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Explore 35 Unique Things to Do in Santa Barbara for Families

Santa Barbara Travel Guide

Santa Barbara is a place of contradictions. It’s both upscale and down-to-earth, cosmopolitan and small town. The weather is perfect, but the living isn’t always easy. The landscape is breathtaking, but the wildfire danger is real. Oooops. Some honest talk slipped there. Our guide curates all the best and unique things to do in Santa Barbara with kids, if you are new in this charming coastal city in California.

This is where the wealthy rub shoulders with the homeless, where new developments sit alongside centuries-old landmarks, and where surfers and celebrities share the same coastline.

It’s no wonder that Santa Barbara has been called “the American Riviera.” This is a place where you can find anything and everything.

Santa Barbara is a destination for sure. Its vast coastline, Mediterranean-style architecture, vibrant downtown area, and variety of local shops and restaurants are enough reasons for visitors to pay this riviera a visit. 

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Santa Barbara Travel Guide

1. Shop at State Street

The best shopping in Santa Barbara is definitely downtown on State Street. The Spanish-style Paseo Nuevo outdoor mall is beautiful, with palm trees and fountains, and it’s always lively with shoppers browsing the boutiques and chain stores. There are also great cafés and restaurants here, perfect for people-watching. On Tuesday afternoons, don’t miss the Santa Barbara Farmers Market, where you can get fresh, locally grown produce.

2. Support a Local Bookshop

Santa Barbara is home to some of the independent bookstores that locals dearly love. Some of them have been part of the city’s city such as the Book Den and Chaucers’ Books. Independent bookshops, or bookstores in general, is increasingly becoming a rare sight. And if you are one of those romantics and hopefools, I mean hopefuls, or simply love the smell of a physical book, go, support one of the independent bookstores in Santa Barbara, California.

3. Go, Move Those Legs, and Hike!

With its towering mountains and stunning coastline, Santa Barbara offers some of California’s most beautiful day hikes.  Santa Barbara is the place to be if you want breathtaking views. I know breathtaking can be overrated, but you know hiking can take your breath away. Literally. Well, that comes from someone who pants like a dog on every hike she has done.  Hiking through the Santa Ynez Mountains and seeing the city, ocean, and the Channel Islands from above is an experience you won’t soon forget. The views are incredible, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore nature. Oak-studded canyons and meadows full of wildflowers make for a perfect day out. So whether you’re looking for a solo hike or got peer-pressured to explore some of the most beautiful scenery California offers, Santa Barbara is the place for you. These are some of the best Santa Barbara hiking spots.

4. Walk around at Ganna Walska Lotusland

Nestled atop a picturesque hillside in Montecito, just ten minutes away from Santa Barbara, Ganna Walska Lotusland is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. This 37-acre public garden is home to over 3,400 different types of plants, including at least 35,000 individual specimens. Lotusland is also recognized as one of the most breathtaking public gardens in the world.

In addition to its stunning natural beauty, Ganna Walska Lotusland also has an estate history that comes to life as you stroll from garden to garden. The property was originally purchased in 1941 by Polish opera singer Ganna Walska. After years of tireless work and dedication, Walska transformed the property into the magnificent garden it is today.

Although reservations are required to visit Ganna Walska Lotusland, it is well worth planning ahead. Due to high demand and limited space, it is highly recommended to book reservations three weeks in advance. Trust us, this is one Santa Barbara hidden gem you won’t want to miss!

5. Stroll at Stearns Wharf 

If you’re visiting Santa Barbara, a stroll along Stearns Wharf is necessary. This iconic pier offers breathtaking views of the harbor and beaches, backed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. You can enjoy a seafood lunch overlooking the ocean, buy ice cream, stroll around soaking up the ambiance, or try your hand at fishing off the end of the pier. If you’re visiting with kids, catching the Lil’ Toot water taxi from Santa Barbara Harbor is a fun way to arrive.

6. Gaze at The Santa Barbara Courthouse 

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is one of the most iconic buildings in the city. Completed in 1929, it is a National and State Historic Landmark. The courthouse is an example of Spanish-Colonial Revival style architecture. It is full of beautiful details, from the hand-painted ceilings to the ornate tile work.

The Mural Room is a highlight of the courthouse, as it tells the story of Santa Barbara’s history. Free docent-guided tours are available at scheduled times.

