharf’s top destinations is the Sea Center. Operated by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the small aquarium and marine education facility offers guests hands-on encounters with animals found in nearby waters—sharks, sea stars, urchins, jellies, octopus, soft corals, and more. Admission tickets are only available for purchase onsite for the day of. The Lil’ Toot Water Taxi that runs between Stearns Wharf and the Harbor is also a must-do. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center open Wed – Sun 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Lil’ Toot runs 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily.
Any visit to the waterfront should include a stop at Santa Barbara’s working Harbor and SEA Landing. This is command central for encounters of the aquatic kind—whale watching cruises, scenic sails, kayak and paddleboard rentals, fishing and SCUBA charters, and all sorts of oceanic goodness. From morning through the night, see the fishermen coming and going, unloading their hauls, and selling their sustainable catch at the Saturday morning Fisherman’s Market. The Harbor is filled with delicious seafood restaurants as well as the Santa Barbara Fish Market open daily. Occupying the former Naval Reserve Building, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum* (SBMM) has broad appeal across age groups thanks to the mix of dynamic exhibitions that delve into topics like tides, surf culture, marine conservation, and military history and include displays of historic photographs, gear, and historic vessels. Another perk? SBMM also offers access to the Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitor Center which boasts one of the best views in town. Reservations are not required and tickets are available for purchase onsite day-of. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is open Thu-Tues 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Outdoors SB Visitor Center is open 7 days a week, 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a living museum set on 78-acres in the foothills of Santa Barbara with spectacular views of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Channel Islands 25 miles offshore. The collection showcases more than 1,000 native Californian plants viewable on walks along the garden’s five miles of hiking trails through thematic terrain, ranging from a desert landscape to a redwood forest. For those inspired to bring some of the natural beauty home, the Garden has a fantastic nursery. Advanced reservations will be required for non-members after April 11, 2022. Due to capacity restrictions, weekdays and late afternoons have most availability currently. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and during some special events.
Another botanical wonderland, Lotusland is a 37-acre estate in Montecito established by the storied Polish opera singer, Madame Ganna Walska, who purchased the property in 1941. It’s deservedly regarded among the top 10 gardens in the world and includes rare collections of endangered Cycads, a newly renovated Japanese Garden, prehistoric ferns, and more. The only way to experience the 25 majestic thematic gardens firsthand is on a two-hour self-guided tour. Given the residential location, the seasonal tours have always been by-appointment-only and are bookable online. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Lotusland is open by advance reservations only on Wed-Sat. Wed–Friday, docent-led tours are available at 9:15 and 9:30 a.m. and self-guided tours are available at 1:15 and 1:30 p.m. On Saturdays, self-guided and docent-led tours are available with arrivals at 9:15, 9:30, 9:45 a.m., and 1:15, 1:30, 1:45 p.m.
You can step back in time to experience Montecito as it was in the 1920s and 1930s at Casa Del Herrero, “House of the Blacksmith.” The historic landmark estate and gardens are set on 11 stunning acres. While the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of George Washington Smith and the meticulously appointed home filled with 15th and 16th Century Spanish artifacts are a top draw, the Moorish-style gardens are equally fascinating. In fact, the eclectic mix of Country Place Era and Moorish-inspired gardens are part of its National Historic Landmark status. Docent-led tours have always been by-appointment-only and will fill you with facts about the owner, George Fox Steedman, and his family. Learn More
A historic Goleta gem, Rancho La Patera & Stow House was founded by William Stow, who was legal counsel to Southern Pacific Railway as well as a Speaker of the State Assembly. He purchased the property in 1871 for his son Sherman, who planted the first commercial lemon orchard in California on the grounds in 1873. Sherman’s son went on to influence the growth of the region’s citrus industry, which still thrives to this day. Visitors can get a taste of ranch life on self-guided strolls through the gardens and delve into Goleta’s history on docent-led tours of the Stow House. The 19th Century specimen gardens feature some impressive old trees, and the redwood trees in Stow Grove Park provide the perfect shade for a picnic. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Open from sunrise to sunset daily; Museum Store Open Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m.- 4 p.m., with Stow House Tours at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., Ranch Yard Open 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Sundays
Considered one of the most beautiful public buildings in the country, Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a 1929 Spanish Colonial Revival masterpiece designed by William Mooser III. The iconic landmark features a clock tower with sweeping city views of red-tiled roofs stretching to the sea. The working courthouse is currently closed to the public but you can still explore the stunning exteriors, walk through the elegant archways and relax on the lawn of the sunken gardens while taking in the visual splendor of the 150,000 square foot building that occupies an entire city block. A self-guided tour map can be accessed here, allowing you to read about the history from your mobile device. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Exterior is accessible 24 hours a day.
