Located on the lovely Californian coast with the stunning Santa Ynez Mountains as a backdrop, Santa Barbara is a superb spot for a weekend getaway. Its vineyard-terraced hills, casual yet chic downtown area, and of course, the long stretches of white sand beaches are some of the main draws – and Santa Barbara has a long-standing reputation for being a playground exclusively for the well-to-do.
However, even those on a budget can indulge in a trip to Santa Barbara. There are plenty of activities here that won’t break the bank – and many are free!
Whether you’re looking to spend some time hiking outdoors, learning about the city’s rich history, or simply soaking up some sun and local culture, keep reading for the 30 best free and cheap things to do in Santa Barbara.
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1. Old Mission Santa Barbara
Sprawled across 13 acres overlooking the scenic pacific ocean, the Old Mission Santa Barbara is one of the best free things to do while in town. This old mission exceedingly beautiful, and also has a long history – and an incredibly interesting one, at that.
The Old Mission was founded in 1786 in an attempt to convert the local population to Roman Catholicism. For a small fee, you can take a self-guided tour through the museum and look through old photos, colonial artifacts, and learn some more about this historic period.
Of course, you could always just admire the beautiful pink-tinged mission from the outside if you’re looking for a completely free activity. Take a walk through the lush gardens and see some ancient trees and plants from the mission era, or pack a picnic and sit on the large grassy expanse as you admire the views of the “Queen of Missions”.
2. East Beach
Beach bums looking for something free to do in Santa Barbara can make a beeline for East Beach and spend the day working on their tan. Although this is one of the 4 main beaches in town, it isn’t as riddled with crowds as the others – so you’ll be able to soak up some sun and enjoy the peace and quiet.
East Beach is just as lovely as the other main beaches in Santa Barbara, but is just a bit further away – and therefore, slightly less frequented due to this inconvenience. Those who make the 2-mile trek from town will have plenty of room to spread out, and there’s free parking to boot. You could also take the MTD Shuttle out to East Beach if you’re traveling without a car.
This beach is popular with families and locals, mostly due to its clean sand and relaxed atmosphere. Those looking for an active beach day can utilize one of the 12 volleyball courts located along the shore or check out East Beach Rentals for stand-up paddleboards and other gear to make the most out of the day at the beach.
3. Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Often considered to be one of America’s most beautiful public buildings, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is not to be missed. This distinctive edifice was built in the iconic Spanish-Colonial style that is popular throughout the city, and the red-tiled roof, four-faced clock tower, and colorful gardens all make the courthouse one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.
Although the courthouse still functions as it was meant to, you can take a docent-led tour through the building and admire the beautiful architecture and mosaic tiles throughout.
One of the most popular rooms in the courthouse is the Mural Room, which features a romanticized version of the town’s history along the painted walls. The El Mirador clock tower is perhaps even more impressive than the mural room, and if you climb up to the top, you’ll be treated to stunning panoramic views of the city.
If you’re lucky, you might be in town during one of Santa Barbara County Courthouse’s many events that are held throughout the year – so be sure to check the calendar before your visit to see what’s going on while you’re in town.
4. Red Tile Walking Tour
If you loved the stylish charm of the county courthouse, you’ll find the self-guided Red Tile Walking Tour to be one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.
Lace-up your most comfortable pair of shoes and have your camera phone ready because this lovely stroll will take you past some of the city’s most beautiful and historic buildings.
The aptly-named tour features the white stucco walls and red tile roofs that are reminiscent of the Spanish colonial days past, and if you complete the full 12-block tour, you’ll encounter 17 stops and 22 historic adobes that date back to the 18th and 19th century.
All stops are conveniently located in the downtown area, so the terrain is flat and sites are never far between each other. You’ll also find plenty of cafes, restaurants, and shops along the way should you need to take a break or two during your tour.
You may want to start your trip in Santa Barbara with this self-guided tour, as many of the best free and cheap things to do are located along this route.
5. State Street
Taking a stroll down Santa Barbara’s most famous avenue is another of the best free things that you can do while visiting this lovely city. State Street cuts through the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, and even if you don’t spend a penny, window shopping here is better than any other part of the city.
Besides a large collection of boutique shops, this palm-lined street is also home to al fresco dining options, a theater, art galleries, and some of the most beautiful architecture in the city. If you don’t feel like walking, you can always pay a small fee (around 50 cents) to take a ride on the electric trolley that rides through downtown.
