Spanish colonial architecture became Santa Barbara’s signature style in the early 20th century. (Risa May by Getty Images via Canva).
Weekend in Santa Barbara Mini-Guide (Top 15 Things to Do + Itineraries)
JJ and Bug playing on the beach after lunch on Stearns Wharf.
By Kristy Esparza, June 4, 2021
Santa Barbara is a beautiful area with plenty of opportunities for family adventure. The weather is wonderful, the people are friendly, and there are endless things to do with kids. The following is a quick guide for parents with ideas for spending a long weekend in Santa Barbara with your little ones.
Read on for our list of the top 15 family-friendly activities in Santa Barbara plus where to stay, kid-friendly places to eat, and two sample itineraries where we piece all of our favorites together.
Disclosure: This post may include affiliate links, which means we might receive a small commission if you purchase through our links. All ideas and opinions are my own.
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Planning an Amazing Long Family Weekend in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has been a favorite California family vacation destination for decades. The city is easy to explore with plenty of activities and attractions that are perfect for kids of all ages. There is endless fun to be had, and countless stories to be told. Make new memories of your own, while deepening your understanding of this fascinating region.
In Santa Barbara you’ll find coastal luxury combined with a small town feel, gorgeous natural wonders, and rich cultural history. From kayaking and hiking to the Santa Barbara Sea Center and Zoo, there are endless opportunities for family adventures in this slice of California paradise.
Getting to Santa Barbara
Located about 5 hours south of San Francisco, 2 hours north of Los Angeles, and 4 hours north of San Diego, most people arrive to Santa Barbara by an easy drive on 101.
Those looking to leave their cars behind can also choose to get to Santa Barbara by the Coast Starlight Amtrak Train that connects Seattle and Los Angeles. Santa Barbara Station is located right off State Street in the middle of downtown.
This accessibility makes it a perfect long weekend escape from some of California’s most populous cities.
Top 15 Family-Friendly Things to Do in Santa Barbara
1. The Beach
Santa Barbara is known for its access to broad, sandy beaches. It’s hard to imagine a long weekend in Santa Barbara without some beach time! The following are great beach day options for families.
View of East Beach from Sterns Wharf
East Beach is a family favorite named for its location east of State Street, Santa Barbara’s main thoroughfare for shopping and dining, and Stearns Wharf, the oldest working pier in California.
At the far end, you’ll find a grass park with picnic tables. Rent a surrey or bikes at Wheel Fun Rentals to explore the waterfront and harbor along the Cabrillo Boulevard Bike Path.
Ledbetter Beach is a great spot for families with older kids who might want to try some beginner surfing lessons. The beach is known for its easy waves and laid back attitude.
Arroyo Burro Beach
Located just north of the city center, Arroyo Burro Beach (also called Hendry’s Beach) is known for its sandy beaches and tide pools. The nearby Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach is commonly listed as one of Santa Barbara’s favorite restaurants.
The small beach town of Summerland is located 6 miles south of Santa Barbara. It’s a pretty stretch of coastline with terrific views and family-friendly amenities. Lookout Park is a beachfront park on the bluffs with Summerland Beach below. Families enjoy the grassy park, picnic tables, playground and bathrooms. The beach itself is wide and sandy with calmer breaks. It’s a perfect location for those looking for a relaxing, laid-back beach day.
Santa Barbara Beach Tip: Waterproof sandals are a good idea on Santa Barbara beaches. Like many beaches in Southern California, you may encounter black tar balls on the sand. These are sticky remnants of oil that washed ashore. Though towns like Summerland have been working to seal wells that weren’t closed properly 100 years ago, most of what you’ll find is natural seepage from underground offshore deposits. The native Chumash once collected the tar and used it for everything from building their innovative canoes called tomol to waterproof woven baskets. If you happen to get some on your feet, baby oil does the trick to get your feet clean again.
2. Hike Douglas Preserve
If you are looking for a family friendly hike to stretch your legs, check out the Douglas Family Preserve.
A local favorite, the 70-acre property was once the site of a well known nursery. When the nursery closed in 1972, several development proposals were introduced, but none were approved. Fifteen years later, Santa Barbara residents raised over $2 million to help purchase the property. It was named the “Douglas Family Preserve” in recognition of actor Michael Douglas’s contribution.
One of the most popular trails in the park is a one mile flat loop hike that half traces the coastline and half looks back to a park where you can watch paragliders taking off from the surrounding mountains. Time your walk near low tide so you can head down to popular Arroyo Burro beach after and explore the tide pools.
