The 12 Best Things to Do With Kids in Santa Barbara

Kid playing at East Beach, Santa Barbara
Doug Oakley/Getty Images

From stunning beaches and an awesome zoo to posh resorts and gourmet restaurants, there are endless reasons to love Santa Barbara. Nestled between the ocean and the Santa Ynez Mountains, this California coastal town basks in a Mediterranean-like climate and offers loads of activities. One of the city's most distinct landmarks is the Santa Barbara Mission, but kids will probably have more fun with a family-centric itinerary visiting an interactive science museum or taking a surf lesson.

The summer season provides the perfect backdrop for a long beach day followed by a few scoops from the classic Rori's Ice Cream, but you can also expect to find big crowds and long lines. If you can get the kids out of school for a long weekend, September is the best month to enjoy the city and beach. Whatever time of year you decide to go, here are some fun activities kids will love in Santa Barbara.

01 of 12

Ride the Iconic Trolley

Santa Barbara Trolley on street with palm trees

Jay Sinclair / Visit Santa Barbara

1 Garden St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
Phone +1 805-965-0353

To get the lay of the land, what could be more fun than a trolley tour? The Santa Barbara Trolley offers 90-minute sightseeing tours that pass by landmarks like Stearns Wharf, East Beach, the Santa Barbara Zoo, and the historic Old Santa Barbara Mission. The classic red trolley has been running tours for over 30 years and for groups, they also offer special services and accommodation for parties and weddings.

02 of 12

Visit Channel Islands National Park

Arch rock in Channel Islands

Benedek / Getty Images

301 West Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara Harbor, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
Phone +1 805-882-0088

From Santa Barbara, you have the opportunity to check a super unique national park off the bucket list with a visit to the Channel Islands. Made up of five protected islands, the national park is a refuge for wild animals and an incredible place to spot dolphins and whales breaching in the Pacific Ocean.

This off-the-beaten-path destination is a perfect place to break away from the crowds, but you'll need to take a ferry to get there. You can also arrange an excursion with a tour operator like the Santa Barbara Adventure Company which organizes kayak trips around the islands.

03 of 12

Look Out for Seals in Carpinteria

Seals at Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary.

Laser1987 / Getty Images

5669 Carpinteria Ave, Carpinteria, CA 93013, USA
Phone +1 805-684-2247

You can take an adventure down the coast to visit Santa Barbara's blubbery neighbors. The Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary can be reached by following the hiking and biking routes of the Coastal Vista Trail, an incredible trail that follows bluffs south of the town of Carpinteria.

On this stretch of beach, you'll see nearly 100 adult harbor seals and their cubs lounging on the sand and splashing in the water. The best season to see the seals is between December and May, when more baby seals are being born. Wild seals should never be approached, so the beach is off-limits. However, you can get a fantastic view from above.

04 of 12

Get Hands-on at MOXI

The Levinson Family Sky Garden features beautiful views of the city of Santa Barbara from the mountains to the ocean as well as a series of interactive exhibits including Whitewater. Guests can enjoy a variety of ways of looking out at the city in the Towbes Family Lookout Tower.

MOXI / Visit Santa Barbara

125 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
Phone +1 805-770-5000

MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation, started as an idea to promote STEAM-based learning outside of the classroom. Exhibits include collaborations with Gyroscope, Inc., Creative Machines, Roto, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. Their Sound Track exhibit allows kids to create their own guitar riffs on a giant guitar and control a futuristic DJ table. The Innovation Workshop provides a space for all ages to create and design using low- and high-tech tools. Guests are encouraged to buy general admission tickets in advance.

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05 of 12

Ride the Lil' Toot

Lil' Toot Water Taxi in Santa Barbara
George Rose/Getty Images
Santa Barbara Harbor, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, USA

Deemed the "Happiest Boat in the Harbor," Santa Barbara's Lil' Toot Water Taxi delivers an inexpensive half-hour tour. The boat makes continuous loops between Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf, the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Taxi rides and harbor tours are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis or you can purchase tickets online. Choose from a sunset cruise, a whale-watching cruise, or a narrated boat ride.

