I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
March 29, 2019
Spend a few days in Santa Barbara and it’s safe to say you’ll never want to leave. Nestled between the majestic Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara boasts an average 300 sunny days a year and temperatures that generally stay between the mid-60s and mid-70s. It’s just 90 miles north of LA and makes for an excellent side trip, but it’s also worth visiting on its own. With tons of outdoor and water activities and plenty of great shopping, restaurants, and family attractions, I can’t think of a better place for a family vacation.
We got to spend a few days in Santa Barbara and fell in love with this beach town paradise. We’re already planning our return visit! Here are our 30 favorite things to do with kids on your Santa Barbara family vacation.
MOXI, a three-story children’s science museum in downtown Santa Barbara, is absolutely loaded with state-of-the-art interactive exhibits. Here, kids are encouraged to invent, design, and discover to their hearts’ content, all while having the time of their lives. This is one attraction you definitely don’t want to skip if you’re visiting Santa Barbara with children — We are children’s museum experts, people, (Check out my travel archives if you don’t believe me!) and MOXI stands out as particularly awesome.
This 4.5 mile long paved bike trail is flat, safe, almost entirely off the street, and perfect for families. You’ll ride along the beach and pass Stearn’s Wharf, East Beach, and Santa Barbara Harbor, so there are plenty of opportunities to make stops for snacking and shopping along the way. Rent bikes from Open Air Bicycles and access the Cabrillo Beach Boulevard Bike Trail along Cabrillo Beach Boulevard.
Renovations are complete and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is now better than ever. Inside, this kid-friendly museum includes exhibits on local birds and mammals, gems and minerals, and fossils, as well as a planetarium and observatory. You’ll also find a few items said to have belonged to Juana María, who inspired the character of Karena in Island of the Blue Dolphins. Outside is the ‘Museum Backyard,’ which enchanted all of us– It’s an outdoor trail with lots of nature playground features that are fun for kids and adults alike.
Our breakfasts each morning came from this incredible bakery in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. Whether you enjoy a hot meal at the Helena Avenue Bakery or pick up pastries and picnic fixings to go, you really shouldn’t miss this place. We absolutely loved their cinnamon rolls and assorted pastries and I’m eager to go back for green eggs and ham and avocado toast. YUM.
If you have older kids, you’ll definitely want to experience the Channel Islands on a guided kayak tour. Known as ‘the Galapagos Islands of North America,” the Channel Islands consist of five volcanic islands 25 miles off the Santa Barbara coast. They’re filled with plants and animals that can only be found on those islands and the area is considered to be one of the best whale watching spots in the world! A guided kayak tour is the best way to explore the islands’ sea grottos. You’ll take a ferry to the islands, then board kayaks once you arrive. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company is a popular option and tours often sell out, so be sure and reserve your spots ahead of time. Kids ages 5 and up are welcome.
When Julia Child retired in nearby Montecito years ago and proclaimed this restaurant to be her favorite, its reputation was made. To this day, locals and tourists alike line up for tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and tamales. You might have to wait up to an hour in line to place your order, but La Super-Rica’s devout following insists the food here is worth the wait! The price is definitely right here for families — In a town where food tends to be pricy, the average adult can expect to spend about $8 for a meal.
Just around the corner from the Museum of Natural History, you’ll find Old Mission Santa Barbara, a ca. 1820 stone church rich in history and ambiance. Built by Chumash Indians under the supervision of the Franciscans, the interior looks largely the same as it did in 1820 and the building is still in use weekly as a Catholic church. It’s gorgeous and definitely worth a look. Outside, you’ll find a cemetery containing both the graves of early Californian settlers as well the unmarked graves of Chumash Indians — Juana Maria is among those buried here. Don’t leave without taking a look at the AC Postel Memorial Rose Garden next door, which contains more than 1500 rose plants.
Located in Balboa Park, the massive Moreton Bay Fig Tree was originally a cutting brought over from Australia and planted in the garden of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Today, it is… Well, it’s gigantic. You just have to see it for yourself. You’ll find the tree on the corner of Montecito and Chapala Streets.
