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Known as America’s Riviera, Santa Barbara is filled with the stunning coastlines, pristine beaches, lush landscapes, and family-friendly attractions. All of these things make Santa Barbara a best bet for families seeking an ideal vacation on the California coastline. Here are our picks for the top 10 fun things to do in Santa Barbara with kids.
Fun Things to do in Santa Barbara with Kids
10. Take in a Historic View in Downtown Santa Barbara
9. Walk & Shop on State Street
Photo by: Jay Sinclair
Tip: Use the convenient, free Shopping Trolley or the $.25/ride Downtown Waterfront Shuttle for different view of State Street. The shuttle can save little feet the one-mile walk from Sterns Wharf to Paseo Nuevo.
8. Enjoy the city’s green spaces
Santa Barbara’s Moreton Bay Fig Tree, planted in 1876
Although the beach lures most families to its shoreline, there are so many fun places for kids to play outdoors in Santa Barbara. For idyllic coastal views and a fun sea-themed playground, head to the Mesa’s Shoreline Park. It sits on a beautiful bluff with grassy fields overlooking Ledbetter Beach, one of the best spots for surfing in the city of Santa Barbara.
Further down the coast next to Fess Parker’s Doubletree Hotel, families can’t miss Chase Palm Park featuring a shipwreck-themed playground and old-fashioned carousel with views of the shoreline.
Tip: Locals love the large wooden playground at Alameda Park (Kid’s World) near the courthouse; across the street, be sure to explore Alice Keck Gardens, boasting a small pond that is home to dozens of turtles.
7. Bike Cabrillo Boulevard
6. Explore the Santa Barbara Mission
Mission Santa Barbara is often referred to as the “Queen of the Missions” and for good reason. It is likely the most recognizable of the 21 original missions founded by the Spanish Franciscans along the California coast between 1769 and 1823. When visiting this Santa Barbara landmark, families can take a self-guided tour through the museum before entering the beautiful church (a still active parish) and ultimately the cemetery.
Oddly enough, your young reader might find the cemetery among the most interesting places in the mission complex as it has a plaque commemorating the Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island, better known as the girl from the Island of the Blue Dolphin, who was buried in the cemetery. After touring the mission, don’t forget to cross Los Olivos Street and smell the roses in the rose garden.
Tip: Two of Santa Barbara’s iconic festivals take place annually on the steps of the mission. La Fiesta Pequena, a nighttime dance performance, kicks off Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta annually in early August. On Memorial Day weekend, I Madonnari brings chalk artists to the mission’s steps creating beautiful works of art that will remain until the next rainstorm – which means that these drawing can last for weeks or even months in sunny Southern California.
5. Meet the animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo
The Santa Barbara Zoo does not house nearly as many animal species as some of its more renowned Southern California neighbors, the San Diego Zoo and LA Zoo. However, it does have a couple of unique features that set it apart from the rest.
A small train circles the entire zoo permitting riders a backstage peek at the zookeepers caring for the animals. An expertly manicured garden that reportedly dates back over 50 years to when the land was part of the Child’s estate prior to the zoo’s opening in 1963. Little animal lovers will still find many of their favorite animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo, from elephants to penguins to giraffes that overlook the famous East Beach Volleyball Courts just across the street from the zoo.
Tip: Bring a few extra bucks to feed the giraffes. Your kids won’t forget it.
4. Walk Sterns Wharf & Sea Center
Sterns Wharf, a wooden pier extending from the beach at the location where State Street meets the coast, has survived storms, fires, and earthquakes over the past 140 years. Since the 1940s this Santa Barbara landmark has been home to restaurants and recreational fisherman more so than the shipping and freight industries for which the wharf was first built.
Now with the help of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center, Sterns Wharf is the top tourist attraction in Santa Barbara. The Sea Center, a small museum that gives visitors numerous hands-on opportunities to interact with local sea life, should be near the top of any visiting family’s vacation itinerary.