The courthouse is surrounded by a beautiful sunken garden, often used for concerts, community events, and weddings. The El Mirador clock tower is another iconic feature of the courthouse and offers stunning city views.

7. Cycle the Cabrillo Bike Path 

Santa Barbara is a beautiful coastal city with plenty to do, and one of the best ways to see everything it has to offer is by bike. The Cabrillo Bike Path is a great way to get some exercise while taking in the sights of Santa Barbara. You can rent bikes from many different places along Cabrillo Boulevard, and there is a type of bike for everyone. The bike path takes you past some of Santa Barbara’s best beaches and the city’s top tourist attractions. You can even stop for a bite to eat at the Santa Barbara Harbor or Shoreline Beach Cafe.

things to do in santa barbara california

8. Go Whale-Watching 

Whale watching is one of the most popular activities in Santa Barbara, and for a good reason. The Santa Barbara Channel is home to 27 different species of whales and dolphins, making it a prime spot for viewing marine mammals in the wild. From May through November, humpback and blue whales can be spotted feeding in the waters off Santa Barbara, and gray whales migrate along the coast during their northern and southern migration.

Even if you don’t see any whales, there’s still a good chance you’ll spot other wildlife such as dolphins, sea lions, and even orcas.

One of the most popular whale-watching cruises is aboard the Condor Express, which also offers a whale-watching guarantee – if you don’t see any marine animals on your cruise, you can take another cruise for free during the season. For sure, the entire family—kids and kids at heart—will be squealing with the sight of these amazing marine giants.

9. Admire the Mission Santa Barbara

The Mission Santa Barbara is one of the most iconic landmarks in Santa Barbara. It is known as the “Queen of the Missions” due to its graceful beauty and picturesque setting. When founded in 1786, it was the only California mission to remain with the Franciscans. A community of Franciscan friars still lives there today.

Most visitors spend an hour or two taking a self-guided tour of the mission grounds. There is also a museum on-site with artifacts from the colonial period and the beautiful La Huerta Historic Garden. Other highlights include the church, completed in 1820, and the old mission aqueduct.

For couples looking for romantic things to do in Santa Barbara, a picnic in the Mission Rose Garden is a perfect option. The garden is filled with fragrant roses and offers stunning views of the city.

10. Be Naturally Bored at the Museum of Natural History 

The Museum of Natural History is a great place to learn about the natural history of the Santa Barbara region. The museum features two campuses – the Mission Canyon campus and the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf – each with its own unique exhibits and displays.

The Mission Canyon campus is home to a 72-foot blue whale skeleton and exhibits on the Chumash Indians, mammals, and the Gladwin Planetarium. Visitors can also enjoy the nature trail along Mission Creek.

The Sea Center on Stearns Wharf offers a window into the underwater world of the Santa Barbara Channel. The center features the “Butterflies Alive!” exhibit during summer, which provides up-close views of these winged creatures.

Special exhibitions complement the permanent collection at both campuses, making the Museum of Natural History a great place to learn about the natural history of the Santa Barbara region.

Santa Barbara Travel Guide

11. Pretend you know about art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a great place to visit if you’re interested in seeing various artworks from different periods and cultures. The museum has an impressive collection of more than 27,000 pieces of art spanning 5,000 years. You can also find a variety of exciting shops and restaurants near the museum. Insider’s Tip: Admission to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is accessible on the first Thursday of every month.

12. Check out the Top Beaches in Santa Barbara, CA

A Santa Barbara Travel Guide is not complete without a guide to the top beaches in California.

If you’re planning a trip to Santa Barbara, you’ll want to make sure you pack your sunscreen and swimsuit! Santa Barbara has some of the most beautiful beaches in California, and the weather is perfect for beach days almost all year round. However, fog often cloaks the coast in May and June, so be prepared for cooler temperatures in the morning. But don’t worry, the fog usually burns off by the afternoon. And one more tip: because of natural tar deposits, you’ll want to bring an old pair of flip flops and some baby oil to clean your feet after a day at the beach.

If you’re bringing your furry friend along on your trip, no problem! Santa Barbara County beaches welcome pets, as long as they are leashed. And a couple of beaches also allow off-leash pets in designated areas. So your four-legged friend can enjoy the beach too!

13. Bask in the Sun at Leadbetter Beach Park

Leadbetter Beach is the perfect place to enjoy a sunny day with kids in Santa Barbara. With its convenient location and amenities, Leadbetter Beach is a great spot for swimming, sunbathing, surfing, and more.