Also known as Hendry’s Beach, Arroyo Burro County Beach Park is a public beach just five miles from Santa Barbara and it’s a favorite with locals because of its clean restrooms and showers, lifeguards in season, fascinating tidepools, and overall natural beauty. Locals say this is a great spot both for safe swimming and for beginning surfers. Go on a weekday if you can, when crowds are lightest.
Santa Barbara hotels tend to be expensive. One popular and affordable option is the Best Western Encina Inn & Suites. Located on a quiet residential street filled with homes built a century ago, this picturesque hotel gets raves for its large, comfortable rooms, reasonable prices, and excellent customer service. Although its part of the Best Western chain, guests say it has a boutique hotel feel.
We happened across this cozy little chocolate shop on West Gutierrez Street and went back for more the very next day. Using ethically sourced cocoa and techniques learned from the masters in Switzerland, Chocolate Maya creates exquisite truffles, bonbons and bars in all kinds of imaginative shapes and sizes. But what we went crazy over was their dark chocolate hot cocoa, which comes in four different varieties and is every bit as rich and luxurious as it sounds.
Situated in the heart of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Zoo boasts more than 500 animals and spectacular ocean views. In addition to giraffes, elephants, leopards, and gorillas, you’ll also find a zoo train, live stage shows, a play area, and more. Consider this a must-do if you’re visiting the area with children.
For an unforgettable birds-eye look at the city, climb to the top of the clock tower at the Santa Barbara Courthouse. This Spanish-Colonial building was constructed in 1929 and is beautifully preserved inside and out — and you can’t beat the panoramic views on the clock tower’s balcony. The courthouse’s history is interesting as well — Free tours are offered each day at 2pm (and weekdays at 10:30am) in the mural room on the second floor of the building.
Inside the courthouse, you’ll find the Bisno Schall Clock Gallery, which contains the world’s largest model of a weight-driven Seth Thomas tower clock. It was installed here in 1929 and remains in its original condition — Seeing how it works is really fascinating, especially to kids. The gallery is open to the public several days a week. While you’re inside, be sure and look up at the ceiling, which depicts the exact constellations in the sky when Santa Barbara got its name back in 1602.
Why deal with parking when you can get everywhere you need to go in Santa Barbara on a narrated trolley tour? Jump on and off the trolley throughout the day, which includes stops at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, Santa Barbara Zoo, Museum of Natural History, the historic Santa Barbara Mission, Stearns Wharf, and more. Want an overview of the city? Stay on the trolley for the entire tour, which takes about 90 minutes. Tickets for adults are $25 and each adult pass includes one free child. Additional child passes are $8.
Public markets are a family favorite, since we can always find something for everyone, and Santa Barbara has a great one. Located at the corner of 38 West Victoria Street and Chapala, the Santa Barbara Public Market includes the uber-popular Corazón Cocina, which has creative and delicious (and messy!) tacos that locals line up for. You’ll also find vendors here selling cupcakes, gourmet noodles, pizza, barbecue, ice cream, and more. Make sure you stop here on your Santa Barbara vacation at least once!
Seeing whales in the wild is sort of a spiritual experience as far as I’m concerned– Once you’ve done it, you’ll never forget it. The Condor Express is a high-speed catamaran offering 2 1/2 hour whale watching cruises year round. The Santa Barbara Channel is frequented by many whale species, including Gray Whales, Humpback Whales, and Orcas. The best time to see whales is December through April during the Gray Whale migration, but you can see whales at any time of year. Cruises start at $50 for adults, $30 for children.
No vacation is complete without souvenir shopping, and State Street is loaded with shops your entire family will love. Stocked with thousands of board games, Game Seeker was a hit with everyone in my family. Hats Unlimited stocks pretty much every kind of hat you can imagine and is a great spot for funny family photos. Antique Alley is filled with thousands of vintage treasures including jewelry, clothing, furniture, art, and more. Book lovers won’t want to miss The Book Den, California’s oldest used book store, which you’ll find just off State Street on Anapamu Street. Here, you’ll find 20,000 new and used titles to choose from.
Open since 1949, McConnells keeps it simple by making ice cream from scratch with no added preservatives — and I think you’ll agree the results are very tasty. With inventive flavors like blood orange, chocolate covered strawberries, and Turkish coffee, everyone in your family is sure to find the perfect scoop. McConnell’s State Street location makes a perfect pit stop while you’re out souvenir shopping.