3. Old Mission Santa Barbara
Old Mission Santa Barbara (Photo: pvachier by Getty Images Signature via Canva).
California’s missions started in the late 18th century as an effort to expand Spanish territory in the region and convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Santa Barbara was the 10th of 21 missions. The current building was completed in 1815 after the first structures were destroyed from the elements and earthquakes.
People often visit missions to see some of the oldest buildings in California, many of which demonstrate the beauty of Spanish colonial architecture. But their continued presence can also inform our understanding of Santa Barbara’s role in the story of California, particularly the attempted destruction of native cultures through Spanish colonization, Mexican independence, and the horrors of early statehood.
Sometimes the beauty of a place allows us to gloss over a tragic and painful history. Visiting Missions can provide a space and context for conversations that bring to light a fuller history of Santa Barbara.
4. Stearns Wharf
View of Stearns Wharf from West Beach (Photo: Joe Belanger by Getty Images Pro via Canva)
Up until the 1870s, Santa Barbara was virtually cut off from the outside world by the natural barriers of the ocean and the mountains. In 1867, John Peck Stearns changed that when he moved to Santa Barbara and opened a lumberyard at the foot of State Street. In 1872 Stearns completed the wharf, allowing ships to tie up at low tide. Santa Barbara would never be the same.
Today, despite its fair share of natural and man-made disasters, Stearns Wharf is the oldest working wood wharf in California. The wharf is a great stop for visiting families spending a long weekend in Santa Barbara. Just the drive onto it was exciting for my kiddos!
The following are some family-friendly things to do on the Wharf:
Santa Barbara Sea Center
The Santa Barbara Sea Center is highly interactive aquarium that offers close encounters with marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel. This extension of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History offers exciting exhibits like Shark Cove, Intertidal Wonders, and Jellies and Friends, that keep visitors coming back for more.
Lil’ Toot Water TAxi
Stearns Wharf is home to the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi. Lil’ Toot provides 15-minute narrated boat rides and sunset boat rides between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf every half hour. This is a favorite option for families with young kids who might find the usual boat tours a bit too long for little ones.
Stearns Wharf Bait and Tackle
Last but not least, a license is not required to fish off of Stearns Wharf, making it a great starter fishing spot for families. Stearns Wharf Bait and Tackle has everything you need to get started.
5. South Coast Railroad Museum at Goleta Depot
By 1901 railroads connected Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and San Francisco. This development shortly after the completion of Stearns Wharf meant that within a short period of time this once isolated town was now accessible by land and sea. The next phase of city development happened rapidly.
The South Coast Railroad Museum in Goleta is a small railroad museum that keeps this history alive. It’s also a perfect stop for little train lovers. A highlight for most kids is a ride on the miniature-train along figure-8 track or centennial loop. Older kids can test their skills, and arm muscles, on the Museum’s handcar.
In addition to fun little rides around the grounds, grown ups can share the history of the region’s railroading through Goleta Depot. This country railroad station was built by the Southern Paciific Railroad in 1901 during the completion of the Coast Route.
6. The Santa Barbara Zoo
Known as the zoo with a view, the Santa Barbara Zoo was once an upscale estate owned by a coffee and tea merchant who first glimpsed Santa Barbara in 1896. The estate was named Vegamar and became well known around town for its social galas. Later it was also known as a home to homeless pensioners during the Great Depression.
The Santa Barbara Foundation transitioned Vegamar into the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens in August 1963 after the death of its owners. It now houses animals representing 160 species, including giraffes, gibbons, snow leopards, and gorillas. Its mission of preservation and conservation through education, research, and recreation continues today.
Also unchanged is the location’s beautiful scenery. The views of the pacific ocean and Santa Ynez Mountains are just as stunning as they were when they were settings for fancy galas instead of children laughing at meerkats and monkeys on a Santa Barbara weekend.
7. Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens
Stretch your legs on a walk through the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens (Photo: Chloe Harris by Getty Images via Canva).
The 78-acre Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens is a living museum designed entirely with California native plants. Explore this important slice of California natural history through five miles of easy walking trails that will lead you from a coastal redwood forest to a cactus-filled desert.
Botanical gardens are intergenerational crowd pleasers. The plants, trees, flowers, and views that you’ll find here help all visitors develop a deeper appreciation of this gorgeous state and region.
Check their website before you go for family programs designed to help everyone in your group appreciate the natural world, particularly as it relates to Santa Barbara.
Before the Golden Age of Hollywood, the first major film studio, Flying A Studios, was located in Santa Barbara. Between 1910 and the early 1920s, over 1,000 movies were filmed here. Santa Barbara continues to maintain a presence with the film industry today, particularly in the tony enclave of Montecito.
