15 Free Things to Do in Santa Barbara, CA

Santa Barbara

Join me as we embark on a journey through the free things to do in Santa Barbara, California.

We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the following individuals for their invaluable contributions to this article: Randall Kubiak, Riley Howard, Jacqueline Scheer, William Quinn, Nalani Justice, Tamiko Jackson and Desiree Frederick.

Walk Your Dog through Douglas Family Preserve

View of the water from Douglas Family Preserve
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Who doesn't love a park that has something for everyone? Trust me, the Douglas Family Preserve in Santa Barbara is that place!

I'm a fan of the high points, from where the panoramic ocean views are simply mesmerizing.

The 70-acre park is laden with native trees and plants that make for an enchanting backdrop for a picnic or a leisurely stroll.

The variety of large trees provides plenty of shade, making it a great spot to just sit back and relax.

And if you're a dog owner like me, you'll appreciate how dog-friendly the park is.

They even have a water fountain and a bowl of water along the hiking path, keeping our furry friends hydrated.

Walking the dog in this park is a real treat.

Not only do we get exercise, but also, on lucky days, we get to spot dolphins from the cliffs!

It's not exactly a hike, more of a "promenade" with plenty of flat paths that make it an easy walk, even for children.

Sunset at Douglas Family Preserve
CassiniSolCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you fancy a longer stroll, walking around the entire preserve is quite an experience.

One thing that I truly love is the stunning ocean view at sunset. The sight is breathtakingly beautiful, although it can sometimes get a bit windy.

An essential point to note is that there are no public restrooms in the park.

So, it's always a good idea to prepare for that before heading out.

Parking is never a problem here as there are many free spaces on the street.

Alternatively, you can park at the beach for free and take the scenic path that leads up to the preserve.

Remember, this is a public space we all share.

Always take your trash back with you and respect the neighbors. And, if you're bringing your dog, please pick it up after them.

In my 25 years of visiting the Douglas Family Preserve, the magic of this place never faded. I can't recommend it enough.

It's a local gem that continues to delight me every time I visit.

Stroll through Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden

A burst of chirping birds breaks the morning silence as I head out the door for my daily lope through Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden.

The sun is painting the sky with pastel hues, ushering in a perfect day for a walk in the park.

Nothing beats the tranquility of this lush garden, brimming with an assortment of trees and exotic plant species.

Each day in Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden offers a new spectacle, from the koi ponds that ripple under the gentle breeze to the vibrant butterfly garden that’s always abuzz with activity.

It's not just a paradise for nature lovers but a blissful escape in the heart of the city.

The park isn't just about the flora and fauna; it's also a great place for picnics.

The green patches are perfect for stretching out and watching the world go by - a mundane activity that somehow feels magical here.

Weekends often find me here with my furry companion, taking leisurely strolls around the pond.

It's a perfect spot to relax, meet up with friends, or even get lost in a book.

While parking can be a bit tricky, it’s nothing a careful reading of the signs can’t solve.

One of the highlights of Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden is the large wooden structure playground, a hit among the younger visitors.

Watching children laughing and playing, their energy echoing throughout the park is rewarding.

Discover History and Beauty at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens

Exterior of Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens
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Every day on my way to work, I get to pass by one of our city's most stunning landmarks, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens.

It's an architectural marvel that never ceases to amaze me.

On weekends, I often find myself walking through the beautifully manicured grounds.

The garden is a spectacle, especially during the spring when all the trees and flowers are in full bloom.

The courthouse itself is a testament to history, with its stunning interior design and murals that tell tales of our past.

Every visit, I make sure to stop by the clock room.

It's a fascinating feature of the courthouse that has piqued my interest since my first visit.

The intricate design of the clock is truly something to behold.

Also, the view from the top of the tower is breathtaking.

Aerial view of Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens
OLOS / Shutterstock.com

You can see the whole city sprawling beneath you.

It offers a four-sided view with landmarks labeled for reference, and it's a sight I never get tired of.

A self-guided tour is available for visitors, accessible through a QR code scan.

I've taken it a few times myself and found it very informative, full of intriguing tidbits about the history of the building and the area.

