Insider Guide: Santa Barbara
Advice from folks who’ve been there By Mimi Slawoff
Santa Barbara (Flickr: Damian Gadal)
Why Go: Santa Barbara is one of California’s most treasured jewels, revered for its mild, year-round climate, stunning beaches, world-class dining, shopping, festivals and cultural events. Spanning 100 miles of pristine coastline, Santa Barbara prides itself on farm-to-table cuisine, boutique wineries, hiking and biking trails, marine life, art galleries, and historic landmarks. With so much to see and do, there’s something for every family on every budget.
Here’s a sample of fun things to do with kids in Santa Barbara.
Cheshire Cat Inn (36 West Valerio Street; 805-569-1610). Located one mile from the beach and steps from downtown, the Alice in Wonderland-themed B&B features family rooms named after the storybook characters. Afternoon goodies include milk or apple juice plus snacks for kids, and wine and hors d’oeuvres for adults.
Four Seasons Biltmore (Courtesy Four Seasons)
Four Seasons Biltmore (1260 Channel Drive; 805-969-2261). Walking distance to Butterfly Beach, the posh resort makes kids feel at home with a welcome gift, child-sized bathrobes and complimentary children’s toiletries. Kids for All Seasons entertains ages 5 – 12 with swimming, arts and crafts, cookie making, painting, costume making and more.
Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort (633 East Cabrillo Blvd.; 800-879-2929). A downtown beach location makes this a favorite with families. More perks: two outdoor pools and complimentary continental breakfast, WiFi access and beach cruiser cycle rentals.
Get Your Bearings
Santa Barbara sits on sunny shores 92 miles north of Los Angeles and 332 miles south of San Francisco. Situated between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the affluent city is popular with visitors as well as students. The city is home to three major colleges: the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Santa Barbara City College and Westmont.
Most fun way to get around:
Amtrak Station in Santa Barbara (Flickr: Loco Steve)
Leave your car behind and save 20 percent on Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train tickets from San Diego and LA to Santa Barbara. Explore the coastal city on foot or by electric shuttles (just 50 cents one way). The "Take the Train & Show Your Ticket" program also offers savings and bonuses from more than 20 businesses.
Best family bike path:
Cabrillo Bikeway. The scenic path cruises along Santa Barbara’s pristine coastline with plenty of fun stops. In addition, the Santa Barbara County Bike Map is available as a free iPhone app and Android app.
Best walking tour:
Red Tile Walking Tour. Pick up a map from the visitors bureau for a leisurely, self-guided tour through downtown’s historic landmarks. See 22 sites within 12 blocks.
Soak Up the Local Scene
Top outdoor gathering place:
Stearns Wharf. The vibrant pier overlooks Santa Barbara Harbor and anchors several restaurants, shops and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Stroll the wharf, savor a meal and enjoy ocean views.
Butterfly Beach. Spread your blanket on this beach favored by locals for its location and awesome sunset views. No public amenities so bring your own food and water.
Leadbetter Beach. Calm waves, picnic facilities with grills, restrooms and showers make this an ideal beach to sink your ties in the sand.
Most Unique Kid-Friendly Festivals
Summer Solstice Parade (Flickr: Damian Gadal)
Summer Solstice Parade. On the Saturday closest to the summer solstice, people line up along State Street to watch colorful floats, whimsical costumes and dancing. The fun continues with a festival at Alameda Park.
Santa Barbara Kite Festival. The free, annual festival takes place on the beautiful west campus lawn at Santa Barbara City College. Bring or buy a kite, enter a contest and play games. There’s also a kids’ zone and food and beverages.
Walk on the Wild Side
Santa Barbara Zoo. Even some of the 600-plus animals get an ocean view from this zoo nestled across from a beach. The well-designed zoo features natural animal habitats, a train that traverses the zoo’s perimeter and a children’s play area.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Learn about local marine life through interactive exhibits, touch tanks and a 1,500-gallon tide pool tank.
Get out in Nature
Most kid-friendly garden:
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (Courtesy Santa Barbara Botanic Garden)
Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Five miles of trails meander through desert, redwoods, manzanita, meadows and arroyo gardens. Programs for children and families explore nature and science.
Kid's World at Alameda Park. Designed with community input, the popular park is a kid’s haven for climbing, crawling, swinging and hiding on a huge wood play structure. Walkways, a nearby pond with turtles and ducks, picnic areas and restrooms round out amenities and family fun.
Chase Palm Park and Carousel. Located on the waterfront, the shipwreck-themed park has playful features including whales, a conch shell lighthouse and a nautilus shell play area. There’s also an antique carousel and a walking and bike path.
Feed Your Culture
Most kid-friendly history places:
Old Mission Santa Barbara. Learn about the city’s history on self-guided or docent-led tours through the sacred garden, cemetery, church and the mission’s nine rooms filled with artifacts.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Interactive indoor and outdoor exhibits focus on local history. Plus, the planetarium’s Twinkle Twinkle for Little Stars and Kids’ Space Adventure programs feature weekly topics about stars, planets, constellations and more.
Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Located at the harbor, the museum’s exhibits spotlight surfing, shipwrecks, maritime history and more. Peek through the periscope for harbor views.
Best for toys:
Kernohan’s Toys. While perusing downtown shops, pop into this family-owned business that stocks quality trains, nature sets, musical instruments, building sets and more.
Most kid-friendly restaurants:
Longboard’s Grill. Perched on the wharf, the surf-themed restaurant serves fish and chips, clam chowder, fish tacos, gourmet burgers, salads and much more. A casual ambiance and ocean views make this a perfect place for families to grab a bite to eat.
Palazzio. Hefty portions of made-to-order Italian dishes are served family style. But kids may want to order off the children’s menu where they can customize their meals. Be sure to order the garlic rolls.
Backyard Bowls. Made from fresh fruits and veggies, these healthy smoothies taste so good kids will think they’re eating dessert.
Woodstock’s Pizza. A favorite with college students, the budget-friendly eatery serves pizzas made from handmade dough and covered in toppings.
Mimi Slawoff of WriteMimi.com contributed this to MiniTime. She is a Los Angeles-based journalist and a seasoned family travel expert who explores the world with her three children and writes about their journeys.