10 Things to Do for Free in Santa Barbara, CA

This weekend, I traveled up the coast to Santa Barbara, a coastal gem where I spent the last four years attending college. Throughout those years I really came to love Santa Barbara for its beach culture, casual architecture, and stunning ocean. Santa Barbara is perfectly situated within driving distance of Los Angeles, but far from the city’s chaos. I’ve made a list of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara so that you can come to love it—although that will probably happen anyway.

1. See the city from the Courthouse Bell tower

Santa Barbara is an old city with a history of hosting the rich and famous. Luckily for us, this means that those rich and famous taxpayers bought the city the right to some impressive public buildings. The Santa Barbara Courthouse is the highlight of this trend, combining the understated elegance of Spanish-style architecture with the visual tour-de-force of a California mission. The result is a beautiful white structure with high stone doorways, sandstone carvings, and arched windows. A wood-beamed interior boasts some nice murals depicting the history of California. Sheltered between the whitewashed walls sits the lawn of the sunken garden—a perfect picnic spot.

The best part of the courthouse, though, comes from the view it offers from the bell tower. Iron railings enclose a tiled deck where you can see the whole of Santa Barbara, from the ocean all the way up to the mountains. Should the view prove too much to take in, a sign identifies most of the major landmarks below. This is a popular stop for visitors, so expect to share the view with some fellow travelers. And beware the steps—this path is not for the faint of heart.

Afterwards, walk a block over to State Street and the Museum of Art (free on Sundays), or grab a cup of coffee at the eclectic Coffee Cat across the road.

2. Get Inspired at the Art Walk

The Santa Barbara Art Walk
The Santa Barbara Art Walk

Every Sunday, artists converge along Cabrillo Avenue east of the Wharf to participate in the weekly Santa Barbara Art Walk. Visitors can view pieces from a number of local artists, representing a great diversity of styles: full-size paintings, small sculptures, pottery, wind chimes, and so on. There’s even a woman who makes fairy chairs out of crystal, driftwood, and copper wire. And then there are the old crowd favorites like the handmade kaleidoscopes, or the man who paints fried eggs that flip into Easter Lilies.

Although some of the artwork could earn a spot in a gallery, not every stall threatens to engorge your paycheck. The more exclusive, well-established artists tend to congregate nearest the Stearns Wharf, whereas the craftspeople tend to follow up in the rear. If you’re looking for coffee mugs or garden decorations that won’t break the bank, focus your attention on the eastern half of the walk. No matter what your budget, though, you can’t go wrong window-shopping through the artists’ work.

Afterwards, you could walk out on the Wharf or lower State Street, or head east toward East Beach. When heading east be sure to look up when Cabrillo curves inland at the volleyball courts—you’ve got a good chance of glimpsing of the Santa Barbara Zoo’s giraffes.

3. Make your own creations at Art from Scrap

If you read my last post on things to do in Long Beach, then you’ve already been introduced to the idea of Creative Reuse. If not, then just picture a place that contains all the odds and ends you’ve held on to in the hopes of someday doing “something” with them. Then add the odds and ends of a couple hundred other crafters with much stranger lives.

Art from Scrap creations
Some of my favorite Art from Scrap creations

The result might look something like Art from Scrap—two large rooms crammed with barrels of burlap sacks and old movie film from 80s hits. If the Long Beach Depot for Creative Reuse was a crafter’s closet, this place is the three-car garage. Pretty much everything you can think of has a place here, from science beakers to 60s knitting magazines to old picture frames. I’m a particular fan of the shelf of old National Geographic magazines, and my favorite discovery was a shell box that actually contained hard coral. Now, I love coral, but I’ll never buy it because of the harm that harvesting has on the reef. But at Art from Scrap, everything is recycled, so buying coral actually helps the environment by saving space in a landfill.

The best thing about this place is the ideas it can inspire. Some of my favorite projects include a seashell-and-driftwood mobile, an earring holder made from computer wire and a picture frame, a rather symbolic shoe sculpture, a tile stepping-stone for my patio, and any number of the hot cocoa containers and plaster pots in which I planted herbs.