And the best part? It's free!

The courthouse is not just a place of beauty and history.

It's a testament to our city's resilience and growth.

Whether you're looking for a peaceful stroll, a touch of history, or an elevated view of the city, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Gardens offers all that and more.

Explore the Splendors of Shoreline Park

The grounds of Shoreline Park
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Every time I step foot in Shoreline Park, I'm reminded of the natural beauty that my hometown of Santa Barbara has to offer.

From its verdant grassy areas to the playground that beckons children with its charm, this park has a way of wrapping you in its warmth and serenity.

As a playground for all ages, it's the perfect spot for strolling along the neatly laid out pathways, with the salty tang of the ocean mingling with the fresh scent of grass.

The paths are ideal for both casual walks and energetic jogging sessions.

It's not uncommon for me to lace up my shoes and go for a brisk run, the rhythmic crashing of the waves serving as my soundtrack.

But what sets Shoreline Park apart is its stunning beach access.

My favorite pastime is to take the stone-carved stairs that lead down to the sandy beach.

Trail and flora at Shoreline Park
Niranjan Arminius, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you're looking to build sandcastles with the little ones, engage in an impromptu beach volleyball game, or simply relax on the sandy shore with a good book, the beach is a slice of paradise.

The park also provides coal grills that come in handy for a quiet picnic or a large gathering.

I often find myself organizing barbeque parties here, with the sizzling sounds of the grill and the laughter of friends filling the air.

A visit to Shoreline Park is never complete without surrendering to the mesmerizing ocean views it offers.

It's a spectacle that never tires, with the sun slowly setting over the azure ocean, painting the sky in hues of pink and orange.

Torii gate at Shoreline Park
Arminnius, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Treat Your Senses to the Fragrant Mission Historical Park

I often find myself retreating to the tranquility of the Mission Historical Park to lose myself in the mesmerizing beauty of its vibrant roses.

The moment I step out of my car, the scent of roses fills up my senses. It's like having a private garden right in the heart of Santa Barbara.

Mission Historical Park, right across from the Old Mission, is a delightful stop-off, especially after visiting the church.

It's not just a park, it's a fragrant haven with multiple sections of roses, each one of them blooming in different, breathtaking colors.

It's an artist's palette come to life.

You can easily spend an hour in this dreamy place, and trust me, that hour will fly by as you get lost in the floral wonderland.

Every visit feels like a new experience.

One moment, you’re admiring a delicate pink bloom; the next, you’re drawn to the vibrant red of another rose.

It's an ever-changing panorama of colors.

I always suggest my visitors drop by the park in the evening.

The play of light and shadows on the flowers during this time is simply spectacular.

The different shades of the flowers come alive in the magical twilight, creating a scene that is nothing short of a painting.

It's a must-visit place, not just for its beauty, but also for the tranquility it offers amidst the hustle and bustle of the city.

Tee Off at Arroyo Burro Beach County Park

People at Arroyo Burro Beach County Park
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Just another day in paradise! My morning routine includes a refreshing jog at the Arroyo Burro Beach County Park and, oh boy, the view never gets old.

Waves crashing on the shore, dogs joyfully scampering around, and the sweet, salty air filling my lungs, that's how I love to start my day.

My golden retriever, Buddy, can hardly contain his excitement when I tell him where we're headed.

You see, this beach is not just a beach; it's a haven for dogs.

Off-leash dogs are not just allowed; they are welcomed here!

You have to keep them about a hundred yards away from the main area, but once you're there, it's like a canine wonderland.

Buddy goes crazy, chasing seagulls, playing with other dogs, and rolling in the sand.

Now, if you think this beach is only for dogs, think again.

Picnic lovers will appreciate the grassy area designated for them at Arroyo Burro Beach County Park.

And believe me when I say the view during the sunset from this spot is breathtakingly beautiful.

You will often find families and friends gathered, enjoying their meals with the calming sound of the waves in the background.

As a rock enthusiast, I love taking a stroll along the rocky part of the beach.

The variety of rocks and pebbles you find here is astounding.

