Santa Barbara CA with kids

Santa Barbara is a land of mission-style terra cotta architecture, sunshine, ocean views, and AVAs. And while it’s gotten plenty of attention as a grown-up getaway, it’s a prime destination for families with kids too. Here’s what not to miss (and what to sneak in should you and your partner get some adult-time):

Santa Barbara history:

Start with the Santa Barbara trolley tour (, which will give you and your kids a 90-minute overview of all there is to do in Santa Barbara. Grab the trolley at 1 Garden Street down by Stearns Wharf, at the visitor’s center (where you can buy tickets). You can hop-on, hop-off the trolley at any of the attractions, or just stay on for the entire tour, which will give you a good indication of what to return back to. Note that your trolley ticket gets you steep discounts at area attractions, too.

The trolley tour will take you to see the historic courthouse, the Santa Barbara Mission and the Maritime Museum, as well as give a glimpse into how the other half lives with a drive through posh Montecino. You’ll also have the Santa Barbara Museum of Art pointed out, and the Museum of Natural History. 

Santa Barbara wharf and Stearns Pier:

Head to the waterfront for family fun. You’ll find Wheel Fun down here, enabling you to rent a surrey bike to cruise around as a crew, and the Museum of Natural History SeaLife, with touch tanks and educational exhibits depicting ocean life. Rent a kayak or SUP at Paddle Sports Center and tool around the harbor for an hour to see sea lions and seals. There are many places to eat here, including candy shops, ice cream shops, and seafood eateries with fresh catches.

Paddle Sports Center

Santa Barbara downtown and hillside:

Head inland a few miles over Highway 101 to enjoy the foothills of Santa Barbara as well as the downtown sector of State Street. Along historic State Street, you’ll find quaint one-of-a-kind shops and eateries, and just uphill, families can access the Old Santa Barbara Mission, the Museum of National History, and the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, which features miles of dirt trails showcasing native Californian plants and wilderness.

We suggest starting at the latter, which opens at 9 am daily, then heading to the mission for a docent-led tour.  End at the museum of natural history if your kids have any steam left.

If you can slip away for some grown-up fun:

Head straight to the Funk Zone, which is just a few blocks from the wharf (let Grandma and Grandpa entertain the kids for awhile). In the Funk Zone, parents will find about six square blocks of wine tasting rooms and art galleries, plus a fun boutique or two and delicious dining. I suggest walking along Anacapa Street to hit up popular wine tasting rooms such as Kunin, funky winery rooms like Municipal Winemakers, and the OG of them all, Oreana Winery. Pali and Lafond wine tasting rooms are adjacent, as is Santa Barbara Winery’s tasting venue, which is also where they produce their white varietals. 

Where to eat:

Dine without the kids at The Lark, Lucky Penny, or Tyger Tyger, all within easy walking distance or with the kids along the wharf or at Santa Barbara’s authentic Hawaiian shave ice booth, ParadICE. If you find yourself on State Street downtown during dinner, stop with the kids at hip yet accessible Benchmark, which can make the children darn fine homemade barbecue sauce as well as the adults a mean martini. Santa Barbara Public Market is also a winner with multiple dining venues to choose from. The good news is, more and more of these multi-purpose spaces are popping up, with eateries and bars included.

Where to stay:

I settled in nicely at the Best Western Plus Encina Inn, located within minutes of State Street and the mission with lots of extras that added value. The Live Oak Cafe is located directly across the street, offering room service, and you get an outdoor pool, hot tub, fitness area (limited) and free parking and WiFi. It can be worth upgrading to a poolside king suite to enjoy a fully-stocked kitchen and easy access to the pool area.

This Best Western Plus property could use a refresh…the room decor of my pool suite was in desperate need of an update…but all the perks you might want are there, with the exception of free breakfast. Luckily, affordable Daily Grind coffee is only a few blocks away.

Where do you stay in Santa Barbara? What are your favorite activities?

Disclosure: I was hosted by Visit Santa Barbara and Visit California, for the purpose of review. All opinions remain my own.