Old Mission Santa Barbara is easily the city’s most renowned landmark. The 10th of California’s 21 missions, it’s the only to be continuously occupied by the Franciscans and it’s long been referred to as “The Queen of the Missions” for its distinctive twin bell towers. You can take a self-guided tour of the mission, its gardens, cemetery, and chapel. And if you simply want to admire the exterior, it’s always accessible. The Mission Rose Garden across the street is also well worth a visit and makes for a prime picnic spot. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Self-guided tours are available daily from 9:30 a.m. – 4 p.m.; Museum Gift Shop is open daily 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Established by the Spanish military in 1782 as a fortress, El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park became Santa Barbara’s birthplace. The 5.5-acre park anchors downtown Santa Barbara’s Presidio District and includes two historic adobes—El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe. The latter serves as the visitor center and houses informative exhibitions including one room dedicated to the history of Santa Barbara’s Japanese community that lived in the Presidio in the early 20th century. The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation has overseen a meticulous reconstruction of the sites, down to the period furnishings and displays. The Presidio Chapel is among the remarkable buildings open for self-guided tours. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Guided tours can be arranged on request.
Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation also manages Casa De La Guerra, which was constructed between 1818 and 1828 by Jose de la Guerra, a patriarch of the community in the Mexican era. De la Guerra served as the fifth military commander of the Presidio and his family resided in the historic adobe house, which is now a museum featuring original furnishings, rotating art exhibits, and historical displays dedicated to California’s Hispanic heritage. The museum is currently closed to the public, but the exteriors remain accessible. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Exteriors are accessible 24 hours a day.
Santa Barbara’s entire history comes to life at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and sharing the community’s heritage and traditions. The signature Story of Santa Barbara exhibition starts with the native Chumash people and travels through the eras, including the Spanish and Mexican periods as well as Santa Barbara’s star turn as a film industry hub in the early 1900s. Permanent exhibits cover fascinating local history from how the city got its name to its time as an arts colony and the creation of Chinatown. The grounds also feature two historic adobes: Casa Covarrubias dating back to 1817 and the 1838 Historic Adobe. The Historical Museum does not charge admission and reservations are not required. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Wed, Fri & Sat 12 p.m. – 5 p.m., Thu 12 p.m. – 7 p.m.
The Central Coast’s leading contemporary arts institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB) is a non-collecting museum located on the upper terrace of Paseo Nuevo. MCASB rotates the main space exhibitions three times a year, so there’s always something new to see. The Museum’s cutting-edge roster features solo and group exhibitions of artists of diverse media, ethnicity, geography, and gender. Their mission is to provide the regional community with exhibitions and programming that encourage discovery and challenge the way we see and experience the world, ourselves, and each other. During normal times, MCASB hosts lively, engaging events. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Wednesday, Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, Independence Day, and the first Friday of August.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA)is yet another example of the world-class caliber of Santa Barbara’s arts scene. Established in 1941, SBMA’s 27,000-piece permanent collection includes antiquities, Asian art, Latin American art, photography, sculptures, and 19th and 20th Century European, British, and American Art. The museum also stages an impressive selection of special rotating exhibitions, such as Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources, now on display through May 2022. A children’s gallery is dedicated to hands-on, interactive activities and, during normal times, the museum hosts popular after-hours events and educational talks.
Mark your calendar for August 15, when the SBMA will celebrate its 80th anniversary with a grand re-opening after a $50 million renovation. Visitors to the museum can experience new gallery spaces and public areas, and a fresh installation conceived by SBMA Deputy Director and Chief Curator Eik Kahng. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Tues-Sun, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Thurs 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Last but definitely not least is the community’s treasured Santa Barbara Bowl. There’s nothing like seeing a live show under the stars at the 4,500-seat amphitheater perched in the foothills. Some of the most legendary artists and bands have graced the Bowl’s stage. It’s so beloved by musicians, many make a point to include it on their North American touring schedule even though Santa Barbara is not a big city. At just the fraction of the size of the Hollywood Bowl, it’s an incredibly intimate venue to see the likes of Radiohead, Bob Dylan, The Avett Brothers, Rod Stewart, and Lionel Richie—to name just a handful of recent past performers. The Bowl has begun to announce shows scheduled for the 2021 concert season, which will run from summer through late fall. Tickets can be purchase online or directly at the box office. Learn More
CURRENT HOURS: Box Office open Tue-Fri 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m
*Museums across Santa Barbara County have joined Museums for All, a special access program that encourages people of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum-going habits. The program supports those receiving food assistance (CalFresh/SNAP) benefits by offering admission to select Santa Barbara County museums for a minimal fee of $0-3 per person, up to four people, with the presentation of a CalFresh (SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer – EBT) card.
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