Plus, if you're lucky and have a keen eye, you might even spot seals, dolphins, or even whales.

I remember one time I saw a pod of dolphins playing in the distance, a sight I won't forget.

Parking is never an issue here, with plenty of free spaces available.

Also, the beach has clean bathrooms, water refill stations, beach showers, and dog showers.

Hop on Flavorful Adventures in Santa Barbara

Few locals can say they've truly experienced Santa Barbara until they've given the lamb egusi with fufu at a local African restaurant a try.

This dish is a revelation—served piping hot, it's a tantalizing experience you need to wait to dig in.

The servers always seem delighted when I opt to eat with my hands, remarking how it just seems more enjoyable that way. And truly, it is.

Every bite of the lamb egusi is a delightful encounter of flavors.

But I wouldn't recommend missing out on the side of fried fish.

Yes, it can be a little on the dry side and might lack a bit of flavor, but the accompanying dipping sauce with a strong tomato base more than makes up for it.

Barely a meal goes by when I don't find myself yearning for another taste of that egusi, which is why you'll often find me here.

One of the perks of living here in Santa Barbara is the convenience of local lodgings.

The Best Western in the city, for instance, is a bit dated, but it's clean, and the staff is always helpful and friendly.

It's always a comfortable stay.

Now, I've heard some people say that Santa Barbara is overpopulated and has too much traffic.

But as someone who calls this city home, I beg to differ.

Yes, it can get crowded, and the traffic can be a pain, but what thriving city doesn't have these problems?

And as for being expensive and dirty, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

For me, Santa Barbara is not just a place, it's home.

It's where I've had some of the best meals of my life, and it's where I've met some of the most amazing people. So, if you're ever in the neighborhood, do drop by.

Discover the Wonders of the Sea at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

Exterior of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock.com

Having lived here in Santa Barbara all my life, I must admit the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has become one of my favorite weekend getaways.

Sneaking away from the regular hustle and bustle, I love stepping into the pages of local maritime history.

This quaint museum, tucked away at the local coast, is the perfect blend of education and entertainment.

Unexpectedly, the museum's exhibits are of a modern aesthetic, focusing mostly on our local maritime history.

Every visit, I discover some new artifacts I hadn't noticed before, each one a fascinating relic of our coastal past.

Especially captivating is the focus on our area's contributions to the history of deep sea diving - an unsung part of our heritage that deserves attention.

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum has a great range of interactive exhibits as well.

There's a free scavenger hunt for the younger visitors to take part in, and I've seen the joy on their faces as they embark on their little adventures.

But it isn't just the kids who have all the fun.

The fishing simulator and the "tattoo parlor" exhibit are popular among the older crowd as well - a testament to the museum's universal appeal.

A historic boat docked at Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock.com

One thing that really stands out about the museum is the staff.

I've spent countless hours listening to the docents share their wealth of knowledge about our local history.

They have a way of making the historical narratives engaging for visitors of all ages. \Not to mention, they know how to make kids feel special, like steering a simulated boat - an experience I've heard many a young visitor rave about.

The tickets are reasonably priced at $10, and they even offer discounts for veterans - a small token of gratitude for their service.

And while we're talking about deals, let's not forget the gift shop.

Every July, they offer a whopping 50% off on all items!

Plus, there's a teacher discount that they don't openly advertise - free entry.

Now, that's a deal worth grabbing!

Of course, a visit to the museum isn't complete without a stop on the fourth floor.

Trust me; the panoramic view of our beautiful city from the top is simply breathtaking.

Sculpture in the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum
Emily Marie Wilson / Shutterstock.com

Dive into the Past at Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum

Stumbling upon the Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum was like uncovering a secret treasure chest right in my own backyard.

Nestled beside a bustling athletic field, the nondescript exterior of the museum belies the wonders it holds within.

My first visit was a spontaneous one. I walked in to find a bountiful collection of vintage saddles and horse-drawn carriages that whisked me back to the era of the Wild West.

The myriad of memorabilia instantly captivated me.

I even came across the original "Cisco Kid" suit from the early TV series, which, as a fan of classic television, was a delightful surprise!

