The Easiest Car-Free Vacation? Santa Barbara

best weekend getaway girls trip from Los Angeles OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

Dreaming of a traffic-free trip from LA that still delivers fun, sun and then some? Look no further than easy-to-navigate Santa Barbara

Kids who are ‘loco’ for locomotives will go off the rails for this unforgettable train journey to Santa Barbara. The great walkability of this coastal town makes leaving the car at home a total breeze. From trolley rides and whale watching to museums and marine life, explore the sights via the Santa Barbara Car Free ‘Take the Train’ promotion which includes discounts on hotels, restaurants, and more kid-friendly activities. There are plenty of exciting activities to do with your kids in Santa Barbara that’ll give your family unforgettable memories.


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The Best Way to Travel between SoCal & Santa Barbara

Train-loving kids will be over-the-moon to get out of the car and onto the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner or Coast Starlight. With multiple trains per day departing from many Southern California locations, taking the train sets the mood for untethered travel. Instead of being locked into car seats, timing traffic, and stopping for bathroom breaks, the train allows your family to engage face-to-face, relax and hit the snack bar or bathroom anytime. This scenic route gets even better as the Amtrak Surfliner and Coast Starlight hug the California coast, giving a front-row seat to spectacular sunsets and ocean views. 

Online: amtrak.com

Santa Barbara’s Best Museums, Zoos & Aquariums

Santa Barbara Zoo

Even the animals have an ocean view in Santa Barbara. Enjoy peek-a-boo views of the Pacific Ocean while you admire the giraffes feeding and watch the palm trees sway over the pink flamingos. The Santa Barbara Zoo has an impressive array of 500 animals on 30 beautifully-landscaped acres. From penguins and foxes to leopards and lions, this laid-back zoo is a must for animal-loving families.

Car-Free Tips: The Santa Barbara Zoo is just under 2 miles from Stearns Wharf. The Waterfront MTD bus and Santa Barbara Trolley Company both have a stop directly in front of the zoo—or do a half-day bike rental and enjoy the scenic 2-mile ride along the boardwalk.

500 Ninos Dr.
Santa Barbara
Online: sbzoo.org

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation

The innovative MOXI has been getting rave reviews since it opened in 2017 and for good reason. Thoughtful exhibits ignite curiosity and creativity through interactive play on three beautifully-designed floors. Build and race Automoblox race cars, create movie soundtracks, and engage in tons of STEAM fun for all ages. Check out the rooftop Sky Garden for breathtaking views of Santa Barbara. We give this brilliant and bright children’s museum an A+.

Car-Free Tips: The Museum is conveniently located on State Street, next door to the Santa Barbara Amtrak train station, and easy walking distance from many hotels.

125 State St.
Santa Barbara
Online: moxi.org

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Sea Center

Small but mighty, the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf includes interactive touch tanks with a beautiful array of sea stars, sea urchins, and sharks. Take a turn with the oceanographic tools, including a bucket that kids can lower down into the ocean, and come back with a scoop full of marine life to look at under the microscope. A super-cool hands-on experience for future marine explorers.

211 Stearns Wharf
Santa Barbara
Online: sbnature.org

Santa Barbara Adventure Company

For families with kids ages five and up, Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers a kayaking Harbor Fun Paddle around the Santa Barbara shoreline. This 2-hour guided tour loops through the harbor and near Stearns Wharf. Kids sit in the front of the double-kayak with a pint-sized paddle and a parent in the back, as you look for sea stars, seals, and sea lions to the narrative of a knowledgeable guide. Gentle waters make this mellow paddle perfect for parents and kids.

Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara
Online: sbadventureco.com

Condor Express Whale Watching Tour

Climb aboard the Condor Express for a memorable 2.5-hour cruise in search of whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. This high-speed jet-powered catamaran cruises from Sea Landing to the Santa Barbara Channel looking for Humpback whales and pods of dolphins to the delight of passengers of all ages. Large viewing decks outside, onboard bathrooms, a snack bar, and indoor seating options make this whale-watching trip a great choice for families.