If you’re visiting State Street on the first Thursday of the month, stick around until evening for a bustling nightlife scene filled with live music, wine tastings, and an eclectic atmosphere that is hard to beat.
6. Stearns Wharf
After your jaunt along State Street, you’ll come across one of Santa Barbara’s most iconic landmarks: the Stearns Wharf. Built in 1872 and named after the builder John P. Stearns, this wharf is the oldest in all of California.
Even if you only take a quick walk along the pier, the views alone make a visit to Stearns Wharf one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara – especially if you come around sunset.
If you have the time, you could easily spend hours perusing the various establishments located along the pier, including souvenir shops, homemade ice cream parlors, bait and tackle shops, and even a shellfish market.
There are also 3 full-service restaurants along the wharf that serve up incredibly fresh catches of the day, and a tasting room that features local wines and beautiful panoramic views.
Kids will love the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, and visitors of all ages will find it fascinating to learn about the creatures that live underneath the wharf.
7. Santa Barbara Harbor
You’ll find Santa Barbara Harbor just a few blocks down from Stearns Wharf, and the views along this bustling waterfront are unmatched. Spending a few hours here is one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.
Of course, if you want to spend a little cash, you’ll have more than enough opportunities to do so. The harbor is dotted with tantalizing bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops – and if you want to spend some time on the water itself, you can rent a sea kayak, book a sailing excursion, go deep-sea fishing, and so much more.
Those who are on a budget can simply take it all in, snap some pictures, or watch the beautiful sunset. You could also see if any festivals or markets are going on during your time in Santa Barbara, and learn more about the city’s nautical past at the Maritime Museum located nearby.
8. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is one of the best cheap things to do in the city, especially for those looking to learn more about the history of this area. Santa Barbara has roots at sea, and the best way to learn all about the town’s past is to dive right into the exhibits at SBMM.
The local community still has strong connections to the ocean, and you’ll find a variety of educational experiences that celebrate the connections between land and sea.
Some of the permanent exhibits include audiovisual films that’ll lead you through an underwater adventure, displays about sustainable fishing and kelp farms, exhibits about sport fishing, sailing, and so much more.
The museum also boasts one of the best views in the harbor, accessible from the 4th-floor outdoor deck.
9. Coronado Butterfly Reserve
One of the absolute best free things to do in Santa Barbara is taking a trip to the Coronado Butterfly Reserve. This magical place stretches across 9 acres in the nearby town of Goleta and is home to eucalyptus grover, coastal sage scrub, and most importantly, massive swaths of beautiful monarch butterflies.
The butterflies visit the reserve in masses from late October through March, and you’ll see large clusters of them hanging from tree branches and flying around the preserve. Even if you’re not visiting during their migrating months, the preserve is open every day from sunrise to sunset.
Hike through the various trails in the preserve and admire the meadows, woodlands, and creeks, and if you’re lucky, you may see some of the other wildlife that calls this area home.
This tranquil preserve is funded by donations, so if you enjoyed your time you can opt to make a small donation at the collection boxes at the entrance.
10. Arroyo Burro Beach County Park
Another of Santa Barbara’s best beaches is the Arroyo Burro Beach. Locally known as Hendry’s Beach, this stretch of sand is especially popular with dog owners – in part, due to the on-site dog washing facilities. Even if you’re not visiting with a fluffy friend, you’ll find plenty of great amenities at Arroyo Burro Beach County Park.
Besides the classic beach day activities like swimming, sunbathing, and sandcastle building, Hendry’s Beach is also a popular spot for surfing, whale watching, and tide pool exploring. Once you get hungry, you can enjoy a picnic and take advantage of the on-site grills or head to the Boathouse for a high-quality meal and great happy hour prices.
Arroyo Burro Beach County Park is located about 5 miles outside of Santa Barbara, and if you’re traveling without a car, you can take the MTD bus that has a stop directly in front of the entrance to the beach.
11. Douglas Family Preserve
Just above the Arroyo Burro Beach County Park lies another one of Santa Barbara’s best public spaces. The Douglas Family Preserve is a nature preserve with over 70 acres of undeveloped oceanfront land.
This scenic park is often referred to simply as “the dog park”, as it’s one of the best places to bring your four-legged friend in Santa Barbara. The Douglas Family Preserve is one of only 2 parks that allow pups to wander around off-leash, and there’s even a nice stretch of sand where they can run unimpeded.
The park is popular with dog-free visitors as well, and the sounds of the crashing waves and unspoiled nature make this a favorite for locals and tourists alike. You’ll also find over 3 miles of hiking trails and some of the best views along the coast.
