From posh resorts and gourmet restaurants to stunning beaches and an awesome zoo, there's a seemingly endless list of things to love about this California coastal town that calls itself the "American Riviera." Nestled between the ocean and the Santa Ynez mountains, Santa Barbara basks in a Mediterranean-like climate and offers loads of attractions and outdoor opportunities that will satisfy kids big and small, as well as kids at heart.
When to Go
The local tourist season peaks in summer, when everything gets more crowded and more expensive. June still brings a higher chance of fog (known locally as "June gloom") but July through September are ideal for swimming in the Pacific. Temperatures remain warm through early fall, and the drop in prices make this a great time for savvy families to visit. Prices drop even further in winter and early spring, though this is also the period when you can expect more rain and the coolest temperatures of the year.
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No visit to Santa Barbara is complete without an inexpensive half-hour ferry ride across the harbor on board the cheerful yellow Lil' Toot Water Taxi. The boat makes continuous loops between Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf, the longest deep-water pier between Los Angeles and San Francisco. One-way fare for a family of four is just $10.
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Looking for a perfect place to play in the sand and surf? Extending 1.6 miles from Stearns Wharf to the Andree Clark Bird Refuge and bordered by a grassy, tree-lined park, East Beach is Santa Barbara's most popular beach and a great place to go people watching on weekends. It offers a children's playground, volleyball courts, rollerblading trails, food vendors, picnic facilities, showers and grassy lawns. Need an easy way to get there? Hop on the Lil' Toot Water Taxi.
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With its ocean views and beautiful park-like setting on 30 acres of lush gardens overlooking the Pacific, the Santa Barbara Zoo is a real stunner. More than 500 animals representing 160 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects are exhibited in open, naturalistic habitats. Small and manageable, the whole zoo can be explored in a few hours; highlights include a ride on the miniature train and hand-feeding the Masai giraffes.
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On the east side of Alameda Park is a hugely popular 8,000-square-foot playground known as Kid's World that will make parents wish they were children again. Envisioned by kids and built by local residents, this creative play space features a wooden castle, tire swings, Tarzan ropes, monkey bars, curvy slides, and more. Picnicking areas and restrooms are available, and the park often hosts large city celebrations and events.
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Kids of all ages can explore the hands-on marine exhibits at the Ty Warner Sea Center, which offers lots of ways for kids to get up-close and personal with sea critters. Highlights include a leopard shark touch pool and a 1,500-gallon tidepool tank kids can crawl through to view sea life from a different perspective. Head to the wet deck for a magnified peek at the sea life right under your feet. Kids can even take water samples just like an oceanographer would.
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Situated right on the waterfront, Chase Palm Park delights children with its shipwreck-themed playground featuring surfacing whales, a conch-shell lighthouse, murals, and a nautilus-shell play area. There are also fountains and a beautiful antique carousel that plays fun music and is an elegant throwback to another era. For older kids, there are trails for biking and rollerblading plus a skateboarding park.
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In nearby Carpinteria, A-Frame Surf Shop has taught thousands of beginners how to surf. Instructors will customize your lesson to meet your family members' ages and skill levels.Plan on spending at least 90 minutes for a private lesson and longer for groups.
Is paddleboarding on calmer waters more your speed? Check out Santa Barbara Sailing Center, located in Santa Barbara Harbor, for rentals and tours.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Families will enjoy free guided walks around the 65-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to discover over 1,000 species of plants and flowers with thorns, spines, and prickles. Along the way, you'll learn about how seeds travel; find out about flowers and insects, and more. Offered on weekends and Mondays; call ahead for times. After the tour, plan to take a break in the Japanese teahouse.
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Great for picking up souvenirs or picnic fare, the Santa Barbara Farmer's Market is packed with delicious California foodstuffs from top local growers and purveyors. Every Tuesday and Saturday, you'll find olives and olive oil, pistachios, apple pie, and myriad other tasty goods. This is also ground zero for people watching, thanks to a constant parade of hippies, dread-locked surfers, and well-heeled fashionistas. (Saturday mornings: Downtown Santa Barbara; Tuesday afternoons: Old Town State St.)