Santa Barbara, is a prime California destination with its idyllic coastal location, Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings, and nearby wineries, but it can also be hard on the wallet. Luckily, there are plenty of memorable sights around the city-from historic buildings to art shows-that won’t cost a thing. Here are seven free things to do in Santa Barbara that should be on your itinerary.
Free Things To Do In Santa Barbara
On the 1st Thursday of every month, select art galleries and venues open up their doors to the public for free access to visual and performing arts events. Wander between galleries as you listen to live music, watch street performances, and drop in for wine tastings. This event is a great way to spend the evening experiencing the local art community all in one spot. Downtown restaurants and retailers are also open late as well during this event if you want to grab a bite to eat or do a bit of shopping. Check out the participating venues for the upcoming ones here. 1st Thursdays runs from 5-8pm.
Santa Barbara County Courthouse
This Spanish-Colonial style building and gardens is not only stunning and rich with history, but it offers numerous free activities year-round, including summer movies, and flamenco shows. The courthouse is still in working order, and is the site of many local weddings. Speaking of weddings, don’t miss the Mural Room, which displays a mural of Santa Barbara’s history and is a popular spot to tie the knot. Afterwards, head to the El Mirador clock tower for panoramic views of the city. The courthouse is open daily, and offers free drop-in tours every day at 2pm (as well as 10:30am on weekdays).
Santa Barbara Carriage & Western Arts Museum
Immerse yourself in all things Old West Santa Barbara at this museum that is run by a local non-profit organization, and has no shortage of well-preserved horse-drawn carriages, and saddles that once belonged to riders like Clark Gable. The museum takes less than an hour to go through, but is well worth the time spent, and is a quiet alternative to the crowds of State Street. It’s open Monday-Friday from 9am-3pm. On the third Sunday of the month, tours are available from 1-4pm if you call ahead to reserve a space. Best of all admission and parking is free.
This spacious local beach located next to Stearns Wharf, and close to downtown is a great place to people-watch and be a spectator for the numerous beach volleyball games going on. The water is chilly, and not ideal for a swim, but can be refreshing for wading in on a hot summer’s day. It’s a great spot to stroll along before or after grabbing a bite from one of the restaurants or cafes nearby. If you have little ones in tow, this is a great family-friendly beach with lifeguards, and restrooms. Keep your eyes peeled for the occasional pod of dolphins swimming by.
Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show
For a truly Santa Barbara experience, head down to the beachfront where you can browse art and crafts made by 200 local artists. This art show was inspired by the sidewalk art shows in Europe and Mexico City, and has been running since 1965. It’s a great informal atmosphere where you can chat with the local artists about their work and even see some in action. The art show is located on Cabrillo Boulevard from Stearns Wharf to Calle Cesar Chavez, and is open every Sunday (and Saturdays of major holidays). The hours are 10am-dusk. Check here for more information from the official site.
Breakwater at Santa Barbara Harbor
Wander out on the long curved walkway that stretches out into the sea for some serious views of the Pacific, the city, and the harbor. The breakwater was created to protect the boats (including all those fancy yachts) from the waves. Anytime of day you’ll be treated to spectacular views, but sunset is especially memorable. Depending on the tide, the occasional wave can splash over the breakwater, so wear shoes that you don’t mind getting a little salt spray on. Afterwards, get something to eat at one of the many nearby restaurants.
Santa Barbara and Cota Street Farmers Market
To get a glimpse of local life, there is no better place than this vibrant (and delicious) local market with an impressive selection of fresh produce, seasonal flowers, homemade honey, and freshly baked breads. Wander among locals who are catching up on their week, with live music as a background soundtrack. This market is a great place to pick-up a few items for a picnic, or just browse and sample the fruits and veggies. Plenty of parking is available, including adjacent lots and on the street as well. This market runs on Saturdays from 8:30am-1pm, and check out the other markets in the area on other days of the week.
Free Santa Barbara Walking Tour-Waterfront Tour
Give your wallet a break, and join John Ummel, a long-time retired Santa Barbara resident, for a 2-hour walking tour of the city’s picturesque waterfront. This 1.5 hour tour passes by twelve different sights, including places like the Maritime Museum, Santa Barbara Train Station, and Stearns Wharf. The waterfront is brought to life with John’s historical insights and anecdotes along the way. There is a separate Funk Zone tour that is around 1.5 hours long and gives a detailed account of this historically blue collar industrial area and how it came to be one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Santa Barbara. Although the tour is free, donations are encourage (with 15% going to charity) and reservations are recommended.
Other Free Santa Barbara Attractions
East Beach- located next to Stearns Wharf, this beach is a great spot to take a leisurely stroll, especially at sunset (or sunrise if that’s your thing).
State Street-the main street in the city that goes all the way down to the wharf and the beach. Multiple movie theaters, restaurants, cafes, and shops await.
Stearns Wharf-one of the oldest working piers in California, and a great spot to people-watch and walk out to the end of the pier for panoramic views of the city behind you.
Santa Barbara Courthouse-this Spanish-Colonial style building and gardens is not only stunning and rich with history, but it offers numerous free activities year-round, including drop-in tours, summer movies, and flamenco shows.
When To Go To Santa Barbara
To avoid the high summertime prices, go during the shoulder seasons of spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November). Santa Barbara has dry summers and mild winters, with occasional rain. If you do plan to go during early summer, the mornings can be foggy due to the Californian coastal phenomenon June Gloom. Sometimes these fog-filled morning begins as early as May Gray and can extend into No Sky July and Fogust. Early autumn is my personal favorite time to go to Santa Barbara, before the rainy season, when the weather is still warm, but the summer crowds have gone home.
Getting Around Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has its own airport that is easily accessible to downtown, located near the University of California, Santa Barbara. If you’re coming from Los Angeles, as mentioned above the train ride is highly recommended if you have the time, since it goes right along the ocean. For getting around, renting a car is your best bet, which will allow you to easily zip around the city. If you prefer to just use ride sharing, Uber and Lyft are plentiful and is useful when going to wineries or out at night. The city itself is pretty compact, so prices should be reasonable.
Other car-free options include bike rentals, public transportation, and the electric downtown shuttle that serves spots like the Funk Zone. Check out the Santa Barbara Car Free website, for more ideas to explore Santa Barbara sans car.
Where To Stay In Santa Barbara
Staying in Santa Barbara can cost a pretty penny, but there are mid-range lodging options if you know where to look. For those who want to be near the action, staying on State Street is the best choice.
This beautiful hotel is only a few blocks from the beach and a quick walk to sights like the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and Sterns Wharf. Amenities include spotless rooms, scenic gardens, an outdoor pool, complementary bike rentals, and cheese and wine tastings. A free continental breakfast is included. Great value for the area.
A centrally located hotel that boasts historical charm, with modern comforts. Located right on lively State Street, this hotel is walking distance to numerous restaurants, theaters, and shops. Walking distance to sights like Sterns Wharf. A continental breakfast is included.
A four-star hotel that has an impressive rooftop pool, a health club and Finch & Fork, an excellent on-site restaurant serving American comfort food with local ingredients. Locate right off of State Street, there are an excellent selection of restaurants, bars and shops nearby. A short 1.5 mile walk takes you to the beach.