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Best Things To Do in Santa Barbara

AOL PICK from our Editors

The best Santa Barbara things to do run the gamut from high culture (the Santa Barbara Museum of Art or the symphony) to kitsch (shopping on Stearns Wharf) with a little wine tasting thrown in to soften the transition. Of course, Santa Barbara’s main attraction is its architecture and the historic downtown. But the city is also known for its gardens. This is a place, after all, where the zoo is actually a garden. The perfect Santa Barbara vacation might include an indolent loll on the beach with a dedicated troll through the shops, an afternoon on a sun-splashed patio, a visit to the Mission or an evening of music. However you decide to approach it, Santa Barbara won’t disappoint.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Neighborhood: Downtown

Exactly where Santa Barbara’s architectural soul lies is a tossup between the Courthouse and the Mission. The Courthouse opened in 1929, and it’s still in use. This stunning series of buildings in Spanish revival style take up a square block that includes a sunken garden, palm groves, and rare plants. Inside, the exquisite Mural Room is entered through leather-covered doors, and the historic murals reach to 25-30-foot ceilings. The ceilings themselves are beamed and coffered, intricately painted and lighted by massive wrought iron chandeliers. Stunning tile work is found throughout the Courthouse, and the 85-foot clock tower can be climbed for views across the city.

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Santa Barbara County Courthouse  

Museum of Natural History

Neighborhood: Mission Canyon

Prehistoric fossils from the region are just a few of the interesting things to see. This is the place to learn about local history, geology and anthropology. There are informative displays covering Chumash culture and history. It’s great for kids, who’ll appreciate the skeleton of a blue whale and the cast of a pygmy mammoth’s skeleton found on one of the Channel Islands. There’s also a space lab for the more futuristic minded. And don’t miss the museum’s marine-oriented Ty Warner Sea Center on Stearns Wharf.

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Museum of Natural History  

First Thursdays

Neighborhood: Downtown

On the first Thursday evening of each month from 5-8PM, downtown Santa Barbara becomes a warren of cultural activities. Art galleries fling their doors open, as do museums and other venues. There are wine tastings, impromptu performances, open artists’ studios and crafts to buy. Admission everywhere is free, and the crowd includes as many locals as visitors. The list of activities changes monthly, so check before you go.

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First Thursdays  

Ganna Walska Lotusland

Neighborhood: Montecito

Because this both stunning and amusing 37-acre garden is in a residential neighborhood, an appointment is mandatory, and it’s best to obtain it well in advance. Madame Ganna Walska was an eccentric Polish opera singer whose original plan for the estate was to create a Tibetan monastery. When that didn’t pan out, she began designing gardens that are at once elegant and kitschy (gnomes appear; a floral clock actually works). For anyone who loves gardens, this is an absolutely essential stop. The exact address is never published.

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Ganna Walska Lotusland  

The Douglas Family Preserve

Neighborhood: Mesa

This is a beautiful place to walk, a wild grassy park on a bluff over Arroyo Burro Beach. The area was set for development (and there are a few souvenirs of the plans, including the occasional fire hydrant), but locals united to fight the plans. In spite of their heroic efforts, not enough money had been raised to buy the land from the developers until actor Michael Douglas stepped in—hence the name. Locals stroll the beach and the pathways through the preserve—with their dogs. This is one of those rare places where dogs are allowed off-leash. It’s even possible to hike here from Stearns Wharf.

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The Douglas Family Preserve  

The Red Tile Tour

Neighborhood: Downtown

This self-guided walking tour can be downloaded from several sites, including the Santa Barbara Visitors Bureau (www.santabarbaraca.com, 805-966-9222) and the Santa Barbara Car Free Project (part of the county Air Pollution Control District) (http://www.santabarbaracarfree.org/, 805-696-1100). The tour covers an easily walk-able, fairly compact area of downtown’s “Old Town,” containing some of the most beautiful of the city’s historical landmarks, starting at the Courthouse and zig-zagging along a rectangle from State Street across Anacapa to Santa Barbara Street, and from Ortega Street to Anapamu Street.