We had a fun dinner at this casual State Street restaurant, which has a reasonably priced menu with lots of options including salads, sandwiches, tacos, vegetarian dishes, and a kids menu. Bonus points for the bendable sculpting sticks the kids were given when we arrived — They definitely kept them quiet and entertained while we waited for our food!
No visit to Santa Barbara is complete without a walk down Stearns Wharf. This wharf was built in 1872 and is the oldest working wood wharf in California. Here, you’ll find restaurants, souvenir shops, a shellfish market, and a bait and tackle shop where you can rent fishing gear and get help from employees reeling in your own catch on the wharf. Wharf including three restaurants, a shellfish market, a bait and tackle shop, tourist oriented shops, a Channel Islands exhibit hall and the Museum of Natural History’s Sea Center.
Located on Stearns Wharf, the Sea Center is a big hit with kids and their parents. Here, you can pet sharks and starfish, view jellyfish, Decorator Crab, and octopus exhibits, try out oceanographic tools used by real-life scientists, watch special programs, and interact with the enthusiastic and informative staff.
You’ll find this beloved no-frills restaurant at the end of Stearn’s Wharf, which features seasonal, local shellfish straight from the fishermen who hauled it in. In addition to the spectacular view and reasonably-priced menu, locals particularly love the restaurant’s lobster bisque, rock crab, and California spiny lobster. The Santa Barbara Shellfish Company has been in the same location for 40 years, so you know it’s gotta be good!
Since Santa Barbara hotels can be pricy, consider staying in nearby Goleta. We loved the Kimpton Goodland Hotel, which featured stylish surfside decor, clean and comfortable rooms, and impeccable customer service. We’d stay here again in a heartbeat!
For gorgeous views, stroll through the Santa Barbara Harbor — This is a great place for lunch at one of the harbor’s open-air cafes. It’s also a launch point for lots of fun family activities, including sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing, renting a boat or jet ski, or going on a sunset or whale watching cruise.
Visitors absolutely love this interactive museum, which spotlights the region’s maritime history through lots of fun and imaginative exhibits. Here, you can learn to raise a sail, go on a simulated SCUBA dive, try sustainable fishing in a kelp forest, look at model ships, get a virtual tattoo, and more. Be sure to head up to the 4th floor observation deck, which has amazing views of Santa Barbara and the harbor.
Kids and parents alike love taking the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf, especially at sunset. For $5 per adult and $2 per child, this 15-minute narrated boat ride is short enought to hold the attention of even the smallest child — and no advance reservations are needed. The water taxi departs every half-hour and seats up to 19 people. You can buy tickets online ahead of time if you like, or pay when you get there.
We loved this hip tapas bar on Anapamu Street, which has some items that are surprisingly kid-friendly. We gobbled up the seasoned kale chips, the Gambas tiger prawns and our kids went crazy for the PB&J sliders (featuring ground sirloin, peanut butter, and raspberry jam!) and the ‘I Like Pig Butts’ bbq sliders — They were so popular, we had multiple orders of each! Add to this an innovative craft cocktail menu and you end up with a restaurant the whole family can love. Milk & Honey was definitely my favorite restaurant of our visit.
In Goleta, you’ll find the popular Ellwood Bluffs trail — a 1.2 mile loop trail along 80-foot cliffs that’s kid friendly and includes spectacular coastal views plus lots of gorgeous wildflowers. Spend your time atop the bluffs or take one of the trails that lead down to the beach. If you’re visiting between November and February, you’ll also want to make time to walk through the nearby Goleta Butterfly Grove, a migration point for thousands of Monarch butterflies. Admission to the grove is free.
It doesn’t get more local than a farmers market, which is why it’s one of our favorite attractions when we’re on vacation. Santa Barbara’s downtown farmers market happens every Saturday between 8:30am and 1pm at the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota Street. Here, you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, nuts, fresh milk, and more of the best local and regional farmers have to offer.
You’ll find this 8,000 square-foot playground in Santa Barbara’s Alameda Park — It’s a great place to let your kids burn off some energy and could also be a great reward after time spent shopping or touring a museum.
Although I received media accommodation for some of our activities, I researched and created my itinerary independently and all opinions/ recommendations are my own.