While the museum is free to enter, the hope is for visitors to leave a donation.

And trust me, the fascinating display of history is well worth an appreciative contribution.

Parking, I must admit, is a bit of a challenge.

Santa Barbara Carriage and Western Art Museum shares its lot with a nearby college, so it's best to get there early, especially on school days.

But the early bird gets the worm - the museum opens its doors before most other local attractions, so it’s a great place to start your day of exploration.

Although it’s a small museum, it is packed with charm.

The saddles and tack are well-marked and organized, although I did find myself wishing for more descriptions of the carriages.

The staff, while minimal, is pleasant, and if you're lucky, you might even run into the maintenance guy - always a source of interesting stories!

Beyond the museum building is a hidden gem - a replica of a western town's main street.

It’s perfect for capturing those Instagram-worthy photos and a fun backdrop for your Santa Barbara adventures.

Have a Down Time at Alameda Park

A gazebo at Alameda Park
Eugene Zelenko (thanks to my friends Nickolov family for generous help and company)CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing quite encapsulates the essence of Santa Barbara like a lazy day spent at Alameda Park.

It's the perfect place to unwind and soak in the calmness that's so characteristic of our city.

Picture this: it's a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I'm sipping on a cup of coffee from a nearby café, people-watching and admiring the sheer diversity of trees around me.

It's practically a botanical garden, with rare trees that have been standing tall for over a century.

The park is artfully divided into three blocks, each offering something unique.

Kids World, as we fondly call it, is a paradise for children with its intricate wooden playhouse and swings, all nestled under the shade of age-old plum trees.

More often than not, you'd find me there, watching my own kids run and play, their laughter echoing around.

Just across the street from Kids World lies the serene Japanese Garden that takes you on a journey to the Far East without ever leaving Santa Barbara.

Trail at Alameda Park
Niranjan ArminiusCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The tranquility of this place is unparalleled, and I often find myself alone with my thoughts, simply appreciating the beauty around me.

But it's not all calm and quiet here.

The park's vintage bandstand and pagoda are hubs for music and live events.

You wouldn't believe the talent we have in this city until you've spent an evening here, swaying to the rhythm of local bands and performers.

Don't forget to check out the vendors selling an array of knick-knacks that are perfect for a souvenir or gift.

And if you're lucky, you might even stumble upon a birthday party or celebration, turning your regular day at the park into a festive extravaganza.

Whether you're visiting with family, and friends, or on your own, Alameda Park is more than just a park.

Soak Up the Sun at Chase Palm Park

The grounds of Chase Palm Park
Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock.com

My weekend ritual usually involves a peaceful stroll along the waterfront at Chase Palm Park.

This lush, green park is lined with towering palm trees that sway gently with the ocean breeze.

I usually start my day early, catching the sunrise while I walk or bike along the park's pathway.

The view of the sun rising over the sparkling water is a sight to behold.

Then, I love to spread out on one of the lounging lawns with a good book in hand.

The rhythmic sound of the waves crashing against the shore, mixed with the rustling of the palm leaves above, makes for a perfect reading ambiance.

Signage of Chase Palm Park
Brenda Rocha - Blossom / Shutterstock.com

Chase Palm Park's beach is another gem.

Unlike other crowded beaches near Malibu, this one offers a more tranquil experience.

The surf is usually low, making it perfect for a lazy swim. And while there is a bit of driftwood washed ashore, it's not much of a bother.

On special occasions, the park transforms into a venue for various festivals, my favorite being the wine-tasting festival.

With each sip of fine wine, the ocean view enhances the overall experience, making it truly unforgettable.

Trees at Chase Palm Park
Brian Roeder / Shutterstock.com

Discover the Distant Past at Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

I still remember the first time I navigated the sinuous road to the hidden gem of Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park.

It was an adventure in itself.

The road was narrow and cornered, with room for only one car - mine!

I can't count the number of times I held my breath, hoping that I wouldn't encounter another vehicle on a tight bend.

The parking was a bit tight, with space for just a couple of cars.

Caution, vigilance, and a keen eye for the path ahead were my companions on this journey.

