Family Vacations to Santa Barbara, California

Santa Barbara, California
Santa Barbara (courtesy, Santa Barbara CVB)

Santa Barbara Family Travel Tips

  • Rollerblade, bike, and stroll the beachfront Cabrillo Bike Path.
  • Swim, surf, and play at the in-town beaches.
  • Walk through a 1,500-gallon tank at the Ty Warner Sea Center.
  • Cruise the Santa Barbara Channel to see whales, dolphins, and sea lions.
  • Visit the Channel Islands National Park, "the American Galapagos"

Nestled on the coast between the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean 90 miles north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara lures families with spectacular scenery and stunning beaches. And instead of theme-park thrills, the region offers 300 days of annual sunshine in which to enjoy surfing, hiking, biking, skateboarding, swimming, sailing, and all manner of other outdoor pursuits. A perfect playground, in other words.

Families rollerblade, bike, stroll, and can even rent a surrey to cruise the 3.2-mile beachfront Cabrillo Bike Path. Skaters stray from the path into Chase Palm Park's Skater's Point, featuring 14,600 square feet of wicked bowls, rails, and ramps. The park's carousel and Shipwreck playground for younger kids (complete with a giant misting whale) make this ten-acre, oceanfront site a good stop. Another great tot spot is the 8,000-square-foot Kids Zone in Alameda Park, where you can sit in the shade of 70 different species of trees and watch the kids play in a "haunted castle."

West Beach, with its calm water and small waves, suits families with young kids. Teens like to watch the surfers south of town at Leadbetter Beach. Get close to marine life at the Natural History Museum's new Ty Warner Sea Center at Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara's historic hub, where you can walk through a glass tunnel bisecting a 1,500-gallon tidal-surge tank. At the harbor's Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, kids can peer through a submarine periscope, or for sightings of whales, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and other area wildlife, sail into the Santa Barbara Channel with Condor Cruises.

Landlubbers can view 600 animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo, whose playground and miniature train ride delight little kids. With older children interested in colonial history, explore the Santa Barbara Mission. Founded in 1786, the structure is one of the best preserved of the 21 Franciscan missions in California. There's a great view of the town and ocean from up on the hillside, too.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art's "What If?" Gallery gets kids thinking about art by inviting them to explore a large sculpture layered with lots of "stuff"—subway cars, red roof tiles, and geological rock formations. The "dream deck" cards contain questions and clues that prompt you and your kids to take a closer look at selected works in the collection.

Several day trips from Santa Barbara promise even more family fun. In Solvang, 34 miles north of Santa Barbara, the Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch showcases 34-inch-tall horses, and Ostrich Land breeds these big birds that mainly wander the southern African savanna. Twelve miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria State Beach Park's natural breakwater creates a long stretch of calm waters plus another area for surfing. About two hours and 30 miles away from Santa Barbara by boat, you can hike, bike, kayak, and snorkel in the Channel Islands National Park, often called the "American Galapagos" because of its plants and animals. Truth Aquatics offers one-day or multi-day trips to the islands out of Santa Barbara Harbor. The park is also accessible from Ventura, 30 miles south of Santa Barbara.

Tip: Get a "One Pass" for same-day/consecutive-day discounted admission to eight museums or attractions (available from the visitor center at 1 Garden Street on the waterfront).

Recommended Side Trips: Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Luis Obispo's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 23 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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