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Top 10 Things for Families to do in Santa Barbara

top 10 things for families to do in santa barbara, ca

Photo by: Shutterstock/S. Borisov

Santa Barbara. Known as America’s Riviera, the stunning coastlines, pristine beaches, lush landscapes, and family-friendly attractions make Santa Barbara a best bet for families seeking the best of the California coastline. Explore our favorite kid-friendly activities and attractions in this beautiful coastal city.

10. Take in a historic view

Santa Barbara County Courthouse

To get your lay of the land, consider taking the elevator ride to the top of the historic Santa Barbara County Courthouse. Built in 1929, this national historic place and state historic landmark features free, docent led tours, or you can just wander the stunning grounds with your kids before taking in the 360 degree view from the top of the tower. Bring your camera; this location is perfect for photos. Don’t miss pointing out El Presidio nearby, the site of the Spanish fortress built in 1782. Two of the original adobe buildings, El Cuartel and the Cañedo Adobe, are still standing and open to the public. History-minded kids will enjoy touring the chapel, Padre’s quarters, defense wall, and gardens.

9. Walk & shop on State Street

santa barbara downtown state street

Photo by: Jay Sinclair

While many visitors can easily spend an hour or two strolling down State Street and through Paseo Nuevo admiring the shops and palm trees that line the streets, don’t forget to stop and dine at one of the many restaurants that offer outdoor seating either right on State Street or in a courtyard tucked away like the world famous El Paseo. Kids can people watch, or dog watch in the case of my children, as mom enjoys her fresh green salad with local avocado and wine from up the coast in Santa Ynez. If it’s not so sunny outdoors, catch a movie or a show at one of Santa Barbara’s theaters; kids will never forget seeing a movie out under the stars at the Arlington, home of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where the ceiling sparkles like a starry sky and the sides of the theater resemble buildings on the Mediterranean coast.

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 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, which 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

Surrey Cabrillo Blvd Santa Barbara

Cabrillo Boulevard runs along the Santa Barbara shoreline. Although the road is easily accessible by foot, families can grab bikes or surreys from Wheel Fun Rentals to make the prospect of sightseeing along the shore a fun, interactive event. The adjacent Urban Wine Trail features a number of family-friendly wineries that allow kids to join mom or dad (for snacks and juice of course!). If you happen to be in town on a weekend, be sure to stop by the Sunday Arts & Crafts Festival, happening each weekend and easily accessible via bike.

6. Explore the Santa Barbara Mission

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

santa barbara zoo with kidsPhoto by: Katie Bodell

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 that circles the entire zoo permitting riders a backstage peek at the zookeepers caring for the animals, and an expertly manicured garden that reportedly dates back over fifty 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

Santa Barbara Sea Center WhalePhoto by: Melissa Moore

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

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

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

natural history museum of santa barbara

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

Carpinteria City Beach

Photo by: Melissa Moore

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.

Eat Here

Santa Barbara food and drink

Photo by Katie Bodell

If Julia Child could find several restaurants in Santa Barbara to frequent in her later years, including the once obscure but now notable La Super Rica Taqueria, surely any visiting family will be satisfied with options that the city has to offer. The Moby Dick Restaurant on Santa Barbara’s Sterns Wharf or the Endless Summer Bar & Café in Santa Barbara’s Harbor certainly treat diners to the best views that the city has to offer. If the salty sea air has you craving the local catch of the day, look no further than the Enterprise Fish Co. or Mac’s Fish and Chips on Lower State Street. For a casual kid-friendly environment, Sambos Restaurant will make everyone in your family feel right at home. Local chains Rusty’s Pizza and Silvergreens (with an impressive partnership that benefits special needs families) have quick service where even the pickiest eaters will find something to eat.

Stay Here

wayfarer santa barbara hotel

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.

Must-Do Day Trips

channel islands
Channel Islands National Park
Located just off the shore of Santa Barbara and only accessible by boat or air, Channel Islands National Park is a must-visit for families hoping to explore the area. Comprised of five islands, sea-kayaking, hiking, and camping opportunities abound in this remote national park with an impressively small human footprint.
Solvang
Solvang
The cute and kitschy Danish town of Solvang is a fun pitstop on the road heading north from Santa Barbara. Families can shop, dine on Danish pastries, and stretch their legs while walking the downtown streets. The toy store and Hans Christian Andersen museum (free!) are kid favorites. As a child, my family purchased a cuckoo clock every time we visited this little village.
Carpinteria
Photo by: Trekaroo/mcfam
Carpinteria
Just south of Santa Barbara on the 101, Carpinteria boasts a laid-back, beachfront location, mild waves, and plenty of active fun families. Carpinteria State Beach, once marketed as “the world’s safest beach,” is known for its family-friendly atmosphere.
For tips and recommendations on more family fun while visiting Santa Barbara, check out Visit Santa Barbara.
Many thanks to Melissa Moore, Trekaroo’s DC guroo and former Santa Barbara dweller, for her time, input, and resources that made this guide the resource that it is.
Disclosure: While researching this article, the author received complimentary admission at some of the activities listed above; all opinions remain her own and items chosen for this top 10 were selected based on actual parent Trekaroo reviews, contributions from the Trekaroo team, and personal experience.

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