In 1928, Charlie Chaplin spearheaded the development of the Montecito Inn starting a trend that would be followed by the rich and famous for generations. With Montecito as the hub of celebrity culture for the better part of the 20th century, it’s no surprise that opera-singer Madame Ganna Walska chose to call it home. She spent over 40 years creating Montecito’s Lotusland estate, one of the most unique residences in this historic coastal community.
Today, visitors can spend part of their weekend in Santa Barbra exploring the 37-acre Montecito estate run by her foundation. The garden continues to pursue a mission of helping visitors appreciate the importance of plants in our lives and in the life of the planet.
Lotusland is a public garden operating in a residential neighborhood, so advance tour reservations are required. Reservations are not confirmed until you have spoken with a visitor services representative, prepaid for the tour and received an email confirmation.
If you have time, review the foundation’s educational resources with children prior to your visit. When it comes to engagement, it makes a world of difference for children to recognize something they’ve learned about before.
9. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Newly renovated in 2018, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History sits on 17 acres of oak woodland along Mission Creek. Visitors learn about the Santa Barbara region’s unique cultural history and explore nature in the Museum Backyard.
In the Museum’s Backyard you might encounter a naturalist eager to share his or her expertise, a nature mystery box, the backyard creek exploration zone, a sensory garden, and more. Also outdoors is the prehistoric forest, where visitors will venture out for a stroll and encounter their favorite dinosaurs in the wild!
10. Chumash Painted Cave State Park
The Santa Barbara area was thought to have been settled around 13,000 years ago. Prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries, it is estimated that 25,000 Chumash natives lived in this region in 150 towns and villages. The Chumash were known for their invention and use of the plank canoe, called a tomol, extraordinary baskets, tools, beadwork, and a series of elaborate colorful cave paintings.
Cave paintings can still be found, but there is concern that these sacred paintings could be damaged by thoughtless visitors. In an effort to preserve irreplaceable cultural heritage, officials keep the cave site locations secret. One exception is the Painted Cave State Historic Park in the mountains above the town of Santa Barbara.
The walls of the small cave contain preserved art created by the Chumash. One theory is that the most dominant figure represents a solar eclipse that occurred in 1677 with other figures painted before and after.
Visitors arrive via a steep path to the cave entrance, and can peer in through the heavy iron gate that has protected the entrance since the early 1900s. Learn more about the cave’s history and opportunities to visit here.
11. Kids World Playground
Santa Barbara has some great playgrounds, and Kids World is one of the most loved by locals and visitors alike. Built in 1993, the 8,000 square foot playground features a castle, swings, slides, bridges, and even sharks and whales to climb. There are numerous places for families to picnic as well while enjoying Santa Barbara on a long weekend.
The park is located across the street from the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden, a lovely botanical garden with a koi pond, sensory garden, and butterfly garden that’s a joy to visit in its own right.
12. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation
MOXI opened to the public in 2017 reflecting the desires of a group of volunteers who sought to create non-traditional learning opportunities. This unique children’s museum focuses on hands-on learning and creative interdisciplinary experiences.
Located in the Funk Zone, MOXI invites families with curious kids to explore more than 17,000 square feet of immersive exhibitions. Spend an afternoon igniting your imaginations by playing a Giant Guitar, launching air rockets in the museum courtyard, exploring the rooftop Sky Garden, and more.
13. Kayak the Harbor
Spend a morning making memories by kayaking from the protected harbor to Stearns Wharf. (Photo: Chuck Place by Getty Images via Canva).
After you’ve spent the first part of your weekend in Santa Barbara gazing out at the water from the beach, consider an activity like kayaking for a different perspective.
Captain Jack’s Harbor Kayak Tour offers fun and easy 1.5 hour guided kayak tours of the Harbor every day. This tour is a great introduction to kayaking and is fun for the whole family. You’ll wind through the harbor, loop around under Stearns Wharf and return.
After your adventure, grab some delicious lunch on the Waterfront and browse for a seaworthy souvenir.
14. Channel Islands National Park
Many Californian’s never get a chance to visit this unique National Park. In fact, it’s one of the least visited in the country. Because it’s been left largely undisturbed for much of its history, it offers a chance to experience pristine coastal wilderness. It’s even been dubbed California’s “Galapagos.”
Start with a visit to the Visitor’s Center in Ventura, about 30 minutes south of Santa Barbara. Island Packers runs charters to the park, with the most popular destination being Santa Cruz Island. After an hour-long boat ride, explore the beaches and join park naturalists for a hike. The Channel Islands are home to bald eagles, elephant seals and sea lions, pelicans, peregrine falcons, and a species of island foxes unique to this area. Joining a naturalist is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of the natural world around you.
