I really can’t remember when my obsession with Santa Barbara began. Somewhere along the line it got lodged in my brain as the quintessential beach town, and I aspired to live or at least visit there someday. When I found out my sister’s volleyball team would be playing in California this year, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to finally check out Santa Barbara for myself.
A small concern started creeping into my brain. Would Santa Barbara live up to the sky-high expectations I had for it? Had I built it up to be something it wasn’t based on little to no actual research other than watching the TV show Psych?
I pushed my fears aside and got down to business doing what I do best: researching and planning for a trip. The more I read about family-friendly things to do in Santa Barbara, the more confident I became that we were all going to love this coastal city. I would be visiting for just over 24 hours with my parents and my 3 kids, and I wanted to make our short time there count.
I reached out to the Santa Barbara tourism board and they were kind enough to offer me a few media passes to facilitate my article on TravelPulse and any blog posts I write here. Though some of my experiences were covered as a visiting member of the media, all opinions expressed here on my own.
Any gushing I do about the city is because I was already in love with Santa Barbara before I ever set foot there, and visiting for a day and a half confirmed everything I already knew: it’s the perfect laid-back seaside destination, and I can’t wait to go back.
SANTA BARBARA FAMILY TRAVEL GUIDE
First of all, I definitely was NOT disappointed by Santa Barbara, even though my expectations were sky-high. What’s the opposite of disappointed? Impressed? In love? Dazzled? Yes, I was dazzled by Santa Barbara.
The weather is perfect almost year round. Mid 70s, sunny, not too hot, slight chill in the air in the evenings. I’ve lived in the frigid climates of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and currently reside in the humid swampland of Florida, and while I have an undying love for all 3 of these locations, they could stand to take notes on the weather in Santa Barbara.
The architecture is right up my alley, too. Every building, including gas stations and malls and banks, is made of whitewashed adobe walls and red-tile roofs. It’s very reminiscent of Spain, which as you can imagine is very high on my bucket list of places to visit.
It’s no wonder this place is called the American Riviera!
WHAT TO DO WITH KIDS IN SANTA BARBARA
SANTA BARBARA TROLLEY TOUR
Do yourself a favor and book your seats on the Santa Barbara Trolley Tour before you do anything else. I had originally planned to use the trolley as a hop-on-hop-off means of transportation to all of the city’s main attractions, but ended up changing my mind at the last minute.
First of all, it’s fun to hear the entire tour from start to finish with one guide. Second of all, the trolley goes all the way out to Old Mission Santa Barbara and lets the riders off to explore for 20 minutes or so, guaranteeing a spot on the way back. After hearing that, we decided it would make more sense to relax and enjoy the tour in its entirety.
I’m really glad we did it that way. My 1- and 3-year-old both fell asleep during the 90-minute tour, so we 3 adults (my parents and I) were able to listen to the commentary and history. If we had been getting on and off multiple times, I don’t think we would have gotten as much out of it.
Why you should do the Santa Barbara Trolley Tour:
The drivers are funny and informative - you’ll learn a lot about the history of the city as well as the rich and famous who reside there (or nearby).
Kids are free with the purchase of an adult ticket. Score! Additional child passes (if you have more kids than adults: $8)
You can use the pass for 2 days. I would recommend hearing the tour in its entirety the first time you ride it. The second day you can use the trolley as transportation out to Montecito (where a few of the stops are) or the Santa Barbara Zoo, or really any of the stops you didn’t get to the first time.
You’ll get some coupons to use around the city on the back of your ticket and/or in the pamphlet with a map of the trolley tour.
It hits all the major must-see highlights in Santa Barbara.
Any age can and will enjoy it.
This is one of Santa Barbara’s iconic spots, and with good reason. The views from the wharf at sunset are spectacular, and you can find some great restaurants and shops. Take your time admiring the vistas and ducking in and out of ice cream shops, souvenir shops, and candy stores. This is where we picked up some Santa Barbara post cards - the one souvenir we get for our kids wherever we go.
We didn’t have time to visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center which is situated on the wharf, but I would love to take my kids there, especially my three-year-old who is very interested in marine life.
MOXI - WOLF MUSEUM OF EXPLORATION AND INNOVATION
In all honesty, MOXI deserves its own blog post. This is the coolest museum I’ve ever visited, and my kids still can’t stop talking about how much they loved it. Every single exhibit was hands on, engaging, and educational without being boring.
There are three floors to the museum with both indoor and outdoor displays. Our favorite spot was the Fantastic Forces Courtyard where the kids ran around and played with the wind tunnels, getting completely lost in their imagination. It sounds cliche to say that MOXI makes learning feel like play, but there’s really no other way to describe it.
My 3-year-old boy loves all things vehicles, so naturally he was very taken with the giant Speed Track where he could build and test his own cars. My 5-year-old daughter immersed herself in the Light Patterns and loved the viewfinders on the Sky Garden.
Even if you’re normally not a fan of children’s museums, this one will far surpass your expectations.
If you and your kids love the water, you’ll definitely want to make time for Santa Barbara Harbor. Take a walk along the harbor in the crisp morning air and enjoy the hundreds of docked sailboats floating agains the background of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
You can rent stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, jet skis, and boats, or just lounge on the beach. There are plenty of restaurants to enjoy along the harbor, as well, and I’ll get to my favorite breakfast restaurant in the “Where to Eat” section.