I put this place on the “free” list because the prices are so low they’re really not worth mentioning, Plus, everything is recycled, and all proceeds go to sponsor beach clean-ups and school art programs.

4. Explore another Farmers’ Market

I warned you—I love Farmers’ Markets, so they will always pop up on these lists. The Saturday Farmers’ Market on Cota, though, is definitely my favorite. Because Santa Barbara is located fairly close to farmland, the produce is usually pretty good. The flowers, my favorite aspect, are also worth checking out. And, if you go, be sure to say hi to my friend Kristen at the honey stand.

When I lived in Santa Barbara, my usual Saturday routine consisted of heading to the Farmers’ Market to buy cut flowers and then setting up shop in The French Press, a coffee shop across the street with great coffee and some prime people-watching. For such a morning, I highly suggest a maxi skirt. The Farmers’ Market is also close enough to State Street to warrant a visit.

5. Head to the Hills at Cold Springs Trailhead

Santa Barbara has the best of both worlds—beach and hiking. Because the city sits between the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Santa Ynez mountains on the other, development has only spread so far. To experience a bit of the outdoors, all you have to do is to head for the hills.

Night hiking at Cold Springs trail head, Santa Barbara
This is what you DO NOT want to look like at 5:30 am

The semi-arid environment means that Santa Barbara hiking isn’t as lush as that to the north, but the streams create a riparian ecosystem that can house some interesting plant and animal life (I’ve been told to keep an eye out for orange salamanders). The Cold Springs trailhead begins just at the base of one of these streams. From the trailhead, you can head up to a beautiful view of the Pacific from the Powerlines, test yourself against Montecito Peak, or (my favorite) hike up to Tangerine Falls to cool your feet in a waterfall pool overlooking the hills and distant ocean. I’ve found santabarbarahikes.com to be a great resource for trail information.

I’ve also loved taking some night hikes up along these trails, but be warned—it is much easier to get lost at night than during the day. On one particularly memorable night, my friends and I left for a short hike at 11:00 pm. We finally made it back to the trailhead at 5:30 am. A word to the wise: it helps if your leader actually knows where he/she is going.

6. Look for Dolphins at Butterfly Beach

Hands down my favorite place in Santa Barbara. When I was in school, I would slip away to this beach most afternoons and several sunrises. I even developed a tan line from where I scrunched my jeans up around my calves to walk along Butterfly after class.

Sunrise at Butterfly Beach
Sunrise just around the eastern point of Butterfly Beach

Of course, most of why I love this beach has to do with the home I made of it. That being said, it is still one of the best beaches in Santa Barbara. Without the crowd of East Beach or Leadbetter, Butterfly serves as a little cove oasis between the busyness of Santa Barbara and the cool nonchalance of Summerland. Of course, this beach still gets busy; the eastern end, in particular, hosts quite a crowd from the elegant Biltmore hotel. The shore break makes body boarding, bodysurfing, or surfing somewhat dangerous. But the arm of the cove keeps off the wind, and the water sweeps pools of light.

If you’re feeling adventurous, walk east from Butterfly to reach the base of the Summerland cormorant rookery. Or, walk west around the point to reach East Beach. The most shocking discovery will probably come from down the road, though—follow Butterfly Lane back two blocks, and you’ll find a house decorated entirely with pigs made of plaster, wooden, and metal.

7. Search for Monarchs at the Butterfly Preserve

Although the Coronado Butterfly Preserve is about twenty minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, the views are well worth the drive.

This preserve has almost a fairy-tale feel—the first time I visited looking for butterflies, I met an old man standing at the bend of the path just as the forest dissolved into twilight. “Did you see the butterflies?,” he asked. I replied that I hadn’t. He looked at me for half a second, then spoke slowly: “you only see what you want to see.” Wizened old storybook guides aside, the twisted tree trunks along the bluffs truly do feel like you’ve entered a wonderland.

The best time to see the Butterfly Preserve, of course, is while the butterflies are hibernating. Each winter, a generation of butterflies migrate thousands of miles to the Eucalyptus trees of the butterfly preserve to wait out the cold weather. At first the butterflies on the branches look like leaves, until you notice that a leaf or two is wafting in the breeze. Look closer, and you’ll see that the whole branch is actually a conglomeration of butterfly wings. The butterflies come to the butterfly preserve through December and January.