Leadbetter Beach is a popular spot for beginning surfers. The waves are usually small and the beach is well-protected from wind.

Leadbetter Beach is also a great place for windsurfing and sailboarding. The beach is large and flat, making it perfect for launching your board. There are also several restaurants and cafes nearby, so you can grab a bite to eat after a long day on the water.

Dogs are not allowed on Leadbetter Beach. Alcohol is prohibited on all beaches.

13. Carpi Diem at Carpinteria City Beach 

Carpinteria City Beach is a great place to spend the day with family and friends. With its gentle waves and wide beaches, it’s perfect for swimming, playing volleyball, building sandcastles, and surfing. You can also stroll along the coast to Rincon Point or Carpinteria State Beach. And don’t forget to explore the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Nature Park!

This beach has something for everyone, making it the perfect place to relax and enjoy the California coast. So come on down to Carpinteria City Beach and enjoy a day in the sun!

14. Merry at Miramar Beach

As one of Southern California’s hidden gems, Miramar Beach is a must-visit for anyone who loves the sun, sand, and surf. This secluded beach is situated in the posh Montecito neighborhood and offers stunning views of the coastline. Although it can be crowded at times, the beach is wide enough to accommodate everyone.

The best time to visit Miramar Beach is during the low tide, when you can walk for miles along the shore. The beach is also great for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing. There are no facilities at the beach, but you can find parking in the surrounding residential neighborhood.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, the Rosewood Miramar Beach resort is a great option. The resort offers elegant beach-house accommodations, and its restaurants have stunning views of the ocean. Everyone is welcome to dine at the resort, and there are plenty of activities to keep you busy.

15. Cocooned at Butterfly Beach 

If you’re looking for a more secluded beach experience, head to Butterfly Beach. This gorgeous spot is hidden behind some rocks, so it’s usually pretty empty. It’s the perfect place to relax and soak up the sun.

Butterfly Beach is a great spot for swimming, sunbathing, and relaxing. The beach is usually pretty empty, so it’s the perfect place to get away from the crowds. There are also some great tide pools to explore.

16. Picnic at Arroyo Beach 

Arroyo Burro Beach is a great spot for swimming, sunbathing, and picnicking. The beach is never too crowded, and there are plenty of trees for shade. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a hike up to Arroyo Burro bluff for stunning views of the coastline.

When visiting Arroyo Burro Beach, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water. There are no lifeguards on duty, so swimming is at your own risk. Parking can also be challenging during peak times, but there is a large parking lot located just across the street from the beach.

17. Do More than a Stretch at East Beach 

East Beach is a long and popular stretch of shoreline in Santa Barbara. Stretching 1.6 miles east from Stearns Wharf, the beach is well-known for its prime location and beautiful views. Visitors can enjoy plenty of activities at East Beach, from sunbathing and swimming to volleyball tournaments and kayaking. There is also a Skater’s Point skate park nearby for kids to enjoy. Every Sunday, an art fair is set up along the promenade, offering a great opportunity for locals and tourists alike to browse and purchase unique items. If you’re looking to stay near East Beach during your visit to Santa Barbara, Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort and the Santa Barbara Inn are both excellent choices. 

18. Wade at West Beach

The Los Banos public pool and West Beach wading pool are great places to cool off on a hot day. Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are also popular activities in Santa Barbara. Skater’s Point skate park is also nearby if you’re looking for something a bit more active to do.

If you want to take a break from the beach, plenty of other attractions are nearby. Stroll down Stearns Wharf to dine at one of the sea-view restaurants or browse the shops. The Santa Barbara Sea Center is also a great place to take the kids for a day of fun.

There are also plenty of hotels and restaurants across the road from the beach.

19. Surf or Watch Surfers at Mesa Lane Beach

 Mesa Lane Beach is a popular spot for locals and tourists, thanks to its convenient location and beautiful scenery. The beach is situated at the end of a quiet residential street, where a bougainvillea-lined path and stairway lead down to the slim shoreline. Visitors can expect stunning views of the ocean, as well as plenty of opportunities to catch some waves. Mesa Lane is also a great spot for a workout, as the hike down and back up the steep flight of steps can be quite challenging. 