Santa Barbara Harbor
Santa Barbara
Online: condorexpress.com

The Best Places to Stay in Santa Barbara

Hotel Santa Barbara

Hotel Santa Barbara is full of historic charm in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, a short 8-minute walk up State Street from the train station. A hotel has been on the site since 1876 and its traditional style is complemented by modern comforts, including oh-so-comfy pillow-top beds, plush robes, and modern bathrooms. Gourmet coffee, waffles, and locally-baked pastries are free to guests during the complimentary continental breakfast, including decadent almond and dark chocolate croissants from Renaud’s Patisserie. The super-convenient State Street location makes it a great middle point between the beach and downtown Santa Barbara.

533 State St.
Santa Barbara
Online: hotelsantabarbara.com

The Waterman

Across the street from the train station and directly in the urban Funk Zone is the hip Waterman Hotel. The hotel has a modern vibe mixed with a European hostel state of mind, welcoming travelers of all types, from families with kids of all ages to global backpackers, retirees, and wine-trail revelers. Bring your own groceries to utilize the hotel’s full-size community kitchen or just enjoy the complimentary continental breakfast. The hotel has 27 modern rooms with ensuite bathrooms and a few shared bunk-bed rooms typically for single travelers, but parents have been known to rent them out for a kids’ bunk-bed room.

12 E. Montecito St.
Santa Barbara
Online: marriott.com

 

Where to Eat in Santa Barbara with Kids

Finney’s Crafthouse & Kitchen

Located conveniently near the beach and MOXI, Finney’s Crafthouse is a great spot to take a break from the day’s activities and refuel. With a kids menu and coloring page for the little ones (try the pizza with a side of berries!) and salads, gourmet flatbreads, burgers, and a craft-brew list for the adults, it’s a win-win for the whole family. Grab a spot on the patio and soak in the sunny views.

35 State St.
Santa Barbara
Online: finneyscrafthouse.com

Helena Avenue Bakery

With refined industrial decor and a welcoming, family-friendly vibe, Helena Avenue Bakery wows guests with made-from-scratch bread, gourmet sandwiches, and delectable pastries. Located in the Funk Zone, Helena Avenue Bakery offers seat-yourself communal tables and takeaway breakfast and lunch in a modern, yet casual industrial space. Watch the working bakery in action as you savor artisan sandwiches like the California Turkey on fresh-baked baguette and the Cuban on toasted sourdough. Be sure to save room for a decadent chocolate chip cookie.

131 Anacapa St.
Santa Barbara
Online: helenaavenuebakery.com

FisHouse

After a day taking in Santa Barbara’s many seaside activities, take a break at local-favorite FisHouse. With a sunny patio overlooking the ocean and Stearns Wharf, enjoy seafood specialties like Crab Cakes and a Seared Ahi Tuna Club for you and the kids-menu fish and chips and strawberry lemonade for the little ones.

101 E. Cabrillo Ave.
Santa Barbara
Online: fishousesb.com

 

How to Get around Santa Barbara without a Car

From the train station, many hotels are within a short walking distance. The Wayfarer Hotel is just across the street and Hotel Santa Barbara is a short 8-minute walk up State Street. Bring a stroller if you have little ones who tire easily and make sure you can effortlessly manage the luggage you’re bringing. A mixture of backpacks and rolling suitcases works best.

Bonus points: Let your little one bring their own pint-sized rolling suitcase. They’ll love feeling grown-up and you’ll appreciate the extra hands-on help. Once you’re checked in to your hotel and you’ve dropped off your luggage, getting around is easy. Most activities are within a 10-minute walk, but there’s also the MTD bus service and bikes at Wheel Fun Rentals.

Online: MTD bus serviceWheel Fun Rentals

Santa Barbara Trolley Company

Hop on and off the Santa Barbara Trolley for a fun way to travel around town. A knowledgeable driver takes you past the Santa Barbara Zoo, Sea Landing, the Santa Barbara Mission, and many stops in between. Stay on board for the whole 90-minute narrated tour or jump on and off at select stops. If you arrive at the Visitors Center with some extra time before your Trolley Tour departs, walk across the street to Chase Palm Park with a playground and pond with turtles and ducks.

1 Garden St.
Santa Barbara
Online: sbtrolley.com

This trip was paid for by Santa Barbara Car Free partners but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.

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