12. El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park
Visiting El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park is one of the best cheap things you can do while in town, yet somehow this gem is often overlooked. Step back in time as you visit some of the state’s oldest edifices and learn about how Santa Barbara came to be the dazzling city that it is today.
Its edifices, built in 1782, are part of the last Spanish military settlement in northern California. Many of the buildings have had to be reconstructed and restored to their original glory, but some original structures remain.
The historic park sprawls over 6 acres. You’ll learn about the Spanish colonization, the Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years beforehand, and the Asian immigration to the Santa Barbara region.
This little slice of history is located in the heart of downtown, making it one of the most accessible options for a cheap activity in Santa Barbara.
13. Shoreline Park
If you’re looking for some green space while in Santa Barbara, there’s no better spot than Shoreline Park. This 14-acre expanse hugs the coastal bluff on the west end of Leadbetter Beach and offers sweeping views of the ocean, the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the city.
This is likely the best place in town to enjoy a picnic – and not just because of the incredible views. You’ll find everything you need, including picnic tables, barbeque grills, bathrooms, and playgrounds for the youngsters. If you feel like dipping your toes into the water, there are stairs that lead directly down to the beach.
Shoreline Park is also a popular spot for whale watching. Even this far from the water you’ll have the chance to see Pacific Gray, Blue, and Humpback Whales, depending on the season. For the best chance of seeing some of these magnificent creatures, head to the bronze whale tail sculpture.
14. Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Arts Museum
One of the most interesting spots in Santa Barbara is the Carriage and Western Arts Museum. This photogenic museum is free to the public from Monday-Friday and boasts an impressive collection of vintage carriages, saddles, and other country-western memorabilia.
Parts of the museum resemble a Hollywood backlot thanks to staged shops and saloons that look like they belong in a Wild West movie – so have your smartphone ready to snap some Instagram-worthy shots. There’s a ton of information and artifacts, including vintage circus carriages and old celebrity saddles.
If you’d like an expert to guide you through the museum, you can swing by on the 3rd Sunday of each month for a docent-led tour.
15. Inspiration Point
Get your heart rate up with a hike up to the stunning Inspiration Point. This vista boasts breathtaking panoramas of Santa Barbara, the ocean, and even the distant Channel Islands. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better view in town, though you’ll have to work for it.
Most people start the trail on Tunnel Road near the Old Mission, but it’s possible to get on the trail from a few other points around town. Depending on your route and pace, the hike can take anywhere from 1-2 hours, one way.
Feel free to bring your four-legged friend with you as you seek the impressive views of Inspiration Point, but make sure to have a leash with you.
You’ll also want to be prepared with plenty of water, sunscreen, and (of course) a camera or phone to take a few pics of the beautiful view once you get to the top.
Views like this don’t go unnoticed – so you’ll likely be sharing the trail with at least a few others on the weekends, If you prefer solitude, try hiking this route during the week.
16. Moreton Bay Fig Tree
If you’re visiting Santa Barbara with a small budget, then one of the best things you can do is to check out the Moreton Bay Fig Tree.
This massive tree was planted back in 1877 and is the oldest of its kind in the entire country. Boasting over 20,000 square feet of shaded area, it’s the perfect place to cool off on a hot day. It’s estimated that over 10,000 people could fit under the tree and be covered by its shade – but luckily, this breathtaking tree never gets that crowded.
No matter the weather, this magnificent site is worth a visit – but to get the full effect, you should visit when it’s in full bloom. You’ll find it on the corner of Chapala and Montecito Street, just off of State Street.
17. Santa Barbara Wine Country
California is known for its wine, but you won’t have to go to the ritzy Napa Valley to taste some of the best that the state has to offer. Santa Barbara has its own beautiful and bountiful wine country, and if you have a car, taking a trip into the countryside is one of the best ways to experience this culture for yourself.
In less than an hour, you can take the scenic drive into wine country – and you’ll be treated to incredible views the whole way. From the crashing waves along the coast to the Santa Ynez Mountains in the distance, mother nature has painted a beautiful picture.
Those who wish to imbibe in the fruits of the verdant valley’s harvest may have to cough up a bit of cash, though some wineries in this area do offer free tastings.
18. Santa Barbara Historical Museum
If you’re interested in the history of Santa Barbara, then a visit to the Santa Barbara Historical Museums is one of the best things to do while you’re in town, even if you’re on a budget.