As your boat powers through the ocean toward the islands, imagine the feat of the Chumash natives who would paddle the traditional tomol from the California mainland to Limuw, now also known as Santa Cruz. Built from redwoods that drifted down the coast, these sturdy vessels could reach up to 30 feet long and were used for fishing, trading, and traveling to and between the islands. Chumash paddlers now journey across the Santa Barbara channel every year to keep these traditions and culture alive. They leave in the dark of the morning for this paddle that can take up to 13 hours depending on ocean and weather conditions!
15. Family friendly wineries
If you’d like to experience the Central Coast’s amazing wine country, consider an excursion to the Santa Ynez Valley as part of your weekend in Santa Barbara.
Downtown Solvang, the quaint Danish capital of America, has its own low-key family friendly wine tasting options. You can also head into the gorgeous surrounding valley to taste at wineries like Sunstone while the kids play on the grounds. Check out our Solvang post for more information on exploring this area with kids.
Where to Stay in Santa Barbara with Kids
When traveling as a family, it helps to look for hotels or vacation rentals that have space for the kids to run around and play, and for us to have a place to hang out after bedtime. The following are some Santa Barbara lodging options with family friendly rooms and amenities.
Santa Barbara is an amazing coastal city, and lodging options reflect its reputation as the American Riviera. From upscale resorts to cozy garden retreats, you’re sure to find the right home away from home for a perfect long weekend in Santa Barbara.
Family Friendly Santa Barbara Hotels
Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort
The Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront offers traditional hotel room options, but many come with a patio or balcony for a bit of outdoor space. There are two-room suite options as well. Families enjoy the large onsite pool and the location right across the street from popular East Beach. You’re a quick walk to the Santa Barbara Zoo, Stearns Wharf, and State Street.
Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara
Set north of downtown Santa Barbara near the University, the Ritz-Carlton is set on 78 acres. Amenities include a two-mile beach, three zero-edged saline heated pools, and watersports like surfing, kayaking and paddle boarding.
The resort is also home to Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program. The program introduces guests to the rich natural and cultural history of the area. Participants of all ages can join classes and workshops to discover the Gaviota Coast’s natural wonders through memorable adventures.
Relaxing retreat in walkable location
Located on a quiet street, this home is just a quick walk to State Street, the Harbor, Stearns Wharf, and the beach. Comfortable for a family and yet full of character, this property would make an excellent home base for a long weekend in Santa Barbara.
If you like the idea of staying in a small beach town that’s a short 10-15 min drive to Santa Barbara, this cottage is a great option. It is only a five minute walk to downtown Summerland and a ten minute walk to the beach. It’s also located on a cul de sac next to local hiking trails. No car is needed until you want to drive to SB!
UC Santa Barbara Family Vacation Center
A unique option for families is summer camp at the UCSB Family Vacation Center. Originally known as the Alumni Vacation Center, families have been “camping” here since 1969. There is no longer an alumni requirement to participate, all are welcome.
This is an all-inclusive vacation experience where families stay in UCSB dorms (the apartment style ones with 2-4 bedroom suites). All meals and activities are included, and you’re a quick walk to the pool and two beaches. Kids join an age-appropriate camp for activities on campus and field trips to some of the places mentioned above. While children are busy exploring, adults can enjoy sea kayaking, wine tasting, plein air painting, and more. You can do as much or as little as you’d like here.
A standard camp session is one week, but if you’re traveling with a group you can alter the length of stay and customize group activities.
Kid-Friendly Eats in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara is known for delicious fresh food. There’s no shortage of quality eateries in the region! From iconic establishments to local favorites, the following represent a snapshot of Santa Barbara’s family-friendly restaurant scene.
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach
If you end up at Arroyo Burro Beach, make sure to enjoy a meal at the Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach. The amazing location is hard to beat, but it’s the delicious food that keeps people coming back for more.
Tacos, Tacos, Tacos
Consider a taco crawl along Milpas Street, home to some of the city’s best taquerias. From the famous La Super-Rica Taqueria, a favorite of Julia Child, to family-run Taqueria El Bajio, a small family-run spot known for delicious tamales, you’re sure to find your next favorite taco shop nearby. If being so close to the ocean is making you crave some ceviche, add in a stop at Cesar’s Place!
