There’s so much to do when you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids. My parents used to live here and we go back often for weddings and weekend getaways, usually via the easy Pacific Surfliner train from San Diego to Santa Barbara.
We love strolling through the fun, family-friendly museums, relaxing on the beautiful beaches, and exploring what there is to do up and down the coast. The weather is near perfect for most of the year (Santa Barbara gets 300+ days of sunshine), so all-ages outdoor excursions abound.
What you won’t find in Santa Barbara are the big theme parks that draw so many families to San Diego. That means that visiting Santa Barbara with kids can be more relaxing. Your vacation will unfold at a slower pace. There won’t be any long lines, just long stretches of quality time.
Below you’ll find 10 of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara with kids.
Go to the Beach
While Santa Barbara is sometimes called the American Riviera, it’s important to remember that this is California. Not all the beaches in Santa Barbara are great swimming beaches. Some are better for watching the sunset, tide pooling, or having a picnic.
The best beaches for kids in Santa Barbara, in my opinion, are Leadbetter Beach, East Beach, Butterfly Beach, Miramar Beach, and Carpinteria State Beach.
Leadbetter Beach is across from Santa Barbara City College. Typically gentle waves make it a popular spot for learning how to surf and people who enjoy ocean swimming. It’s a gorgeous sandy beach with convenient amenities that include a grassy lawn and outdoor barbecue facilities.
East Beach is the epitome of a Santa Barbara beach and is conveniently located near downtown. Older kids will want to play volleyball here, and there are kayak and stand up paddleboard rentals right on the beach. It can get busy, but it’s never packed.
Butterfly Beach is a local favorite with its narrow strip of pristine sand and its unique east-west orientation that makes it a hot spot for sunsets and sunrises. Again, this beach doesn’t have lifeguards, but the surf isn’t terribly intense, either.
Miramar Beach is a small curved beach with almost no waves where families can walk, tide pool, splash around, or just relax. It’s definitely a hidden gem and one that not many tourists know about. The only downsides are that this beach doesn’t have facilities or lifeguards, and the parking lot is tiny.
Carpinteria State Beach is one of the safest beaches in the country and is just about ten minutes away from downtown Santa Barbara. The water is extremely calm here because of a protective reef, making it a great place to take beginner surfing lessons when you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids.
If hitting the beach is number one on your itinerary when you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids, also check out Santa Claus Beach and Arroyo Burro Beach — both of which are great swimming beaches.
Santa Barbara Zoo
We enjoy visiting the Santa Barbara Zoo. It’s on the smaller side, which makes it a great half-day outing, plus it’s absolutely lovely and well-maintained. I’d say it’s worth a visit just to see the native California condors and to hand feed the resident Masai giraffes.
Older kids will enjoy climbing on the 26-foot rock wall while younger visitors will have a blast riding the zoo train, panning for fossils, and running around in the family play area.
The zoo is also home to exotic animals from diverse ecosystems, including anteaters, lions, gorillas, elephants, penguins, and snow leopards. One of the most interesting features of the zoo is the animal kitchen where visitors can watch as zoo staff prepare food for the various animals.
Chase Palm Park
There’s some debate about which park has the best playground in Santa Barbara. Chase Palm Park has a massive wooden shipwreck-themed play area plus a cute old-fashioned carousel and a koi pond that little kids will be happy to watch for a long time. There’s also a bike and rollerblading trail, a skateboard park, beautiful walking trails, and beach access.
It’s located midway between the Santa Barbara Zoo and Stearns Wharf, across the street from East Beach. If your kids like to walk, you could spend the morning at the zoo, run around the park in the afternoon, and grab dinner at the wharf, and maybe hit the beach in between.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
This isn’t your typical natural history museum. There are a lot of hands-on activities, and the museum’s display cases are usually positioned close to the floor so even the smallest visitors will be able to see everything.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History also has a relaxed vibe. Taking kids to museums can sometimes feel stressful, but not here! Families are free to wander slowly through the eight halls of exhibits showcasing dinosaurs, mammals, minerals, and more.