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The Red Tile Tour  

Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country

Neighborhood: Santa Ynez Valley

A tour of the wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley and adjoining Santa Rita Hills has become the de rigueur daytrip from Santa Barbara. The movie Sideways made a lot of people who’d never before given much thought to wine suddenly want to follow in the somewhat unsteady footsteps of the movie’s protagonists. In the Valley, vineyards are producing some wonderful Rhone varietals (Syrah and Viognier), and, of course, Pinot Noir, Cabs, Merlot and Gewurtztraminer, among many. Maps can be obtained from the Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Association (sbcountywines.com, 805-688-0881). The other option is to join a tour, which can be pricey, but is safer than drinking and driving. One interesting tour is Sustainable Vine Wine Tours, which will pick you up at your hotel in Santa Barbara in a bio-diesel vehicle and provide comprehensive tours of three organic wineries—including a picnic lunch of sandwiches or salads

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Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country  

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Downtown

It’s surprising to learn this highly-regarded encyclopedic museum was opened only in 1941. It feels like a place that’s been around much longer in order to have acquired such comprehensive collections of antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Asia, not too mention the European and American works from the 19th and 20th century. One of the first things you’ll see on entering the museum is a mural by Mexican realist David Alfaro Siquieros. It’s the only intact mural by the artist in the U.S. The museum’s original building is the former post office, but it has been modified and added to considerably (in, of course, Spanish architectural style). It’s free (although donations are suggested) on Sunday and evenings of the first Thursday of each month.

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Santa Barbara Museum of Art  

Contemporary Arts Forum

Neighborhood: Downtown

Where but in Santa Barbara would a shopping mall be home to a non-profit contemporary arts exhibition space? The Contemporary Arts Forum is on the “art terrace” of the Paseo Nuevo. You will never find anything boring displayed here. You might find an artist sewing see-through underpants as a commentary on privacy in the modern age. Or an all-night drawing marathon. Admission is always free.

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Contemporary Arts Forum  

Old Mission Santa Barbara

Neighborhood: Mission Canyon

There’s no hyperbole in calling this the “Queen of Missions,” and it vies with the Courthouse for being the heart of Santa Barbara. This exquisite pink sandstone hilltop complex bears no resemblance to the original, simple adobe mission that opened in 1786 (built for converting the Chumash). It’s the only California mission that’s remained in continuous operation by Franciscans friars, with some time off for rebuilding—ever more ambitiously—following earthquakes. You can stroll the grounds, including the rose garden, visit the museum and the cemetery, and spend time in the magnificent church, which is actively in use.

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Old Mission Santa Barbara »

Santa Barbara Zoo

Neighborhood: Waterfront

There are approximately 500 animals in this 30-acre zoo set amid colorful gardens. The animals spend most of their time in outdoor enclosures meant to resemble their natural habitats. Along with local flora, the gardens exhibit rare plants and trees, and there’s a lovely wisteria-shaded pergola. There are two restaurants serving light food (one with a Latin American theme), a train, a carousel, and a playground for the toddlers. Kids can feed giraffes and sheep. The zoo is beloved for its summer camp—but visiting kids can catch one of the Zoo Snoozes, an overnight sleepover with insidery activities showcasing the animals.

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Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Neighborhood: Mission Canyon

On days when there’s not too much marine layer, it’s possible to see the Channel Islands from spots in this 65-acre botanic garden that works to cultivate indigenous plant species. The gardens are gorgeous all year round, but in spring, the golden poppy-splashed meadow is a knockout. There are also stands of redwood and sycamore cut by a shaded, packed-earth pathway.

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Santa Barbara Botanic Garden »

Stearns Wharf

Neighborhood: Waterfront

Built in 1872 by the enterprising owner of a lumberyard, Stearns Wharf was the first pier extending over water deep enough for large merchant ships to tie up, and it did much to open Santa Barbara to commerce and settlement. Smack at the end of State Street, today it’s a premier tourist attraction (the first restaurant opened in 1941) offering shops selling everything from bait to candy or souvenirs. There are numerous restaurants and food stands. At the end of the pier is the Ty Warner Sea Center, which is part of the Museum of Natural History (www.sbnature.org/, 805-962-2526). Aquariums and interactive exhibits (an opportunity to touch sharks, for instance) are designed to educate people on the need for maintaining the health of our oceans.

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Stearns Wharf  
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