06 of 12

Hit the Beach

East Beach, Santa Barbara
Jo_brittney/Getty Images
East Beach, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

Santa Barbara is a quintessential California beach town, making it a perfect place to play in the sand and surf. East Beach, which extends from Stearns Wharf to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge, is Santa Barbara's most popular beach and a great place to people watch on weekends. It's bordered by a grassy, tree-lined park, complete with a children's playground, volleyball courts, rollerblading trails, food vendors, picnic facilities, showers, and grassy lawns. If you want to beat the crowds, try off-the-beaten-path Arroyo Burro Beach. And dog lovers will dig Butterfly Beach (named so due to the Monarchs that winter nearby), as it's one of few area beaches where dogs can run leash-free.

07 of 12

Feed a Giraffe at the Zoo

Santa Barbara Zoo

Marc Levin/Flickr

Santa Barbara, CA 93103, USA

With its ocean views and beautiful park-like setting on 30 acres, the Santa Barbara Zoo is a real stunner. More than 500 animals representing 160 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects make their home here in replicated natural habitats. Small and manageable, the whole zoo can be explored in a few hours. Highlights for little ones include a ride on the miniature train and hand-feeding the ​Masai giraffes.

08 of 12

Explore on Two Wheels

This electric bike tour takes guests through beautiful pathways, historical highlights and breathtaking views of Santa Barbara.

Cal Coast Adventures / Visit Santa Barbara

The best way to explore Santa Barbara's waterfront is by pedaling the coastal bike path that runs along East Beach. Wheel of Fun Rentals offers a wide selection of pedal-craft, from mountain bikes, beach cruisers, and tandems to surreys and deuce coupes. Adventurous families can head to the Los Padres National Forest right outside of Santa Barbara where singletrack trails range from moderate to strenuous and offer a bird's eye view of the coast.

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09 of 12

Touch a Shark

Handler at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History sea center holding a small fish and a museum guest touching the fish while other attendees look on

Courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

211 Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-3584, USA
Phone +1 805-962-2526

Kids of all ages can explore hands-on marine exhibits at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History's Sea Center. Get up-close and personal with sea critters, including a leopard shark, sea anemones, and hermit crabs. The museum's 1,500-gallon tidepool tank has a spot where kids can crawl through to view sea life from a different perspective. Head to the wet deck for a magnified peek at sea life under your feet. Kids can even engage in activities like taking water samples just like an oceanographer.

10 of 12

Learn to Surf

Exploring Santa Barbara County's Jalama Beach
George Rose/Getty Images
3785 Santa Claus Ln, Carpinteria, CA 93013-1109, USA
Phone +1 805-684-8803

In nearby Carpinteria, A-Frame Surf Shop offers beginner surf classes. Trained instructors customize your lesson to meet both the age of family members and their skill levels. Book a 90-minute private lesson or a longer group lesson. If paddleboarding calm water is more your speed, check out ​the Santa Barbara Sailing Center (located in Santa Barbara Harbor) for rentals and tours.

11 of 12

Tour a Botanical Garden

Santa Barbara Bontanic Garden

Anna Irene/Flickr

1212 Mission Canyon Rd, Santa Barbara, CA 93105, USA
Phone +1 805-682-4726

Families will enjoy free guided walks around the 65-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Discover over 1,000 species of plants and flowers with thorns, spines, and beautiful foliage. Along the way, learn about seed travel and the role of pollinators, and look for animal tracks and droppings. Tours are offered on weekends and Mondays but call ahead for times. After the tour, hit up the Garden Shop, considered one of the best local resources for books on native plants.

12 of 12

Shop for Picnic Fare

Santa Barbara Farmer's Market

Toisel / Flickr

Corporate Office, check website for locations, 232 Anacapa St Ste 1A, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA
Phone +1 805-962-5354

Rub shoulders with the locals while grabbing some picnic fare at the Santa Barbara Farmer's Market. This market is packed with delicious California produce and specialty food items from the area's top local growers and purveyors. Here you can find olives and olive oil, pistachios, apple pie, and a myriad of other tasty goods. This is also ground zero for people watching, thanks to a constant parade of hippies, dread-locked surfers, and high-heeled fashionistas. The market is held on Saturday mornings in downtown Santa Barbara and on Tuesday afternoons in Old Town on State Street.

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The 12 Best Things to Do With Kids in Santa Barbara