You can easily see everything — including the 72-foot blue whale skeleton named Chad — in about two hours, but if you have more time, it’s worth seeing a show at the Gladwin Planetarium.
When you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids, definitely put this fun, interactive museum on your itinerary. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation has tons of hands-on science and tech exhibits that are as much fun for parents as they are for kids.
There are three floors filled with 17,000 square feet of exploration space that includes building, splashing, crafting, and music and sound activities. Make sure you visit the rooftop for a fantastic view of Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara is such a bike-friendly community, and I love the side of the city I see when I’m exploring on two (or four) wheels. You don’t have to bring your own bike because there are lots of shops and Santa Barbara hotels that will let you rent bikes for the day or for as long as you’ll be visiting the city.
There are miles of well-maintained bike paths along the coast that are flat and easy enough for kids as young as six to ride on with confidence. You can bike from the quiet village of Montecito to downtown Santa Barbara and Stearns Wharf, and there are guided cycling tours, too.
You could easily spend a wonderful weekend sightseeing in Santa Barbara with kids without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.
Younger kids will love running around at the fantastic 8,000-square-foot playground at Alameda Park — one of Santa Barbara’s oldest parks, right across from Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens.
Known as Kid’s World, this playground has plenty of slides and swings, and a huge castle structure for children to explore, plus a separate area for smaller kids.
Tree climbers will find a lot of great low hanging branches to dangle from, too. It’s a great spot to spend a few unscheduled hours when you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids.
This waterfront area at the end of State Street is Santa Barbara’s most visited attraction because there’s so much to do.
Stearns Wharf is where you’ll find the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center — an interactive marine education facility that’s enjoyable for all ages. There’s also family-friendly shopping (we like to stop and buy trinkets at the Old Wharf Trading Company) and dining (try Santa Barbara Shellfish Company).
Whenever we’re here, we grab ice cream at Great Pacific Ice Cream Shop and pop into Madame Stearns Candy Shop to see what’s new. If you want to do something a bit out of the ordinary, have a palm reading or get your tarot cards read at Madame Rosinka’s. As a kid, I always thought it was cool that you could drive out onto the wharf (parking can be tough though).
The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the best places for whale watching in California because the nutrient-rich waters attract hungry marine animals, including dolphins and migrating whales.
There are a lot of Santa Barbara whale watching tours available, on boats that range from bare-bones to quite luxurious. From November through April, you’ll spot Pacific gray whales as they head south to Baja California to give birth and then north again (this time with their calves in tow) back to Alaska.
From spring through fall, you’ll see colossal blue whales and acrobatic humpback whales, along with shy minke whales and fin whales. You can also spot whales from the trails along Santa Barbara’s scenic bluffs.
Lil’ Toot Taxi
Visiting Santa Barbara with kids will almost always mean taking a ride or two on this Santa Barbara icon. The Lil’ Toot Water Taxi is an adorable yellow tugboat with a distinctive whistle, a smokestack that blows bubbles, and a super cute smile.
Little kids love the Lil’ Toot Water Taxi, and admission is just a few dollars ($5 for grownups, $2 for kids) for a 15-minute narrated boat ride that runs between the Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf.
The tug departs every half hour and seats up to 19 passengers. Tours used to be offered on a first-come, first-served basis, but now it’s possible to buy tickets in advance online.
Santa Barbara Family Hotels
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay while visiting Santa Barbara with kids, my top pick among local hotels is Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, Santa Barbara. It’s one of my favorite luxury hotels precisely because it’s so welcoming to kids and the atmosphere is very relaxed.
There’s also a lot to do, both on and near the property. We’ve taken advantage of the bike rentals many times, and their summer Kids for All Seasons has supervised activities for kids ages 5 through 12. It’s easy to book babysitting through the hotel and enjoy a little grownup time during your family vacation.
TIP: When you’re ready to book a Santa Barbara hotel, keep in mind that we have access to exclusive VIP amenities. If you book through my Santa Barbara Virtuoso page, you’ll get extras like complimentary breakfasts, room upgrades, and spa credits.
What are your favorite things to do in Santa Barbara with kids?