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Santa Barbara's Hidden Gems You Won’t Want to Miss

Santa Barbara's Hidden Gems You Won’t Want to Miss

Santa Barbara is an easy-breezy beach town known for its charm and natural beauty. But we bet you haven't heard of these hidden gems.


4 min read

December 19, 2020

Santa Barbara is an easy-breezy beach town sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Slightly less popular but no less beautiful than the latter two, the charming and laid-back city is a great spot for anyone looking for a fun weekend getaway in the "American Riviera." You likely won’t run out of things to do on the Central Coast, but this list of hidden gems in Santa Barbara will help you discover the historic coastline’s best well-kept secrets.

The Hidden Gems in Santa Barbara to Add to Your Agenda

Though many people aren’t familiar with these hidden landmarks, they remain some of the city’s greatest attractions. Whether you’re renting an Airbnb along the coast or staying at the beautiful Belmond El Encanto in the hills, make sure to check out these Santa Barbara hidden gems for a thrilling experience.

Whale House

Location: 999 Andante Road, Santa Barbara

Nestled in the woodsy suburbs of the city, this whale-shaped fantasy villa is a true Santa Barbara hidden gem. The strangely beautiful home was designed in 1978 and took three years and 20 craftsmen’s help to complete. Designer Michael Carmichael, who was heavily inspired by Antoni Gaudi and the Catalan Modernist movement, wanted to create a house that blended in with its surroundings.

Want to live out your fairy-tale fantasy dreams? The good news is you can. The Whale House is available for rent on Airbnb. The home can accommodate nine people, so gather your closest friends or family, and head to this unique house for a magical Santa Barbara vacation.

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Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park

Location: Highway 154, Santa Barbara

This state park may be small in size, but don’t be fooled. Follow the deep path to the cave’s entrance, and you’ll find traces of the past: Hidden along a narrow and steep enclave are towering sandstone boulders adorned with some of the finest remaining Chumash Native American rock art in the U.S.

True Santa Barbara hidden gems, the colorful symbols on the pale sandstone rocks were created by Native Americans long before European settlers made it to the Golden State. Archeologists claim the artwork dates back to the 1600s and perhaps even earlier than that. Though the true meanings behind these paintings have been lost, they are no less fascinating to see.

Make a beeline for Butterfly Beach to dip your toes in the cool ocean waters and feel the breeze brush past your cheeks.

Butterfly Beach

Location: Channel Drive, Montecito

Butterfly Beach is one of the very few western-facing beaches in the Santa Barbara region. Pedal on the bike path connecting Butterfly Beach to Stearns Wharf in downtown Santa Barbara, then reward yourself with a swim in the cool waters. Come evening, put on your beach day playlist, unwind with your toes in the sand, and watch the sky change into the magnificent cotton-candy hues at sunset.

Montarioso Mansion at Franceschi Park

Location: 1501 Franceschi Road, Santa Barbara

This decaying but coveted mansion is tucked away in one of Santa Barbara’s most prestigious suburbs. Once home to Francesco Franceschi, a renowned 19th-century Italian botanist and horticulturist, the mansion now sits abandoned and unkempt.

While living at this Santa Barbara estate, Franceschi imported over 900 species of plants. This completely transformed the landscape of Southern California, making the park one of the most significant botanical sites in California. However, back in 2018, the city council decided to demolish the mansion. Do your California national parks road trip right and add this Santa Barbara hidden gem to your bucket list.

Take the kids on a boat ride around Santa Barbara.

Lil’ Toot Water Taxi

Location: 230 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

Lil’ Toot’s positively bright yellow exterior will definitely catch your eye while you’re walking around Santa Barbara Harbor. This banana-colored water taxi holds 19 passengers and takes you between Stearns Wharf and Santa Barbara Harbor—which are connected by land, but who doesn’t enjoy a ride on the water? Entertaining for kids, Lil’ Toot features a bubble-blowing smokestack, a traditional “toot-toot” air pressure whistle, and a wheelhouse where kids can “assist” the captain in riding the tiny boat. This is an affordable way for you to post pictures and boast about riding a boat along the majestic California shore.

The Book Den

Location: 15 East Anapamu Street, Santa Barbara

Since first opening its doors in 1902, The Book Den has become the go-to place for many Santa Barbara locals. But one of the oldest bookstores in California didn’t have the most promising start. By 1905, a mere three years after its opening, The Book Den was out of business. Luckily, Clarence Fellows Rowell, whose father was the first University of California librarian, took over and saved the library from doom.

Today, you can find new and used books here that you might not find anywhere else. Whether you’re looking for the latest best-selling novel or a rare out-of-print collectors’ item, The Book Den may have your pick. For the ideal bookmark or souvenir, purchase postcards designed by local artists on your way out.

Ganna Walska Lotusland

Location: Cold Springs Road, Montecito

Make sure to call and reserve your spot before heading to this hidden gem in Santa Barbara County. Once belonging to opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska, the 37-acre botanic garden is worth the adventure. Walska had initially purchased the estate with her sixth husband; it was named Tibetland. After the divorce and becoming inspired by the Indian lotus growing in the pond, Walska renamed this gem Lotusland.

A butterfly garden, cactus garden, exotic plants, and much more can be found hereGanna Walska Lotusland is definitely a hidden paradise on the Central Coast and a unique Santa Barbara experience. Make your reservation with a tour guide; you’ll explore 20 miniature gardens, each with its own theme and distinct vision. You’ll also have the chance to witness several other species of plants found only in Lotusland.

The Mural Room

Location: 1100 Anacapa Street, Santa Barbara

Hidden away in the Santa Barbara County Courthouse lies a gorgeous space adorned with more than 4,000 square feet of murals depicting the area’s history. Appropriately named The Mural Room, this stunning chamber was painted by California muralist Daniel Sayre Groesbeck. Groesbeck was commissioned by architect William Mooser to transform the once-blank room into a “throne room” fit for a castle. The area was later used as a meeting room for the county’s board of supervisors.

Upon visiting, you’ll see monumental events in the city’s history—such as the 1786 founding of the Old Mission Santa Barbara—depicted on the walls. Book a tour to get the full experience and educate yourself on the specificities of the state’s history at this hidden Santa Barbara gem.

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