20. Observe Some Animal Antics at Santa Barbara Zoo

Once owned by a coffee and tea merchant, the Santa Barbara Zoo is now a lush domain of animals representing 160 species. The pink stucco mansion has been replaced by open-air habitats built for the less refined but still exacting tastes of giraffes, gibbons, snow leopards, and gorillas. The surrounding scenery of the Pacific and Santa Ynez Mountains is just as spectacular as it was back when this was the setting for civilized galas instead of the wild antics of monkeys and meerkats.

22. Be Outdoorsy at Shoreline At Mountain View

Shoreline At Mountain View is a great place to come and spend time outdoors. There are plenty of activities to do here, such as picnicking, fishing, bird watching, playing on the playground, or just take a stroll on one of the many trails. You can also learn about the unique history and wildlife that call Shoreline At Mountain View home. This spacious area is indeed perfect for families traveling with kids. So many outdoor activities for the young ones to enjoy!

23. Ride Horses with Your Kids

When you are in Santa Barbara with kids, one of the best things that you can do is go horseback riding. Santa Barbara has some of the most beautiful scenery in all of California, and what better way to take it all in than from atop a horse? There are many different places to go horseback riding in Santa Barbara, but one of our favorites is Los Padres Outfitters. They offer a variety of different rides, from sunset beach rides to secluded trail rides with ocean views. They also offer half-day and multi-day rides in the Sespe wilderness. No matter what your level of experience is, Los Padres Outfitters will provide you with an epic horseback riding experience that you and your family will never forget.

24. Stand-up Paddling or Kayaking with Kids

One of the many must-do activities in Santa Barbara with kids is stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). You can glide across the water while taking in all the beauty that surrounds you. Paddle by dolphins, sea lions, and even whales (during certain times of year) as you explore the coastline.

There are many SUP operators in Santa Barbara offering lessons, rentals, and guided tours. If your family is new to SUP, consider taking a lesson to get everyone comfortable on the board. Once you’ve got the hang of it, there are plenty of places to explore on your own or with a group tour.

If kayaking is more your speed, there are also several operators offering kayak rentals and tours. Get up close and personal with the Santa Barbara coastline as you paddle through caves, around sea lions sunning themselves on buoys, and under the famous Santa Barbara Wharf. There are even kayak/sup combo tours available if your family can’t decide which they want to do!

Whatever you choose, stand-up paddling or kayaking with kids is a great way to explore the Santa Barbara coastline and get some exercise at the same time.

25. Be a Kid at Kid’s World

Kids’s World, if you ask me is one of the must-do activities in Santa Barbara with kids or without, is located in Alameda Park. It’s a great place for kids to run around, explore and just be kids. There are plenty of things for them to do including swings, a castle, slides, and more. My favorite part is the handprints from children in the community on the tiles. It’s also a great picnic spot with reservable picnic sites. So, if you’re looking for a great place to take the kids, or just want to explore a Santa Barbara icon, then be sure to check out Kid’s World.

26. Try Santa Barbara’s Original Water Taxi

Santa Barbara’s Original Water Taxi, Lil’ Toot, is the best way to see Santa Barbara’s Waterfront.

Lil’ Toot takes you on a tour of the Santa Barbara Waterfront from Stearns Wharf to the Santa Barbara Harbor.

You’ll see the must-see sights, like the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, and enjoy world-class seafood at restaurants like Brophy Brothers, Chomp on the Rocks, and Salty at the Beach.

Lil’ Toot is the best way to experience Santa Barbara’s beautiful waterfront with your family!.

27. Max it Up at MOXI  (The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation)

A great destination for families visiting Santa Barbara, Moxi offers three floors of exhibits exploring the intersection of art, science and technology, plus a state-of-the-art makerspace. Moxi also offers camps and classes for a variety of age groups at select times throughout the year. Participants interact with museum staff and exhibits in new ways that take the typical day visit to another level.

28. A Stop at Mcconnell’s Fine Ice Creams

Must be of the fun activities in Santa Barbara for families, McConnells brings joy to children and adults alike. What’s not to love about a classic ice cream shop that takes such care in its product? If you’re ever in Santa Barbara, a trip to McConnell’s is a must. Not only do they have delicious ice cream, but the experience of visiting is fun too. The shop has been around since 1949 and takes great care in making its product from scratch with no added preservatives. This means that the ice cream is always fresh and tasty. The flavors are also inventive and include options like blood orange, chocolate covered strawberries, and Turkish coffee. There’s something for everyone at McConnell’s! Plus, the shop is located in a great spot for souvenir shopping. So if you’re looking for a fun activity for the whole family, be sure to check out McConnell’s Ice Cream! 

