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 family-centric attractions, like the MOXI interactive science museum, and outdoor opportunities, like surfing. Summertime ocean and air temperatures are perfect when the kids are out of school, but the crowds are plenty. Budget-savvy families can expect a drop in prices come September, making this the perfect time to visit (if you can take the kids out of school).
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the east side of Alameda Park is a hugely popular 8,000-square-foot playground known as Kid's World. Envisioned by kids, built by local residents, and recently remodeled in 2018, this creative play space features a wooden castle, tire swings, Tarzan ropes, monkey bars, and curved slides. Picnicking areas and restrooms are available, as the park often hosts large city celebrations and events.
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.
In nearby Carpinteria, A-Frame Surf Shop offers beginner surf instruction. 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.
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.
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 heeled fashionistas. The market is held on Saturday mornings in downtown Santa Barbara and on Tuesday afternoons in Old Town on State Street.
Get Hands-on at MOXI
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.
At Rori's, Rori Trovato makes all the organic artisanal ice cream, cookies, cones, and candy the joint sells. There's no skimping on ingredients here and it shows in the taste. Choose from flavors like Brown Sugar Banana, Milk Chocolate Chunk, NY Strawberry Cheesecake, and Salted Caramel. Located in the trendy Santa Barbara Public Market, Rori's foodie confections may top any you've ever had.
At the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, families can learn about the region's early explorers, commercial fishing, surfing, shipwrecks, and the history of oil in the Santa Barbara area. Interactive exhibits allow parents and kids to fish a sustainable kelp forest, raise the sail of a sailboat, sort trash into world gyres, and go virtual diving. Kids will also enjoy coming face-to-face with Great White sharks in the museum's art gallery. The museum is opened every day except Wednesdays.