You’ll learn about the city’s history from the beginning – all the way back when the area was home to the Chumash Native Americans. The museum also touches on some of the city’s more recent history, and you’ll likely learn something new even if you’re a Santa Barbara native.
The museum’s location right off the main drag makes it a convenient option, and its doors are open from Tuesday through Saturday.
19. American Riviera Franceschi Park
The former estate of the famed biologist Francesco Franceschi is now a peaceful park – and one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara.
Between 1894 and 1913, Franceschi imported nearly 1,000 different plant species from Mediterranean climates, and today his work is still recognized and celebrated in the park. The local community uses this area to promote horticulture, educate fellow plant lovers, and honor the important (and beautiful) work of Franceschi.
This verdant park is a tranquil place for hiking, dog walking, and simply getting some peace and quiet that is often hard to find in the city center. The view is also stunning, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to watch the sun go down.
20. Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Both art lovers and budget travelers alike will love the centrally located Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and it’s one of the best cheap things to do in the city. Its central location on the lively State Street makes it easy to find, and at only $5.00/person for adults, you won’t have to break the bank to get some good entertainment.
Located in the former stately post office building, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art houses an impressive collection of art from around the world. The exhibits are extremely diverse, and you’ll find a collection of paintings, prints, ceramics, sculptures, and more.
The rotating exhibits make this museum a fun place to visit over and over again. There are also various events, educational programs, lectures, and classes held throughout the year.
21. Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park
If you’re looking for a fun and free activity outside of Santa Barbara, you can head 20 miles north to Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park. The main attraction (as you might have guessed) is a cave, but it’s a sight unlike any other you may have seen before.
Carved from a massive sandstone boulder, the small cave is adorned with some of the last remaining rock art produced by the Chumash Native Americans. These incredible works of art date back to the early 1600s, and while the meaning has since been lost, the paintings are still an incredible sight to behold.
You’ll need to make your way up a steep path to get to the entrance of the cave, and there’s a large iron grate covering the entrance to keep the paintings safe and preserved. There are 2 holes in the grill work (one for adults, and one for children) which afford you an unimpeded view of these ancient works of art.
There are also various hiking trails around the park so you could pack a picnic and make a full day out of this historic and verdant area.
22. Cabrillo Boulevard Arts & Crafts Show
If you’re in town on a Sunday, the Cabrillo Boulevard Arts & Crafts Show is one of the best free things to do in Santa Barbara. Featuring around 200 local artists each week, this event showcases the importance of supporting local artisans and gives you a hefty dose of the city’s cultural scene.
The show is located between Calle Cesar Chavez and the Stearns Wharf along Cabrillo Boulevard. It starts at 10 in the morning and lasts until dusk. Stop by to shop, see some of the artists in action, or simply take in the creative atmosphere.
24. Santa Barbara Zoo
Whether you’re a parent looking for an inexpensive way to spend the day with your youngsters or simply an adult animal lover, the Santa Barbara Zoo is one of the best cheap things to do in Santa Barbara.
The Santa Barbara Zoo is a frequent star on the list of the best small zoos in America, and after spending a few hours here you’ll understand why. Not only is this organization committed to wildlife conservation, preservation, and education, but the zoo is also a lovely place to walk around for the day.
There are over 500 animals in this seaside zoo, and you could spend hours walking around the area and learning about the various creatures that call this place home. Take a ride on the zoo train, grab a bite to eat, or watch the kiddos play on the playground.
Although you could easily spend the whole day wandering about, the zoo is small enough that you could see all the exhibits in a few hours and still have time to explore more of Santa Barbara.
24. Los Olivos
If you’re looking for a fun and cheap way to spend the day, visit the nearby town of Los Olivos. Oozing in small-town charm, Los Olivos is less than an hour away from Santa Barbara and boasts a whole host of fun activities.
You may need to open your pocketbook a few times while in town, as shopping is one of the main draws to Los Olivos. Make your way down the picturesque streets and pop into the quaint boutiques that line them, or head straight for the tasting rooms (which are also abundant).
The town is located in the center of a bountiful agricultural region, so boutique wineries and craft breweries are thick on the ground. It’s also the perfect place to stop for lunch – and for such a small town, you’ll be impressed by all of the artisan restaurant options.
Los Olivos is known for its impeccable seasonal pairings of local food and wine, but if you’re trying to stick to your budget, you could also swing by Global Gardens and pick up some farm-to-table food for a picnic.