29. Be Gone at Scarlett Begonia

Kids love Scarlett Begonia for its creative and tasty dishes, while adults enjoy the upscale atmosphere and menu.

At Scarlett Begonia, they believe in using the best possible ingredients in order to provide our customers with truly exceptional food. We source our produce from local farmers markets and purveyors, and only use sustainable, organic meats and seafood. This commitment to quality ingredients allows us to create dishes that are both flavorful and healthy.

In addition to our dedication to using high-quality ingredients, they also pride ourselves on our innovative cooking techniques. Their chefs are always exploring new ways to prepare and serve our food, ensuring that each dish is truly unique. They believe that this combination of quality ingredients and innovative cooking makes Scarlett Begonia one of the most food-centric restaurants in Santa Barbara.

30. Kayak the Channel Islands

If the kids are a bit older and can handle some rough adventure, then you’ll want to go on a guided kayak tour of the Channel Islands. The Channel Islands are five volcanic islands that sit 25 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. They’re known as the “Galapagos Islands of North America” because of the unique plants and animals that live there. It’s also one of the best whale watching spots in the world! A guided kayak tour is the best way to explore the sea grottos on the islands. You’ll take a ferry to get there, and then board your kayaks. The Santa Barbara Adventure Company is a popular option for this activity, but tours often sell out quickly. So be sure to reserve your spot in advance! Kids ages 5 and up are welcome on this tour. What are you waiting for? Grab the family and start planning your kayak adventure today!

31. Explore Asian Cuisine

Santa Barbara is a gastronomic destination and not to be missed. With its central location to wine country and fresh seafood, the city has something for everyone. And when it comes to a variety of Asian cuisines, Santa Barbara definitely delivers.

Whether you’re looking for sushi, Thai curry, or anything in between, our Santa Barbara food guide has got you covered.

32. Explore Different Silent Lives at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

Considered as a living and live museum, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden features 78 acres of land that only showcase California native plants. This is a great place to explore and learn more about the state’s unique natural landscape. There are also five miles of easy walking trails that will take you from a towering coastal redwood forest to an inland cacti-filled desert. You can also get sweeping views of the San Ynez Mountains and Santa Barbara’s Channel Islands while wandering among more than 1,000 plants, trees and flowers.

33. Cruise through Santa Barbara Waters

Traveling in Santa Barbara for families is much more fun with a cruise the Santa Barbara Harbor. The city views are incredible, and the experience is much more memorable than being on solid land. Santa Barbara Waterfront Charters offers private family charters that include a tour of the harbor, as well as stops at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum and the Sea Center. These cruises are great for families with kids of all ages.

34. Cannot Say No to Rori’s Artisanal Creamery

One of the locals’ favorite, Rori’s Artisanal Creamery is a must-go when in Montecito Country Mart. The ice cream here is made from the freshest ingredients and it definitely shows in their unique and delicious flavors. Some of our favorites are the blackberry balsamic, honey lavender, and chocolate almond sea salt. They also have some great vegan and dairy-free options! Your kigs gonna love this yummy local spot.

35. Explore Santa Barbara Public Market

Experience a variety of delicious handcrafted foods from all over the world at Santa Barbara Public Market. This expansive food hall offers a wide variety of local and international cuisine, all under one roof.With so many amazing choices, it will be hard to decide what to eat first. For something sweet, try the fresh and inventive Mexican fare from Corazon Cocina

Or, if you’re in the mood for sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese delicacies, be sure to visit Wabi Sabi. And for a truly unique experience, try the 100% plant-based and vegan menu at Fala Bar.No matter what you’re craving, Santa Barbara Public Market is sure to have something to please your palate. So come on down and explore all the culinary delights this amazing food hall has to offer.

Santa Barbara evokes images of sleek and tall palm trees dotting the road loyal to the coast. Adventure is at the heart of the city. Be it kayaking through the Channel Islands’ caves or trekking around Santa Ynez’s mountains, this quaint coastal city does not disappoint. Plus, there are beaches, wineries, and park to make your day more exciting.

Looking for more things to do in California? Check out our California travel guides!


Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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  1. […] Still figuring out what to do in the American Reviera? Check out our ultimate travel guide to Santa Barbara, California. […]

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