Take it from a local, waterfront activities in Santa Barbara are endless and offer visitors much more than lounging along the coast. That is, if you’re up for a a little adventure.
“Just over a year ago while kayaking the entire Santa Barbara County coastline, a friend and I were paddling a long stretch from Refugio State Beach along the scenic Gaviota Coast and finishing nearly in the dark inside the Santa Barbara Harbor. It had roughly been a 25-mile paddle. We were cold, wet, tired and famished. We paddled straight up to Brophy Brothers and the entire restaurant was alive with customers reveling in another epic Santa Barbara day. We tied our kayaks to a dock and I ran upstairs to the restaurant in my wet wetsuit to put our names in for a well-deserved dinner. We were salt-crusted and blurry-eyed, but we didn’t care. We were eating like kings on Santa Barbara’s Waterfront.” – Chuck Graham
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For the unexperienced, fear not. In Santa Barbara, there’s a lot of activity along the waterfront for beginners to experts. Visitors and locals alike can easily spend an entire day here enjoying several water sports, learning about the local natural history and enjoying a fine selection of restaurants on the wharf and inside the harbor. Surfers love the harbor entrance especially when a large swell slams the breakwater and fast moving, perfect waves funnel down the gritty sand point before dissipating into the mouth of the harbor. Throngs of onlookers enjoying their stroll on the breakwater are treated to a rare spectacle of high performance surfing and the power of the ocean surrounding this manmade wave.
When winds increase in the afternoon, this is an ideal opportunity to learn how to sail or windsurf in the protected waters between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf. You can also rent a kayak from Paddle Sports Center and paddle in the protected waters between the legions of boats, or take a standup paddling lesson from one of their experienced instructors. If you’re feeling confident they’ll take you out to ride a few waves off Leadbetter Beach.
Whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel is also a viable and highly recommended option. Try Condor Express Whale Watching or the Double Dolphin at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center to look for migrating gray whales, humpbacks, blues and several species of dolphins, porpoises and on rare occasions, even orca. Aboard Sunset Kidd, sail along the Santa Barbara shores and watch for whales as you catch a famous Santa Barbara sunset. Afterwards you can enjoy dinner at a number of restaurants such as On the Alley, Brophy Brothers, Breakwater Restaurant, or the Minnow Café.
Surrounded in the middle of all the restaurants is the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. You could spend a whole day here alone, and It’s certainly worth walking through, taking in all the rich history of Chumash Indian heritage and their amazing maritime culture. There are also exhibits on the history of the Channel Islands National Park and the long surfing history Santa Barbara possesses. Check their schedule for nightly lectures and daily films.
From the Santa Barbara Harbor, catch Lil’Toot, a beautifully built yellow boat that will provide a memorable trip to Stearns Wharf. Once arrived, take a leisurely stroll out on 130-year-old Stearns Wharf where a wide selection of eateries hang on the stunning scenery that comes with every meal. The first line of restaurants on the wharf, include Longboards, Harbor Restaurant, and Moby Dicks, offering terrific views of the harbor to the west. You can also enjoy a glass of wine at the Deep Sea Winery with stunning views of the beach and Chase Palm Park to the east.
Continuing on your wharf walk certainly requires a stop at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum Sea Center*, that’s filled with interactive exhibits such as their live tidepool animal encounters, a theater showcasing the many natural wonders of the Santa Barbara Channel, and the kids will love being a marine biologist or an oceanographer for a day.
If you’ve made it all the way out to the end of the wharf without getting a bite to eat then grab some local seafood at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company. In the 1980s it was a buying station for local shellfish and fish and a place to sell crab. Today you can enjoy seasonal shellfish like spiny lobster and Dungeness crab and the always stellar scenery from the historic wharf.
*Please note that the Sea Center will be temporarily closed from September 7 through spring 2022 for structural upgrades and an upstairs exhibit refresh. We’re sure it will be worth the wait!