Between downtown Santa Barbara and the beaches and parks that surround it, the Spanish colonial city on the southern tip of the central California coast is an excellent destination for travelers of all ages, including families with members of various ages. Kids and adults alike can enjoy outings ranging from tidepooling and whale-watching to museum-hopping and picnics in the park — there’s really no shortage of fun, outdoorsy, and educational things to do in Santa Barbara. Read on for a rundown of some of the best Santa Barbara family activities.
Explore Stearns Wharf
One of Santa Barbara’s top attractions, Stearns Wharf is a historic pier located at the end of State Street that was built in 1872, making it the oldest operating wooden wharf on the West Coast. On the surface, Stearns Wharf is a great spot for walking or biking along the pier, taking in views of the harbor or even fishing. But it also offers a variety of activities for families to enjoy, from picking up local souvenirs to visiting the Sea Center. The Sea Center at Stearns Wharf is a great place to learn about the ocean and its inhabitants, with interactive exhibits that explore different aspects of the marine environment. The center has tanks filled with a variety of sea creatures such as fish, crabs, lobsters, urchins, and more. There are also touchpools where visitors can get up-close and personal with sea stars and anemones.
Have a beach day
East Beach and West Beach are among the most popular beaches in Santa Barbara, featuring wide stretches of sand that are perfect for sunbathing, swimming, volleyball, and other activities. Bud Leadbetter Beach, nestled between East Beach and West Beach, is arguably better for kids due to its calm, shallow waters, a trait that’s shared by Arroyo Burro Beach. Other beaches to keep in mind are beautiful Butterfly Beach with its stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, hidden-gem Hammond’s Reef with its low-tide pools that are perfect for little hands, and Carpinteria State Beach where you’ll find more tidepools, picnic facilities, and gentle waves.
Visit the Santa Barbara Zoo
Zoo visits are a classic family activity, and this zoo is no exception as one of the best things to do with kids in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara Zoo is home to more than 500 animals, representing almost 200 different species. Visitors can explore the different habitats, such as wetlands, islands, and savanna, as well as take in special exhibits like the African Savanna and Japanese Adventure Garden. The zoo also offers special programs including educational talks from experts in zoological fields and a variety of seasonal events throughout the year.
Meander down State Street
State Street is one of Santa Barbara’s most vibrant and popular destinations. Located in the heart of downtown, it features a mix of residential, commercial, and cultural activities, including boutique shops, great restaurants, galleries, and other entertainment venues. State Street is also home to iconic landmarks like Mission Santa Barbara and the Arlington Theatre, a longtime hub for movie-goers and music lovers that offers a variety of events suitable for all ages, including live shows, stand-up-comedy, children’s programs, and special holiday showings, in addition to screenings of both new blockbusters and classic films.
Hike Santa Barbara’s open spaces
Santa Barbara is a great place for families to explore the outdoors, with plenty of kid-friendly hikes. Some of the best hikes for families include the Gibraltar Trail in Los Padres National Forest, which takes you through an oak forest and offers stunning views from its peak; nearby Cold Springs Trail, an old road with gentle rolling hills perfect for little ones; Rattlesnake Canyon, home to a winding trail with creek crossings and waterfalls; and Romero Canyon Trail in Coronado National Forest, which features a picturesque meadow perfect for picnics.
Learn something at the MOXI Museum
Stuffy museums are kid kryptonite, but the fun and educational MOXI Museum is one of the best things to do with kids in Santa Barbara. Formerly known as the Santa Barbara Museum of Discovery, the MOXI is an interactive science and technology museum with three floors of exhibits based on themes such as exploration and innovation. Exhibits include a shark lagoon with live sharks, a giant kaleidoscope, and hands-on STEM experiments. MOXI also offers educational programs, special events, and workshops year-round. If you’re a science-minded family — or not! — there’s no better way to make science come alive.
Head to a local park
For a relatively small city, Santa Barbara is flush with kid-friendly parks. Chase Palm Park, for example, has a carousel, large playground, and picnic tables, while Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden offers lush greenery and ponds swimming with resident ducks. Two must-visit parks in Santa Barbara are Shoreline and Alameda. A standout feature of beachfront Shoreline Park is its pedestrian and bike pathway that winds around several ponds and saltwater marshes. There are also picnic areas, sand dunes, and, of course, a swimmable beach. Alameda Park covers nine acres of lush gardens, hiking trails, picnic areas, and playgrounds, as well as a tranquil lake surrounded by willow trees that’s perfect for bird-watching. Alameda Park also hosts several annual events such as the Santa Barbara Music Festival and Alameda Night Market.
See the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
If you’re looking for a more official natural attraction, consider the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which is technically located in Goleta. It features over 1,000 species of plants from around the world, including native Californian varieties. Visitors can explore the 78-acre property and five miles of trails that wind through meadows and woodlands to learn about the region’s unique flora and fauna. The botanic garden also offers educational programs for all ages, as well as special events like Family Camp Outs and Yoga in the Garden.
Plan a whale-watching excursion
Every year, hundreds of gray whales, humpback whales, and pilot whales migrate along the California coast from December to April, making Santa Barbara an excellent place to take a boat out into the ocean. Numerous local tour companies offer whale-watching trips and boat charters throughout the year, as well as help to facilitate other coastal activities such as kayaking and paddleboarding. Tour boats equipped with knowledgeable guides will take you out into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel where you’ll have a good chance of seeing multiple whale species. Some tour companies also offer sunset cruises for those wanting to watch these majestic creatures in their natural habitat after dark.
Family-friendly Airbnbs and hotels in Santa Barbara
Romantic as it may be, Santa Barbara is an inherently family-friendly city, which means you’ll have no problem finding an accommodation that’s suitable for kids. Booking a Santa Barbara Airbnb by the beach is an obvious choice to make your visit feel homey, but you can also choose from a variety of well-located hotels. Here are a few good options.
We hope you love these family-friendly Santa Barbara accommodations! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort
Family-friendly is a common descriptor in reviews of the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort. The 24-acre resort, which is located right on East Beach and a stone’s throw from the Santa Barbara harbor, has tons of amenities for all ages, from a pool and tennis court for the little ones to a spa and on-property wine tastings for adults.
Where: 633 E Cabrillo Blvd, Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Price per night: From $225
The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara
Luxury hotels don’t always scream family-friendly, but the Ritz-Carlton Bacara caters to guests of all ages with the Ritz-Kid program, a pool, plenty of kid-approved dining options, and an overall easygoing feel. The Ritz-Carlton Bacara is also pet-friendly.
Where: 8301 Hollister Ave, Santa Barbara, CA 93117
Price per night: From $809
Mission Canyon Oak Haven
Peaceful and private, this three-bedroom house is conveniently located near downtown shops, dining options, and the beach, as well as popular local attractions within 15 minutes. The mix of king, queen, and bunk beds are great for families of all sizes and ages, as is the open kitchen and spacious gated backyard, complete with a swing, hammock, and outdoor dining area.
Three bedrooms, six guests
Price per night: $377