30 Free Things to Do in Santa Barbara

30 Free Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Mission Santa Barbara also known as Queen of the Missions for its graceful beauty.

In honor of Buy Nothing Day, Friday, November 26th, this post will try to convince you that the best things in life are free – even when it comes to travel!  So let go of your need for expensive 5-star hotels, gourmet meals, and spa treatments.  While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying those delectable luxuries (and I do enjoy them), sometimes you need to get back in touch with reality by traveling on the cheap – or free.

There are plenty of things to do and see for FREE, even though you might be traveling to an expensive part of the country.  With its beautiful location on the ocean, and its lovely temperate weather, Santa Barbara is often referred to as the American Riviera, and common sense tells you that’s not going to come cheap.  Still, this seaside community located about 90 miles from Los Angeles, can provide a charming combination of history, the arts, and an enjoyable pace of travel for FREE.

90-100' Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus) a Baleen Whale - Santa Barbara, CA - from a set of 7 photos

Here are 30 FREE experiences for experiencing this city on the Pacific (some are seasonal):

  1. Visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara (in the summer you can check out the roses in the Mission Rose Garden)
  2. Experience local culture on State Street
  3. Enjoy the 360-degree views of downtown from the Santa Barbara County Courthouse clock tower
  4. Enjoy the city’s oldest park, Alameda Park, home to Kid’s World playground, designed for and by kids
  5. Play or watch volleyball at East Beach
  6. Stop off at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park, for a look at preserved cave paintings depicting the life and times of the local Chumash Indians hundreds of years ago
  7. Stroll Stearns Wharf, the oldest working pier on the west coast, and check out the day’s catch
  8. Learn about riding the rails at the South Coast Railroad Museum in nearby Goleta
  9. Meet the artists at the Sunday Arts & Crafts Show
  10. Learn about the city’s Spanish roots at El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
  11. Go bird watching at Andree Clark Bird Refuge
  12. Whale watching from Shoreline Park where you have a view of the migratory path
  13. Enjoy the atmosphere of the downtown Farmer’s Market (and a small price to pick up some delicious food for lunch)
  14. Have a Zen experience at Alice Keck Memorial Park Gardens
  15. Visit Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch for a look at some remarkable 34-inch horses
  16. Walk, jog, or bike the Cabrillo Bikeway
  17. Relax and enjoy the American Riviera Franceschi Park
  18. Enjoy a day trip to Nojoqui Falls and a 15-minute uphill walk to see the waterfall
  19. Let history come alive at the Historical Museum
  20. Drive the scenic Highway 154 to the Santa Barbara Wine Country (enjoy the scenery, but watch out for wine purchases that can quickly add up)
  21. Walk the nature trails at Elings Park
  22. Try out your moves at Skater’s Point with its bowls, rails, and ramps
  23. Enjoy sunset from the Douglas Family Preserve bluffs
  24. Visit Lil Orphan Hammies, a rescue farm for over 100 potbelly pigs (it still counts as FREE if you decide to leave a donation for their continuing care)
  25. Play on the Guadalupe Dunes
  26. Visit with exotic ostriches and OstrichLand USA, a zoo-like farm that is home to both ostriches and emus.  (Feeding them does have an additional fee)
  27. Take a look at the Monarch at the Coronado Butterfly Preserve (November through March is prime viewing season for the Monarch butterflies)
  28. Enjoy oceanfront Carpinteria State Beach Park
  29. Visit Carpineria Sea Sanctuary (open December-May) and watch this frisky fellas romp along the shoreline
  30. Get a taste of the wild west with a visit to the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Arts Museum

Santa Barbara Sunset

BONUS:  Some additional FREE things to do for the holiday season:

  • Enjoy the Downtown Holiday Parade on December 3rd
  • Watch the Harbor Parade of LIghts on December 12th
  • Drive to Solvang for the annual Julefest Celebration, complete with holiday decorations and celebrations

Other articles for Buy Nothing Day worth a read:

Photo credits:  Kevin Cole via flickr (interior of Mission); Mike Baird via flickr (migrating whale); Gabriel Millos via flickr (sunset)


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Mary Jo Manzanares is a traveler, travel blogger, and podcaster. In addition to her blog, Traveling with MJ, she hosts the Where Else to Go podcast, and is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Traveler’s Way, an online travel magazine. Her travel ethos is value luxury - luxury for real people - and her goal is to help travelers know when to splurge and when to save. Mary Jo has been a speaker at various industry events around the world. When she’s not traveling, Mary Jo likes lingering over a cup of coffee, wandering in a museum, sipping wine at a cafe, and sharing it all with friends and readers. Her most recent travels were to Israel, Stockholm, and a Baltic cruise.

13 Responses to “30 Free Things to Do in Santa Barbara”

  1. Jennifer November 22, 2010 at 7:53 am #

    I love, love, love Santa Barbara and Montecito — these are terrific tips! We’re always scrounging around for free things to do up in SB since we enjoy dining at the high-end restaurants there (which cost a pretty penny).

  2. wandering educators November 22, 2010 at 5:09 pm #

    well. i’ve not been to santa barbara yet, and now it is near the top of the TO TRAVEL SOON list. such an incredible diversity of resources you have – THANK YOU!

  3. Wanderluster November 23, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    Holy Mackerel. This is an amazing list. Too bad I was in SB earlier this year without this great list!

  4. Spot November 23, 2010 at 10:33 am #

    Surprising . . . until this post I’ve always considered Santa Barbara a particularly expensive travel destination. The advantage of getting ideas from some one in-the-know

    • Mary Jo Manzanares November 23, 2010 at 11:25 am #

      @Spot,

      Santa Barbara can be very expensive, and there are all sorts of wonderful splurges that I could recommend as well. I just think it’s fun to find the economical and enjoyable amidst what is often excessive.

  5. Taylor Logan-Smith May 14, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    This is a great list of exceptional (free) things to do in Santa Barbara! As a local, I personally love running along the Cabrillo bike way and lounging at one of the many beaches, especially Butterfly Beach. Not free, but darn there near close; The Sandman Inn is a great place to stay while visiting SB. it is budget friendly and the location is outstanding. So close to so many attractions, it couldn’t get any better. But that’s just a local viewpoint.

  6. Gracie June 4, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    I would also suggest checking out one of the great hikes – like Seven Falls – great views of waterfalls and a natural water slide! Also if you are in town during a full moon take a drive up to Knapp’s Castle and check out the full moon drum circle. It’s a local secret and a not to miss once in a lifetime experience!

  7. Nora June 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    The Mission is so beautiful and free so it is one of the best things to see in town if you are interested in classic architecture and art. The gardens are exceptional and perfect for a sunny day picnic. The beaches are excellent too! Some charge for parking but it is only a few dollars.

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