Santa Barbara Public Market
Markets are always a good way to check out the pulse of the local food scene. They are even better when traveling as a family because everyone can find something they like. At the Santa Barbara Public Market, you’ll find everything from fresh seafood, to craft beers, to artisanal ice cream. Grab what catches your eye and enjoy it in the Santa Barbara sunshine.
Santa Barbara Shellfish Company
A favorite spot for seafood on Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara Shellfish Company was established in 1980 as a buying station for local fisherman. Enjoy views in every direction, as you hover over the ocean looking back toward town.
McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams
You can’t visit a beach town without at least one ice cream stop! McConnell’s has been serving up some of the town’s best ice cream since they first opened on Mission and State in 1949. Their ice cream is made from locally sourced ingredients that honor the local agricultural production. Delicious flavors range from classic Chocolate Chip to limited edition specialties like Honey and Cornbread Cookies.
Itinerary: Four Days in Santa Barbara with Kids
The following is an itinerary that I put together for a four-day family weekend in Santa Barbara. It features many of the activities and places to go suggested above. I’m the type of person that wants to see as much as possible everywhere I go, so I know it’s on the busy side.
John has a completely different, much more laid-back, travel style. He thinks a weekend in Santa Barbara should simply be spent on the beach. After some back and forth, we decided to just include our two different perspectives. How we manage to travel together is a topic for another day.
K’s Day 1: Get Settled and Unwind
Get on the road
Once you arrive, head to your home away from home, settle in, and get a lay of the land. Take a walk around the neighborhood, and maybe stroll to the closest beach for sunset.
K’s Day 2: A Day By the Harbor
Morning Kayak Session
Start Day 2 in the water with a morning kayak session in the Santa Barbara Harbor. This is a great way to start the day, spot some local sea life, and get to know one of Santa Barbara’s most popular areas.
Lunch on the pier
Next, wander through the shops along the Harbor, then head over to Stearns Wharf. Enjoy lunch on the pier at the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
Santa Barbara sea center
Continue your exploration of Stearns Wharf at this highly interactive aquarium. Learn all about coastal sharks and rays, and maybe even get a chance to pet a shark!
Finally, wrap up your day with a walk to Lower State Street. Reward yourselves with an ice cream treat at McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream.
K’s Day 3: Land and Sea Adventures
Morning at the museum (or zoo)
Spend your 3rd morning exploring one of Santa Barbara’s amazing hands-on family-centered museums. Whether you’re playing with water at MOXI’s Sky Garden, finding dinosaurs in the wild at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, or feeding a giraffe at the Santa Barbara Zoo, you’ll be sure to have fun and learn a thing or two while you’re at it.
Lunch at the Santa Barbara Public Market
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, explore some of Santa Barbara’s best lunch options at the Santa Barbara Public Market. Grab what sounds good, and enjoy lunch in the sunshine outside.
After a rest, explore a different side of Santa Barbara from the the mile long loop around the Douglas Family Preserve.
Arroyo Burro Beach
Time your walk to low tide when you can explore the tidepools on Arroyo Burro Beach below the cliffs.
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach
Conclude day 3 by feasting on delicious food and amazing sunset views at the Boathouse at Hendry’s.
K’s Day 4: Still More to see!
Get the Wiggles Out
Start the last day of your long weekend in Santa Barbara with a visit to Kids World Playground. Take a little time to explore the Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden across the street.
Taco Lunch on Milpas Street
Next, sample some of Milpas Street’s beloved taquerias for your last lunch in town.
Perspective and Reflection
Before you head home, find Chumash Painted Cave State Park. Experience the only painted cave available to the public and try to imagine the more than 13,000 years of history that came before colonization.
John’s Itinerary: Four Days in Santa Barbara with Kids
As you’ve probably gathered, John and I are pretty opposite when it comes to travel styles. Santa Barbara is one of those places where you can be as laid-back or as busy as you’d like to be, and John is on the laid-back side of the spectrum. The following itinerary is John’s take:
J’s Day 1: Get There
Drive straight there, no stops. (This is a constant tension point between us, as you might imagine!)
J’s Day 2: Beach day
Sleep in and relax.
Arroyo Burro Beach.
Boathouse at Hendry’s Beach (This is one of those places we completely agree on visiting. Try to make reservations to avoid a wait. It’s popular!)
J’s Day 3: Beach day
Another day at the beach. This time explore East Beach, near Stearns Wharf and lower State Street.
Stearns Wharf and the Santa Barbara Sea Center.
J’s Day 4: Eat some tacos and head home
Sleep in. (Notice a theme here? He seems to forget that our kids wake up at 6:30am…even on vacation!)
Visit Old Mission Santa Barbara.
Tacos (Another point on which we agree!)