Santa Barbara is, hands down, one of the most beautiful cities in California. It is defined by the sweeping palm-lined curve of its bay and its Mediterranean-style white stucco and red tile architecture. Running through its streets is the history of the Spanish padres, who founded Mission Santa Barbara in 1786. But Santa Barbara is a contemporary city with excellent restaurants, high-end boutiques, a symphony orchestra and a prestigious film festival. You’ll have fun here, too, lounging on the beaches, playing at water sports of every description and soaking up the SoCal vibe.

5…Find a beach to suit your mood

Santa Barbara is perched in a bowl that slopes down to the beaches lining the water. One of several perfect strands, West Beach is a great place for sunbathing or more active pursuits, such as volleyball. You’ll find Frisbee players and picnickers on the white sands, while skim-boarders and swimmers frolic in the warm, calm waters. Adjacent is a neighborhood of tidy mom-and-pop motels, ideal lodgings if the beach is your focus.

Stearns Wharf (Cabrillo Blvd. at State St., 805-564-5530, free), festive with seafood houses and souvenir shops, divides West Beach from equally gorgeous East Beach (Cabrillo Blvd. east of Stearns Wharf). Tracing the inland side of the beaches is the palm-shaded Cabrillo Bike Lane, made for runners, bladers and pedal-powered surreys that you can rent nearby. If you’re not in the mood for tourists, head west and north (by car) along scenic Cliff Drive to Hendry’s Beach, officially Arroyo Burro County Beach (Cliff Dr. at Las Positas Rd., free). A quiet place where you can tide pool and spot dolphins, this is the place to come for a peaceful sunset walk or a bite at Boathouse (805-687-4550) on the beach.

4… Understand the mission

Before the city of Santa Barbara was a twinkle in anybody’s eye, Mission Santa Barbara (2201 Laguna St., 805-682-4713, $5) was a mini-town unto itself. The current church replaced the original structure, which was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake. Come here for a glimpse into the lives and work of Franciscan missionaries from Spain who, in the 18th century, arrived to “civilize” the local peoples. A museum contains artifacts and artworks from the mission period; you can see it on your own or take a docent-led tour ($8). The mission is known as the Queen of the Missions for its outstanding beauty; you can spend a lazy hour or two wandering around.

As long as you’re up in the foothills, you might as well get a taste of turf instead of surf. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta del Sole Rd., 805-682-4711, $10), surprisingly sophisticated for such a small city, delves into the flora, fauna and anthropology of the area. Take a look at the dioramas depicting Chumash Indian life and stroll the gardens outside. A bit further north, 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (1212 Mission Canyon Rd., 805-682-4726, $8) has easy trails through displays of native plants.

3… Kayakers welcome

Want to get wet? It’s easy to do in Santa Barbara, where the bay turns the ocean into a gentle, warm sea. At shops on or near the waterfront, such as Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara Harbor, 888-254-2094),you can buy or rent just about everything you need to get in the swim. Start with tide pooling at Hendry’s Beach and work your way up to swimming off East and West beaches. Next, try skim-boarding and boogie-boarding. At the end of the breakwater is a sand spit where you can go surfing, or you can check out Leadbetter Point.

One of Santa Barbara’s most fun water activities is kayaking, which can take you past clusters of sea lions and schools of dolphins. Several outfitters offer tours and rental kayaks, including Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara, which also rents stand-up paddle boards. Sailing is another popular sport on the bay; head for Santa Barbara Sailing Center (harbor launch ramp, 805-962-2826, from $32 per hour). Catch a big one on a deep-sea fishing trip, offered by several outfitters who will set you up with equipment and bait; try Stardust Sport Fishing (Sea Landing, 805-963-3564, from $50 for a half-day trip).

2...Dig the view from the courthouse

Arguably one of the most graceful courthouses in the nation, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (1100 block of Anacapa St., 805-962-6464, free) is a lovely example of Santa Barbara’s trademark Mediterranean-style architecture. Still a working hall of justice, it was built in 1929 after a 1925 earthquake destroyed much of downtown. Imported tiles, wrought-iron light fixtures, epic murals and painted ceilings evoke the feel of a Moorish castle. Take the elevator to an observation deck and look out over all of Santa Barbara, then stroll the sunken tropical garden on the grounds.

The courthouse is one of the anchors of downtown, another being Paseo Nuevo (700-800 blocks of State St.), an outdoor shopping mall that makes the most of Santa Barbara’s mild weather. Here the shopping experience is softened by gurgling fountains and tropical foliage. El Paseo (Canon Perdido St. at State St.), supposedly California’s first shopping center, is another, more attractive venue with artsier shops amid courtyards and gardens. Both are on State Street, downtown’s shop- and eatery-lined main artery. State runs right down to Stearn’s Wharf, so you can make a dash for the beach when you’re done with the hustle and bustle.

1… Watch some whales

There’s nothing like coming eye-to-eye with a whale; you can almost look into the soul of these intelligent creatures. You may not get that close, but whale-watching expeditions are bound to give you a glimpse of gray whales, blue whales, Minke whales, humpback whales or even killer whales, along with other denizens of the deep. Among several operators, Condor Tours (Sea Landing, 805-963-3564, from $48 for a 2½-hour excursion) whisks you out to sea aboard its high-speed catamaran, the Condor Express.

Santa Barbara Channel, protected from the open sea by the Channel Islands, is an extremely rich ocean habitat where hundreds of species live in great abundance. It’s home to more than 27 species of whales alone. You might also spot sea lions and otters close to shore, or dolphins as well as whales farther out. A Santa Barbara whale-watching adventure plunges you into nature in all its glory—it’s an experience not to be missed.