But the reward at the end of the road was truly worth every moment of the drive.

There's a small set of steps leading up to the cave.

And the cave itself? Contrary to what you might expect, it's not massive.

It's rather small, adding to the sense of mystery and wonder.

There's a protective mesh in front, through which you get to view the amazing cave paintings by Native Americans from as far back as the 1600s.

These paintings aren't huge murals, but their size doesn't diminish their impact.

They're like whispering echoes from the past, telling stories of the people who once roamed these lands.

You can't help but feel a deep sense of awe and respect for the rich cultural tapestry that these works of art represent.

Oh, and a tip - there aren't any restrooms close by, so make sure you prepare accordingly before you set out.

And because it's a bit of a solitary experience, be prepared to share your viewing time with just one or two other people.

Taking my toddler to the cave for the first time, the delight in her eyes was truly a sight to behold.

It's an experience that's etched in my heart and will surely become a part of her childhood memories.

Whether you're a history buff, a nature lover, or an adventurer, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park.

Just remember to stay vigilant on the road and enjoy the history that unfolds before your eyes in this extraordinary little cave.

Walk along the Shores of Leadbetter Beach

Sunny day at Leadbetter Beach
sashahaltam / Shutterstock.com

There's something truly magical about Leadbetter Beach.

The moment I step onto the white sandy beach, I feel my stress slipping away.

I often start my day with a refreshing morning walk, taking in the beauty of the ocean waves and the distant islands.

Sometimes, I even bring my kayak along to get closer to the water.

One of the best parts of this beach is its connection to Shoreline Park.

I love taking a long stroll from Leadbetter Beach up to the park, where the ocean view from the Mesa is simply breathtaking.

It's a perfect spot to catch a sunset.

Venturing into the tide pools is always an adventure, with their fascinating marine life.

Lifeguard station at Leadbetter Beach
Manueljw / Shutterstock.com

It's a mini ecosystem in itself with sea urchins and hermit crabs.

There's also a huge tree that's usually a gathering spot for cormorants.

Although it can get crowded during peak hours, there's always enough space due to the vastness of the place.

The beach is also equipped with picnic areas, restrooms, and showers, making it a comfortable place for an entire day's outing.

There are also places to BBQ and large grassy areas where I sometimes roll out my yoga mat for a session.

After a day of soaking in the sun and sea, I often grab a bite at one of the nearby restaurants.

Whether it's a quick snack or a leisurely meal, the options are plenty.

Plus, finding parking is never an issue here.

Scenic sunset over Leadbetter Beach
David M. Schrader / Shutterstock.com

Break a Sweat at the Thousand Steps Beach

Sunny day at Thousand Steps Beach
Rachel Hoyt / Shutterstock.com

Living in the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, I often find myself visiting the Thousand Steps Beach.

The name certainly raises eyebrows, but don’t worry, there aren’t really a thousand steps to navigate down.

It's just about 150 stairs - a manageable task with the sturdy handrail provided.

Thousand Steps Beach is not your typical sandy haven, though.

It’s a unique spot where the ocean waves crash directly into the steps.

As the water hits the stairs and handrails, it creates a unique sound that echoes all the way up to the top, adding a unique acoustic dimension to the experience.

But be prepared - at high tide, the beach disappears entirely, so timing your visit is key.

Keep in mind this isn't your typical beach experience. It's not really a place to settle down with a book and soak up the sun.

Instead, it offers a unique coastal experience where you get to witness the raw power of the ocean up close.

If you're passing through, I’d definitely recommend taking about 10 to 15 minutes to check it out.

Parking is typically plentiful along the streets, but please be respectful of the nearby houses and properties.

And if you're up for it, the surrounding streets are beautiful and perfect for a leisurely stroll.

Final Thoughts

Living in Santa Barbara, California, I've had the privilege of experiencing these stunning free attractions all year round.

Whether you're a nature lover, history buff, art enthusiast, or beach bum, there's something for everyone here.

You'll leave with a camera full of stunning photos, a heart full of beautiful memories, and a wallet that's still full, too!

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