5 Fun Things to Do on the Santa Barbara Waterfront
The Santa Barbara Waterfront is the ideal spot for a picture-perfect central California vacation. With miles of pristine, palm-lined beaches and the Santa Ynez Mountains in the background, Santa Barbara beckons you to spend all your time outdoors.
The iconic Waterfront neighborhood spans the coastline from Leadbetter Beach (a favorite among surfers) to Sycamore Creek. Along this stretch of coast, you’ll find some of the city’s most famous landmarks and endless fun on the water, with exciting activities for adventurers of all ages.
Discover the best things to do on the Santa Barbara Waterfront, including surfing lessons, SUP tours, sunset cruises, and more!
1. Explore the Santa Barbara Harbor
This historic working harbor is the heart of Santa Barbara. It offers stunning ocean views and is a perfect place to spend the day, whether you just want to stroll and explore or you’re ready to get on the water. The Santa Barbara Harbor is the launch point for activities like sailing, paddle boarding, fishing, scuba diving, and even whale watching.
If you prefer to stay on dry land, explore the many shops along the harbor and pick up some unique souvenirs. For a little nautical history, check out the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, which offers a variety of hands-on exhibits and educational programs.
If you’re a seafood lover, you can’t miss the chance to see the daily catch from the local fishermen and sea urchin harvesters. This is as fresh as it gets! Grab dinner or happy hour drinks at one of the harbor’s wonderful restaurants with ocean views. Sunset is particularly picturesque as the sailboats drift lazily toward the colorful horizon.
2. Ride the Famous Lil’ Toot Water Taxi
If the name alone makes you smile, you’re sure to love the popular Lil’ Toot water taxi, which takes you from Santa Barbara Harbor to Stearns Wharf. If you plan to explore these two landmarks in one day, this is the ideal way to get around, enjoying stunning views and wildlife sightings along the way. The short, narrated ride gives you a chance to see and learn about the picturesque beaches and points of interest.
And if you can’t get enough of Lil’ Toot, rent the iconic boat for a celebration! This is the perfect venue for a kids’ party, with its bubbling smokestack, smiling bow, and signature “toot toot” horn. Cruise the calm waters of the harbor as the kids spot sea lions, learn about the area, and have a blast.
3. Spend the Day at Stearns Wharf
Stearns Wharf is one of the most beloved landmarks in the city and a must-visit when in Santa Barbara. Located at the end of State Street, the pier is a picturesque spot to take a walk, soak in the landscape, and feel the bustle of life by the sea. The wharf was named for John P. Stearns, the local lumberman who built it in 1872, and it’s the oldest working wood wharf in California.
Enjoy the breeze as you walk along the wharf, checking out the shops and eateries along the way. This is a great spot to enjoy some fresh seafood, wine, or an ice cream cone. Relax on the pier and watch a beautiful sunset, or head out on the water for some fun! This is the launch point for fun activities like parasailing and boat tours. No matter what you choose to do, you’re guaranteed stunning views of the Pacific and lasting memories.
4. Visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center
If you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids, you can’t miss the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, located right on Stearns Wharf. This interactive aquarium gives you the chance to meet wildlife up close as you learn about local species and the work scientists are doing to protect them.
The main museum was founded in 1916 as the Museum of Comparative Oology. The Sea Center was built in 1987, focusing on the biodiversity of the ocean and educating guests about its biological importance. Enjoy a hands-on experience as you encounter sea urchins, sea stars, rays, anemones, and even swell sharks.
The wet deck invites you to explore like a true scientist, using oceanographic tools to take samples and examine the species that live below the wharf. In the upstairs area, you can see local species, including jellyfish, decorator crabs, corals, an octopus, and more. The Sea Center is part of the White Abalone Restoration Consortium, working to bring back this endangered species. Wildlife lovers and future marine biologists are sure to love this small but fascinating aquarium!
5. Learn to Surf at Leadbetter Beach
Santa Barbara is one of the best surfing destinations in California, especially during the fall when the big swells come in. But don’t be intimidated if it’s your first time riding the waves — there are also great learning beaches where you can get an introduction to this soulful sport.
If you’ve ever seen the Endless Summer films by Bruce Brown, you know surfing is central to Santa Barbara culture. The epic breaks attract some of the biggest names in surfing to Santa Barbara’s beaches. Watching the best in the world surf is sure to inspire you to get on a board yourself.
If you’re new to the sport, get your feet wet with a surf lesson at the popular Leadbetter Beach. This local-favorite spot is popular among Santa Barbara City College students, offering plenty of room to relax or play on the wide sandy beach. With its gentle waves and light breeze, it’s a perfect beach to catch your first wave.
The scenic Santa Barbara Waterfront has enough excitement to last your whole vacation, but this is just one part of the city’s charm. The nearby East Beach neighborhood is home to the Santa Barbara Zoo and Andree Clark Bird Refuge. Further east, you can find Shoreline Park and 1000 Steps Beach. Find even more things to do in Santa Barbara and plan your dream vacation!