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 nearly perfect for most of the year (Santa Barbara gets 300+ days of sunshine), so all-age outdoor excursions abound. 

You won’t find the big theme parks in Santa Barbara 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 long lines, just long stretches of quality time.

Below you’ll find 12 of my favorite things to do in Santa Barbara with kids.

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1. Go to the Beach

Seagulls at the water's edge at Leadbetter beach in Santa Barbara.
Leadbetter Beach photo by Jay Sinclair, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

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.

In my opinion, the best beaches for kids in Santa Barbara 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, including 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 (I did when I was a teenager), and there are kayaks and stand-up paddleboard rentals right on the beach. It can get busy, but it’s usually never packed.

Butterfly Beach is a local favorite. Its narrow strip of pristine sand and unique east-west orientation make 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 not many tourists know about. The only downsides are that this beach doesn’t have facilities or lifeguards, and the parking lot is tiny. Guests of Rosewood Miramar enjoy this beach.

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 visiting Santa Barbara with kids.

If hitting the beach is number one on your itinerary, also check out Santa Claus Beach and Arroyo Burro Beach — both of which are great swimming beaches.


2. Santa Barbara Zoo

A little boy feeds a giraffe lettuce at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
Photo by David Collier, Courtesy of Visit California

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 visiting to see the native California condors and 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 home to exotic animals from diverse ecosystems, including anteaters, lions, gorillas, elephants, penguins, and snow leopards. In the Australian Walkabout, you can also experience kangaroos, emus, and wallabies up close. One of the zoo’s most interesting features is the animal kitchen, where visitors can watch as zoo staff prepare food for the various animals.


3. 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 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. My daughter used to love playing here when she was little and the carousel located on the western end of the park.

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, grab dinner at the wharf, and maybe hit the beach in between.


4. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Kids taking a look at a stegosaurus statue at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
Photo by Jessy Lynn Perkins, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

This isn’t your typical natural history museum. There are many hands-on exhibits and activities. The museum’s display cases are usually positioned close to the floor, so even the smallest visitors can 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 checking out the Palmer Observatory. If you’re visiting on the second Saturday of the month, the Observatory also offers an evening Star Party.


5. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration

Kids playing on a speed track at Moxi Museum in Santa Barbara.
Photo by JasonRick, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

When visiting Santa Barbara with kids, put this fun science museum on your family trip itinerary. MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, has tons of interactive exhibits that are as much fun for parents as they are for kids.

This family favorite has 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 Sky Garden rooftop for a fantastic view of Santa Barbara.  


6. Rent Bikes

A multigenerational family riding a surrey bike down a sidewalk in Santa Barbara.
Photo by Wheel Fun Rentals, Courtesy of Visit 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 many shops and Santa Barbara hotels will let you rent one for the day or for as long as you’ll be visiting the city. I stayed at Hotel Indigo recently and took the hotel bike down for a ride along East Beach.

Miles of well-maintained bike paths along the coast are flat and easy enough for kids as young as six to ride on with confidence. You can ride bikes from the quiet village of Montecito to downtown Santa Barbara and Stearns Wharf, and there are guided cycling tours, too. We’ve done this on the Four Seasons Santa Barbara bikes (they have kids’ bikes and helmets too).

You could easily spend a wonderful weekend sightseeing in Santa Barbara with kids without ever getting behind the wheel of a car. 


7. Kids World 

Younger kids will love running around at the fantastic 8,000-square-foot playground at Alameda Park — one of Santa Barbara’s oldest parks across from Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens.

Known as Kids World, this popular playground has plenty of slides and swings, 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 outdoor fun hours when you’re visiting Santa Barbara with kids. 


8. Stearns Wharf

An aerial shot of cars driving down the Stearns Wharf pier in Santa Barbara.
Photo by Jessy Lynn Perkins, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

This kid-friendly waterfront area at the end of State Street is Santa Barbara’s most visited attraction because there’s so much to do. I used to love it as a kid, and I still do. So much is still the same about it.

Historic Stearns Wharf is where you’ll find the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center — an interactive marine life 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 the Great Pacific Ice Cream Shop and pop into Mother 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.

I always thought it was cool to drive out onto the wharf (parking can be tough, though). But it’s also the place for panoramic Pacific Ocean views, even out to the Channel Islands.


9. Whale Watching

A couple with binoculars and a camera searching for whales on a boat near Santa Barbara.
Photo by David Collier, Courtesy of Visit California

The Santa Barbara Channel is one of California’s best places for whale watching 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, acrobatic humpback whales, shy minke and fin whales. You can also spot whales in the Pacific Ocean from the trails along Santa Barbara’s scenic bluffs.


10. Lil’ Toot Taxi

The Lil' Toot Water Taxi sailing in Santa Barbara harbor.
Photo by Jay Sinclair, Courtesy of Visit Santa Barbara

Things to do in 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. Admission is $10 for grownups and $5 for kids for a 25-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 you can buy tickets in advance online.


11. Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is located along the Santa Barbara waterfront and showcases the area’s rich maritime history. This interactive museum has over 8,000 square feet of exhibits and is home to two historic vessels. For hands-on fun, the kids can check out a real working periscope, interactive sport fishing, and see how they would look with some sailor tattoos.

While there, be sure to check out the Outdoors Santa Barbara Visitors Center to experience some of Santa Barbara’s best views.

12. Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

For nearly 100 years, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s mission has been to protect and preserve the area’s native plants, with over five miles of walking trails crisscrossing 78 acres. In addition to towering redwoods and a cacti-filled desert, you can also take in views of the Santa Ynez Mountains and Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands. Reservations are required to visit. You can also visit their shop and take a few plants home.

Favorite Santa Barbara Family Hotels

If you’re looking for somewhere to stay while visiting Santa Barbara with kids, my top pick is Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore, Santa Barbara. It’s closed for renovation until later in 2025, but we’ll surely let you know when it’s available to book.

With that in mind, the other two fantastic options are Rosewood Miramar Beach and The Ritz-Carlton Bacara.

Tip: Get VIP Perks

We have benefits at four great luxury hotels in town. Here’s the list.

A (usually) moderately priced option is Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, which is right across the street from East Beach and near Chase Park.

And finally, in the budget range, there’s a Best Western Plus Santa Barbara that doesn’t really feel like a Best Western. The one- and two-bedroom apartments there have full kitchens. There are a handful of other BW properties around town as well.

What are your favorite things to do in Santa Barbara with kids?

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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