RENT A SURREY
Our hotel (Hotel Milo - keep reading to hear more about it!) offered free bikes for guests to borrow and ride around the city. Unfortunately, with a 5-, 3-, and 1-year-old our family couldn’t make use of them. Instead we decided to rent a surrey to ride along the beach and enjoy some views of Santa Barbara.
We used Wheel Fun Rentals and got the double surrey for an hour which was plenty of time to drive down to Stearns Wharf and make use of the bike and walking path along the beach. The kids loved it!
DO SOME SHOPPING
Even if you’re not looking to spend any money, take the time to wander through downtown Santa Barbara and check out all of the cute shopping plazas located right off of State Street. We loved Paseo Nuevo Plaza which had a lovely outdoor mall, tons of restaurants with al fresco seating, and beautiful fountains everywhere.
Tucked behind the California Pizza Kitchen in Paseo Nuevo Plaza you’ll find a charming and colorful Spanish tile staircase which makes the perfect spot for some unique Instagram photos!
SEE THE HISTORIC COURTHOUSE
Yes it’s a public building but it’s also an iconic landmark with a four-face clock tower and spectacular views of the city. The public is allowed to walk up to the top of the clock tower for panoramic vistas and you can even stop inside the clock tower to watch the bell ring.
There’s also a lovely little courtyard and sunken gardens behind the Courthouse, so take your time strolling and admiring the beauty of the area.
We did not take the tour because we had just gotten off the trolley (the courthouse is the last stop) and the kids needed some time to just be kids, but according to the website, “Tours start in the Mural Room on the second floor every day at 2 p.m., and also at 10:30 a.m. on weekdays.” They are free to the public and led by a docent from the Courthouse.
WHERE TO EAT WITH KIDS IN SANTA BARBARA
ON THE ALLEY
When I asked my contact at the tourism board about family-friendly places to eat, On the Alley was high on her list for a breakfast that kids would love. I couldn’t agree more! This hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves the best waffle sticks for dipping in syrup. I loved them just as much as the kids, but if you don’t have a sweet tooth they have plenty of breakfast sandwich options.
On the Alley is located in the harbor, but it’s kind of hidden, well, in an alley. There are some picnic tables and outdoor seating, as well as indoor seating upstairs. I got a vanilla latte there and loved sipping on it as we wandered around the harbor after breakfast.
MCCONNELL’S FINE ICE CREAM
We make it our mission everywhere we go to find the best ice cream in town. In Santa Barbara that happened to be McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream. The employee that served us was so friendly and helpful, making sure we got the right sizes and flavors and helping us figure out who should share and who would want their own.
The flavors were so fun, and there were lots to choose from. Pippa chose Santa Barbara Strawberry, and I picked Sea Salt Cream & Cookies.
RUSTY’S PIZZA PARLOR
We were going to do a nice sit-down dinner on the wharf, but by the time we finished all of our sight-seeing we could tell the kids were starting to lose it. I didn’t think the one-year-old would be able to sit through a nice dinner since it was already past his bedtime, so we decided to go for some pizza.
We had seen Rusty’s Pizza Parlor on State Street, and decided it was our best bet since it was within walking distance of the hotel. It was the perfect quick and easy dinner, and the pizza was delicious. I believe they do take-out and delivery, too, so this is your spot if you arrive late, or just want a relaxing dinner at the hotel.
WHERE TO STAY WITH KIDS IN SANTA BARBARA
Hotel Milo is a boutique hotel located across from the ocean. We pulled in around 10 p.m., as we were driving from Sequoia National Park, and we were asleep as soon as our eyes hit the pillows of our comfortable beds.
The view we woke up to the next morning was among the most spectacular I’ve seen. Swaying palm trees silhouetted against the vibrant orange sunrise and ocean waves lapping in the background. The kids and I stepped out onto the veranda and quietly drank it in - and if you know my kids, they don’t do anything quietly.
So yes, the view and location are fantastic. You’re within walking distance of Santa Barbara Harbor, Stearns Wharf, and State Street. In fact, we walked to every sight and activity listed in this blog post.
We stayed in the Family Suite with Bunk Bed which has a king bed and a separate alcove with bunk beds. It was plenty of space for 3 adults and 3 kids (one of whom was in a pack & play provided by the hotel).
There is a daily amenity fee of $25, but it includes WiFi, afternoon wine tasting in the lobby and garden, Continental Breakfast, pool use, fitness center access, and usage of the adorable blue hotel bicycles. We found everyone at the hotel to be incredibly welcoming to our family and our kids, even when they were being loud or crazy. I loved that the property was spacious with gardens and patios everywhere. It’s a lot less stressful to parent young kids outside than in a small, quiet, indoor space. We loved Hotel Milo for a family-friendly place to stay!
(Stay tuned for a full review blog post on the property soon!)
I hope this guide to Santa Barbara was helpful as you plan your trip to the world’s most beautiful seaside city! If you have any family-friendly activities to add that I didn’t get to here, feel free to leave them in the comments!