In the fall of 2019, we had a long weekend vacation booked in Napa with our 17 month old; however, the devastating fires at the time forced us to cancel our trip. In just a few short days, I completely revamped our itinerary to instead visit Santa Barbara. We ended up falling in love with this Southern California gem – the city’s white stucco buildings and red tile roofs was reminiscent of strolls through Europe. In fact, Santa Barbara is nicknamed the “Spanish Riviera of America.”
For families, it really is a perfect city – there's enough to see and do there with the kids over a long weekend, yet also doesn't feel overwhelming. You can walk miles of beach, ride bikes through the hipster neighborhood called the FUNK Zone, and explore some of the best kid friendly interactive museums. At the end of the day, wrap things up by visiting one of the many delicious farm-to-table restaurants. This weekend guide to Santa Barbara with kids contains all you need to know for planning a luxury getaway with the family– read on to learn more about where to sleep, eat, and activities to fill your day.
For your Planning Purposes
Getting there: It is easiest to fly into Santa Barbara airport, but it’s also more expensive. Another option is to fly into Los Angeles (LAX) and drive the 95 miles to Santa Barbara. It can take 2-3 hours depending on traffic, but you’ll also be driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, which has beautiful views of the coastline.
Getting around: If you’re planning to visit beaches, go hiking, or check out the zoo, then it’s best to rent a car. However, if you’re staying downtown, and just want to explore the city, then you may not need one. There is also Uber, Lyft and taxis available.
When to visit: Santa Barbara has mild temperatures year round (70’s). It is most popular to visit in the summer months, but also very expensive at this time of year. There are great hotel deals if you can push your travels to the fall -- which is my favorite time of the year to visit! Note, if you plan to travel to Santa Barbara in June, you may experience a lot of coastal fog.
What to do in Santa Barbara with Kids
Highlights if you're in a hurry!
- Explore the exhibits at the Moxi Museum - The Moxi Museum is an interactive, science based museum for kids that is so much fun -- plain and simple. In fact, my husband had just as much fun as my daughter. Who knew he had a secret passion for building race cars? And who knew Claire had a secret passion for light-up switch boards? You can easily spend a whole afternoon here, visiting each floor and all of the hands-on activities they have to offer.
- Play at Alameda Park - Alameda Parkis one of the oldest parks in the city! The 8,000 square foot wooden playground will surely entertain the little ones for hours on end. There are slides and swing galore and giant model whale and sharks for the kids to climb over.
- Explore the FUNK Zone and Cabrillo Beach Boulevard Trail on your bike: I love a good biking adventure, and this city is all about the bikes! Wheel Fun Rentals has fabulous options if you want to bring small kids. You can rent attachments or rent specially designed bikes with built-in seats for your kids. Ride through the FUNK Zone -- a neighborhood of chique shops and trendy restaurants. Or, take a spin down to the water and coast along the paved biking paths that hug the wharf and Cabrillo Beach.
- Sunrise Beach Walk: If you are traveling from the east coast, you are likely to wake up early the first day. If you are traveling with a toddler, you will definitely wake up early. Even if you're not a morning person, you may thank the little ones for their early morning alarm just this one time. Our sunrise walk on the Rosewood Miramar beach turned into one of my favorite memories of the trip. The beach was quiet. The hotel was quiet. And we got lucky -- even the toddler was quiet too.
Luxury Accomodations in Santa Barbara
- The Rosewood Miramar is one of my favorite family friendly luxury properties. Think: high end California casual. There are beautiful grounds to explore, lawn games and adirondack chairs dotting the property, 2 full sized swimming pools, 3 on site restaurants, spacious suites, and easy access to the beach. That’s just the start. They also offer a spa and gym facilities for adults, and there’s even a train that runs right through the property – Claire’s favorite part. It’s the perfect get-away for all types of travelers — couples, families, solo, girls trip…and even a dog trip (the hotel is pet friendly). That’s not a joke… we met a couple who left their kids at home, but brought the dogs!
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Would you like to learn more about the Rosewood? Here's a more detailed article about our stay at this fabulous luxury hotel!
I Also Considered These Hotels
- San Ysidro Ranch- This property is at the top of my bucketlist for future California vacations! It’s the spot for a low key, private luxurious getaway. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the San Ysirdo Ranch has a relaxing and peaceful vibe. On site, you’ll find 38 private cottages covered in vines surrounded by gnarled oak trees, magnolia trees, and citrus gardens. It’s the best option if you really want to unplug! (Note: it does welcome kids, but given it is more intimate, I’m saving it for an adults-only escape).