If you’re just looking to take a scenic drive, you can cruise right on through Los Olivos and continue along Figueroa Mountain Road for breathtaking views of colorful wildflowers.
25. Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market
There’s no need to go all the way to Los Olivos to find some farm-fresh food, as the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market has plenty of options. There are 6 different markets, 6 days a week (not Monday!) that offer up fresh produce and other local goods.
You’ll find everything from organic and locally grown fruits and veggies to farm-raised meats, artisanal cheeses, and fresh-baked pies. The main market takes place on Saturdays in downtown Santa Barbara, but there are other markets across the county during the rest of the week.
If you want an even closer look into the local agriculture, you can visit one of the farms yourself! Pick apples right off the tree at Apple Lane Farms, harvest your own berries at Restoration Oaks & Blueberry Farm, or tour the 100-year old Fairview Gardens, located just outside of the city in Goleta.
26. Andree Clark Bird Refuge
Sprawling over 42 acres on the east end of Santa Barbara is the Andree Clark Bird Refuge. This open space park features a lake, hiking and biking trails, and of course, lots and lots of birds.
The lake is an artificially modified estuary that supports the surrounding wetlands, and even if you’re not big into birding this is a beautiful place to spend some time. It’s also 100% free – so if you’re on a budget, it’s even better.
The birds have everything they need in this tranquil oasis – so, although it may be tempting, please don’t feed any wildlife you may encounter.
27. 1st Thursdays
If you’re lucky enough to be in Santa Barbara on the first Thursday of the month, don’t miss your chance to experience some authentic local culture. 1st Thursday is an aptly named event that takes place in downtown Santa Barbara during the evening.
There’s no cost to attend, and you’ll be treated to live music, art exhibits, lectures, and even wine tastings. The social and creative environment here is contagious, and it’s the best way to truly live like a local – even if it’s just for the night.
COVID-19 has affected the frequency of these events, so be sure to check the official website before your visit to Santa Barbara to see if this fun gathering is taking place during your time in town.
28. Alameda Park
As one of the city’s oldest parks, Alameda is one of the best free places to visit in Santa Barbara. Although just two blocks, there is a lot to see and do in this public space. From the unique rare trees to the citywide celebrations held here during the summer, you’re in for a unique experience when you visit Alameda Park.
It’s also one of the best spots for a picnic, so you’ll find many tables to drop in on or reserve in advance. There are also public restrooms, a band shell, party sites, and a massive 8,000 square-foot playground.
Kids World is the name of its epic playground, and it’s easily one of the most popular spots in the city for kiddos. It has all the common fixtures you’d expect from a park, including slides, swings, monkey bars, and balance beams – but the main draw here is the castle.
Kids can let their imaginations run wild as they trek around this wooden installment, and the adults can sit back and watch from one of the nearby benches or picnic tables.
29. The Santa Barbara Public Market
For a unique experience in Santa Barbara, head to the Public Market, located just off of State Street. This upscale food hall features tantalizing eats infused with flavors from around the world, including Italian pizza, artisanal ice cream, a gourmet noodle bar, and a falafel joint.
You’ll find seating both inside and out, so if you happen to be in Santa Barbara on one of the odd rainy days, it’s a great place to wait out the storm.
Even if you’re not hungry, this beautiful building is a fun place to walk around – and if you’re feeling thirsty, you can pop in for a drink at The Garden, the on-site beer garden.
Another fun and cheap thing to do while visiting Santa Barbara is to take a scenic drive up to the small town of Lompoc.
Head west on the famous Highway 101 until you get to CA 1, and the beautiful views will follow you the whole way. You’ll also find plenty of scenic lookouts to stop at along the way and a myriad of wine tasting rooms.
You could also hop on the Lompoc-Surf Amtrak Line to fully take in the stunning scenery of this area. The journey is half the fun, but there’s plenty of things to keep you entertained in little Lompoc as well.
- Jalama Beach is a popular hangout, especially for surfers looking for big swells.
- Locals will tell you that there’s no better place to chow down on a burger than at the famous burger joint on this lovely stretch of sand.
- La Purisima State Park offers free entrance, and you can take a self-guided walking tour through the 10 historic buildings on-site or hike along the verdant and tranquil trails.
- The downtown area of Lompoc is as charming as it comes – so feel free to wander around for a few hours.
With tons of great, inexpensive and free things to do in Santa Barbara, it’s no surprise that there are 15 amazing day trips from Santa Barbara that are sure to leave you and yours with a great experience. No matter where you go, you’re sure to have a great time!