There’s a reason Santa Barbara’s been coined the American Riviera. The central California city boasts nearly perfect temps year-round, is home to pristine beaches and gorgeous Spanish architecture, and has a laid-back vibe that makes it the perfect retreat for families to unwind and reconnect. From the coolest museums and must-see exhibits to outdoor adventures and the best gelato in town—here’s an ideal itinerary for exploring Santa Barbara with kids.
Day 1: Beachfront Bike Ride, Stearns Wharf, MOXI: The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
There's no better way to ease into vacation mode than with a beachfront bike ride. Rent a bike from Wheels of Fun. The pick-up location is just one block away from the beach and Stearns Wharf, in the heart of the Funk Zone, so there's easy access to all the bike paths by the beach. Depending on age and skill level, you can pedal all the way to Butterfly Beach (a three-mile ride one way) or stick closer to the wharf and harbor. The full ride takes you on the Cabrillo Bike Path which is mostly flat but does get hilly once you approach Butterfly Beach. Extra bonus: you'll cruise by the Santa Barbara Zoo so be on the lookout for giraffes hanging out on the feeding deck.
Insider Tip: If you decide to take the path all the way to Butterfly Beach instead of going towards the roundabout in Montecito, veer right where East Cabrillo Boulevard meets Channel Drive, take a right on Channel Drive and keep pedaling past Santa Barbara Cemetery before arriving at an overlook surrounded by beautiful flower blooms, with the sparkling seas of Butterfly Beach waiting below to continue your ride into Montecito and Coast Village Road.
Break for lunch at one of the many eateries around the wharf and harbor. Brophy Bros is always bustling and a true Santa Barbara mainstay. Located on the waterfront, it's a lively and fun place to come for great, fresh fish dishes—the clam chowder and fish & chips are especially popular. Upstairs patio seating offers a great view of the harbor and the more than 1300 boats docked there. Before or after lunch be sure to explore Stearns Wharf, the West Coast's oldest working wooden wharf, and a beloved Santa Barbara landmark.
Insider Tip: Every Saturday there's a Fishermen’s Market where you can check out the haul of fresh fish for sale or taste sea urchin, a local delicacy, straight from the shell.
After lunch, choose to stick around the harbor and take a boat ride with your crew. Options are plentiful and include a water taxi ride with 'Lil Toot or Santa Barbara's only all-electric charter boat "Whisper", meant for small groups of up to six people. The captain gives a tour of the harbor and Stearns Wharf and you have the chance of seeing seals, sea lions, dolphins, and a variety of sea birds. There's space on the boat to bring food and drinks if you want to take your Brophy Bros' to-go or pack a dessert.
Block a few hours in the afternoon to explore, play and discover at the MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation. The 17,000 square foot space is less a museum and more like a multi-floor, hands-on, interactive space that kids won't want to leave because everything spins, beeps and or lights up in the very coolest way. Imagine the best science class ever! Try starting at the rooftop, where kids learn how solar power works by testing it on musical instruments. Then make your way down floor by floor where you'll run into games of velocity, speed, a maker space and even a Foley studio where visitors can make their own soundtrack.
Dig into a bowl of spaghetti and teach the kids how to play Bocce at Arnoldi's restaurant, an old school (i.e., it was established in '37) Santa Barabara establishment. The menu is filled with authentic Italian dishes including desserts like cannoli, tirimsu, and gelato. You can sit on the lovely patio outside (overlooking two full Bocce courts) or choose a booth indoors.
Day 2: The Natural History Museum, State Street, The Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, Eat at Lucky Penny
Enjoy breakfast at Jeannine's. It's a Santa Barbara institution that started by serving scones to the community more than 30 years ago. Since then it's opened three locations, the most recent on State Street, and enhanced its menu to Kahlua-soaked banana french toast, lobster Benedict, and a buttermilk pancake breakfast that will get the whole family smiling and ready to start the day.
Explore the National History Museum, which is a relatively small museum and not at all overwhelming—just perfect for kids. The museum is housed in Spanish Revival-style buildings on an extensive property with lush gardens and most of your visit will be spent outdoors. The 72-foot Blue Whale skeleton that greets you upon entrance will have kids excited to see more. The current Butterflies Alive exhibit is a must-see. There are more than 1000 butterflies, many from Costa Rica and they're spectacular to see them up close and personal. You'll need to wait in a short line outside of the pavilion as they only allow a certain amount of guests in at a time.
Fuel up with lunch on State Street. It's the place to stroll through shops and stop for a frozen treat at Tondi Gelato.
Visit the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden where kiddos can walk and wander through 78 acres of California's endemic plant life. It is a great place to walk and wander, though they offer plenty of more structured, docent-led tours. There's also a Japanese teahouse on-site worth checking out.
Insider Tip: Reservations are necessary for the Botanical Garden, you can make them online here.
Treat your family to dinner at Lucky Penny. It’s hard to miss the small stand-alone eatery in the heart of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone: The outside of its building is covered with 164,456 real copper pennies. Specializing in wood-fired pizza, salads and sandwiches, Lucky Penny is the perfect stop for families after a long day of adventuring. Grab a table in the inviting courtyard and dig into the restaurants' locally sourced, seasonal dishes. Don't miss the ice cream sandwich that are yummy and big enough to share!
Day 3: Hit the Beach, Walk the Trails, Kayak in the Harbor or at Haskell's Beach
Stop by Dune's Coffee and fuel up for the day. They have multiple locations in Santa Barbara and brew a magical cup of jo.
Spend time at the beach or walking the trails overlooking the ocean. Choose from either Goleta Beach Park, which has a playground, grassy area with barbecue pits and ample room for picnicking, Carpinteria State Beach, or Haskell's Beach.
Insider Tip: Haskell's Beach, formerly Tecolote Beach, has long been one of Goleta's best-kept secrets. It's located at the base of Bacara Resort and there is beach access and a parking area for public use. A wide easy-graded path leads to a small park-like area with grass and picnic tables just above the beach. Here you will find the "Beach House" which has restrooms, showers, and a shaded alcove.
Discover the Labyrinth Trail on Lagoon Island. To get here you can park at UCSB (just pay for short-term parking in lot 23) and walk the trails near the campus.
Go kayaking with Santa Barbara Adventure Company. Or choose a different water-sport adventure. There's everything from SUP, to surfboard rentals to keep young water-lovers entertained.
Getting There & Where to Stay
One of the best things about a trip to Santa Barbara is that it's so easy to get to from anywhere in southern California! There's now a direct flight from San Diego to Santa Barbara (via Alaska Airlines), you can take the train, or make it a road trip. Whatever you choose the journey there is easy-breezy. Once you arrive there are plenty of hotel options for families where you can take advantage of third-night free promotions when two or more nights are booked. The Leta Hotel in Goleta is a family-friendly option where you can explore both downtown Santa Barbara and all that Goleta has to offer. The kids will love the heated swimming pool and laid-back vibe.
Editor’s note: This trip was sponsored by Visit Santa Barbara and The Leta Hotel, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.