- Ritz Carlton Bacara - This luxury resort is another great pick for families. It has 3 infinity pools, walking trails along the water, suites to give everyone some space, locally sourced cuisine, and access to 2 beaches. When you need some adult escape time, head to the 42,000 square foot spa!
- Belmond El Encanto- This historic high end property is located high in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and has views of the ocean and town below. It opened in 1918 and has hosted its fair share of riviera parties over the years! It’s only a 10 minute drive from downtown, and is a great escape for a glamorous, yet low key vacation. You’ll find room options such as suites and villas too.
- Hotel Californian - If you prefer to vacation smack dab in the middle of the city, then this is the luxury pick for you. Hotel Californian has suite options for families, and is right around the corner from the best city activities -- you can easily explore State Street and the FUNK Zone, stroll along the beach, and hang at the MOXI Museum.
Family Restaurants in Santa Barbara
- For fresh, simple, California cuisine: Our personal favorites were Lark and Malibu Cafe, which is now The Revere Room at Rosewood Miramar. Next time we’re in town, I’m also dying to try Finch and Fork, and State & Fig.
- For water views and seafood: If you’d like to dine nestled in the bluffs along the Pacific, check out Boathouse Hendry’s Beach. They have a large patio, giant fire pit and plenty of oysters. If you’re looking for a no-frills place with the freshest seafood, head over to Santa Barbara Shellfish Co. My favorite spot was Brophy Brothers., which had the best clam chowder.
- For some delicious Mexican: Julia Child’s go-to place for tacos was La Superica Taqueria. Expect to wait in some long lines, but the tacos are worth the wait! Another popular and delicious choice is Mony’s Tacos.
- For quick and casual: If you’ve got the little ones trailing behind you, "hangry" can strike at any moment. Actually, I'm guilty of this too! There are times I crave something fast, but also want it to be delicious. Helena Ave Bakery features gourmet toasts -- both sweet and savory. Lucky Penny has melt-y perfect pizza. You could also check out The Santa Barbara Public Market, which is a giant gourmet food hall with a wide array of options.
Tips for traveling to Santa Barbara
- Enjoy the sunshine but pack light layers: Santa Barbara enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year! Therefore, even if you’re scheduled to visit in the cooler months, you’ll still want to pack and wear your sunscreen. Throw in some sweaters too because it can get chilly at night during cooler months.
- You don’t necessarily need to rent a car if you choose to stay downtown: If you’d rather skip the hassle of car rentals and installing car seats, then you’ll want to select a hotel directly downtown. You can easily walk to many restaurants, the MOXI Museum, State Street, Alameda Park, Santa Barbara Mission, and Stearns Wharf. In other words, there’s plenty to fill your weekend in Santa Barbara with kids without needing a vehchile. However, if you have your sights set on hiking, visiting the zoo, or exploring the outskirts of the city, then you should rent a car.
- Visit the art galleries: Santa Barbara is an art gallery mecca. If you’re on the hunt for some new art, then plan a gallery walk before you go. You’ll want to make any necessary appointments ahead of time. This guide to art galleries in Santa Barbara has some helpful guidance and maps.
- If your kids like to party…check out one of the many festivals held every month! Santa Barbara has so many seasonal festivals, enjoyable for all ages. Check out this guide for a month by month breakdown of each festival.
Will you be driving along Highway 1?
If your trip to Santa Barbara is part of a longer road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, then you’ll want to bookmark Morro Bay as a rest stop heading north. However, I want to set expectations properly. This is not the spot for adventure seekers. Morro Bay is known for (drum roll)… a huge rock and 3 smokestacks (and cute otters). That being said, there was something about this tiny town that stayed with me; it reminded me of something you’d find in a novel, with its local fish shacks, fudge shops, quaint small-town boutiques, otters playing in the water, and the quiet calm of the bay. You don’t need a whole day, but save a few hours to explore, take photos, and eat lunch.
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Are you planning a road trip along Highway 1? Check out this article for activities and family friendly restaurants along the way from Santa Barbara to San Francisco!
That's a Wrap
Santa Barbara is a city I could visit over and over, never get bored, and experience something new each time. On a future trip with older kids, I have a few whale watching tours and hikes bookmarked. If you're looking for a smaller Southern California city that has sunshine, plenty of outdoor activities, great food, then you've found it here!
I hope this article has inspired your own weekend in Santa Barbara with kids. If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below. Also, don't forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.
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