Things to do in Santa Barbara with Kids
Santa Barbara, CA is one of those coastal cities that so epitomizes California living – nestled between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean, there is a beauty and serenity to it that is reminiscent of the Mediterranean. In fact, many people refer to the charmed city as the “Riviera of America”. Standing in the harbor overlooking the beach and ocean, with the mountains looming in the distance, it’s easy to see why.
Santa Barbara is as relaxed and peaceful as a town might be, known more for its natural surroundings than its urban diversity, such as in its southern neighbor, Los Angeles. Some people may call it a little sleepy, which I can understand, but for a weekend visit, or a day trip (as in our case), it’s the perfect get-away. Especially for a family visit with kids, it’s the perfect escape since it’s so easy. Think beaches, parks, a harbor, great biking, even the city’s own zoo.
My family and I were lucky enough to get a personal tour of Santa Barbara by my aunt and uncle, who live there part-time. They gave us their “driving tour”, which took us all around town, down by the water, and up into the foothills. One thing I would like to note is that the devastation from the recent 2017 mudslides was very much still apparent and hard to swallow in places…entire houses swept away, destroyed, little remains. I was glad to be visiting the city at such a time, and give it my tourist and economic support, shall we say. With that, we had a really great day trip to pretty Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is the perfect place to take the family. Here are some of the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids:
Santa Barbara has gorgeous beaches with beautiful white sand, some more crowded than others. The three main beaches – East, West and Leadbetter – are all good choices, but if you want the least crowded head to East beach. That’s what we did and practically had our little section of beach to ourselves. Though we didn’t surf, Santa Barbara is known for its surfing and is a great place to teach the kids. The setting of the beach and coastline is one of the best in California – you can enjoy sublime scenery for miles.
Bike or Stroll Cabrillo Boulevard
Cabrillo Boulevard is the street that runs along the shoreline, and is a must-visit when in Santa Barbara, whether you’re biking, walking or running! We walked along the path that runs on Cabrillo to get to East Beach. It’s such a wonderful stretch of Santa Barbara to explore and really allows you to take in its setting on the sea. I think if I lived there I’d go jogging there every day! There are a bunch of bike rental companies – try Santa Barbara Bikes-To-Go.
Visit the Old Mission Santa Barbara
You can’t go to Santa Barbara and not see the exquisite Old Mission, in my opinion. Founded in 1786, it was the tenth California mission to be founded by the Spanish Franciscans. Its stunning architecture set atop a hill in the Santa Barbara foothills has led to it being called the “Queen of the Missions”. It still has an active parish today. You can tour the building and grounds – there are some beautiful courtyards – and it’s fun for any age. It really is a remarkable structure and such an iconic part of Santa Barbara’s history. Afterward (or before), make sure to walk down the grassy hill in front and see all the roses. There are hundreds of them.
Spend time at the Santa Barbara Zoo
People love this little zoo, even though it might not be as big and mighty as some of its southern neighbors, aka the San Diego zoo and L.A. zoo. With its precious train that circles the property, and well-maintained grounds, it’s a prized piece of Santa Barbara fun. Residents are proud of their zoo, and rightfully so. You can still find many of the animals you would at other zoos, and it makes for the perfect activity outside of beach time.
Take a Walk on Stern’s Wharf
This beloved wooden wharf starts where State Street (Santa Barbara’s main shopping street) ends. You can drive down the wharf (for a fee) and park at the end where the shops are if you want to walk and cruise around there. That’s what we did. There are some good old bric-a-brac and ice cream shops that are fun for the kids to dip into. My favorite thing about the wharf, though, is looking back at land from the water and seeing the Santa Ynez mountains in the distance. From here you really get great perspective of the beauty that is Santa Barbara and why so many people fall in love with it.
Have lunch in the Harbor
Down the road from Stern’s wharf is the Santa Barbara harbor, one of the prettiest harbors around. We had lunch at the End of Summer and then strolled around and looked at the boats. It’s the perfect spot to take the kids for lunch or an early dinner. Other popular restaurants include Brophy’s and On the Alley.
Visit the Santa Barbara County Courthouse
The courthouse? Yes! This is a stunning building, and one of the first buildings my aunt and uncle took me to when they gave us a driving tour of Santa Barbara. A Spanish-Moorish architectural gem, the details, the mosaics, the tiled floors are all exquisite. What makes it fun for kids? You can take an elevator to the top where you can get amazing views of the city from the “El Mirador” clocktower. The gardens and courtyards outside of the building make a great spot for a little break as well.
Stroll along State Street
State Street is the main shopping street in the middle of town full of boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, ice cream shops and more. Take a stroll down this palm-lined street and eat outside at one of its many restaurants or simply window shop with the kids in tow. There’s always ice cream to reward them with good behavior! This is also where the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is located, should it be a rainy day.
Those are our top picks for the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids. If you have any to add, please leave in the comments below.