Even outside of the winter months, the land surrounding the Butterfly preserve is prime picnicking territory. Closest to the street is a small stream that runs through young forest and around the Eucalyptus grove. Once you step outside of the trees chaparral dominates until just before the edge of the bluffs, where grass and wind-pointed groves create the perfect lunch backdrop. In fact, I once planned a picnic here and accidentally crashed my friend’s engagement, a coincidence even more obscure when you consider that her twin was in our company. Like I said before, sometimes I swear this place is magical.

8. Watch Harbor Seals at the Carpinteria Bluffs

The Carpinteria Bluffs lie about twenty minutes outside of Santa Barbara, though in the opposite direction from the Butterfly Preserve. Yet while the Butterfly Preserve is famous for insects, the Carpinteria Bluffs draw visitors for an entirely different species—harbor seals. From December to May, female harbor seals congregate to give birth to pups. Few animals are more awkward on land than harbor seals, yet few are more adorable. Seals don’t walk on land, or run—they jiggle. At the right season you can even watch the mothers teach their pups to swim in the shallow tide pools, or in the rip currents off of the beach. Though the breeding season only covers a few months, you have a good chance at seeing harbor seals in the water or on the beach throughout the year. Just look for the oddly-shaped buoys out around the kelp.

Though smaller than the Butterfly Preserve, the Carpinteria Bluffs can be a beautiful place for a walk, especially when the afternoon light shifts through the chaparral. The path leads along a thin eucalyptus grove and some brush. This can be a great place for bird watching—I’ve seen a kite or two, several herons, and even a roadrunner.

9. Help Restore California at Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island Lighthouse
Anacapa Island (Eastern end)

The last of the free things to do is one which I haven’t had a chance to experience myself. Every Wednesday, the Channel Island Restoration group takes a boatload of volunteers over to Anacapa Island to remove invasive plants (mostly iceplant) and plant natives. This is probably the only time you’ll get out to the islands for free, and you’ll definitely earn the trip. Be prepared to work, and to work hard. Restoration work is exhausting, but it feels great to be working for the betterment of a place like Anacapa Island.

On the boat ride over, keep an eye out for common dolphins and whales. Anacapa is a gorgeous island, whether you’re planting brush or snapping pictures. Just be sure to sign up well in advance, as the boat space tends to fill up fast. (For more information about the island itself, see my post on the Channel Islands)

10. Listen to Someone’s Story at Pershing Park

I’ve saved the most countercultural Santa Barbara activity for last. Santa Barbara is a gorgeous city, full of shiny celebrities, serene beaches, and inspiring architecture. It’s also a place full of hurting. Santa Barbara hosts one of the most visible homeless populations of any coastal California city; here, extravagance must consciously sidestep suffering. Some people drop a few coins. Some walk a little faster. Most (including myself, sometimes) pretend not to see.

But there are stories inside those shabby jackets, and they beg to be heard. Stories like that of Canada, as his friends call him, the native american woodcarver who’d had his tools taken from him in Seattle but who wanted to make something beautiful again. Or the man who hitchhiked across 23 states with the cat that slept on his backpack. Or the woman whose words no longer knit together into sentences but rather surface in the intensity of her eyes.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for a person is simply to listen. That’s the idea behind the weekly Pershing Park meal sharing, hosted by the Uffizi Mission every Wednesday at 5:30.  This isn’t just a place where homeless men and women come for a meal; this is a place where people with or without homes come together to simply talk. Talking with someone at Pershing Park isn’t going to end homelessness. It isn’t going to fix people’s lives or make the desperate suddenly employable. But it can show somebody in really difficult straits that another person cares enough to listen. And sometimes, that can be enough.

If you can’t make it on Wednesday, make a point of talking to somebody on State Street. Take them to lunch. Share a bench. You never know what changes  can come about from a simple act of noticing.

Where are your favorite places to go in Santa Barbara?

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