Kids love the Wet Deck, where naturalists lead little ones to real sea exploration via the open-bottom cutout that leads to the ocean below. While visiting, my family used the nets and sand-trolling pullies to catch and identify crabs, sea shells, microscopic animal life, and more!
The large model of a California gray whale that hangs from the ceiling has been a part of museum since its construction in the 1980s; the whale was originally flown into the museum suspended from a helicopter as crowds of both locals and visitors watched from the shoreline.
Tip: The SB Nature Pass offers discounted admission to both the Sea Center and the Museum of Natural History (see #2 below!)
3. Hike the foothills
Photo by: Melissa Moore
There are few views around that rival those from the Santa Barbara foothills. While there are few trails within the actual city limits of Santa Barbara, the foothills of Santa Barbara County are full of opportunities to stroll through the wildflowers or climb a to the top of a peak.
There is no better place to take the littlest hikers to explore the local chaparral than the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden boasting 5 1/2 miles of nature trails and paths to explore. For families that don’t mind a few switchbacks in route to a fantastic view, Montecito’s Cold Spring Trail not disappoint.
Rattlesnake Canyon Trail, the city’s most popular, boasts nearly constant shade on its 3 1/2 mile loop (mountain bikes allowed) while the very easy and beautiful walk along San Antonio Creek begins at Tucker’s Grove, a popular picnic spot. If the kids would just prefer to climb rocks and explore, the Lizards Mouth Rock area just off of West Camino de Cielo provides views of both the Pacific Ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains.
2. Go back in time
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, located just above the Mission, is an unexpected gem that is kid-friendly, filled with activities, and reasonably priced. In addition to the expansive collection tucked into a relatively small space, including impressive dioramas, rock and gem collections, and the Curiosity Lab, a hands-on kid-center with naturalist led activities that encourage interaction throughout the museum’s halls, the museum’s “back yard” is worth the price of admission in itself.
Pick up a naturalist backpack at the Curiosity Lab and head out to explore the beautiful nature trails while utilizing the science kits that encourage early understanding of the scientific method in a variety of fields including bird and butterfly watching, aquatic ecosystems, and much more. The small creek, bridges, and hands-on play areas keep kids of all ages engaged.
1. Hit the beach
Santa Barbara is known for its beaches, stretching from dog-friendly Hendry’s Beach on the western side of the city to East Beach, training ground for multiple Olympic volleyball players and a convenient location to rent kayaks and paddleboards.
There is a beach for everyone in Santa Barbara. Love Sunsets? The best place to watch the sunset in the Santa Barbara area is at Butterfly Beach just across the street from Santa Barbara’s famous Biltmore Hotel.
Are surfing lessons on your personal bucket list? There’s no better place to learn to surf than Santa Barbara; Trekaroo families love the Santa Barbara Adventure Company which offers everything from surfing lessons to kayaking trips.
If surfing is not on your bucket list, kayaking the Santa Barbara coastline definitely should be; there’s nothing quite like getting out on the water of the protected Santa Barbara Channel and looking back towards the city of Santa Barbara and mountains rising up behind it – if you’re lucky, some local dolphins or seals might even swim on by.
Tip: To catch the coastline views and local sea life with a little less sweat and effort, consider taking a whale-watching tour on board the Condor Express or a quick and fun Landshark tour where kids will never forget the splash down when your tour bus suddenly becomes a harbor boat.
Photo by Katie Bodell
Playing giant Jenga in the lobby of Santa Barbara’s hip & kid-friendly The Wayfarer
Thanks to its touristy status, Santa Barbara boasts a wide assortment of lodging options for traveling families. From luxury big budget splurges, like the Four Seasons Santa Barbara and the Biltmore, to family-owned suites with kitchens at the budget-friendly Franciscan Inn, to the hip, urban and totally fun rooms at The Wayfarer, located in the “Funk Zone” arts district, there is truly something for everyone and most budgets.